TFA Did Not Teach Lesson Planning At The Summer Institute

Over the past 30 years I’ve thought a lot about teaching and teacher training. I’ve worked as a trainer for TFA and also for The New York City Teaching Fellows. Many of the teachers I trained, I’m happy to say, are still teaching after all these years. I also wrote two books about teaching and many published articles.

So I hope I can say with some authority that lesson planning is at least half of your job as a teacher, maybe 75%. When you plan a lesson, you are making a blueprint of how your class is going to get from point A to point Z in the limited time you have. It requires figuring out how much material you can feasibly cover and determining how to balance direct instruction with student discussion opportunities and, most importantly, what activities your students are going to do throughout the lesson. Lesson planning is my specialty and I love the feeling of starting a class that I just know has a great lesson plan and though sometimes the lesson doesn’t go as well I hoped it would, generally a well planned lesson turns into an engaging learning experience for my students.

This year Teach For America did a remote institute. The new corps members were not going to get any in-person student teaching experience so the training had to be better than ever to compensate for this. Two different 2021 corps members have reached out to me, one through reddit and the other as a comment to a blog post I wrote in August. Both corps members told me that TFA did not teach lesson planning. Apparently the only assignment they had related to lesson planning was to take an existing lesson plan and to mark it up with comments. Here is how one of them described it:

we had 3 total assignments to make “lesson plan adjustments” that our content facilitator also seemed to be confused about what they should look like. Basically, we just had to grab a lesson from Eureka Math and make some annotations that show a) we were being actively anti-racist, b) we were incorporating Universal Design for Learning and c) checks for understanding. There were more rubric sections, but this is all I can recall right now. I was so confused with the little information we were given, so I made a whole new lesson plan and got an 8/24. For the second assignment, I just literally annotated the Eureka plan in Google Docs with a few minor adjustments and got a 24/24!

If I were training new teachers at an intensive five week training program, I would want the trainees to produced about twenty original lesson plans. This is the bread and butter of teaching. You have to have a mental picture of what you are about to do with your classes if you expect them to learn.

Now I am very supportive of being actively anti-racist in the classroom. It is ironic that TFA is using this as their starting point considering their embrace of no-excuses charter schools over the years. But as important as it is to promote anti-racism, I would much rather the teachers have a solid lesson that of course is not racist but maybe not overtly anti-racist than a poorly planned lesson that is actively anti-racist. Going into a class without a plan of how to teach it and without really understanding all the decisions that go into making a lesson and into all the nuances and the sorts of questions you will ask and the groupings you will use and everything that goes into the grueling task of lesson planning is not showing respect for your students.

According to a reddit thread on TFA, it seems like a lot of 2021 corps members are quitting already. If this failure to empathize lesson planning was widespread I’m not surprised by this. If you are a current corps member let me know what your experience was with the training this year and how you feel about it now that you are in the classroom.

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Is Math The Emperor’s New Subject?

Most people probably suspect that students spend too many hours learning Math in school.

From Kindergarten through twelfth grade, it seems that most students learn some Math pretty much every day. The same can’t be said of other things like social studies or music or art or physical education.

I have two children in public schools. My son just finished 4th grade and my daughter just finished 7th grade. At my son’s school, it seems like he did math for about an hour every day. My daughter is in middle school so she had one period of Math each day, about 50 minutes long. By the time they finish twelfth grade, my children will spend about 2000 hours learning Math in school and maybe another 1000 hours on homework. This will comprise about 12.5% of their learning time.

Though many might worry that studying this much Math is too much of a good thing, it’s a view that they don’t express too loudly. Obviously there must be some people who think this is just the right amount of Math otherwise why would we as a country, and a World really, choose to do this? We are told that Math is important and that Math is useful. If it really is important and useful, you don’t want to be the person arguing against it. But most people don’t know enough about Math to know if it is really as important and useful as we are told. Well I do know a lot about Math, having taught it for 30 years and been a Math major in college before that so I hope my opinions are considered, at least, well informed.

Back in 2013 I wrote one of my most widely read blog posts about this issue. (It was featured on Andrew Sullivan’s dish archive.) Since I tend to be pretty wordy, I’m not sure how many people who start my posts make it to the end, I’ll say right here at the beginning that we absolutely dedicate too much time to studying Math and that time is also not efficiently spent. With a lot of changes we could spend about half as much on Math and simultaneously make the Math that we teach much better.

In that 2013 post I argued that about 40% of the topics that we teach in Math could be cut from the curriculum and they wouldn’t be missed. I also said that beyond 8th grade math should be an elective so students would learn up to what we now call Algebra I and the other things like Geometry, Trigonometry, Algebra II, Precalculus, and even Calculus would not be required (Precalculus and Calculus are not ‘required’ right now, but in a sense they are because students are told that colleges ‘like’ when you take AP Calculus so there is a pressure to take it.)

In 2012 author Andrew Hacker wrote a The New York Times op-ed called ‘Is Algebra Necessary’ went viral and had thousands of comments on it. His book ‘The Math Myth’ came out in 2016.

Hacker makes several points, some are valid and some are not. His most valid point, I think, is that for all the money, time, and other resources that this country spends on Math, we don’t seem to be getting a very large return on that investment. Most adults could not pass a test about the math they learned in high school and many would not be able to pass a test on elementary school math. On the other hand, most adults would easily be able to pass a test that required them to read something that was written on an elementary school level.

But this alone does not mean that something is not worth studying. Maybe adults can’t do well on a Math test right now but if they were to prepare for it maybe the Math is lurking in their subconscious. I took tennis lessons when I was a teenager and I was able to hit the ball back and forth eventually. I can’t do much of a rally right now but I’m sure that if I were to take a few lessons I could get back to being able to do that.

But there is something to the fact that most Math you learn in school is so ‘forgettable.’ Why do we spend so much time on something that can so easily be forgotten? Shouldn’t things we learn in school be ‘mind blowing’ so that you can’t forget them even if you tried?

This is a big problem with the modern Math curriculum. Many of the topics that are in it are very boring. But at least they are useful, right? Well, not really and that’s another big problem. Most of the Math we do in school is not useful in the sense that many people will ever find an opportunity to use most of it. Besides addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division, what Math does an adult really use? Maybe you’re thinking ratios and percentages, but those are just applications of multiplication and division in my mind.

A typical ratio problem is that if 5 widgets cost $200, how much would 7 widgets cost? You don’t really need fractions or ratios to answer this question. If you have a good understanding of division you might think: If 5 widgets cost $200 then 1 widget costs $200/5 = $40. And if 1 widget costs $40 then 7 widgets cost $40*7 = $280. Just division and multiplication.

The same goes with some of the Algebra that is supposed to be useful. If the rent for a retail store is $200 and you make a profit of $4 for every widget sold, how many widgets must you sell to make $300 after paying the rent? Well, yes, this can be set up as 4x-200=300 and then solved 4x-200+200=300+200, 4x=500, 4x/4=500/4, x=125, but do you really need Algebra to do that. Can’t you just use addition and division? You need to bring in a total of $300+$200=$500 to cover the rent and make the profit. But then you have to divide $500 by $4 to see how many widgets you need to sell.

I could do this for almost any ‘practical’ question through Algebra I.

Beyond Algebra I, there’s Geometry, a topic very close to my heart. I leaf through my copy of Euclid’s Elements like it is The Bible. The organization and the development of hundreds of theorems, many that seem like magic but the proofs are undeniable. How amazing is it that the sum of the squares of the legs of a right triangle is equal to the square of the hypotenuse? I’ve studied over 100 proofs of what I consider to be the best theorem in all of Math, The Pythagorean Theorem. So I love Geometry, but I think some of the best parts of Geometry could be incorporated into middle school Math and to force so many students to take a year long course is wasting resources. I feel the same way about Algebra II, Trigonometry, Precalculus, and Calculus.

