Responses to questions about education.

“Future Parent and possibly Teacher…15 years from now” e-mailed a series of questions. Here are some brief responses:

“Where do you see us standing in terms of education quality 15 years from now?”

It’ll be better at some schools, worse at others, and roughly the same at still others. There will still be the traditional models of school that we have today, there’ll be experimental models, and there’ll be many more alternatives in terms of charter schools, study centers, and online programs. I can’t say whether education quality will improve on average. It’ll be interesting to see how the public systems react to increased competition.

“Would you advise between public, private, or competent homeschooling?”

Not if I don’t have additional information. There are some public schools to which I’d rather send my kid than certain private schools. There are some private schools to which I’d rather send my kid than certain public schools.

But then I supposed that with that modifier “competent” in front of “homeschooling,” that’s the answer I’m supposed to pick, isn’t it? The most commonly heard objection to homeschooling is that it doesn’t get kids to socialize with other kids. That may be true, but there are plenty of other opportunities to socialize with kids of similar age (sports, arts, clubs, volunteering, religious activities) if you take advantage of them.

“Do you believe it’s likely the school system will see a turn towards improved education over this timeframe?”

Some parts will, some parts won’t. Some places will, some places won’t.

“And lastly, a twofur. What are some of the worst changes that have been made to the system…”

I’ll limit myself to those changes that’ve been made since I started teaching.

1. Grade recovery, a.k.a. learning recovery. In Duval County, we allow students who earn a quarterly grade of D or F to attempt to raise that grade as high as a C. In theory, it’s not a bad idea; why not give students another opportunity to learn the material and show that they’ve learned it? In practice, I think the net effect has been negative. Too many kids attempt to game the system by screwing around one quarter and making up for it the next, and more often than not, it doesn’t work out the way they hope.

2. The abolition of the unexcused absence. Technically, they’re still on the books, but if you skip my class you are entitled to make up everything you missed for full credit. Unsurprisingly, the number of absences seems to have increased.

3. The 90-minute A/B block schedule. I don’t have research in front of me, but I’d bet good money that there are plenty of studies out there that show that generally, kids learn skills and content better by having shorter classes more often (say 50-60 minutes every day) instead of longer classes less often (90 minutes, alternating days).

4. Excessive standardized testing. I’m a big believer in standardized testing, but at some point, diminishing marginal returns kick in. It feels like we’re overdoing it.

5. Excessive Advanced Placement. Thanks to the obsession with the Newsweek and WaPo rankings, our district decided to shove as many kids as would fit into AP classes, regardless of preparation. The results have been ugly and expensive.

There are others, but those are the first that spring to mind.

“…and what are some “core” attributes of successful teaching or of an educational system?”

See the list above? Start with not-those.

I think it comes down to the “three R’s.” The better a school system is at teaching reading, writing, and arithmetic (and I mean arithmetic, not mathematics), and the better it is at reinforcing and further developing those skills throughout elementary, middle, and high school, then the better it will be at teaching the students everything else. So check to see how far a school system will let kids go without those basic skills. The further kids can go without those skills, the worse the school system is.


I have a new favorite quote about teaching. It comes from Glenn Reynolds of blogging and law-professoring fame:

It is not compassionate to allow your students to learn less than they should.

–, March 25, 2012.

There may be some quibbling over the precise meaning of “should,” especially given the practice of shoving kids into the wrong classes, but this is one to live by.

True story.

Yesterday I was invited to be one of several judges at a middle school history fair. It turned out to be eight times more enjoyable than I expected, partly on the strength of the turkey sandwich they fed me, but mostly due to the quality of the presentations and my impression that the kiddies truly enjoyed their research.

One of the exhibits resembled an iPhone. The app icons opened like doors to reveal quotes and anecdotes about Apple. It was clever. And I learned a lot from it, too. I learned that Steve Jobs invented the very first personal computer. I also learned that until the Apple II, computers took up entire rooms and you couldn’t even play games on them. Then another group member mercifully cut the speaker off and corrected the timeline. I wistfully hoped they’d find a way to work the C64 or TI-99/4a into the conversation, but no such luck.

