This is from Washington Post Answer Sheet, March 2, 2013, by Valerie Strauss, who introduces the commentary.
How much does school reform really address what goes on in the classroom? In
answer to that question, here’s a piece from a teacher who will give you some
of the bad news. It was written by Michele Kerr, a second-career teacher,
credentialed in math, history, and English, with a master’s in education from
Stanford University, She teaches math -- everything from prep for the
California High School Exit Examination to pre-calculus at Kennedy High School
in Fremont, CA. This appeared on Larry Cuban’s blog on School Reform and
By Michele Kerr
“Ms K, I need to do my work with Ms. V. My education plan is my civil right!”
Deon’s entire body was contorted in a geometric impossibility, the better to
shout at me from the back of the room.
“Hey, Ms. K! Come here! What if both numbers are negative?” Sticks was waving
“If the rise and run are both negative, the slope’s positive. Just like
multiplying!” Jack argued, as Cal watched dispassionately.
Welcome to the first month of my math support class, for juniors and seniors
who haven’t yet passed California’s High School Exit Exam (CAHSEE). Snapshots
from a typical day:
•Deon and Mack in exile, Deon facing east in back, desk jammed up against the
full-wall closet, Mack facing due north, desk flush against the middle of the
wall. The two would scream at me for a few minutes, demanding to be released
to their guided studies teacher now that I had successfully removed anything
remotely resembling fun from their grasp. Eventually, they growled various
forbidden words and subsided into something approaching silence.
•Miguel and Eddie obliviously tagging my whiteboards with my precious student
markers that I’d taken away twice already.
•Yesenia and Juan, a brother-sister pair who only spoke Spanish, chattering
away about anything but math with Pauly Jay who, in a class that’s half
Hispanic, is nonetheless my only bilingual student.
•JattJeet dozing off, Tavon fixing me with a hostile stare for disrespecting
Deon and Mack.
•Johnny wandering aimlessly, resplendent in a teal plaid shirt and striped
turquoise shorts, wearing a pink winter girl’s hat and a purple school blanket
wrapped round his shoulders over his backpack, which he never took off.
•Atamai whirling around on a wheeled free-standing chair, stopping only to
shout a math question at me or argue when I told him to put his posterior back
in a desk.
•Brian tuning out the world with music, having surreptitiously put his
earpieces back in when I wasn’t watching.
•Jack, Cal, Victor, and Sticks usually working on the assignment for the day.
And so it went.
Juniors and seniors who haven’t yet passed the seventh-grade standard-based
CAHSEE are kids for whom math presents a serious challenge. A class of
students with mostly low motivation and widely varying but generally weak math
abilities is first and foremost a management problem, and a huge part of the
management problem is the math. In order to maximize learning time, a teacher
has to manage not only the students, but the math.
First task in managing the students: separate the vortex from the driftwood.
The disruptive vortex sucks all the driftwood into his wake, where all spin
about endlessly and, alas, happily, in circles all the way to the bottom. Pull
out the driftwood and nothing changes. Move the vortex and the driftwood go
back to floating about aimlessly, amenable to redirection. The quintessential
disruptive vortex, Deon could single-handledly destroy half the class’s
productivity if left undisturbed; his absence or isolation always left most of
my “driftwood” students open to the idea of getting some work done.
The much rarer productive vortex students capture driftwood and spin it in the
right direction. I was blessed with two. Seated with Jack and Cal, Sticks and
Victor would compete madly to get the most work done; left to themselves,
Sticks would toss wads of paper at JattJeet, with Victor shouting direction
vectors. Understand that “good” kids and “bad” aren’t useful distinctions:
Jack and Cal had the occasional zero-productivity hour, and all kids had days
in which they settled down and learned. Deon was a math-solving machine who
worked fiendishly once I isolated him from all other entertainment.
After carefully managing vortices, I sat the rest of the students so that no
one, ideally, was next to a buddy. I ruthlessly rearranged students for the
sole purpose of ruining their social hour, and pushed hard upon pain points
(no music during practice, an F for the day) for any misbehavior. Then I had
to figure out who to call and what to write when students left to go to the
bathroom and never came back.
By the end of that first month, I occasionally ended class declaring that
everyone had a daily F, and often endured various bleats of “Ms. K, why you so
mean? Why you yelling? Chill out,” from kids whose voice volume went up to
11. But most days we had fun. And no matter how crazy the class got, I taught
math every single day.
Onto managing the math, so that the driftwood would move in the right
direction, and preparing the students for the test.