Math is a good thing, but there are other good things that are neglected in school so if we were to cut back on the amount of Math that gets taught I would want to see those resources applied to other things. When I think of things that would enhance my life, there are some things I wish I had learned in school. Like how to tie a good knot. I can tie my shoelaces OK but beyond that I can’t do any good knots. I’m not sure in what course that could be taught (there is something called ‘knot theory’ in Math, but it’s a really advanced course and I don’t know that you actually learn to tie a knot in it.) I also wish I knew how to use a power drill. I know some schools have a wood shop elective but I don’t remember considering taking it back when I was in high school. And now I have this towel rack I’m supposed to put up this summer and my building’s handyman is dragging his feet on it and I feel helpless even though I own a drill that I’m scarred to use. Another thing I wish I learned more about in school was gymnastics. My body is falling apart, I’ve been to physical therapy for my back, my wrist, my leg, and my foot over the years. I know that way back in the Greek times, gymnastics was a core subject. I’m not saying I need to be able to do a back flip or anything, but more physical education might have served me well. I guess what I’m saying is that taking away some of the thousands of hours of Math and dedicating it to other subjects is a good idea. We have come a long way from Medieval times where the seven areas of study were grammar, logic, rhetoric, arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy.

I mentioned that we lie when we say that Math is important because it is so useful. I recommend an essay called ‘Is Math Necessary‘ by professor Underwood Dudley, he explains better than anyone why it is OK if math is not really useful in the practical sense. I agree with him. I think Math is worth studying because when done correctly it is fun. So something like a Math riddle that has a surprising answer and that generates discussion and that makes students want to answer it, I think that makes Math worthy of learning. Maybe if that is the thing that is good about Math, though, forcing everyone to take it for twelve years is too much.

If you want to see what I’m talking about, I have taught some electives over the years where I am not constrained by the curriculum but can teach whatever topics I want. I teach an elective like this to 9th graders and I used to teach a similar course to 12th graders who did not want to take Calculus. A topic that I loved to teach was different ways to calculate the square root of numbers that don’t have easy square roots. Like the square root of 7. Since 2*2=4 and 3*3=9, the square root of 7 is somewhere between 2 and 3, but how precise can we get it? Over the centuries different cultures have tackled this question in different ways. Their methods were ingenious and with the right teaching, students can figure out the algorithms themselves with some hints or they can analyze the algorithms to see why they work. I spend a few weeks on this. It is something that has no practical value anymore since every calculator has a square root button and for the square root of 7, it probably is good enough to say it is between 2 and 3 for any practical purposes. But I’m not teaching it because it is practical, I’m teaching it because it is thought provoking and it is fun.

So I agree with parts of Hacker’s ‘The Math Myth,’ but he unfortunately undermines his own credibility with many of his proof points. He seems to think that any Math concept that has an intimidating sounding name must be completely ridiculous to teach. On page 99 he critiques a 2008 US department of Ed report because some topics for Math it recommends are “rational expressions and binomial coefficients to quadratic polynomials and logarithmic functions.” But just because something sounds useless and overly complicated does not mean that it is. Having an ugly name has nothing to do with whether something is worth studying or can be interesting and fun to learn. For Hacker sometimes the names of real things are not absurd sounding enough for him so he fuses together different words and invents gibberish that sounds like an actual thing, but really isn’t.

In a section of chapter 8 called ‘Pascal’s Triangles And Pythagorean Triples’ he uses what he thinks is a good example to show how absurdly hard and irrelevant one of the common core standards is:

Here is the tex of the standard from the High School Algebra list:

Prove polynomial identities and use them to describe numerical relationships. For example, the polynomial identity (x2 + y2)2 = (x2 – y2)2 + (2xy)2 can be used to generate Pythagorean triples.

Now I’m not the biggest common core cheerleader, but this is one part that someone who knows about math and math teaching will agree with. One of the things students learn in Algebra is to simplify what are called algebraic expressions. Like, for example, maybe you change x+x+y+y+y into 2x+3y. It is a pretty dry topic and not very inspiring. Sometimes as practice, students are given two different looking expressions and they have to simplify to both to show that the two expressions are equivalent. A simple example might be to show that 3x+x+2y+y = 2x+2x+y+y+y. Since both sides of the = sign simplify to 4x+3y, the two expressions are equivalent and when you do this is is called an algebraic identity. So most examples of algebraic identities are taken out of any meaningful context and they are just an exercise in simplifying expressions. But sometimes, even in the high school level, the checking to see if two expressions are equivalent can be the key step in the proof of something surprising.

So Pythagorean triples are numbers like 3,4,5 that have the special property that 3*3+4*4=5*5. If you are not a math teacher, you would find it challenging to find another three numbers for which this is true. It works for 6,8,10, for example, of if you multiply 3,4, and 5 by whatever number you want. But there are other Pythagorean triples like 5,12, 13 or 8,15,17, or 20,21,29. They are kind of rare and it is one of the mysteries of math to try to find three numbers where this happens. It isn’t the most practical thing there is, it is a problem from a branch of math called ‘number theory’ but it is mysterious and if taught correctly can be something that students find fun — trying to locate these mystical number triplets. So it turns out that if you take any two numbers, call them x and y and make x the larger of the two numbers and you calculate x^2+y^2 and you also calculate x^2-y^2 and 2xy, something surprising happens. Like if I make x=3 and y=2, the first thing becomes 3^2+2^2=13, the second becomes 3^2-2^2=5, and the third becomes 2*3*2=12 and 5, 12, 13 is a Pythagorean Triple, you can check that 5^2+12^2=25+144=169 and that 13^2=169.

So this standard is saying that when possible, rather than just make a dry identity proof that doesn’t prove anything surprising, look for opportunities to make them more meaningful. In this case because both (x2 + y2)2  and (x2 – y2)2 + (2xy)2 both simplify to x4 +2x2y2+ y4 It ‘proves’ that those three expressions will always make a Pythagorean Triple. For sure, having something meaningful to prove with an algebraic identity is superior to just doing an identity for the sake of doing an identity.

Other times he explains a topic that he thinks is absurd for students to learn when someone who really knows about school math knows that the topic is very reasonable. So when he talks about how crazy it is for a student to find the measure of the smallest angle of a 3, 4, 5 right triangle, does he know that it just requires looking up the number 3/4=0.75 on a chart and seeing what row it is in?

Then in chapter 12, Hacker explains what he thinks Math teaching should be by describing a course that he taught. But the creative lessons he seems to think he has invented are things that have been around for decades if not centuries, such as using measurement of string to estimate the value of Pi. Still I agree with his point that Math lessons are better if they start with a thought provoking question and if students get an opportunity to think about the question and make progress toward figuring out the answer though an engaging activity. This isn’t just true for Math, but for any course I think.

Still, I like ‘The Math Myth’ for the basic premise that too many resources are going toward Math education and we are not getting much bang for our buck out of it. He also addresses the requirements in college to take a Math course that serves for some as an insurmountable unnecessary obstacle.

Algebra I is usually taught in 9th grade, nowadays. There is talk of different districts who want to give ‘Algebra To All’ of 8th graders to raise the ‘rigor’ of the curriculum and allow the students to progress further and other districts who want to give ‘Algebra To None’ of the 8th graders since it is not fair to give it to some and not to others. Of course either extreme is wrong. The problem isn’t too many students taking Algebra or not enough taking Algebra. The problem is that some students haven’t mastered the prerequisites for Algebra and others have. I think that if we make Math more fun, more students will learn it and more will want to go further with it.

So you might be wondering if I have such contempt for a lot of math topics, how do I go and teach it for almost 30 years? The answer is that no matter what topic I have to teach, I do everything I can to make it meaningful, interesting, and fun to learn. And a good teacher has this ability to find the thought provoking questions to ask about whatever topic they are supposed to teach. Many of the topics in the modern Math curriculum are not the topics that I think are very interesting but if my job is to teach breaking down logarithmic expressions then I am going to find a way to teach it in a way that is engaging. And I get enthusiastic about this so I doubt my students would even know when I’m teaching a topic that I wish I didn’t have to.

I guess it’s like if I were a musician but I wasn’t good enough to be a famous one with my own original songs. So I get a job as a singer and keyboard player in a wedding band. It is a steady job and pays the bills and I get to do the thing I love, making music. And at the wedding I have to play ‘Celebration’ for the five millionth time and you know what, I’m going to do the best rendition of ‘Celebration’ that I can because for that couple that is getting married, this is their only wedding and they deserve to have an enthusiastic rendition of ‘Celebration’ even if it is not my favorite song in the world. So I see my job as trying to do the best most thought provoking and engaging lesson on whatever the topic is. There is no topic that can’t be taught in an engaging way and it is a challenge that I enjoy to try to make even a really boring topic interesting in the way that I structure my lessons. Some topics are harder to make interesting than other topics. And not every Math teacher is great at animating lifeless topics. I surely don’t always succeed at it. If we got rid of some of the topics that are hard to do this for and only the most interesting topics remained, everyone would enjoy Math more.

