Thursday, November 25, 2021

Ask the Blogger: Should every skill taught in public education be coded with an employment skill to verify its validity?

Should every skill taught in public education be coded with an employment skill to verify its validity? 


Why not? 

Well, here are some reasons why not: 

  1. School is not training for a job. School is about teaching all the things that *every* job and life moment has in common, and then allowing students to expand that in certain directions. I'm going to insist that you learn certain math ideas that may only be interesting because they're beautiful, or useful in part in your job or future.
  2. Some skills might not be applicable to employment but rather be foundational to some other, more complex, skill taught in school. Those skills are needed even if they can't be tied to "accounting" or "car mechanic".
  3. “Validity” is a really curious word to apply here because what you think is a valid skill for your employment might be useless to me. My artist friends use proportions - no algebra, ever. How does a teacher know what job you'll be doing and thus what "skill" you'll need? Do I just assume that all boys need math and none of the girls will?
  4. The question “When am I ever gonna have to use this?” is a tired ploy used by lazy teenagers. The answer is always and never. Could be never, could be every day, could be at work, could be your hobby, could be you completely changing your career because of a pandemic or some other unforeseen upheaval.
Skills are an odd thing to focus on because neither I nor the student have the slightest clue what the student will need since none of us has any idea what we’ll be doing, nor do we know what skills we’ll need. 

When I was in HS, the mainframe computer had a whopping 5MB of storage. My first program was holes representing letters punched line by line into cards using Fortran. Many of the skills I learned then have been made obsolete by the supercomputer in my pocket. 

The first job I thought I would be doing for the rest of my life no longer exists. 

If I go by what I see on the internet, spelling and grammar are no longer important, and neither is logic, critical thinking, empathy or sympathy, number sense, morals. Just because *you* don't use it doesn't mean it's useless; it should still be taught even if you can't determine its "validity" to employment. QAnon is a perfect example of a lack of critical thinking.

Some of the most successful people on the planet are utter bastards, their primary skill being a lack of empathy, a total disdain for anyone, and the willingness to screw over anyone and everyone. I have no desire to teach those “valid” skills. 

The incredible tediousness of linking every skill to *every possible application for that skill*, even if you could define exactly when a particular student would need to add or subtract integers. 

Bottom line? I’m teaching and you’re not. I’ve seen lots of “reform” that worked and lots that didn’t, but even more that wasted our time, mponey, and effort while having no noticeable benefit whatsoever.

I’ve seen the long-term effects of curriculum gaps and I’ve seen when what we do is exactly right. As a long-time teacher, I have a very clear sense of “what’s important” and I’ll fight for it. 

I don’t frankly care about uninformed ideas about “what ought to be done” because I’ve seen the aftermath of those bright ideas that weren’t so bright and weren’t original. 

 I do care about the bright ideas that haven’t failed yet. Those I’ll try. 

The problem with your question? We’ve tried it several times and it’s failed to produce any of it's stated benefits every single time.

Monday, July 20, 2020

Ask The Blogger: Do We Stick to the Curriculum?

Sure. We are always editing the curricula for our classes because we all have different experiences and we have different priorities.

I’ve got an engineering degree. I used math for practical reasons, doing hands-on problems. I want my students to understand why it’s necessary by doing the same kinds of things with the math that I did and that they will need to do in their futures.

To a math major, that’s a pentagon. It’s got an apothem, a radius, and a side length. To me, that’s a five-bolt pattern that needs to be milled into a block of aluminum for a wheel, and you measure it “this way, between the top bolt and the center of the third bolt”.

VT doesn’t mandate any curriculum, but our school has basically adopted the CCSS. It has some limited technology requirements, but I have kids use spreadsheets, DESMOS, wolframalpha, geogebra, laser transits, etc., whenever I can.

The statistics book and the SAT use examples that contain 12 data points. I like to give them ones that have at least 1000. Is spreadsheet facility a part of the standards? No, but my students come back and tell me how useful and helpful that knowledge is.

We’ve all got our strengths; we’ve got our preferences and dislikes for which courses we teach. We are always changing up what we teach if we think we can give our kids an edge.

