kitchen table math, the sequel: 9/7/08 - 9/14/08

Saturday, September 13, 2008

high SES = high scores

Several years ago, I received a phone call from a total stranger who was about to move into my school district and wanted me to help her identify good schools. She assumed that because of what I do for a living, I ought to know this...I explained some of the things that I had looked for when I had checked out schools and classrooms for my own children -- for example, a high level of student engagement, clear explanations from teachers before students undertook tasks, a level of enthusiastic activity when it was appropriate, and spirited discussion among the students. 


She was not pleased. She clearly wanted an answer that was uncomplicated and that would entail less work.... [ed.: me, too. why ferreting out the one decent school in a very large district should be a full-time job is beyond me. This kind of thing is the problem, not the solution.]


A few weeks later, I mentioned this conversation to a friend who at the time ran a large testing program. He replied that he received calls of that sort all the time and that few callers wanted his answers either. They wanted something simpler: the names of the schools with the highest test scores, which the callers considered enough to identify the best schools. He told me that in one conversation, he had finally lost his patience when the caller resisted a more reasonable explanation and had told her, "If all you want is high average test scores, tell your realtor that you want to buy into the highest-income neighborhood you can manage. That will buy you the highest average score you can afford."
by Daniel Koretz
p. 5-6

Why would anyone choose this image for the cover of a book? 

Just asking.

nominally high performing, part 3

I still haven't gotten around to posting excerpts from Richard Elmore's article on nominally high performing schools. I will, soon. 

A nominally high performing school is a school that looks good on paper thanks to high-SES students. But when you take value added measurements, you find that while the students are high performing, the school is not. Instead, it falls into a category William Sanders, inventor of value added measurement for schools, calls slide and glide:  
I've caught the most political heat from some of the schools in affluent areas, where we've exposed what I call "slide and glide." One of the top-dollar districts in the state had always bragged about its test scores, but our measurements showed that their average second-grader was in the 72nd percentile. By the time those children were sixth-graders, they were in the 44th percentile. Under our value-added scheme, the district was profiled in the bottom 10 percent of districts in state. 
Helping Teachers Raise Achievement: an interview with William Sanders 

Here is Ted Hershberg on nominally high performing schools:
The problems with AYP ["adequate yearly progress," the NCLB measurement of school quality] are clearly evident in ... schools whose students are meeting their AYP goals, but where little growth is occurring. Most often found in affluent communities where high-test scores go hand-in-hand with family income, these schools can be referred to as "slide and glide" because they appear to be resting on the laurels of their students. It is important to understand that NCLB does nothing to hold these schools accountable for providing their students with the annual growth to which they are entitled. In a global economy characterized by fierce competition for demanding jobs that pay high salaries and benefits, this is a highly significant shortcoming. 

"Value-added Assessment and Systemic Reform: A Response to America's Human Capital Development Challenge"
Ted Hershberg
Professor, Public Policy and History
Executive Director, Operations Public Education
University of Pennsylvania

In the past week the Times has carried two stories on P.S. 8, a "hot" school in Brooklyn that has just received a grade of "F" on its NYC report card. Interestingly, while the first story, starting with the title (In Brooklyn, Low Grades for a School of Successes), falls squarely within the tests don't measure quality genre, the second is the single hardest-hitting news story about an affluent and popular school I have ever seen, certainly in the New York Times.

From the first article: 
A respected Brooklyn Heights elementary school so popular in its gentrifying neighborhood that it has doubled enrollment since 2002 is set to get an F in the second year of the Bloomberg administration's heavily contested system of grading individual schools, renewing questions about the methodology behind the grades.

Mind you, that is the lede. The point of this story is not that P.S. 8's grade of "F" renews or perhaps raises questions about the quality of the school. 


P.S. 8's "F" can only renew and/or raise questions about the quality of the grading. Which was already questionable. 
The school, Public School 8, was once avoided by the well-off residents of neighboring brownstones but has been the paragon of a turnaround tale in recent years, leading Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg to declare in 2006 that if the rest of New York’s schools made similar strides, “the future of this city would be assured.”

This year, at a July 29 news conference announcing plans for an annex to accommodate the flood of students wanting to attend P.S. 8, a parade of public officials praised the school and its principal.

Schools Chancellor Joel I. Klein said, “You have built a very successful school here,” and Deputy Mayor Dennis M. Walcott added, “You have done a monumental job in both recruiting as well as maintaining a school where parents want to send their children.”
then comes the piling on:
When the first round of report cards was unveiled last fall, there were some counterintuitive results and many complaints, but now, P.S. 8 could be the most highly regarded and popular school to receive an F.

