Adults don’t read much

I ran across an alarming survey of adult reading patterns from PEW. Less than three-fourths of adults (just 72%) said they had read a book in the previous 12 months (the survey was taken in March/April 2015). This is down from 79% in 2011. Men were less likely to have read a book than were women (67% compared to 77%).

Younger adults were most likely to have read a book–80% of those age 18-29 had read a book compared to 71% at age 30-49, 68% of those 50-64, and 69% of those older than 64. Those with more education and higher incomes were more likely to have read.

But even those who read, don’t read much. According to the study the median was 4 books read and the mean is 12. (Unfortunately, the study does not say if the calculation excluded those who had not read any book.) Again, there was a gender difference. The median was 3 books for men, 5 for women, and the mean was 9 for men and 14 for females. Again, those with more education had read more books. But even those who graduated from college had a mean of just 7, although the median was better at 17.

The large difference between the median and the mean shows there was a sizable group who read far more than the mean.

Now, one can argue that there is nothing miraculous about reading that makes someone a better person or even informed. A person who reads the newspaper every day and watches PBS science shows may be better informed than someone who read 20 Star Wars novels in the last year (although I’d argue that reading a book forces the reader to interpret words and so is less passive than watching even good television.)

I’d love to see a survey that compared the views and civic participation of readers versus non-readers (controlling for income and education of course). Unfortunately, this study did not.

Reactions to “Stop Humiliating Teachers”

David Denby makes some good points in his The New Yorker article “Stop Humiliating Teachers”.  It does seem like a lot of the recent school reform movement has focused blame on teachers. Republicans and Democrats vie with each other over who could demand the most accountability from teachers, remove bad teachers, bust unions, privatize schools, and link teacher pay to student test performance. As a result teachers feel demoralized by high stakes teaching. Yet, the article claims, the real problem is that we don’t know how to educate children from families in poverty, especially African American boys.

Unfortunately, there is plenty of evidence that shows students from higher income families are not doing as well as their counterparts in other nations either. And, the testing and accountability movement was started because of low achievement so getting rid of them won’t solve the problem. At best, their removal will just return us to the problems we had before.

Yes, fixing poverty is necessary, but not sufficient. The big problem with the accountability movement is that it never really answers the question of where we can find better teachers. Teach for America has had some success but most of these teachers leave after two years, just when they’re beginning to get a handle on how to teach. Moreover reform that try to standardize teaching, by focusing on teaching to the test and removing the creative elements, will, if anything, discourage good people from staying in the field.

And of course, there is the problem of salaries. The average teacher salary in 2011-2012 was $46,340 for a teacher with a bachelor’s degree and $57,830 for a teacher with a Master’s degree.   or $56,689 in 2013-14. By contrast, in 2012, the average salary for a bachelor degree holder was $60,159 and a Master degree holder $75,008.  So those choosing to go into teaching receive salaries substantially lower than others with the same degree of education.  Yes, teachers in-school hours are less than most workers in other fields. But in-school hours do not count the time teachers spend planning lessons and grading papers. A teacher with 5 periods of 30 students each would have 150 students. So a test that took a minute per student to grade would take the teacher two and a half hours. An essay that took five minutes to read and grade would take 12 and a half hours. So, teaching requires more time than just the hours spent in front of students. If we want more good people to become teachers and stay in the field, we will need to pay them more money, and give them more respect.

A Contradiction in NPR’s 2016 Education Predictions

NPR’s Claudio Sanchez has a contradiction in his education predictions for 2016. He notes that the new education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act, shifts education oversight to the states and predicts a continuing drop on test scores linked to the Common Core. Yet, at the same time, he predicts a decline in the controversy over the Common Core State Standards and no “race to the bottom.”

However, this ignores election year politics. Conservative Republicans have had great success attacking the CCSS in the past, often making inaccurate statements about what’s included, federal mandates, and how it was adopted. So, in an election year, what better subject to use to rally support? Also, if Jeb Bush starts to rise in the polls, his opponents could attack his strong support for the standards. I’d predict greater attention to the CCSS in the presidential campaign and probably in state elections as well.

At the same time, when scores start dropping, the opponents of standards on the left will continue their attack on standards. With less federal oversight and both left and right decrying the Common Core, more states will effectively neuter the CCSS by replacing the Smarter Balanced or PARCC tests with tests under their own control (or with SAT/ACT tests).

