The Henry Ford model of education

The school year started last week with two days of staff development, departmental meetings and announcements. The message that came down was loud and clear: we are going to “work together”. In this case, “work together” means that we are all going to follow the same pacing, assign the same problems, and we are going to all teach according to a system (FAST framework) that came on from on high. And, just to make sure that we need help in achieving conformity, we will have instructional coaches whether we want them or not.

Never mind that we are supposed to introduce the Common Core standards and we have not been trained in them. Never mind that the FAST framework is evidence free – there is absolutely no statistically valid data that says this is a better teaching method or a more appropriate one than any other method. (There does however seem to be a simple formula at work here: new principal = new teaching framework). The point is that administration would dearly love to know that on any given day the same thing is being taught in say every Algebra 1 or Geometry class, that the teaching follows the same pattern and that even the same problems are assigned.

I am sure that this push for monotonous (and murderous) assembly-line uniformity is taking place at other schools as well. Anecdotal evidence indicates that even some private schools are beginning to succumb to the same influences. From my point of view, the saddest part is that teachers (certainly those in my math department) do not complain. If indeed we are professionals, we should be free to change pacing and assignments in a way that best serve our students. Granted that the midterm and the final should cover the same material, how we get there should be open to some innovation and, yes, artistry.

Two questions arise: why this push for assembly line standardization and why do teachers accept it. I submit that the answers are simple: administrators and politicians do not trust teachers and teachers do not act like professionals – they act more like functionaries. Under all this there is a cultural bias against “schooling”, an offshoot of Hofstadter’s “Anti-Intellectualism in American Life”.

The people who run schools in the United States, by enlarge are not from an educational background. The “Board of Education” rarely includes teachers or other educators. The state politicians who deal with education rarely have an educational background – they, like the members of the Boards, are mostly lawyers or businesspeople. Education is not their career. The mental constructs of these people come from their true careers – law or business. If the educational system produces an inferior product (and it does), then the solution these people reach for is quality control through standardized processes and periodic quality checks (assessments). When such a system is into place, then, if the product is still inferior the fault is obviously that of those on the assembly line – the teachers. Echoes of Detroit in the 70’s.

The teachers that I see around me are more like lemmings than professionals. This is perhaps because teaching is not a very prestigious profession, it certainly is not a very competitive one (it is extremely easy to get into an education major) and it is not well paid (especially if one counts the number of hours many teachers put in outside of class). The people that I see around me care about their students but they also find it much easier to be lazy – for example to follow the book even though the book is not aligned with Common Core. There is such a wealth of material on the Internet regarding Common Core pacing, projects ,tasks, sample problems that it astounds me that my fellow teachers go back to safety blanket – the textbook they are used to. What professionals!

As for myself – I am going to follow my own pacing and assignments aligned with Common Core and … hopefully I can get away with it.


Cool Hand Luke and the Spinach Gap

Tomorrow is the last day of this school year – the most miserable teaching year in my memory. I wrote a whole series of posts in which I vented against, students, parents, administrators and also against many of my fellow teachers. Certainly the (educational) system is broken and all the segments in it have their share of blame.

However, in thinking back over this last year, I find myself coming back to one thought: there is a tremendous, vast, humongous difference between how teachers look at learning and at their subject matter and how students look at it. Probably this should not be much of a surprise – after all, we have years of experience in our field (e.g. math) and chances are we would not have stuck with it if we did not like it. Plus, sticking with one field over the years, probably qualifies us as experts; certainly with respect to the average level of math knowledge in the country, we are “experts.”

But what I find hard and frustrating is my (and my colleagues’) inability to convey the beauty of math and how interesting it is to the average freshmen I have seen this year.  When one has students who dislike school, learning in general and math in particular, it is very difficult to convey to them the delights of thinking and solving math problems.

My guess is that, if one were to plot high school freshmen interest in math, one would get a probability distribution like this.


Here, the horizontal axis would be a measure of “interest in learning (math)” (increasing to the right) and the vertical line would be “% of freshmen” (increasing up).

I don’t think many teachers would quarrel with the qualitative truth of this graph – it is significantly right skewed.  The problem is that if we were to plot the same horizontal axis, but replace the vertical one with “% of (math) teachers”, we would get the opposite – a left skewed curve (may be not as steep though). There is a big gap here – “What we have here is a failure to communicate” (Cool Hand Luke, 1967  – I am dating myself!)

Well, my thesis is that it is extremely difficult – if not impossible – to reconcile these two distributions, specifically to make a dent in the shape of student interest.  Furthermore, I am not sure to what extent we should make that effort (and I know this is not at all PC).

