Category Archive Education

Why I left education

Today, I taught my last class.  After a decade of teaching, I am hanging up my teaching boots.  I am leaving for three reasons.  First, I am in a comfort zone, and I find it is extremely uncomfortable.  Second, I am increasingly disturbed by the direction of the industry.  Third, I am extremely excited about new opportunities.

Comfort Zone

I leave the industry extremely grateful to (roughly) 2,000 students who helped me find my voice and figure out who I am.  There are very few people who are as brutally honest as teenagers and young adults.  Their constant feedback helped guide me towards much needed skill development and self-reflection.  With the help of some rough-and-tumble teenagers, I transformed from a wide-eyed undergrad to a young adult.  If I had not heard the blunt feedback about “not being real” ten years ago, then I would not have been prepared for life’s bumpy ride.

Colleagues at my first two real gigs mentored and molded me to become a well-seasoned instructor.  I remember loitering outside of classrooms, listening to my peers paint masterpieces with their lessons.  Sitting under their learning tree helped develop me into a better teacher and a better person.  They taught me to take chances, understand myself, and how to help others.  They helped me set goals – from day-to-day objectives to career moonshots.  I am happy to say, I hit every last one of those goals.  From student test scores to reviews to letters of recommendation (coming through for students) to watching young people transform into adults – I was objectively good at my job.

Perhaps most importantly, a simple approach to work helped establish my world view.  If you do good work, then your brand will take care of itself.

I taught the best course of my life last autumn.  Excellent students responded very well to a “best of” syllabus I crafted for a less-than-popular course.  Everyone in the course showed remarkable gains, and I strongly believe that their work as undergraduates was as strong as much of the work produced by graduate students at the same institution.  At the end of the course, I had left everything that I had in the classroom.

“Beware the comfort zone” is one piece of advice that I have heard from every professional mentor that has taken me under their wing.  Last year, I found myself in the comfort zone, and it made be extremely uncomfortable.

Concerns with the Education Industry

Changes within the industry increased my discomfort.

Structures have become shackles.  Part of a larger problem with the industry is the way instructors provide feedback to students.  The inability to break from the typical A-B-C-D-F model (along with the implication on grade points and scholarships) is extremely limiting to potential educational opportunities.  Worse yet, assessment is a double edged sword.  On one hand, teachers are cheerleaders for student success.  On the other hand, feedback often comes in the “this can be better” vein.  I have tried to stay on the encouraging side, but I am finding that the industry’s culture has pushed me towards the latter.

Many of my colleagues in the industry have overwhelmingly negative attitudes – about the industry, the students, and their personal lives.  I have found this attitude is difficult to ignore, and the culture is pervasive.  In the past, I have submitted to the same negativity.  Many in the industry seem to prefer traveling across the country to a conference in order to complain about their students rather than staying in the classroom to improve their kids’ skill set.  Complaints about low pay, “strenuous” (20 hour) work weeks, the fight against standards that could try and measure the quality of work in the classroom, and the perpetual shifting of blame is insanity.

As I have transitioned away from the higher ed academic world, the problem seems to lie with the Ivory Tower’s biggest weakness: no one can answer what makes a good scholar.  From what I can tell, the business of higher education is peddled primarily by reputation — which fuels the negativity among others. Nearly everyone far from the peak are so concerned with their place within a presumed hierarchy that they spend more time tearing down other rather than building themselves (much less their weakest students) up.  Those who seem to have a shot at becoming the “next big thing” are busy producing good research – only to be torn down by their self-conscious peers.

