Saturday, November 1, 2014

Focus, people. Focus.

Just ran into Mike Antonucci blowing smoke over on EducationNext. I left a comment which I share here because I like the way I ended, emphasizing what goes wrong when analysis has a lousy focus.

It seems Mr. Antonucci was a navigator. One would hope he understood the value of hitting the target. Instead he seems to be no more than an education union gadfly. Education unions, that is the target? Has he looked at teacher salaries? Some power. How about how little support teachers get from management while trying to teach young people? That's the target, right?

I'd love to see a chart showing percentage word count specifically discussing learning in Mr. Antonucci's work.

Speaking of charts, if you want to know how Antonucci got on my bad side it was his chart on dropping teacher union membership. First, it pulled that classic "lying with statistics" move of having the base of the chart at 45%. Hey, I am a math teacher, I am counting that as two strikes. Second, the chart goes back to 1983, as does a chart I found on overall union membership. That chart shows about twice the drop as in teacher union membership. Strike three, have a seat.

But who cares? Tenure and teacher unions are probably on balance good ideas in small ways, but my interest is in improving schools because I love learning and hated all but a class here and a class there in school. And because so little cool learning goes on in schools. If the premise is that teacher job security was the problem -- see how dumb that sounds?

I guess Antonucci has plenty of company in Goals 2000, NCLB, CCSS, and Bill Gates in blaming teachers for kids graduating high school with lousy skills, but last I heard even Bill is close to giving up, having found something money cannot fix. Here's my comment:

Absent more information on how teacher unions are blocking reform (well, I should say "any information") this was a long read for nothing. 
Fun always to see charts with a baseline other than zero. Move that down from 45% then superimpose overall decline in union membership (much greater) and we discover the article has no point whatsoever.
Final note: unions "weathered the storm" of Goals 2000? But then along came the wonderful NCLB "reform"? Those are not reforms, those are government being government, thinking they can make something happen by passing a law mandating outcomes while offering nothing on the causation behind the existing outcomes. Oh, yeah, that will work. 
The presumption behind such laws is that teachers and schools are not really trying, so all we have to do is threaten them. These laws are not working because the teachers and schools are doing their very best every day to help kids learn.
Society, your schools are you.  Parents, your children's school performance is you. Children, what did you do today to learn something?
Bust all the unions you want, then go back to those three questions. They will be there when you get back.
Focus, people. Focus.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Boot Camp Algebra?


Is Algebra a problem or an opportunity? 

The Algebra failure rates for high school and community college students are so high that many including the pre-eminent two-year college math group AMATYC are considering eliminating the requirement, with some substituting, eg, Carnegie Foundation's Statways/Quantways.

I raise the possibility that in fact Algebra presents not a problem but rather the perfect and even indispensable opportunity for us to turn American education around, a tightly defined battleground where we can decide once and for all whether American students can once again work hard, persevere, think rigorously, and work meticulously, not just in math, but in all intellectual endeavor academic or professional.

Continuing the unfortunate military analogy, Algebra can be an academic boot camp akin to the military's six to twelve week programs in which undisciplined, out of shape civilians quickly learn the discipline and basic skills required by the services, aided in their efforts by a well-constructed program delivered by dedicated professionals, and by a clear understanding up front that they are in for a challenging experience.

Where We Stand

A lot of folks want to drop the Algebra requirement for college. Why? Because so many cannot pass it. But is Algebra the canary in the coal mine? Algebra is not that hard. If students fail Algebra then we need badly to fix something, but that something is not Algebra. Note that I am worried neither about the canary nor Algebra: I am worried about the atmosphere being fatal to all learning.

Will dropping the Algebra requirement help? The skills required by Algebra -- learning a set of rules, knowing which rules can be applied when, then applying them accurately and meticulously -- are skills required in any job requiring a degree, STEM or not (see next), and many technical jobs not requiring a degree.