Another exhibit involved the Berlin Wall. Apparently, when the Wall came down, they made some West Berliners move to East Berlin “so both sides would be even and fair.” I also learned that– well, let’s just go to the transcript:

VDV: So who built the Berlin Wall?

Student [looking at presentation board]: Mikhail Gorbachev.

VDV: No, no, who built the Berlin Wall?

Student [with absolute confidence]: Mikhail Gorbachev.

VDV: Are you sure?

Student: Yes.

VDV: Gorbachev built the Berlin Wall?

Student: Yes.

VDV: You’re sure you’re sure?

Student [less confident, double-checking the board]: …Yes.

VDV: Do you get why I keep asking you if you’re sure?

Student [the light dawns on him]: Yes.

VDV: So who built the Berlin Wall?

Student [smiling]: Gorbachev!

I tried. The kid had guts, I’ll give him that.

The Gorbachev kid reminded me of one of my high school science projects. It involved calculating the mechanical advantage of different bicycle gears on a 10-speed. I can’t remember what exactly I was measuring and/or calculating; I think it was mechanical advantage, so for the sake of the story (if not historical accuracy) let’s just go with that.

I turned the bike upside down and built a rudimentary frame around it to keep it stable. I used a half-gallon jug of water to turn the crank 180˚, and then timed and recorded the number of tire rotations. Did some math and voilà, I had whatever it was I was calculating. Changed the gears, repeated the process, did the math, wrote up the results, pasted them on a foam-core backboard.

So presentation day arrived. I blathered on about my project, I showed that mechanical advantage rises as you go from low gear to high gear, my burned-out hippie teacher seemed content enough, the chicks were impressed with my math skills, I was on my way to an A.

I opened the floor to questions. There was just one question, and of course it came from the one kid in the room who actually raced bikes and did endurance rides.

He said, “Actually, the mechanical advantage falls when you shift to a higher gear.” Translation: “Your entire project is wrong.”

Without missing a beat– without blinking or flinching– I said, as though I’d anticipated that question and was thoroughly prepared for it: “Normally that’s true, but remember the bike was upside-down and the tires weren’t touching the ground, so there was no external friction.”

It was a glorious moment. I should’ve bitten into an apple. Everyone bought my explanation except Burned-Out-Hippie and The Bicyclist. They both looked at me suspiciously but clearly respected my bovine scatology enough to let it slide. I think I got an A on the project.

Now that I’m a teacher, I’m a little less proud of that moment. Hopefully engineering licensure boards are a little more demanding than a particular high school teacher was on that day.

A friend of mine recently lamented that too many people don’t know the difference between “it’s” and “its.” He wrote what he hoped would be a simple mnemonic device that would help writers use the terms properly. I would like to think that this would help folks make the distinction, but I know better.

Therefore I make the following suggestions to help our youngest learners avoid the problem altogether:

#1: Replace “it’s” with “tis,” as in “Tis the season to be jolly.” It means exactly the same thing, will fool people into thinking you’re smarter than you really are, and eliminates the homophonic confusion altogether.

#2: Contract the most troublesome two-word-combos (generally “it’s,” “there’s,” “they’re,” “who’s”) by smushing them together (“itis,” “thereis,” “theyare,” “whois”) instead of dropping a letter and adding an apostrophe. Note that when typing these new smushwords, they require just as many keystrokes as the old contractions.

Note that I specified the most troublesome combos. We can still get by with “won’t” instead of “willnot,” and so on.

#3: Stop teaching contractions altogether. They do not save that much time when speaking, writing by hand, or typing. Screw’m.

#4: Be lazier. Use “yer” to mean “you’re” and “your”. Use “thar” to mean “their,” “there,” and “they’re.” Put the pressure on the reader to figure it out; you’ve got too much other stuff to write about to worry about whether anyone understands what you’ve written.

