AP English Composition: a rhetoric class without rhetoric

AP English Composition: a rhetoric class without rhetoric

When it first crossed my mind that I might be able to rework the original version of The Critical Reader into a prep book for the AP English Language and Composition exam, one of the initial things I did was head over to the College Board’s website and read the AP Comp course description.

I’d done some tutoring for the exam a few years back, but it wasn’t a test I’d been constantly immersed in, as was the case for the old SAT. I also knew that in addition to changing the SAT, the College Board had planned overhauls for a number of AP exams. Interestingly, the AP English Comp test was not officially listed among them; however, as I read the description for 2014 and beyond, it became clear that the test had recently undergone some important changes. (more…)

The new administration, Common Core, and the new SAT

Reuters’ Renée Dudley has come out with yet another exposé about the continuing mess at the College Board. (Hint: Coleman’s “beautiful vision” isn’t turning out to be all that attractive.)

This time around: what will happen to the new supposedly Common Core-aligned SAT if Common Core disappears under the incoming, purportedly anti-Core presidential administration? 

As Dudley writes:

The Core’s English Language Arts standards call on students to grapple with important readings, including hallowed U.S. documents such as the Declaration of Independence and works of American literature. Coleman’s redesigned SAT embraced the same concept. The Core’s reading standards “focus on students’ ability to read carefully and grasp information … based on evidence in the text” – a pillar of the new SAT. And the Core’s math standards call for “greater focus on fewer topics” – another principle echoed in Coleman’s new SAT.

Former College Board vice president [Hal] Higginbotham was among the first to raise concerns about hitching the SAT’s future to the Common Core. 

In his February 2013 response to Coleman’s “beautiful vision,” Higginbotham noted that some states wouldn’t begin implementing the learning standards until the 2014-2015 school year, the same time period in which Coleman wanted to launch the redesigned SAT. It would take years for teachers and students to get fully up to speed on the new curriculum, he and others argued.

“That circumstance leads me to wonder whether all students will have arrived at the starting line at the same time and whether the playing field for them will be level,” Higginbotham wrote in his memo to Coleman. Some students might be “more comfortable and competent than others in what will be presented” on a test aligned with the Common Core, he wrote.

As a consequence, a Common Core-based SAT “will inadvertently favor students from those geographies that have made the most progress” with the standards, Higginbotham wrote. Such a situation “raises fundamental questions of fairness and equity.”

and later: 

It’s unclear how Trump’s election – and his choice of a Common Core opponent for secretary of education – might affect the SAT and the College Board. Coleman hasn’t spoken publicly about the president-elect’s views.

I’ve followed Dudley’s series of articles on the Common Core with great interest, and for the most part, I think she’s done a very valuable service in terms of revealing some of the more serious problems plaguing the new exam — problems that include the recycling of recent exams so that students received the same exam they had already taken, the leaking of test forms before the exam, and the inclusion of items that did not meet the specifications set out by the College Board. 

In this case, however, Dudley’s reporting inadvertently (I assume) encourages some fundamental misunderstandings about Common Core, what it actually involves in terms of curriculum, and how it relates to the redesigned SAT. 

A few key points here.

First, in regards to the idea that Common Core could be uniformly rescinded: the federal government’s role in CCSS is limited, at least in terms of imposing the standards. CC was adopted by individual states, and individual states will decide whether to retain or abandon the Standards (or pretend to abandon them while renaming them State Standards).

To be fair, Dudley does mention that CCSS was adopted on a state-by-state basis; her concern is that anti-Core sentiment at the top may translate into more states dropping the Standards. 

That, however, brings me to my second point. As Diane Ravitch points out, the DOE may be effectively outsourced to Jeb Bush and Co., major proponents of Common Core. Coleman even released an announcement *praising* Betsy DeVos’s appointment as Secretary of Education.

Despite nominal political divisions, all of these people are effectively on the same side, at least where charters, school “reform” (privatization), school choice, etc. are involved. There may be degrees of disagreement over, say, the value of vouchers or the accreditation of for-profit vs. non-profit charters, but they are basically ideologically aligned. 

As Steven Singer has written about (link also courtesy of Ravitch), Devos, who has claimed to be opposed to the Core:  

[Is] a board member of Jeb Bush’s pro-Common Core think tank, Foundation for Excellence in Education, where she hangs out with prominent Democratic education reformers like Bill Gates and Eli Broad…

She founded, funds and serves on the board of the Great Lakes Education Project (GLEP), an organization dedicated to the implementation and maintenance of Common Core…

She’s even spent millions lobbying politicians in her home state of Michigan asking them NOT to repeal Common Core…

Next time, Dudley might want to take a piece of edu-speak to heart and “dig deep” before taking anyone in the president-elect’s circle literally. 

Third, the notion that schools can somehow teach a Common Core “curriculum,” and that students who have not used that curriculum (at least on the verbal side) will be at a significant disadvantage, reveals the extent to which popular understanding and coverage of the Core are muddled.

To reiterate: the redesigned SAT does not test any specific body of knowledge related to English, nor does the Core require significant concrete knowledge beyond vague formal skills (comparing and contrasting, identifying main ideas, etc.) whose mastery largely depends on students’ knowledge about the subject at hand.