The contemporary education model as a whole rewards the administrators and tenured faculty at the cost of the students.  In the current pay-to-play model, it is advantageous for schools to admit students who are unable (e.g. immature) to complete needed coursework — because it is stable cash flow.  Considering the high-sticker-price-high-discount model nearly every college uses, some students become cash cows to bankroll schools, especially when they fail multiple courses.  This predatory practice is unethical because it preys on the vulnerable.  It is surprisingly widespread.  Worse yet, the administrators and senior faculty who profit the usually have little time working with these students.  Most often, the least qualified carry the largest teaching load — usually working through (or likely unaware) of many weaknesses in their pedagogical approach.  Faculty hired based purely on research chops and adjuncts face the most needy students — often with disastrous results.  This trend results in poor quality classrooms, under-prepared students, and young people saddled with substantial student loans.  Worse yet, the contemporary college campus is a more of a theme park laden with entertainment, far removed from the original intent of learning.  Proliferating armies of administrators manage these doodads and special programs, further removing the academy from its purpose.  Investments in doodads have irresponsibly inflated college prices, steered many schools into financial turmoil, and fostered a dangerous culture for undergraduates.  Not a month goes by without another report of rampant sexual harassment, abuse, and assault on college campuses.  When I have brought up fighting this very problem in multiple venues on multiple campuses, those with decision-making power have consistently scoffed at the proposal of actually doing something.  Step one would be to admit a problem, but that step potentially undermines the brand, viability, and recruiting capacity of a college campus.  Thus we end up at the opposite conclusion as my original training and world view.  Instead of focusing on good work building a brand, contemporary academic leaders seem content to focus on branding while ignoring the work at hand.  This infatuation by so many is incredibly damaging.

Quite frankly, I am not comfortable working for institutions that saddle students with tens-of-thousands in debt for such little value added.  I am not comfortable working for institutions that are so far adrift from what their mission should be.

So I turned to a profession where I could provide value added.

A Brighter Future

Coming up for air from the academic world to normalcy was long overdue.  Moving away from the ivory tower was a big scary leap, but I am happier now.

I joined the nonprofit desk at CDW, a technology product and service provider to business, government, education, and nonprofits.  On the surface, the position is a sales position; in reality, it is a consultative role where I get to help people who help people.  Every day, people in the trenches tell stories of struggle and success.  We laugh; we commiserate.  More importantly, I help by leveraging a Fortune 500 company’s resources to help people who help people.  It is an awesome gig.  Nearly every day, I catch myself with a goofy grin on my face.  If I can provide a value-add for any of these heroes, then my day is worthwhile.

I look back at the memories from the past ten years (really thirteen, including substitute teaching), and I can not help but smile.  I cherish the relationships that I have built; I am thankful to have worked with every student that passed through my classroom.  I appreciate even the darkest moments that helped refine who I am.  I still love, respect, and admire my friends who remain in education.  The grass is too green this side of the fence, so forward I march.

Instead of looking backward, I prefer to look forward.  I may have left education because the industry and I grew apart; but I landed in my current role because of who I have become.  When I interviewed at CDW, they asked what I wanted in an employer.  I answered three basic things: opportunity, ethics, and a positive impact on others.  My students, peers, and time in education helped define and clarify the importance of each of those three points.  Thank you — all of you — who taught me what is important and to seize opportunities.  I can hardly wait to see where this opportunity takes me.

Foot voting and the quality of public education

Hundreds (if not thousands) of commentators highlight the growing achievement gap in education between wealthy and less-wealthy schools.  Most of these arguments point to the unequal resources provided to the stereotypical “rich” school and the stereotypical “poor” school.

Although these arguments note an accurate trend, it is worth nothing that the traditional have-have-not narrative may not be the entire story.

During the 1950s, economists argued that people will “vote with their feet”, choosing to move to places that provide the services that they prefer.  This argument supports the idea of fragmentation, or creating dozens (if not hundreds or thousands) of tiny governments.  Theoretically, each government will create a niche experience, attract folks, and everyone lives happily ever after.  (Robert Nelson has an interesting piece on neighborhood associations fulfilling this goal, available here.)

Whether or not people actually move based on their preferences is debatable.  Chris Berry argues that although multiple layers of government make this foot-voting model possible, it is unnecessarily expensive, and people do not necessarily follow this behavior.  (After all, would you seriously consider moving based on a mosquito abatement district or a community college?)