#5: Stop caring about the difference between homophones such as “it’s” and “its.” Seriously, stop caring. There’re bigger fish to fry.

Suggestions four and five aren’t quite compatible with the others.


A tongue-in-cheek article by A. Barton Hinkle claims that “Now We Know Why Children Are Getting Dumber.” In essence, it’s because the volume of knowledge keeps expanding. There’s always more literature out there to be pored over, there’s always more scientific innovation and discovery to help explain the natural world, and there’s always more history being made. Hinkle writes:

Same for history: They just keep making more of it. For the WWII generation, the Great Depression wasn’t history, it was current events. They didn’t have to learn about the civil-rights movement or Vietnam or Watergate or Reaganomics because none of that had happened yet. Today’s pupils not only have to learn all that more recent history, they will soon be learning the history of 9/11, the Iraq War and the Obama administration. And the cohort after that? Good luck to them, because they’re going to need it.

Reading the article brought me back to a recent discussion with some coworkers. They said that high school math stays pretty much the same, although some of the higher-ups keep trying to change how it’s taught. They said that high school science remains relatively stable, but does make adjustments to curriculum when discovery warrants it. But history, they said, keeps growing at a relatively constant pace of roughly one year per year. More if you consider that with an expanding population, there’re more people out there to make history.

I pointed out that happily, history teachers have a way around this– at least in high school survey courses. The trick is that our courses don’t cover the whole shebang. They aren’t supposed to. As time goes on, we thin out the beginning, shift around the middle, and tack a little bit more onto the end. The coverage of history in survey classes, I said, looks like a chi-square distribution. To wit (click to embiggen):

A history text can’t cover anything after its publication (until we start teaching via Kindles and iPads, and then there’ll be semantic debates over what truly constitutes publication). Recent history, say the last decade or so, gets pretty thin coverage because it’s too close to being “current events.” Then the coverage gets heavier and heavier, until you get to a few hundred years back, and it starts to thin out again. In later editions, you add another chapter at the end and merge chapters at the beginning– those bindings can only hold so much paper.

I own my grandfather’s high school history textbook, which ends with discussion about whether America would enter “The Great War.” I’ll flip through it on occasion for the older perspective on certain events, and to compare it to the textbook I use in my classes. Grampa’s book is much heavier on the period from 1650 to 1750, going into much greater detail about the wars between France and Britain and how they played out in North America. It also spends over 100 pages on the Civil War, which had ended barely 50 years before publication.

Current textbooks understandably trim that 1650-1750 period down to maybe two chapters and spend maybe 40-50 pages on the Civil War, because you’ve got to add in 100 years of new stuff– the Roaring 20s, the Depression, WWII, the Cold War, Elvis, etc. The last few pages of my 2002 edition of The American Pageant discuss the internet, David Mamet, 9/11, and the PATRIOT Act. The War in Iraq, Hurricane Katrina, the Red Sox, Obama and I are going to show up in the newer editions, and the 1600s will grow ever-thinner. But the shape of the curve will remain the same.

So there goes that excuse. Get to work.

The wrong button.

The quotations may not be totally accurate but the tone and spirit are:

Yesterday I was yelling at one of my classes for being inattentive, and broke out one of the old standards: “If you guys get bad grades, that’s fine by me because I already passed APUSH.” Granted, it wasn’t called APUSH back then, it was APAH, but that’s not the point.

One of the little angels made the mistake of saying what he was thinking: “Yeah, but did you get an IB diploma?” If you know IB kids, you already know the tone he used. He probably didn’t mean to use that tone, but it got away from him too fast.

The good news is I managed to respond without vaporizing his face with my heat vision. It was something along these lines:

“No, I didn’t get an IB diploma. But my diploma– the one I earned from Stanton at age 16 after getting fives on all my AP exams except Portfolio– got me into an out-of-state school absolutely free of charge and helped me graduate with honors at 20 with zero debt. So I’m not too broken up about not doing IB.”