Some relevant links you might like:

Underwood Dudley’s ‘Is Math Necessary?’ This is the absolute best.

Paul Lockhart’s ‘A Mathematician’s Lament’ This makes some good points and has a great analogy comparing Math instruction today to an awful music curriculum.

My post ‘The Death of math’ from 2013.

A link to my YouTube playlists. If you want to see what kind of Math I think is worthwhile to learn, see the Math Explorations and Math Research videos. Also you can see my series where I try to explain Math starting at kindergarten and going through trigonometry in 10 hours!

The Mathematical Association of America’s response to Hacker’s ‘Is Algebra Necessary’

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KIPP Orchestra Leader Arrested For Sexual Abuse Charges From His Years at KIPP

Today the US Attorney’s office for the southern district tweeted this:

The description of the charges gets pretty graphic so I will not quote it all here, but part of it says:

From at least in or about 2002 through at least in or about 2007, CONCEPCION singled out the Minor Victims for personal attention.  He gave them money, clothing, jewelry, and other gifts, and he provided them with alcohol.  He told several of the Minor Victims that they were in romantic relationships with him and provided each of the Minor Victims with a cellphone so that they could communicate with him without their parents’ knowledge. CONCEPCION used the cellphones he provided and other devices to maintain his “relationships” with the Minor Victims and to arrange sexual encounters.

The press release does not identify the school, but I recognized the name of this teacher since he was featured in the chapter about KIPP (Knowledge Is Power Program) in the 2008 book published by The Thomas B. Fordham Institute called ‘Sweating The Small Stuff — Inner-City Schools and the New Paternalism’ (you can get it on Amazon for $0.99 or you can get the full pdf for free here.) It’s basically a book that glorifies the abusive practices of ‘no-excuses’ schools because they get good standardized test results. The Fordham Institute is one of these think tanks that basically creates ed reform propaganda but makes it look like actual research. Their president Michael Petrilli is a nice enough guy, we have had some friendly exchanges, but he knows absolutely nothing about education. I would feel bad for him if he weren’t making so much money.

In the chapter of ‘Sweating The Small Stuff’ entitled ‘”KIPP-Notizing” through music’ there is this passage that has not aged well:

In two days, the orchestra will give its commencement concert in this auditorium in the South Bronx to honor the eighth-grade graduates of KIPP Academy, housed in a wing on the fourth floor of Lou Gehrig Junior High. But rehearsal in the stifling auditorium is going poorly. Jesus Concepcion, the dapper conductor and benevolent baton-wielding despot on the podium, is not pleased.
“Sit down!” Concepcion tells a seventh grader playing string bass at the back of the orchestra. The bass player had refused to help a fellow cello player pick up his music when it slid off his music stand, kicking the sheet music back to the student instead. “You want to be nasty?” Concepcion asks rhetorically. “I’ll teach you nasty. You don’t deserve to play! You let down your teammates. And that music you kicked, I arranged. Get off the stage!” After the student glumly exits the stage, orchestra members keep their eyes glued to Concepcion during a soaring version of “Seasons of Love” from the Broadway show Rent. But as at many rehearsals of the string and rhythm orchestra, the cycle of disruption and discipline continues. A few minutes later, the graduating eighth graders start chatting animatedly in the hallway as they practice lining up. “Unbelievable!” Concepcion exclaims. Mitch Brenner, KIPP Academy’s Director of Institutional Solutions and enforcer of all things KIPP, hops up to straighten out the excited eighth graders. “Not a word!” Brenner calls out. “Do not speak! You are our graduates. Do not open your mouth!”

KIPP has had to do a lot of apologizing and self-reflecting over the past few years. First there were the sexual abuse allegations that caused them to fire co-founder Michael Feinberg. Even though Feinberg’s accuser was not able to definitively prove her case in court, he was far from exonerated and has pretty much been shunned by most of the education reform community. Then, about a year ago, the other co-founder Dave Levin wrote an apology to the KIPP alumni about some of the racist practices that KIPP has employed over the years, things that charter critics have been accusing them of over the years, but KIPP never cared then because they felt it was helping them get the statics they needed to get the donations they needed.

But this new information about the abuse allegation that happened in KIPP New York City has the potential to implicate more people than just the Orchestra teacher. If this abusive teacher was a serial abuser, as the complaint alleges, then it is unlikely that other staff members were not at least aware of rumors of these things going on. The principal during those years, Quinton Vance, got promoted in 2008 and has been working at higher administrative levels at KIPP for the past 13 years. What did he know about all this? And then there is Dave Levin who is a very intense guy and who is a very active co-founder who would possibly be aware of these allegations back when they happened. It will be interesting to see what happens at the trial when the students who were abused 19 years ago and who are now in their 30s are asked if they ever told any staff members about what they experienced.

KIPP was once the most high profile charter chain in the country. But over the past ten years they have been generally ‘under the radar.’ We don’t hear much about their test scores or their college acceptance rates. But I believe they are making as much money as ever in terms of federal grants and other donations. Maybe they are smart to keep a low profile since there may be a lot more stories of abuse like this and other kinds that KIPP tolerated in order to build their brand. They may soon learn that while knowledge may indeed be power, ignorance of the law is not a good legal defense.

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The First Rule Of The TFA Institute Is You Don’t Talk About The TFA Institute

Since my own TFA training thirty years ago in the summer of 1991, I have spent as much time as anyone thinking about what the best advice is for new teachers — particularly new teachers in short term training programs like Teach For America.

I worked at the TFA institute in 1995.  I guest spoke at other TFA institutes from 1996 to 2006.  I wrote two books of advice for New Teachers (‘Reluctant Disciplinarian‘ and ‘Beyond Survival‘).  I trained New York City Teaching fellows from 2001 to 2006.

The best advice I give is not advice that I learned at my TFA institute in 1991.  The program was just one year old at the time and even though the staff was very experienced (there were no TFA alumni yet to staff the institutes!)  some of the tips they gave me were oversimplified or things that would only work for a teacher who was already experienced.

My first year was a disaster.  I nearly had a nervous breakdown after a few months and barely completed that first year.  And though I have not been officially diagnosed with it, and you might think I’m trying to be funny when I say this but I promise I am serious about it, I likely suffer from PTSD because of what I went though that first year.

So I have some kind of need to prevent other new teachers from going through what I did.  I know it is not the same thing as going back in time and preventing my own rough first year, but it is something.

So I am interested to hear about what kinds of things Teach For America is doing in their summer trainings.  After 31 years of training, you would think they have it down to some kind of science.

And over the past 30 years every time I do get a glimpse into how they are training the new recruits, I have been upset about it.  So for the past five or ten years, I have tried to avoid learning about what is going on at the institute.

It’s actually been surprisingly easy to avoid learning about the institute because, like they used to say in the movie ‘Fight Club’, the first rule of The TFA institute is you never talk about the TFA institute.  Every year there are several thousand new corps members (CMs) who go through the training.  And TFA makes a big deal about how the people they recruit are not recruited to be ‘teachers’ but to be ‘leaders’ so you would think that at least one of these leaders would be live blogging their experience or writing about it in some way, even as a way to get feedback from other experienced teachers.  But there are no blogs as far as I know.  I suspect that TFA strongly discourages if not outright bans CMs from writing too much about their experience because there is no way that several thousand leaders would be able to keep quiet about what they surely realize is a big issue.

Going through TFA is a bit like one of those haunted house movies where your car breaks down and you go into what seems to be a safe house like a bed and breakfast or something.  And the people who run the bed and breakfast start off really nice.  They actually seem a little too nice, and it is the first foreshadowing that something might be off.  And then bad things start happening.  You learn that even though you were hoping to teach fourth grade and you wanted to prepare for teaching fourth grade, you are just classified as ‘elementary’ and it could be any age from kindergarten through 6th grade and you wonder “How can I train for all those grades at the same time?” Or you were expecting to teach English but are told that you are actually needed more in math and it’s OK because all teaching has similar elements and the training will train your for teaching anything.

