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Teaching is hard

Aleks pointed me to some posts on Gary Rubenstein’s blog, where I found this disheartening description of the teaching at a local high school. None of this is a surprise, but Rubenstein writes it vividly, and it’s interesting to see how bad things can be at school, on a day-by-day basis.


  1. Kaiser says:

    I kept shaking my head while reading this piece… not because I agree with Gary, quite the opposite.
    As Andrew pointed out frequently, I wish we could do more experiments in teaching methods to learn about what works and what doesn’t.
    I’m disturbed by Gary’s attitude that he knows what works. He’s looking for “innovation”, “hands on”, “dialogue”, he’s against “boring”, “test prep”, “lecture”, etc. It would be great if we know what is his measure of teaching success (grades, aptitude, placement, knowledge, learning, etc.)

    • Rahul says:


      The one class he liked (Engineering = building mousetrap powered cars ) illustrates his bias amply. It glorifies creativity for creativity’s sake.

      He’s undervaluing the importance of less glamorous forms of learning. Although not as cool-sounding as mousetrap-cars, this grunt work (calculating stresses, drawing free body diagrams, looking up data) is a pre-requisite before creativity can play any useful role.

      • I suspect that the mousetrap powered cars really is a good class though. I certainly know that when I’ve seen that project run at the city college level the level of engagement and interest on the part of the students was very high. The students *want* to learn the material they need to understand how to make their cars better.

      • mpledger says:

        My personal view would be that I would need to get a prototype working so I could see what was going on first. For me there would be no point in calculating stresses, drawing diagrams, looking up data if I had no concept at all about the car worked.

        Once you see how it works and how it fails then you can bring design principals into action. But even so, I wouldn’t expect High School students to be able to do it unless it was part of a dedicated course.

    • mpledger says:

      IIRC he teaches maths at Stuyvesant High School and says on his website “I’m also a two-time recipient of the Math For America master teacher fellowship.”. From that you’d would think he had a fair handle on what works in the classroom.

      • Kaiser says:

        I’d highly recommend reading Moneyball. This is the classic intuition vs. science question. Let’s assume he’s a successful teacher (and again, I’d advise that the word “success” needs to be precisely defined). What method does he use to attribute the factors of success?

        • mpledger says:

          I’m involved in a project about evaluating player performance in rugby so, although I haven’t read moneyball (I saw the movie), I get it.

          However, with his 20 years of experience and ongoing, being picked to teach in a presitigous New York High School, writing a couple of books on teaching and gaining teaching awards gives me a pretty informative prior about his ability as a teacher which is going to be hard to shift without a lot of data.

          The things *I* would use to assess my success as a teacher at **Stuy HS** would be that the kids are engaged in learning, work hard, use higher order thinking, do homework, think about and take what they have learned further, are able to use their knowledge in other contexts…

          Would their results on standardised tests be useful – I would say not – the kids will probably top out the test before any accurate measure of their real performance can be measured.

  2. Rahul says:

    “I think the worst teaching I saw was a TFA-type English teacher who had a class with about 9 tenth graders. “

    What’s “TFA-type” in this context, I was wondering? TFA is Teach For America, I assume. Has it become a pejorative term now? What’s their “type”?

    • Mark Palko says:


      In the reform debate context, TFA-type almost certainly refers to someone who came through an alternate credentialing program other than TFA (like me) rather than TFA itself (like the author). Though these programs have been around since before TFA, most of them now seem to model themselves after that program.

  3. Fernando says:

    So we are told KIPP is bad but nay a _comparison_ to the public schools they replace, which RCTs have shown do worse, often much worse. Specially for urban disadvantaged kids with language and learning disabilities.

    Check out the pretzel logic. Kipp is compared to an implicit higher standard to make the case for schools that, as far as we can tell, have lower standards than KIPP. Huh?!

    Talk about throwing the baby out with the bath water!

    • mpledger says:

      Katie Osgood is a special education teacher in Chicago currently working at a psychiatric hospital and she has some insightful comments about the education system. Both these posts are worth reading

      The Reform My Students Need

      An Open Letter to New Teach for America Recruits

      • Fernando says:

        You can believe one eye witness with, apparently, an axe to grind: most of her second article is about teachers and their union, not kids.