Some of the kids applauded, probably sarcastically. I wasn’t in the mood and told them to shut up. I am very proud of my high school record but I really don’t like to flaunt it, unless some brat shoots his mouth off and desperately needs correction.

Maybe I misinterpreted the whole thing and the kid was genuinely curious. If so, he had horrible, horrible timing.


Whilst going through some files and folders yesterday, I found some paperwork from my student teaching internship and was reminded of a story. Clemson didn’t call it an internship, they called it a “practicum,” which I suppose is a more accurate term, but I call it an internship because otherwise most folks don’t know what I’m talking about.

Anyhow, the placement folks were kind enough to assign me to the closest high school, less than a ten minute drive from my apartment, my workplace, and the university. I was assigned to “Mr. Heinz” for the Spring 2001 semester. He taught 10th grade US history, 12th grade economics and government, and he ran the Model UN and the Multicultural Club (though he always pronounced it “multi-culch”). Mr. Heinz seemed like a nice enough guy; students liked him, teachers liked him, he ran a few clubs, etc. After a week or so, he let me take over all three classes, which was fine by me– it was the point of the whole exercise, after all.

The shine wore off after a few weeks. I discovered that he knew little-to-nothing about economics, and he would occasionally contradict my lessons. It would have made sense if I were teaching about controversial economic theories, or issues that were ideologically or politically tinged, but this was basic economic stuff: supply and demand, specialization and division of labor, comparative advantage and so on. He didn’t speak up often, but when he did he was dead wrong. It left the students confused and me in a bind, because I didn’t want to undermine his authority or the students’ confidence in him– especially since he had a say in my grade for the practicum.

Mr. Heinz had an unusual form of detention: staying after school to read Gore Vidal’s Lincoln. Equating reading with punishment is probably not an effective form of punishment (regardless of the author), and probably not good pedagogy. Worse, I discovered he wouldn’t back me up on disciplinary issues. I assigned three students to detention, and Mr. Heinz said he’d watch them. The next day, these students asked to speak to me privately. They told me that there was no detention; Heinz had sent them home right after the bell. I was impressed with their character and thanked them for telling me.

One Friday, near the end of a government class, I announced a homework assignment. The seniors stared at me in utter shock. Jaws were agape. The room was silent and still until I asked what the problem was. Somebody said, “It’s Friday.”

I said, “That’s correct.”

Somebody else said, “You gave us homework.”

The sincere bafflement on their faces led me to think there was a rule against giving homework over the weekend. By this point I’d discovered enough goofy policies from the feds, the state, and the district that such a rule wouldn’t have surprised me at all. So I turned to Mr. Heinz– who looked as bewildered as the students, but he recovered a lot faster– and asked, “Is there a rule that says I can’t give homework over the weekend?”

He said, “No.”

I turned back to the kids and said, “Get to work.”

Clearly, Mr. Heinz had never given them homework over a weekend. The kids weren’t happy with me, but Heinz looked furious. In that moment it became obvious to everyone in the room that although I was inexperienced and rough-hewn as a teacher, I was actually trying to challenge the kids and get them to work and learn. Heinz was not. This is not to say that assigning homework over the weekend will automatically turn students into workers and achievers– in fact there are some pedagogies that exclude homework altogether. But it looked like Heinz was not even bothering to try or to worry about it. I looked like a jerk who wanted them to learn, but he looked weak and soft and indifferent to their education. I was a teacher, he was a babysitter.

And it turned out he was a scumbag, too. Near the end of my practicum, he came to me with an offer. He had been mentoring a student who was earning his high school diploma by correspondence. The student was having great difficulty with an economics workbook, so Heinz said he’d pay me $25 to complete the workbook. He handed me the book.

I was flabbergasted. This wasn’t a student offering a bribe, or the parent of a student– this was a certified professional educator, one who worked with the biggest School of Education in the state, offering a bribe. Worse, it was a certified professional educator who, once again, had a lot of influence on my grade for the practicum, and therefore on my future as a teacher.