In the eleventh grade standards, for instance, U.S. Historical Documents are provided as examples — Madison’s Federalist 10 is cited as a source for analyz[ing] how an author uses and refines the meaning of a key term or terms over the course of a text, but the text itself is not actually required reading. 

While a handful of documents are mentioned by name (The Declaration of Independence, the Preamble to the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address), the primary directive is to analyze “seminal texts” and seventeenth-, eighteenth-, and nineteenth-century foundational U.S. documents of historical and literary significance. (http://www.corestandards.org/ELA-Literacy/RI/11-12/)

As for the new SAT, the majority of the Reading questions on that exam are effectively designed to test whether students understand that texts say what they say because they say it — in other words, comprehension. 

The questions are phrased in a byzantine manner, to be sure, but that is primarily to give the illusion that they are testing skills more sophisticated than the ones they are actually testing (and far less sophisticated than those tested on the old SAT). 

The combination of vague standards and quasi-random selection of historical passages for the exam means that the best-prepared students are those who have prior knowledge of the passages in question.

But because the College Board does not publish a comprehensive list of documents, movements, individuals, etc. with which students should be familiar (that would cross the line from “standards” to “content”), preparation for that portion of the exam largely depends on what students happen have covered in history class — which in turn depends on individual schools, even individual teachers. And that is a matter of chance, on many levels. 

Leveling the playing field? Hardly. 

That’s the fundamental problem with the coy, standards-aren’t-curriculum-but-they-sort-of-are game the College Board is trying to play. Students’ ability to employ skills such as analyzing language, identifying main ideas, or evaluating sources, is always to some extent dependent on their knowledge. The unspoken assumption of the Core seems to be that students will of course be learning formal skills in context of a well-structured, coherent curriculum, but that’s often not at all how things work in practice. 

If it is never made clear what specific content students must master, and teachers are trained to focus primarily on formal skills, students probably won’t acquire the knowledge they need to apply the formal skills in any meaningful way.

Failure to understand that means any coherent conversation about the problems with the Core is a non-starter. 

As for the relationship between student performance on the Verbal portion of the SAT and access to a Common-Core-aligned curriculum … Anyone who thinks that a student whose English classes have been devoted to endlessly reiterating the importance of using “evidence” — that is, citing from a text — to “prove” that a book says what it says will necessarily be better prepared for the SAT than a student who has learned something of substance, really does not understand the issues at play here at all. 

Why you shouldn’t always trust college essay books (just say no to community service trip essays)

If you’re a senior still in the throes of writing your college essay, or if you’re a younger student/parent of a younger student trying to get a jumpstart on the college admissions process, you may be in possession of book entitled something like 100 College Essays that Worked, or 50 Successful Harvard Essays.

In general, I have no particular bone to pick with such compilations. I think they often provide a helpful glimpse at a variety of topics, styles, and structures that successful applicants have used in their essays.

Just as importantly, they offer clear reassurance that students need not demonstrate they have imbibed a thesaurus in order to gain admission to the college of their dreams.

So yes, for a student who isn’t sure how to get started, these books provide a highly useful service.

However. From time to time, when I happen to be browsing the test-prep section of a bookstore, I pick up college essay books just to keep abreast of the latest trends. Many of the essays in my favorite such book, 100 Successful College Application Essays, date from the mid-80’s, but as they say, times change… In this case, not necessarily for the better.

The most egregiously awful advice I’ve come across, in America’s Best Colleges for B Students, is that students should structure their essays in standard English class five-paragraph format.

That is so wrongheaded in so many ways, but we can start with the fact that the essay is called a personal statement for a reason. You are not supporting a thesis; you are discussing something or someone important to you as a person. Provided the essay reads well, the number of paragraphs is completely irrelevant.

Incidentally, the College Board has also produced a college essay guide (which contains almost no examples of actual college essays – go figure that one out) that gives similar advice. While there is, in an extremely broad sense, a case to be made for certain approaches to reading and writing emphasized by Common Core, there are also instances in which such an approach would constitute an absolute, incontrovertible disaster.

This is one of them.

Following this type of advice could push a borderline applicant without a knowledgeable adult monitoring the process into the “reject” pile at a moderate reach where he or she might have otherwise had an actual shot. So if the College Board is actually trying to improve the college prospects of disadvantaged applicants — those least likely to have a knowledgeable adult monitoring, or even aware of, the application process — they have an awfully funny way of showing it. 

Most books, however, at least emphasize that a personal essay is, well, personal, and that the rules of English class don’t apply.

And to be sure, plenty of the essays these books include are perfectly serviceable. Most are well-written; a handful are genuinely moving.

One problem, however, is that it is impossible to really tell from a standalone essay how much of a role that essay actually played in a student’s admission.

In the absence of a transcript, test scores, extra-curricular activities, recommendations, information about “hooks”, and actual adcom notes, the only thing that can be gleaned with certainty is that an essay was not so poor as to result in a student’s being rejected.  

Furthermore, there is one section some of these books that is consistently, even dangerously misleading. That is…. the infamous “community service trip to a third world country” essay.

For the record, the worst offenders I’ve found so far are the Fiske College Essay Guide (Malawi/Africa) and 50 Successful Stanford Essays (the Dominican Republic).

