Aunt Pythia’s advice

Dear readers!

Do you know where Aunt Pythia is right now? She’s on a train from Washington D.C., coming home from a very short and very pleasant visit, involving a delicious dinner, an evening talk, and even more delicious desserts.

Not the actual desserts from last night.

Not the actual desserts from last night.


Readers, it needs to be said that not one, not two, but three different times – in the span of 4 hours – someone mentioned to Aunt Pythia that she shouldn’t forget her duties the following morning.

And has she forgotten? No, she hasn’t, and it’s not only because she was reminded so gently and so often last night. No, it’s because Aunt Pythia loves and adores you – worships you, really – and could never forget you. If she doesn’t write it’s because she can’t write. And as Amtrak’s wifi is holding up (so far!), we are all in for a treat. Auntie P knows she is, anyway.

Give it up for trains people, and after that, don’t forget to:

        ask Aunt Pythia a question at the bottom of the page!

By the way, if you don’t know what the hell Aunt Pythia is talking about, go here for past advice columns and here for an explanation of the name Pythia.


Dear Aunt Pythia,

You have written that sexual compatibility is important in finding an appropriate partner. But how do you ask or find that out when meeting people to consider dating? And when/how/where does when ask the question, “so how many sexual partners have you had?” I guess you have to date a person to find that out, and I know I shouldn’t ask that on the first date, and maybe even 2nd. And if the answer is above say two, how does one end the courtship without making the other person feel bad?

Here’s where I’m coming (hehe) from: I have been using okcupid to select for people that seem sexually compatible based on the questions they answer (e.g How many dates till sex?), but as is par for the course when it comes to online dating (at least for guys like me who are not tall, handsome, and/or rich) it is very hard to get responses (let alone dates) to the tons of (non-sexual) messages of interest I send. (I’ve had about 5 dates over 8 years of online dating). So I’m trying other ways (speed dating, meet ups, friends, and perhaps, math conferences) to meet people.

I am very sexually inexperienced – I am in my mid 30’s and haven’t made it past a 2nd date; I’ve never had a girlfriend; never been kissed (except maybe by my mom), and so on. My answer to the “how many dates till sex” is the “6 or more” option, and I only contact women with that answer. (I can’t fathom going on only 3-5 dates with someone and then having sex with them!) I am not comfortable dating someone with a lot of sexual partners, because I’m scared of STDs. I mean, you can test for some of the major STDs, but for others (e.g HPV, warts) it’s not always clinically practical, and then what about latency period during which microbes not detectable, and so on. In fact, I’d prefer to date a virgin like myself for that reason, but unfortunately that is unlikely to find at my age (apart from religious people; but I don’t like religion and would not get along with them). Also, my mom is a religious sex-negative nutcase (who has made sex shameful for me)- for example she isn’t happy or comfortable that my sister married a guy who had two previous partners; but he has been an awesome husband for the past 5 years.

very inexperienced regarding getting into nooky

Dear virgin,

First thing’s first. The way you figure out whether you are sexually compatible with someone is by having sex with them. And it may be great, or it may be terrible, or it may (and this is the most likely one) be not terrible but not great, in which case you might have to get better at it with that person (or just get better at it, period). Which may not work, even if you try a bunch, in which case you need to find another person and try again.

Conclusion: you might find yourself having sex a few times, maybe even a lot of times, with a few people, or many people, before you find the right person for you.

Secondary conclusion: if you run across someone who has had sex a bunch of times with a bunch of other people, then you should assume that they are doing it right. You should not assume they are an STD waiting to happen.

Unless they are, of course, that is also possible. Make sure they practice safe sex.

Next question: when do you ask someone how many sexual partners they have had? Answer: never. That is never a relevant question, in my book. Why does it matter? Unless you’re dealing with a freaked out virgin who has been convinced to worry about STD’s, there’s really no point in having that conversation.

Next question: how do you end a relationship with someone because they’ve had more sex than you without making them feel bad? I’d have to say, first think about how to have a relationship at all, with a real person, then worry about that. Oh but wait, since you’re never going to ask them how many sexual partners they’ve had, this won’t come up.