Narrator: The curriculum is a minimum.

Friday, February 7, 2020

The Walter Mitty President

"Trump will say anything to rally his base. He wants to be re-elected."

I don't think that's his primary motivation for saying the things he does, for doing the things, for telling the lies. I think this is his version of self-help therapy, a free-association riff with feedback from the audience instead of from a psychiatrist.

Hear me out.

Being President is scary to him. He knows he can't really do the job, and he thinks that it's a great way to make money and get some revenge on all the NJ and NY people who've made fun of him for the last forty years in the NYPost and elsewhere. "I'm more successful than you are" is *still* a big driver for him.

But his primary motivation for the bullshit? The reaction. Not to motivate the base. He can't see the base, or hear them. When he speaks, he reacts to every reaction, and modifies his next few sentences to maximize that reaction. He's surfing on the attention, twisting back and forth, letting the swells of attention guide his words.

If he says something and doesn't get that immediate scream of adulation, he'll switch to something that does. When he does get it, he riffs on it, milking it for everything it's worth.

He needs that feedback. He's not in control of his speeches; his listeners are. He provides the endless stream of consciousness drivel and the audience guides it with their cheers. The more you praise and worship his awesomeness, the more he gives you. The more attention he gets, the more he gives to get more of it. The attention is the drug that drives Trump. 

A reporter asks one of those leading questions that answers itself; his response is that of the school bully because he doesn't have a good reply. If the reporter asks a real question that pins him down, or makes it obvious that he failed, the network is banned or denied a press pass. Ask a softball question and he's your friend and he calls you at your desk at FoxNews, desperate for more pats on the head.
He needs it because deep down, he knows he isn't good at what he does. He failed at business over and over, going bankrupt, losing money. He knows that he's taken a huge fortune and turned it into a lesser one, and he's scared shitless that SDNY will get his tax returns and prove it.

He sucks at almost everything he's done. His marriages fail, his kids are messed up, he's a laughingstock to any competent person. He is the figurehead who failed at business, failed at family, failed at being President. The people with power couldn't give less of a shit about him as long as he doesn't get in their way; he's the useful idiot.

Border wall? That was never a big deal until he started getting "shocked" faces and bitter denunciations. He threw it up and saw it stick to the wall, and kept right on going. He doesn't care about a wall -- he only cares about "trolling the libs" and getting his fix.

And then he stands in front of a rally and people cheer. For a few minutes, he can dream that someone loves him.

Saturday, January 4, 2020

Teaching Grammar

I was wasting time the other day, reading an article that my browser labeled "5 Administrative Tasks that Waste Teachers' Time" even though the actual title at the top of the article itself was "5 Things Teachers Do Every Day That Are a Complete Waste of Time."

Irony? I think that qualifies as irony. But, I digress.

The article listed the following:
  1. Write the standard on the board. 
  2. Teach grammar. 
  3. Grade daily work. 
  4. Collect data. 
  5. Enforce the dress code. 
Wait, what?  One item at a time, shall we?

Enforce the dress code - that's a tough one. Dress codes are usually so one-sidedly sexist that I want to reject them outright and as a man (he/him/Mr.), I will always be over-cautious when it comes to enforcing dress code violations. Yeah, this can an administrator's job. I've got better things to worry about.

Collect data - data is good, as long as it is collected without extra effort on anyone's part. I see no reason to fill out paper forms, hand out paper exit tickets, or collect paper that only services data collection. If you tell me I have time to transcribe data, then I would have far more time if you understood that I can distill that raw data into more meaningful information.

I can ask for a show of hands. Clicker cards. Exit tickets and homework checks with Google Forms. That raw data is useless to anyone but me and instantly obsolete. My interpretation of that data is useful - we call that interpretation "Grades". That's what you pay me for. If you demand the detail, then I'll send you a blizzard of it and then pester you often for your interpretation of it, until you admit that it's not working for you.