OK, before I get into the story of how I found myself back into the frustration of trying to get TFA to improve their training, I want to remind everyone that Teach For America has an operating budget of over $300 million a year.  And the number of new corps members changes from year to year but it’s recently been somewhere in the 5,000 range.  So how much of the $300 million should go toward training?  I would argue that a decent percent of it should go towards training.  It seems like it is the most important thing they do since if they do a poor job training it adversely affects the tens of thousands of actual children who are taught by the CMs in their first year.  Other things they do with their money, like lobbying congress to give TFA more federal money, does not affect actual children so directly.

So let’s say they dedicate $50 million to training a year.  That would be a lot of money to train 5,000 CMs.  That comes to $10,000 for each CM.  And for the past two summers the training has been virtual so they were able to cut their costs down by probably 95% since they don’t have to supply food or dorm rooms or busses to the student teaching sites or anything like that.  All they have to pay is for staff.

Though I have tried to stop following twitter accounts that may upset me, I haven’t been able to bring myself to stop following TFA.  I guess it is an unhealthy obsession I wish I could break myself of.  But I have such a knack for critiquing such a rich and powerful organization, there is something that compels me to do this.  So a TFA tweet caught my eye, they wanted people to respond to the tweet with their best advice to new teachers and TFA would retweet the advice they most agreed with.

So I noticed that they were retweeting advice that could steer new CMs in the wrong direction.  For instance a lot of the tweets they retweeted were “Be yourself.”  Some went on to criticize what I guess they see as the opposite advice “Don’t smile until Christmas.”  Now I think the truth lies somewhere between these two extremes and is a lot closer to “Don’t smile until Christmas.”  Since a big part of being a new teacher is projecting confidence and experience even when you don’t have either, too much smiling can make you seem nervous or that you are trying to be their buddies or that you just aren’t taking the job seriously enough.  So I argued with some of the “Be Yourself” tweeters and some had nice discussions with me while others got mad and blocked me.

So now that the door was open a crack and I could see that TFA was tweeting oversimplified advice, I started nosing around to see if there was any chatter about the institute on the Internet.  I found a bunch of message boards including one on Reddit.  On the Reddit I saw some people saying that the Institute was a ‘sh*t show’ and that it was really unorganized and didn’t seem very relevant.

I think a lot of CMs probably are worried about the lack of relevance, but they want to trust that TFA knows what they are doing so they really have no choice but to hope that they do.

Well, I got into some discussions on the Reddit board and eventually a 2021 CM sent me a direct message and has been a bit of an ‘informant’ for me.  According to them the training has been pretty useless.  There was almost nothing on lesson planning.  Also since it is virtual, there has been no face-to-face student teaching.  When they did the virtual training last year I felt that it was a big problem but as the year played out and much of the teaching was virtual I could see how TFA teachers might be good at remote teaching.  But this year is different.  Most schools are going back to face-to-face teaching and these TFA teachers will get their first opportunity in front of a real class on the first day of their actual job.  It is amazing to me that any principal would be willing to hire teachers from TFA this year, but I’m sure TFA talked up a good game about how well they trained the CMs.

Now I’m willing to admit that maybe my ‘informant’ is somebody who is conning me.  Maybe it’s one of the TFA trolls who until pretty recently used to harass me on Twitter all the time.

So I’m hoping that current CMs can use the comments on this blog post to share their experiences and have a place to be whistle blowers if they feel like that TFA has been negligent in their training this year and if they are setting these CMs up for failure which will directly influence the education of tens of thousands of children.

And to the TFA staffers who may be reading this post, which one is it: Do you think that the training is worthy of the responsibility the CMs will soon have or do you agree that it is inadequate but who cares, TFA isn’t about developing teachers it is about developing leaders? Make up your mind and make changes accordingly. As for me, I’d like nothing more than to learn that TFA prioritized their training. It would relieve me of this burden.

So comment if you are a 2021 CM. Let me know if I’m completely out of touch and just making too many assumptions based on a few complainers. I guess that would make me feel kind of foolish for being so dramatic here, but it would also be somewhat of a relief.

Here are some links:

Me critiquing TFA on NPR in 2012.

Me critiquing TFA on Adam Ruins Everything in 2019

The skit I was in at the 1993 TFA Institute in Los Angeles

A workshop I did at the TFA Institute in New York in 2003

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Questions about the specialized high school admissions process from a specialized high school teacher. Final Part “What was the goal of these posts?”

About six weeks ago I began a project that I had been putting off for several years. As a blogger who has opinions on pretty much everything related to education I felt like my failure to write about this topic was not staying true to myself.

I started teaching at Stuyvesant in April of 2002. Though it is the fourth school I’ve taught at in my career, I only taught at those other schools for five years combined. So my career has mostly been teaching at Stuyvesant and it has been a career I have been proud of. Though the student body was over 70% Asian for all the years I have been there, it was something that wasn’t talked about so much. I had heard that in the 1950s the school was mostly Jewish and then 50 years later the demographics changed to mostly Asian. It was just what it was, people had different theories about what caused the shift and for most of my years it wasn’t considered to be a problem. But lack of Latino and Black students in the top specialized school in New York City in a system where 70% of the students are Latino and Black is definitely a symptom of a big problem.

I’ve read a lot of editorials by people on all sides of education politics that have criticized the specialized schools admissions process as being unfair at best and racist at worst. As a teacher at Stuyvesant for all these years I had to really think about this. If deep down I really felt that I was participating in a racist system I hope I would have the courage to resign and transfer to a school that was not racist. I can’t speak for any of the other teachers at Stuyvesant or any of the other specialized high schools but I would think that all of us think about this anytime we read the annual article about how there were less than 10 Black students offered a spot at Stuyvesant.

Certainly nobody is going to feel bad for me for saying this, but one of the things that drew me to Stuyvesant was the prestige. When I would be at my mother’s apartment complex and one of her friends would be around, my mother would proudly say “This is my son. He teaches at Stuyvesant.” And the friend would be impressed and my mother would beam and I would feel kind of proud too. It wasn’t easy to get a job at Stuyvesant, there was a lot of competition. And more than just getting the job, I’ve been proud of myself for all the good teaching I’ve done over the years. I’ve really given it my all. If it were some school that the friend never heard of, they probably wouldn’t be as impressed. Maybe my mother wouldn’t even mention what my profession was if it wasn’t a famous school. I know that teaching at Stuyvesant doesn’t make me some kind of hero but until recently I hadn’t thought that it could make me some kind of villain.

So of course I’m going to be less open to the idea that Stuyvesant is a symbol of oppression and that I should be ashamed of myself for working there.

One of the comments on one of the posts in this series basically said that it seems to just be a way for me to make myself feel better about working at Stuyvesant. Maybe that is a part of it. I have a lot of respect for many of the people who believe that the current system with the SHSAT is as bad as other things in education that I am very opposed to, like using Value Added based on standardized tests to determine teacher salaries so I do worry that this specialized high school system is just too personal to me that my opinions on it can’t really be taken seriously.

In this final post I’m not going to summarize what I said in the other thirteen posts for the same reason that I didn’t just write one summary instead of the series. One summary will very much oversimplify my thoughts on it. I tried to explore all the sides of the issue and for sure I did not come to the conclusion that the current system cannot be improved. I’m sure that some of my arguments seemed insensitive or naive or just in denial of reality. Maybe twenty years from now there won’t be specialized high schools and the elimination of specialized schools will be the turning point that helps all students and people will look back at this series and say “Can you believe that a guy who was considered to be a public school crusader actually tried to defend many aspects of the old system?” Maybe.

But right now in the summer of 2021 I’ve put my thoughts down. Maybe my own thoughts will evolve over the years, but this is what they are right now.

I’m a teacher. I’ve taught at four schools in my career and I’ve loved each of those schools. I’ve kept in touch with students from all the different schools, every so often a former student from one of the schools, now a 40 year old man or woman, finds me on Facebook and we become Facebook friends. I’ve never thought that my Stuyvesant students are somehow more worthy of my attention than the students I taught at other schools. Whether it was students from Deady Middle School in Houston, Furr High School in Houston, or Jefferson High School in Denver, I respected and cared about my students.

Throughout these posts I have offered suggestions about how the specialized high school admissions process can be made more authentic and more fair. Maybe one day I will be invited to serve on some kind of committee that looks into this and I can be a person who has a skill of asking the right questions to get past some of the oversimplified arguments for or against the current system. If you’re reading this right now, thanks for reading. I hope you believe that I wasn’t trying to be sneaky and use rhetorical devices to convince you that somehow the current system is perfect the way it is. I just wanted to give my thoughts, unpolished and maybe even contradictory as they may have been.