Last school year, 67 percent of its students passed standardized tests in English and 83 percent in math, and many who know the school said such a grade would be misleading and preposterous.

“It’s a real indictment of the grading system if it takes a school that is improving rapidly and is already doing pretty well and brands it with an F,” said City Councilman David Yassky, whose district includes P.S. 8.
from there the story moves into a terrific section on the tests and how they work
In New York City’s formula, the largest factor in determining a school’s grade, 60 percent (up from 55 percent last year), is based on how, say, this year’s fourth graders did compared to their third-grade scores, an analysis known as a “growth model.” Student performance — median scores and how many passed the test — counts for 25 percent, but is calculated not in absolute terms but by judging each school against schools citywide as well as against 40 other schools with similar demographics. In addition, 5 percent is based on attendance, and 10 percent on the surveys.

the principal speaks:
Last year, P.S. 8 received a C — which Mr. Phillips, the principal, described as disappointing in a letter to parents that took issue with the grading system and schools that emphasize test-taking over enrichment activities.

“It is my professional and personal opinion that this grade does not reflect our school and the work we do,” wrote Mr. Phillips, 45. “This grade will give us food for thought, but it will not change the way we move forward into the future or alter our core values.”

note: the principal is a graduate of "a prestigious fellowship program ... for outstanding principals at Columbia University’s Teachers College.

the co-president of the PTSA weighs in:
Several P.S. 8 parents suggested that the F said more about the grading system than the school. They cited events like the annual read-a-thon fund-raiser, an art program that culminated in student work’s being showcased at the Guggenheim, and the school’s recent selection as Brooklyn’s Rising Star Public Elementary School for 2008 by Manhattan Media, a publisher of weekly newspapers.

“To me this kind of grading system seems inadequate to express the education that’s occurring within an entire school, and in fact becomes quite detrimental to the education process,” said Joanne Singleton, co-president of the Parent Teacher Association.

“When you walk into P.S. 8, the children are smiling, they are happy to be there,” she added. “They are comfortable in the school environment, they are comfortable interacting with their faculty, and it is truly a community of learning.”

If you were wondering why parents don't have a union, which you probably were not, this is it. 

So that was Thursday. 

Today's article appears to have been ghostwritten by Andrew Wolf:
How could a red-hot school in Brooklyn Heights — with surging enrollment from middle-class and wealthy families, with test scores that are above average, and with extras paid for by parents’ fund-raisers — be declared a failure?

For some people, news that Public School 8 on Hicks Street will be getting an F on its upcoming report card cinches the case that education officials have lost their test-taking marbles.

And yet there is a strong argument that the F grade is just the sort of blunt truth-telling needed for schools that are highly regarded in the vaporous, unchallenged esteem of conventional wisdom.

More than 80 percent of the kids at P.S. 8 passed a standardized math test. Two-thirds passed the language arts test. In 2006, the mayor said the school should be imitated. In July, the schools chancellor announced that an annex would be built to accommodate the demand in what he said was a “very successful school.”

In reality, children who start the year at P.S. 8 with decent or good scores in math and English actually have gone backward, said James S. Liebman, the chief accountability officer for the city’s Department of Education.

“You drop them off at the beginning of the year, and on average, by the end of the year, your child lost ground in proficiency,” Mr. Liebman said.

Children on the lower end of the scale — the ones who had the most room for improvement — made only the slightest gains compared with those at similar schools, Mr. Liebman said, while at most schools across the city, there were big improvements.

“Where was the child last year, and where is the child this year?” he asked. “You’re comparing them to themselves.”

For many people, the F grade for P.S. 8 ratifies their skepticism about standardized tests. If all the children, like those in Lake Wobegon, are above average, how could the school be failing?

decline at the top
“If you use high-stakes tests and nothing else, you’re measuring ZIP code, race, socioeconomic status,” Mr. Liebman said. “Most importantly, you need to measure how much kids improve after a year at their school.”

On average, Mr. Liebman said, the higher-performing students at P.S. 8 lost a little more than one-tenth of 1 percent in proficiency in English and math; the lower performing students gained about a tenth of a percent. Why should anyone care about such numbers?

They make a major difference by the time the students are 18, Mr. Liebman said. Students get scores between 1 and 4. Of those who finish eighth grade with a 3.0 proficiency in math and English, just 55 percent graduate from high school four years later. For those with 3.5 scores, the graduation rate is 75 percent.