I read further; that isn't what they meant:
It seems there’s always some kid who desperately needs an IEP but doesn’t have one, which means we have to go through the process to get the kid services. Yes, it’s incredibly important to provide kids with the accommodations they need. But spending 20 minutes twice a week using some “intervention” one-on-one just to prove that it doesn’t work, then giving a “probe” that’s completely unrelated to my curriculum or the skills the kid needs? That’s meaningless paperwork, and it takes away from my students’ learning.
The author is an ass.

The IEP has the power of a legal contract. It says what the school agrees to do, and by extension, me. They're important. If it says "20 minutes, twice a week" then it has to happen. To be fair, the author (Captain Awesome, apparently) teaches in the UK, so maybe things are different. In my school, the teacher is part of the team that decides what the school can guarantee to do, and we are expected to object if an intervention is truly impossible to fulfill; a school resource professional takes up the slack.

Grade Daily Work - no argument there. If we're using a normal 100-pt scale, tests are 100-150pts.  That means homework or classwork is 0pts or 5pts, depending on "an honest attempt". In the current SBG, this stuff is "formative" and carries no value to the grade. Either way, I'll tell you how you are doing, but I won't grade it.

Write the Standard on the Board. Yep, waste of time. Especially for us. Our administration has declared that each course has one "Power Standard" each term (8 terms). The same words are posted for a month; it's not particularly useful. If you mean "Daily Learning Target" should be posted, then that's different. I doubt that posting it has much purpose or improves the teaching in any way, but I'll do it if my paycheck depends on it.

Teach Grammar. WTF? Grammar is vital. (I'm assuming that Captain Awesome is an English teacher). Grammar to an English teacher is analogous to arithmetic and mental mathematics to a math teacher - it's basic, vital, and perilous if overlooked.

Take the line: y = (3/7)x + 2

What numbers would you substitute for x to get three points that you can graph? Why? If they aren't saying "-7, 0, and 7 because fractions", then you have a problem. You really shouldn't be moving on without this conversation because they can save so much pointless mental anguish trying to graph (3, 12/7) or (3,1&5/7) -- this takes up all their abilities and they miss this new idea of a linear function.  A slope of 100/250 can be reduced to 2/5 or 0.2, but can also be thought of as 100 up and 250 over, or 100 hits in 250 at-bats.

Grammar is similar. If it's understood, then your students can use it and communicate clearly and easily. If they don't "get" it, then you need to stop what you're doing and dive in.

I teach SAT prep. Most of the math I do is review. Let's look at this again, now that you basically know what to do but perhaps have forgotten "why?". Show me you can write the equations that model "$500 pays for 14 bags and 200 pounds overweight, or "kilometers are roughly five-eighths of a mile, so 55mph is equal to how many kph?".

Funny enough, I also have to review for the Verbal Test.

"The students' knowledge of grammar (is/are) laughable."
They can't identify the subject, so how are they supposed to know subject-verb agreement? "Clause" only has meaning at Christmas and adverbs are much the same as proverbs, apparently. "Past tense" is an easy concept as long as you know the meaning of "tense" in this context, and most students don't.

In fact, the only kids who understand English grammar are the ones who are in at least their second year of a foreign language.

Bah, Humbug.

I've got to get back to work.

Wednesday, January 1, 2020

Ask the Narrator: SAT

Q: Does the college SAT accurately measure one’s intelligence level, or is it simply a comparative tool?


The SAT is not about intelligence. It is testing English grammar, writing, and reading skills; and algebraic interpretation and computation, along with some statistics and a bit of geometry and trig. It does not go a very good job of predicting success; high school transcripts are better, and correlate with college success fairly well.

What the SAT does do well is help the college admissions staff. Is this A average as good as that one? Does this student’s straight A transcript represent good grades in hard math courses or are the courses mislabeled? Are the teachers over- or under- grading?

If you got As in math through “precalculus” but score a 450 in math, that’s telling. If there’s nothing else in the application that explains this discrepancy, like documented test anxiety, then the school’s math department is doing a lot of “social promotion”. The SAT is a pretty good “comparative tool”, but perhaps not in the way you intended.

So why is your transcript a better predictor of college success?

