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High-School Rankings Are Meaningless — And Harmful

Over the past month or so, in newspapers and local-news websites all around the country, public high schools and school districts have been trumpeting reports about how they’ve done on various national rankings of high schools. For instance, here’s Bill Runey, principal of Attleboro High School in Massachusetts. “We’re really proud of this,” he said in a press release put out by the school district. He was referring to the fact that Attleboro had been ranked 1,947th in the nation on the Washington Post‘s annual ranking of “America’s Most Challenging High Schools.”

On a local level, school rankings long have been the sort of thing city magazines thrive on, along with their “best of” issues that purport to tell readers where to buy the best burger in the city or get the best waxing. In a single metropolitan area (or even in a single state), rankings of public schools may have some utility if they are done thoughtfully, using sensible metrics. Parents might be able to use that information to find an affordable residence near good schools, while still leaving themselves within reasonable reach of their place of employment. It’s harder to fathom the logic for ranking high schools nationwide. Few are the families who will move out of state or across the country on the basis of claims about school quality.

Without taking away from whatever credit Runey and Attleboro High School deserve for their achievements, let’s call national rankings of high schools what they are: nonsense. There is no way to say, with any degree of accuracy at all, where any given high school ranks in relation to others in terms of how good it is or how challenging it is. And the claim that Attleboro High School, which was not even fully accredited as recently as seven years ago, is now in the top ten percent of America’s high schools — among the most challenging — seems improbable, at best.

And yet, every year since 1998, Jay Mathews, an education journalist at the Washington Post, has been putting together a ranking of what he calls “America’s Most Challenging Schools,” or the Challenge Index. For years, this national list was published by Newsweek, which was owned by the Washington Post Company. When the Post sold off Newsweek in 2010, it kept the Mathews index for itself. Newsweek then produced its own ranking, which has been continued by the Daily Beast. And, of course, US News & World Report, an organization famous for fueling Americans’ obsessions with rankings (colleges, law schools, hospitals, etc.) started its own high-school list, too.

All of these lists have flaws that stem from the inherent absurdity of presuming to rank schools around the country according to how good or challenging they are. And they all come in for criticism. Recently, Matthew Di Carlo, a senior research fellow at the Albert Shanker Institute, took a critical look at theNewsweek/Daily Beast and US News rankings, finding some good and some bad features in each of them.

But it’s the Mathews “Challenge Index” that has given rise to the sharpest criticism over time (see herehere, and here, for example) because of its methodology, which is reductionist in the extreme. It uses only one factor to calculate its rankings: It divides the number of Advanced Placement (AP), International Baccalaureate (IB), and Cambridge (AICE) exams taken at each school by the number of graduating seniors. Note that the numerator is not even the number of such exams passed, but merely the number taken. So, a given school can rise on the list by increasing the number of its students who take “advanced” classes.

Conversely, schools that are more discerning and thoughtful about which students ought to be taking AP classes end up suffering in the rankings. So, the list produces nonsensical anomalies such as high schools with very low graduation rates ranking much higher on the “Challenge Index” than excellent schools that don’t game the ranking system, or that, like Scarsdale High School, have joined the growing list of schools that have eliminated AP courses so that, as Bruce Hammond puts it, “students and teachers could rediscover their passion and creativity” once freed of what is too often a rigid and stultifying AP curriculum.

To their credit, US News and Newsweek/Daily Beast, which also use AP and IB courses as a measure, have made their rankings more sophisticated and reasonable by also adding other measures of a school’s quality, such as (in theDaily Beast‘s case) graduation rates and college-acceptance rates, and (in the case of US News) performance on state accountability tests and the proficiency rates of a school’s least advantaged students on those tests. For explanations of their methodologies, see here for the Daily Beast and here for US News.)

Despite steady criticism over the years, Mathews has retained and defended the simple formula he uses to calculate his Challenge Index, refusing to factor in other appropriate measures of school quality beyond the number of students taking advanced classes. (His only concession has been to add a separate list of schools, what he calls “The Catching Up Schools,” that takes into account how impoverished the student body is, as measured by the percentage of students who quality for federal lunch subsidies. He also now notes that information in a separate column on his main ranking, along with the percentage of graduates who passed at least one “college-level” test during their high school career, but does not factor those data into his rankings.) Because Mathews otherwise insists on only using AP and IB exams as his measure, the Challenge Index typically comes in for the sharpest criticism of all these rankings. The essential criticisms can be summarized as follows:

1) The inherent impossibility of measuring relative quality in schools. Quality is a very subjective matter, especially in something as intangible as education. And using a simple measure to rank thousands of schools certainly cannot capture the relative quality of schools or indicate which are better than others.

Mathews says his index doesn’t purport to identify or rank “the best” schools or otherwise measure quality. He says he’s merely identifying the “most challenging” schools, as indicated by the number of its students who take what he calls “college-level courses.” But when his ranking was published byNewsweek, it was actually billed as a list of “America’s Best High Schools.” Like most journalists, Mathews probably doesn’t write his own headlines, and he may have been as irritated by the use of the word “best” as many of his readers. But given how his bosses have billed his lists over time, the effect of the lists is reductive. As Valerie Strauss, a sharp critic of the Mathews ranking and a colleague of his at the Washington Postpoints out, Mathews “doesn’t use that word [‘best’] to describe his rankings, but what do you think people take away from them?”