Why not train kids up on a generic meta-skill required for any job (or hobby) that is at all interesting?

(See Next)

My most recent computing gig in tall buildings was for a dental insurance provider. Claims adjudicators might have to cover three or more states, each with its own rules and regulations such as compliance windows (eg, claims might have to be settled within thirty days, twenty if delivered electronically). Within each state, different coverage plans were supported, each with different rules. A single plan would have one or two hundred rules covering different procedures and classes of patient and provider. A single rule might be expressed in a technical paragraph twenty to one hundred words long. Rules interacted, with one rule having precedence over another where both applied.

If someone cannot pass Algebra but we Oz-like hand them a degree, how well are they going to do at such a job?

Do not sell students short

Kids vastly prefer succeeding at academic challenges over getting free passes on them. What is hard for many is in fact succeeding, but if Algebra is easy (it is) why not use it as an opportunity to show them how to succeed with a logical set of rules before they tackle their intended profession? The profession itself will bring its own added complexity such as the dental procedures above -- better to get the meta-skills of study, perseverance, and meticulousness out of the way in an isolated context already mastered (arithmetic (I know, see next)) so they can concentrate on the logical system? They can walk before they run..

Next. Yes, I know, one of the big problems is that they have not in fact mastered arithmetic. That too is easy and curable with a bit of work and concentration. See where this is going?

Algebra is perfect because it presents all our learning ills in a nutshell: lack of basic number skills, meta-lack of accepting ownership for learning, in turn reflected in the meta-lack of perseverance. Algebra is a subject challenging enough to require the perseverance and self-direction we wish to cultivate, and a subject which, when mastered, will give students pride and confidence to reach higher. Earlier I said it might be indispensable: what other subject presents such a pure training ground?

Who knows? Instead of failing Algebra, many may be encouraged to aim a little higher at more rewarding (financially and otherwise) STEM jobs. Dropping Algebra will inspire no one, instead merely reinforce for students that they just need to fail often enough and we educators will move the curve.

They do not get much accountability in high school, but will respond well to accountability if we make clear to them that they are in college now and the rules are different. Isn;t that prospect more exciting than continuing the accountability forgiveness by dropping Algebra?

The problem colleges and students have is not that they cannot teach/pass algebra. It is a meta-problem of not knowing how to work, of expecting passing grades to be handed out in return for a minimum of effort. Google “grade inflation" (OK, here it is and here is another) look for the spike (in a chart on the first link) beginning mid-sixties.) And here is an anecdotal but stunning example of how we got soft. The natural consequences of lowering the bar were well documented a decade later: Nation At Risk.

The nice thing about trying against the apparent odds to succeed in teaching algebra: at least we will believe in what we are doing. No one will take satisfaction from abandoning Algebra, except those students who consider it an unreasonable imposition on them. But how are those people going to respond to the demands of their profession? Their resentment of reasonable demands is the natural outcome of decades of apologizing to students for asking them to work. We should jawbone them into understanding that the first thing a TYC or CC will do is disabuse them of attitudes that will make them workplace failures.

Random Musings

TYCs are in this mess because HSs lowered their standards. Dropping Algebra simply joins in on that party and passes the problem along to businesses. I understand the political pressure on TYC math departments to lower the bar, but will that achieve anything? Will TYC degrees become as meaningless as HS degrees, a mere certification of attendance?

If students sit back and think that just by showing up in class and doing assigned work (more or less well) they have done their part and deserve to pass Algebra -- well, that is a fatal flaw. No one can learn with that attitude. We need the student involved and active and owning the responsibility to meet an unbending standard.

The folks behind DragonBox Algebra came up with some great numbers with their huge “challenges”. Hundreds of thousands participated. 95% mastered the game, but some required six times more problems and ten times more time. Very encouraging, and one clear indicator of what we can fix about how we teach Algebra: employ mastery (aka competency) based learning.