Because the transcript (HS grades, really) correlates with hard work, willingness to learn and accept extra help, self-motivation, willingness to do assignments and homework as well as possible. Innate ability is a factor, but can easily be derailed by a lack of the other characteristics.

Perhaps not too surprising, those are the same characteristics that make a great college student. Innate intelligence is great in college but as a newly-minted adult with all of the responsibility and none of the external “controlling factors”, college students are far too often sabotaged by their own lack of control.

Also, Narrator:

With this attitude so widespread, is it any wonder that college kids can't get their heads straight?

Wednesday, December 18, 2019

Ask the Blogger: Slept through Final Exam

Ask The Blogger:

I accidentally slept through my exam, which is worth 50%. Should I ask my professor for a redo, or would that look bad?


You should absolutely ask. The answer is probably “No”, but there is small chance of “yes”.

The one thing you should do is be honest, admit to the mistake, and see if there’s another administration of the exam possible. It helps if you already have a good rapport with your professor, attended office hours, asked intelligent questions, and demonstrated your willingness to do the work and learn.

If you try to BS your way through it, you’ll be flat-out rejected. Professors get this all the time. There’s a joke going around about the effect exams have on grandparents’ health in that they tend to die right around finals week, and somewhat surprisingly, a single grandparent will occasionally die more than once. Lies will absolutely come back to haunt you to the end of your career in that department.

If you’ve never talked to them before, you won’t get anywhere, either. It’s very easy to point to the clock and remind you that the information was in the syllabus that you obviously hadn’t read and that the course would be offered again. It’s harder for them to do that if they know that you have been working hard and been involved with the course.

Don’t get angry. You screwed up.

Don’t complain. It’s your fault.

There are no excuses that will work here. Only an explanation and a hope that there was some reason that an alternative final was already planned, and that you’d be allowed into that session.


Sadly, the answer was "no" but, in the long run, it all worked out for our student. They retook the course, got straight As, and found that this paved the way for a degree path that was much more fulfilling. Later, they found themselves doing research with that professor, earning second-line mention on the resulting paper.

Saturday, December 14, 2019

Ask The Blogger: Admission Revocation

Ask the Curmudgeon:

If I was accepted by Early Decision, can the college revoke my acceptance? Are there typical grades that must be maintained for the HS senior year in order to attend the college?


“Senioritis” is students’ attempt to excuse lazy, selfish behavior. You may think this time is your “last months before getting serious” but it is actually not.

High school is for teens who are not quite ready to be adults. Senior year is the transition. Senior year is when you need to demonstrate to yourself that you can be an adult, accept responsibility, stand up under pressure, look out for your better interests, academically invest in yourself. (and to the faculty and parents, but mostly to *you*)

You need to arrive in college able to adapt to oddball professors, advocate for yourself (since advisors rarely do as much as you think they should), get out and learn rather than sit back and passively absorb whatever gets past your AirBud filters, discipline yourself with completing the workload, limit your distractions and maximize the education opportunities you’re paying a lot of money for.

If you can’t do that in the protected, slightly limited HS setting, what makes you think that you’ll magically be able to do so 6 months later when you are in college?

Why does anyone consider that doing nothing academically is a good preparation for spending $30,000 per year doing academic things?

Can the college revoke your acceptance? Yes.

If you prove that you can’t resist slacking off, if you aren’t ready for the challenges and sheer joys of college, then you should be grateful if they do.


Sadly, he heard the advice, but didn't listen to it.

Tuesday, December 10, 2019

Ask the Narrator: Flags

Ask The Narrator:

"I fly the Stars and Bars and a Trump flag. LGBTQ aquintances have said that it's hurtful. I said, 'You might as well de-friend me now because I have a Trump 2020 flag hanging out front of my house and a Confederate flag hanging in my office. I hope you don't de-friend me though.'  Am I the Asshole?"

Narrator: Yes.

If that is how you truly feel, that all the things those two flags represent is ok with you, why should anyone who has been targeted by people waving those flags say "Yeah, that's alright. He must be nice in other ways"?