2) Focusing only on AP and other “advanced” courses is silly. Aside from the obvious and already noted objection that looking only at such courses fails to take into account all the other indicators of school quality, some people (I include myself here) say that many of these courses simply aren’t all they’re cracked up to be, which makes their use as a proxy for quality even more ludicrous.

This isn’t the place to rehash the many criticisms one can lodge against AP courses. I did that last October in a piece here. But it’s worth noting that since then AP courses have come in for more celebrated blows, such as Dartmouth’sdecision in January to add itself to the list of schools refusing to give college credits for high scores on AP courses because of concerns that AP courses “are not as rigorous as college courses.”

Then, a few weeks later, Kenneth Bernstein, an award-winning high-school teacher (recently retired) and nationally known blogger (“teacherken”) garnered nationwide publicity and hundreds of thousands of readers for a letter he published, warning college professors that the current U.S. obsession with high-stakes testing is producing high-school graduates who don’t think as analytically or as broadly as they should. He devoted much of his attention in the piece to AP courses, calling them “responsible for some of the problems” professors will encounter with students headed their way.

Most importantly (and damningly), in April, Stanford University researchers released their careful review of more than 20 research studies on the AP experience, the results of which challenged four basic common assumptions about the AP program: (1) The AP program gives students several advantages in terms of college; (2) the AP program helps to narrow achievement gaps and promote educational equity for traditionally underserved students; (3) AP programs enrich students’ high school experiences; and (4) schools with AP programs are better than schools without AP programs. Denise Pope and her Stanford colleagues found problems with all these claims.

In the face of continuing evidence that the merits of many AP courses are exaggerated, it’s hard to understand why Mathews continues to make them the bedrock of his ranking system. He says that he’s just interested in bringing the benefit of more challenging coursework to larger groups of students. But even if he disagrees with specific criticisms of AP courses, one would think that the overall quantity of criticism at this point would be enough to moderate what he himself has called his “obsession” with the program. But obsessed he is: By my count, he has devoted his space in the Washington Post to some aspect of AP courses more than fifty times in the last four and a half years.

3) The Challenge Index has been partly responsible for fueling the tremendous growth in AP enrollments around the country over the past ten years.

Of course, many students take AP courses because they’re genuinely interested in challenging themselves with what can be a rigorous course of study and because they’re intellectually curious about the subject matter. Unfortunately, too many others take these courses because they’re feverishly trying to impress college admissions officers by stacking their record with large numbers of AP courses.

But many students who end up in AP courses are there because they are unwitting pawns of their principals, local school boards, or education bureaucrats, who are pushing more students to take AP classes to improve their schools’ ranking on the Challenge Index and other such lists. Remember that the Mathews index doesn’t take into account how students perform on the AP exams, just that they take them. The incentive to vacuum kids into these classes ends up packing AP courses with too many students who don’t belong there.

In short, by being partly responsible for the explosive growth in AP enrollment over the past decade, the Mathews ranking — and, to a lesser extent, the others — amplifies the absurdity that pervades contemporary public education in the United States, where cramming students’ heads with information and then subjecting those students to standardized tests seems to have supplanted helping students to learn as the preferred modus operandi of many education officials, and where the behavior of school officials is shaped more by perverse incentives than by educational common sense.

That’s the reason to care about this.

If it weren’t for the fact that these sorts of rankings actually shape school behavior, everyone would be perfectly justified in ignoring Mathews and the Washington Post as they spend time and other resources assembling his list. The ranking itself is meaningless. But the harm it and other lists of its kind do to public education and the role they play in driving the College Board’s revenues can’t be overlooked. These lists may sell papers and draw readers to websites, but for those of us outside of that business, we’ve a duty to push back against this kind of reductionism wherever we see it.

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This post originally appeared on TheAtlantic.com on May 28, 2013.


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The Coming Revolution in Public Education

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It’s always hard to tell for sure exactly when a revolution starts. Is it when a few discontented people gather in a room to discuss how the ruling regime might be opposed? Is it when first shots are fired? When a critical mass forms and the opposition acquires sufficient weight to have a chance of prevailing? I’m not an expert on revolutions, but even I can see that a new one is taking shape in American K-12 public education.

The dominant regime for the past decade or more has been what is sometimes called accountability-based reform or, by many of its critics, “corporate education reform.” The reforms consist of various initiatives aimed at (among other things): improving schools and educational outcomes by using standardized tests to measure what students are learning; holding schools and teachers accountable (through school closures and teacher pay cuts) when their students are “lagging” on those standardized assessments; controlling classroom instruction and increasing the rigor of school curricula by pushing all states to adopt the same challenging standards via a “Common Core;” and using market-like competitive pressures (through the spread of charter schools and educational voucher programs) to provide public schools with incentives to improve.