At this point, I feel obligated to proffer my annual warning about this genre of essay: if you’re thinking of writing something along these lines, don’t.

Do not pass go, do not collect $200, just find another topic and let this one quietly fade into oblivion.

Any essay you write about your community service trip to an impoverished third-world country, during which you discovered how privileged you really are and realized that the poor people there are really better off than the materialistic people in the United States because they’re happy with their subsistence lifestyle, is bound to come off as (at best) naive and condescending.      

It doesn’t matter how shocked you were by the poverty, or how charmingly rustic you found the locals, or how grateful people seemed for your efforts to build a school/hospital/community center, etc.

Committees slog through tons of these essays every year; you don’t need to add another one to the pile. Pretty much every admissions officer you ever ask will tell you to avoid this topic like the plague.

That’s not to say all community service essays are bad. It is, however, to say that the topic is so overdone, and the possibilities for cliché so ripe, that you should proceed with a healthy dose of caution.

If you’re still not sure what I’m talking about, both of the guides listed above provide pitch-(im)perfect examples of this type of writing. (Just flip to the “Community Service” section.)

To be honest, I’m really surprised they were included at all. Using them up as examples is at best irresponsible and at worst actively misleading. All I can say is that the Stanford applicant must have been stellar in every respect otherwise.

If you’re looking for some good examples of essays that worked, I’d recommend the sample essays Johns Hopkins posts on its admissions website.

They’re not cliché, but they’re not too far out there either. Most of the writers come off as smart and curious and interesting and thoughtful – people you’d like to get to know.

Wouldn’t you like the person who reads your essay to think that about you too?

The Chaos Curriculum and Learning Disabilities

A couple of weeks ago, I was talking to a colleague who teaches high school, and she told me about a recent incident that had left her thinking.

One of her students was enrolled in a dance class (in-school) that was holding an open house, and the student invited my colleague to attend. As my colleague watched the class, she became aware that the atmosphere was one of calm and focus. The students were disciplined and respectful, yet the teacher and students seemed relaxed, and the students were clearly enjoying the class.

My colleague was struck by the contrast between that atmosphere and the far more tense atmosphere of her own academic classes, in which she alternately had to plead with, threaten, and cajole students who consistently seemed surprised if not downright annoyed when she expected them to so much as pick up a pencil and copy a couple of sentences from the smart board.

How, she wondered, could this possibly be happening in the same school?    

My colleague is a dedicated, experienced teacher whose former students (despite their high school grousing) regularly return from college and tell her how much they miss her class, and that their professors just don’t measure up.

It’s pretty fair to assume she isn’t the problem.    

She did, however, have a theory about why students behaved so differently in the dance class than in her academic class.

In a dance class, she observed, students are trained to be disciplined. There is an expectation that they will show up, work hard, listen to their teachers, and conduct themselves in an orderly fashion. In the arts, that’s apparently still acceptable.

In their academic classes, in contrast, students have been trained to expect chaos. In fact, the more chaotic the classroom, the happier the administration is, and the higher the teacher’s ratings.

And by chaotic, I mean groups shouting over one another and students wandering in and out of the room while music plays in the background.

That’s obviously an extreme example (although a real one), and I’m not implying that every classroom across the country looks like that. But the fact that that sort of classroom could be held up as exemplary at a public school is by itself quite disturbing.

In that model, I suspect, chaos is seen as a sign of authenticity – an indication that students are learning naturally (the highest goal of education), without any of that boring, “rote” memorization stuff.

But given that, it’s no wonder students are taken aback when they’re asked to do serious work.

After writing about the way the line between normal academic struggles and actual learning disabilities has become increasingly blurred, I couldn’t help but think back on my colleague’s observations.

Although it’s easy to mock a certain type of overbearing, affluent parent who drags her children from specialist to specialist, doling out thousands of dollars for an Adderall prescription and a magical diagnosis that will result in extra time on the SAT or ACT, I think this scenario is in part the result of a system that pooh-poohs anything resembling the systematic acquisition of knowledge as too unbearably stodgy and old fashioned to even contemplate.

Twenty-first century skills anyone?

I think E.D. Hirsch has described the problem most accurately, so if you’ll humor me, I’m going to quote him at length here:

Beginning in the 1930s as part of the advance of progressive education in the public schools and the colleges of education, there were curriculum-revision movements across the land. Over the past six decades, such vague, gap-ridden “conceptual” curricula have been developed as a reaction to earlier, content-oriented approaches to forming a curriculum. The new curricula have attempted to get beyond the “rote learning” of “mere facts,” and to gain unity and conceptual depth by following broad and deep instructional aims. But…[e]ven the best local guides of this type have fundamental weaknesses.