What parts of those philosophies do you reject - any part? Are you ok with slavery? With white supremacy? You okay telling people that you support a President who will behave in such a fashion and say the things he said about POC, immigrants, etc, all while promoting policies that actively harm other people? If so, don't be surprised at the reaction you get.

I tell my students, "If you stand here and say 'You can't stop me from saying this or believing that, I don't care what you think" - don't be surprised if people accept your statement and shut you out."

Words have meanings.
If you don't agree with them, don't say them.

Flags have meanings.
If you don't really mean all that they represent, don't fly them. It definitely sucks if you believe in Libertarian ideals and consider the Gadsden Flag appropriate, but you also must realize that far more people fly that banner with very different intentions.

If you know that something you say (and flying the stars and bars is definitely speech) will aggravate, or anger, or depress, or disappoint someone else and you say it anyway, don't be surprised if they take you at your word.

You have rights to speech, but not to my company or to the company of people targeted by many of those who fly those two flags.

You *might* be the one holdout, the one nice guy flying those flags. But I doubt it.

Saturday, November 16, 2019

Ask the Narrator: Apps

Warning: The narrator of this blog is "going there".

Ask the Narrator: An App

What do you think about an app that helps parents to easily communicate with teachers towards the educational welfare of students both at school and at home?


I’d have to look at it to be able to say. A few things about your question jump out, though.

“app” & “easily communicate” — you mean like email, texting, facebook clone, instagram, whatsapp, slack, messenger, facetime, …?

As a teacher, I don’t want this much communication with every one of my students parents because my job is teaching, not socializing. The biggest problem teachers have with parents is getting them to let go the reins, stop the constant hovering, … essentially to back off and let their children learn in peace.

Younger children need more oversight, but high school kids much less so. Juniors and seniors are nearly adults. HS is the time to learn self-control, self-motivation, learn from mistakes, break away from Momma and get out of bed on their own, take responsibility for their own education …. now, before it costs $30,000 per year.

“Educational welfare” — what does that even mean?

“at school and at home” — Children at school are my responsibility not the parents’. Children at home are their parents’ responsibility, not mine. Mixing these is where the most egregious problems happen.

Unless, of course, if you’d like me to express my opinions on your ability to cook a nutritious meal, refrain from attending that ridiculous church, comment on your parenting skills, criticize your gun control views, tell you that your kid should be studying rather than having a part-time job, question your support of Trump despite all the evidence, point out that being poor is your fault … and let’s not get into the fact that your divorce from the third man in your kid’s life is really messing her up and causing psychological problems.

Before you argue that all of that would never happen because teachers are just peachy-keen and awesome, supportive people, I have to mention that each one of those comments did happen in local districts or in my own district, and everyone wasn’t particularly happy. (Side note: being a union representative can be soooo interesting, sometimes)

I guess I’ve answered your question, after all.

I don’t want that app.

Fortunately for me, you don’t either.

Monday, November 11, 2019

Ask the Narrator: Taxes for Education

"I'm sick of paying for everyone else's kids to go to school. Why can't people without children pay smaller amounts of school tax than people with children?"

Ask The Narrator

Because you’re not paying for a child to go to school. You are paying taxes in a town, and that town is funding a school for any child who lives in the district. You aren’t driving on every road the town maintains, nor using all of the services available, or even paying all that much and you may have children in that district someday.

Mostly, you are living in a civilized society and that society believes that every child deserves an education.

Some numbers. I pay about $3000 per year on my property taxes for education. I will probably pay those taxes from age 24 - 64 (after that, education taxes are minimal or zero) - so a total contribution of $120,000, which sounds like a lot but it's over 40 years. However, the town guarantees an education to any child … all of mine, any step children, foster children, grandchildren if the kids get in trouble and can’t take care of them, children of relatives if we all want them to be in a better school system, immigrant children if we decide to sponsor them, … each one costing about $15,000 per year. And that’s just my household. Homeless or orphaned, single parent or two, black or white or something in between, disabled or genius or both or neither, athlete or nerd.