We’re already seeing this. At one point PARCC had 24 states. They are now down to 12 (counting DC) and Education Week speculated in August that as few as six states might give the exam this year. Smarter Balanced has 18 states plus Puerto Rico.

And of course, with each state that drops a common test, the cost per student goes up, making it more expensive. At the same time, with fewer states taking each test, it becomes less useful as a way to compare students across states (one of the frequently cited advantages of common tests.)

So, with less federal oversight, states will be more willing to drop the Common Core completely or at least the Common Core tests.

Claimed College Readiness Numbers Are Lower than Actual College Attainment Numbers

Over the holidays, people may have missed this NYT piece about fears that rising graduation rates (82% for the class of 2014) show how it has become too easy to graduate from college. Fears of lower standards is one reason for the Common Core and the whole standardized testing movement. There’s little evidence of falling achievement—some people point to declines in SAT scores, but this has more to do with changes in the number and population taking the test. Still, the percentage deemed college-ready is very low. The article cites how in the most recent 12th grade NAEP (2013), less than two-fifths (40%) met the National Assessment Governing Board’s criteria for college readiness.

However, this is misleading, because more than 40% go on to college and graduate. According to census data from 2014, among Americans age 25 – 29, 64.3% have gone on to college. Yes, some of these left before gaining a degree, but this could be due to nonacademic reasons such as the high cost of college. The percent who finished college is still higher than NAEP’s 40% figure. Among age 25-29, 44.1% had a college degree, and among age 30-34, 47.3% did.

Moreover, the NAEP figure only includes those taking the exam at the end of the senior year, so excludes dropouts. When I exclude K-12 dropouts from the college calculations, the percentage of high school graduates who earn a college degree goes to 48.5% at age 25-29 and 53% at age 30-34.

Since there most likely were some students who left college for non-academic reasons, the actual percentage who could have finished college is most likely higher. Yes, colleges have remedial courses and resources to help low-achieving students, and some who were not college ready in their high school senior year may have become ready after spending time in the workplace. Still, it does not seem realistic that 53% of high school graduates would be able to graduate from college if only 39% were college-ready.

Now since those age 30-34 would have graduated high school 12-16 years ago, it is possible that today’s high school graduates have fallen behind. However, comparing long term trends data from 2012 and 1996 (, show only a one point drop in math and a one point drop in reading. So it is unlikely that there was a large difference in student performance that could account for 30-34 year olds being more college ready while they were in high school.

Of course, America needs more students to graduate college-ready and more students to complete college. Because so many jobs require further education, all Americans need to graduate high school and complete some form of postsecondary education or job training. Still, it is overly alarmist to claim that less than 40% of seniors are college ready when 53% graduate from college.

Universities Aren’t Supposed to Be Community Colleges

In the Washington Post Steven Pearlstein wrote that the cost of college is increasing while students are getting less from college. He calls for capping administrative costs, operating year round and five days a week, more teaching with less mediocre research, and cheaper and better general education.

But he doesn’t seem to recognize that we already have this in the nation’s community college system. Public two-year colleges enroll nearly two-fifths of undergraduates, at lower costs than four-year schools, frequently operate with courses in the evenings and in summer, rarely require research of their professors, and in many cases offer general education courses so that an associate degree can substitute for two years at a state university.

So Pearlstein is essentially asking why research universities can’t be more like community colleges. To which, the logical answer is because we already have community colleges. And community colleges already do a great job at being community colleges.

One of the reasons why people apply to the research universities in such large numbers is because the experience there is different. Because the professors are engaged in research, they are like students themselves, trying to find new things. So their teaching is infused with the wonder of discovery.

Yes they do not always do a good job with the general education courses, the basics that are frequently left to graduate students and the most junior of faculty. But the best university courses happen when professors talk on their own specialty, about what they have discovered and the new connections they have made. In the same way people love to hear authors read their own work, something amazing happens listening to an expert talking about something they know better than almost anyone else in the world. This enthusiasm, this love for the content, can come through in their lectures and motivate students.

This is what the research university does better than anything else. And this inspiration is what would get lost if we transform universities into four year community colleges, lectures on computer or discs, or online.

Different students are attracted to research universities and to community colleges because they meet different needs and have different goals. We need both research universities and community colleges.

Misleading information on charter schools

The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools released a statement challenging Hillary Clinton’s townhall statements about charters. I examined their statements and found them technically accurate but misleading. The first few make an apples to oranges comparison of all charters to all other public schools, even though the percentage of charters in urban locations (which have a higher percentage of English Language students) is twice that of all public schools. The other statements cherry pick data.