The first inherent weakness is the arbitrariness of the large-scale conceptual schemes and classifications that make up all such curricular “strands” and “objectives.” Such schemes may appear to be deep and comprehensive, but most of them are indeed quite arbitrary…

These general objectives do not compel either a definite or a coherent sequence of instruction. That is because the large conceptual scheme and its concrete expressions (through particular contents) have a very tenuous and uncertain relationship to each other. A big scheme is just too general to guide the teacher in the selection of particulars. For instance, on multiyear science objective in our superior local district states, “Understand interactions of matter and energy.” This is operationally equivalent to saying, “Understand physics, chemistry, and biology.” The teachers who must decide what to include under such “objectives” are given little practical help. (The Schools We Need, 30)

And furthermore:

Guidelines developed in multiyear units are ineffective in practice because children change teachers in successive years. Vague, multiyear goals make neither the student nor the teacher responsible for gaps; a gap is always something that should have been filled in some other year! (28)

The inevitable result of a system that so utterly disdains coherence is that students learn things haphazardly, in dribs and drabs, without sufficient reinforcement and often based on the presumption of background knowledge they do not actually possess.

Exceptionally bright and motivated students may indeed absorb much of what they need to know naturally, as may children of highly educated parents who regularly discuss academic topics at home. Unfortunately, these groups are the exception rather than the rule.

When I first started tutoring, I was taken aback when students told me that they’d learned more about grammar in a two-hour session than they had in the previous decade of English class.

(I’m not saying that as a humblebrag, by the way – I was largely imitating what my teachers had done with me. Back then, I didn’t know it was possible to teach any other way!) 

I might have been a novice, but it seemed to me even then that there was something really very wrong with the whole picture.

It was only when I discovered Hirsch that I found an explanation for the often bizarre knowledge gaps I kept encountering in very bright students. So to be clear, I didn’t start out as some sort of ideologue — Hirsch’s work provided the only plausible explanation consistent with what I was actually experiencing. 

I also started to understand why everyone was so baffled about that state of affairs.

Because “natural” learning is (erroneously) held up as the norm, when students start to fall off track academically, the usual assumption is that there’s something wrong with the student. It doesn’t occur to anyone to look at the larger system.

In addition, many parents – even highly educated ones– are unaware of the extent to which schools have changed since they graduated. They assume that their children are being taught largely the same way they were taught; since they came out ok, their assumption again is that their child’s difficulties must be due to a problem unique to that child. 

From what I’ve observed, the result is a glut of average to well-above-average students with academic deficiencies that two or three decades ago would have been suggestive of a genuine learning disability, but that today would likely not exist were those students exposed to a more systematic and coherent curriculum.

But unfortunately curriculums are incoherent, and students who are exposed to that type of incoherence will inevitably become anxious and overwhelmed, have difficulty focusing and absorbing information, and develop odd gaps in their knowledge.

It would be remarkable if there weren’t an explosion in learning disability diagnoses, IEPs, extra time requests, etc.

But as Hirsch describes, the American approach to education has been incoherent for decades. So why the surge in learning problems now, especially among affluent children?  

Technology is one obvious factor. Granted my expertise in neuroscience is limited, but having seen what the internet and my smartphone have done to my own attention span, I can barely begin to fathom the effects on the developing brain.

An increased willingness to diagnose/medicate problems is presumably another large factor. 

I think there are some other things at work here, however.

Part of the issue, I suspect, is the difference between the types of teachers who populated classrooms a few decades ago, and the types of teachers more likely to be teaching today.

When I was in high school, during the mid-late ‘90s, the majority of my teachers were 30-year veterans who had begun teaching in the mid-1960s. Even if progressive strains of the sort Hirsch describes were already an established feature of American education, their excesses were held in check by more traditional norms. 

Clearly, none of my teachers had ever been encouraged to think of him- or herself as a mere facilitator. Bearded ex-hippie or gray-suited Reaganite, they were all experts in their subjects and were committed to helping their students acquire a broad body of subject-specific knowledge. Their lessons were coherent, sequential, and cumulative, and their classrooms were devoid of chaos. 

In addition, their assignments certainly involved significant amounts of what would today be termed “critical thinking,” but they also believed in the importance of facts, and neither they nor the administration (largely made up of veteran educators) thought or spoke in the kind of buzzwords/edu-jargon that has come to predominate in discussions about education today. Indeed, they would have snorted with derision at such language.

A lot has obviously changed since then.

The implementation of No Child Left Behind in 2000 and the shift to an obsessive focus on standardized testing coincided with the retirement of the type of veteran teachers I had (the oldest baby boomers or pre-boomers).

The younger teachers who replaced them, and are continuing to replace them, were themselves more likely to have been products of the incoherent system Hirsch describes, and to accept the standardized testing regime and edu-drivel as normal. Among them are genuinely well-meaning teachers who truly believe that in some hazy, unspecified past, all learning was acquired by “rote,” and who are sincerely unaware of the connection between background knowledge and reading comprehension. (I’ve met some of them, and they are genuinely naive about that relationship. Well-meaning people can do an awful lot of damage.)

At the same time, just as the top and the bottom Americans have moved away from each other economically, they have moved away from each educationally as well. The result is an increasingly polarized system that advances two frequently opposing – but in some ways equally damaging – educational philosophies, which in turn correspond to two of the biggest weaknesses Hirsch has identified in the American education system.

At one extreme, mostly disadvantaged students are offered no-excuses schools that focus almost exclusively on formal skills (e.g. identifying main ideas, “inferencing,” annotating). Because subjects such as science, history, and foreign languages, unlike English, are not covered on state tests (which determines school rankings and teacher evaluations), those subjects are either scaled back or cut entirely.