Here is my reasoning. High school freshmen who dislike math – a vast majority in my experience – have had years of reaching and honing that level of dislike. Chances are that they were abetted in this by poor teachers, parents who say “ I wasn’t very good at math either” and a culture that in general does not value learning and math in particular. As a result, somewhere along the road they started performing poorly in math, but lo and behold they still were promoted from one grade to the next, even when they failed. Now they are in high school and their poor performance is no longer rewarded – they can and do fail and they have to repeat the course. So now, to intrinsic dislike is also added a performance dislike.

I don’t think one can motivate these kids. It is like trying to motivate a child to eat some food s/he intensely dislikes –  say spinach.  It is no good and not productive trying to deconstruct why that food strikes the child’s taste buds the wrong way – it just is. One can still make the kid eat the food through extrinsic rewards, but the kid will still not like the taste and will relapse into not eating it once the rewards are absent.  And extrinsic rewards are not what ed schools call “motivation”.

What can one do? Two things. Concentrate on the right end tail of the curve. We should put our efforts into that part of the curve that wants and/or likes to absorb the knowledge. In other words, cook all kinds of “gourmet” spinach for those who like or want to eat spinach.  Show these kids how good/healthy/”interesting” spinach can be.

The second thing to do is to stop putting so much effort into telling the other kids how good spinach is and forcing them to eat it – it makes both parents and kids mad. Instead, if despite your best efforts the kids still don’t want to eat spinach – and that effort should be made – cook some other meals. To continue the analogy, spinach is not the only vegetable and indeed some meals can do with a little bit of spinach.  When will the vast majority of our kids have to use polynomial division? I am advocating here a much more practical math curriculum.

Let’s see if the next year will be better…Have a great summer everyone!


How much should teachers do?

A recent post by Lisa got me thinking: how much should a teacher do? Lisa mentions that during an observation some of her students were not very engaged and that was reflected in the observation feedback.  A number of comments responding to her post outline different strategies that other teachers use to maintain student engagement.  However, it seems to me that this is not a one-way street: student engagement depends on the students as well as on the instructor.

Last week, I gave my Algebra I students an exam on systems of equations. I noticed that one girl, who has not paid attention all year and who is currently getting 5 F’s and 1 D in her courses was now, for a change, paying attention and taking notes. When I scored the exams I was blown away by the fact that she got a perfect score – actually she was the only student in three sections of Algebra I that did so. After I handed back the tests, I pulled this girl out in the hallway and, after congratulating her, I asked what changed. She said “I studied”. I asked her “Why now? Why did you waste a full year?” Well, it turns out she is in the judicial system – she was caught stealing and part of her probation is to get/maintain good grades.

I submit that some students (unfortunately too many in my classes) will not respond to teachers trying to engage them, especially in math. I submit that, while none of us wants to be a boring teacher, there is a large degree of responsibility on the students have to be engaged in class. I submit that we should stop beating ourselves up if some of our students are not engaged. If the horse does not want to drink, it will not drink no matter what song and dance we do.

As the case mentioned above illustrates, sometimes extrinsic motivation can be very powerful. I submit that our educational system does not provide sufficient such extrinsic motivation. If you fail a course, you can always take it in the summer – where teachers are many times easier. If you don’t get a good GPA, you can still go to college (albeit a junior one).  If you don’t score high enough on the placement exam, you can still take basically your high school courses over again.

The mantra in education seems to be that all our students will be successful and we will ask the teachers to explain, engage and entertain so no one falls behind. But, by trying to be inclusive we are too loose and too many of our “successful” students do not measure up to college or job demands. We are asked to engage the students, but there is no rubric on the observations forms for “teaches students to accept responsibility”.

Flipping the classroom – Algebra 2

“Flipping the classroom”, also known as “blended learning”, is a teaching technique that is currently very much en vogue. In summarizing blended learning , a KQED report states: “blended learning programs involve teachers who use home-time online discussions and collaborative projects as fuel for content and discussion in the classroom.”

The main advantage claimed by the flipping technique is that when students debate with each other the truth among the explanations presented to them, they achieve a better understanding of the concepts than when the instructor lectures from the stage.

The flipping technique started in an intro physics class at Harvard, with Professor Eric Mazur as the instructor. Professor Mazur has a number of videos that explain how the idea was born and how he implemented it. (

This year I decided to implement the flipping technique in my Algebra II classes (freshmen and sophomores). In this post, I want to describe how I set up flipping and my conclusions about using flipping at this level in high school.

At the beginning of the course I announced that I expected every student to have access to the Internet and that many assignments will involve watching videos on the Internet – either videos produced by others, or by me (via a software called Explain Everything, used on the iPad).

A legitimate question regarding flipping the classroom is what to do about the students that do not have Internet at home. For those students, I suggested that they use the school library or the public library. (When I suggested to one student that she use the town library to watch the videos assigned, she told me “I have a life” and switched classes the next day. Unfortunately, that pretty much summarizes most of the students I deal with and the school, which has a pretty liberal policy of allowing students to switch teachers.)

