SUMMER SCRIPTS AND BOTS: Effective teachers, Ojibwe math!


Part 2—Possible bots of the gods:
Are American's upper-end journalists bots? Are they possibly bots of the gods?

In retrospect, the question seems stunningly obvious. That said, it only occurred to us this morning, as we read this lengthy analysis piece by the New York Times' Sheryl Gay Stolberg.

We'll save that analysis piece for tomorrow. Today, let's start with one of the first dispatches we read after we returned from summering in chic southern Maine.

We refer to an op-ed column by the Washington Post's Christine Emba. It appeared in Saturday's hard-copy Post. It concerns an important topic.

What sorts of reforms might help lower-income and/or minority kids gain admission to college? Emba was asking a very good question. At one point, she wrote this:
EMBA (8/6/17): Addressing inequalities in K-12 education, for instance, could help at-risk students of all races increase their chances of attending a top college—or any college at all. Policies such as property-tax-based funding for schools and the curiously slanted allocation of talented teachers (in Louisiana, for instance, a student in the poorest quartile of schools is almost three times as likely to be taught by an ineffective teacher as a student in the wealthiest quartile is) give a tremendous boost in college admissions to children from high-income families, often at the expense of their lower-income peers.
We were struck by the highlighted statement. The statement suggests that low-income kids in at least one southern state are getting a very raw deal in their schools:

"In Louisiana, a student in the poorest quartile of schools is almost three times as likely to be taught by an ineffective teacher as a student in the wealthiest quartile is."

Are Louisiana's lower-income kids getting saddled with a whole bunch of ineffective teachers? Since we could be talking about a tiny number of such teachers, Emba's statement doesn't quite say that. But plainly, that's what it suggests.

It's possible that this suggestion is true! Then again, we wondered about the key term in that equation:

"Ineffective teachers." How do we know who they are?

We wondered about this for a reason. We've followed these topics for a long time. Along the way, we've learned that you can't necessarily trust the academic authorities who tend to lie behind such claims.

It isn't just Donald J. Trump! In the pursuit of topics like these, our liberal academic authorities may sometimes tend to place their thumbs on the scales. Or so we've come to believe.

We suspected that Emba, a well-intentioned liberal journalist, may not share that perspective. We clicked the link her piece provided in search of the source of her claim.

What did we find when we clicked? We were whisked away to a 2014 report by the Center for American Progress. This was the passage in question:
DEMONTE AND HANNA (4/11/14): Our analysis of equitable teacher distribution in Louisiana includes 1,265 schools for which there were reported data on the results of teacher evaluation. The state requires every teacher to be evaluated, with 50 percent of the evaluation rating based on student growth and the rest based on other measures of teacher performance, such as observations of instruction. The state developed and piloted a state evaluation system called Compass that districts can use but that also allows districts to develop and use their own local evaluation systems as long as they comply with state law.
We're asked to rely on an evaluation system devised by the state in question. Under that system, half of a teacher's rating seems to be based on largely subjective factors, "such as observation of instruction." The other half is based on "student growth."

Presumably, this student growth has been recorded on annual statewide tests. But the CAP report tells us no more.

At this point, we'll advise you to check your wallet. It's completely unclear how "student growth" has been defined in this evaluation system, and there are a lot of ways the use of such measures can go wrong.

A cynic might say that "effective teachers," as measured by student test scores, may often be those teachers blessed with effective students. It all depends on how those student scores are used.

It's also true that statewide tests have produced quite a few giant cheating scandals in recent years. We began writing about this problem in the Baltimore Sun the 1970s. Almost forty years later, outstanding work by USA Today finally helped the nation start to catch on.

Should we trust that evaluation system? We have no idea. But of one thing you can be certain. Within your major American newspapers, the most basic questions about such matters will never interrupt or cloud the basic story-telling.

Emba, who is well-intentioned, seemed to be reporting a correctable problem. But is there beef behind her claim? Our biggest newspapers virtually never ask such basic questions.

Are major journalists bots of the gods? Over the decades, hapless education reporting has encouraged such uncomfortable speculations.

In large part, we refer to hapless reporting in service to liberal presuppositions. Consider the Atlantic's recent report about Ojibwe math, or something somewhat like it.

The report was written by Melinda Anderson, whose work we've praised in the past. She too was asking important questions, at least in theory. These headlines topped her piece:
How Does Race Affect a Student's Math Education?
A new paper examines the ways “whiteness” reproduces racial advantages and disadvantages.
Is "whiteness" affecting the math education of various groups of kids? Is it affecting their math education in negative ways?

If so, that would be a bad thing. But it's also bad when upper-end journalism turns on stories like this:
ANDERSON (4/25/17): Kassie Benjamin-Ficken, a teacher in Minneapolis, discovered her love of math in elementary school. One of her earliest memories is begging her mother to come to school so her teachers could share how she excelled in math class. While earning average scores in reading, she was consistently above average for math—which instilled her with a sense of accomplishment. That continued into middle school, where she recalls asking her math teachers to move her into a higher grade for more advanced content. But she remained in the same middle-school class.