“I know it’s troubling to people in the neighborhood, and it should be troubling,” he said of the F grade. “The point is, compared to any other school in the city, this school is off the charts on the low end.

“We’re trying to move away from a school that gets by on its reputation.”

At P.S. 8, Image Didn't Match Performance
Jim Dwyer

This is amazing. I have no idea -- no guess, even -- how such a turnaround could have occurred. 

For the time being I'm going to assume that I need to be reading anything and everything Jim Dwyer writes

bonus points:

The kids at the top are showing the least progress. Perhaps enrichment isn't the best education to offer kids who are already being enriched at home? Which is not to say that I would wish the JASON Project on disadvantaged kids, either. 

Interesting that the principal was ordered not to speak until the scores were "officially released."

The 2nd story is not accompanied by a photograph of students sitting on the floor with nary a book, pencil, or desk in view.

I believe this is the first time I've seen a newspaper or magazine allow a testing expert to make the point that education is cumulative. Over time a small loss here, a missed opportunity there, the kind of thing routinely shrugged off by administrators in wealthy schools, add up. It's the miracle of compound interest in reverse. 

The author of the first story appears not to grasp the concept of value added: 
Also contributing to the F grade was P.S. 8’s rapid change in population. A quarter of the students now qualify for free lunch, compared with 98 percent in 2002, and more than half the students are white or Asian-American, up from 11 percent in 2002. Most of these changes are happening among the youngest children, before tests begin in the third grade.
Eighty-nine percent of last year’s prekindergarteners at P.S. 8 were white, for example, as were 60 percent of kindergarteners, 49 percent of first graders and 54 percent of second graders. The test-taking grades — 3, 4 and 5 — were 27 percent, 31 percent and 19 percent white, respectively. Throughout the country, there is an achievement gap between black and Hispanic students and their white and Asian counterparts.
As the demographics changed, test scores shot up, but most of the change came between 2002, when 32 percent of the students met state standards in English and 26 percent in math, and 2005. For the last three years, scores have improved more slowly, with about two-thirds passing in English, and 71 percent, 81 percent and 83 percent in math.

She seems here to be assuming that the rapid increase in test scores caused by an influx of high-SES students is the basis on which the school was graded in the past, or would have been. 

It is not.

sauve qui peut...

...which I personally translate as "Save yourself if you can..."*

Here is eduwonk of all people promoting Education through Exploration. It's worth reading the comments. The anti-NCLB comment is pro-education through exploration. That's not an accident.

usual translation: every man for himself

textbooks --

If anyone would like a copy of one or more of these 3 textbooks, let me know:

Como te va Teacher Wraparound Edition
Glencoe Middle School Spanish
Teacher Wraparound Edition

ISBN 0-07-860539-3 Teacher Wraparound Edition
(student edition ISBN: ISBN 0-07-860350-1)

World Explorer
The Ancient World Teacher’s Edition
ISBN 0-13-0502189-9

Writer’s Choice Grammar and Composition
ISBN 0-02-635872-7 Student Edition

I found that, for a middle school child, it can be helpful to have copies of the textbook at home, too -- although in fact I didn't end up using any of these books. I bought them all used from Amazon & they're in reasonably good shape. If no one out there is using these books, I'll re-sell on Amazon.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

the v-g monologues

at Catching Sparrows

donors choose

Tex found this web site: is a simple way to provide students in need with resources that our public schools often lack. At this not-for-profit web site, teachers submit project proposals for materials or experiences their students need to learn. These ideas become classroom reality when concerned individuals, whom we call Citizen Philanthropists, choose projects to fund.

Proposals range from "Magical Math Centers" ($200) to "Big Book Bonanza" ($320), to "Cooking Across the Curriculum" ($1,100). Any individual can search such proposals by areas of interest, learn about classroom needs, and choose to fund the project(s) they find most compelling. In completing a project, donors receive a feedback package of student photos and thank-you notes, and a teacher impact letter.

Tex writes that, "I started to search the website for 'Core Knowledge' or 'KIPP' proposals, and I may have found a few projects I'm interested in funding. This seems like an excellent way for me to put my charity dollars into something consistent with my interests."

I'm hoping online donor-to-recipient charities will establish a place for themselves. Heard from redkudu today that a teacher she knows had to spend $2000 on classroom supplies recently -- this when the country is spending a half trillion dollars a year on public education.

It's at least conceivable to me that direct-to-recipient charity could have an effect on this situation.