In addition to insuring internet access, I gave every students a set of 3 X 5 colored cards, each of a different color, each color corresponding to a choice and marked with an A, B, C, or D respectively.


The first day of a new topic, we had a full period lecture with a lot of practice problems. This introduced the concepts and gave the students an opportunity to see what kinds of questions would be asked. The homework assignment consisted of two parts. First, I asked the students to watch a video on the topic under discussion and/or a textbook reading.  Second, I asked students to send me, by 9 PM, 3 or 4 bullet point descriptions of the main ideas in the video/reading and a list of questions on the concepts that they did not understand.

Both the bullet points and the questions counted for the homework grade together with whatever problems I also assigned. Often students start with the problems instead of the reading and this way I wanted to make sure that at least they perused the video and/or the text.

I cut and pasted the questions from every student so I had a list of questions for the whole class. Often, groups of students had the same question, so I knew that to be a concept to emphasize. Based on the compilation of student questions I then made up 6 – 7 “concept questions”. These were all multiple-choice questions, as in the following example:

Which of the following represents abs(x + 4) = –5x + 6?


The idea here was to help students visualize the absolute value equation and to start a discussion on the number of roots possible in such equations. Another potential benefit is that students learn how to eliminate some of the “bad” choices among the possible answers.

After the first day’s lecture and reviewing the student questions, I then put on the screen the concept questions. For each concept question, I asked the students to read the question and think of the answer for about 90 second. Then, I asked the students to vote by raising the appropriate color card.

Often, what one sees in this procedure is that two of the possible answers get most of the votes. After looking over the raised vote-cards I then say “Turn to your neighbor and discuss your answers”. The class discussion is also part of the students’ grades – I look for a serious discussion and listen to the arguments presented.

At the end of about 2 – 3 minutes of discussion, I ask that students vote again. Most of the time, the second vote migrates towards the correct answer. I then conclude with the instructor’s take on the problem, stressing what I believe to be the key points.


I drew a number of lessons from implementing the flipping technique in Algebra II.  The first lesson is that for this technique to be successful, it must be implemented on a regular basis. When I originally discussed flipping with the administrators in charge of evaluating me this year, they expressed the worry that I would not lecture and that the kids and they would “have to learn on their own”.  This from people who say they want to promote self-reliance on the part of the students. As a result, I held back on using the flipped classroom as a regular teaching technique.

A second lesson – and perhaps the most important one – is that concept questions are most useful when students have a handle on the fundamentals. My Algebra II students often are still shaky on some fundamental Algebra concepts such as manipulating equations, graphing lines and squaring binomials.  There is an unresolved tension in mathematics education between teaching the fundamentals (“drill and kill” type of problems) and teaching for understanding (“critical thinking” type of problems). I have the feeling that flipping the classroom would benefit most those students who have mastered the fundamentals and are ready for a higher level of thinking, not impeded by procedural missteps.

A third lesson is how difficult it is to write good conceptual questions. I spent more time on coming up with good conceptual questions than I spent on any other part of the flipped classroom. I have a feeling that this would be either in more advanced, “richer” courses, such as AP Statistics or Math Analysis. In more elementary courses the concepts are simpler and fewer. For example, when we teach systems of (2) equations in Algebra, the only concept I can come up is that the solution is the point of intersection of two lines – most everything else is procedural.

The fourth lesson is that students need encouragement to participate in productive classroom discussions. Too many of my students are shy about discussing a math problem, even with their peers.  I still have not resolved to my satisfaction how to give credit and encourage serious class discussions for every student in my class.

However, I do think that flipping the classroom has a lot of merits and I will certainly try to do more of that next year.

Disappointed in Teaching (VI) – What is to be Done?

In the past series of five posts, I described what caused me to be disillusioned with teaching. I mentioned what I perceived to be weaknesses in teachers, administrators and students. Now, a decent respect for those who have read these posts requires that I outline what – in my opinion – would make the system better.

I use the word system deliberately, because I think the problem with education in the United States is a systemic one, and is not limited to just one specific area or group.

I believe that the main problem with education in the US is that we infantilize our students. We have created an educational system that decouples performance and outcome – at least for the first eight years in the students’ career. We allow students to stay children in the sense of not inculcating into them that academics represent an intellectual challenge that demands rigor and sustained performance.

We do not convey the message that lack of performance has consequences – staying a year behind, not going to college, etc. We tend to emphasize, publicize and discuss ad nauseam the social circumstances that hurt performance – poverty, family problems, language barriers, race, etc. This over-emphasis transforms these circumstances into excuses for poor performance, to the point that we tend to ignore and then destroy self-reliance, hard work and persistence. We thus create a system where the students, just like in a video game, always get an “extra life” – there is always “extra credit” or “bonus points”. This is a children’s world, not real life.