Here’s the thing. Once you’ve gone this long without getting laid, it takes on mythical proportions. It doesn’t need to. Sex doesn’t have to be all that mind-blowing or earth-shattering. Or dangerous, either. Sex is just like prolonged hugging, except stickier.

Friend, you have fallen prey – big time – to the most common mistake of online dating, namely using the information that has been disclosed via online dating and assuming it is sufficient to understand whether you could love someone. It is not. In fact, that data is mostly misleading, especially the picture (and here are Aunt Pythia’s alternative questions).

Also, I think you might need to reread your question and think about the role your mother has had in your life. Specifically, with religion and sex. I’m no expert on this stuff (but fuck it, pretending to be is really the whole point of this column), but it looks like, in an effort to keep you on the religious path, your mother has deliberately perverted your expectations about sex. That might work in some contexts, where there’s a village matchmaker pairing off young virgins, but it aint here. We are in a free market in terms of sex, for better or for worse. If you want to know more about that, please read Why Love Hurts, a really excellent book.

My advice: stop thinking about STD’s, start thinking about things that matter long term like whether you want kids, or where you want to live, or how you want to be awesome. Cultivate a reason for a woman to fall in love with you that is better and sexier than fear.

Good luck,

Aunt Pythia


Dear Tia Pythia (summoning my inner Spaniard),

I’m 20 years removed from official education, when I received a B.A. in Math. I worked in an actuarial department for a few years, and then for about 15 years in the IT dept of an accounting firm, where I did some programming, some design, and a lot of higher tier technical support.

I was let go about 18 months ago, and am now applying to a few Masters degree programs in Management Information Systems. I’m also contemplating applying to Data Science Boot Camps (there are a few out there), but they’re all in the $15,000 range. I’m skeptical about spending that on a program which doesn’t result in an actual degree, but I am curious to get your opinion on such technical boot camps.

Trying to turn the circular corner of my career

Dear Trying,

Yeah, I have no idea. I thought of starting one of those boot camps myself out here in New York, but then I realized the cost would be pretty steep to make it work, and in particular the very people who I’d want to attract wouldn’t have the cash, because the point of it would be to train them into shape to get the job.

That said, if they are really devoted to data, they should have data on how well their graduates do in the job market.

Also, getting a masters degree sounds good, but only if the skills it will teach you are up-to-date and will get you a job afterwards. If I were you I’d compare the curriculum to the stuff listed on LinkedIn as required knowledge for the jobs you want.

Good luck!

Aunt Pythia


Dear Aunt Pythia,

I want to support female mathematicians, and make sure they feel comfortable and welcome at conferences. And I make sure I my encourage female students and call on them and that I don’t make comments to put them down and so on.

Ok, now that we got that out of the way. I’m a single guy in my mid 30s (never had a girlfriend despite wanting one). Is it inappropriate to go to math conferences with hopes of finding love? (My mom suggests I do this, but I think my mom is clueless; she is not in math).

My question again is, is it appropriate to indicate romantic interest to a female mathematician I meet at a conference, and if so how? Typically I won’t know whether or not she is single (e.g she may not be wearing any obvious wedding ring) so then how should I go about figuring out (or asking) if she has a boyfriend? Is it appropriate to ask “Do you have a boyfriend?” And to be clear I’m not interested in a one-night stand, but a loving relationship between one man and one woman, as the holy bible requires (I actually can’t stand religion, just added that facetiously because I support gay rights).

Do you have a strategy for how I should go about this goal? Should I study her mathematical work (which I likely would be interested in, regardless of my interest in her) before the conference, and then use that to begin a mathematical conversation with her, and perhaps even a mathematical collaboration with her (which I would enjoy, even if there was no reciprocal romantic interest on her part)? Given my lack of past success with women, I am not confident that she will have any romantic interest in me, which may lead to great awkwardness.

Should I feel ashamed for posing such a question (to Aunt Pythia)? I get the sense (based on some past Aunt Pythia column comments) that going to conferences in part to meet women interested in math might offend some feminists (but if I was gay, my question would be about meeting men). And I wonder how is it some mathematicians are in relationships with other mathematicians whom they met “at work” (e.g in grad school, post-doc, professor, etc) – how’d they navigate past the possibility of sexual harassment? I am confused. I long for love, like everyone else does. And I’m sad I can’t seem to find it anywhere.

too sad for acronym

Dear too sad,

Great question. It’s all in the details. You’ve got some good thoughts here, but you’ve also got some stuff that comes across as super creepy. So let’s clean it up a bit.