Open Letter from John Dewey

For those who do not know me, I am a parent and deeply concerned with the poor state of education in the U.S. I write under the name of John Dewey in order to prevent retribution for what I say about the things I see wrong.

The Langley High School in McLean, Virginia is –according to the Newsweek ranking of U.S. high schools—number 55 in the country, and the highest ranked of high schools in Fairfax County, Virginia. A new principal, Matthew Ragone, just took over this fall, and as part of his introduction to the parents of Langley students, he wrote a piece in the PTSA newsletter. My wife and I read what he wrote on separate occasions, and later we both talked about two paragraphs in the piece that we found disturbing. He was talking about issues that the department chairs are working on:

"One topic of discussion has been the concept of the 'Middle Child'. The 'Middle Child" is the type of student who does not feel at home at Langley because, while they may be smart and academically focused, they are not academically superior like many of their peers. Nor are they outstanding in extracurricular activities. This student does not enjoy the prospect of coming to school to face the intense competition, which is ubiquitous in excellent schools, only to be disappointed.

"There is no simple answer to this problem. In my ideal world every student will walk through the front door on September 2 with an exuberant, positive attitude and feel comfortable and be happy throughout the entire year. Of course that does not happen. As we start the school year, the Instructional Council will open dialogue with the general faculty and I will talk with parents at PTSA meetings and parent coffees to solicit your input and ideas. As the discussion continues with all the stakeholders, I am confident we will find a way to serve the 'Middle Child'."

Reading this, I was reminded of my first year in high school when my high school counselor addressed her new charges by telling us that we were going to be shocked out of our minds come first card-marking when we saw the D's and F's on our report cards. I admit to being shocked first card-marking, when I received 3 A's and a B. Luckily for all of us, this loud-mouthed idiot was not a teacher nor an administrator. The rest of the school was quite good and I was fortunate to have had teachers who really worked to make sure their students learned, and an administration that supported their efforts. In the case of the new principal, he is the new principal. The man in charge, the one who sets the tone. And his message is rather clear. One can read "middle child" as someone in the broad expanse of the bell curve representing the middle. Those familiar with bell curves know that this middle is encompasses a rather large area. Langley follows a pattern of high schools in the US which cater to the elite; i.e., the right hand tail of the bell curve. They let the minority top performers define their school, and for all the others it's sink or swim. Translating his message in even blunter language, he is saying "Your kid is going to be miserable at Langley." He tries to soften this message by saying "I'm not sure what to do about it but we're discussing it." Oh gee, I feel better already.

I showed his message to the chair of a math department at a high school in Iowa.Her reaction was as follows:

"I absolutely abhor such generalizations as that given in your note about the middle child! To me, that is no different than generalizing by race, gender, etc. I am appalled that this was coming from a PSTA newsletter, and I would complain big time. As a department chair, there is no way I would ever agree to even discuss such a ridiculous topic, because I have far more important topics to worry about regarding student achievement! Our school has many high achieving students, but there is no way I would ever try to communicate to anyone that his/her child won't cut it in this environment or even that (s)he would struggle. I prefer to communicate on the positive side, and lay out expectations rather than negatives, and also indicate a supportive tone, not a belittling tone."

To that end, here is some advice to Mr. Ragone if in fact he is looking for any, or even condescending to be. Your message should be "There are no middle children here. Every child matters; every child is as important as the next." And you should mean it. You should provide a culture in which students who aren't getting the material are identified and the school works with them after school or in special sessions to make sure they understand. Students should be encouraged to try out for sports. And really, Mr. Ragone, stop requiring try-outs and three weeks of practice in August when most rational families are trying to get away for a vacation.

My experience tells me that Mr. Ragone is not going to be persuaded to change one thing about Langley except perhaps to make things even more competitive, reduce the number of top performers, and make the middle of the bell curve even larger. Isn't that the name of the game in the "winner takes all" environment that passes for high quality education these days?

From the bottom of my heart, and the middle of the bell curve, I remain

Faithfully yours,

John Dewey

John Dewey is a pseudonym for a concerned parent who, like many parents, knows the difference between good and bad educational practices when he sees it. And like many parents, he is protective of his child of potential retribution for speaking out against bad practices, and thus chooses to write under a pseudonym.

Published September 11, 2008

Open Letter from John Dewey to the Principal of Langley High School, McLean, Virginia

Number one: parents should assume that their children may be retaliated against by school personnel if they dissent. It happens.