        Or you can believe systematic evidence that is less likely to be biased, has been replicated, though possibly still faulty.

        Pick your counsel.

        • jrkrideau says:

          Can you point me to the RCTs?

          • Fernando says:

            You’ll find plenty here:


            • mpledger says:

              I think that’s a genuine question because the only RCTs I’ve seen done on charter schools are based on those who get in or don’t get in to charter school via the charter school lottery (but them I am not academic in education so maybe there are some). And I don’t think anyone takes those seriously.

              Since they are not blinded and the kids who don’t get into the charter school obviously feel that public school isn’t a good fit for them (or else why apply to the charter school) then they aren’t going to make a fair comparison group. (If you randomise kids to either an ice cream flavour they do like or an ice cream they don’t like then there are going to be different opinions between the groups about the ice cream.)

              The stuff I’ve seen on cohort studies with matched participants (e.g. free/discounted lunch meals etc) show that charter schools for the most part are about the same as public schools (Credo studies). Given that charter schools counsel out student, use deceptive methods at enrolment (“You can only enrol if you join in at the grade you’ve just completed – Oh, you don’t want to do that? See ya.”), have way lower levels of ELL and special ed students, have more money per student in funding, have longer days/school year, get the best of the resources when co-housed with a public school then it’s actually shows that the teaching must be worse if they can’t do better than public schools.

              And, given all that, the Credo study is run by people who are sympathetic to charter schools anyway.

            • jrkrideau says:

              Thank you for the help.

        • mpledger says:

          I did that why I posted her comments.

          There are a lot of people with vested interests in shaping the education system at the moment – some with bank accounts to fill, some with political donations to gather and some who want the system to be better for the kids they teach.

          So yea, pick your counsel.

          • Rahul says:

            On a very simplistic level, how can something like KIPP, which kids attend by choice (if I understand the system correctly), be any worse than a school they’d be forced to attend by default?

            If KIPP were worse, why would students go there?

            • Corey says:

              Here’s a few, just off the top of my head:

              1. Perhaps KIPP schools are worse, but are wrongly thought to be better.
              2. Regardless of KIPP schools’ performance, perhaps it is status-enhancing to attend (or have a child who attends).
              3. Regardless of KIPP schools’ performance, perhaps it is thought that attending one improves one’s chances of attending a prestigious college.

              I’m not asserting that any of these are true — I’m just saying, in the case of (1), that optimization requires accurate info (a fact, it seems to me, to which many economics-minded folk are peculiarily blind); and, in the case of (2) and (3), that people have a tendency to optimize for things one might not expect/desire.

              • Rahul says:

                Interesting. Thanks. I hadn’t thought of those.

                Your #1 is a version of the old people-don’t-know-what’s-best-for-themselves hypothesis? Though you could argue KIPP is in the short-term non-equilibrium (“hype” phase) and in the longer-run parents will wise up? Dunno.

                #2 is too cynical for me. To think parents put status enhancement before the long term good of their child.

                #3 could indeed be true and probably is. If KIPP and KIPP-like schools become more ubiquitous that novelty factor will wane.

  4. jrkrideau says:

    If one looks at some of the other posts in the series he is basically saying that he sees the school as adequate but not exceptional which apparently is what the KIPP people and the charter school supporters suggest it should be.

    He points out that that specific school has what appears to be a less that 20:1 student-teacher ratio, in some cases he mentions less than 12:1 and teachers have four classes a day. This looks like a relatively light workload compared to the publiic school arena, as I understand it.

    I also get the impression that KIPP schools may be able to do some cherry-picking of students.

    What he is saying is that if your charter schools are getting very good or at least better results than your public ones it may be for other reasons than the ones advanced by the charter school people.

    • Fernando says:

      To make any such claim you need a counterfactual; a comparison to a well chosen public school.

      Besides “adequate” and “exceptional” can be measured on a relative or absolute scale. Take the latter case. KIPP may only be doing 6/10 relative to an absolute ideal. No matter. That can be quite exceptional if the average score for public schools is 3/10 with a standard deviation of 1. If so, KIPP may be justified in claiming that it is getting excellent results despite a 6/10.

      To bring it home: Maybe the ineffective English teacher in the blog post is a control freak compared to his public school doppelganger.