It is likely true that people do not necessarily foot vote.  Trying to figure out exactly which residence most satisfies one’s demands sounds a bit ridiculous.  People will likely move if crime (or some other negative serving as a “push”) becomes unbearable, but it will likely take an attention-grabbing moment to spark this migration.  Positives are more likely to “pull” people to a specific area, and one pull is critical:

Education-oriented families are likely to move to better school districts.

I have spoken with countless people who have made residential decisions based primarily on where their kids will go to school.  Libraries, fire departments, sewage, and many other public services may fall by the wayside, but schools are critical.

It is worth noting that schools and districts have reputations.  This stems from word-of-mouth, (controversial) test scores, and the infrastructure of the school itself.  (Which is a better learning environment: a brick-and-mortar building or a trailer?)  This reputation helps inform people about where to move their kids if they want a good education.

For families sensitive to their child’s education, the ability to vote with their feet allows them to move their kids into “good schools”, satisfying their needs.  These are the same people who are likely to be active in their child’s education – a key predictor in how well students learn.

Granted, income plays a role.  Poor folks have limited options, especially when they are unable to afford their preferred neighborhoods.  Wealthy folks have more options, because they can allocate more resources to housing.  In many places, rents increase and crowd-out lower-income students; however, in some places, working-class families can still acquire access to high-quality education for their children.  Again, these folks are most likely to invest time and energy in their child’s education.

An influential, overlooked cause for differences in school outcomes

Parents matter.  Parents willing and able to find a way to enroll their kids in “rich”, “better” schools are also more likely to focus on academics at home.  These motivated students are potential boons for more-resourced schools, leading to raw talent discrepancies between “good” and “bad” schools.   If you incentivize active parents to sent their kids to a school with more resources (and therefore take them out of schools with less resources), then it is unsurprising that one school performs better than another.

Hunger awareness, insufficient at-home literacy, and other major lifestyle challenges can hinder a student’s progress.  Many schools find ways around some of these issues, and the federal government subsidizes schools with significantly poor populations.  However, the brain drain effect identified above robs these communities of those (potentially) upwardly mobile students – removing role models for future generations and undermining the fabric of several neighborhoods.

It is insufficient to say that “rich” schools succeed compared to “poor” schools merely because of disproportionate economic resources.  They enjoy several otherbenefits – including attracting education-focused families, their children, and their parents’ energy.  In a system where foot voting can occur, polarized outcomes are bound to occur when education-centric parents flock to slightly “better” schools.  In education, the quality-rich schools often get richer, while the poor struggle to catch up against resource drain.

Data Driven Pedagogy

In a belated quest to find a single document from a few years ago, I uncovered some notes that I had made while teaching high school.  I started looking through my old papers and realized that I was a very data-driven instructor.  Looking back, I am convinced that a significantly large share of the success in my classroom came from tracking micro-level student performance data.  This discovery seems antithetical with the messages I hear from teachers’ groups, ranging from unions to offhand remarks by current and future teachers to widely cited rants.  As the world careens toward “big data”, it is a shame that those in the trenches have not adopted a more data-friendly approach to their own pedagogy.  If there is one message I could provide to my friends in the public schools, it is that data is your friend, not your enemy.

Fear of Failure

When I started at Edmond North, I was a reasonably good hand in the classroom, but my skill set was easily outclassed by my peers.  I had gained limited skill by working as a substitute teacher in Putnam City Schools and as an instructor with Upward Bound.  Those two experiences provided me the ability to diffuse tense situations and connect with students.  On my best days, I was an average teacher at a good school.

Edmond Public Schools had district-wide “benchmark” exams, given to all students in a given course.  Afterward, teachers would compare notes on how their students did on the assessments.  Administrators constantly reassured us that scores would not impact our job evaluations, but they could not settle a fear of humiliation and underlying paranoia teachers have developed in the face of standardized exams.  (In reality, I imagine that if a teacher presides over multiple classes with wide-scale benchmark failures, then they would be future-endeavored.)

