Mom, Dad: I’m dropping out of college to become a pro gamer

Mom, Dad: I’m dropping out of college to become a pro gamer

by Chelsea Stark

Millions in prize money and ESPN-sized audiences at stake

Robert Lee sat down with his parents over dinner at a favorite Chinese restaurant to break the news: He decided to drop out of college after one year at California State University in Fullerton to pursue a career as a professional video game player.

Lee had started to make more than a little money broadcasting his gameplay on Twitch while commuting to school three days a week. He wanted to make that a full-time job.

“The way I saw it, school was always going to be there, but this opportunity to make money playing video games was not always going to be there,” he says.

Almost three years later, Lee is a pro League of Legends player, earning a salary that pays enough to cover rent, clothes, food and a couple luxuries, he says, though he declined to provide a figure. That’s in addition to the millions of dollars in prize money that his team, compLexity, is competing for at tournaments around the world.

 Lee, known by his handle ‘RobertXLee’ when he plays, is not alone. Players have been able to turn professional gaming into careers — ones that allow them to live comfortably while playing the games they love. These pros’ paths are beginning to mimic those of athletes, starting with amateur tournaments before getting recruited by a professional league or team. The stakes are high, too; the top 10 highest earning players pulled in $8.18 million in tournament winnings.Not coincidentally, tournaments have begun drawing millions of viewers. Last year’s League of Legends final was watched by 32 million, while the live event held at the 18,000-seat Staples Center in Los Angeles sold out in less than two hours after tickets went on sale. And last month, more than 200,000 people watched the Dota 2 finals at another game tournament in Seattle, where a winning five-member team walked away with $5 million in prize money.

Esports, as professional, competitive video gaming is sometimes called, is no longer a niche activity. Those big audiences — and bigger payouts — are attracting game makers, along with sponsors like Coca-Cola and American Express, and partnerships typically associated with mainstream athletics.

Game publishers Riot and Valve have made millions riding the wave of the newest competitive genre, called MOBAs. Their respective games, League of Legends and Dota 2, have millions of players in almost every country around the planet. While these companies run their own internal competitive leagues, there are also third parties that both manage tournaments and broadcast them, such as Major League Gaming in the U.S. and ESL in Europe. Each has a business model that feels like a merger between ESPN and a sports league like the NBA, though they typically manage tournaments for almost a dozen games instead of just one.

Even ESPN, which has already dabbled in broadcasting less-athletic activities like the World Series of Poker, showed the Dota 2 finals on its online channel. ESPN is in talks with several video game leagues to gain more television rights.

Lee wakes up at 12 p.m. every day in a sprawling house in southern California. The compLexity team house sits in a gated community outside of Los Angeles. Its real estate ad might boast about its vaulted ceilings or granite counters, but those features seem to be ignored by the house’s occupants.

Once he’s up and fully awake, Lee joins the rest of his compLexity teammates, four other young men between 21 and 26, downstairs in a room filled with desks and powerful PCs. There’s very little other furniture, save a TV, couch and a conspicuous child-sized mattress leaning against the wall. That’s when the real work begins.

Lee says the team spends eight hours practicing as a unit, playing matches online. Practice time can also include watching replays of other matches or spending time crafting other, better plays. They’ll knock it off at around 10 p.m., and Lee is given the freedom to do whatever he wants. That usually means playing more League of Legends. He spends far more than the traditional eight hours a day on his job, but he’s not burned out yet.

“I dream about League a lot more often than I should,” he says. “My girlfriend tells me I sleep-talk about the game.”

The demographic makeup of professional gamers is largely similar to the gaming scene: It’s male-dominated and heavily southeast Asian, European and U.S-centric. Players also tend to be very young. Some pros start as early as 14, when their reflexes are the sharpest.

“Their reflexes are just better. You can hit your shots and really make plays happen when you are younger,” says Rod Breslau, a journalist who has covered esports for more than a decade, most recently for CBS Interactive’s gaming sites. “So the smart owners and managers pick up guys as they are coming through the ametuer ranks.”

He points to League of Legends player Lee “Faker” Sang-hyeok as an example. At 16, Sang-hyeok was picked up by a professional Korean team and went on to win the World Championships with his four teammates. (One year of going pro has already netted him more than $260,000, according to

“In normal sports, you go through little league and high school and college and if you are amazing you get to the NFL,” says Marcus Graham, better known as djWheat, who has been an esports commentator since the early 2000s. “If you are amazing at League of Legends at 15, why would you join the high school team when you could be playing on the big stage with pro team?”

This doesn’t mean older players aren’t able to compete, but Breslau says their skills and reflexes do degrade, just like those of real athletes. Esports is too young to know exactly when that age might be, he says.

“Those older guys use their experience and knowledge and tactics, they use more mind games than raw skill. It’s no longer ‘I’m just gonna roll over this person no matter what happens.’ It’s a lot more thought process.”

Breslau and Graham both started their careers as Quake players in the late ‘90s, proving there are roles and opportunities for those who want to continue their involvement.

“Ex-pro players are now casters or hosts, and it’s followed traditional sports. They are now on analyst desks or their commentating the game,” he says. “And you can’t ignore that streaming is a career in itself.”

Forging that career involves being something a little more than a good player. Breslau says the best players he’s ever seen are ones that are great athletes, but the real champs are those with showmanship.

“LeBron James and Michael Jordan always pushed basketball as much as winning,” he says. “For esports, it’s more than just winning championships. It’s utilizing that to promote the game, to push the sport further, to push boundaries.”

And as esports teeters on the edge of mainstream consciousness, athletes that can bridge that gap are all the more important.

Perspectives on where competitive gaming took off vary depending on what country you call home, and also on what games you follow. In the U.S. and Europe, first-person shooters Quake and later Counter-Strike began to take hold starting in the late 1990s. There were growing circuits of players, but the outside world was largely unaware that gamers were organized and competing.

“We struggled with exposure,” Graham says. “A lot of the times competitions were completely cut off from the community. If you played Quake or Counter-Strike, you were probably following the competition, but if you didn’t you had no ideas this was going on.”

Graham competed in Quake tournaments, and they became the best in North America for a short while.

“I joke that I probably have a negative earnings because we spent more to travel than we would win, but we did it because we loved the game and the competition and the people that we met.”

But being a professional then hardly paid the bills, Graham says. “The harsh realization set in that I can’t play this game eight hours a day and pay my rent, so I needed to get a job.”

Meanwhile, a different breed of gaming took hold in South Korea. There, players became obsessed with real-time strategy games like StarCraft. In Korea, professional gaming was more quickly accepted, with pro teams forming and gaining sponsorships from major companies. StarCraft matches were broadcast on two separate TV channels starting in the early 2000s.

“The Korean teams have been sponsored by major telecom companies for 13 years, since the beginning of pro-league,” Breslau says. “Korea’s infrastructure started so much earlier, which is why it is now so much stronger, where that type of stuff is only now coming to fruition in the West.”

Strong interest from southeast Asia didn’t translate to the West, making it difficult to follow players and tournaments in those days, Graham says.

“You know how we had to watch StarCraft competitions back in the day? We had to wait a week, then hopefully someone ripped them off Korean television, and put them up on some site,” he lamented. “You had to go up and find it.”

Eventually, technology caught up with the fans’ passion by allowing the community to directly support pro players.

Graham moved full-time into providing commentary during matches in the 2000s, similar to announcers during sports broadcasts. He spent years using services like RealAudio or Winamp’s ShoutCast during live rounds. Then starting in 2008, software that let people more easily stream video became widely available. That’s when Graham says he knew things were about to change.

“For someone who struggled for so many years to try to get esports in front of more people through writing, blogging or broadcasting via audio, suddenly we had the best way to get the most eyeballs,” Graham says. “It wasn’t people who wanted to judge us, it was people who were like, ‘Wow! People playing games for money,’ or ‘this player is so good and I could learn from them.’ It was one of the largest injections of exposure or accessibility that esports has ever had.”

Though there were a few options available, one network that focused solely on gamers was Twitch, which started as an offshoot of the now-shuttered livestreaming site Justin.TV. Twitch hired Graham in 2011 to build relationships with esports teams and he now serves as the company’s director of community and education.

Breslau says the relationship between Twitch, which has grown into a platform with 55 million monthly viewers, and competitive gaming is symbiotic.