Colleges have an opportunity -- one that high schools do not have -- to turn things around. They have
a self-selected, more mature population;
who turned to college by choice to move up in the world;
who is paying good money to do so; and
who is no longer backed up by nagging affluent parents or the school boards beholden to those parents.

If we hold this promising audience accountable and make it possible for them to succeed with mastery-based learning facilitated by technology, students will be thrilled. Listen to the Statways/Quantways videos -- successful graduates have so much pride, and some even consider STEM fields! Imagine if they had succeeded with Algebra.

Kids are quite smart. They will admit they have gotten a free ride. Welcome them to college and say, yeah, college is the big leagues, are you ready to step up your game? Then provide support, and watch what happens. No one really enjoys a free ride, everyone enjoys honest achievement.

There is a bit of a win there in that employers expect anyway to train new employees on their systems and processes, so why not move the kids along and Oz-like give them the diplomas they need? Actually, as long as we cannot do any better, that is fine. The employers will work things out or let the employee go. They can even test as part of the hiring process to avoid the substantial cost of a failed hire.

But what if we can do better? What if we can take students who have been passed along by their high schools and teach them how to work, how to persevere, how to concentrate? How much better will they turn out, and how much better will we and they feel about the work we are doing?

An Exemplary Anecdote (and the martial theme continues)

I once took a crash course in kickboxing to get ready for a full-contact tournament. Why the crash course? I had been boxing exclusively. My boxing teacher was right, I would be fine just with my hands, but when I found out my bartender Carlos had had his own martial arts school back in Portugal I asked him to show me a few things.

Carlos turned out to be a wonderful teacher who threw himself into the task. Somewhere around our third session he had me hold a striking mitt head high while he demonstrated a spinning back kick, looking at me over his left shoulder before instantaneously spinning 360 degrees to the right and delivering a tremendous roundhouse thwack to the mitt with his back foot.

I pointed out to Carlos that the fight was in two weeks and I was never going to do something like that in the middle of a real fight, but he insisted we work on it a bit. I like to do what my teachers say, so I made a couple of awful attempts and that was it. For one, I did not have the flexibility to get my foot that high. For another, it had only been a few lessons, my basic kicking skills were not there. Sound familiar?

I was training quite a bit so had plenty of time to work on the kick, and I respected the challenge. I had to work out how to lean my body away so my leg could get that high, then I had to work out how to maintain my balance while making that contortion. To my delight and astonishment, after fifteen minutes of exploration I was actually cracking the heavy bag high and hard with single-motion spinning back kicks. It was a blast.

The next time we worked out I think I had forgotten about it, but sure enough Carlos took out the mitt and asked to see my spinning back kick. I nailed it pretty well and Carlos was impressed. Then it was he who pointed out that I would never throw that in my upcoming fight, asking if I knew why he had me learn it.

No, I said.

For your confidence, he explained. So you would know what you can do.

And he was right. I was now excited about the prospect of adding kicks to my repertoire. No, there was not time enough before the tournament to internalize the technique, but the future was wide open. By taking me beyond my comfort zone into a space I wrongly considered well beyond me, he had opened up a whole new frontier of martial skill for me.

All in the context of one solitary technique.


Can we do with Algebra what my martial arts teacher did with the spinning back kick? Note that I am not talking about making Algebra relevant, I am talking about Algebra as a pure exercise in which students will learn how to learn and discover that the seemingly impossible can with perseverance be performed more or less well.

When we do that, we will not need to “sell” Algebra as relevant. Students will enjoy doing Algebra and take pride in their newfound ability.

Everyone knows the importance of math. The problem is just that they cannot do it. If we can change that, students will feel pride and aim higher and we educators will be able to hold our heads high, having done our jobs. If we drop the Algebra requirement, do you have any idea how hard it will be to get it back in? Let’s just get to work on teaching Algebra better, including first making clear to students that learning Algebra, with our copious help, is their responsibility.