In order to compensate for my clear shortfalls, I pored over data.  At first, it was simple information: is the key right/did a lot of people miss a question and how many people passed/failed.  After not appropriately preparing students for a benchmark (twelve weeks into the year), I was heartbroken.  I tried to sort out what I had done wrong before the post mortem.  I went through each question on the exam and found a trend.  The mistake I had made was somewhat simple: I misread the timeline of what was supposed to be covered.  I had inadvertently shuffled two topics.  One topic my students had prepped was not on the exam, and they were completely blindsided by questions on the test.

Admitting in the meeting that I had fumbled the schedule was embarrassing, but I had the opportunity to pick the brains of my coworkers whose students had already taken the exam.  (Among their experiences, I was able to carve out an effective lesson plan.)  In return, I shared a unique lesson plan I had attempted where students had responded fairly well.  The exam provided a standard across classes that enabled sharing information – pedagogical tactics.  It was in this meeting that I realized what made North a great school; instead of teachers saying “my kids”, we were using the phrase “our kids.”  To this day, I use this linguistic nuance as a barometer of whether or not an instructor is student-first or in business for themselves.

Surviving as a Small Fish in a Big Ocean

At the end of my first fall as a full-time teacher, Edmond North assigned me an Advanced Placement course the following semester.  Instead of teaching to the test, I merged the syllabi used at the colleges most of the school’s students attend.  I feared that every student would fail; this approach at least would give the students a head start in their classes that fall.  What resulted was a simple philosophy about standardized exams: (1) assuming the test is over the curriculum (2) and a teacher teaches the curriculum, then (3) the students should do well on the test.

Over the summer, I obsessed over teaching both classes again.  I went through each exam and notes from writing assignments, trying to find trends in my teaching.  I found that certain topics (cattle trails, elasticity) yielded particularly weak understanding from students.  I systematically rewrote every exam – to allow for quick understanding of how students understood the information by topic.  Lessons that had demonstrable evidence of student learning remained; lessons that had failed to provide students a better understanding of the material landed in the trash.

After an exam, I realized that the vast majority of questions missed were over a couple of topics.  As a result, I rebooted the lesson plan and worked on the diagnosed problem areas.  Data drove my lesson plan revisions, and I had become a more effective instructor.  More importantly than anything else, I had been able to provide solutions to a student not understanding a key concept before it limited learning throughout the entire year.

The next year, I had the distinct advantage of near-immediate feedback.  Halfway through the year, the district received a clicker system.  I was in heaven.  Instead of having to wait for the class to leave so I could scan their responses into a database, I had immediate access to the data.  Quizzes transformed from a give-wait-and-take procedure to a conversation.  Making matters better, I was able to consolidate tests and quiz data into even more detailed information.

Using data allowed me to constantly rework my lesson plan.  By my sixth lap through a subject, my lesson plan was a calibrated machine.  With input from my peers at benchmark meetings and interpreting practically real-time data, I was able to put myself in position to be an above average teacher at a great school.

Data-driven school

In Oklahoma, students must pass four state exams in order to graduate.

In one Edmond winter, the principal summoned me to predict state test scores based on district benchmark exams.  The goal was to uncover students who were at risk of failing the state exam and provide them additional resources.  I had developed a technique for quizzes and my own exams, and it easily transferred to the state exam.  We used ANOVA and OLS to estimate the relationship between district and state test scores, any score within two standard deviations of the “pass score” would receive extra tutoring.  Although this program inconvenienced several students by requiring tutoring, my understanding is that they all graduated.

Wayfaring, Data-Driven Stranger in an Anti-Data World

When I arrived in Chicago, I landed in a dysfunctional school.  On a near daily basis, I was reminded that it was “tough” to be a teacher; on a near weekly basis, I was reminded that we were the “city’s cheap babysitting service.”  With old-school technology (machine-gun scantrons), I retooled my lesson plan.