Number two: Perhaps I'll lodge a complaint with Mr. Rangone myself! After all, there is nothing he can do to my kid, now safely squirreled away at Hogwarts.

Speaking of Hogwarts -- and of my own local high school, as well -- it is simply false that the vast majority of kids enrolled in a high-ranking, competitive high school "don't enjoy the prospect of coming to school," etc. It's not the case in my local high school, and it is not the case at the new school, either. Both schools are happy places, and both schools are filled with talented and competitive students.

At a minimum, what it takes to create a happy atmosphere inside a competitive school is a highly competent leader who knows what he or she is doing. Yes, indeed, the person at the top sets the tone. A new principal who takes it for granted that the "middle" students will be miserable and promises to ask the PTSA for advice is probably not that person.

As to that, I think I'm learning something about how happy schools work.

More later.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

speaking of school-based management

I mentioned earlier that New York state regulations require schools to have school-based management. School-based management means shared decision making: "meaningful participation of administrators, teachers and parents in the decision making process." (School Law 31st Edition New York State School Boards Association p. 62)

I'm not aware of any schools in which parents (or teachers, for that matter) actually enjoy shared decision making, but the New York PTSA seems to think it's important:

PARENTS ON SHARED DECISION MAKING COMMITTEES – 2006 (U-’99; R-’92); 1. Recommend that the New York State Education Department provide to all unit and council presidents and region PTA leaders a copy of Regulation 100.11 as adopted by the Board of Regents, 2. NYS PTA urge the training of participants in the process of shared decision-making and the showcasing of school districts that have school-based planning teams with parents as active participants, 3. Recommend that units, councils, and regions sponsor training for parents on the process of shared decision-making, group dynamics, interpersonal skills, listening skills, 4. Advocate that in the planning for these school-based planning teams that training of all team members be included as part of any policy adopted by the school district, 5. Urge that school districts train the team together and that parents are included in that training.

Where We Stand 2008 (pdf file)
The Basis for Action
p. 8


100.11 Participation of parents and teachers in school-based planning and shared decision making.

State's Schools Mandate Joins Parents and Staffs
By LINDA SASLOW June 6, 1993
Waterbury, CT transfers authority over "struggling" schools to administrators, teachers, & parents

speaking of school-based management

starting at the top

This in from Niki Hayes:

Waterbury has teachers, parent run the schools

WATERBURY, Conn.—Two Waterbury schools are including teachers and parents in management decisions under an experiment aimed at turning around the struggling schools.

City education officials are ceding management of Washington Elementary School and West Side Middle School to teachers and parents. The program involves experts from the University of Connecticut's Neag School of Education.

Under the program, budget, hiring, scheduling and other major decisions will be made by a collaboration of educators in the school, neighborhood leaders and parents.

The UConn program is called CommPACT, which stands for community, parents, administrators, children and teachers.

The two Waterbury schools and six more from New London, Hartford, Bridgeport and New Haven have agreed to take part, all making a five-year commitment to the program.

Reading this, I had 3 reactions.

Number one: fiasco. We're talking about parents who have never in their lives run a school, who know nothing about running a school, and they're going a school.

Number two: fiasco. Parents who have never in their lives run a school running an already failing school. So now we've got parents in the turnaround business, with the success rate for turnarounds standing at one in five.

Number three: Wait and see ? Perhaps this could be a Marines-on-the-ground type situation?

The Waterbury plan sounds like a form of site-based management, and I have the impression that site-based management, in the few places where it has been tried, hasn't worked well.



Not surprisingly, site-based management, aka school-based management, hasn't actually been tried:

Some form of school-based management has been embraced by most large urban school districts and by probably well over a third of all American school districts during the past 15 years. The idea is to improve schools by giving teachers and principals more say in the decisions affecting them and to involve local communities in the governance and management of their schools. Studies have shown, however, that school-based management has rarely, if ever, been fully implemented within the hierarchical structures of American school districts. [ed.: check] Thus it is difficult to know whether this form of decentralization has the potential to improve school practices.

Can’t Let Go
By Patrick J. Ryan
Education Next
Winter 2001, Vol 1 No 4

New York state regulations require school-based planning for all public schools.

100.11 Participation of parents and teachers in school-based planning and shared decision making.

State's Schools Mandate Joins Parents and Staffs
By LINDA SASLOW June 6, 1993
Waterbury, CT transfers authority over "struggling" schools to administrators, teachers, & parents

speaking of school-based management

Is this was constructivists are shooting for?