  • Making friends with people at conferences, men and women.
  • Reading their math beforehand and asking them to discuss it in person, knowing it is almost certainly remaining a professional connection which you actually value.
  • Being open to love if things click.


  • Following around women, glomming on to them, or otherwise making them uncomfortable at a conference. Whatever you do, ask yourself, “would I do this to a man?” and “why don’t I got ahead and do this to a man for a while so I can convince myself and others that I’m not a creep?”
  • Studying up on someone’s math for the sole purpose of enticing them into a “work conversation” so then you can turn it into a date. Ew, totally gross.
  • Acting like a conference is a sexy sexy party. It’s not, although sometimes there are parties at conferences, and sometimes they get sexy. To be on the safe side, assume that the women there are there because they want to talk math and meet mathematicians in a professional way. Just because they’re at a party and drinking doesn’t mean they are open to advances.

If you are unsure of whether your actions are creepy, my suggestion is to ask a man or woman who knows you and likes you and whom you trust is not themselves a creep.

In general, my suggestion is to be nice, and friendly, and invite multiple people to lunch, or join a group of people for lunch, and take the opportunity to engage in a fun conversation with the person sitting next to you. If you’re enjoying the conversation, mention that you’re planning to go to restaurant X tomorrow for lunch, and would they like to join? Stuff like that. Make it easy for them to say no, and to bring friends, and be sure they never feel pressured in any way.

Good luck!

Aunt Pythia


Aunt Pythia,

There is a function that I can run online. There is apparently some Visual Basic code that implements the algorithm. I pay to have access to be able to run the function. I would like to be able to do automated testing of the function, but to do that, I have thought that I need to have my own implementation. The guy behind this has some functions that he gives me a script that explains how they work.

In the case of this one, there isn’t a script, just code that is not publicly available. The function takes as input two three-digit numbers. the output is 12 three-digit numbers. Is there a machine learning approach that I could use to derive the function so that I can test its performance?

Missing Link

Dear Missing Link,

The answer is no, at least with the information you’ve given me. I have no idea how that function is derived, what form it’s in. If I knew it was a polynomial function (or 12), with some kind of well-defined form, then absolutely, I could infer the coefficients using linear algebra. But given that it always transforms a three digit numbers into three digit numbers, it doesn’t sound polynomial.

It might not even be intrinsically integral: maybe it uses cosines and logarithms and at the very end it lops off the digits to the left and right of some three digits. The point is, without more information I simply have no idea how to infer the function. I need more, and so do you.

Aunt Pythia


Aunt Pythia,

I’m interested in your take on the recent New York Times op-ed piece, Searching for Sex.

It seems to me that there are a lot of assumptions contained in the analysis. But I’m writing to ask for your view, not to share mine. How correct do you think his claims are? Should we care about them?

Person seeking every unique dictum on this one recently seen opinion report

Dear Pseudotorsor,

Fantastic sign-off.

You know, I kind of love it when statistics point out how much people lie about sex. It’s one of my favorite things. What I especially like about the condom story in that article is how it’s obvious that both men and women exaggerate how often they’re having sex, at least with condoms. I say, awesome! I love how people always think they’re porn stars. And although men lie more, it’s cool that women also lie.

Here’s the thing, though. Do we really want to be corrected? I mean, given that I haven’t had nearly as much sex as I wish I had, can’t you data people just leave me alone to my imagined life? Does it do any good, really, to think about just how many weeks go by that are utterly dry?

My theory as to why people lie: when you have sex with a person, it creates a temporary (but fantastic!) amnesiatic effect, where you can’t remember what you were mad about, what was wrong in the world, or how long it had been before that moment that you last had sex. It’s also an amazing hangover cure.

So your brain does this thing, in response, whereby it guesstimates that you must have been having sex pretty regularly, i.e. about once a week. And that brain fart lasts for like 4 weeks. Thus the bias.