Is there another subject we could use for this intellectual boot camp? Perhaps. I gather Latin has quite an intricate grammar. But is some other subject also the doorstep to mathematics, science, technology and so many 21st century careers? Will acing this other boot camp also lift the aspirations of kids to more rewarding careers?

Again, students questioning Algebra do so because they are failing it. That is the real problem, and that is on what we should be working.

The Programme

Along the way above I touched on the elements of a successful TYC (or HS) Algebra programme in which the failure rates would be closer to 10% than 50%:
  • Attitude. An explicit discussion with students of their accountability, and of their responsibility for their own mastery. We will tell them what they need to do, and it is not all that hard, but they are the ones that have to do the things we recommend; beginning with...
  • ...number facts. Learn them cold.
  • Practice, practice, practice until mastery is achieved, and do not continue until mastery is achieved. Bloom identified this long ago as a big win for learning. The DragonBox experience makes clear different students will get there at different rates, but that a very high number will get there as long as they have an easy way to practice indefinitely with immediate feedback.
  • The prior element dictates that some form of automated practice and self-assessment be involved.


  1. Is all the above self-serving because I am developing an algebra learning web site? Sure, but (a) algebra is not going anywhere, so I will do OK either way; and (b) I am not expecting anyone to accept me as an authority. Any credibility derives from the reader’s own experience of what I am merely reminding them, if I am.
  2. Well, OK, here is my experience: I taught eighth grade science/math for four years, three in the inner city, one in a small working class town. I tutored Algebra privately. I sold a similar desktop app back in the 90s and learned a lot from the feedback. I have had TYC professors speak to me of the problems they face, including students who think they should pass because they attend class reliably. Another spoke wryly of dealing with discipline problems, and this was almost twenty-five years ago. 
  3. I have playfully teased folks on-line for considering dropping Algebra. That is just my style. I understand well (a) the tragedy of kids trying to better themselves by enrolling in a TYC only to come to grief in algebra class (with plenty of student loan debt to pay off) and (b) the dismay of college professors forced to teach eighth grade math. That’s what we need to fix.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

One Half Is Not Two Quarters? Really, CCSS?

Clicked on a tweet hawking great lessons for the toughest parts of math CCSS standards (as defined by some research or other).

There was nothing at my level of interest (Algebra) but I spotted a lesson on equivalent fractions and went for it because fraction skills matter big time in Algebra. OK, the lesson I spotted was for the third grade (remember that) but I guessed it would still get to the crux of fractions.

Not too far along I tripped over something. Looking down at the page, I thought I saw the assertion that 1/2 and 2/4 were not equivalent. In a lesson on equivalent fractions, it was quite exciting to discover 1/2 and 2/4 were not equivalent.

A, here it is, the section had a subtitle: "To find equivalent fractions, the size of the wholes must be the same." Note that this little paragraph pops out of nowhere in the middle of a lesson on 1/2 being equivalent to 1/4. If I got lost, a third grader would...?

Of course, the subtitle is wrong. The size of the whole has no bearing on the equivalence of the fractions. A fraction of a whole is not the fraction, it is the product of the fraction and the whole. Hey, let's use algebra:

Let us call two wholes x and y. If (x > y), then (1/2x > 2/4y), but the fractions 1/2 and 2/4 are still equivalent. QED.

Oh, wait, you want to call the compound product of a fraction and some whole the fraction? Let us convene a council of mathematicians to decide if .. wait. We are springing this on third-graders right in the middle of a lesson on the equivalence of fractions?

One might want to follow the lesson on equivalence by having students contemplate why a half dollar is less than a 2/4 million dollars, just in case the equivalence lesson causes confusion by misapplication, but... is that a problem?

Every time I look at the Emperor's new CCSS clothes I see lessons more confusing than inspiring, and they are often downright incorrect if one wants to look at them rigorously.