Maybe this was a trap or a test– after all, there was no way anyone could be that blithe about bribery and cheating, right? So I asked the other interns whether their supervisors had made similar offers. They had not.

I had no idea what to do. Filling out the workbook was absolutely not an option. I was afraid to say anything to the principal or the practicum coordinator at Clemson– I didn’t know what kind of blowback there’d be. If they didn’t believe me, my grade and career might be at risk. Hell, they might’ve been at risk even if they did believe me.

A few days before the end of my practicum, Mr. Heinz called me up in front of the class. As a token of appreciation, he presented me with a check that just happened to be worth $25 and told me to take my girlfriend out on his dime. The kids applauded. I found out later that Heinz had collected the $25 from the students. In short, his students were unwittingly subsidizing this other kid’s cheating.

In retrospect, I should have nuked him. I should have told the practicum coordinator, the other folks at Clemson’s School of Education, the principal at the high school, the social studies department chair, the students, and perhaps the local paper. He should have been suspended if not fired. I wasn’t going to get hired in that neck of the woods anyways, so it wouldn’t have cost me a job, and the more I think about it the more difficult it is to imagine receiving a poor grade as a result of reporting his malfeasance.

Later that day, I opened the workbook for the first time. A folded piece of notebook paper fell out. It was a letter from the student to Mr. Heinz, thanking him for agreeing to complete the workbook. It was a godsend, if we’re talking about the God of Weaseling-Your-Way-Out-Of-Sticky-Problems-With-Morally-Ambiguous-Solutions.

When I got to the high school the next morning, I put the blank workbook in Heinz’s mailbox. I then put a photocopy of the letter on top of it. I kept the original, just in case I ever did have to nuke him. I never heard another word about it.

I ended up with a “B” in the practicum. In her evaluation, the coordinator wrote that she arrived at this grade after consulting with Mr. Heinz, who claimed that he’d never talked to her about it at all and acted surprised at the grade.

To Mrs. Coburn.

Many many moons ago I was nearly killed in an industrial accident (not the gamma radiation kind, but the impalement-on-the-axle-of-a-large-machine kind) and thereupon decided it was time to go into an arguably safer profession: teaching. I enrolled in education courses for the next year, did a semester’s internship after that, and then began searching for teaching jobs in the Carolinas and Virginia. No luck.

Eventually I heard through the grapevine that back in Jacksonville, Paxon had vacancies in its social studies department. There were a lot of connections: my dad had coached there; the principal, Dr. Williams, had worked at my alma mater; several of my former teachers were now at Paxon; and a friend of the family who worked in the district had put in the good word for me at Paxon, and arranged for an interview.

So that summer I drove 430 miles in the non-air-conditioned Delta ’88 to Jacksonville, got dressed up all fancy-like and put on my least ugly tie, made sure my hair was freshly buzzed, and headed over to Paxon with my silly little Student Teaching Portfolio. Dr. Williams was out of town, so I interviewed with an assistant principal and with the chair of the social studies department, Mrs. Janet Coburn.

This little old grandmotherly-type projected great intelligence and competence and dignity (and perhaps a wee bit of impishness that would surface from time to time over the years). It was clear that Dr. Williams had left the call up to her; if she liked my interview enough (or rather, if my interview wasn’t as bad as all the earlier interviews), I’d get the job. The interview apparently went well enough. When Mrs. Coburn got up to leave, I asked whether she’d like to see my Student Teaching Portfolio. Her response suggested strong disdain for the very concept– which, of course, won me over; I thought the portfolio was silly. I don’t remember exactly what was said, but after she left I remember the assistant principal saying something along the lines of “I think that means you have the job.” That was my proudest moment in a very long time.