My point is, it’s a good bias to have, in general, for most people. In fact (and somewhat ironically!) only actual porn stars are suffering from too little perceived sex. Go us! Go imaginary sex!

In other words, I think the author is wrong to ask, why do we have so little sex? I think we instead should be asking, how can we be unreasonably happy about other things just like we are unreasonably happy about our sex lives?

Also, I agree that the one thing the article didn’t discuss sufficiently is the question of selection bias. I mean, I have never asked google about my vagina, ever. I suspect there are quite a few people who don’t ask google about their vaginas. So instead of saying people are insecure about their smelly particulars, I think we might be tempted to conclude that insecure people ask google about their insecurities.

Auntie P


Congratulations, you’ve wasted yet another Saturday morning with Aunt Pythia! I hope you’re satisfied, you could have made progress on that project instead.

But as long as you’re already here, please ask me a question. And don’t forget to make an amazing sign-off, they make me very very happy.

Click here for a form or just do it now:

Categories: Aunt Pythia

Songs about mothers

I have a soft spot for sensitive singer songwriting men talking about their mothers, even when it’s a fraught relationship. After all, I’ve got three sons, and it’s nice to imagine they won’t forget about me once they leave. And hey, I’d rather have hate than nothing!

This morning I’m all about that. I started out with Sufjan Stevens (who has a new album coming out, by all accounts his best) singing For the Widows in Paradise, For the Fatherless in Ypsilanti:

Next I moved on to another incredibly emo heartfelt band called Iron and Wine, one of my favorites when I’m in this pineful mood. Here they are singing Upward Over the Mountain, a song I credit with the internal efforts I’ve made (so far) to let my sons someday leave me:

Next, now that I’m thoroughly in the mood, I’ll just go ahead and – brace myself and – listen to John Lennon’s Mother:

And to top that off, I’ll finish with something hopeful, Conor Obersts You Are Your Mother’s Child:

Categories: musing

Talking tomorrow evening at American University

Tomorrow I’m running down to D.C. after recording my Slate podcast. I’ll be giving an evening talk to the math and statistics folks (and the general public) at American University on Weapons of Math Destruction. So basically the nerdy low-down on what I’m writing about in my book. Here’s the poster (for live links, go here):



Maybe I’ll see you there!

Categories: talks

I felt warm and relaxed

When I was a kid, being the child of nerd atheists, I spent more time watching Star Trek, Animal House, and Monty Python than in church.

Scratch that, I spent no time at all in church, and quite a bit of time at sci-fi conventions, where my father was a sci-fi book dealer. In fact it was a yearly ritual to carry a bunch of boxes of books to the car to tote them to Boskone, where we’d have a table in the big book room.

Sometimes I’d be in charge of selling, at least once I was old enough to make change. When I wasn’t on duty I’d wander around the room and wish I had enough money to buy sparkly purple crystals from weird women wearing scarves.

Sometimes I’d even read the books, out of boredom. They weren’t my thing, and I didn’t know why back then, but now I think I do.

Most of the time, the set-up seemed along these lines: some extremely macho guy, misunderstood and brilliant, gets into some kind of jam and uses his brilliant mind to find his way out of it. On the way he meets stupid men and even stupider – but gorgeous – women, who trick and finagle him, distracting him from his high-minded goals. Every now and then he’d get back at the women by fucking them. And yes, I’m thinking about Heinlein here, which my dad absolutely worships. Probably Larry Niven isn’t quite as bad.

In other words, it was mostly an adolescent male fantasy, with a side order of scientifically flavored situational crisis. Too much getting laid and proving yourself to other men, too little science. Waaay too little science.

Fast forward about 30 years, and I’m married to a man who reads sci-fi for fun (don’t tell him I said this, he denies being a fan). But progress has been made, because he can laugh at the ridiculous posturing.

About 10 years ago, in fact, he laughed out loud at a particularly ridiculous line from Heinlein’s “Puppet Masters.” I will show it to you so you can appreciate how much this explains to me about my childhood:

I felt warm and relaxed, as if I had just killed a man or had a woman.