Critics of the contemporary reform regime argue that these initiatives, though seemingly sensible in their original framing, are motivated by interests other than educational improvement and are causing genuine harm to American students and public schools. Here are some of the criticisms: the reforms have self-interest and profit motives, not educational improvement, as their basis; corporate interests are reaping huge benefits from these reform  initiatives and spending millions of dollars lobbying to keep those benefits flowing; three big foundations (Gates, Broad, and Walton Family) are funding much of the backing for the corporate reforms and are spending billions to market and sell reforms that don’t work; ancillary goals of these reforms are to bust teacher unions, disempower educators, and reduce spending on public schools; standardized testing is enormously expensive in terms both of public expenditures and the diversion of instruction time to test prep; over a third of charter schools deliver “significantly worse” results for students than the traditional public schools from which they were diverted; and, finally, that these reforms have produced few benefits and have actually caused harm, especially to kids in disadvantaged areas and communities of color. (On that last overall point, see this scathing new report from the Economic Policy Institute.)

Fueled in part by growing evidence of the reforms’ ill effects and of the reformers’ self-interested motives, the counter-movement is rapidly expanding. Here are some reasons why I predict it will continue to gain strength and gradually lead to the undoing of these market-based education reforms.

  • It’s what history teaches us to expect. In this country, we lurch back and forth between efforts to professionalize and efforts to infantilize public-school teachers, and have been doing so since the beginning of public schools in America. Neither kind of effort accords teachers much respect. Because teachers are chiefly employed by local governments  (unlike doctors or lawyers who are typically employed in private enterprise), there has always been a tendency on the part of some groups of people to try to exert greater central control over teachers, not believing them to be professionals who can be left to do their jobs according to their own judgment. When those skeptics hold sway, the “solutions” they impose favor quantitative/metrics-based “accountability,” top-down management, limitations on teachers’ autonomy, and the substitution of external authority (outside measurers and evaluators) for the expertise of educators themselves. (See William J. Reese’s op-ed piece Sunday on the early history of the “testing wars” in America.)
  • Education policies based on standardization and uniformity tend to fail. The policy alchemists’ notion that a “Common Core” or standardized curriculum, along with standardized tests, are appropriate measures for “fixing” American education is uninformed by an understanding of history and practice. Twenty-five years ago, two of our wisest scholarly analysts of educational reform, Richard Elmore and Milbrey Wallin McLaughlin, observed, based on their study of education reforms over the decades: “Reforms succeed to the degree that they adapt to and capitalize upon variability [from school to school and classroom to classroom]. . . . Policies that aim to reduce variability by reducing teacher discretion not only preclude learning from situational adaptation to policy goals, they also can impede effective teaching.” Today’s corporate reformers are flying in the face of experience.
  • Policies based on distrust of teachers tend to fail. The current crop of reformers also roundly ignored another fundamental principle laid down years ago by Elmore and McLaughlin on the basis of their exhaustive research: policies and practices that are based on distrust of teachers and disrespect for them will fail. Why? “The fate of the reforms ultimately depends on those who are the object of distrust.” In other words, educational reforms need teachers’ buy-in, trust, and cooperation to succeed; “reforms” that kick teachers in the teeth are never going to succeed. Moreover, education policies crafted without teacher involvement are bound to be wrongheaded. When the architects of the Common Core largely excluded teachers from involvement in its development, they simultaneously guaranteed its untrustworthiness and its ultimate failure.
  • Judging teachers’ performance by students’ test scores is both substantively and procedurally flawed. A teacher’s instruction matters in student performance, but too many other things (a student’s socioeconomic background, upbringing, parental involvement, motivation) also matter for students’ test scores to be a reasonable indicator of a teacher’s merit. As The Nation magazine reported in 2011: “The research consensus has been clear and unchanging for more than a decade: at most, teaching accounts for about 15 percent of student achievement outcomes, while socioeconomic factors account for about 60 percent.”Moreover, using students’ test scores for such judgments is poor policy from a procedural standpoint. The news reports in recent weeks that teachers and administrators in various jurisdictions (Atlanta and Washington, DC, for example) have cheated by manipulating test scores carry a powerful message, but not the one many observers may first think. The message is not that educators are venal or mendacious, but that rewarding or punishing teachers based on students’ test scores is a fundamentally flawed process that fails to take into account Campbell’s Law, one of the best-known maxims in the literature on organizational behavior: if you impose external quantitative measurements to judge work performance that cannot be easily and clearly measured, all you will achieve is a displacement of goals — in this case, some teachers and administrators will be more concerned with maximizing scores (even through cheating) than with helping kids learn.
  • More people are realizing that many of the organizations involved in “corporate reform” seem to need reforming themselves. A great irony of the corporate reform agenda is that the mission to bring business-like accountability and efficiency to public education has been hampered in part by the colossal incompetence of some of the companies involved. A good example is Pearson, which calls itself “the world’s leading education company,” a slogan which, if true, should give all of us great pause. This big testing company, like its testing-industry competitors, has been screwing up over and over again for more than a decade now, with news of its most recent colossal mistake coming just this past week. Moreover, despite their screw-ups, these companies are enriching themselves and their executives from taxpayers’ dollars – Pearson’s pre-tax profits soaring by 72 percent in 2011. And in the you-can’t-make-this-stuff-up vein, we got the news in the last few days that Pearson is allowing embedded plugs for commercial products (LEGO and Mug Root Beer, anyone?) in the exams for which taxpayers are footing the bill. No wonder growing numbers of people are rebelling against the intrusion into public education of the sort of gross commercial greed and incompetence the testing-industry represents. (If you want to read a detailed and damning appraisal of the secretive and error-ridden testing business, read this 2003 report by Kathleen Rhoades and George Madaus of Boston College’s Lynch School of Education.)
  • People wonder why reformers themselves aren’t held accountable. Accountability is a central tenet of the market-based reforms. So people naturally find it disturbing when the architects and advocates of the reforms elude accountability for wrongdoing they knew about. To be more pointed, it’s fair to say that the behavior of Michelle Rhee, the former DC school commissioner who was once the darling of the reform movement, has done genuine harm to her cause by countenancing or ignoring the misbehavior on her watch. (See here and here.)