Today, the 14th, is Mrs. Coburn’s last day as a teacher. I suppose that technically there’s always the possibility that she’ll come back again– this is her second-and-a-halfth retirement by my count– but this time she’s given several people very specific instructions to do her great bodily harm if she tries to return.

I’ll be as brief as possible: I am grateful to Mrs. Coburn for all the wisdom she has imparted to me over these last ten years, and for her guidance through trying and occasionally wacky times, and for the times she went to bat for me, and for how hard she tried to get me hired up north, and for how she helped me come back to Paxon, and for the letters of recommendation she wrote, and for the example and standard she set every single day she showed up at that school.

Above all else– and there are others to thank for this as well, but she made the final call as far as I’m concerned– I am grateful she allowed me to teach at her school. Here’s hoping she enjoys a long and rewarding retirement, full of travels and feasts and happiness.

Vote The Fifth.

For the “free response” part of their AP exams, students are given green booklets that contain the questions and pink booklets in which to write their answers. They can scribble whatever they wish in either book, but the pink ones get sent off to be scored while the green ones end up in my file cabinet. How do I know which ones should end up in my file cabinet? The students write their names on them, and just underneath their name, they’re supposed to write their teachers’ names.

This is were things get mildly amusing. My Great Burden on this Earth is that of having a name that is often misspelled and mispronounced (I have misspelled my name just once ever, just to prove that I could). Well, this year’s batch of green booklets featured the most diverse array of misspellings I’ve seen yet. I was compelled to tabulate and analyze data. I wish I knew an algorithm for determining variance from a correct spelling so I could start measuring how far off these misspellings were. Alas, I’ll have to make do with simple percentages and pie charts.

Here’s what I learned at lunchtime today:

  • 53.7% of my students managed to spell my last name correctly.
  • Juniors were twice as likely as seniors to spell my last name correctly (77.6% vs 38.2%).
  • 8.2% of my students wrote “Mr. V.”
  • Seniors were just under twice as likely as juniors to use that nickname (10.1% vs. 5.2%).
  • The most common misspelling (25.2%) of my last name is phonetically acceptable: “Viscarello.”

The pie chart below is based on the 68 failures to spell my last name correctly:

A college buddy once proposed that as a test of competence, voters should have to correctly spell the name of the person they wished to elect. If that ever came to pass, I think I’d have to change my last name to “V” in order to win anything. But then I wonder how many folks that would confuse.

Out of the park.

Yesterday the principal told me that I made it through to the next round of the district-level Teacher of the Year competition. That means we’re down to about 15 or 20 semifinalists out of 160 nominees. I was honored and thrilled, or at least as thrilled as I can get.

So I asked what was next. He said that some district personnel would be paying me a visit Friday (i.e., this) morning. Later I got a call saying they’d be in around quarter-to-nine. This presented a problem. The problem was not the short notice. It makes perfect sense that I’d get as little notice as possible so that I couldn’t stage a dog-and-pony show.

No, the problem was that I had scheduled a practice test for this morning, so the district personnel would get to observe how I administer tests.

The district folks turned up at maybe ten minutes to nine. There were five of them. My kids were working on their tests…

…and I watched the hell out of them. I strolled back and forth across the front of the room. I walked up and down the aisles, tiptoeing over student backpacks. I checked my watch to see how much time was left, and double-checked the clock to make sure the stopping-time I wrote on the board was correct. A student asked me for a pencil–I gave him one. With an eraser. And this one time, I strategically switched from having my hands in my jacket pockets to having them clasped behind my back–and not one single student was distracted.

With five minutes left, I told them there were five minutes left. And I don’t mean around five minutes, I mean zero five colon zero zero. I gave a one-minute warning exactly four minutes later. When time was up, I called, “time.” I was a test-administering machine.

The district personnel stuck around for about ten more minutes, which included grading the practice tests and beginning a review for next week’s final exam. So they only saw maybe five minutes of actual teaching. But I defy them or anybody to find me even one person in this district who gives a test as well as I do. I’m a lock for the next round.

Off to celebrate.