To see a list of all the posts in this series, click here.

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Questions about the specialized high school admissions process from a specialized high school teacher. Part 13 “Are there too many Asian students at the specialized high schools?”

Are there too many Jews in Hollywood?

Are there too many transgender people in the military?

Are the too many Latino baseball players?

Are there too many Asian students at the New York City specialized high schools?

Did you answer ‘yes’ to any of the above?

Asian students make up 17% of the 8th graders in New York City. They also make up 35% of the students who take the SHSAT and get 52% of the offers to the specialized schools.

Latino and Black students combine to make up 68% of the 8th graders, 32% of the SHSAT test takers, and 10% of the offers.

Statistically speaking, an Asian student is about 16 times more likely to get an offer to a specialized high school than a Latino student or a Black student.

These are the facts and they serve as a starting point for the big questions that this series of posts has been building toward.

To the question “Are there too many Asian students at the specialized high schools?” some might say that this is the wrong question to ask. The proper question, they might argue is, “Are there too few Latino and Black students at the specialized high schools?”

Are those the same two questions, just worded in different ways? I don’t think so. The second question “Are there too few Latino and Black students at the specialized high schools?” has, in my mind, an obvious answer which is ‘yes.’ The more important question which cannot be answered so easily is “Why are there too few Latino and Black students at the specialized high schools?” I will address this later in this post, but first I want to explore the other question “Are there too many Asian students at the specialized high schools?”

There are a finite number of seats at the specialized schools. The only way for there to be more Latino and Black students offered seats at these schools would be for Asian students to be offered fewer seats at these schools. But if you believe “There are too many Asian students at the specialized schools?” you probably won’t feel comfortable saying it too loud. It has the same structure as the other “There are too many X in Y” statements I referenced at the beginning of this post. In any expression of this form, if the ‘X’ is not ‘white men’ you are treading into dangerous territory.

So how do you answer the two questions? Do you think that ‘yes’ there are too few Latino and Black students but that ‘no’ there are not too many Asian students at the specialized high schools. Or do you think that ‘yes’ there are too few Latino and Black students and that ‘yes’ there are too many Asian students at the specialized high schools. Or do you have some other set of answers to those two questions?

I think there are some people who believe (whether or not they say it so bluntly) that there are too many Asians in the specialized high schools and I want to address that belief here.

Some people who have been reading this series do not like when I use sports analogies, but with the summer Olympics going on right now, it is hard not to. There are certain events in the summer Olympics that have been historically dominated by different countries. Russia has won every gold medal in artistic swimming (used to be called ‘synchronized swimming’) since 2000. South Korea has won nearly every gold medal in women’s archery since 1984. China has won almost all the gold medals in table tennis ever awarded. Kenya has won all 9 golds in the history of the men’s steeplechase. Hungary has won nine gold medals in men’s water polo since 1928.

Does anyone see it as a ‘problem’ that Hungary keeps winning at men’s water polo? When you hear that Hungary won again in men’s water polo, how does it make you feel? Do you think that there is something about water polo that gives Hungary an unfair advantage? Do you think the rules should be changed so that it is a little easier for some of the other countries to win? Maybe the other countries get to start with a few points? Probably not. You probably just think that it is pretty impressive that Hungary is so good at men’s water polo. We don’t think the Hungary men’s water polo team is cheating in any way. We don’t say “Oh, it isn’t fair, they spent a lot of time practicing water polo.” There’s probably a culture in Hungary where kids aspire to be on the men’s water polo team and they’ve got water polo little league and the names of the men’s water polo players are household names. Maybe you don’t agree with all the rules of water polo, like how only the goalie can handle the ball with both hands and if another player does, they lose possession of the ball, but at least all teams have to play by the same rules as arbitrary as they may seem. You probably don’t think that Hungary has won “too many” gold medals, you tip your hat to Hungary and admire their accomplishment.

The United States hasn’t gotten the gold in men’s water polo since 1932. But does that mean we don’t train for the Olympics? Maybe the fact that Hungary will be participating is a motivating factor for the United States team to try to compete with the Hungarians. And even if the U.S. team, again, fails to medal was all that training a waste?

But when it comes to the specialized high schools some people don’t think this same way about the Asian students who gain admission to these schools. It’s not “Wow, those families supported supplemental learning for their children. How great.” For some of these families, maybe they take an ongoing course where the students improve their skills. These skills will not just help them on the SHSAT but in high school and beyond. For some families the supplemental learning may not involve a course but just that they encourage their child to sit for a few hours a week with a skills book. However they do it, why is supplemental learning not something not everybody wants to celebrate? In my opinion, the more students who study at home, the better. So that’s why I don’t agree with you if you think there are too many Asian students at the specialized high schools.

The former New York City schools chancellor Carranza was pretty clear about his feelings when he said at a press conference “I just don’t buy into the narrative that any one ethnic group owns admission to these schools,” about the fact that about half the specialized school offers went to Asian students.

But let’s say you’re someone who doesn’t think the problem is too many Asian students. You have no problem with the number of Asian students, you just think there should be more Latino and Black students. Well, I also think there should be more Latino and Black students at the specialized high schools.

The big question that everyone (or at least the 10 or so people who have been reading this 50,000+ word series of blog posts) wants me to answer is “Why are there so few Latino and Black students at the specialized high schools?”

The reason there are so few Latino and Black students at the specialized high schools has little to do with the specialized high school admissions policy. Yes, you can change the admissions policy if you want and get the numbers you think there should be, but that’s not fixing the problem really. If you fix the problem the correct way, not only will you get more Latino and Black students into the specialized high schools but as an added bonus even the Latino and Black students who don’t get into the specialized high schools will be more prepared for college or whatever future they choose to pursue.

One reason there are so few Latino and Black students at the specialized high school is that politicians and high level NYC DOE administrators have not cared enough to ask the right questions to find out why there are so few.

For example, surely there are some Latino and Black students going into 8th grade next year who would be great candidates for the specialized high schools. But they aren’t going to take the SHSAT maybe. Have people at the NYC DOE ever tried to find out why those students don’t want to take the SHSAT? Have people getting paid to think about this stuff at the NYC DOE ever really tried to learn why Latino and Black students are not enthusiastic about the idea of going to a specialized high school?

And what about the Latino or Black student who was a superstar at his or her middle school and seemed destined to ace the SHSAT but didn’t make the cutoff? Has anyone ever taken a close look at the test they took and the answers they wrote? Has anyone looked over their math scrap paper? Has anyone ever sat with that kid for a few hours and asked, “Why did you write choice C for that one? What was your thought process?” If nobody is doing that kind of scientific research and getting this kind of data so you can more easily answer the question of why there are so few Latino and Black students meeting the SHSAT cutoff score, it says to me that in the current system there has not been the will to understand what the problem is.

There are a lot of theories about why there are so few Latino and Black students at the specialized schools. Someone from the NYC DOE actually should investigate them and see which of them are true, if any. But they don’t because they don’t care enough to apply the scientific method to this important issue. One theory is that private schools offer scholarships to the top Latino and Black students. Is this true? How many students does this affect?

Another theory is that many of the top Latino and Black students are attending high profile charter schools. These charter schools lose many of their low performing students over the years when the schools threaten to make them repeat a grade if they don’t transfer out. So the few students who make it into 8th grade in those schools are likely very good at standardized tests. So why aren’t those students taking the SHSAT? And if they are taking the SHSAT, has that charter school helped them succeed on it or do they discourage those top performing 8th graders from taking the SHSAT or preparing for the SHSAT or even from accepting offers if they do well on the SHSAT? The theory is that those schools want those students to attend the charter school high school. I think this theory has some truth in it. Here is something from the Success Academy blog about how two of their students qualified for Brooklyn Tech but elected to say at Success Academy for high school anyway. How many more Black and Latino students could there be in the specialized high schools if those students were encouraged to consider it? Again, this is something that someone at the NYC DOE should have already thought about and should be working on this. You’ve got to approach this scientifically.

But the bigger issue is that by the time students are in 8th grade, the low SHSAT scores are merely a symptom of a bigger problem that had been going on for decades. If Asian students are supplementing what they get in school in order to get better at math and reading, why can’t that supplementation be given to Latino and Black students as part of their regular schooling? I’m talking here about resources, or more specifically the lack of resources. With more money invested in the schools from K to 8, like for smaller class sizes, maybe the Latino and Black students would be more prepared for whatever the specialized high school admissions process is, even if it moves away from just being the SHSAT. This type of thinking leads to an authentic solution which benefits everyone. Even if it doesn’t change the demographics of the specialized high schools as much as some people hope it would, everyone would be better off.