“There is no difference in the percentage of English Language Learner (ELL) students served between charter and non-charter public schools.”

Technically, this is correct. The percentage is slightly higher in charter schools, according to their source, 9.1% at traditional public and 9.8 at charters.  However, this is actually an apples and oranges issue. The same source says that city schools are 15.1% ELL students while rural schools are 4.8% (suburban are 8.6% and rural 4.8%). But Digest of Education Statistics Table 216.30 shows that over half of all charters are urban (56.7%) compared to only a quarter (25%) of noncharter public schools. Also just 10.8% of charters are rural compared to 29% of noncharters. So based on location, if charters were reflecting the ELL percentage of their community, we’d expect a higher percentage for charters. A more accurate comparison would compare the percentage of ELL students in charters and traditional public schools in the same district lines.

Also, the same source says that only 65.6% of charters have at least one ELL student compared to 74.3% of traditional public schools.


 “37% of charter schools have at least 75% of their students in poverty as compared to 23% of non-charter schools.”

Again, because the percentage of charters that are urban is twice that of noncharters, this comparison is misleading. According to the Department of Education’s Condition of Education report, in 2010, 38% of city schools have at least 75% of students eligible for free or reduced price lunch compared to 10% of rural schools. A better comparison would be poverty in the charter schools compared to poverty in the district.


“Nationally, in the 2013-14 school year, charter schools served a higher-percentage of low-income students (57%) – than district-run schools (52%) – and have better outcomes”

The first half is just a variant on the previous statement. Again, as poverty is not evenly distributed, a better comparison would be charter schools to noncharters in the same district.

Also the link provided as evidence of better outcomes was to a CREDO study that compared urban charter schools to other urban schools in the same community (precisely what I advocate above for their other measures).  Moreover, this report was for urban schools only. It does not prove better outcomes for the other half of charter schools. A different CREDO study looked at all charter locations in the participating states but this national study found only a slight advantage (the equivalent of eight extra days) for charters in reading and no difference in math.


“2015 NAEP scores show that in Los Angeles, there was dramatically better student performance in charter schools than with district-run schools. Proficiency rates were triple that of non-charter schools. Los Angeles charter schools demographics are 75% low-income students and 85% of student have minority status.”


This is a classic example of cherry picking the data. Los Angeles is just one of several districts on which NAEP provides information. But if they didn’t cherry pick, they couldn’t claim an advantage for charters. Overall, there was no statistical significance between in the difference between charter and noncharter NAEP scores for large cities.

I also compared charter/noncharter for national public overall. The only statistical significance was in fourth grade math where noncharter public students outscored charter students.


“In New York City, charter public schools do a better job of retaining students with disabilities than their non-charter public school counterparts. Specifically, 53% of charter school kindergarteners with disabilities were still in the same schools 4 years later, compared with 49% of non-charter schools.

This is accurate. It makes the right comparison, unlike the others above, comparing NYC’s charters to noncharters. Again, however, this is only one district and, as the report only looked at NYC schools, there is no way of knowing if this is true for other districts.


So, overall, this statement is completely truthful in what it says but highly misleading. Mathematically, because the percentage of urban schools among charters is twice that of non-charters, urban charters could serve a lower percentage of ELL and low-income students than their neighboring noncharter schools, and still have higher percentages compared to all public schools (in all locations).


Jay Mathews wrote in the Washington Post about the impressive turnaround improvements made by the JEB Stuart High School in Fairfax County, VA. But enabling students to succeed shouldn’t require teachers to come in on Saturday and risk their health by not taking recovery time after surgery. In 2014, the average salary for Fairfax teachers was $67,245. American education shouldn’t have to depend on teachers’ willingness to go to extraordinary lengths for that kind of pay.

That’s why many education groups have joined together as TeachStrong to work for better teachers and better support for teachers. The Center for American Progress launched the group and a new report, Smart, Skilled, and Striving: Transforming and Elevating the Teaching Profession calling for:

  1. High bar for recruitment and selection
  2. Excellent and relevant preparation and support
  3. Schools designed to attract and retain great teachers
  4. Opportunities for growth in leadership responsibilities, as well as pay

All this is important, but in the real world, as long as teaching is undervalued and underpaid, people will still be put in the classroom with just six weeks of training, teachers trained in one area will still be forced to teach out of field in another area, and classrooms will be filled with teachers whose real talent is acting as coaches for sports teams. We will have to improve people’s respect for teachers and improve the conditions under which they serve so they can be successful without requiring superhuman efforts.