“Competitive gaming made Twitch a billion dollar company,” he says. “The competitive nature of esports, just like real sports, makes them so captivating. That’s why esports as a medium has pushed streaming to where it is.”

Twitch also provides an advantage for individual players that cable never could: the ability to monetize by interacting with fans in their time off. Most pros, Breslau says, run streams nearly every day.

Twitch, which Amazon is buying for about $970 million, runs pre-roll commercials and spots during a broadcast, sharing some of that advertising money with the players. For viewers who want to skip the commercials, Twitch sells $5 monthly subscriptions to channels, with half that amount going to the player. Those payouts start to add up quickly, especially for some gamers with more than 100,000 subscribers and millions of fans watching their streams. Fans can also simply donate cash to streamers.

Robert Lee’s full-time gaming career started from streaming, which he says came easily to him. Being successful at streaming means being entertaining consistently, and engaging your viewers.

“Other gamers may not say much when they stream, but I like talking to people and showing people my skills,” Lee says. “Even when I’m playing by myself, I’m yelling about it at the top of my lungs.”

Those interactions, and serving your fans, quickly become a huge part of pro players’ days. Professional Call of Duty player Matthew “Nadeshot” Haag has almost 650,000 Twitter followers and more than 1 million YouTube subscribers. Haag, who has been playing professionally since the age of 14 and is captain of OpTic Gaming’s Call of Duty team, says serving fans is a full-time job.

“A typical day for me is two hours of video editing and production for my YouTube channels, and then six to eight hours of streaming/practice with my team,” Haag says. “We don’t have many days off, so it really is a 24/7 job, all year long.”

In addition to directly sponsoring pro players’ Twitch streams, fans are also contributing to prize purses at tournaments.

Valve, the publisher of Dota 2, one of the biggest titles in competitive gaming decided to fund its annual championship prize pool by offering exclusive in-game items. These electronic goods raised $10.5 million for the tournament in July.

That level of direct fan involvement also helped draw big-name sponsors, including Coca-Cola.

“People’s eyebrows still might go up in shock,” says Matt Wolf, the global head of gaming at Coca-Cola, which sponsors portions of the League of Legends pro play with Riot Games. “They don’t realize it’s a three part experience. Sure there are people playing games, but there are people watching games live, and that’s electric. And then there are people watching it home via stream.”

Coca-Cola recognizes esports are growing and wants to be on the ground floor, says Wolf, who has a background in games working for EA, Sega and then his own company, Double Twenty Productions.

“This game and player-verse, and the volume it reaches, is so powerful. Any company should take it seriously,” he says. “I think it could be an Olympic sport in 2020.”

With growth like that, more and more pro gamers will know the joy — and the terror — of playing in front of massive crowds of fans. It means putting winning and losing teams in the spotlight.

“Going from an entertainer to a professional player was very stressful for sure, “ Lee says. “As a streamer, it doesn’t matter if I am defeated horribly and do everything wrong, as long as I’m talking to my viewers and having a good time. Now if I play poorly, I really kick myself in the gut and think about what I could be doing better.”

The pre-match jitters never really get easier, Lee says, but he has found a lot of coping mechanisms.

“Before the game I feel my body tensing up. It feels like it takes a lot of muscle to even click my mouse.” he says. “To relax, I’ll make a fool of myself, say incoherent stuff, even sing to my team, just to get pumped up and get the adrenaline rolling.”

The tournaments are over for a bit, though. Lee’s team was just knocked out of the running competing in this year’s League of Legends championship in October, with only a small chance of making it back in. That defeat hasn’t dampened his enthusiasm, even when he talks about sacrifices required of the demanding schedule.

“It’s been two and a half years since I left school. I should have graduated by now. I don’t regret it because I didn’t enjoy school. Gaming I absolutely love. I feel like I’m getting paid for what I love to do,” Lee says.

The fact that so many like Lee can support themselves doing something they love is a sign of the industry’s growth, Breslau says.

“It’s more than just playing to make money and sustain themselves for life, it’s the love of the game and the community,” Breslau adds. “They love to play their game. They love to compete in their game. They love to be the best in their game.”


It’s time to kill school picture day

It’s time to kill school picture day
Please, no more.

By Annabel Monaghan

In this day and age, the last thing we need is more photos of our kids

There was a time when school photos made sense. My grandparents and great-grandparents were seldom photographed except at school or at their weddings. They did not live in a culture where parents watched every school play through the back of a smartphone. And they certainly didn’t turn their cameras on themselves to commemorate every soccer practice, every plate of scrambled eggs, every outfit change. In a pre-selfie world, the school photo was a necessary document to commemorate the passage of a year. Now it’s just an expensive addition to the junk drawer.

At last count, I have nearly a zillion photos of my kids. There are so many that I seldom go to the trouble of printing one out and putting it in a frame. My favorites feature my kids looking like kids: outside, laughing, and a little dirty. When Future Me gets around to printing out the best of these photos and putting them into carefully assembled photo albums, I’m pretty sure the annual school photo won’t make the cut.

Every time I look at my School Days photo frame, the one with with thirteen openings to house all the school pictures I will collect over the years, I feel kind of depressed. And not just because of the dwindling empty spaces that show me how many years I have left, like an X’ed-off calendar on a prisoner’s wall. The depressing part is the photos themselves, my kids against an artificial background looking like they’re under duress. If I wanted a collection of thirteen photos of my kids smiling nervously at a stranger, I’d just wait for the mug shots to roll in.

With your first child, you get sort of excited about his being professionally photographed. When the order form comes home, you pick the A package that costs $54, the one that includes the 8×10 and six 3x5s and enough wallet-sized photos for all of your friends. (Because, really, who doesn’t want to stuff her wallet full of photos of other people’s kids?) You may even spring for the retouching, the personalization on the back, and the refrigerator magnet so the photo is guaranteed to end up in multiple rooms.

Smartly, the photo company asks you to commit to this purchase before you actually see the photo. Your kids are so cute, how could they take a bad photo? The picture day photos of my children are actually the worst photos that they take all year. Sit on this stool, lean a little forward, tilt your head up toward the ceiling while keeping your eyes on me, says the stranger who just combed your hair in a direction it’s never gone before… Say cheese! They often end up with an expression that suggests they’ve either smelled cheese or have recently been punched in the kidneys.

I wised up by the time my second child was in school. I ordered the Z package, which is maybe $15. It comes with one individual photo for us to laugh about and also the class photo. I have to admit I love the class photo. It feels like a historical document. I keep them in case one of my sons ends up marrying the girl in the third row, or in case the kid making the funny face ever runs for president.

One year, when my third child was in pre-school, I brought him to class on picture day, and the teacher gasped when she saw him in his customary Yankee t-shirt and basketball shorts. “Oh no!” she cried. “I forgot to remind you it was picture day!” I knew darn well it was picture day, and I thought he looked pretty good. I wasn’t about to add a starchy collar and a necktie to the awkwardness of the event.

I didn’t spring for the refrigerator magnet that year either.

The False Promises of Higher Education

The False Promises of Higher Education
By Danielle Henderson
Danielle Henderson spent six years and $60,000 on college
and beyond. The effects of that education? Not as advertised.

The first time I left college, I had been going for a year directly out of high school. As a black woman who grew up in a lower middle-class household, I thought college offered a way for me to access the meritocratic way of life I’d heard so much about. But I had chosen the wrong school and the wrong city, and after about a year, I was feeling resentful. I didn’t like that I needed a degree for the world at large to acknowledge my worth—so I dropped out.

Without a clear plan, I was free. I moved to California and started working full-time at a coffee shop, in addition to part-time jobs at bookstores or waitressing to make ends meet. I was happy with my decision to leave school, and I found easy roommates in my co-workers and got promoted a lot.

Still, I didn’t feel like I was living up to my full potential—I knew I was smart enough to run the stores and restaurants I was working in, but I couldn’t prove it. In most cases, the one thing my bosses had over me was a college degree. By the time I was 25, re-enrolling seemed like a smart decision. I was working administrative desk jobs, and one of my bosses insisted that I could earn an additional $10,000 per year if I had a degree. That additional money could have made a big impact in my life, even if I was paying back student loans in the process. But what my boss didn’t fully consider, which I luckily did, was that the degree would cost me close to $51,000. Since I wouldn’t acquire a brand new skill set, there was a good chance I’d still be working the same exact job when I was done. I couldn’t see a way to go back to school, so I just dropped the idea entirely.