When we no longer put our efforts into challenging our students in academics and behavior, we get – at best – a middling educational system. When you get the extra points needed for a passing grade by making a “colored book” where you write the formulas needed in the chapter instead of getting those points by solving 20 extra problems, then you create a world of lowered academic expectations.

The effects of treating our students as children are pervasive and they have ramifications for teachers as well. If teachers do not challenge students, teachers themselves are not intellectually challenged. If teachers are not challenged, then teaching as a profession acquires a reputation of not being intellectually demanding. If the profession has a reputation of not being intellectually demanding, then why should its practitioners be highly paid and/or respected?

Furthermore, a profession whose reputation is that of not intellectually demanding becomes a profession that is “easy”. A profession that is “easy” will not attract the best and the brightest, those that want challenge in their professional lives.

What can we do? We can create a system that sends strong signals that performance has very clear rewards.

For example, high stakes exams at the end of 5th and 8th grades can become gatekeepers in separating those serious about studying from those who are not. Those who do well in these exams will be on the “college path”, those who do not on a “vocational path”. I have heard the arguments that this system is elitist and those wealthy – those who can afford exam prep – will benefit most from such a system. I would suggest that if schools were to take a few bucks from their athletics programs and put them into a strong, free tutoring program, the elitist argument would lose its power.

Furthermore, the merit of such exams is that the message is clear and the consequences direct. This is in contrast to the current situation. For example, in California getting a far below basic score (the lowest category) on the California Standard Tests has no effect on the students’ grades – this is a high stakes test for the schools, not for the individual students who, after all, are the test-takers.

Another signal is the material that we teach. As an example, here is one of the more challenging problems in my Algebra 2 textbook, in the section on exponential functions:

10 x – 1 = 100 2x – 3 (Solve for x)

Here is a problem in the same area from an American textbook of 1960 (Smith and Fagan):

2 x + y= 16 and 2 xy = 4 (solve for x and y).

Finally, here is a problem in the same area for 10th graders from a 2005 European textbook:


(Solve for x).

Why are the last two problems more challenging than what is in our current textbooks? I think the reason is simple – the authors of our textbooks are aware that the preparation of our students is inferior and that our students could not solve the harder problems and many would not even try.

We have not challenged our students in elementary and middle schools and we now reap the results – students whose algebra fundamentals are shaky and therefore they are not ready for a solid algebra program in high school.

We need to get students used to challenging exercises early in their academic careers and in math we need to challenge them with both procedural and critical thinking problems. We also need to instill into these students the idea that a “hard” problem is a challenge to be overcome not something to serve as an excuse for giving up. In other words, our expectations need to be higher and – I can not overemphasize this – we must start with these expectations from elementary school and continue them all the way through high school.

Finally, we need alternatives to rigorous, demanding academic programs. We can not expect every student to succeed in such programs , we are not in Lake Woebegon. For these students, we need to create curriculums that– say starting in 10th grade – prepare the students for vocational careers. Right now I see in my classes students who wear sweat shirts with names like Stanford, UC Berkeley, USC. You ask them and they tell you this is where they want to go. These are the same students who have difficulties with fractions, simple equations, percentages or graphing a line. I don’t believe that we are “clipping the wings” of such students that their chances of getting into top level schools are of the order of ½%. Eventually, most of these students end at junior colleges where something like one in three need remedial work.

Why can’t we guide these students early into a vocational curriculum? A good vocational curriculum would be a blend of academics and practical experience and the academic part would be tailored to the specific needs of the respective profession. We don’t have that – we are not offering the kids a choice.

There you have it: high stakes exams that function as selection means for university bound students, a rigorous and challenging K-12 curriculum that puts a prize on persistence and hard work and a well thought out vocational track that produces well educated and trained professionals.

I am not holding the breath that this would happen. What I have proposed is not politically correct, goes against traditions and cultural norms and also needs resources to implement. Tough.

Disappointed in Teaching (V) – These guys are going to pay my Social Security?

I teach three classes of Algebra 1A – the kids who did not do well throughout middle school, but were pushed forward into a course beyond their level of incompetence. The middle schools did not hold these kids back because to do so would have damaged their self-esteem. Now, with their self-esteem intact, they are freshmen in high school and here they can and do fail.

When one teaches classes where the vast majority of students fail, if one is honest and conscientious, the first impulse may be to blame oneself for the results. Administrators will readily support you in that conclusion: you are just not teaching the “right way”.  Your pacing is not right, you are not checking for understanding enough, you are not making your lessons exciting enough, you are not using technology sufficiently. Administrators are nothing loath to reach conclusions why your teaching is below par and (with a smile) will say they are ready to help you.  This from people who have not been teaching in a classroom for a good number of years and who do not have the day-in-day-out interaction with your kids, the way you do.