So we are in for five years of refinement of these CCSS lessons to get them right. That is understandable -- it is hard to get anything new right on the first try -- but then should not CCSS be off somewhere in an incubator being refined and tested so it can eventually win on the merits?

CCSS principles may get an "A", but its implementation is still in the first grade and those mandating it now get an "F".

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Bug Story

You want to know what a bug is like? Friends and family all marvel at how many years I have worked on my Algebra expert system, and I have heard families of others marvel the same about others. So  here is the story of one bug report. Perhaps you will get a feel for what we do.

Notice how way leads onto way, the investigation starting with the obvious and then branching out as other things catch the eye. Apologies for the impressionistic stream of consciousness quality, but I could not both live this bug and eloquently record it. Free beers to whoever can name the two new England writers I just plagiarized.

The obvious start: Sarah my ace QA and all round general muse reported Pivotal tracker bug 78828414.

Her complaint is that the equation is obviously a contradiction, so the app is wrong when it says it is not (the red background and "Incorrect")

My first reaction was that the software should not have said "wrong", it should have said "you can do more work." But then I realized this was a mastery "Mission", and during Missions if one declares something to be the answer and it is mathematically consistent but not the final answer, it is marked wrong -- part of knowing math is knowing when one has reached the answer.

So Round #1 leads to Task #1: Instead of saying "Incorrect.", the app should say, "That work is Ok but more work was needed to reach the final answer" or something. It can still mark the problem wrong since it is a mission and we do not give second chances on missions, but it needs to be clearer that the work entered was not mathematically unsound.

I checked in the non-mission areas of the app and it did say "You can do more work."

Round #2 is between me and Sarah, with her assertion that -3t-60=-3t is obviously a contradiction. The problem I see is that -3(t+5)-45=-3t is "obviously a contradiction" to some people. What we need (and task #2 is to make explicit) is for the variable to be eliminated from the equation before pronouncing either contradiction or identity. Of course the variable remains if our result is "conditional".

Task #2 is to say not just "You can do more work", we have to explain about eliminating the variable.

So far so good, I just need to communicate better. Well, it is not "just". It matters. Over on Dan Meyer's blog software that (allegedly) gives bad feedback is (un-)justifiably taking a beating. Precise feedback is deadly important and I always fix these ambiguities as users make clear ones I have missed.

Then the wheels came off.

Rather than mess with a mission, I just went to the freestyle section and typed in my own problem: 3t-10=3t-20. Next step 3t+10=3t was marked wrong. 10=0 was marked wrong. My software just cannot do this easier problem! (I love it when the impossible happens--it is actually a clue I use in the debugging.) So...

Task #3: Fix 3t-10=3t-20 [After fixing Task 12 I thought this would just work, but I found another problem: the "Contradiction" averral button generates its answer OK but with a structural excess that throws off the engine. After fxing that (task 13), it just works.]

Task #13: have the contra and other classification buttons generate the right structure.

Plugging that problem into my batch tester used for debugging the maths engine, I used my text syntax to tell the engine that the problem answer should be "cntd:10=0" which means "the contradiction 10=0". Looking at the debug output, I see "SLVD:cntd:10=0". SLVD is used for straight equations, btw. So...

Task #4: What is with "SLVD:cntd:10=0"? Hopefully that is a feature, but even then it should be CNTD:SLVD:10=0.  [Turns out: SLVD was a bug in how I specified the test. );10m to find. ]

Anyway, back in the freestyle section when my engine rejected the correct steps I asked it to solve a similar problem. (The app could do their homework for them but will not.) But given a contradiction to created a conditional instead. And the instructions showed it did not even try to create an exercise in conditionals, where sometimes a conditional is the result.

Task #5: If asked to solve a similar problem, do not vary the classification from the original. ie, If asked for a problem similar to a contradiction, generate a contradiction. (Task 8 may fix this, but I doubt it.) [Right, new work was needed. Teribly hard-coded, but how many oddball rpoblem types are there in the world? 20 minutes]

I had it solve the condtional anyway. In doing so, it did not use the available screen space, it started scrolling.

