Down Goes Frayser!

In 2011, spurred by Race To The Top money, former Tennessee Education Commissioner, Kevin Huffman, created one of the nation’s first ‘turnaround districts’ called The Achievement School District (ASD). He hired fellow TFA alum Chris Barbic to be the first superintendent.

The mission of the ASD was to take schools in the bottom 5% and within 5 years ‘catapult’ them into the top 25%. They started with six schools and over a period of about five years expanded into around 30 schools. The plan was to turn the schools over to charter operators and then after the schools had been successfully catapulted, they would return to the original school district.

After five years, it was clear that at least five of the original six school were still in the bottom 5%. The other one had maybe risen into the bottom 10%. Barbic resigned, Huffman resigned, the ASD changed their mission to something a lot more vague.

Now, ten years after the takeover of the original 6 schools, we learn from Chalkbeat, TN that some of those original 6 schools are returning to their district. I’ve been tracking those six schools for the past 10 years: Brick Church College Prep, Cornerstone Prep — Lester Campus, Corning Achievement Elementary School, Frayser Achievement Elementary School, Humes Preparatory Academy — Upper School, and Westside Achievement Middle School. Year after year, despite having been turned into charter schools, these schools barely budged in the rankings. One of the six, Humes, was already closed down and now, as reported by Chalkbeat, TN, two of them, Frayser and Corning are being returned to their districts even though they did not improve. Ironically, eight years ago Frayser was hailed as a miracle success story proving the effectiveness of the ASD.

Even though I predicted this ten years ago, it is still amazing to me how this is reported and how the people now in charge in Tennessee react to it publicly. Looking back at the 10 year history, it seems impossible. With a $100 million price tag, they came in and took over schools talking a big game. They did the entire ‘reform’ playbook. Even Michelle Rhee had a supporting role since the Education Commissioner, Kevin Huffman, was her ex-husband. The ASD was heralded as the next big thing and there were panel discussions at the TFA alumni summit and other events with the Fordham Institute where Chris Barbic was celebrated. Even as recently as a year ago, there was a remote event about lessons learned from the ASD where they tried to put a positive spin on their failure.

But here we are ten years later and they weren’t able to improve just six schools. And this program is still going on, they are still getting tax payer money, and around the country places are still trying to replicate it.

And there’s a media outlet, Chalkbeat, Tennessee that doesn’t realize that as far as Tennessee education reporting goes, this is equivalent to Watergate. Yet they understate things in this article with things like “The announcement marks a seminal moment for the Achievement School District, which did not deliver on early promises to transform schools that the state took over in Memphis and Nashville beginning in 2012.”

Tennessee had not learned it’s lesson and it replaced Huffman with another TFA alum, Penny Schwinn. In the Chalkbeat article Schwinn at least admits the failure of the ASD, but I still think that it doesn’t have the appropriate amount of outrage:

Schwinn acknowledged the state has fallen short of its school turnaround goals with the ASD, which mostly assigned schools to charter operators to do the work.

“Growth and achievement and progress is not anywhere close to what would be acceptable to a family,” she told reporters during a morning conference call. “It is not acceptable to me as a parent. And we have to be honest about that.”

I’ve been following the ASD for 10 years. I’ve written at least 23 blog posts about this sad district. If you want to get really depressed, you can see the links to them here.

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David Banks’ ‘Unsuccessful’ Academy Schools

In a few weeks, David Banks will become the next Chancellor of New York City Schools. Unlike many of the previous Chancellors, David Banks has a track record of running a small network of schools. Called the Eagle Academy Schools For Young Men, there are six of these schools serving boys from grades 6 to 12. There is one school in each of the five New York City boroughs and one in Newark.

Before Eric Adams was the next mayor of New York City, he was the borough president of Brooklyn. In that capacity, he worked with David Banks to create ‘The Brooklyn Nine’ where Banks would share some of the best practices from Eagle Academy to improve nine schools in Brooklyn. There is a short documentary about Eagle Academy on HBO currently called ‘The Infamous Future’ , similar to Waiting For Superman, made a few years ago in which Eric Adams says that the practices of Eagle Academy should be used in more schools so that they become ‘The Brooklyn 90’ and then ‘The Brooklyn 900′ and eventually the entire school system can replicate the success of Banks’ Eagle Academies. So this gives us some idea of what to expect in the next 4 or 8 years with Adams as Mayor and Banks as Chancellor.

New York is home to so many news outlets like The New York Times, The Daily News, and The New York Post. There is also something called Chalkbeat, NY, which is a web publication that covers education in New York City. So you’d figure that at least one of them would look up the numbers on the five Eagle Academy schools that David Banks has been involved with, first as principal of the original school in The Bronx in 2004, and then as CEO of the foundation that oversees all six schools for the years since then. One would think that this information would be relevant and people getting paid full time to cover New York education would think, “Maybe I can see what public data is available about these schools that have been around for the past fifteen years.” but I haven’t seen anything about this. So I spent some time immersing myself in Eagle Academies and in learning about David Banks in general from interviews and also from the HBO documentary and will try to report my findings in as even handed way as possible.