I humbly acknowledge that I too have felt the pangs of doubt and guilt – so many F’s! So many parents calling! So many administrators visiting the classroom!  It must be me. Granted, math is one of the more challenging subjects, but still… it must be me.  Sure, most of the ones who are failing  spend their class time talking with their peers and do not do any work, but still…it must be me – at least in part.

One day, I began to wonder what other teachers who have my freshmen do. Are they better teachers and therefore do my kids earn better grades in their courses?  I decided to look at ALL the grades of my kids. I took one of my algebra classes as a sample and tabulated the kids’ grades for the last reporting period. I have 34 kids in that class and, between them, they have accumulated 65 F’s and 31 D’s in all the courses they are taking. That comes to an average of about 2 F’s and 1D per student! Only three of my students do not have either a D or an F. Most of the bad grades are in the core subjects, English, Math and Science, but when a kid has 5F’s and that includes PE, you begin to wonder where does all this come from?

Actually, it is very simple: these kids do not care about school- even the best teaching will not reach them. Some of them are honest enough to say it to your face in so many words: “I don’t care about school Mr. S.” School is to socialize, school is to find a boyfriend or girlfriend, to join a club or a team. Learning comes last and for some of my students, it does not even make the “top ten”.  I give them pep talks about what a hole they dig for themselves with these bad grades, how it may lead to not graduating or graduating late, but it does no good. I have a couple of TA’s who go to neighboring junior colleges and who tell them how hard it is to get from under the remedial program and start taking the courses that you need – no effect whatsoever. What, me worry?

Given that this year I have this population of students, I get dragged in the school’s intervention program. This means that at 7:30 in the morning we have meetings with some of these students, their parents, counselors and all the students’ teachers. We go around the room and each teacher says something about the behavior and academic progress (or lack thereof) of the student. The counselor takes it all down, tries to “engage” the student in a dialogue and then we, the teachers leave, and the counselor writes an action plan together with the parent and the student.

What strikes me about this process is how utterly futile it is.  (In private, the counselors acknowledge this). Like many procedures in education nowadays, these meetings are part of the school’s CYA policy – in case of legal action, the school can say that we have an intervention process in place and we implement it rigorously. Nobody seems to be interested in establishing and analyzing success metrics – does the process work? How do we measure success? For my part, I have very rarely seen a student behavior change following these meetings and this is also the conclusion of other teachers as well

The other theme that comes out from attending many of these meetings is the lack of authority many parents have over their children. These kids talk back to their parents, physically reject a parent’s arm around their shoulders and in general have a “there is nothing you can do to me” attitude. Many times parents try to be friends to their children and very often they will rather believe what their child tells them rather than the teacher.

So what happens to these kids after they fail 2 -3 courses in their freshman year? Many will go to summer school and the teachers in summer school seem to be easier on the kids than in the regular year. Some will get D’s and technically that is passing. Only the worst will go to a continuation school. Somehow, most of them will graduate. Schools are measured by their graduation rates, so we will push them out one way or another. After all, what happens to them after graduation is not our problem. So what if 40% of them have to take remedial math and/or English in junior college (our school’s numbers). So what if 25% of them do not graduate from college after six years? So what if these students have not learned the discipline of studying, and of performing a task well and in time? They are not in our school anymore.

I just hope these students can hold a job so that they can pay my Social Security.

Alfred E. Neuman




Disappointed in Teaching (IV) – Administrators and Lake Woebegone

During the last semester and continuing this one, I am teaching the only sections of the lowest Algebra course we offer. It is a course for those who did not make it through Pre-Algebra and Algebra 1 in middle school and took General Math there – or, as both students and teachers call it, “Math for Dummies”. These students for the most part did not do well in General Math either and their state scores are “Far Below Basic” – the lowest category there is.

Unsurprisingly I have problems with these students, but the problems have nothing to do with math skills or their lack thereof. They have to do with discipline, a general lack of interest in school and the attitude that the primary function of school is to socialize.

As a result of the discipline problems, I have had to send a number of perpetual recidivists to “in-school”, a room where these students are sent outside of class and where they (hopefully) do their work without disrupting their colleagues. Calling security to escort these students to in- school requires that a teacher fill out a form detailing the reasons for sending the student out. This form eventually lands on the desk of the Assistant Principal in charge of discipline – let’s call him/her the AP-D.

Recently the AP-D called me in and told me that I am sending too many students to in-school.  According to the AP-D, “we want all our students to be successful, and we will support you in maintaining discipline in the classroom, but you are sending too many students to in-school and thus depriving them of an hour of instruction”.