COLLEGE DEGREES DO NOT always have their advertised effect. We’re used to hearing about the pitfalls of avoiding college, especially how much money you’re likely to miss if you don’t go. The Pew Research Center released a study earlier this year that showcased the financial disparity among millennials who went to college versus those with only a high school education. They found that college-educated millennials earn more annually and are more likely to be employed full-time, but they are experiencing the highest rate of poverty compared to the college-educated adults of the past four generations.

Even though most millennials feel like their college degrees are worthwhile, they certainly don’t guarantee a job. That lack of connection between education and employment was jarring for me; I was raised to believe that there was a very real and immediate connection between a college degree and a higher income, but the reality is that a lot of people with college degrees are working jobs they could have had without one.

It wasn’t until I was 30 that I decided to go back to school. At that point, I was at another dead-end job at a bakery that made me feel brain-dead and hopeless; it wasn’t hard to give up my paycheck since I wasn’t earning that much. While the classes didn’t prepare me for a specific job, they did make me feel more confident about my ideas. This time, I loved it so much that I decided I wanted to be a professor. I moved to Wisconsin to start my master’s degree right after I graduated, expecting the same sort of encouragement; instead of the open, welcoming classroom I was used to, I was met with a business-like atmosphere. It was rigid and confining, and I wasn’t even sure that my degree would be useful. Using the same line of thinking of my old bosses at administrative jobs, most of my professors told me that, sure, I could teach with a master’s degree. But I’d be earning so much less than a person with a Ph.D.

There was an implicit understanding that my master’s degree would be effectively useless without yet another degree.

Much like how an undergraduate degree doesn’t guarantee a well-paying job anymore, there’s no longer any built-in security for college professors. Adjunct professors (those who have an M.A. or Ph.D. but no tenure-track position) earn a median salary of $2,700 per three-credit course, often teaching several classes at any college within driving distance to make ends meet. Even then, some are barely scraping by, sometimes living in their cars or squatting. In the most drastic example of this broken system, Margaret Mary Vojtko, an adjunct for 25 years, died penniless after she was let go from her job without severance pay.

I learned my lesson before I dedicated more time and money to pursuing a professorship that may not have materialized. Sure, with most universities struggling to increase diversity hiring, I might have been an attractive hire. But I wanted to use my education to help other people (students) and make a lasting impact in their lives; professors work way more than 40 hours a week, and most of that time is spent writing articles, attending and presenting at conferences, writing books, and developing coursework—teaching and connecting with students moves further and further down the list. The further I got into academia, the more I realized that it was never going to give me the space or resources to do what I really wanted to do. I only lasted one semester in my Ph.D. program.

PART OF THE PLACEBO effect of college is that we convince everyone that it’s a “good” sort of debt to have, when in reality, there’s no way to know whether you will experience that result. I supposedly got a full ride to both of the schools I attended, but still ended up with $60,000 in student loan debt because the scholarships did not include food, rent, and other basic expenses. And what did this “good” debt get me in the end? My graduate thesis—two entire years of my life—is languishing at the bottom of a box in an administrative office. It will never see the light of day, and much like 10th grade algebra, I will never need to refer to it in my day-to-day life. If I had stayed in academia, it could have been a sort of passport that would allow me to dive deeper into the well of the “publish or perish” ideology.

Instead, I decided to take the leap to writing full-time after I left school for the last time, and I’m glad I did. I have more time to volunteer and connect with people, I can easily find a home for my wide and varied ideas as a writer, and I actually spend more time researching now than I ever did as an academic.

Looking back, I fully recognize that mine is a privileged point of view—most people struggle to find ways to get into and pay for college, and here I am talking about how it might not matter, even after I fully engaged with and benefited from the very system I’m criticizing. Once, I believed strongly in the promises of education at each level—but at each level, those promises were proven wrong.

We’ve all been fooled when it comes to the current state of higher education. There’s a strange conflict emerging in America’s higher education system: The desire to learn and be a bigger part of the world is quickly taking a backseat to the financial reality of what universities take versus what they are offering. College is no longer a passport to a better life. The American university is a for-profit institution; with adjunct professors earning as much as a Starbucks barista, you might be better off going your own way.

Why Colleges Don’t Want to Be Judged by Their Graduation Rates

Why Colleges Don’t Want to Be
Judged by Their Graduation Rates

This fall, President Obama will release a college-rating system that is likely to include graduation rates as a key measure of institutional success. That worries colleges, which have long complained that the official government figures leave out many successful graduates. The federal rate counts only first-time, full-time students who graduate within a certain time frame.

Look at the Education Department’s first Beginning Postsecondary Students longitudinal study, begun in 2003, and you’ll see several categories of students that the federal rate overlooks.

The Bottom Line

Taken together, those limitations mean that millions of potential graduates are left out of the federal government’s official rate. In 2012 only 55 percent of all new enrollees at four-year institutions (including transfer-ins) were first-time, full-time students. More than two million new students weren’t. The numbers were even worse at community colleges, where only 41 percent of new students were first-time, full-time.

The good news is that better data do exist. The National Student Clearinghouse, which includes part-time and transfer students in its database, can follow students over longer periods of time than the government does. Jamienne S. Studley, deputy under secretary of education, has said that the Education Department is considering using that database in its evaluation of colleges. The clearinghouse says it could provide the data, with institutions’ permission.

That would make a big difference for community colleges, which could see their graduation rates double. According to the government, community colleges graduate just 21.2 percent of their students within three years. But the clearinghouse follows them for six years, and it found that nearly 40 percent of students who started at a community college in 2007 did go on to graduate from their starting institution or another one.

There’s just one thing standing in the way: Congress. Lawmakers have barred the department from creating a unit-record system with information on students who don’t receive federal aid. Unless Congress lifts the ban, the department will have to either rely on the National Student Clearinghouse to aggregate the data or calculate its own rate, based solely on federal grant and loan recipients. And that, unfortunately, would leave many students out.

Sources: National Center for Education Statistics, Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System, and 2003-4 Beginning Postsecondary Students Longitudinal Study. Accessed using PowerStats.

The Bachelor’s Degrees With The Highest Salary Potential

The Bachelor’s Degrees With The Highest Salary Potential

by Kathryn Dill

Last week, Forbes reported on The 25 Most Meaningful College Majors, many of which provided serious paychecks along with a strong sense of purpose.

But which majors all but guarantee a healthy starting salary that will only continue to grow?

As part of their 2014 – 2015 College Salary Report,  asked survey respondents whose culminating degree is a bachelor’s, and who graduated from schools in the U.S., work full-time in the U.S., and are not on active military duty to answer questions about their current employment and compensation.

Engineering dominates the list, which is top-heavy with STEM-related (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) degrees.

At the top of the list of bachelor’s degrees with the highest salary potential is petroleum engineering, which provides a median mid-career salary of $176,300. Actuarial mathematics comes in second, with mid-career salary potential of $119,600.

Nuclear engineering, chemical engineering, and electronics and communications engineering round out the top five, with mid-career median salaries that all top $113,000.

A few non-STEM degrees lurk much further down the 207 degree ranking. Philosophy ranks 49th on the list with a respectable mid-career median salary of $84,000. Marketing management follows close behind in spot 50, bringing in mid-career pay of $83,700.

Degrees as varied as forestry, urban planning, geography, and religious studies all populate the spots just above 100, with mid-career earnings in the $70,000s.

At the other end of the spectrum, education degrees populate many of the lowest-paid spots on the ranking, with child development coming in 207th with a mid-career salary of $36,400.

The runner up, early childhood education, promises a mid-career salary of $38,000. Child and family studies, early childhood and elementary education, and human services fill out the bottom five.

Athletic training and pastoral ministry are among the only non-education degrees at the lowest-paid end of the ranking. Each promises a $45,000 – $46,000 mid-career median salary.