I know there is a lot more to the issue than I’m able to fully appreciate. Here’s an article from The Atlantic called ‘Don’t Scrap The Test. Help Black Kids Ace It’ with a similar perspective. And here is an equally thoughtful piece with the opposite perspective from The Daily News called ‘Scrap the SHSAT, for diversity’s sake: Mayor de Blasio is right about selective high schools’. Here is another interesting take called ‘Is New York City’s Plan to Diversify Specialized High Schools Racist toward Asian Americans?’ by a bi-racial writer who says ‘no’.

I’m sorry if you were hoping that I would be able to give a more satisfying answer to this difficult question. I tried to offer some short term and some long term solutions. I don’t have the data to answer the question any better but through these posts I hope I have modeled for somebody what it means to approach something scientifically and to raise the right questions in order to tackle the big questions.

In the next, and final, post in this series, I will try to make some final reflections.

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Questions about the specialized high school admissions process from a specialized high school teacher. Part 12 “Is the 7% plan feasible?”

On June 3, 2018 Mayor Bill de Blasio and then schools chancellor Richard Carranza introduced a plan for an alternative to using the SHSAT for selective high school admissions. Known to some as “The 7% plan” the idea is to phase out the SHSAT and instead make offers to the top 7% of the students at each school. Each school would rank their students by state test scores and GPA to create the rankings.

Under the current process there are certain middle schools that serve as feeders into the specialized schools. An example is The Anderson School in which 75% of their students get an offer. A Chalkbeat article explains how 25% of the specialized high school offers come from just 10 middle schools. These middle schools are generally screened middle schools that had a standardized test as part of their admissions policy so it is not surprising that this happened, but it definitely suggests that student’s destinies were established when they did or didn’t do well on an entrance exam for a screened middle school that they took during 5th grade. There has been talk of eliminating screened middle schools for many of the same reasons that there has been talk of changing the admissions policy for the specialized high schools. Getting rid of screened middle schools wouldn’t necessarily cause the demographic mix they are looking for. It is possible that the students who would have gone to those screened middle schools would end up getting into the specialized high schools later on anyway. I point this out because many people would assume that eliminating the screened middle schools would very likely change the future demographics of the specialized high schools.

So according to a presentation made by the NYC DOE, making offers to the top 7% of students at each school would change the demographics of the specialized high schools. Here is a graphic they made about this:

Though this 7% plan would not exactly match the citywide demographics, it would be closer than the current plan. So if these charts are accurate, the 7% plan would achieve the goal of getting the target demographics while not being officially an illegal quota system. This doesn’t mean that this plan wouldn’t be challenged in court anyway if the intent is to reduce the offers to one ethnic group, namely Asians.

But the problem with education policy is that many of the plans people come up with are very short sighted. Maybe they ‘fix’ one problem while causing other problems. Most teachers I know are very good at evaluating some policy proposal and looking into the future with it and knowing what new problems will be created by the proposal. This is something that many education policy makers fail to do which, for some of them, is why they couldn’t cut it in the classroom.

In the current system it is definitely true that students at a middle school are competing with one another to get into the specialized high schools. So you take a school like The Anderson School where 58 out of 76 8th graders got offers to specialized high schools recently. And while the students do compete against each other, they don’t really think of it that way because there is a chance that everyone who takes it gets in because they are really all competing against the total population. So the Anderson students can learn together and have a fun middle school experience without the pressure of ‘beating’ their fellow classmates. They can root each other on and they hope they and all their friends get into the specialized schools and that they can go there together.

So now you change the admissions to the 7% plan and now the number of offers at Anderson is capped at 5 students, maybe one student for Stuyvesant. Suddenly Anderson becomes a very different place. There is no longer a chance that everyone is going to get in to a specialized high school. Now the students have to compete for the 5 spots. These five spots are based on GPA and on state test scores so suddenly every single test and assignment becomes a ‘high stakes test’ since it could be the difference between getting an offer and not getting an offer. Now the middle school teachers have a new kind of pressure they didn’t have before. Why did my kid’s friend get a 97 on this project while my kid got a 96 on the project? Yes, I know that this happens to some extent already, but if the 7% plan were put into place, it would increase exponentially. It would make teaching middle school a pretty miserable job, actually.

OK so maybe you don’t care so much about whether the kids at Anderson have to have a less fun middle school experience or whether the teachers enjoy their jobs there — nobody forced them to go or to work there, but still it is something I think is worth thinking about.

That chart that the NYC DOE made for their presentation shows how they predict the demographics would be under the new plan based on running the numbers for a previous year. But remember that in that previous year, students and families were not making decisions based on the 7% plan being in effect. If the 7% actually went into affect, people would make different decisions. For example, maybe some students who don’t care so much about grades but know they would do well on the SHSAT would change their strategy. So without the SHSAT they would instead use the time they would have spent on the SHSAT to instead get their GPA up and to get a 97 on the project instead of a 96. So the numbers that would actually happen under the 7% plan would likely be different than the numbers from the projection based on data about students who had a different strategy for getting into the specialized high schools.

If the 7% plan were actually implemented, there is a chance that instead of sending their children to Anderson, families instead send their children to a school where they are likely to be in the top 7%. So maybe you get a situation where the top 7% of the students at any given school are likely to be Asian and you don’t ‘fix’ the ‘problem’ of too many Asians at the specialized high schools but instead you inadvertently make the middle schools less segregated. Maybe that’s a good thing. But it’s how it could play out so these are the kind of things teachers are better than policy makers and looking ahead and thinking about. (A great mathematician / writer Cathy O’Neil make the middle school argument in this piece.)

Another thing not considered in the 7% plan is whether or not the students admitted under this plan even want to attend a specialized high school. Keep in mind that half the Asian students in New York City don’t even take the SHSAT so it is not a given that everyone even wants to go to a school that may have a 90 minute commute each way and when maybe they see nothing wrong with the neighborhood school that despite the propaganda from the Charter school lobby, is not a ‘failing’ school that students are ‘trapped’ in.

The NYC DOE presents this graphic to show that the 7% plan would not mean that the specialized high schools would have to become less rigorous.

In an earlier post I argued that a major change to the admissions policy would very likely require the specialized high schools to alter their curricula — and also that this wouldn’t be the end of the world if it happens. This graphic does not change my mind on this. Getting a 94 GPA at one schools is not necessarily equivalent to getting a 94 GPA at another school. I’ve taught at different schools throughout my career and I’ve never seen grades as some kind of rigid objective thing. So if I am teaching students who are behind and I have a student who gets 100 average, well I’m going to give them a 100 because they deserve it. They should not be penalized just because they had to start from an earlier spot. And the state tests, one issue is that the state tests have been made untimed while at specialized schools there are going to be several timed tests a week so it is important that a student can do well on a timed test. I guess if you were to make the state tests timed again and recalculated the numbers on this graphic, I could change my mind on this.

In some other cities recently, other plans have actually been passed that have some things in common with the 7% plan. The Boston Latin school is one of them. There will be a system where students will be divided into eight tiers depending on their family income and students will be admitted equally among those tiers. This article explains the new policy. Another school that has changed its policy is The Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology. That schools (known as T.J) is a big rival of Stuyvesant when it comes to the math team competition. They got rid of the $100 application fee and made other changes, but it is hard to compare their policy with Stuyvesant since under the old policy T.J. was less than 1% economically disadvantaged while Stuyvesant is currently 40%. And with the new policy, T.J. will increase to 25% economically disadvantaged.

One of the most puzzling things about the de Blasio / Carranza 7% proposal is that there was nothing stopping them from implementing it at five of the eight specialized high schools (which account for about 40% of the students in the specialized high school system according to what I calculated but in many articles I’ve read they say that those schools only have 25% of the students). The state law applies to just the ‘big 3’ Stuyvesant, Bronx Science, and Brooklyn Tech. The fact that they did not try to test the plan out with the schools that they could really makes me think they were not serious about the 7% plan besides saying “We tried to do something bold, but were denied.” When de Blasio was asked why not do this for the five other schools he said something like “We don’t want to do something halfway, we need to do it for all.” (Can someone find me the actual quote?) There is a chance it isn’t legal to change the policy at those other 5 schools, but there isn’t a policy against creating new schools — maybe you don’t call them specialized high schools you just call them magnet schools or something else — at which you can use something like the 7% plan.