There are more reasons why there is a growing rebellion against the reigning reform agenda. But you get the picture: the reforms are ill-conceived, and their implementation is leading to growing distrust and dissatisfaction.

Even if all this is correct, you may ask, where are these signs of growing rebellion?  Here are but a few: teachers in various cities (Seattle, for example) have refused to administer standardized tests, and support for their stance has spread; many parents are choosing not to let their kids take the standardized tests, preferring to “opt out,” and those whose kids go ahead with the tests are complaining vociferously about them; legislators in various states (even Texas!) are reconsidering standardized tests and expressing concerns about Pearson and the testing industry; corporate-reform proposals (vouchers and state-not-local authorization of charter schools) got stopped last week in the legislature of Tennessee, a state that previously was friendly to the agenda.

And here’s one more: When Gerald “Jerry” Conti decided a month ago to go public with his reasons for deciding to retire from his teaching career after 27 years at Westhill High School in New York, he leveled blistering and impassioned criticisms against the corporate reforms that, he says, are harming our educational system. Conti’s cri de coeur went viral on the Web,  embraced by a massive audience of teachers and parents, who found in it a clear and moving expression of their own dissatisfactions. Others are joining the chorus. See, for example, this recent plea by David Patten to “let teachers teach.”

What, then, do the critics of the corporate reform agenda propose? Surely they can’t be defending the status quo, content with the current state of schools. No. Without being too unfair to the diversity of views on this, the key consensus is that the most important step we could take to deal with our education problems would be to address poverty in the United States. We don’t have an “education problem.” The notion that we are “a nation at risk” from underachieving public schools is, as David Berliner asserts, errant “nonsense” and a pack of lies.

Rather, we have a poverty problem. The fact is that kids in resource-rich public school systems perform near the top on international measures. However, as David Sirota has reported, “The reason America’s overall scores on such tests are far lower is because high poverty schools produce far worse results — and as the most economically unequal society in the industrialized world, we have far more poverty than our competitors, bringing down our overall scores accordingly.” Addressing poverty and inequality are the keys to serving America’s educational needs.

For a broader summary of an alternative agenda, let’s turn to Diane Ravitch, the eminent educational policy analyst and most notable of those who once supported the accountability reforms and now ardently oppose them. This is an excerpt from a statement on Ravitch’s website, in which she lays out the rationale for a plea that people “take action now” to push back against the corporate reforms:

What we need to improve education in this country is a strong, highly respected education profession; a rich curriculum in the arts and sciences, available in every school for every child; assessments that gauge what students know and can do, instead of mindless test prepping for bubble tests. And a government that is prepared to change the economic and social conditions that interfere with children’s readiness to learn. We need high-quality early childhood education. We need parent education programs. We need social workers and guidance counselors in the school. Children need physical education every day. And schools should have classes small enough for students to get the attention they need when they need it.

We cannot improve education by quick fixes. We will not fix education by turning public schools over to entrepreneurs. We will not improve it by driving out experienced professionals and replacing them with enthusiastic amateurs. We will not make our schools better by closing them and firing teachers and entire staffs. No high-performing nation in the world follows such strategies. We cannot be satisfied with the status quo, which is not good enough for our children, nor can we satisfied with the Bush-Obama-Duncan “reforms” that have never been proven to work anywhere.

If I am correct that a new educational revolution is under way, it will need its own Thomas Paine, speaking “Common Sense” and urging action. Diane Ravitch is one voice advocating  that kind of action: at the bottom of her website, Ravitch provides suggestions about specific steps parents and teachers who think that corporate reforms are misguided, wrong, and harmful can take to “push back” against the corporate reformers. Anyone who agrees with her view can look there — or to their local school board and state legislators — for ways to carry the message forward.

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This piece first appeared at TheAtlantic.com on April 25, 2013.


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Male Teachers in All-Girls Schools

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Let’s all pause for a silent moment of compassion for young male teachers in all-girls high schools. Theirs is a difficult job.

Riiiiiight, some of you young men may be thinking. I’ll sign up for that work.

But that sense of the young male teacher’s plight is one clear impression I’ve gained from a decidedly unscientific survey I recently completed of fifty of my former students, girls I taught when they were juniors or seniors at a private, all-girls high school outside Boston, from which I recently retired. I contacted these young women, all of them now college students or recent college graduates, to get a sense of how they perceived their male and female teachers in high school.

I asked each of my former students if she would tell me how she regarded her male and female teachers (not individually, by name, but as genders). I wrote to each of them:

Recognizing that these things vary by individuals, both teachers and students, is there anything we can say about how male vs. female teachers treat female students? And is there anything we can say about how female students treat their male vs. female teachers? I’m not talking here about any difference in the quality of teaching by male or female teachers, but how students treat them, and how, in turn, students are treated by teachers of different gender.