The 10 Bachelor’s Degrees With The Highest Salary Potential

1. Petroleum Engineering

2. Actuarial Mathematics

3. Nuclear Engineering

4. Chemical Engineering

5. Electronics & Communications Engineering

6. Electrical & Computer Engineering (ECE)

7. Computer Science (CS) & Engineering

8. Computer Engineering (CE)

9. (tied) Aerospace Engineering

9. (tied) Electrical Engineering

How to fix our schools

How to fix our schools

By Richard Rothstein

Joel Klein, chancellor of the New York City public school system, and Michelle Rhee, who resigned October 13 as Washington, D.C. chancellor, published a “manifesto” in the Washington Post claiming that the difficulty of removing incompetent teachers “has left our school districts impotent and, worse, has robbed millions of children of a real future.” The solution, they say, is to end the “glacial process for removing an incompetent teacher” and give superintendents like themselves the authority to pay higher salaries to teachers whose students do well academically. Otherwise, children will remain “stuck in failing schools” across the country.{i}

Klein, Rhee, and the 14 other school superintendents who co-signed their statement base this call on a claim that, “as President Obama has emphasized, the single most important factor determining whether students succeed in school is not the color of their skin or their ZIP code or even their parents’ income — it is the quality of their teacher.”

It is true that the president has sometimes said something like this. But in his more careful moments, he properly insists that teacher quality is not the most important factor determining student success; it is the most important in-school factor. Indeed, Mr. Obama has gone further, saying, “I always have to remind people that the biggest ingredient in school performance is the teacher. That’s the biggest ingredient within a school. But the single biggest ingredient is the parent.”{ii}

There is a world of difference between claiming, as the Klein-Rhee statement does, that the single biggest factor in student success is teacher quality and claiming, as Barack Obama does in his more careful moments, that the single biggest school factor is teacher quality. Decades of social science research have demonstrated that differences in the quality of schools can explain about one-third of the variation in student achievement. But the other two-thirds is attributable to non-school factors.{iii}

When the president says that the single most important factor is parents, he does not mean the parents’ zip code or income or skin color, as though zip codes or income or skin color themselves influence a child’s achievement. Joel Klein and Michelle Rhee’s caricature of the research in this way prevents a careful consideration of policies that could truly raise the achievement of America’s children. What President Obama means is that if a child’s parents are poorly educated themselves and don’t read frequently to their young children, or don’t use complex language in speaking to their children, or are under such great economic stress that they can’t provide a stable and secure home environment or proper preventive health care to their children, or are in poor health themselves and can’t properly nurture their children, or are unable to travel with their children or take them to museums and zoos and expose them to other cultural experiences that stimulate the motivation to learn, or indeed live in a zip code where there are no educated adult role models and where other adults can’t share in the supervision of neighborhood youth, then children of such parents will be impeded in their ability to take advantage of teaching, no matter how high quality that teaching may be.

President Obama put it this way: “It’s not just making sure your kids are doing their homework, it’s also instilling a thirst for knowledge and excellence….And the community can help the parents. Listen, I love basketball. But the smartest kid in the school…should be getting as much attention as the basketball star. That’s a change that we’ve got to initiate in our community.”

Of course, there are exceptions. Just as not all children flourish with high-quality teachers, not all children fail to flourish just because their parents can’t help with homework or because they live in communities where athletes are the most prominent role models. Under any set of circumstances, there will be a distribution of outcomes — that’s human nature. And on average, disadvantaged children who have high-quality teachers will do better than similar children whose teachers are less adequate. But good teachers alone, for most children, cannot fully compensate for the disadvantages many children bring to school. As we noted, differences in the quality of in-school experiences can explain about one-third of the differences in achievement.

Even the president’s more careful statement — that teacher quality is the most important in-school factor — is actually without solid foundation in research. It is true that some studies have found that variation in teacher quality has more of an influence on test scores than do the size of classes or average district-wide per pupil spending. In other words, you are better off having a good teacher in a larger class than a poor teacher in a smaller class. But that’s it. It is on this thin reed that Joel Klein and Michelle Rhee are mounting a campaign to make improving teacher quality, and removing teachers whose students’ test scores are lower, the centerpiece of national efforts to improve the life chances of disadvantaged students.

There are plausibly many other in-school factors, not quantified in research, that could have as much if not more of an influence on student test scores than teacher quality. Take the quality of school leadership. Would an inspired school principal get better student achievement from a corps of average-quality teachers than a mediocre principal could get from high-quality teachers? Studies of organizations would suggest the answer is yes, but there have been no such studies of school leadership. Take the quality of the curriculum. Would average teachers given a well-designed curriculum get better achievement from their students than would high-quality teachers with a poor curriculum? A very few research studies in this field suggest the answer might be yes as well.

Or take another in-school factor, teacher collaboration. Even when elementary school students sit in a single classroom for most of the day, several teachers influence their achievement. Teachers can meet to compare lesson plans that worked well and those that didn’t. Teachers in lower grades can successfully align their instruction with what will be most helpful for learning in the next grade. Teachers of the arts can reinforce the writing curriculum, and vice-versa. Will average-quality teachers who work well together as a team with the common purpose of raising student achievement get better results than higher-quality teachers working in isolation? Plausibly, the answer is yes. Will promising to pay individual teachers more if their students get higher test scores than the students of another teacher reduce the incentives for teachers to collaborate? Again, a plausible answer is yes.

Of course, schools should try to recruit better-quality teachers and should remove those who are ineffective. After all, the quality of teachers is an important part of the one-third share of the achievement gap that can be traced to the quality of schools. But before making teacher quality the focus of a national campaign, school systems will have to develop better ways of identifying good and bad teachers. Using students’ test scores as the chief marker of teacher quality is terribly dangerous, for a variety of reasons: it encourages a narrowing of the curriculum because only test scores in one or two subjects (math and reading) can be used for this purpose, and teachers who will be evaluated mainly by these test scores will have incentives to minimize attention to other subjects; it creates pressure to “teach to the test,” that is, emphasizing topics likely to appear on our existing low-quality standardized tests rather than other equally important but untested topics; and it is likely to misidentify teachers — labeling many good teachers as poor and many poor teachers as good — because test scores can be influenced by so many other factors besides good teaching.{iv}

The necessary task of identifying good teachers and removing those who are inadequate requires more than student test score data. It requires a holistic approach, in which qualified experts observe teachers’ lessons, evaluate the quality of their instruction, and examine a wide range of their students’ work and how teachers respond to it. This requires a bigger investment of qualified supervisory time than most schools are prepared to make. Using student test scores as a shortcut will do great harm to American education.

Making teacher quality the only centerpiece of a reform campaign distracts our attention from other equally and perhaps more important school areas needing improvement, areas such as leadership, curriculum, and practices of collaboration, mentioned above. Blaming teachers is easy. These other areas are more difficult to improve.

But most important, making teacher quality the focus distracts us from the biggest threat to student achievement in the current age: our unprecedented economic catastrophe and its effect on parents and their children’s ability to gain from higher-quality schools.

Consider the implications of this catastrophe for our aspirations to close the black–white achievement gap. The national unemployment rate remains close to an unacceptably high 10%. But 15% of all black children now have an unemployed parent compared to 8.5% of white children. If we also include children whose parents have become so discouraged that they have given up looking for work, and children whose parents are working part-time because they can’t find full-time work, we find that 37% of black children have an unemployed or underemployed parent compared to 23% of white children. Over half of all black children have a parent who has either been unemployed or underemployed during the past year.{v} Thirty-six percent of black children now live in poverty.{vi}

The consequences of this social disaster for schools are apparent, and include:

  • Greater geographic disruption: Families become more mobile because they can no longer afford to keep up with rent or mortgage payments. They are in overcrowded housing; they often have to double up with relatives in apartments that were already too small. Children have no quiet place to study or do homework. They switch schools more often, fall behind in the curriculum, and lose the connection with teachers who know them well enough to adapt instruction to their individual strengths and weaknesses. Inner-city schools themselves are thrown into turmoil because classes must frequently be reconstituted as enrollment rises and falls with family mobility. Even the highest-quality teachers cannot fully insulate their students from the effects of this disruption.{vii}
  • Greater hunger and malnutrition: When more parents lose employment, their income plummets and food insecurity grows. More children come to school hungry and/or inadequately nourished and are less able to focus on schoolwork. Attentive teachers realize that one of the best predictors of how their students will perform is what they had for breakfast, if anything at all.{viii}
  • Greater stress: Families where parents are unemployed are under greater psychological stress. Such parents, no matter how well-intentioned, often become more arbitrary in their discipline and less supportive of their children. Children from families in such stress are more likely to act out in school and are less able to progress academically. The ability to comfort and support such students may be a more important indicator of a teacher’s quality than her students’ test scores, which may still be lower than the scores of students coming from stable and secure homes.
  • Poorer health: Families where parents lose employment are also more likely to lose health insurance.{ix} Their children are less likely to get routine and preventive health care and more likely to miss school days because of illness. They are less likely to get symptomatic treatment for illnesses like asthma, the most common cause of chronic school absenteeism. Children with asthma, even when they attend school, are more likely to come to school irritable, having been up at night with breathing difficulty.{x}

All these consequences of unacceptably high unemployment rates for disadvantaged parents contribute to depressing student achievement for their children. It is obtuse to expect to narrow the achievement gap in such circumstances. It is fanciful for national policy makers to pick this moment to raise their expectations for academic achievement from children of families in such stress and to single out teacher quality as the culprit most deserving of their public attention.