I have often wondered what planet do administrators come from. Do they really believe in Lake Woebegone where all children are above average? (Courtesy of Garrison Keillor). Mind you, the students that I send out are often suspended for egregious things they have done in other classes – so it is not that administrators question the fact that these students are disruptive. What is it then that makes them upset when I send out 4 or 5 students? Are they upset, because pretty much every day one or two students from my three sections get sent out? Do they think that I lack in class management skills.

Probably not the latter, because in the last 10 years I have not had this problem despite teaching other low level classes. As I said, the students I send out are often suspended (a more serious disciplinary action than in-school) for other incidents, in other classes. Basically, the administrators know that these students are a problem and that the problem has nothing to do with math or one particular teacher (me). What is it then

My theory is that there are perhaps three reasons at work here.  The first, is a feeling (perhaps subconscious) of failure. Certainly sending these students out – day in, day out – is a sign of failure, the failure of the slogan that all students are successful. Regardless of the fact that this is statistical nonsense, these administrators must believe it if they are upset that it ain’t so.

Perhaps this sense of failure is compounded by the fact that administrators themselves do not have the tools to change the behavior of these students. After all, for almost all my recidivists, we have had meetings with counselors, meetings with parents, conferences with other teachers and the administrators themselves – all that the book say we should do –and the results are nil; these students’ behavior is not changing. Therefore, a feeling (again perhaps subconscious) of powerlessness may also be a reason at work here. Do they want ME to accept that? Are they upset because I don’t take any c..p from these students and I am too “strict”?  Are they upset, because I don’t understand that these are freshmen, in the process of growing up? (Of course the logical answer would be – when can we expect them to grow up? (I believe the Romans declared maturity at 14)

The other potential reason is that somehow the numbers of students sent in for disciplinary action will eventually percolate to the district-superintendent level and then, perhaps indirectly, the competence of the high school administrators will be put into question.

As for me, the solution is pretty clear: tracking. It is obvious that we are dealing with a subset of students who are not ready for high school – either academically or emotionally. Unfortunately, this lack of readiness is expressed by disruptive behavior in class and therefore these disruptive students should be separated from the rest.

I actually offered this suggestion at a meeting I had with my administrators – I said pit the bad all in one section and I will be teaching both the sections of “want to learn” and the section of “losers”. I said that by sending the bad students out, they may lose an hour of instruction, but that I save at least three hours in teaching the three students that do want to learn, but are affected by the bad apples.  I was told no – creating a section like that would mean that all the teachers in other subjects taken by freshmen.

Well, I still send them out, I still refuse to take any c..p, and the administrators are still unhappy with me.


Disappointed in Teaching (III) – The Administrators – an HBR Classic

In 1977, the Harvard Business Review (HBR) published an article by Abraham Zaleznik, under the title: “Managers and Leaders: Are They Different?”  The article was republished in March 1992 and again in January 2004 as an HBR Classic.

The main idea of the article is that managers and leaders have two different types of personalities. “Managers tend to adopt impersonal, if not passive, attitudes toward goals. Managerial goals arise out of necessities rather than desires and, therefore, are deeply embedded in their organization’s history and culture.”

In contrast, “…leaders think about goals.  They are active instead of reactive, shaping ideas instead of responding to them… The influence a leader exerts in altering moods, evoking images and expectations, and in establishing specific desires and objectives determines the direction a business takes. The net result of this influence changes the way people think about what is desirable, possible, and necessary.” (Italics are mine).

In our day, probably the best example of such a leader – at least in the field of technology – was Steven Jobs. The iPad, iPhone and iPod were products that created a market, they were not a response to consumer desires as defined through surveys, focus groups and such.  Famously, Jobs is quoted as saying: “…customers don’t know what they want until we’ve shown them.”

In my own experience, with one possible exception, all the administrators I have known were managers rather than leaders. This lack of leadership is yet another significant reason I am disappointed in teaching as a profession, and is an issue I want to examine in this post.

Zaleznik writes that “…managers act to limit choices” and this is indeed what I see happening in our educational system. Our school is a classic example.  About 18 months ago, during a staff development day, we were informed that we will all be “writing across the curriculum”. Now, this is a laudable goal, but what followed was a pure example of education management in action.

All the writing was to follow the Jane Schaffer model.  In this model there are topic sentences (TS), concrete details (CD) and commentaries (CM) – two per paragraph please – followed by a concluding sentence (CS).  Wikipedia quotes the Schaeffer paragraph requirements as :

  • It must not be written in the first person
  • Every paragraph must be five sentences long, however there can be more as long as the same ratio of two CM’s to every CD is kept
  • Each section (TS, CD, CM, CS) must be only one sentence in length
  • Each section should also avoid past tense and only be written in present tense

(Note all the “musts”)

We were all going to be trained in the Jane Schaeffer method, present it to our students and make them follow it in everything they wrote.