My interest in these questions came, at least in part, from comments I heard from female teachers over the years. Some of them, especially the older ones, felt invisible to their students or felt the girls simply liked the male teachers more than their female counterparts; the male teachers seemed to receive all the attention. According to such complaints, the girls were more likely to make male teachers the subjects of their comedy skits, for example, or cast male teachers in the videos they would make for all-school events. These were seen as evidence of students’ greater affection for the male faculty.

Having wondered over the years whether there was any substance to my female colleagues’ perceptions, I did a Web search that failed to produce much in the way of scholarly or journalistic information on this subject. So, I simply decided to go to the source—the girls themselves—and ask them about it. Forty-six of the 50 young women I contacted wrote back to me. Here’s some of what I learned, with more to come later.

Two principal themes emerged from the responses I received. The first is that, contrary to what some of my female teaching colleagues believed, the girls respected them more than they did their male teachers. More than half of my respondents made comments indicating that their female teachers commanded more student respect because they were stricter, more demanding, more focused in class, less likely to be nudged off topic, etc. One student wrote:

I’ve noticed that female teachers expect more of their female students than male teachers do. Maybe this is because the female teachers recognize a potential in a female student that they once saw in themselves. And perhaps the female students take their female teachers more seriously in response to the higher expectations.

Some of the students noted that the older female teachers were nurturing and “maternal” in the way they dealt with the girls; many found that comforting, others found it off-putting (“no one wants a second mom”).

If respect for female teachers was the leitmotif in most of the students’ comments, the constant refrain was that they felt more comfortable around the male teachers, who seemed less intimidating than most of the female teachers and brought far more humor into the classroom. This latter point was a constant in the commentary—the observation that the male teachers joked around with their students much more than the female teachers did and created an easy-going atmosphere in the classroom. One student, now a college sophomore, wrote:

As a general rule, I’d say our male teachers were more relaxed around us, and more willing to have fun with us. Granted, there were definitely awkward teachers or moments, but generally I think my male teachers were more interested in being friendly with us. Admittedly, we could get away with more with the male teachers. It was almost like our female teachers knew our game better and weren’t willing to play it. I would say generally our female teachers were more uptight and less friendly. They were more interested in getting the job done.

Another student wrote:

I think we tended to become more comfortable around the male teachers because they seemed more laid back than many of the female teachers. I think we also believed we could get away with more (extending deadlines, delaying a test) with the male teachers compared with the female teachers, who wouldn’t put up with it.

A different recurring observation in my former students’ commentaries made it clear that the age of their teachers often seemed to matter more than the gender. Young female teachers were prized because they are “easier to talk to and relate to,” some of them “willing to be a friend of sorts, asking about your personal life and sharing school gossip.”

A senior at a west-coast university observed:

I don’t think there’s generally a huge difference as far as gender is concerned. The teacher’s personality matters more than gender. The big exception would be young male teachers. We gave them so much shit. Poor Smith and Jones [names changed to protect the victimized]. Senior year I would make intense eyes at Jones and toss my hair whenever I saw him just to watch him squirm. We didn’t take young male teachers seriously. We’d giggle loudly whenever they walked by the couches [the students’ lounge area]. The other exception is that male teachers usually totally freak out at the sight of tears or any mention of ‘women’s troubles,’ and I know some girls took advantage of that.

I know this was true about the way the students teased and harassed the younger male teachers. I observed it myself.

Probably the most horrific story I received along these lines actually involved these girls when they were still in the school’s lower grades (there’s a middle school, too, with grades five through eight). One of them, now at a university in the Boston area, reminded me of a story I had heard from multiple sources over the years:

The only time I think there was any difference [in the way we interacted with male vs. female teachers] was possibly in middle school when girls thought they could get away with things if they related them to “female problems” with the male teachers. One instance that comes to mind is when a student threw pads and tampons around the room to make a male teacher feel uncomfortable and then asked if she could be excused.

That wouldn’t happen in a classroom with a female as the teacher, nor in a classroom headed by an older male. As I said at the start, when I think about the plight of inexperienced, young male teachers in an all-girls school, I feel compassion.

I should note, by way of conclusion, that perhaps I was oblivious to the truths around me, but I never felt I was at any advantage or disadvantage relative to the female teachers in dealing with my students. But maybe I should have. The best-known study on how a teacher’s gender matters, published in 2006 by Thomas Dee of Stanford University, found that middle-school boys learn more from men and middle-school girls learn more from women. Dee found that having a teacher of the opposite sex hurts a student’s academic progress. Though controversial, Dee’s findings raise serious questions that education researchers should explore.

And my informal inquiry suggests that, at least in an all-girls school, male teachers have to fight the desire to be liked and work on those behaviors that produce respect. And young male teachers in such settings apparently need to understand that they’re swimming with sharks.

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This post originally appeared on TheAtlantic.com on March 28, 2013.


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It’s Pope Francis, not Francis I

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Photo: Tony Gentile/Reuters

In the annals of insignificant matters, this item figures right up there near the top: Even so, it bugs me that so many journalists and other writers, even those writing for bigtime media outlets like this one, are calling the new pope “Francis I.” He’s not Pope Francis I. He’s Pope Francis. Even the Vatican says so.