The first thing that struck me was that I had never heard of The Eagle Academy For Young Men before. These are not schools that I had ever heard touted as schools that had cracked the code to get high standardized test scores or high college acceptance rates. These schools were completely off my radar. Some people think they are charter schools and even their Wikipedia page says they are charter schools, but I’ve also seen more official places that say that these are not charter schools, so I’m not even 100% about this.

David Banks did write something for The74 (generally not a good sign) where he said “Our schools have pioneered a revolutionary, self-affirming approach to educating young men of color, and the numbers speak for themselves. For the 2018-19 school year, 98 percent of our seniors graduated and 100 percent were accepted to college.” These are the kinds of statistics that charter schools sometimes use to mislead readers into thinking that nearly all the students who started in the school have gotten into college and are in a position to be successful there. Always relevant is what data is not shared as evidence of a school’s success. Reformers, when they are able to, like to tout test scores or, if those aren’t good enough, at least growth scores.

As always, when I present this kind of data, I want to make it clear that I’m not the person who thinks that school quality is the same thing as test scores and growth scores. Reformers like Bloomberg, Klein, Arne Duncan, Michelle Rhee, and the rest have justified shutting down schools on these narrow metrics. I don’t think that bad test scores and growth scores mean, necessarily, that the school is a ‘failing’ school. I taught at three such schools that would be labelled as ‘failing’ and I thought the staffs at those school were doing a very good job. On the flip side, I think that Success Academy, despite their high test scores, are awful schools. Still, considering that we are about to have a deputy Chancellor who subscribes to the obsolete reformer philosophy, I need to get the data on Eagle Academies out there publicly, if, for nothing else, to be able to point out the irony when the deputy Chancellor starts pushing to shut down schools that are better, at least by the metrics reformers worship, than Eagle Academies.

If anyone should be worried that I am cherry picking the data, you can go through and look through more of the data from the publicly available data sites I got my data from. One spot is the New York State data system which has data going back about 15 years for any school. Just type ‘eagle’ into the search box and you will find the different places. Another important resource is the New York City performance dashboard. If you type ‘eagle’ into the search box you will get 10 results since each Eagle Academy school is officially a middle school and a high school. Another place is the New York City school quality snapshots, basically the school report card where schools get a ranking between 1 and 4 on various categories. Finally, there’s the US News & World Report site that has good information about AP results and enrollment. None of these give the full picture, but when reformers talk about being ‘data driven’ and they use these numbers to declare entire schools systems as ‘failing’ it is useful to be able to access the data and see what it says about schools that they claim are succeeding.

Before I provide some specific details, let me just say that I’ve immersed myself in all the data from all the schools and I can say that on average, the schools have good reading scores but terrible math scores, terrible growth scores, terrible advanced Regents scores, and terrible AP results. I do think that they focus a lot of energy on reading, and I think that reading is extremely important, but there is no denying that the rest of their metrics are bad.

You can check the others to see if you can accuse me of cherry picking. Here’s Eagle Academy Middle School in The Bronx with their scores compared to the district they are in and also to something called the comparison group which are schools that, in theory, serve similar demographics.

When reformers see a school they like has low test scores, they dismiss them and say not to look at the test scores, but at the ‘growth’ scores since a school should not be penalized for their incoming students being behind grade level. But for nearly all the Eagle Academy schools, they have, by the growth metric, some of the worst scores in the city.

Here is a scatter plot from the NYC performance dashboard. The y-value of the blue point is the growth score and the x-value is the percent of students at proficient. There are 10 schools and three years for each school. See if you can find one where the growth score is above the middle line, there aren’t many.

For the high schools, the HBO documentary would have you believe that since 98% of the seniors are accepted to college, that 98% of the seniors are prepared for college. But if you look at the Regents scores, it tells a different story. Looking at the 2018-2019 at the flagship Eagle Academy in The Bronx, they did well on the ELA but the other Regents are awful. In Algebra I, only 32% passed. In Geometry only 7 students in the whole school passed and in Algebra 2, only 3 students in the whole school passed. I’m a math teacher and I know that Geometry and Algebra 2 are not essential for having a successful life, but if it is something that you are learning in school (and most students take Geometry in 10th grade and Algebra 2 in 11th grade) it is something you should be able to at least pass if you are going to get through some of the required courses in college.

When it comes to AP courses, US News & World Report collects that data. If only 4% of students passed at least one AP exam, and I’m not saying the AP test is the greatest test in the world, but to get a 3 to pass an AP is not such an impressive feat. Some high schools can say that they could only do so much since they didn’t teach the students in middle school, but at Eagle Academy schools, they teach them from 6th through 12th.