Task #6: Use available screen space in solved examples. [It has been a full day and dozens of lines of code. I'll make a PT story for this and the next.]

As it solved the problem and started scrolling, it did not automatically scroll down to show each new step. Not sure why, I have solved that before (pretty easy, actually).

Task #7: Make sure solved examples autoscroll to show each new step. [PT story]

When it got to the end it just said "Solved", it did not classify the solution. Perhaps this is because, looking back just now, I see it did not even create a problem with the instructions to "classify the result".

Task #8: when making a problem similar to a an equation classify problem, the new problem should have the same instructions. [Ah, it was not even trying, it was just trying to match the transformation at hand. That makes sense, but in this case was too myopic. Big overhaul, but just 20m to my surprise. What can I say? I write great code! Can I say that? NO! Sorry.]

Task #9: After Task #8, check that the tutor now classifies equations when solving similar examples. Looking at the solutions done by the engine in other sections, this should be OK. Task #8 may also fix Task #5, so we will do Task 8 first. [yep, it Just Worked(tm).]

So finally I let the test harness run on the broken problem and what do I see? The engine does not even come up with an answer. This can happen. If the problem is outside the engine's skill set it will come to a point where (a) it cannot think of anything more to do but (b) it knows it has not reached an answer -- the variable to solve for has not been isolated, for example. So it does not offer an answer at all. But then why is it telling anyone they are wrong?

Task #10: Why is the app saying wrong if it cannot solve the problem. (We should fix this first while it still cannot solve the problem so the conditions will be realistic.) [This was only because of the mistake I made setting up the test. In the actual case it was solving the problem. Pretty sure had it been unable to solve it would confess (just worked on that code last week pursuant to the Meyers blog brouhaha.]

Are we done? I wish. I do not like testing (so thank God for Sarah) but I have enough experience to have some instinct for how things can go wrong.

On most problems there is just one way one can say one is done with a problem. One avers that an expression is in simplest form, factored, or solved. So for anti-click convenience I allow the user to hit the "End" key and then I treat that as the one averral possible.

In this case the student must choose from conditional, contradiction, or unconditional. Working on the problem the engine could handle, when I got to the answer and was about to click "contradiction"  I had a thought: What will happen if I hit the "end" key? Crash? Proper message?

Silence. So...

Task #11: Tell user to pick an option (click or tab/enter) if there is more than one. Do *not* silently ignore them.

Ok, now let's see what else comes up, given the tendency of issues to exponentially explode. Everything that follows the line in the sand arose while wading through the above.

---------------------- line in the sand -----------------------------------

Test driver used leading cntd to gen the contradiction but did not strip it off to generate the operand. Lucky an infinite loop did not arise. Fixing that, we see a new problem: cntd:-10=-20 is not recognized as equivalent to cntd:10=0.

Task #12: Why  cntd:-10=-20 not recognized as equivalent to cntd:10=0? [It was just allowing for left=left and right=right or left/right and right/left. Made this smarter. 30m after a nap]

Task #14: after entering the statement, answers cntd and idnt are available, but not cond. I suspect it is being too helpful by noting that the variable has not yet been isolated. ... [OK, Kinda. It does not want them classifying the equation until it has been solved! Exactly what Sarah is trying to get away with, but with a contradiction!! So I will just always have the conditional choice enabled and then deal with premature classification -- the original report!! I love this game. 15minutes.]

Task #15: Well it says do more work if we are at 3x-5=3x-5, but it does not if we get to 3x=3x. That is odd. Investigating.


The above is as much as I was able to document. The hand-to-hand fighting continued into the night and the next day and then with three known minor (they can wait) issues remaining I declared victory and deployed.