My nearly-5 daughter loves math and science, so that's pretty much all we do homeschooling-wise at this age. For math, we've started out with Singapore Earlybird, which she enjoyed until we hit the wall during the book that is almost all learning how to write the numbers. Let's call her a reluctant writer, and at this age I'm not worried, so we plug ahead with me transcribing for her. Nonetheless, she's currently a little spooked with Singapore, so I purchased another curriculum to supplement for now.

I got Miquon. I've been reading through the teacher's manual (the "Annotations" book) and it is unapologetically constructivist ... and yet it does not appear to be totally lame. For example, when teaching addition that requires carrying, they make it clear that at first you let the kids try to work out on their own what to do with that extra 10 in the ones column and come up with their own solution. But here is where it seems to diverge from the more modern day constructivist curriculum -- they specifically state that the reason why you do this is so when you then show them the standard algorithm, the kids will then be able to appreciate its elegance. I don't have Everyday Math in front of me, but I suspect that they don't end on that note.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

parents need a union

We do.

Well, maybe we don't, but we need a lobbying group, that's for sure. Like AARP.

A while back Liz Ditz posted the classic observation about the difference between a group of parents with a concern (an organization) and just one parent with the same concern (a lunatic),* and I think that's the essence of politics.

Competing interest groups are what politics is about.

Remember Robert Caro on Robert Moses?
[I]n local politics the various "actors" - banks, governments, unions, political machines, and so on - typically have a converging interest in extracting more money from taxpayers to use as they see fit and to manage their relationships with one another.

In the case of Robert Moses, there were 5 Actors: Moses, the banks, the labor unions, construction companies, and the Democratic machine.

Moses wanted to build parks, highways, and bridges; banks wanted deposits of funds to pay for parks, highways, and bridges; construction companies and unions wanted contracts to build parks, highways, and bridges; the Democratic machine wanted jobs on Moses' parks, highways, and bridge projects to dispense to members of the Party. (Moses was himself a Republican.)

Taxpayers weren't asked whether they wanted or needed all of these things; in some cases the projects Moses undertook were not only unwanted by voters but were actively opposed.

These entities—Moses, the banks, the unions, the construction companies, and the Democratic machine—weren’t the same entity; they had the potential for conflict. What prevented conflict – what kept operations smooth and conflict-free – was money.

Taxpayer money.

The people who were footing the bill were the one entity that did not have a voice.
Same thing in schools. Parents don't have a voice; ditto taxpayers. A couple of minutes ago I tried to log onto edline to get the agenda for the school board meeting tonight, and it turns out I can't log on because all of my kids have changed schools, so I have to get a new activation code. That's the rule.

Which, of course, raises the issue of how taxpayers who don't have kids in the schools get hold of public documents....and the answer is that while I'm sure they can, because I remember one of the principals telling me they could, it's not easy.

I've been thinking about this in light of the ferment in the Democratic Party, where the teacher's union looks to be no longer allied -- or not so closely allied -- with civil rights groups.

That's a good thing as far as I'm concerned, but you could disband the unions tomorrow and parents & taxpayers would have no more influence over public education than we do now. Given the fact that there are numerous cases in which union interests coincide with student and parent interests, we'd probably have less.

Here's Nicholas Lemann on Arthur Bentley's book, The Process of Government:
[Bentley argued that] all politics and all government are the result of the activities of groups. Any other attempt to explain politics and government is doomed to failure. It was, in his day as in ours, a wildly contrarian position. Bentley was writing “The Process of Government” at the height of the Progressive Era, when educated, prosperous, high-minded people believed overwhelmingly in “reform” and “good government,” and took interest groups to be the enemy of these goals. The more populist Progressives liked having the people as a whole decide things by direct vote; the more élitist Progressives wanted to give authority to experts. But Bentley, who seems to have shared the Progressives’ goal of using government to curb the power of big business, rejected such procedural tenets. In Chicago terms, Bentley was the rare Progressive intellectual who believed, in effect, that the machine had a more accurate understanding of how politics worked—how it always and necessarily worked—than the than the lakefront liberals did.

Bentley’s reputation soared in the years after the Second World War, and there’s a reason. His presentation of politics as a never-ending, small-bore struggle for advantage among constantly shifting coalitions of interest groups, which appalled the Progressives, was appealing in the wake of Hitler and Stalin. Big ideas about the collective good had come to seem scary—the prelude to mass murder. Bentley spent the last years of his life being honored. Students of American politics read “The Process of Government” alongside Tocqueville and the Federalist Papers.