It would inappropriately undermine the credibility of public education if, in such an economic climate, educators were blamed for their failure to raise student achievement of disadvantaged children. Indeed, educators should get great credit if they prevent the achievement of disadvantaged children from falling further during this economic crisis.

Meanwhile, our political system is paralyzed, unable to take meaningful steps to reduce unemployment. Corporate profits are healthy, but an unjustified fear of short-term deficits prevents public spending from putting low-income parents back to work. Joel Klein, Michelle Rhee, and the other superintendents who signed their manifesto are influential in states whose national and state leaders contribute to this paralysis. These school leaders should raise their voices in protest against economic policies that doom children to failure.

Of course, the superintendents should continue attempts to improve teacher quality. They should work on developing ways to identify better and worse teachers without relying heavily on the corrupting influence of high-stakes test scores.{xi} In addition to teacher quality, they should pay attention to school leadership, curriculum improvement, and school organization. They should consider what initiatives they can take, either themselves or in partnership with other community organizations, to improve children’s opportunities to come to school in good health and with enriched experiences in early childhood and out-of-school time.{xii}

But they will have to embed all of this work in an insistence on broader efforts of economic and social reform if they hope their school improvements to make any difference.

Otherwise, their manifesto might appear to be more an example of scapegoating teachers than a reflection of serious commitment to the futures of our children.

—Richard Rothstein ( is a research associate at the Economic Policy Institute.

When There Are Too Many Students

When There Are Too Many Students

by Emily Richmond

In schools across the country enrollment
figures keep rising—but space is at a premium.

On Monday, The New York Times reported that Clark County—the nation’s fifth-largest school district—is once again bursting at its proverbial seams.

Clark County, which covers the Las Vegas Valley (the metropolitan area), currently has 318,597 students on 357 campuses, up from 308,377 just two years ago. While school enrollment is only one indicator, it’s a crucial component of a community’s economic forecast. The rebound in the Clark County district is an encouraging sign that the worst of the recession’s lingering effects are receding.

At the same time, enrollment growth poses significant logistical challenges—even in a boomtown that has more than a passing familiarity with the scenario. There are classroom seats to find, teachers to hire, and support services to provide.

Las Vegas is hardly the only city struggling with a sudden influx of students this year: add Denver, San Antonio, and Wake County, N.C. to the list. But in several of the nation’s largest school districts—including Chicago, Los Angeles, New York  and Philadelphia—enrollment has been declining. In Philly, nearly two dozen schools were closed last year, while Chicago shuttered 50 “underutilized” campuses.

Declining enrollment and sudden growth spurts come with their own challenges. In both cases, a little foresight can go a long way.

As The New York Times points out, the rebound in enrollment in Las Vegas is something the school district tried to prepare for in 2012 when it asked voters to support a $669 million bond measure. That proposal failed at the ballot box, in part because the long-term benefits were a tough sell to voters more interested in preserving their own short-term fiscal outlooks.

So where does that leave Las Vegas? Right now the district is scouting out temporary classroom space in abandoned strip malls, encouraging more students to sign up for virtual classes, and converting nine-month schools to year-round calendars.

The research is a mixed bag on how year-round schools influence student achievement. Some studies have found it benefits students from low-income households who were already struggling academically—the shorter breaks from instruction mean less summer learning loss. In Las Vegas, economics has been the driver of the decision to go year-round, as the campuses are significantly cheaper to operate than building a new school .

But at some point, cost-saving measures simply won’t cover the deficit of classroom seats. At the height of the last boom—roughly 1998 to the full-on recession almost decade later—Clark County was breaking ground on a new school nearly every month. But the last new campus was built in 2010. The district has about 1,800 portable classrooms in use, and 132 of them are 30 years old, said Joyce Haldeman, the school district’s associate superintendent of community and government relations. That’s a problem, given that the life expectancy of the units is 20 years.

There’s another element to be considered in the enrollment boom that the Times didn’t touch on: how Nevada’s per-pupil funding formula factors into the crisis. Like many states, Nevada provides schools with money based on an annual headcount of kids, which took place on the third Friday in September. (Nevada ranks near the bottom nationally when it comes to education funding, but that’s a whole other story.) That means the district doesn’t receive additional money throughout the year even as new students enroll. Discussions are underway as to whether adding a second count day—perhaps in the middle of the academic year—might be beneficial, Haldeman said. That would require a change to state law.

As education reporters, there are some logical elements to consider when writing about school enrollment increases. The first question to ask: Is anyone surprised? Districts typically have demographers on staff responsible for building enrollment forecasts based in part on local birthrates and other factors. The number of babies born in 2014, adjusted for the percentage of families expected to move out of town in the next few years, can give a pretty accurate prediction of the number of first graders expected to register in 2020. (What those forecasts obviously can’t predict are major economic episodes like the recession.)

Also worth considering: How is the school district ensuring educational equity during the crush for classroom seats? In other words: Are the portable classrooms more common in the oldest schools with the highest populations of minority students from low-income homes? Are zoning boundaries being adjusted in a way that favors one neighborhood over another? How are staffing decisions being made to allocate the full-time teachers compared with the substitutes?

In the meantime, Las Vegas schools are not expecting an enrollment slowdown anytime soon.

“I was driving down the street the other day and someone said: ‘Look at that. They are building new homes over there. That’s good news,’” Dave Flatt, a father of three who is president-elect of the Nevada Parent Teacher Association, told The New York Times. “I said: ‘No, that is not. That is not good news.’”

After 20 years, a teacher reinvents her classroom using technology

After 20 years, a teacher reinvents her classroom using technology

By Nichole Dobo

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Teacher Valyncia O. Hawkins knew she needed extra time with students who arrived in her classroom behind grade level, but slowing down the whole class risked boring the more advanced students. But even after 20 years as a teacher, Hawkins still didn’t have a good method to keep everyone moving forward. The 21 children in her classroom at Anne Beers Elementary School shared the label of fifth grader, but they arrived with different needs. It was clear she was losing some of them. It was disheartening.

“When I would stand and talk they would be bouncing off the walls,” Hawkins recalled.

Convinced there had to be a better way, this D.C. Public Schools Teacher took a fellowship with the CityBridge Foundation in 2013 to research and develop a new teaching method. She traveled to see other schools in states such as California and New Jersey, and she noticed technology offered a solution. It inspired her to create a new method of instruction. And in the process she found her zeal for teaching returned.

Fifth grade teacher Valyncia O. Hawkins and a student volunteer from Georgetown University work with students at the front of the room to give them extra help on a lesson as other students move ahead at their own pace on lessons on a computer. (Photo: Nichole Dobo)

Today, she is no longer standing in front of the room for a whole class period, trying to keep everyone on the same page. She developed a new style of teaching that gives students a mix of technology and small-group instruction. Online tools, most of them free, helped her customize lessons for students. She periodically checks progress through the year to adjust.

“I am meeting them where they are,” she said.

That’s not to say she found a method that is easier. It requires a lot of advance planning. She must craft several lesson plans for one class period.

On a recent day, when students arrived the first task was correcting the punctuation on two sentences projected on a smart board. Everyone gathered at the front of the room, composition books in hand, and they got to work fixing run-ons. They had four minutes to do it. Hawkins knew some students would move quicker, and her new teaching method meant she was prepared for it.