After discovering several (eleventh grade) students had the effective reading level of elementary students, I reworked my lesson plan to center around reading skills.  The goal was to expose the at-level students to material while building skills through exposure for the less equipped.  Data had uncovered the problem, and I decided to use data to solve the problem.  Every other day I had a reading quiz – targeted at building skills.  Every two weeks, I gave an exam that included reading skills.

Halfway through the semester, I realized that I shared many of these students with an English instructor.  I (ignorantly) went to him hoping to build a team to work on improving our students’ skill set.  My goal was to build synergy between our classes (which was somewhat frequent practice in Edmond.)  When I approached him, it was as if I had urinated on his shoe.  Looking back, my error was using data from a test I had given as evidence that we should intervene.  The man literally asked if I had lost my mind, suggested I was accusing him of not teaching his kids (not our kids), and demanded I go to hell.  I was trying to help, but by referencing data I had inadvertently created an enemy.  It was in this exchange that I realized that problem some teachers have with data: they feel like it is an indictment of the job they do.

If I had a second message to teachers, it would be that data is not an indictment of failure, it is an archive of success.

Upon discovering the literacy shortfall, I learned that many of the students did not read unless it was a text message or twitter.  They even ignored the newspapers aimed at younger Chicagoans because it was “too hard to understand.”  One of my proudest moments as a teacher is having one of the less-skilled students tell me that they actually enjoyed reading the newspaper.  Two of his peers nodded in agreement.  I nearly cried when they thanked me for teaching them to enjoy to read.

Advanced statistics are hard, but basic statistics are not

The biggest misconception of statistical analysis is that it is too difficult to understand.  This is simply false.  The only statistics expertise a teacher need to have are making data points and looking for patterns.  Most teachers already use most frequent statistic: the average.  The arithmetic average is the industry standard computed to determine a student’s final grade.

If teachers can calculate this score for each student, then why not give it a try for each question.  Many teachers receive spit-outs from scantron or other multiple-choice assessment graders.  These range from the percentage of students missing each question to detailed analysis of how each student answered each question.  Teachers can take a quick pulse by reviewing the most frequently missed and most frequently correct questions.  If the items are all over the same topic, then the teacher may need to review lesson plans concerning what their students missed and pat themselves on the back for lesson plans that enabled student success.  This simple, pattern-seeking process will likely take a planning period, but it can illuminate trouble areas before they get out of control.  I have used approach for both history and economics (effectively applied math) courses with reasonable success; I assume it would work elsewhere.

Beyond pattern seeking, teachers may consider looking at the responses from students who struggle.  Students will likely perform better on certain topics compared to others.  This may be a result of several different things – ranging from personal interest to lesson structure.  Data points will hopefully reveal a pattern for you to develop a lesson plan that helps struggling students succeed.

Tough tests are best.  Ideally, a test will create a wide distribution of student performance – meaning that the gap between the highest and lowest students will be rather large.  This principle is similar to taking high quality pictures and shrinking them later; resizing an image large-to-small maintains quality, while small-to-large results in lower quality, pixel-y distortions.  Remember, you can always curve later.  Although this may be immediately disconcerting to students who score low, with the right redirection it can be valuable.  In the end, a raw test score is just a number.  A quick method to revalue a very tough exam is using a “square-root curve”, where you take the square root of their percent.  (The square root of an 81% is 90%, 64% is 80%, 49% is 70%, etc.)  The letter/value-judgment attached to the number matters.    After all, a 1200 on the SAT is far worse than a 30 on the ACT, despite being 40 times larger.

Data is not the problem, it is quickly becoming the best practice in the industry.  The ham-and-egg teacher’s misperception that data is a condemnation is preventing many of these well-intentioned folks from achieving their full potential.