So, whether you were writing an essay in English, or a Biology report or something on a history topic, you were supposed to do it in the Jane Schaeffer model.  When I first heard about it, I had this image of an assembly line come to my mind. Why would we force on our students such a schematic, non-imaginative way of writing? It seems to me that there are two reasons for this.

Assembly line

First, administrators realized the low writing skills of our students and their general inability to write a decent paragraph. Therefore their thinking probably went: we will provide the students with a recipe – 4 or 5 easy steps – they will apply the recipe every time they write and, because everybody cooks by the chosen recipe, we will get a decent “meal”. Problem solved!

It is an interesting concept – you have (in general) low skilled workers, you train them to the job one way only and too bad for the creative innovators and the iconoclasts – the “yeast”.  We were told that the Jane Schaeffer method was a “distillation of good writing”. But is it? Is it the only one? Is it the best? Who made that decision? Does it lead to repetitive, boring writing?  Does it stifle creativity? Where is the critical thinking? Who cares! It is the majority that counts and since the level of writing of the majority is low, we will provide them with a template – more like a straightjacket really – and the heck with the other students – those with the creativity to perhaps become good writers. Truly, “…managers act to limit choices”.

I suspect that the second reason for enforcing a template, such as the Jane Schaffer model –perhaps the more important one – is that it looks good for management. Administrators can claim that “we are all in step, we march united, we have identified a problem, came up with a solution, and implemented it” – we deserve our jobs!  Indeed, during our recent accreditation process a great deal was made of the “school wide implementation of the Jane Schaeffer process”.  Indeed, during our recent accreditation visit, a great deal was made of the fact that we all follow the Jane Schaeffer model.

Whom are our managers responsible to? The principal is responsible to the superintendent and (especially in a small district such as ours) to the Board. The BoE is composed of elected officials – mostly local business people. None of them are trained in the field of education, or have been teachers. How much time, inclination and training do they have to delve into the Jane Schaeffer method? For that matter, what about the Superintendent? Board and Superintendent are happy that the problem was identified and their appointed managers (principal and APs) have devised a solution. Whether the solution is good or whether it may have unintended consequences – these people have neither the inclination nor the ability to evaluate.

The funny thing is that there is little attempt to monitor how the model is implemented “in the trenches”. The English department does it – mostly. Some teachers in other department do it, some don’t. Math is a laggard and some math teachers like me will never do it. But…it doesn’t seem to matter; on paper we are all doing it, we are all in step and … we have eliminated all other choices.

And wait…we have a template for teaching math also.




Disappointed in Teaching (II) – Doctors vs. Teachers

In its edition of February 2nd 2013, The Economist has a special report: “The Nordic countries.” The magazine praises a number of features of the “Nordic model”, among which is their educational system. With respect to Finland, “one of the world’s most successful educational systems (as measured by the PISA tests)”, the article says:

“…the Finns have also dispensed with many of the shibboleths of the educational left. At age 16 they rigorously divide children up between academic and vocational streams… Finland’s success depends neither on accountability (the right-wing panacea) nor on resources (the left-wing one) but on two things that are ignored in the wider educational debate: trust and stability. The government has found it possible to attract high-quality people into a relatively low-paid profession provided they are treated with respect. Teachers are free to design their own curriculums and develop their own tests.”

Indeed, in Finland, teachers are as respected as doctors are and as a result, teaching is a very competitive profession – it is difficult to become a teacher.  The Finnish model achieved what the medical profession achieved in the US. It is often forgotten that the medical profession in the US did not always enjoy the prestige it enjoyed in last century. After 1910, as a result of the Flexner report, medical education became significantly more rigorous, and as a consequence entry into medical schools much more selective. The byproducts of this process were prestige, respect and monetary rewards.

I argue that teacher selectivity is probably the single most important reason why teaching is not very respected in the US (“those who can do, those who can’t, teach”), why teaching is not a highly paid profession and why teachers are attacked and made to go through quasi market-driven “value-added” evaluations.

There is some evidence that in Finland, teachers come from the top third (or even top 10%) of the college graduation class, while in the US they come from the bottom half or even the bottom third of the graduating class. (Shanker Blog).  There are disputes as to how the “bottom” is measured – SAT, class standing, GPA – but the basic fact remains that teaching in the US does not attract the best and the brightest.

There are many possible reasons for this. The Flexner report mentioned above advocated that medical education be based on scientific principles, with all that it implies – rigor, testable hypothesis, reproducible results, etc. This is not the case in education. Educational science is close to being an oxymoron. Random trials of educational theories are rare in the literature. Fashionable theories rule education. Even when couched in science terms such as “brain based education”, when one digs only a little bit deeper, one realizes that there is no serious scientific, testable hypothesis and data to justify these theories.