Ironically, in the name of raising reading score, schools are depriving students of the exact knowledge they need to become better readers. (Thank you Common Core!) 

At the other extreme, schools that educate affluent students tout their progressive credentials as a means of differentiating themselves from the masses: education is “hands-on,” “student-centered,” “discussion-based,” “social-emotional,” etc.

In reality, that often means an equally incoherent curriculum, in which students spend their time talking in small groups and doodling on ipads while teachers act as “facilitators.” Students might appear to be doing sophisticated work, but more often than not, they’re shaky on the fundamentals. The gaps created by this type of education are less likely to be noticed for the simple reason that affluent parents can hire tutors to plug them. 

There might still be a middle ground somewhere in the U.S. that vaguely resembles what used to be known simply as “school,” but if it still exists, it’s probably on its way out. 

Pretty much the only thing everyone agrees on is that more technology is always better

Either way, rich or poor, the result is smart kids with big, weird gaps in their basic knowledge. Kids who don’t know what a priest is, or what “comprehensive” means, or that authors can discuss ideas without agreeing with them.

Sooner or later, almost everyone is going to need accommodations. In fact, why not just extend regular time by 50% and be done with it?  

Why students need experienced teachers

As a tutor, I observed a striking phenomenon: despite the pressure to boost students’ confidence levels, I noticed that the amount of confidence my students exhibited often had an inverse relationship to their amount of knowledge.

My highest scorers were moderately confident but also very aware of their weaknesses, whereas my persistently low scorers tended to overestimate their abilities, sometimes dramatically so. (True story: the only student who ever told me he was going to answer every question right on the SAT was scoring in the high 300s-400s.)

As for students who started off lower and raised their scores significantly, they almost always experienced a watershed moment in which they realized that the test was actually hard and that they were going to have to put more in to get the results they wanted. As their knowledge increased and they were able to more effectively self-assess – that is, to more accurately recognize what they didn’t know – their confidence was shaken. But notably, their performance continued to improve.  

It turns out that all this is actually an established phenomenon known as the Dunning-Kruger effect; and as I’ve come to realize, it applies to teaching as well. Regardless of how well novice teachers know their subject, they don’t know what they don’t know about teaching.

Novice teachers, for example, do not know what stumbling blocks their students will likely encounter. This is a particularly acute problem for people who are naturally good at a subject. Having never struggled themselves, they often do not realize how much knowledge they take for granted. Indeed, the Dunning-Kruger effect also accounts for the tendency of knowledgeable people to assume that tasks they find easy are also easy for other people.

Because most new teachers cannot anticipate where the difficulties will most probably arise, they cannot take steps to address those potential pitfalls as they teach. As a result, they may inadvertently confuse their students, or end up having to spend time backtracking to clear things up. In some cases, they might not even become aware of the misunderstandings until much later, if at all, because they consistently overestimate the amount of knowledge their students possess. If something seems evident to them, why wouldn’t it seem obvious to their students as well?

I’ve come to hesitate about using the word “efficiency” because I think it has a somewhat dangerous connotation in today’s educational climate – behaviorism and canned, scripted lessons, trained pigeons, and the like – but I nevertheless think there is something to be said for it.

Some basic things can genuinely be taught quickly and easily, and when that is the case, there is absolutely no reason to waste students’ time and energy overcomplicating them. The most experienced (good) teachers know how to get the point across by making things seem simple and intuitive; they’re secure enough that they don’t need to show off by making concepts seem more sophisticated than they actually are. 

However, when teachers are pressured to turn everything into a “high level critical thinking skill” – and to continually demonstrate to administrators that they are doing so – the result is that simple, straightforward concepts are presented tortuously, leaving students confused about the basics and unable to apply more genuinely sophisticated ideas in anything resembling a competent manner. (See: Common Core.)

I think these issues also hearken back to the false dichotomy between “rote learning” and “critical thinking.” As I’ve written about before, I think it’s more apt to think of these concepts as part of a spectrum. Despite all the rhetoric, I suspect that there are exceedingly few – if any – classrooms anywhere in the United States where students are simply required to memorize names and facts and formulas and dates without any consideration of their larger context.

The real question is not whether concepts are investigated in any depth, but rather what quality of depth they are investigated in, whether that type of depth is appropriate, and how effectively new information is linked to the rest of the curriculum.

Ideally, teachers should understand not only how what they are teaching builds on what students have done before, but also how it builds a further foundation for what students will be doing a year or two down the line. But in order to accomplish that, teachers must have a solid understanding of their subject as a whole, not just their own little piece of it. 

In addition, “high-level critical thinking” is not always the best goal initially; sometimes shallow thinking has to occur first. But it really depends. So much of teaching new information and concepts involves negotiating and re-negotiating just how much depth is appropriate for a student, or group of students, at a given time. What’s true today might not be the case a month or six months down the line.

I was unaware of how much time I spent walking that line myself until I started training tutors and inevitably found myself confronted with the question of how to know the amount of depth to go into, and when.

How do you tell when to give a student the “hard” version of a rule as opposed to the easier “trick” that will get them the right answer 80% of the time?

How do know you when it’s time for a student who’s learned the easier version to make the jump to the harder version? How do you know when going into depth is more likely to cause more problems than it solves?