After answering correctly, students grabbed laptop computers and got to work on more challenging problems provided by online lessons that allowed them to work at their own pace.

This allowed Hawkins to work with students who took longer to arrive at the right answer.

“After we add a period is the ‘I’ lowercase?” Hawkins asked the smaller group who remained.

“No,” a student responded, a few moments later.

“Right, it is capitalized because you are always important,” Hawkins said.

A blended learning classroom gives children a mix of online and in-person instruction, and some say it offers more personalized learning. There are many ways teachers can do it, but Hawkins created something that is her own model. There is a lot of movement in her classroom, with many students breaking off to work on lessons at their own pace after the starting the class together. Groups of desks offer places for children to gather to work on laptops. A small couch near the front allows for comfy seating for small group-instruction at a smart board. Singular desks in corners welcome children who seek solitude while they work.

The children are often allowed a measure of independence. For instance, they can choose from several vocabulary lessons. They can wear headphones. Or not.

A student in a fifth grade class at Anne Beers Elementary School works on a computer lesson that allows her to move faster or slower than classmates in the same class. (Photo: Nichole Dobo)

Student JaNaia Jackson, 10, said her favorite lessons in English are finding the theme and main idea, she said. She notices that some of her peers like to take the computers off and work quietly on their own. Others like to stay near each other. There are other perks, such as getting to write with a tool that is preferred over a pencil and paper.

“I love to type,” she said. “I just love to work on typing.”

Right now, Hawkins is the only educator using this model of teaching in her school. In other D.C. schools, the district is coordinating blended-learning experiments.

Hawkins has noticed students are more engaged and there are fewer behavioral issues, something other D.C. educators said they have noticed with this model of instruction. The novelty of the technology isn’t the only factor, Hawkins said. Personalized instruction that allows students some freedom to explore keeps them from getting bored or frustrated.

“It just helped me feel like I was contributing to the learning of the students,” Hawkins said. “It helped address those students who don’t necessarily follow the norms.”

Students put away folders at the end of an English and language arts class at Anne Beers Elementary School. Valyncia O. Hawkins found a new use for milk crates – they are the perfect size for storing the folders. (Photo: Nichole Dobo)

That’s not to say the transition was easy or the results perfect. Hawkins considers her classroom a work in progress. She continues to remodel it to fit the needs of the school day and her students.

This year, for example, she had to re-organize her blended classroom because she now teaches English language arts to all fifth graders in the school. Before, she taught multiple subjects to the same 20 students all day. The new schedule means she has more students, so she is customizing plans for about 63 children who transition in and out of her room for English class. The new schedule has also shortened the class-time window. (That’s not to say there is less time for English and language arts at the school — writing instruction is now included across other subjects, such as science class.)

Another challenge: Managing the multiple online platforms, such as quizzes, learning games and online grade reporting for parents. Data on the websites she uses aren’t connected so Hawkins has to juggle them to monitor how her students are progressing.

But those obstacles haven’t sent Hawkins back to the familiar way of teaching. She continues to find a way to navigate, and it often means finding low-cost, or free, help.

A word list on the wall includes color-coded lists based on the level a student is working at in this fifth-grade classroom at Anne Beers Elementary School. (Photo: Nichole Dobo)

Volunteer students from Georgetown University spend time in her classroom as aides to help with things like transitions between the groups and the inevitable technical issue, such as a misplaced log in for a computer. And plastic milk crates Hawkins snagged in the cafeteria are the perfect size for storing student folders that organize personalized learning materials. To organize online resources, she puts links on a free website that she’s used for the classroom for a long time. Students are in one of five groups based on their ability level. Each group has a “playlist” of lessons. They access it in the classroom, and it’s available at home for the students who have Internet access.

On Tuesday, most students worked independently on computers in the classroom to answer a question about the class word of the day, “persistence.” Meanwhile, Hawkins stood in front of about 10 students with the word projected on a smart board. The students were asked to define the word. They wrote in composition books, pencils in hand and dictionaries by their side.

Hawkins challenged students to explain how the word “persistence” was subtly different than the examples they were giving, which would better fit the word “repetition.” She called the entire classes’ attention, including the faster-moving students who had been working independently. They had a joint class discussion, and together everyone arrived at the answer.

“Even though you know there is trouble ahead you have persistence,” Hawkins said.

The Myth of ‘I’m Bad at Math’

The Myth of ‘I’m Bad at Math’

by Miles Kimball & Noah Smith

Basic ability in the subject isn’t the product of good genes, but hard work.

“I’m just not a math person.”

We hear it all the time. And we’ve had enough. Because we believe that the idea of “math people” is the most self-destructive idea in America today. The truth is, you probably are a math person, and by thinking otherwise, you are possibly hamstringing your own career. Worse, you may be helping to perpetuate a pernicious myth that is harming underprivileged children—the myth of inborn genetic math ability.

Is math ability genetic? Sure, to some degree. Terence Tao, UCLA’s famous virtuoso mathematician, publishes dozens of papers in top journals every year, and is sought out by researchers around the world to help with the hardest parts of their theories. Essentially none of us could ever be as good at math as Terence Tao, no matter how hard we tried or how well we were taught. But here’s the thing: We don’t have to! For high-school math, inborn talent is much less important than hard work, preparation, and self-confidence.

How do we know this? First of all, both of us have taught math for many years—as professors, teaching assistants, and private tutors. Again and again, we have seen the following pattern repeat itself:

  1. Different kids with different levels of preparation come into a math class. Some of these kids have parents who have drilled them on math from a young age, while others never had that kind of parental input.
  2. On the first few tests, the well-prepared kids get perfect scores, while the unprepared kids get only what they could figure out by winging it—maybe 80 or 85%, a solid B.
  3. The unprepared kids, not realizing that the top scorers were well-prepared, assume that genetic ability was what determined the performance differences. Deciding that they “just aren’t math people,” they don’t try hard in future classes, and fall further behind.
  4. The well-prepared kids, not realizing that the B students were simply unprepared, assume that they are “math people,” and work hard in the future, cementing their advantage.

Thus, people’s belief that math ability can’t change becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The idea that math ability is mostly genetic is one dark facet of a larger fallacy that intelligence is mostly genetic. Academic psychology journals are well stocked with papers studying the world view that lies behind the kind of self-fulfilling prophecy we just described. For example, Purdue University psychologist Patricia Linehan writes:

A body of research on conceptions of ability has shown two orientations toward ability. Students with an Incremental orientation believe ability (intelligence) to be malleable, a quality that increases with effort. Students with an Entity orientation believe ability to be nonmalleable, a fixed quality of self that does not increase with effort.

The “entity orientation” that says “You are smart or not, end of story,” leads to bad outcomes—a result that has been confirmed by many other studies. (The relevance for math is shown by researchers at Oklahoma City who recently found that belief in inborn math ability may be responsible for much of the gender gap in mathematics.)

Psychologists Lisa Blackwell, Kali Trzesniewski, and Carol Dweck presented these alternatives to determine people’s beliefs about intelligence:
  1. You have a certain amount of intelligence, and you really can’t do much to change it.
  2. You can always greatly change how intelligent you are.

They found that students who agreed that “You can always greatly change how intelligent you are” got higher grades. But as Richard Nisbett recounts in his bookIntelligence and How to Get It, they did something even more remarkable:

Dweck and her colleagues then tried to convince a group of poor minority junior high school students that intelligence is highly malleable and can be developed by hard work…that learning changes the brain by forming new…connections and that students are in charge of this change process.

The results? Convincing students that they could make themselves smarter by hard work led them to work harder and get higher grades. The intervention had the biggest effect for students who started out believing intelligence was genetic. (A control group, who were taught how memory works, showed no such gains.)

But improving grades was not the most dramatic effect, “Dweck reported that some of her tough junior high school boys were reduced to tears by the news that their intelligence was substantially under their control.” It is no picnic going through life believing you were born dumb—and are doomed to stay that way.

For almost everyone, believing that you were born dumb—and are doomed to stay that way—is believing a lie. IQ itself can improve with hard work. Because the truth may be hard to believe, here is a set of links about some excellent books to convince you that most people can become smart in many ways, if they work hard enough:

So why do we focus on math? For one thing, math skills are increasingly important for getting good jobs these days—so believing you can’t learn math is especially self-destructive. But we also believe that math is the area where America’s “fallacy of inborn ability” is the most entrenched. Math is the great mental bogeyman of an unconfident America. If we can convince you that anyone can learn math, it should be a short step to convincing you that you can learn just about anything, if you work hard enough.