Then in high school, her excitement for math slowly turned to disappointment. Benjamin-Ficken, a citizen of the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe (a tribal nation in Minnesota), was one of two students of color in her 11th-grade pre-calculus class. When her study partner was absent for a series of days, Benjamin-Ficken began to struggle with the material and barely passed the class with a D-minus. Her senior year in AP Calculus repeated the pattern—lacking support and feeling ignored in the class, she passed with a D.
That's how Anderson starts her report. Apparently, we're supposed to think that something like this occurred:

Benjamin-Ficken had always been a good math student. Then, her study partner was absent "for a series of days," and she ended up getting a D-minus for the year, in 11th grade.

Could that story be accurate? Everything is possible! That said, the story seems a bit odd on its face. We think of Jay Mathews' absurd account of Michelle Rhee's massive success as a second-grade teacher, in which, we were told, she turned a class of low-achievers around by seating them in a semi-circle.

Mathews is a highly experienced, excellent education reporter. That said, his claim about Rhee made little sense, except as an apparent example of the power of preconceived script.

After presenting that opening anecdote, Anderson explored the work of some professors on the alleged role of "institutional aspects of whiteness" in math education.

Over the years, we've come to feel that you can't automatically trust the judgment of such professors. And sure enough! Eventually, Anderson returns to the anecdote with which she opened her piece:
ANDERSON: Benjamin-Ficken, whose high-school experience challenged her confidence as a math student, is now a math specialist at Anishinabe Academy, a Minneapolis public school focused on using Native language and culture to support academics for urban indigenous students. A self-described math nerd, her teaching philosophy is grounded in breaking down the negative thoughts and ideas her students hold about mathematics. “If they want to choose this as a career, it's possible, [and] even if they don't … they can still think mathematically. A huge goal of mine is to build up that identity.”

But she’s also constrained by the institutional aspects of whiteness in her classroom that exist outside her teaching methods—not simply the how of teaching, but what the state standards value. She and her students share a culture that isn’t reflected in the way she’s expected to teach math. Required to rely on what she calls a “western white lens,” other sources of math knowledge that would be relevant to her students remain untapped. “What are the theorems that we have known here in America before colonization? What indigenous mathematicians have we had? We’re not a written society, so we don't have these books that say, ‘Here’s this Ojibwe person’s knowledge.’ It’s not the fact that I’m teaching this theorem … it’s what else can we highlight in our own community, in our own history here in Minnesota?”
Is there a way to "us[e] Native language and culture to support academics for urban indigenous students," specifically in math? Presumably, there is, although the statement is vague.

That said, do Benjamin-Ficken and her students "share a culture that isn’t reflected in the way she’s expected to teach math?" Aside from the way she's required to teach math through a "western white lens," are there "other sources of math knowledge that would be relevant to her students?"

Is there some "indigenous mathematics" which "remains untapped?" Were there "theorems that [Native Americans] have known here in America before colonization?" If the Ojibwe didn't have "a written society," does it even make sensed to ask?

We'll assume that Benjamin-Ficken is a superb math teacher. That said, do any of these musings make sense? We would suggest that they maybe possibly don't, except as an apparent example of the power of preconceived script.

Over here in our liberal tents, these scripts have dominated liberal writing since at least the mid-1960s. These scripts have tended to make us elite liberals feel good, perhaps and relentlessly at the expense of our good decent low-income kids.

The Atlantic's a major historic institution. Are our journalists bots of the gods?

Tomorrow: Bots of the gods on parade


  1. Axios today describes a study showing that doctors graduating from the more elite medical schools prescribe one third the opioids as those from lesser schools. They suggest that doctors with better training contribute less to opioid abuse. Might not better training be important to other aspects of medical care too?

    Here, Somerby argues that teacher assessment can contribute to a circularity of argument when a study finds that students who do poorly have less effective teachers, yet student effectiveness is at least half of how students are evaluated. In my own neighborhood, a teacher can go from being excellent to below average simply by changing school districts, since student test scores are used to evaluate teacher quality.

    As Somerby should know, being an expert in education, the nature of the content of math and the skills needed to do well, change around middle school. It becomes more conceptual and less focused on calculations. Many kids hit a wall when the content of their classes changes and imposes different demands. Some kids are not ready developmentally (since the brain also changes around that time) to succeed in math until a few years later. This is all part of the debate about when to introduce algebra and calculus in the curriculum. It has nothing to do with whiteness, although comparisons are made to Asian schools which introduce advanced math earlier than US schools tend to do. But Somerby only seems to follow testing issues, not anything related to education or child cognitive development.

    What harm is there in teaching any subject in a culturally relevant context? Female students no doubt benefit from hearing about women mathematicians. Boys get enough presentation of word problems in their own sports and hobby contexts. Why shouldn't girls or minority students encounter the same relatable and quickly understood analogies? Somerby mocks those native theorems, as if math belongs only to dead white Greeks, but all math arose initially from cultures needing to measure and count and build. Are there no modern tribe members in Somerby's world?