To the kids programming at home, here are your takeaways:
  • Never fix a bug. Understand how the situation arose and how things can be arranged such that they never happen again.
  • When the user reports a "bug" that turns out to be a feature you still get an RFE: do not confuse the user that way.
  • You know how programs fail. Outlier behavior. Hit the "End" key when three endings are possible. Afraid it might not work? I know. :)
  • Never shrug off a small misbehavior. Fix it. You might be surprised what you find.
  • Never leave the unexplained unexplained. You will almost certainly be surprised at the explanation.
  • Don't even tolerate misbehavior in diagnostic tools. Run them to ground. Run everything to ground.
If that sounds like work (a) it is and (b) go ahead, ignore me, then come back in five years and read this again when you have lived the hell of software developed outside those rules.

As for ed tech, hey, the above is why you do not have very much good ed tech. Ironically, the blogger attacked one of the best in the game. At the same time he is writing new attacks they are addressing all his concerns.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

"I get in trouble for the B-plusses"

"I get in trouble for those," said Mr. Visco, pointing to the scant B-pluses sprinkled here and there in a sea of A's.

It was somewhere around 1980 and now a teacher myself I was back to visit my favorite teachers at my '69 alma mater high school in Tenafly, New Jersey, an upper middle class bedroom community for NYC feeding students into the Ivy League.

Not sure how grade inflation came up, but his remark came after I doubted some assertion of his that he, one of the toughest teachers in the school, could no longer grade honestly.  So he had pulled out his gradebook and showed me the sea of A's.

"But you have tenure," I floundered. "How can they control you?"

"There are things they can do," he said. I remember only one of several. "They can take away the honors class."

This is a very long story. It begins with the US high school class of 1971, the first year not subjected to the draft to go fight in Vietnam, the war we were supposed to learn from before...I digress.

Once the draft was no longer a threat to the middle class, we looked around and what did we see?

First, traditional authorities had lost all credibility. This mostly had to do with a federal government leading us into the hell of Vietnam, but along the way also the rejection of police and college authority. Folks dictating rigid sexual mores and drug abstinence were now scorned. Not only Vietnam was involved. A little thing known as the Civil Rights movement also knocked governments on their heels. We the People were no longer impressed by City Hall in any form, and we were indeed ready to fight.

Second, whoa. Look at us! We are prosperous! A population that had lived for twelve years with the depression starting in 1929 first had the economy stimulated by World War II and then, when that nightmare ended, saw a wonderful period of growth first forming a solid middle class and by the late sixties a solid upper middle class.

What do newly empowered prosperous people do with institutions they no longer revere, such as the school boards of upper middle class communities? School boards for which our affluent populations vote? Our affluent parents start dictating new standards guaranteed to get their children 4.0 averages and a shot at the Ivy League.

Back to my high school. Mr. Visco was tough but he was also a delightful flake (and future principal of the high school!!!). I still did not buy it, his gradebook evidence notwithstanding. My next stop was Mrs. Willens, my French teacher. I have heard about nuns in parochial school and I am pretty sure Mrs. Willens taught them tyranny. I was a great student and a favorite of hers and she absolutely terrorified me.

I asked her about the grading silliness Visco had described. Mrs. Willens without hesitation confirmed every word. If they had had video cameras everywhere back then you would have seen my jaw literally drop.

Need something more than anecdotal evidence from two great, tough teachers in a feeder high school for top colleges? Easy. Look at the surge from the mid-sixties on, especially leading up to the mid-70s. Notice also that it is much worse in private schools, where the tuition paid and unvarying Ivy goal brings even more pressure on schools and teachers to churn out 4.0 averages.

Google prize to the person who can find the NY Times 90s-ish story on the New England admissions officer who said they did not even look at grades any more, just SATs.

So what happened when parents started getting teachers in trouble for B-plusses? You might think kids would work less and learn less. You might be right. It was described beautifully in A Nation At Risk.