The students have multiple opportunities to take the test. I aimed my
preparation push for the November test, with the February test as a backup. Of
the original eighteen students, I thought nine would pass by November, or get
close to it. Their existing math knowledge wasn’t so much the problem as was
their inexperience in high-stakes tests. The other half did not appear to have
the language, motivation, and/or math skills to pass, but at least I could
teach them some math they could use when they finally got around to wanting it
But even that limited goal was a challenge. I learned how long I could run an
upfront discussion before their attention waned, carefully timing the moment
when I moved them onto practice problems—which had to be carefully managed,
too. Struggling students need to build momentum on a string of problems before
they get to their first hesitation point. Hit that hesitation point too early
and they “shut down”. They look away and find a more rewarding activity: talk
to their neighbor, take a nap, turn up the volume on their iPod, sketch,
tiptoe out of the room when I’m not looking, send objects airborne in pursuit
of a target. Finding worksheets that started with problems simple enough to
get them working and then built to more challenging work that wasn’t too hard
took up a big chunk of my day. I’d spend hours looking through practice sets
to be sure they didn’t leap to tough problems too soon, and often just wrote a
dozen or more identical problems on the board, simply varying the numbers.
Even with all that effort, some concepts were still too hard for some
students, and I couldn’t always reach each one before he got pulled into a
disruptive vortex. And so, from managing the math back to managing the
I lived for the days when I scored a win. Much is made by both reformers and
progressives about the soul-killing nature of drill, but I got hooked on the
genuine triumph my students felt when they worked a whole set of problems
correctly. They beamed and bragged. Stickers were not unappreciated, or maybe
a big red star with a smiley face. They didn’t mind the drill. They minded
that they couldn’t do the drill, and so pretended they didn’t want to.
Sometimes students could do the work but just decided not to that day. Long
ago, all these students learned that the relationship between effort and
result was non-linear with no guarantee of a payoff. That this payoff was
passing the CAHSEE, something they needed in order to graduate, was sometimes
forgotten in the moment. But it’s not as if I could offer a guarantee. Some
students never do pass the CAHSEE.
“Improving teacher quality” is the buzzphrase for 2013. Yet none of the
challenges I’ve recounted are addressed by higher teacher Graduate Record Exam
(GRE) scores, and an understanding of multivariable calculus offers no tools
for managing a student howling nonsensical accusations about his rights under
the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. No conclusive research on
superior discipline approaches can inform ed schools of the best way to
prepare teachers to help students with complicated motivations and no real
desire for academic excellence. Meanwhile, education reformers point
accusingly to the very existence of high school students who haven’t yet
mastered fractions and percentages as de facto evidence of incompetent
teachers with inadequate knowledge, even though all of my students had been
taught these concepts dozens of times over the years, from both traditional
and “reform” approaches.
Another catchphrase these days is “grit”. While academically they might be
driftwood, my students are a forceful, opinionated group who questioned my own
views on politics and social policies (“Ms. K, what’s your position on
alcohol?” “Upright. Bad idea to drink lying down--and never consume before 21,
of course.”). Many hold jobs. At least one is a committed and dedicated
athlete. While some have abysmal Grade Point Averages (GPAs), others are
respectably above 2.5. Several seniors have done well enough on the Armed
Services Vocational Aptitude Battery (ASVAB) to qualify for military service.
Five of the nine students on my “should pass” list did, in fact pass, Jack and
Deon in October, the other three in November. Two of the remaining four got
“high fail” scores; the other two did about five points lower than I would
have liked. All four on the “should pass” who didn’t probably did well in
their February test. Of the remaining nine with more challenging skill
deficits, at least half will find the motivation, the focus, or the language
skills in the next year to succeed. The others have the option to waive the
Reformers will judge me for the low pass rate. As a long-time test prep
instructor, I judge myself for the four who didn’t pass in November, and will
continue to look for better tools. But as a teacher, I judge myself by the
degree to which my students develop increased confidence and competence in
their math skills, as well as the degree to which they take more
responsibility for their academic choices.
And on those criteria, I am content. All the students improved their
understanding of proportional thinking, linear equations, and binomial
multiplication, skills which will help them move through the high school math
track. Sticks is now doing well in my geometry class. Victor stopped by two
days before the February CAHSEE asking for practice material to brush up, and
Brian visited to give a full report of his performance after the same. Jack
and Cal are studying for their college placement tests.
On the last day of class, I read this article’s opening paragraphs to my
students. They listened in total silence and then burst into applause, with
faces that I must describe as shining. Some of them picked their own
pseudonyms. While none said so directly, they are clearly pleased and proud
I’d chosen to write their story. As I looked out at the class I’d worked so
hard to teach, I remembered my students make their own judgments. Clearly, I
hadn’t done too badly in their estimation--and I wouldn’t be a teacher if that
assessment didn’t matter most.