Based on what I saw in the HBO documentary, I think David Banks is a good person. He is someone who truly cares about the students at his schools. He has a passion that is clear from the different things he says in the interviews. I think I would get along with David Banks. I can’t say this with certainty, but I would guess that David Banks is not a fan of Success Academy. He knows by how stubborn the test and growth scores at his own schools have been that the only way Success Academy has kept its test scores so high is by various forms of cheating. He mentions in the HBO documentary that his schools take the Black boys that other schools try to get rid of. Surely he knows that the attrition rate for Black boys at Success Academy is well over 50%. When I called Eagle Academies ‘Unsuccessful’ in my title, I was trying to show a contrast between schools like Success that have high scores but are bad schools in my mind compared to Eagle Academy schools that could very well be opposite of Success Academy schools — low test scores but maybe are good schools.

David Banks knows, as well as anyone, that test scores and growth scores do not tell the full picture of a school. Eagle Academy schools seem, at least from what I’ve seen, to be good schools with low test scores. Since Banks is hiring a protege of Michelle Rhee, Dan Weisberg (see my recent post all about him), to be his #2, I have to wonder how this will play out. If they are going to return to labelling 25% of the schools as ‘failing’ based on test scores and growth scores and they are going to try to close down those schools, could Banks be in the awkward position of closing down some of his own schools?

As always with a post like this, I’m going to be criticized for minimizing the hard work of the teachers and the students at the Eagle Academies. I truly have no bad feelings for the students and teachers at the Eagle Academies. If they want to reach out to me, I would be willing to help them improve their math instruction. And if David Banks who is soon to be my boss’s, boss’s, boss’s, boss, I also offer my help if he wants it.

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The Tip Of The Weisberg

Eric Adams will become the next Mayor of New York City on January 1st. He will hire David Banks as the new schools Chancellor. And Banks will bring in Dan Weisberg as his top deputy.

Dan Weisberg

Unfortunately Dan Weisberg is one of the most dangerous people in the country who could rise to be the second highest ranking administrator in New York City.

In the article from Chalkbeat, NY, Alex Zimmerman tries hard to sugarcoat the background of this controversial pick. He writes:

He has tapped Dan Weisberg — who runs an organization focused on teacher quality and handled labor issues under Mayor Michael Bloomberg — to be his top deputy. That move is likely to raise eyebrows with the city’s teachers union, which has previously clashed with Weisberg.

So what is this “organization focused on teacher quality”? Well it is TNTP which once stood for The New Teacher Project. TNTP was founded by Michelle Rhee in 1997. What started out as a Teach For America type program for training career changers to become teachers quickly became an education reform propaganda organization. In 2009 they got into funding ‘research’ and their first publication was called ‘The Widget Effect’ which argued the benefits of merit pay for teachers based on standardized test scores. This publication is still often quoted despite very shoddy statistical practices. Dan Weisberg was the lead author of ‘The Widget Effect.’ More recently they put out something called “The Opportunity Myth” about how most teachers have low expectations because they do activities that don’t completely adhere to the researcher’s interpretation of the Common Core Standards.

Fifteen years ago there were plenty of Michelle Rhee type reformers in leadership positions in school districts around the country. As that brand of reform failed to deliver results, those reformers took positions in think tanks where they could make a lot more money but where they would not have such direct power over school systems.

Back in the Bloomberg/Klein days, people like Weisberg would celebrate judicial rulings where parents would fight to not have their children’s schools shut down. Charter schools, in the wake of ‘Waiting For Superman’, were supposedly proving that all you needed to turn around a school was to staff them with non-unionized teachers. Teacher bashing was all the rage, they even had their own Walton funded movie flop ‘Won’t Back Down.’

But things are different now. Reformers are not as brazen as they once were. The charter bubble has burst a bit, though Bloomberg has $750 million that says he can revive it. But it will be hard. With the failures of projects like The Achievement District in Tennessee, it will a tougher sell to say that we need to replicate their accomplishments. Back in the day, there would be so much talk of charters that were beating the odds with 100% graduation rates or 100% college acceptance rates. Those stories were debunked so often that even The74 hardly runs stories like that anymore. Does anyone know whatever happened to KIPP? The only charter chain that can even claim to get good test scores is Success Academy, and even reformers hardly like to talk about them since they boot (or discourage from enrolling) so many kids who might bring down their precious test scores.

So where does a teacher basher fit into the current system? As a New York City teacher with two kids in the system, I’m a bit scared to find out.

Here are some anti-teacher / anti-union tweets from Weisberg, including an interaction I had with him:

Here are some reformers celebrating Weisberg’s appointment:

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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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