Is America more susceptible than other nations to the dangerous idea of genetic math ability? Here our evidence is only anecdotal, but we suspect that this is the case. While American fourth and eighth graders score quite well in international math comparisons—beating countries like Germany, the UK and Sweden—our high-schoolers  underperform those countries by a wide margin. This suggests that Americans’ native ability is just as good as anyone’s, but that we fail to capitalize on that ability through hard work. In response to the lackluster high school math performance, some influential voices in American education policy have suggested simply teaching less math—for example, Andrew Hacker has called for algebra to no longer be a requirement. The subtext, of course, is that large numbers of American kids are simply not born with the ability to solve for x.

We believe that this approach is disastrous and wrong. First of all, it leaves many Americans ill-prepared to compete in a global marketplace with hard-working foreigners. But even more importantly, it may contribute to inequality. A great deal of research has shown that technical skills in areas like software are increasingly making the difference between America’s upper middle class and its working class. While we don’t think education is a cure-all for inequality, we definitely believe that in an increasingly automated workplace, Americans who give up on math are selling themselves short.

Too many Americans go through life terrified of equations and mathematical symbols. We think what many of them are afraid of is “proving” themselves to be genetically inferior by failing to instantly comprehend the equations (when, of course, in reality, even a math professor would have to read closely). So they recoil from anything that looks like math, protesting: “I’m not a math person.” And so they exclude themselves from quite a few lucrative career opportunities. We believe that this has to stop. Our view is shared by economist and writer Allison Schrager, who has written two wonderful columns in Quartz (here and here), that echo many of our views.

One way to help Americans excel at math is to copy the approach of the Japanese, Chinese, and Koreans.  In Intelligence and How to Get It, Nisbett describes how the educational systems of East Asian countries focus more on hard work than on inborn talent:

1. “Children in Japan go to school about 240 days a year, whereas children in the United States go to school about 180 days a year.”
2. “Japanese high school students of the 1980s studied 3 ½ hours a day, and that number is likely to be, if anything, higher today.”
3. “[The inhabitants of Japan and Korea] do not need to read this book to find out that intelligence and intellectual accomplishment are highly malleable. Confucius set that matter straight twenty-five hundred years ago.”
4. “When they do badly at something, [Japanese, Koreans, etc.] respond by working harder at it.”
5. “Persistence in the face of failure is very much part of the Asian tradition of self-improvement. And [people in those countries] are accustomed to criticism in the service of self-improvement in situations where Westerners avoid it or resent it.”

We certainly don’t want America’s education system to copy everything Japan does (and we remain agnostic regarding the wisdom of Confucius). But it seems to us that an emphasis on hard work is a hallmark not just of modern East Asia, but of America’s past as well. In returning to an emphasis on effort, America would be returning to its roots, not just copying from successful foreigners.

Besides cribbing a few tricks from the Japanese, we also have at least one American-style idea for making kids smarter: treat people who work hard at learning as heroes and role models. We already venerate sports heroes who make up for lack of talent through persistence and grit; why should our educational culture be any different?
Math education, we believe, is just the most glaring area of a slow and worrying shift. We see our country moving away from a culture of hard work toward a culture of belief in genetic determinism. In the debate between “nature vs. nurture,” a critical third element—personal perseverance and effort—seems to have been sidelined. We want to bring it back, and we think that math is the best place to start.

As Apprentices in Classroom, Teachers Learn What Works

As Apprentices in Classroom, Teachers Learn What Works20141011_TEACHING-slide-RCQW-jumbo

OAKLAND, Calif. — Monica DeSantiago wondered how in the world she would get the students to respect her.

It was the beginning of her yearlong apprenticeship as a math teacher at Berkley Maynard Academy, a charter school in this diverse city east of San Francisco. The petite, soft-spoken Ms. DeSantiago, 23, had heard the incoming sixth graders were a rowdy bunch.

She watched closely as Pamela Saberton, a teacher with seven years’ experience in city public schools and Ms. DeSantiago’s mentor for the year, strolled the room. Ms. Saberton rarely raised her voice, but kept up a constant patter as she recited what the students were doing, as in, “Keion is sitting quietly,” or “Reevan is working on her math problems.”

To Ms. DeSantiago, the practice seemed unnatural, if not bizarre. But the students quieted and focused on a getting-to-know-you activity, writing down their hobbies and favorite foods.

Over the coming year, Ms. Saberton would share dozens of such strategies with Ms. DeSantiago, one of 29 prospective teachers earning a small stipend while participating in a residency program run by Aspire Public Schools, a charter system with schools in California and Memphis.

The idea is that teachers, like doctors in medical residencies, need to practice repeatedly with experienced supervisors before they can be responsible for classes on their own. At Aspire, mentors believe that the most important thing that novice teachers need to master is the seemingly unexciting — but actually quite complex — task of managing a classroom full of children. Once internalized, the thinking goes, such skills make all the difference between calm and bedlam, and can free teachers to focus on student learning.

With its lengthy and intense mentorship, the Aspire model, one of a number of such programs emerging across the country, is a radical departure from traditional teacher training, which tends to favor theory over practice.

Over the last school year, The New York Times dipped into the classrooms where three residents trained, witnessing their choppy road through setbacks and successes.

Tackling Assignments

A month before school was to start, Ms. DeSantiago, a Fort Worth native and Brown University graduate, sat in a conference room with the nine other Aspire residents who were assigned to Bay Area schools.

Kristin Gallagher, the director of the residency program, stepped forward.

“There are going to be days when you’re wondering, ‘Why am I doing this?’ ” she said. “But getting back up and getting back in that classroom — that grit is what will make you successful.”

Among the fresh-faced residents was Bianka Mariscal, 22, the first college graduate in her family and an alumna of the Aspire elementary school in East Palo Alto where she was assigned to teach. As a sixth grader, she had helped classmates who were learning English.

David Nutt, 26, a Dartmouth graduate who had been home-schooled with his three younger siblings while the family sailed around the world, came to the residency after a year teaching Palestinian fourth graders in the West Bank.

He was assigned to teach 10th graders biology as well as 12th-grade anatomy and physiology, a subject he had never personally studied but figured he could master. After all, he had learned Arabic in college and gone on to use it in his teaching.

His first challenge, though, was to develop a rapport with students.

On the third day of school at Aspire California College Preparatory Academy in Berkeley, he followed the lead of his mentor, Jai David, a fourth-year teacher, and stood at the door of the classroom after lunch.

He held up a fist to bump as each student filed in. Several teenagers avoided eye contact, skulking past.

Ms. David, a popular teacher whose filing cabinet was papered with notes from former students, ceded the class to Mr. Nutt. Originally, he had planned a 25-minute lesson about different styles of learning. Ms. David, now in her second year as a mentor, had advised him to trim the lesson to 10 minutes.

After showing YouTube clips from “Rain Man” (an example of someone who learns visually), “Kung Fu Panda” (learning by doing), and “My Fair Lady” (learning through listening), he opened the discussion to students.

Many slouched silently. Ms. David whispered to Mr. Nutt that he should draw from a can of Popsicle sticks, each with a name on it, and call on random students. That revved up the conversation a little.

About 200,000 new teachers enter classrooms every year, many not prepared for the jobs that await them.

In traditional teacher training programs on college campuses, candidates pay tuition and spend most of their time in courses studying educational theory. And in short, mostly unpaid, student teaching assignments, candidates are teamed haphazardly with mentors of varying experience.

More young college graduates and career switchers are entering the profession through alternative programs such as Teach for America or the Teaching Fellows, and receive even less practical teacher training than students in standard programs.

According to a 2014 review of teacher preparation programs by the National Council on Teacher Quality, a nonprofit group, just more than a third gave them feedback on techniques for managing classrooms.

The most polarized debates about education have centered on higher academic standards and laws mandating that teacher evaluations incorporate student test scores. But the United States Department of Education is also focusing on the quality of teacher preparation programs.

It has designated $35 million in grants this year to help colleges and school districts develop new teacher training, prioritizing residencies like Aspire’s.