My lifetime taxes pay for one child, K-9th grade. Cheap at the price.

It’s just like buying home insurance that you never used because your house never burns down ... but you bought it anyway.

Then, we have the argument that "I don't want my kids to go to public school ... why can't I spend MY money the way I want to? Gimme a full-tuition voucher to a private school."

Because it isn't your money. You don't get to contribute $3000 per year and get a check for $30,000 to send your two kids to Catholic School. And, as above, that tax money is being used by the town to provide an inexpensive education for its citizens. If you don't want to take advantage of that offer, that's fine, but you don't then get to demand they pay for your whims.

If your local school sucks, perhaps you might consider helping to change it and fix it instead of selfishly trying to destroy it with no replacement.

Sunday, November 10, 2019

Ask The Narrator: Mandatory College For All

Recently, the Narrator was asked if college would ever be made mandatory like K12 is. The narrator says no.

Ask The Narrator

"Will college ever be mandatory?" 

K-12 students, by and large, are not yet adults. You can’t require college for adults. 

Being the Narrator allows for extending the question.

"Should there be college for all?"

College isn’t for everyone in the first place, isn’t appropriate for many who do wind up going, and isn’t appropriate for everyone at the exact age they graduate high school.

No, the most you can do is put policies into place to encourage college for all, but you need to have some mechanisms to keep out those who don’t really want to be there.

"Should there be programs to offer aid (up to free tuition) to all?" 


Four-year college is the pinnacle in the minds of most Americans, but that's ridiculous. Two-year degrees are just as worthwhile to many people because of differing aspirations, abilities, and life situations. So are tech programs, certifications programs and that sort of thing. 

If we can provide tuition for a four-year degree at a State School (which I think we can and should do), why not also help out with the retraining costs for someone who wants to be a long-haul trucker and help them get a CDL? Why not help the office worker who wants to retrain as an accountant?

Why should we wait for the plant to close and lay off all its workers before we help them get training in another field if they want to put in the considerable time and effort?

Monday, November 4, 2019

Ask the Narrator: SAT prep tactics

Ask the Narrator

Q: How do I prepare for the math SAT?

A: Hard work. There is no "Royal Road to Success."

Learn math every day.

Practice math every day.

Take your courses seriously every day.

See math problems as a challenge you can beat, not a chore you have to suffer through.

It takes deliberate practice, like the stuff you do to improve at soccer or chess, instead of half-assing your way through something just to finish it; that's the only way to succeed at anything, especially math.

Improve your arithmetic skills: mental math (for quick estimation), fractions, percents. Not having to worry about these will free your mind for more complicated parts of the questions.

Practice reading word problems and converting to algebra - there are plenty of questions like this on the SAT. You can find 8 sample tests on the collegeboard website - download them and take them.

Find out if anyone in your school has taken the SAT and requested (and paid for) the wrong answer report. If you can afford it, request it yourself when you take the test. Reviewing these questions helps a lot.

Finally, understand that the SAT is made up of the stuff you learned in:
  • Pre-Algebra (the statistics questions are at this level), 
  • Algebra 1 (especially word problems in systems of linear equations), 
  • Geometry, and a smidgeon of trig (mostly the right-triangle trig from ch8 in Geometry),
  • Algebra 2 (the raw, pure algebra of weird-looking expressions that factor nicely, etc.).

Saturday, November 2, 2019

Ask the Narrator: Class size

In the spirit of all of those movies with a Narrator voice-over ...

It's the Inaugural Episode of ...

Ask The Narrator

What is the optimal classroom size for creating the best quality learning environment?

I like my math classes between 10 and 18.

Fewer than 10 leads to too much of a tutoring situation. The student has to be “on” at all times, and misses out on being able to sit back and consider while someone else asks that same “dumb” question.

More than 18 allows students to hide and you can’t “check in” with them enough in a class period and they don’t learn as much or as well.

More than 24 kids in a class means that the kids on the edges are essentially taking a live-action but on-line class. They don’t ask questions, they don’t work very hard, they skate through and maybe learn something - or not; it’s as if you weren’t even there.