Why not “The First”? Because there has yet to be a second. You can’t be the first of something until there has been another of the same later. In the United Kingdom, for example, Queen Victoria will never be QVI until there is a Queen Victoria II. The same rule concerning monarchical names holds true in Luxembourg and Norway.

People make this same sort of mistake when they plan an event. They’ll say, “Let’s call this ‘The First Annual Neighborhood Spaghetti Dinner.” But it’s wrong to call it that until there has, in fact, been a second one. What if the organizers the next year decide to serve eggplant instead? Or they all get hit by a meteorite and no dinner gets organized? If, in fact, there is another spaghetti dinner the following year, it would be correct to call it the Second Annual Neighborhood Spaghetti Dinner. And, with the second having occurred, it would then be okay to refer to the first one with that ordinal honorific.

Purists might argue that this rule regarding ordinals is not universal when it comes to monarchies, or even papacies. And that seems to be true, as the Wikipedia article on Monarchical Ordinals points out (yes, I know: I need to get a life). Contrary to the practice in places like the United Kingdom, “Other monarchies assign ordinals to monarchs even if they are the only ones of their name. This is a more recent invention and appears to have been done for the first time when King Francis I of France issued testoons (silver coins) bearing the legend FRANCISCVS I DE. GR. FRANCORV. REX.” It’s the practice in Belgium and Spain, and has been used in Brazil, Italy, Mexico, and Montenegro – and also, I guess we should note, by the Papacy under Pope John Paul I.

But all this is quibbling. As noted above, the Vatican made it clear that the new pope is Francis. Not Francis I. So, that’s what he should be called.

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This piece originally appeared on TheAtlantic.com on March 21, 2013.


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What ‘Ferris Bueller’ Got Right about School

Let’s do a mental exercise. I’m going to ask you to picture a series of school classrooms full of students and their teachers. First, imagine a class of second graders. Got it? Now fifth graders. Now ninth graders. And finally, picture a classroom of high school seniors.

If you’re like many people I’ve spoken with, your image of the elementary school classroom is of happy, engaged, enthusiastic kids, perhaps with hands raised, clamoring for the teacher to call on them to answer a question. Perhaps something like this:

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And your image of the high-school seniors in class probably isn’t much different from this iconic, devastatingly funny scene from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, the 1986 hit film by John Hughes:

Even if your mental images aren’t quite at these polar extremes, you probably sense that there’s a big difference between the early years and the later ones when it comes to what’s called student engagement — essentially, how invested kids are in their learning, how much delight they take in their work, and how eager they are to participate.

Our impressions apparently are not just figments of our media-infused imaginations. New research from the Gallup organization indicates clearly that student engagement declines steadily and dramatically with each successive year in school from grade 5 through grade 12. This graph shows the dramatic drop in student engagement over time:

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In 2012, the Gallup Student Poll surveyed almost a half-million students in grades 5 through 12, drawn from more than 1700 public schools in 37 states. The poll measures three different constructs that have been deemed important predictors of student success: hope, engagement, and well being. It found that a strong majority of elementary students, nearly 8 in 10, are engaged. By middle school, that figure falls to about 6 in 10. And by high school, only 4 in 10 students qualify as engaged.

As executive director of Gallup Education Brandon Busteed comments in The Gallup Blog:

If we were doing right by our students and our future, these numbers would be the absolute opposite. For each year a student progresses in school, they should be more engaged, not less. … The drop in student engagement for each year students are in school is our monumental, collective national failure,. Imagine what our economy would look like today if nearly eight in 10 of our high school graduates were engaged — just as they were in elementary school.

Speculating about possible causes for the lack of student engagement, Busteed points to “our overzealousfocus on standardized testing and curricula [and] our lack of experiential and project-based learning pathways for students–not to mention the lack of pathways for students who will not and do not want to go on to college.”

Those seem like perfectly plausible, even likely, explanations. I certainly won’t gainsay them. But just as you would probably add some other items to that list, so would I, including the following:

  • An outdated and broken paradigm of assembly-line formal education. There may be something fundamentally wrong, especially in the secondary years, with the way we try to educate our kids (as Sir Ken Robinson has argued). How can our schools foster engagement when for so many kids they fail a basic relevance test?
  • Inadequate resources. Because of the inequities inherent in our method of financing public education and our failure as a society to take education seriously (spending far less on education than on, say, the war on drugs), our schools lack the resources necessary to be inviting, enlivening, and truly stimulating places for learning.
  • A cultural failure to value teachers. Surely there are boring teachers out there; actor Ben Stein didn’t invent his character for Ferris Bueller out of whole cloth. But most teachers work harder and are more skilled than the public believes. Even so, we certainly could do better in attracting to this profession people who might help spark students’ imagination and love of learning.
  • Student transition from childhood to adolescence. Finally, it seems disingenuous, when talking about the decline in student engagement, to neglect to mention developmental changes in kids as they move from childhood to adolescence. It’s not just constipated schools and boring teachers that lead many high-school students to cop the posture of being “too cool for school.”

Are you starting to get depressed as you read this? Starting to think you might click back to pieces about the debt-ceiling crisis, horrific air pollution in Beijing, or your computer’s vulnerability from having Java enabled in your browser? Let’s try a different mental exercise. Let’s imagine the Gallup folks didn’t get it right. Any chance of that? Possibly.