But pluralism—the name for Bentley’s theory of politics—has always been good for starting an argument. The standard objections are that pluralism gives too little weight to the power of ideas and of social and economic forces, and that it leaves no room for morality. (Pluralism’s equivalent in foreign relations is realism, which strikes people who don’t like it as having the same flaws.) What if there actually is such a thing as a policy that’s right on the merits? Shouldn’t we find a way to make sure that it’s enacted, instead of having to trust in the messy workings of the political marketplace? If politics worked the way Bentley thought it did, wouldn’t the richer interest groups buy themselves disproportionate political power? To a lot of people, pluralism sounded like pessimism. It was during the nineteen-sixties, when reform was again in the air and impatience with traditional forms of politics was on the rise, that “The Process of Government” began to fall out of favor.

Bentley’s insights are almost entirely missing from political discussion these days. Only in the realm of foreign policy is it permissible even to use the word “interests” in a positive way, and then they must be vital national interests. In domestic policy, interest groups (and particularly those in that ill-defined but malign category known as special-interest groups) are always the bad guys. So are their representatives in Washington, the lobbyists. We’re inclined to think that the wheedling of interest groups—tree-hugging anti-free-traders, the Sugar Association, AIPAC—distorts politics. (For Bentley, the workings of interest lakefront liberals did. groups—in interaction with one another—constitute politics.) When a politician speaks at an interest group’s convention, we want to hear that he has somehow challenged or confronted the group, rather than “pandered” to it. Partisanship is bad, and “partisan bickering,” which by Bentley’s lights would count as a basic description of politics, is even worse. To an unusual extent, our Presidential candidates this year got where they are by presenting themselves as reformers, as champions of the transcendent public interest—as the enemies of Washington dealmaking-as-usual. For Bentley, there was no such thing as a transcendent public interest, and no politics that didn’t involve dealmaking, disguised or not.


Bentley generally divides interest groups into two categories: organization groups (contemporary instances would include the American Association of Retired Persons, the National Association of Broadcasters, and the National Council of La Raza) and discussion, or “talk,” groups. Discussion groups encompass all those who claim to represent the public interest or a good cause— journalists, reformers, activists, humanitarians, policy analysts—and, in Bentley’s view, they matter far less than we think. He saw “an enormous overvaluation of the forms of activity which appear in words.” Besides, anyone who comes into public life claiming not to have an interest is either deluded or deceitful.

Conflict of Interests
by Nicholas Lemann
New Yorker
Parents don't have an organization group. Actually, it's worse than that; the group we do have -- the PTSA -- is an arm of the teachers' union. (Here is Chester Finn on the same subject.) And taxpayers are completely out of the loop.

As a direct result, you can read an article by Bill Ayers on education back to back with an article posted by the National Review on education and find that, when it comes to parents, the only difference between the two is that Bill Ayers has a better attitude.


National Review: The true teacher cannot simply be an instrument of the wishes of the student’s family. Educating Helen Keller 09/08 6:00 AM

Bill Ayers: Sherry Anderson grew up on a ranch in Wyoming and moved to the city with dreams of becoming a teacher. She was young—23 or so—white, and while she got along well with the other students in her cohort and was eager to learn, she also seemed extremely naïve about issues of race, culture, and urban schooling. Sherry put her foot in her mouth during seminars more times than we can recall—saying she was “surprised how clean” one of her student’s homes was...

At the National Review parents are deluded incompetents who treat teachers like the hired help (thanks guys!); in the land of Bill Ayers parents are neither here nor there, but at least their homes are clean.

Competing interests are a good thing.

Parents and taxpayers need to become an interest.

As opposed to the PITA people who pay the bills.

(Next question: would parents need more than one interest group?)

update 5.21.2009: The PTSA is not an "arm" of the teachers' union. It is historically allied with the teachers' union and is, today, constrained from commenting on union bargaining positions during collective bargaining:
We need to go back to 1920, when the PTA headquarters was actually in the NEA building in Washington, DC. At that time, there were very few teachers in the NEA because it was a professional organization run by school administrators. It was completely different from the union model they now have. But within the NEA in 1920 there was a department just for the PTA.

In the local school systems at that time--which numbered more than 100,000--the PTA acted like a Good Housekeeping seal of approval. Every superintendent wanted that seal of approval on his school and this encouraged the establishment of the PTAs. By the 1960s, the vast majority of schools in the country had PTA organizations.