I mean, for fuck’s sake. Oh, and if you want more context, please go ahead and read this excerpt, which taken as a whole is even worse than I remember. Oh, and here’s the cover:

Robert A Heinlein_The Puppet Masters_GALAXY_Don Sibley

Also, here’s another thing that I now (finally!) understand. Namely, when a boy reads this stuff, he actually might identify with it. I know this because my husband admitted this to me, and although I was momentarily stunned, it makes sense when you think about it.

Whereas, when I read it, I naturally concluded that it wasn’t about me at all, that it was in fact alien to me. If I wanted to force myself into that universe, where the women were so vile and dumb, then I’d have to decide between:

  1. not admitting I’m female, or
  2. admitting it, but trying to prove that, unlike those bimbos who couldn’t even fix a broken warp drive, I would be different. I’d have deep thoughts too, just like men.

Either of these attitudes, both of which I tried on at different times, were and are fucked up. I shouldn’t be surprised then that sci-fi never held sustained interest for me.

Anyway, it’s all good, because in our house nowadays, when we want to be funny, one of us mentions that they feel “warm and relaxed,” and then the other says, “holy crap, did you just kill a man??”

Categories: musing

A/B testing in politics

As research for my book I’m studying the way people use big data techniques, mostly from the marketing world, in politics. So naturally I was intrigued by Kyle Rush’s blogpost about A/B testing on the Obama campaign. Kyle was the Deputy Director of Frontend Web Development at Obama for America.

In case you don’t know the lingo, A/B testing is a test done by marketers to decide which of two ad designs is more effective – the ad with the dark blue background or the ad with the dark red background, for example. But in this case it was more like, the ad with Obama’s family or the ad with Obama’s family and the American flag in the background.

The idea is, as a marketer, you offer your target audience both ads – actually, any individual in the target audience either sees ad A or ad B, randomly – and then, after enough people have seen the ads, you see which population responds more, and you go with that version. Then you move on to the next test, where you keep the characteristic that just won and you test some other aspect of the ad, like the font.

As a mathematical testing framework, A/B testing is interesting and has structural complications – how do you know you’re getting a global maximum instead of a local maximum? In other words, if you’d first tested the font, and then the background color, would you have ended up with a “better ad”? What if there are 50 things you’d like to test, how do you decide which order to test them in?

But that’s not what interests me about Kyle’s Obama A/B testing blogpost. Rather, I’m fascinated by the definition of success that was chosen.

After all, an A/B test is all about which ad “works better,” so there has to be some way to measure success, and it has to be measured in real time if you want to go through many iterations of your ad.

In the case of the Obama campaign, there were two definitions of success, or maybe three: how often people signed up to be on Obama’s newsletter, how often they gave money, and how much money they gave. I infer this from Kyle’s braggy second sentence, “Overall we executed about 500 a/b tests on our web pages in a 20 month period which increased donation conversions by 49% and sign up conversions by 161%.” Those were the measures Kyle and his team was optimizing on.

Most of the blog post focused on getting people to donate more, and specifically on getting them to fill out the credit card donation page form. Here’s what they A/B tested:

Our plan was to separate the field groups into four smaller steps so that users did not feel overwhelmed by the length of the form. Essentially the idea was to get users to the top of the mountain by showing them a small incline rather than a steep slope.

What I find super interesting about this stuff (and of course this not the only “data science” that was used in Obama’s campaign, there was a separate team focused on getting Facebook users to share their friends’ lists and such) is that nowhere is there even a slight nod to the question of whether this stuff will improve or even maintain democracy. They don’t even discuss how maintainable this is.

I mean, we gave the Obama analytics team lots of credit for stuff, but in the end what they did was optimize a bunch of people’s donation money. Is that something we should cheer? It seems more like an arms race with the Republican party, in which the Democrats pulled ahead temporarily. And all it means is that the fight for donations will be even more manipulative, by both sides, by the next presidential election cycle.

As Felix Salmon pointed out to me over beer and sausages last week, the problem with big data in politics is that the easiest thing you can measure in politics is money, which means everything is optimized to that metric of success, leaving all other considerations ignored and probably stifled. And yes, “sign ups” are also measurable, but they more or less correspond to people who will receive weekly or daily requests for money from the candidate.