    Somerby mocks identity journalism as if he himself were not immersed in his Southern white Irish culture just as surely as native American kids live in their cultures. But Bernie says that only single payer is important, so all other liberal concerns must be denigrated, because Bernie says.

    1. Typo: "yet student effectiveness is at least half of how students are evaluated" should say instead, half of how teachers are evaluated. Sorry for the confusion.

    2. "As Somerby should know, being an expert in education...

      "But Somerby only seems to follow testing issues, not anything related to education or child cognitive development."

    3. Right, Ed! I don't think Somerby is very expert on anything education-related except perhaps testing. He does like to mock those education professors though, doesn't he?

  2. "The statement suggests that low-income kids in at least one southern state are getting a very raw deal in their schools"

    But, Bob, you're a liberal, which means that you're an enthusiastic supporter of capitalism. In any capitalist system low-income/low-wealth segment gets a 'raw deal'; this is the most basic feature of the system...

    I know that your 'team' likes to pretend that they somehow care for 'equality' (whatever the liberal definition), but surely you understand that it's just bullshit?

    1. Somerby is most likely a democratic socialist not a capitalist.

      Your semi-sarcastic expression of "The poor are always with us" yadda yadda does nothing to excuse failure to address our collective responsibility for aiding the poor, a basic part of Christianity and obligation of the rich, called noblesse oblige. Why are you here anyway?

    2. Mao, It's not about producing "equality", as you call it. In my opinion, at least, it's about providing a basic subsistence wage (minimum wage
      or welfare), access to education and healthcare. It's not only humane to do so, but it also benefits everyone in society,
      including the wealthy. The more poverty and educational backwardness in a society, the less healthy that society is...its economy suffers, its standard of
      living, even its national seccurity suffers. And yes, it's more humane to help the less fortunate, but obviously that argument does nothing
      for you. Doesn't it seem fairly clear that a society with a handful of extremely wealthy people and a weak or non-existent middle class
      is not a well-functioning society? Do you advocate for a "Lord of the Flies" scenario?
      These basic minimums do not and should not guarantee equal incomes or that everyone gets to go to Harvard. But they provide a basic
      living, allowing folks at least a chance to improve their lot in life and become productive members of society. After all, you, Chairman Mao, might one day find yourself
      in need. And I wouldn't mind a part of my taxes going to help you out in that case. I'd much rather see my taxes go for that than for wars fought under false pretenses.

    3. If he was 'democratic socialist' aka marxist, he wouldn't have called American liberals 'our team'. He is what's called these days 'social democrat', a proponent of capitalism with 'human face', which is a farce, really. Getting upset (or pretending to be) because capitalism is working according to basic rules of capitalism is ridiculous (or utterly hypocritical).

    4. democratic socialist /= marxist

    5. Democratic socialism most certainly is marxism.
      Check it out:

    6. What a liar you are. Here is what Wikipedia says:

      "Democratic socialism is a political ideology that advocates political democracy alongside social ownership of the means of production, often with an emphasis on democratic management of enterprises within a socialist economic system.
      The term "democratic socialism" is sometimes used synonymously with "socialism"; the adjective "democratic" is often added to distinguish it from the Leninist, Stalinist and Maoist types of socialism, which are widely viewed as being non-democratic in practice.[1] The term "democratic socialism" is sometimes used as to refer to social democracy but many say this is misleading because democratic socialism advocates social ownership of the means of production and social democracy does not.[2]"

    7. Yes, dear Anon. Public ownership of the means of production is marxist socialism. By definition. Sorry that you don't get it.

      And the Bob's 'team', the liberals, would never advocate public ownership of the means of production.

    8. Please quote that definition, from Wikipedia.

    9. I don't need wikipedia for that, I went to school.

      Are we clear now on Bob not being 'democratic socialist', on account of his 'tribe' having no objection to private ownership of enterprises whatsoever? Or, are you planning on asking more questions? Because frankly, I'm kinda bored with you...

    10. Better trolling please

  3. This guy is one of the most brilliant mathematicians working today.

    He doesn't prove Chinese theorems, Australian theorems, or American theorems. No white theorems or person-of-color theorems. Not even male theorems.

    He just proves theorems.

    He also gives good popular lectures.

  4. The other thing that holds these kids back is the lack of a firm foundation in the home. However that can never be discussed m

    1. Did Trump have a firm home foundation?

    2. "However, that can never be discussed [sic] m"

      Poor butthurt Alan: another shellshocked veteran of the culture wars.

    3. He was about to type covfefe. The m is a typo.

  5. Pretty obviously, societies which have no written language have no mathematical theorems.

    1. no written math theorems perhaps

    2. "The value of the squaw of the hippopotamus is equal to the sons of the squaws of the other two hides."
      (old joke)

    3. Then you must be an old idiot.

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