This 7% plan makes me think that maybe an interesting compromise would be to make new specialized high schools for students who would be admitted under the 7% plan. Or if that seems like you are denying Stuyvesant to those students, why not just open up new specialized schools just for students who would have gotten into the specialized schools under the current SHSAT system. So you would have some new schools and the students who would have gone to Stuyvesant now go to some other school, call it what you want, ‘The school for kids who aced the SHSAT’ maybe. So Stuyvesant becomes the place for the top 7% plan students and the SHSAT school is available too. After a few years it would be interesting to see what happens. Would Stuyvesant still have the best math team and debate team, or would the SHSAT school? Would Ivy League schools look favorably on the SHSAT school as they do now for Stuyvesant?

So I see a lot of problems with the 7% plan. Others say that the benefits outweigh some of the issues I raised. There are just two more parts to this series. I was expecting some more attention to these posts but based on comments they have not been widely read. I spent years pondering if it was a good idea to write about this topic. I was scared to but based on the lack of attention and also lack of hate mail from some of the people who like to harass me I’ve either really bored everyone or I’ve been evenhanded. Either way, I will look forward to completing the last two posts in the next few weeks.

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Questions about the specialized high school admissions process from a specialized high school teacher. Part 11 “What other factors should be considered in the specialized high school admissions process?”

Currently the only factor to determine admissions to the New York City specialized high schools is a 114 question mainly multiple choice question about math and reading. Out of 100,000 8th graders — 25,000 who take the SHSAT test — 5,000 are offered spots in one of the eight specialized high schools.

There are specialized high schools in pretty much every city and also throughout the world. Most do not just use a single three hour test for admissions.

Other factors that could be included are middle school GPA, school recommendation letter, essay, interview, portfolio, among factors.

How can we know if the admissions processes ‘worked’? In other words, what is the goal? This isn’t an easy question.

An analogy that illustrates the difficulties of this is how to distribute tickets to something like the Super Bowl. Who ‘deserves’ to go to the Super Bowl? Right now if you have enough money you can easily get Super Bowl tickets, but is does a rich person ‘deserve’ to go to this game just because they are rich? It doesn’t seem so. What about a die-hard fan of one of the teams who watches every single game and paints their car the team colors and if they could go to the game would paint themselves the team color? That’s someone who really wants to go to the game. But is wanting to go to the game enough? What if there is someone who really wants to go to the game and will be very enthusiastic about the game but that person does not really know much about the rules of football? Does that person deserve to go to the game more than someone who studies the game and will enjoy the game at a much deeper level even though maybe they aren’t as enthusiastic?

There’s no right answer to the Super Bowl question, different people can have different opinions though most people would agree that just having a lot of money isn’t the most fair way to decide who gets to attend this game.

When it comes to the specialized high schools, who deserves to be admitted? There might be some students who really want to go to the schools but they are behind in their academics and they are not going to get such high grades there but they will still benefit from the experience and they will be enthusiastic and try their hardest every day. But unlike the Super Bowl where the fans don’t really affect what goes on in the game, in a specialized school the participants are also the players. So if the goal of the specialized high school is to get students into Ivy League colleges, then maybe desire to go to the school is not enough. They have to be already accelerated in their learning after the eight years of schooling they have already had. It is a tough question and everyone might have their own answer and depending on what their answer is about what the goal of the specialized high school is, they can determine after the fact whether or not the admissions policy ‘worked’ if the goal was met.

The current process of using just the SHSAT has produced, over the years, a group of students in the specialized high schools that have seemed to thrive. They get into Ivy League schools. They have the top math team. They have the top debate team. They have many students who become semi-finalists in the Regeneron Science Talent competition. So in that sense some might say that the admissions process worked. But since the admissions policy is based on such a narrow metric it opens up the question of whether changing the policy could make the collection of students even better by some metric.

Using the SHSAT is not perfect. Over the years there have been students who have really struggled at Stuyvesant. It isn’t a large percent, but I’ve known students who get averages in the 70s and who even start to cut classes and even fail them. When that happens it is hard not to think that if the admissions policy were different maybe that student would have not been admitted and in his place maybe a student who would have been more successful would have been there in his place and that would be a good thing.

The goal of this fourteen part series which could be compiled into a novella is not for me to conclude at the end that the current system is perfect as it is or even that it is good. I do think that just using the SHSAT does not produce the best possible group of students. There are students who get into the specialized high schools who don’t thrive there and ones who don’t get in who would thrive there.

But I also think that the selection process does produce a very good group of students and I have a theory about this. Imagine if there were a different single criteria for admissions to the specialized school and it was one that was even less relevant than the 114 question test. Imagine that the test was just how well you could do on the vintage 1980s videogame Pac Man. That would be absurd, right? But the schools are still what they are and families are told about this new absurd admissions policy. Now of course there are some kids who are better at video games than other kids and that doesn’t mean that they are better fits for the specialized high schools. But families know for years that this is the way to get into the specialized schools, as crazy and irrelevant as it is. Now a game like Pac Man is one that anyone can master, eventually. Some people might be more naturally good at it and maybe those people don’t need to practice as much as people who are not naturally good at it. But the people who really want to do well on this new absurd test are going to do what it takes to achieve that. So maybe it takes a few hundred hours of practice, but at the end it is possible (and I know this is a very strange hypothetical so I’m not saying we should do this) that the students who were able to get good at Pac Man after knowing that this was what the test was and because they really wanted to get in and to do whatever it takes to get in despite the ridiculousness of the contest having seemingly nothing to do with succeeding at a specialized high school, maybe you would end up with a group of students who would succeed at the specialized high school. What all those kids would have in common was the ability to have a long term plan to play by the rules and to master something that can be mastered by anyone who puts in the proper amount of preparation.

Well, I’m not suggesting that we make the test less relevant than it already is, I’m just pondering whether or not it matters how relevant the test is as long as everyone knows the rules and has ample time to prepare for it.

Actually this post is about how the SHSAT could be made more relevant.

The 114 multiple choice test on math and reading is really a relic of the past. It seems to be based on the SAT which has its own problems. So one idea I have is to add more sections. Have a written essay section. Have a science section. Have a history section. This would make it a lot harder to do test prep for.

Another thing I think they should have is a part where a student watches a 30 minute video of a teacher teaching a lesson on something that they haven’t already learned and then the students have to answer questions about it. Maybe this includes higher level questions to test for deeper understanding. It’s 2021, what would be so bad about having students on laptops watching short lectures and seeing if they can absorb new material like they would be expected to at the specialized school. This would also be difficult to test prep for so it would take away whatever advantage students get from test prep.

How about they give all the students a reading list of about fifty books. Then there are questions about five of the books, selected at random. The student who reads all 50 books will do well on that part while a student who only reads ten of the books is likely to do poorly on that section.

I think that schools should rate the students, at least with a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ about whether they think the student is likely to succeed at the specialized school.

I think that GPA could be a component though I would expect that most students who want to go to the specialized schools have pretty good GPAs and this wouldn’t change the final results by very much.

I think the ‘trick questions’ on the math especially should be removed since those check for test prep more than just intelligence.

I think all students should get more time for the test. Who says that 3 hours for 114 questions is the perfect amount of time?

So I definitely support modernizing the test and making it more relevant.

But I can’t promise you that this will fix what many people consider ‘the problem’ that it results in offers to too many Asian students. Making the test better might even cause that ‘problem’ to get ‘worse.’

As I’ve said in previous posts, there seem to be just three ways to make the specialized schools less Asian. 1) Have a quota system (which I’m told is illegal), 2) Start much earlier in the pipeline with outreach and helping Latino and Black students get prepared for whatever the admissions policy is, or 3) Find a legal way to get the same results as a quota system. This third way, the so called 7% plan, will be the topic of the next post.

In case you’re getting weary, there are just three parts remaining.

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Questions about the specialized high school admissions process from a specialized high school teacher. Part 10 “What happens to high performing students who are not admitted to a specialized high school?”

I’ve been following and participating in debates about education politics for about ten years. In an oversimplified way the two ‘sides’ of the debate are the ‘public education advocates’ and the ‘corporate reformers’.