When I thought about it, I realized that so much of what had become intuitive to me was the result of having worked with dozens of students; of having observed patterns in their thinking; of having learned which questions to ask in order to accurately gauge their level of understanding; and of having seen which types of students responded best to which types of approaches. As a result, there was really no way for me to lay it all out in a set of rules.

And that, I realized, is part of what makes good teaching so challenging. It’s the constant monitoring of whether what you’re saying is really getting across, and knowing how to adjust your approach if things aren’t working. Those are things that come only with experience. Indeed, they are things most teachers do not really even start to think about until what they’re doing doesn’t work.

The crux of the issue is that teaching is something that happens between people. It does not matter how many education courses one has taken or how much developmental or pedagogical theory one has studied. It does not even matter how well one knows one’s subject.

One of the most important parts of learning to teach involves developing the ability to perceive the distance between oneself and others, and learning how to bridge that gap. This demands the ability to stop taking one’s own knowledge as a norm or point of reference, and to try to adopt the perspective of someone who knows much less.

Teaching is not just a matter of explaining xyz, but also of recognizing what parts of x are likely to require clarification to a particular group of students, or what parts of y students may be missing some of the foundation for – and of learning to work those issues into the lessons themselves so that the misunderstandings don’t even have a chance to occur. That is what I mean by “efficiency.”

I confess that I was a terrible know-it-all about some things when I started tutoring. I had my strategies, and since they worked best for me (and were pretty much all I knew), I tried to foist them on everyone I tutored. Sometimes it worked spectacularly well, and other times it, well, didn’t.

After working with enough students, however, I started to loosen up. I realized is that I needed to meet people where they actually were instead of where I thought they should be. Some relatively high-scoring kids, for example, had a terrible time with “big picture” reading questions on the SAT. They simply could not consistently identify main ideas, usually because they lacked sufficient context to make the leap from the literal words to what the passages were actually saying.

The more I learned about how what is called “reading” works, the less doctrinaire I became. Once I really clued into the fact that a lot of reading problems are actually knowledge problems, I stopped trying to insist that kids use strategies that were too sophisticated for them at that point. Understanding that sometimes there was no way to translate formal skills into concrete knowledge was in a way liberating for me. If students had already improved so dramatically reading passages in sections and diligently marking line references, who was I to insist that they throw that strategy away and approach the passages in a manner better suited to adult readers? That really wasn’t fair to them. Instead, I started building on what they had, in ways that worked for them.

But it took me years get to that point. Years. And some of that time was after I had written an entire book about reading!

To be clear, I should point out that I am not implying every veteran teacher is superior to every novice teacher – I think most people remember at least one teacher who had taught for decades and still managed to be an absolute disaster.

I am, however, suggesting that between the best veteran teachers and the best novice teachers, the former will pretty much always outshine the latter, hands down. This goes for tutors, classroom teachers, and pretty much anyone else responsible for teaching anything to anyone.

As is common knowledge by now, however, classroom teachers are currently leaving their profession in droves. Despite an occasional halfhearted gesture such as merit pay (whose effectiveness has been thoroughly debunked), most of the discussions about education now center on how to “build” a better teacher – as if great teachers could simply be churned out according to a formula.

One of the biggest problems (among many) with this line of thinking is that it completely overlooks the role of experience itself in making good teachers. There is absolutely no way to speed up the professional maturation process. What you end up with is a group of overconfident twenty-something ed school grads who can spout buzzwords like there’s no tomorrow but are utterly incapable of imagining just what it is they don’t yet know. And if there’s no one left to school them in those things – if the novices are the ones in charge – then the result is a very sorry state of affairs indeed.

The SAT and zombies

The New York Times op-ed columnist Paul Krugman often talks about zombie ideas – ideas that are unsupported by any evidence but that continue to linger on in the mainstream, where they are kept alive by Very Serious People who should really know better, but who collectively choose to bury their heads in the sands because it suits their needs to do so.

As far as the SAT is concerned, I would like to nominate two myths in particular for zombie status:

1) Arcane vocabulary

As I’ve pointed out countless times before (hey, someone has to keep saying it), virtually all of the supposedly obscure vocabulary tested on the old SAT was in fact the type of moderately sophisticated and relatively common language found in the New York Times

As I’ve also pointed out before, this is a misconception that could be clearly rectified by anyone willing to simply look at a test, but alas, people who hold very strong convictions are wont to reject or ignore any evidence to the contrary. Call this Exhibit A for confirmation bias. 

2) The guessing penalty

To be clear, there is no automatic correlation between guessing and answering questions correct vs. incorrectly. A student can guess wildly and still get a question right, or answer with absolute certainty and get it wrong. In theory, it was possible to guess on every single question of the old SAT and still receive a perfect score; likewise, a student could conceivably answer every question confidently without getting a single one right.

The quarter-point deduction for wrong answers on the old SAT was designed as a counterbalance to prevent students from receiving scores that did not reflect their knowledge, and to prevent strategic guessers from exploiting the structure of the test to artificially inflate their scores (as can now be done on both the new SAT and the ACT).

More than any other ideas, though, at least one of these two seems to make an appearance in virtually every article discussing the SAT, regardless of how valid the other points are.