Gallup’s public announcement of the study through its blog leaves out any mention of the study’s methodological limitations. One has to go to the official report itself to find those. Here are a few of them: Schools participating in the study were not randomly selected; the participating schools did so voluntarily; participation rates varied by school; the overall data did not reflect responses from a nationally representative sample of students; and the overall data were not statistically weighted to reflect the U.S. student population. I’m no statistician, but these shortcomings seem considerable.

Moreover, one could ask whether the questions the pollsters used to measure students’ engagement were the best ones they could have devised for that purpose. While they correspond roughly to the questions Gallup uses to measure employee engagement in the workplace, one still can wonder about their appropriateness here.

In other words, if you were trying to ask your daughter some questions that probed her level of engagement at school — her investment in learning, her delight in doing her work, her eagerness to participate in class, etc. — the questions you’d come up with would probably be quite different from at least some of the ones Gallup asked (listed here):

8. I have a best friend at school.

9. I feel safe in this school.

10. My teachers make me feel my schoolwork is important.

11. At this school, I have the opportunity to do what I do best every day.

12. In the last seven days, I have received recognition or praise for doing good schoolwork.

13. My school is committed to building the strengths of each student.

14. In the last month, I volunteered my time to help others.

So, it’s possible that the Gallup study didn’t get it quite right. (Thanks to Larry Ferlazzo on these points.) Perhaps the decline in student engagement is not as precipitous as the research suggests. Unfortunately, anyone who has spent much time in schools can verify that the general downtrend in student engagement from elementary through high school described by the Gallup data is real.

I don’t know how to solve this problem. But I repeat this assessment by Brandon Busteed because I think he’s correct: “The drop in student engagement for each year students are in school is our monumental, collective national failure.” In my view, education reformers are wasting a lot of time on things like the Common Core standards, when this decline in engagement may be our biggest educational problem.

What would you do about it?

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This piece originally appeared at TheAtlantic.com on January 17, 2013.


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The Monotony of Conformity

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I taught at an all-girls high school for the past ten years. Almost all the girls were in lockstep conformity with one another, especially their hairstyle — long, straight hair hanging on both sides of the face past the shoulders. I always found so refreshing those rare occasions when some intrepid girl would show up at school with a stylish short cut. You’d think that by the time most young people are away at college for a year or two they would have enough self-confidence to adopt their own personal style — that is, to step away from the crowd a bit in terms of hairstyle, clothing, etc. Apparently not. Here’s a photo (at left), taken from a friend’s Facebook feed, of a group of sorority girls at Wake Forest. (Click on the photo to bring up a larger version.) Notice the hairstyles. Amazing. I don’t understand it.

17zSUBKARLIE-articleLargeThen I saw this item from today’s New York Times about the ‘Karlie,’ the “cut of the moment” belonging to Karlie Kloss. Very nice. You’d think more young women would want to distinguish themselves from the crowd by having a distinctive cut. Guess not.

What does all this suggest? Nothing other than that I apparently have too much time on my hands.


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The Great Molasses Disaster of 1919

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Today is the 94th anniversary of one of the strangest events — and biggest disasters — in Boston history: the great molasses flood of 1919.  Read about it here and here.  One of the interesting things about this legendary event is that it is a familiar story to most Bostonians, but barely known by others around the country.

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A Sad Paradox of Catholic Education

jesusThis week the New York Times ran an op-ed piece about the sad state of Catholic parochial education in most places in the United States. The finances are precarious, to say the least, even though demand remains strong. Two interesting paragraphs:

Until the 1960s, religious orders were united in responding to Christ’s mandate to “go teach.” But religious vocations have become less attractive, and parochial schools have faced increasing competition from charter schools. Without a turnaround, many dioceses will soon have only scatterings of elite Catholic academies for middle-class and affluent families and a token number of inner-city schools, propped up by wealthy donors.

As in other areas, the church has lost its way, by failing to prioritize parochial education. Despite the sex-abuse scandals and two recessions, church revenue — which flows from parishes via Sunday donations, bequests and so on — grew to $11.9 billion in 2010, an inflation-adjusted increase of $2.2 billion from a decade earlier. Yet educational subsidies have fallen; the church now pays at least 12.6 percent of parochial elementary school costs, down from 63 percent in 1965.

These two paragraphs spell out a central paradox of Catholic elementary and secondary education in the United States. While most Catholic schools are starved for resources, there are, as the piece indicates, “scatterings of elite Catholic academies for middle-class and affluent families.” Consider the Sacred Heart network of schools — an association of Catholic independent schools in the United States and around the world. At least in the US, these schools serve incredibly affluent constituencies in some of the wealthiest communities in the country. Several Sacred Heart schools appeared recently on the list of  50 most expensive private high schools in the United States.

There’s nothing wrong with Catholic schools trying to educate the kids of the wealthy, but the juxtaposition of these two polar ends of Catholic education in America should be deeply unsettling to the Church and, I would think, to the independent Catholic schools that feed off the rich rather than serve the poor.  These schools preach social justice but exacerbate and perpetuate social injustice.


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The Scourge of Grading

Despite what many outsiders may think of teachers and their work lives, it’s a demanding occupation. My wife and I received a Christmas card from a former colleague of hers, an accomplished woman who previously had a successful career in economic analysis of energy issues and who recently had become a high-school teacher. She wrote that it is “the hardest job” she’s ever had — also the most satisfying.