What is more, education in the US has veered off from rigor in teaching in an effort towards achieving social equality. It would be anathema to most teachers to have a system that, as the Finnish system does and as many other systems in Europe and Asia also do, “rigorously divide children up between academic and vocational streams” as a results of exams and grades.

No, too many of our teachers (and parents and administrators) believe that everybody should go to college. This state of mind leads to teachers who give passing grades to students who do not deserve them and as a result to our high rate of remedial education.  When 30 – 40% of our students entering community colleges need remedial math or remedial English (or both), I would suggest that the blame can be apportioned equally between the students who do not study and the teachers who pass them.

I would argue that rigor begets rigor. A rigorous, selective program for those who desire to enter the teaching profession, would lead to rigor in teaching and to high school graduates who have earned and truly deserve their diplomas.

Disappointed in teaching (I)

It has been six months since I have added to this blog, and they have been six of my worst months in my teaching career. I am actively looking at retirement, mostly because I am so disgusted with teaching and the educational process. Granted that this view is one man’s opinion, and is informed by experience in an individual school and district, but from what I hear from other teachers, my experience might not be unique.

As background, I teach math at the only high school in our district. The demographics for our district are roughly 50% Hispanic, 40% White and 10% “other”. I have been teaching at the same high school for about ten years and previously I have been in engineering and business. I hold graduate degrees in engineering, with a minor in math. My high school education was partly in Europe and partly in New York.

From where I stand, I believe that all three legs of our educational establishment are failing: teachers, students/parents and administrators. In this first part, I want to address my disappointment with my fellow teachers. Again, the caveat is that I am only referring to what I experience with my own colleagues and perhaps I should not generalize to teachers in general. Furthermore, my remarks refer only to high school math teachers – I have a feeling that different skill sets may be more important in elementary and middle schools.

My disappointment with my colleagues has to do with their lack of love for math. This may sound strange, but I firmly believe that there is a significant difference between math teachers and teachers of math. The latter are primarily teachers, the former are more “math people” – they like math for its own sake, are excited by it, do it in their spare time, take additional instruction in it – sometimes self-instruction, and … love math.

My thesis is that you have to love your subject before you can be a good teacher. I also believe that the reverse is true – all the empathy, teaching techniques and patience can not make a good math teacher, without a DEEP understanding and love of the subject. Certainly, in my view, this applies to higher level courses – say anything higher than Algebra I.

What I see around me are teachers for whom teaching is a job. Not that they are “mailing it in” – no, they are conscientious, work on their lesson plans and deliver to the best of their abilities. However, they see their job just like that: here are the standards, here is my lesson plan, here is my lesson plan delivered, here is my assessment.

What I fail to see is the excitement about math – that there are connections between concepts, that there is beauty in the fact that some very basic rules are universally valid throughout all math, that there is glory in thinking and that it is worthwhile admiring the logical edifice that is math. It is like playing the notes of a Brandenburg Concerto, without realizing the beauty and consistency of the music, without putting your feelings about the music into the playing.

Why do we do rational functions today, exponential functions tomorrow and logs next week? I believe that students do not see any logic in this kind of teaching and, as a result, they see math as a series of recipes.  What if we were to emphasize the concept of functions as a model of the real world? What if we were to show a clip of bacteria growing without limit in a Petri dish, talk about cancer and then say, “But wait – we can model this mathematically, we have a tool that allows us to model and ‘play’ with this kind of growth! We can use math to understand what is happening and perhaps control it!” How far from a recipe!  How much can this convey to students the beauty, universality and simplicity of math! How novel (alas!) is the concept that my teacher is excited about math – s/he is not here teaching a lesson!

It is truly disappointing to feel this way and to see that you are the only one among all the other teachers in the department who makes a distinction between math teaching and teaching math.

In all fairness, I believe that at its deepest level this is a cultural phenomenon. American culture has never appreciated math for its own sake – we are empiricists. How often have you heard parents say: “I was never good at math either” or “Math was never my strongest subject”? My kids look at me  strangely and incredulously when I say that I love math. In Europe that is not generally true – math is respected, not hated.

So what would be some solutions? One potential solution is to have a requirement that every high school math teacher is qualified to teach calculus. In the state I teach, that is not true – you can take an exam that qualifies you to teach up to a certain level of math, but no higher. For example, you may be qualified to teach only up to and including Geometry. If the requirement was raised so that everybody must pass an exam that includes Calculus, we may end up with fewer teachers, but better ones.

I also believe that math education for teachers should mandatorily include a course in Applied Mathematics including concepts up to including simple differential educations. A little less pedagogy and more applied math, may also result in a better math teachers. We need to submerge our future teachers more deeply in mathematics – now we just dip them in. Again, the downside is that we may end up with fewer people going into math education, but think about the silver lining: scarcity brings higher pay!

Well, we can dream…