For example, in a recent discussion of this year’s slight drop in SAT scores (old test), Nick Anderson of The Washington Post states that “The College Board jettisoned much of the old test’s arcane vocabulary questions, dropped the penalty for guessing and made the essay optional” – a sentence that remarkably contains not just one but two SAT words! 

And in her otherwise excellent Reuters article on the College Board’s failure to ensure that SAT math questions conformed to the test specifications, Renee Dudley makes several references to the “obscure” vocabulary on the old test. Just for grins, I went through her article looking closely at the choice of vocabulary and found nearly a dozen “SAT words” (including some real faves like prescient and succinct).

She also alludes to the fact that “The new test contains no penalty for guessing wrong, and the College Board encourages students to answer every question.” 

As I read Anderson and Dudley’s articles, it occurred to me that the inclusion of these zombie ideas has actually become a sort of rhetorical tic, one that anyone writing about the changes to the SAT is effectively obligated to mention. 

Obviously, these references involve two of the biggest changes to the test and can hardly be avoided, but I think that something more than just that is going on here. 

Consider, for example, what isn’t said: although it is sometimes stated that rSAT math problems are intended to have more of a “real world” basis, the fact that geometry has been almost entirely removed from the exam is almost never explicitly mentioned.

In addition, the kind of disparaging language used to describe SAT vocabulary is notably absent when it comes to math. I have yet to encounter any piece of writing in which geometry was dismissed an “obscure” subject that lacked any relevance to (c’mon, say it with me) “college and career readiness.” Nor does one regularly read articles sympathetic to students who whine that they’ll never actually use the Pythagorean Theorem for anything outside geometry class.  

Why? Because depicting a STEM subject – any STEM subject – that way would be taboo, given the current climate. Even if the College Board has decided that geometry isn’t one of the “skills that matter most,” the virtual elimination of that subject from the test is a matter that must be pussyfooted around. 

On a related note, the arcane vs. relevant discussion also plays to fears that students will be insufficiently prepared to compete in the 21st century economy. The goal in emphasizing “relevant” vocabulary is to provide reassurance that the students won’t fall behind; that the College Board can now be trusted to ensure they are prepared for the real world. 

At the same time, this is essentially a rhetorical sleight of hand designed to disparage the humanities without appearing too obviously to do so – a euphemism for people who do not know what euphemisms are because, of course, such words have been deemed irrelevant, and why bother to learn things that aren’t relevant?

The unspoken implication is that acquiring a genuinely rich, adult-level vocabulary is not really an important part of education; that it is possible to be prepared for college-level reading equipped with only middle school-level words; and that it is possible to develop “high level critical thinking skills” without having a commensurate level of vocabulary at one’s disposal. In short, that it is possible to be educated without being educated.

That is of course not possible, but it provides a comforting fantasy.

Call this the respectability politics of anti-intellectualism – a way of elevating ignorance to the level of knowledge by painting knowledge not as something overtly bad but as something merely irrelevant. That is a much subtler and more innocuous-sounding construction, and thus a far more insidious one.

As for the “guessing penalty” myth… This phrase is in part designed to reinforce a narrative of victimization. Its goal is to elicit pity for the poor, under-confident students whose scores did not reflect what they knew because they were just too intimidated to bring themselves to pick (C), even if they were almost sure it was the answer. 

Framing things in terms of guesses rather than wrong answers makes it much easier to evoke sympathy for these students. After all, why should anyone – especially a member of an already oppressed group – be punished for guessing?

The conflation of guessing and punishment also helps perpetuate a central American myth about education, namely that more confidence = higher achievement. By that logic, it is assumed that students (sometimes implicitly but often explicitly understood as female, underrepresented minority, and first/generation low-income) would perform better if only they knew they wouldn’t lose additional points for taking a risk. If these students felt more confident, so the argument goes, their scores would improve as well.

In reality, however, there is often an inverse relationship between confidence and knowledge: if anything, the most confident students tend to be ones who least understand what they’re up against. (True story: the only student who ever told me he was going to answer every question right was scoring in the high 300s.) Helping these students feel more confident does nothing to increase their knowledge and can actually cause them to overestimate their abilities. In fact, when students begin to acquire more knowledge and obtain a more realistic understanding of where they actually stand, it is common for their confidence to actually decrease.

The really interesting part about the phrase “guessing penalty,” however, is that it can also be understood in another way – one that directly contradicts the way described above.

An alternate, perhaps more charitable, interpretation of this phrase is that students were formerly penalized for guessing too much. Not realizing that they would lose an extra quarter-point for wrong answers, they would try answer every question, including ones they had no idea how to do, and lose many more points than was necessary.

Understood this way, the term “guessing penalty” refers to the fact that the scoring system made it almost impossible for students to wild-guess their way to a high score. I suspect that this was the original meaning of the term. (As a side note, I can’t help but wonder: when people argued for the elimination of the quarter-point penalty, did they realize that they were actually arguing in favor of making the SAT easier to game?)

According to this view, students who cannot afford tutors or classes to teach them “tricks” about which questions to skip cannot possibly compete with their more privileged peers. Here again, the obvious goal is to frame the issue in terms of equity.