The 1960s was also when the NEA decided to transform itself into a teacher union like its rival, the American Federation of Teachers. It was a time of great turmoil in the school systems, with many, many strikes for various and sundry reasons, with parents unsure of whether to side with the school administrators or the teachers.

Although the PTA had moved out of the NEA headquarters in 1953, there was still a very close relationship between them. Many teachers were leaders in the PTA, just as they are today. The NEA let it be known that if PTAs continued to support the school board during teacher strikes, the NEA would pull its teachers out and start a competing organization. The PTA was afraid of losing members, and so, in 1968, the PTA Board of Directors--not the membership--set a policy declaring that, in teacher strikes, the PTA would not oppose the teachers and the teachers’ union. This eliminated parental support for the administration.

Up to that point in time, administrators had made the majority of the decisions in dealing with school functions. But when the teacher union came in, union contracts affected not only the terms and conditions of the teachers but also other school operations parents were interested in, such as teacher assignments. Parents still are interested in these other issues, but local PTAs can no longer provide any support to parents who wish to challenge union positions. In fact, a few years ago at the NEA convention, NEA President Keith Geiger reminded the PTA that its locals were bound by PTA policy not to challenge the teacher union positions in collective bargaining.

Taking the Parent Out of the National PTA
* I can no longer find this post, so if you can, let me know. 10.3.2008: got it

what is the matter with flickr?

I am in a flickr loop. I try to sign in but the site says there's a problem; then when I do what it tells me to do to resolve the problem, I get the same error message again. There is still a problem and it's still the same problem. Something about my flickr email address also being my Yahoo email address but no way to rectify that situation because in order to change my email address I have to sign in and I can't sign in because my flickr email address is also my Yahoo email address.

Thank God I copied down the URL for my photos once upon a time.


Yes, Roger Federer and I are on a first name basis now.

This is what happens when you watch a person win the U.S. Open five years in a row.

bonus points: Andy Murray is amazing! At one point he hit an overhead lob backwards -- i.e. facing away from the net -- and the ball was IN. For a while there Roger Federer was having to smash balls out of the court and into the stands to keep Murray from getting his racket on them.

oh heck. It's impossible to see the ball on the YouTube videos.

Singapore Math Update

I haven't posted much lately as I was pretty busy teaching 3rd grade, moving from Phoenix to Colorado, writing a Singapore Math professional development program (40 hours long!) for California and training the curriculum around the country (and Canada). I'm a full time trainer now with time to write and I thought you might be interested in an update on recent developments regarding Singapore Math in the U.S.

Oak Norton (Weapons of Math Destruction) reports that:
A small working group of legislators, officials from the state office of education, school board members, educators, industry leaders, and concerned parents have been meeting for the last several months to create the math future of Utah. This is the most exciting prospect for Utah's math future that has happened in the history of the state.
Under the heading of "Utah's Math Future, This *IS* Rocket Science" you will find a petition and more information on this initiative. Head on over and take a look at the proposal.

Other schools adopting Singapore Math this year include Scarsdale and Tarrytown, New York, Several schools in Montana and Colorado, numerous charter and private schools in Southern California, and Hall County, Georgia, which is expanding the program throughout the district (from a few pilot schools).

I've been spending a lot of time with some materials I picked up in Singapore last summer, working on my mental math skills. Here's a sample from the level 4 book:

Can you get the answers in 10 seconds?
36 x 11 = ?
243 x 11 = ?

Enjoy! I'll include the express strategy in the comments.

Monday, September 8, 2008

I can't read.

Comments regarding the "witty" banter by the AZ Channel 12 reporters on this post:
concerned ct parent said:
I am so done with the "I was so terrible in math," comment I could scream.

Tex said:
How stupid was that Saxon math comment?? Sheesh!

And, her co-anchor joined the gleeful group of adults who proudly claim, “I was the worst math student on the planet”.

I am so with you (as my 13 yr-old would say).

When training teachers in Singapore Math, I always spend 20-30 minutes talking about math anxiety, which begins with a completely blank powerpoint slide with the words:

I can't read

in 120 pt font or so. We discuss how this makes them feel, and most are pretty uncomfortable. Then we talk about how people would never admit something like this to their friends, yet think about how many times we've been out to dinner or having coffee with people that say "I just can't do math" or "I am so bad at math". And everyone chuckles...tee hee, it's sooo funny.

Why aren't these people embarrassed? Why is this socially acceptable? What are you going to do about this in your school?

It's a great professional development starter, I can tell you!