They weren’t ever taught

Thursday, August 8th, 2013

All teachers working in low-ability populations go through a discovery process, the Education Realist explains:

Stage One: I will describe this stage for algebra I teachers, but plug in reading, geometry, writing, science, any subject you choose, with the relevant details. This stage begins when teachers realize that easily half the class adds the numerators and denominators when adding fractions, doesn’t see the difference between 3-5 and 5-3, counts on fingers to add 8 and 6, and looks blank when asked what 7 times 3 is.

Ah, they think. The kids weren’t ever taught fractions and basic math facts! What the hell are these other teachers doing, then, taking a salary for showing the kids movies and playing Math Bingo? Insanity on the public penny. But hey, helping these kids, teaching them properly, is the reason they became teachers in the first place. So they push their schedule back, what, two weeks? Three? And go through fraction operations, reciprocals, negative numbers, the meaning of subtraction, a few properties of equality, and just wallow in the glories of basic arithmetic. Some use manipulatives, others use drills and games to increase engagement, but whatever the method, they’re basking in the glow of knowledge that they are Closing the Gap, that their kids are finally getting the attention that privileged suburban students get by virtue of their summer enrichment and more expensive teachers.

At first, it seems to work. The kids beam and say, “You explain it so much better than my last teacher did!” and the quizzes seem to show real progress. Phew! Now it’s possible to get on to teaching algebra, rather than the material the kids just hadn’t been taught.

But then, a few weeks later, the kids go back to ignoring the difference between 3-5 and 5-3. Furthermore, despite hours of explanation and practice, half the class seems to do no better than toss a coin to make the call on positive or negative slopes. Many students who demonstrated mastery of distributing multiplication over addition are now making a complete hash of the process in multi-step equations. And many students are still counting on their fingers.

It’s as if they weren’t taught at all.

But teachers are resilient. They redouble their efforts. They spend additional time on “warm-up” questions, they “activate prior knowledge” to reteach even the simple subjects that have apparently been forgotten, and they pull down all the kaleidoscopic, mathy posters and psychology-boosting epigrams they’d hung up in their optimistic naivete and paper the walls with colorful images formulas and algorithms.

They see progress in the areas they review—until they realize that the kids now have lost knowledge in the areas that weren’t being taught for the first time or in review, much as if the new activity caused them to overwrite the original files with the new information.

At some point, all teachers realize they are playing Whack-a-Mole in reverse, that the moles are never all up. Any new learning seems to overwrite or at best confuse the old learning, like an insufficient hard drive.

That’s when they get it: the kids were taught. They just forgot it all, just as they’re going to forget what they were taught this year.

All over America, teachers reach this moment of epiphany.

Stage Two is blame the students:

The transformation from “these poor kids have just never been taught anything” to “These kids just don’t value education” is on display throughout the idealistic Teach for America blogs. It’s pretty funny to watch, since on many sites you have the naive newbies excoriating their kids’ previous teachers for taking money and doing nothing, while on other sites the cynical second-years are simultaneously posting about how they hadn’t understood the degree to which kids could sabotage their own destinies, or some such nonsense. Indeed, I once had a conversation with a TFAer at my school, and she said this to a word: “I’ve realized I’m a great teacher, but my students are terrible.”


  1. Stevie the K says:

    So what’s step 3?

  2. Isegoria says:

    The next stage is acceptance.

  3. Legionnaire says:

    I have a good friend who did “Teach for America”. Years of debate with me never once managed to get her to believe in eugenics.

    Her two year stint did.

  4. Ross says:

    Legionnaire, it would be interesting to hear more about that, either as anecdote, or via pointer to other’s stories or studies.

  5. Dan Kurt says:

    Three points re: They weren’t ever taught

    1) Tracking and testing (IQ) is only hope in public education to save it*. If not done, the 106+ IQ parents will go private or home school as the USA’s mean IQ descends inexorably toward the 80s and lower with the coming open borders, refugee resettlement and Catholic Charities’ ( and its ilk) drive to move black Africans to the USA en mass.

    2) The author of this blog is demonstrating why Democracy is doomed. Here he shows the genesis of the ‘low information voter” and why the Democrat’s are destined to ultimate victory resulting in the break-up of the American Experiment in self (popular) government. Aristotle called Democracy rule by Fools. How right he was as fools NEVER learn and democracy puts them in charge.

    3) It is not only in the primary and secondary levels of schooling that the phenomenon of forgetting or unlearning occurs. The same process can be seen at the college and graduate level as well if one has taught at that level. I saw it in my short University teaching career. My son who has a Ph.D. in Mechanical Engineering was shocked to discover that same thing when as a Ph.D. student he taught 4th year Mechanical Engineering elective taking students Finite Element Analysis at a top 20 in the world University. He had 25 students taking the course for a quarter, circa 9 weeks. The first week he discovered that many of the students did not have the math or engineering background sufficient to do the work. He told his advisor in the department who was overseeing his teaching of the course that he planned to spend at least a week giving a math and physics review to refresh the class so that they could “catch up” so as to do the work. His advisor said to him: “They had their chance. Your job is to teach the course on Finite Element Analysis not waste a week of the quarter of those who can do the work.” My son taught the course and many of the students failed or got low grades as he expected. These were bright kids but even they forgot much of what they had been taught and passed in the previous three years. I have some hypotheses on this but now is not the time to go into it other than to say that it is IQ related and lack of drill/problem solving/writing is involved.

    Dan Kurt

    *Assuming public education needs to saved.

  6. Alrenous says:

    I second Ross’ request.

  7. Legionnaire says:

    There’s not as much of a story as it may sound like. Said friend went off to her assignment in a major city in Louisiana full of promise and hope. She followed the pattern laid out above. Her subject was English, so the issue was basic reading ability, grammar, and vocabulary, instead of fractions and addition, but the exact same progression followed regardless. After a year, she had moved on to blaming her students. With a little prodding from me, she came to believe that the issue wasn’t a lack of student desire to learn, but a lack of ability.

    Hearing similar stories from some of her TFA acquaintances led her to draw some horrifying conclusions about the universal nature of this problem.

    She’s a smart girl. She quickly realized that the electorate in the US is increasingly being made up of people who cannot read and do math at a basic level. She nearly had a breakdown thinking of all the possible implications of this.

    She’s not quite sold on actually enacting a controlled eugenics program in this country (and even I admit that without also increasing the reproductive rate of the 115+ IQ crowd any culling of the herd could only be effective up to a certain point), but on a theoretical level, she has come to view it as a good idea.

    Something tells me that hers is not an isolated case.

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