At this point, one might observe a contradiction: students on one hand were described as being so cowed by the thought of losing ¼ of a point that they could not even bring themselves to guess, and yet they were on occasion also presented as being so oblivious to that penalty that they tried to answer every question. 

But back to the subject at hand.

Another reason I suspect the socio-economic argument against the “guessing penalty” has so much traction is that it would seem to be backed up by commonsense reality.

While plenty of students managed to figure out the benefits of skipping sans coaching, it is also true that a certain type of student could benefit significantly from some help in that department. Given two students with the same level of foundational knowledge, starting scores, and ability to integrate new information, the one with the tutor would typically be at an advantage. That’s pretty hard to dispute.

Whether this particular type of help is inherently more problematic than other types of help – help that more privileged students will continue to receive, quarter-point penalty or no quarter-point penalty – is, however, subject to debate.

Based on my experience, I would actually argue that in fact the quarter-point deduction made the old SAT an overall harder test to tutor than it would have been otherwise, and far less vulnerable to the kind of simple tricks and strategies that mid-range students can, to some extent, use on both the new SAT and the ACT.

The reality is that teaching students to skip questions on the old SAT was not always such a straightforward process; in some cases, it was a downright nightmare. It was only really effective when students had a good sense of which questions they were likely to answer incorrectly – that is, when the only questions they consistently got wrong were the ones they had difficulty answering. Unfortunately, this was usually only the case for about the top 10-15% of students.

In contrast, trying to help a student who was consistently both confident and wrong figure out which and how many questions to skip was often an exercise in futility. Because such students often didn’t know what they didn’t know, and had a corresponding tendency to overestimate their knowledge, there was no clear correlation between how they perceived themselves to be doing and how they were actually doing. This was most problematic on the reading section, where easy and hard questions were intermingled; there was no way to tell them, for example, to focus on the first twenty questions. 

When students’ knowledge was really spotty, it was difficult to determine whether they should even be encouraged to skip more than a few questions on the entire test because there was absolutely no guarantee they’d get enough of the questions they did answer right to save their score from being a complete disaster. And it was also necessary to be careful when discussing which question types to avoid because if students came across one such question phrased in an unfamiliar way, they might not recognize it as something to avoid. 

As a tutor, I came to loathe those situations because they forced me to treat the test as a cheap guessing game, particularly if the students were short term. Eventually, I stopped tutoring people in that situation altogether because things were so hit-or-miss. Often, their scores did not improve at all, and sometimes they even declined.

In addition, some students flat-out refused to even try skipping, regardless of how much I begged/pleaded with/cajoled them. I had students who repeatedly promised me they would try skipping some questions on their next practice test and then answered every question anyway, every time. I never even managed to figure out how many questions, if any, they should skip, and so I couldn’t advise them.

At the opposite extreme, I had students who knew – knew – that they could skip at most one or two questions suddenly freak out on the real test and skip seven.

The point here is that no matter how much tutoring they had received, and no matter how many thousands of dollars their parents had paid, the kids were the ones who ultimately had to self-assess in the moment and make the decisions about what they likely could and could not answer. Sometimes they stuck to the plan, and sometimes they panicked or got distracted by the kid sitting in front of them tapping his pencil and spontaneously threw out everything we’d discussed. No one could do it for them. And if their assessments were inaccurate and they messed up, their score inevitably took a real hit. The limits of tutoring were exposed in a very blatant way.

One last point:

On top of everything I’ve discussed so far, there is also the issue of which groups of students get compared in discussions about equity. When it comes to test-prep, there is a foundational level below which strategy-based tutoring is largely ineffective. If we’re talking about the most profoundly disadvantaged students, then it’s unlikely the kind of classes or tutoring that are generally blamed for the score gap would bring these students up to anywhere remotely close to the range of their middle-class peers.

Yes, certain individual students might draw considerable benefit, but on the whole, the results would probably be quite small. The amount of intervention needed to truly close the gap would be staggering, and it would have to start long before eleventh grade. But that’s a deep systemic issue that goes far beyond the SAT, and thus it’s easier to simply make superficial changes to the test.

I suspect – although I do not have any hard evidence to back this up – that the effects of tutoring are felt most strongly somewhere in the middle: between say, the lower-middle class student and the upper-middle class student who attend similarly good schools, take similar classes, and have similar skills and motivation levels – students who stand to benefit more or less equally from tutoring. If the former cannot even afford to take a class while the latter meets with her $150/hr. private tutor twice a week for six months, there’s a pretty good chance the difference will show up in their scores.

This is of course still a problem, but it’s a somewhat different problem than the one that usually gets discussed.

Moreover, the elimination of the wrong-answer penalty will give privileged mid-range students an even larger advantage. Yes, students who do not have access to coaching can now guess randomly without worrying about losing additional points, but students who do have access to coaching can be taught to guess strategically, filling in entire sections with the same letter to guarantee a certain number of points while spending time on the questions they’re most likely to answer correctly.

This is particularly true on the reading section. Because there are fewer question types, and the passages are not divided up over multiple sections, students on the lower end of average who have modest goals can be more easily taught to identify what to spend time on and what to skip than was the case before.

The result is that the achievement gap is unlikely to disappear anytime soon, regardless of the College Board’s machinations.