At Aspire, where most students come from low-income families, residents spend four days a week in a single classroom working with a mentor from late summer through the end of the school year. On the fifth day, they take seminars, role-playing typical situations and deconstructing videos while practicing almost scripted approaches to teaching. If they complete the program, they each earn a master’s degree and a teaching credential through a partnership with a local university.

Critics say mentors in charter networks have not taught long enough to gain the true wisdom of experience. They also argue that the training approach disregards the intuition that undergirds classroom culture, flattening teaching to its most mechanical.

Aspire leaders say they do not coerce trainees into a narrow model but give them tools, much as a surgeon shows a resident the best ways to conduct an appendectomy or a coronary bypass.

Battling Self-Doubt

At Berkley Maynard Academy, where eight out of 10 students receive free or reduced-price lunches and a quarter are learning English as a second language, Ms. DeSantiago felt her confidence growing.

Ms. Saberton would give her a simple objective, like “teach the students how to find the area of a circle,” and Ms. DeSantiago would create a lesson in which students wrote geometric equations of shapes on a map of the Oakland Zoo. As she narrated the students’ behavior, they responded with respect.

But on the first day Ms. DeSantiago stepped into the class alone, she felt like a substitute thrust into a hostile room. Many students disregarded her efforts to quiet them and stood up to grab a tissue or asked to go to the bathroom.

Even more painful, she felt she was letting down the cooperative students. “I felt like they were looking at me and thinking, ‘Why can’t you control the classroom?’ ” she said.

That night, when her boyfriend, Ben Leib, a software engineer at Twitter, arrived home to their apartment in Oakland, Ms. DeSantiago’s face was blotchy from crying. All she wanted was to be a teacher. Now she worried that she was not any good at it.

Ms. Saberton swooped in with some practical tips. One afternoon, she cued up music by the Jackson 5 on her laptop, handed Ms. DeSantiago a textbook and told her to read loudly enough to be heard over the song “ABC” as it blasted from the back of the room. During class, she reminded Ms. DeSantiago to speak firmly by holding up a whiteboard with the word “voice” written on it.

At East Palo Alto Charter School, Ms. Mariscal fumbled to explain academic content when her mentor, Sarah Steinke Portnov, was out of the room.

One morning after recess, she began a subtraction lesson. Wearing a sparkly silver top hat, she drew a number line on the whiteboard. But as she scrawled semicircles on top of the line, her pen repeatedly landed on the wrong numbers. Flustered, Ms. Mariscal erased her muddled work.

Hearing of the episode, Ms. Portnov urged Ms. Mariscal to let students see that mistakes are an integral part of learning. And during once-a-week debriefing sessions, Ms. Portnov acted the role of a student while Ms. Mariscal explained pictures and graphs.

At schools with a high concentration of poor students, many of the children are at risk for various academic and social problems that rookie teachers are ill-prepared to handle. Yet according to an analysis by the Education Trust, a nonprofit group that works to close achievement gaps, first-year teachers are assigned almost twice as frequently to schools with high rates of poverty as to schools in affluent neighborhoods.

Unseasoned teachers tend to leave quickly, leading to a damaging cycle of turnover in high-poverty schools. Part of the goal of the residency is to give neophyte teachers baseline competence. “Better preparing them meets a lot of the challenges that burn people out,” said James Willcox, the chief executive of Aspire.

Aspire — which as a charter network can raise private dollars on top of public money — pays its residents $13,500 a year and spends an additional $15,000 per resident to cover other costs, including health insurance and stipends to mentors. In the Bay Area, the residents pay $10,000 tuition for courses through a partnership with the University of the Pacific in Stockton. (Residents who continue teaching for at least three years are partly reimbursed.)

According to Urban Teacher Residency United, which tracked 2,700 graduates from 17 residency programs around the country, 82 percent were still teaching after five years. Since Aspire started its residency program four years ago, it has hired 82 residents, 73 of whom are still teaching within the charter network.

Mr. Willcox, a former Army helicopter pilot, wants to build a long-lasting teaching corps. But he acknowledged that many of the people attracted to the schools are ambitious to take on leadership positions, while others are worn down by classroom teaching. Five of the 10 Bay Area mentors at Aspire, all in their early 30s, accepted new jobs as administrators for this school year.

Mr. Nutt was often up by 4:30 in the morning and working until 10 at night. Still, Ms. David was frustrated that his lesson plans for anatomy class did not always meet her standards.

The students, too, could detect Mr. Nutt’s shaky knowledge. When they raised their hands and Mr. Nutt started to respond to questions, some students demurred, saying: “Actually, I have a question for Ms. David.”

All year, the mentors toggled between the desire to give the residents practice while making sure their missteps did not hurt students.

“This is these kids’ future, and it’s really hard to see a lesson fail,” said Ms. Portnov.

Many of the residents had been high achievers most of their lives. Teaching represented one of the first times that they could not simply follow the recipe and end up with a delicious cake.

“They are working all weekend long and late nights and putting in the time,” said Ms. Gallagher, the residency director. “They’re not always being successful. That’s been a really hard thing to grapple with.”

In late January, the residents in the Bay Area were dealt a blow when one of them abruptly left the program. Unbeknown to the others, Ms. Gallagher had put her on probation because the resident could not control her class.

Finally, Ms. Gallagher decided the resident simply would not be able to fly solo by the fall.

Ms. DeSantiago, who had an inkling of the difficulties, took the news hard. “Most of us have been struggling and relying on sheer devotion and passion for helping students learn,” she said. It was frightening to contemplate that that might not be enough.


Finding the Right Fit

Mr. Nutt was beginning to miss working with younger children, recalling his days in the West Bank. Ms. Gallagher also decided it was too challenging for an inexperienced teacher to master a new subject while also learning the basic ropes of classroom management.

In January, she transferred Mr. Nutt to an elementary classroom at Monarch Academy in northeast Oakland. The move was a bit of a risk, because his new mentor, Rebecca Lee, had just two years of teaching experience.

But right away elementary school was a more natural fit. The students quickly bonded with him. In the mornings, when Mr. Nutt arrived on the playground to greet students, every single one of them responded to his upraised palm with a high five and a smile.

One March morning, Mr. Nutt jotted division equations on a white board and the students eagerly volunteered to check the work using multiplication. Ms. Lee, who had gone through a residency herself, filmed him on a Flip video camera and an iPad Mini.

After school, Ms. Lee showed Mr. Nutt the videos. He realized he had dominated the lesson and needed to give the students more time to grapple with math concepts on their own. The pair worked on a plan to double the student talk time.

While such coaching could border on micromanagement, Mr. Nutt appreciated the pragmatic approach.

“I didn’t want to be making and continually struggling to find the best practices through trial and error,” he said.

By spring, most of the residents seemed more assured. One March day, Ms. Mariscal wore a necktie, introducing herself as Roald Dahl, the English children’s author. When she asked a student to “let me have your eyes on me, sir,” the children erupted in giggles.

At night, Ms. Mariscal had been taking home the teacher’s guide to the third-grade math curriculum, searching online for child-friendly definitions of words like “product” and “multiple.”

At Berkley Maynard, the students credited Ms. DeSantiago with improvement.

“At the beginning, she seemed kind of shy,” said Jeremiah Lewis, 11, during a break between classes one spring morning. “But she learned how to become strict and how to get what she wants.”

Four years into the residency program, principals at Aspire had seen previous graduates flourishing and were eager to hire the new trainees.

Mr. Nutt secured a spot teaching third grade again at Monarch, while Ms. Mariscal accepted a job teaching first grade at East Palo Alto, her alma mater.

There were no openings at Berkley Maynard, so Ms. DeSantiago applied for jobs at other Aspire campuses, and was invited to give a sample lesson at Golden State College Preparatory Academy, a school for sixth through 12th graders in Oakland.

When she asked the class for names, one boy gave her an alias. Channeling all that Ms. Saberton had taught her, she looked him in the eye. “I’d really like you to give me your name,” she said firmly. This time, he complied.

The rest of the lesson went smoothly, as she explained the mathematical concept of scale factor using a childhood photograph of herself with her sister. The students were hooked by her mix of personal and practical. At the end of class, she handed out a short quiz, and 22 of the 24 students made the correct calculations.

A few days later, a job offer arrived.