The funny thing is that the CCSS crowd says the problem is accountability. Ha! You want to talk about accountability? In small communities with local school boards and separate school budget votes we have nothing but accountability and what the parents have demanded and gotten is grade inflation. The parents have afflicted the teachers. Accountabilize that.

Sadly, history has been rewritten. Naughty, lazy, incompetent schools and teachers have been misleading the parents! By giving them the grades they demanded! Here is an otherwise solid story where the author is wholly oblivious to parental strong-arming of schools and teachers.

Losing this bit of history does more than cause us to misplace blame. It has also produced the motive force of CCSS: accountability of schools and teachers, complete with the threat of closings and terminations. The message of CCSS is, "Here are some great new standards, we are not going to tell you how to teach them we are going to fire you or close your school if you do poorly on the questionable tests we also did not specify."

Don't you just love it when government swings into action on something they know nothing about?

CCSS did not understand that parents had provoked the mess, so they took a threatening stance facing teachers using ominous terms like "high stakes testing" thinking they had the parents at their back. Yes, the parents at your back. With arrows strung and bows drawn. It is now late 2014 and after five long years the scores are coming in and CCSS -- surprise, surprise -- is under attack.

CCSS needs some Pogo: "We have met the enemy and he is us."

The parents are getting what they demanded, and no one who does not understand that impetus has a prayer of turning things around.

I know what Arne Duncan means when he mocks upper middle-class white moms discovering their little darlings are not geniuses, but he is confusing two distinct upper middle-class phenomena. The first was not moms being deceived by schools who said their children were gifted, it was those moms and dads leaning on school boards shaking them down for the A's that would get their kids into Ivy League schools.

The second, unrelated phenomenon was the mistake of motivating folks with "My kid is an honor student" bumper stickers. One would rather face the mom of a starving tiger cub than tell a parent of a kid with a B-minus average they cannot have a bumper sticker.

It's a paper chase, right? We all want the best for our kids, perfectly natural. They do not need to know anything to get into Harvard, they need a 4.0 average! Grade by grade, paper by paper: "Why is this not an A? Show me what is wrong with this?". Of course A means "exceptional" and C means "nothing really wrong with it", but the standard had shifted. Everyone was now "A until proven unsatisfactory".

I saw this first-hand in 1973, years earlier, in one of my last undergraduate classes. A student-friendly, socially-correct, left-wing professor was spending class time on a defense. Of some new research result? No, of the scores he had given on our most recent test. I had not done very well, but I was from the outset appalled at the idea of him defending his scoring.

His process involved reading a question from the essay exam and then reading an answer to which he had given full credit. There was one question worth seven points, and when he read the answer I thought I was listening to a speech by Bill Clinton. Finally, it came to an end.

"That's an awful lot for a seven," said one of the leaders of the scoring rebellion.

"Isn't that what a seven is supposed to mean?" I asked from the back of the room, surprising even myself.

The rebel blustered, the professor retreated under cover of the fire I had unintentionally provided.

"I have nothing to add to your dialogue," he said.

But there it was. 1973 and the new standard for "full marks" was "I covered the minimum."

By the way, if upper middle class Ivy-seeking parents are not being misled, perhaps the inner city parents are? That was where I did the bulk of my teaching, and there the story was different. One of the greatest teachersI had ever known  (an African-American, FWIW) filled me in: no one failed. If they put in their time, they got their high school degree. Why?

Think Wizard of Oz. He gave Scarecrow a diploma, and explained rather accurately that that was the only thing he needed.  This teacher was explaining that, no matter what, the kids would get their high school diplomas, so they would have a shot in the job market.

The CCSS crowd is about to discover that standards and tests alone will not change the world, because tougher standards and tests will just fail lots of students.

Their premise is that schools and teachers will be able to get students up to the standards as long as they are threatened with closings and termination, that it is just a matter of will.

Nonsense, but that's another blog entry.