Response to Dintersmith on the purpose of school

Ted Dintersmith has some interesting ideas in his Answer Sheet post He points out that students retain very little of what they are taught in school and that schools aren’t teaching what is needed for innovation and teach more irrelevant content than useful life schools. Worse yet, the concern for having students produce the expected right answer narrows thinking and joy in learning. His answer is schools focused on deeper learning, with a focus on project based learning such as the New Tech High Schools and Expeditionary Learning schools.

The basic problem is too many people think the purpose of school is exposure to content rather than education’s effects on attitudes and abilities. There are a few exceptions, such as teaching how to write an essay in English or solve problems in math (although even here, many teachers reduce this to using a memorized formula without understanding it.) But too often the view is that if we don’t have students read Shakespeare in school or learn about the Civil War in history or about the planets in science, they never will be exposed to this knowledge. So we don’t consider why people need to know this or how this subject can be used to build students’ skills or change their beliefs. Too often, this leads to school as an exercise in short term memorization. Dintersmith cites a study where students averaged a B+ on their science final exams in June, but an F when they retook the exams after summer vacation.

Of course, this is not to say that content should be eliminated. There are things that are important for students to know and do need to be covered in school. For instance, knowledge of different world cultures is useful to better understand the people from those regions. Students also need exposure to different fields of knowledge so they can determine what they want to study in depth in college and adopt as a career. A student who does not study chemistry in high school is unlikely to become a chemistry major in college and a chemist after graduation. But states and schools should consider careful what knowledge is necessary and how to teach it in ways that also further the development of student skills rather than as lists to memorize.

There have been attempts to change the focus of schools. In addition to the schools Dintersmith mentions there are the Coalition of Essential Schools, the New Visions schools in New York, and even the New Standards Project of the 1990s. But today, the accountability movement has focused on what can be measured through multiple choice and short answer tests.

It is time to reexamine school content and develop standards and assessments together. Such standards should not only be content to covered, but also the skills, attitudes, and behaviors we want from our future workers, citizens, parents, and neighbors. These standards should emphasize thinking skills, learning skills, and students’ desire to learn. And teachers should be held accountable not just for students’ ability to pick the right answer from a multiple choice test, but for their ability to inspire students, to make them want to learn on their own, and providing them with the tools to learn more and communicate what they have learned.


Charters’ Got to Go Controversy

The controversy over the Success Academy’s Got to Go list as described in The New York Times shows a fundamental contradiction. On the one hand, most people will acknowledge that students are different, that not all students learn best under the same conditions. Many parents who have seen two of their children have very different experiences with the same teacher will recognize this problem.  In that regard, if a school recognizes an incompatibility between a students’ learning style and that school’s methods, maybe the best thing for that child is to recommend they find a different school. While finding alternatives would be a problem in small districts, where there are not many school options, in the nation’s largest school district, there is room for many different types of schools.

However, in the real world, it is too easy for such a policy to be abused. Since schools are judged based on improvements in test scores, they have an incentive to remove low scoring students, those with special needs, or those who cost more to educate. The New York Times story shows how charters can encourage parents to pull their students out – Success Academy schools suspend a much higher percentage of their students than do other schools. Encouraging difficult students to leave without replacing them undoes the effect of randomizing the student population through lotteries and renders comparisons with noncharter public schools problematic.

Yet, is it fair to keep students in these schools if they would be more successful somewhere else? One solution would be to reduce the emphasis on test based accountability and school comparisons so that schools would have less incentive to force out low performers. Another would be to require charters to replace students who leave with new students—according to The Washington Post, NYC charters have 2,500 unreplaced transfers.



Closing Schools Is Not The Solution

This Washington Post story about the closing of Wilkinsburg, PA’s middle and high school shows the problem with closing low performing schools. It does not do any good to close a school if the students just have to go to a school that is no better. Some students at the closed school may be discouraged and give up or think the new school is too far. And there is the potential for overcrowding and additional problems when low performing students move to a new school, especially if their new school does not provide sufficient transition services and extra help. So there is probably a greater potential to drag their new school down, affecting more students. Moreover, many if not most of the teachers from the closed school would try to find new teaching jobs. So, if the problem was the teachers, closing the school just moves the problem around.

A better solution would be to work to improve the old school – provide better training and professional development for the teachers, social services and extra help for the students, and maybe some restructuring. Experts should talk to the students to see why they are not performing and what the students think would enable them to improve.