      • jrkrideau says:

        The problem would seem to be apples and oranges. Supply perhaps twice the budget, cherry pick your students[1], and and effectively almost double available staff and then claim ‘your’ way is better?

        See this stinker Stanbrook, M. B. (2013). Can naturopaths deliver complementary preventive medicine? Canadian Medical Association Journal. doi:10.1503/cmaj.130614. What possessed CMAJ to publish it is beyond me.

        Same principle in my opinion.

        Note though he does point out the school has a fairly large proportion of special needs students which he had not expected.

  5. ceolaf says:

    TFA (i.e., Teach for America) and other “alternative” paths to the class are really short cuts to the classroom.

    TFA corps members (that’s what TFA calls them) have remarkably little training, and barely any supervised experience in front of kids or writing lesson plans before they are thrown into the deep end of our most challenging — and therefore hard to staff — schools.

    How little? From what TFAers have told me for years, far less than a single week’s worth of lesson plans and classes. (i.e., 25 classes periods teaching and 10 lesson plans).

    This is not what traditionally certified teachers get. I’ve been disturbed that NY student teachers might get as little as six weeks of supervised teaching time of one or two classes periods, but that is far far far more than TFAers get. (I had a whole semester of. Eighteen weeks, the last 2/3 of which was 3 different classes a day of my own lesson plans, with constantly decreasing prodding from my well-experienced cooperating teachers).

    It is not clear in this piece how many of the teachers came through TFA or other alternative pathways, and how many did not. But I see is a strong (anecdotal) confirmation of the idea that largely untrained teachers lack the classroom management skills required and do not know how to scaffold a lesson so that students can take part and benefit from it.

    No shit.

    KIPP, on the other hand, has a VERY strong culture for staff members at their schools. They have lesson models, and the smaller classes eases the classroom management task. The clear expectations for teachers that KIPP’s strong culture provides makes learning on the job much much easier. (I say that, even though I do not like their culture and models. But I recognize that it makes it easier for alterative pathway teachers.)

    I do not see a piece about general teacher quality. I see this as a piece about training and support for inexperienced and new teachers.

    • Clark says:

      I taught high school math back in the 90’s (in a minority-dominant school), and I saw many teachers come-and-go who came to teaching through some accelerated certification program. These people were commonly gone by the end of the first semester, as they lacked the classroom management, psychology, and teaching methodology acquired through traditional teacher education programs. Many of them had come from long careers outside of teaching, and had an idealistic notion of “giving back” to society. Teaching at that level is challenging, and good classroom management is half the battle — once you can get the kids to sit down and pay attention, some actual teaching can occur.

    • Rahul says:

      I hate to be the contrarian voice but I remember reading a study of teacher effectiveness somewhere (sadly by a TFA-like body I think, so you probably won’t trust it anyways), that concluded that of all the various factors they tried to correlate with classroom-effectiveness of a new teacher, the single most irrelevant factor was a university degree in education.

      Now, of course there’s good teachers and bad teachers and not all good-at-subject people are good teachers. But those who are indeed mediocre teachers (or poorly motivated) I strongly doubt how much good an instructional program can do.

      • Clark says:

        That may indeed be a valid point — certainly I observed many mediocre teachers with education degrees. This doesn’t invalidate the point that people without that education seem (generally) not to remain teachers for very long; teaching is hard, and these are people who are well aware that they have other career options. It may be that those who do remain in teaching long enough to become good at classroom management and other teaching strategies become very good teachers. Sadly, education careers don’t seem to draw and keep our best and brightest — and perhaps that’s okay.

  6. Andrew says:

    For those arriving at the article above without much knowledge of the skirmishes going on in the ed reform world — worth noting that Rubenstein represents one pole of the debate. Please do not take my word for it — the Washington Post describes him as:

    “Former Teach For America corps member Gary Rubinstein, who has become a serious critic of the organization for years”

    his blog has a category called ‘Debunking’: – which as I understand it is shorthand for ‘debunking miracle schools’.

    That certainly doesn’t make him wrong — but if you’re trying to draw conclusions about the quality of KIPP, be advised that you’re reading one side of the debate here, as it were.

    Disclosure: I work for a KIPP region.