The ‘reformers’ hit a peak of popularity about ten years ago with the movie ‘Waiting For Superman’ and outspoken leaders (where are they now?) like Michelle Rhee. They promoted a narrative in which most public schools are ‘failing.’ Students are not ‘first’ because the union forces them to be ‘trapped’ in ‘dropout factories.’ Charters on the other hand are proving just how lazy the union members are because with the exact same students and teachers who are not in the union, they are getting amazing results.

The ‘advocates’ say that this is a distortion of reality. Public schools are not ‘failing’ they are under resourced. Yes, they can and should improve, but considering the lack of funds and the large class sizes that teachers have, public school teachers are heroes fighting a very difficult fight. And the supposed success of charter schools has nothing to do with the teachers not being unionized but from charters rigging the charter lotteries and forcing bad fits who might bring down their test scores back into the public schools.

But one thing I’ve noticed that most ‘reformers’ and ‘advocates’ have in common is that they are in favor of drastically changing the admissions policy for the New York City specialized high schools.

For the ‘reformers’ I can understand this point of view. A school like Stuyvesant is not a ‘failing’ school by their definition using mainly standardized test scores. And when Latino and Black students don’t get into Stuyvesant their fates are sealed as they must attend their ‘failing’ neighborhood school and from their they have a bleak future.

But for the ‘advocates’ it seems a bit hypocritical. The advocates don’t say that every school that is not a charter or a specialized high school is a ‘failing’ school in which students are ‘trapped.’ They see those schools, despite below average standardized test scores, as places with hard working teachers and students.

Now I identify with the ‘advocates’ on almost every issue so I wanted to explore a question in this post that I haven’t heard asked so much and that is really important: What happens to high performing students who are not admitted to a specialized high school?

If the answer is that they generally drop out of school, well that would be evidence to support the ‘reformer’ position that most schools are ‘failing.’ But if those students thrive in whatever school they go to and they go on to college or maybe right to a career, well, that’s another story.

In ChalkBeat there was an article titled ‘How much does attending one of these elite high schools matter? Not as much as you might think.’ where they discussed various studies that showed that, for example, students who just missed the cutoff for Brooklyn Tech (which is the lowest cutoff for the specialized schools) actually were 2% more likely to graduate from a four year college. But in general the studies support my belief that high performing students will be successful at other schools. I am not surprised by this as I’m not in the ‘reformer’ camp that most students are ‘trapped’ in ‘failing’ schools.

Most high schools, I think, have advanced offerings for their highest achieving students. So maybe they offer just one section of Calculus instead of the 20 sections that Stuyvesant offers, but for the students in the one section at the other school, they still get to learn Calculus. And if there are schools that don’t offer advanced courses for their highest achieving students, well I think they all should. If you can’t go to Stuyvesant, why can’t Stuyvesant go to you? Yes, I know that it isn’t exactly the same to be in the advanced track at your school with the same 30 students in all your classes. There is something about being with 800 advanced students that you miss.

There are 520 high schools in New York City. The hysteria about what is going to happen to the 95,000 students doomed to be ‘trapped’ in one of the other 512 ‘failing’ schools is overblown and really a relic from the propaganda film Waiting For Superman.

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Questions about the specialized high school admissions process from a specialized high school teacher. Part 9 “How many specialized high schools should there be?”

There are currently eight specialized high school in New York City. Out of the total 100,000 8th graders in the New York City school system about 25,000 take the SHSAT — the sole criteria for admissions — around 5,000 offers are given to the top scorers. 3,000 of the seats go to the original ‘big 3’ schools — Stuyvesant, Bronx Science, and Brooklyn Tech. The other 2,000 go to the five more recently created schools.

An idea I’ve read in various editorials is to simply open more specialized schools. They did it in the past when they opened the newer five schools and nearly doubled the available seats. So why not just open enough so that all 25,000 test takers can attend a specialized high school? Or even better, why not just make all the high schools specialized high schools so that everyone can attend one? Problem solved, right?

How many, exactly, specialized high schools should there be?

For some people, the answer is very simple. There should be no specialized high schools. The first question I posed in this series was “Should specialized high schools exist?” and there are plenty of people who say the answer is “no” so for them the right number is zero. In that first post I explained why I disagree with that, but I can definitely see the rationale. One compelling argument is that by having the top students spread out throughout the school system, every school has some of those students and those students serve to raise the level in that school. Having different ability levels mixed together can be a good thing as the more advanced learners can help the less advanced learners and everyone can benefit, including the advanced learners since it is a valuable exercise to explain what you know to someone else.

Some people have noted that the SHSAT is a contest and the the top 5,000 students get in regardless of what their scores are and that a better way would be to establish a cutoff score beforehand and if fewer than 5,000 students achieve that score, maybe one of the specialized high schools is turned back into a non-specialized high school and if more than 5,000 students achieve that score then more specialized high school would need to be created. I don’t think this is a great idea, we wouldn’t do that for the Olympics, not field a team because the best we have did not meet some low bar. We wouldn’t be able to do men’s soccer anymore. But I think this idea comes from the possibility that maybe Latino and Black students are doing very well on the SHSAT but that the Asian and White students are just doing so much better and if there was a cutoff point and it turned out the the Black and Latino students were over that cutoff then we should create as many specialized schools as would be needed. In that way, it’s kind of interesting. This is why we should have more access to the SHSAT so things like this can be researched.

But for me, I think there should be at least one. It’s like asking “Should there be a Harvard University?” True, not everyone gets to go there, but I think it is good for there to be a “best” school that people aspire too (I know I’m going to get some hate mail from Yale graduates, I’m just saying Harvard as an example. I got rejected from Harvard and went to Tufts — Go Jumbos!). Or should there be an Olympic gymnastics team? I feel like there should, but maybe there’s a downside where so many young gymnasts spend their youth trying to make it to the Olympics but the vast majority of them never will. I don’t know, it seems like even those gymnasts enhanced their lives with exercise and discipline. Should there have never been The Beatles? Maybe all of these are rhetorical and I can come up with something where the answer isn’t so cut and dry like should there be an Andover school.

So I believe there should be at least one. But New York City has five boroughs and if that one school only admits 800 students a year out of 100,000, maybe it is too low of a percent. So for a while there were three schools admitting 3% of the students and now there are eight schools admitting 5% of the students. Somewhere between 5% and 100% the perfect number lies, but what do you think it is?

I will argue against 100%. I know it might sound good to say “Let’s make all schools specialized high schools” but depending on how you define ‘specialized high schools’ maybe not all students even want to attend a school like that.

I also think that even 25% would be too many. I mentioned above about how someone opposed to any specialized schools could be concerned about ‘brain drain’ and that by taking too many of the top students away from a school, the remaining students don’t get the benefit of the energy and motivation that those students bring to the school. So having too many specialized schools could make that happen but currently with specialized schools only taking 5,000 of the students who took the SHSAT, there are still another 20,000 or 80% of the test takers who do not get an offer to the specialized schools and those students serve the role of bringing up the level in whatever school they attend.

One thing about the whole ‘make more specialized high schools’ confuses me. Is the real problem in New York City that we have too many students who are able to handle the rigor of a Stuyvesant High School? I thought the problem was that we have too many students who are not able to pass the state tests. Which one is it? Or is it both?

There is an assumption baked into the ‘make more specialized high schools’ suggestion that the Latino and Black students just missed the cutoff score so if we could create 4,000 more seats then the schools would be more diversified. But I reached out to one of the few people who actually has the data to test this. Here’s what he wrote to me:

I did a quick look at the 2013 SHSAT results. That year 5094 students were admitted, 52% Asian, 25% white, 6.4% Hispanic, 4.6% Black, 10% unknown. If the lowest admissions score were lowered from 479 to 440, 8678 students would have been admitted, 46% Asian, 25% White, 8.8% Hispanic, and 7.3% Black. The additional students would have been 1338 Asians (37%), 890 Whites (25%), 528 Hispanics (15%), 398 Black (11%)

So there is some truth to the theory but still 62% of the 4,000 new spots would go to Asian and White students.

So making new schools but keeping the same admissions policy is not going to get the demographics that mirror the demographics of the city in general. There are two ways to change this, you can change the entrance policy (I will explore this in future posts) or you can invest resources into the pipeline so that more Latino and Black students will be able to compete in whatever the process is (I argued for that in the previous post).

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