I didn’t have difficulty understanding either part of her assessment. But as I thought about her and her new job, I found myself thinking more about what’s hard about it. For one thing, this person is still in her first year of teaching, which is notoriously demanding. I don’t believe I ever worked harder or longer hours than I did in my first year of teaching high school — and that includes my graduate school years and my first years of teaching at the college level.

Good Grade on TestAfter that first or second year, the workload becomes more manageable, but the hardest — and, to me, most stressful and distressing — part of the job remains: grading students’ work. It’s the part of the job that, in my opinion, induces the greatest uncertainty, discomfort, and angst.

I know that some teachers actually enjoy grading. They say they find it interesting to see what their students have learned and how they’re doing. I admire that attitude. And it’s certainly true that there is the positive feeling that comes from the occasional observation of student improvement, from either increased effort or better understanding of the material. But apart from that, I was never able to get myself into the frame of mind where I could find grading bearable, much less enjoy it. Why not? Multiple factors and worries contributed to the pain:

  • The sheer drudgery and tedium.  When you’re two-thirds of the way through 35 essays on why the Supreme Court’s decision in the case of McCulloch v. Maryland is important for an understanding of the development of American federalism, it takes a strong spirit not to want to poke your eyes out with a steak knife rather than read one more. I have lots of friends who are teachers and professors. Their tweets and Facebook status updates when they’re in the midst of grading provide glimpses into minds on the edge of the abyss — and, in some cases, the already deranged.
  • The poor quality of students’ writing. One of the great contributors to the drudgery and tedium is the horrid writing one routinely encounters. Most kids don’t read much any more. As a consequence, they don’t know how to write. It takes lots of time and effort to wade through the slop they hand in.
  • Concerns about whether our tests gauge what students know.  As teachers, we think we’re clear about signaling to our students what we want them to pay special attention to — what facts, concepts, frameworks they should focus on in their studying. But none of us communicates perfectly. When we pose an essay question about, say, McCulloch v. Maryland, are we being unfair to the student who can’t say anything meaningful about that case but can tell you everything worth knowing (and more) about the decision five years later in Gibbons v. Ogden?
  • Concerns about whether you’re testing what’s worth knowing.  Maybe that kid’s right–the one in the back row who says, “Why do we need to know any of this detail? Who cares about Supreme Court cases from two hundred years ago? Isn’t it enough to understand the contemporary state of American federalism? And maybe get that the conflicts underpinning these cases continue today?” Maybe so. Just because I’m a teacher doesn’t make me infallible as a sifter and sorter of “important” information.
  • Concerns about what to weigh in making judgments.  Every teacher has had the experience of handing back to a student a piece of work that merited a lower grade than the student was expecting and getting the comment, freighted with frustration and disappointment, “But I worked so hard on this.” Probably so. But isn’t the product of the work, not the effort itself, what the teacher must judge? I think so. But does that mean effort counts for nothing? And what about a science teacher who agonizes about whether she should consider grammar and syntax when grading lab reports?
  • Concerns about equity and fairness. No matter how hard you try, you realize there’s a good chance you’re grading some students more harshly than they deserve, and giving others more credit than they deserve. This doesn’t have anything to do with favoritism (a whole other problem), but with human error and weakness. Your temperament and disposition change over the hours or days you spend grading an assignment. In fact, your frame of mind can change in moments for any number of reasons: five weak essays in a row can put you in a foul mood; fatigue can set in; a too-hot or too-noisy room can set your nerves on edge; maybe you’re suddenly reminded that you have only 48 hours left to finish clearing out your deceased parent’s apartment. How can any teacher be confident that his or her assessment of student work is always fair and accurate in the face of such vagaries?  An essay that earns a B+ at one moment might earn a B- the next day. It shouldn’t be that way, but any honest teacher will admit it’s true.
  • Concerns about comparability of our evaluations. How do my judgments about this essay or term paper — or of this student over the course of a semester — compare with the judgments one of my colleagues down the hall would make of the same work?  That is, there are even larger concerns about equity when the same student who earns a B from me would get a C in Ms. Smith’s class or an A in Mr. Brown’s. That same concern gets magnified, of course, when one broadens the field of vision to include whole school districts, states, or the nation as a whole.

Some people may find in this last point the basis for an argument in favor of statewide (or nationwide) standardized tests. I do not. I believe mandatory testing of that sort has been harmful to American education, but that’s a topic I’ll take up on another occasion.

Anyone who’s taught for a number of years could add to this litany of woes. So could I. In any case, these are some of the worries that combined to make grading students’ work a singularly unpleasant and stressful task, for me at least.

Having retired from teaching last June, I’ve graded my last test, plowed through my last set of essays, read my last term paper. I wish I could impart to colleagues still in the trenches some wisdom about how to make grading less agonizing. Alas, I don’t know how to solve most of the core dilemmas outlined above. But with respect to one, the drudgery and tedium associated with grading, there are, of course, time-tested methods that teachers have been using for years; here are a few to consider. Alcohol also helps, but exacerbates some of the concerns above. In any case, whatever else you do, lock away those steak knives.

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This piece originally appeared on January 9 at TheAtlantic.com