Readers, please tell me I’m wrong. Or suggest a way we can measure something and optimize to something that is less cynical than the size of a war chest.

Categories: arms race, data science

Guest Post: A Discussion Of PARCC Testing

This is a guest post by Eugene Stern, who writes a blog at Sense Made Here, and Kristin Wald, who writes a blog at This Unique* Weblog. Crossposted on their blogs as well.

Today’s post is a discussion of education reform, standardized testing, and PARCC with my friend Kristin Wald, who has been extremely kind to this blog. Kristin taught high school English in the NYC public schools for many years. Today her kids and mine go to school together in Montclair. She has her own blog that gets orders of magnitude more readers than I do.

ES: PARCC testing is beginning in New Jersey this month. There’s been lots of anxiety and confusion in Montclair and elsewhere as parents debate whether to have their kids take the test or opt out. How do you think about it, both as a teacher and as a parent?

KW: My simple answer is that my kids will sit for PARCC. However, and this is where is gets grainy, that doesn’t mean I consider myself a cheerleader for the exam or for the Common Core curriculum in general.

In fact, my initial reaction, a few years ago, was to distance my children from both the Common Core and PARCC. So much so that I wrote to my child’s principal and teacher requesting that no practice tests be administered to him. At that point I had only peripherally heard about the issues and was extending my distaste for No Child Left Behind and, later, Race to the Top. However, despite reading about and discussing the myriad issues, I still believe in change from within and trying the system out to see kinks and wrinkles up-close rather than condemning it full force.


ES: Why did you dislike NCLB and Race to the Top? What was your experience with them as a teacher?

KW: Back when I taught in NYC, there was wiggle room if students and schools didn’t meet standards. Part of my survival as a teacher was to shut my door and do what I wanted. By the time I left the classroom in 2007 we were being asked to post the standards codes for the New York State Regents Exams around our rooms, similar to posting Common Core standards all around. That made no sense to me. Who was this supposed to be for? Not the students – if they’re gazing around the room they’re not looking at CC RL.9-10 next to an essay hanging on a bulletin board. I also found NCLB naïve in its “every child can learn it all” attitude. I mean, yes, sure, any child can learn. But kids aren’t starting out at the same place or with the same support. And anyone who has experience with children who have not had the proper support up through 11th grade knows they’re not going to do well, or even half-way to well, just because they have a kickass teacher that year.

Regarding my initial aversion to Common Core, especially as a high school English Language Arts teacher, the minimal appearance of fiction and poetry was disheartening. We’d already seen the slant in the NYS Regents Exam since the late 90’s.

However, a couple of years ago, a friend asked me to explain the reason The Bluest Eye, with its abuse and rape scenes, was included in Common Core selections, so I took a closer look. Basically, a right-wing blogger had excerpted lines and scenes from the novel to paint it as “smut” and child pornography, thus condemning the entire Common Core curriculum. My response to my friend ended up as “In Defense of The Bluest Eye.”

That’s when I started looking more closely at the Common Core curriculum. Learning about some of the challenges facing public schools around the country, I had to admit that having a required curriculum didn’t seem like a terrible idea. In fact, in a few cases, the Common Core felt less confining than what they’d had before. And you know, even in NYC, there were English departments that rarely taught women or minority writers. Without a strong leader in a department, there’s such a thing as too much autonomy. Just like a unit in a class, a school and a department should have a focus, a balance.

But your expertise is Mathematics, Eugene. What are your thoughts on the Common Core from that perspective?

ES: They’re a mix. There are aspects of the reforms that I agree with, aspects that I strongly disagree with, and then a bunch of stuff in between.

The main thing I agree with is that learning math should be centered on learning concepts rather than procedures. You should still learn procedures, but with a conceptual underpinning, so you understand what you’re doing. That’s not a new idea: it’s been in the air, and frustrating some parents, for 50 years or more. In the 1960’s, they called it New Math.

Back then, the reforms didn’t go so well because the concepts they were trying to teach were too abstract – too much set theory, in a nutshell, at least in the younger grades. So then there was a retrenchment, back to learning procedures. But these things seem to go in cycles, and now we’re trying to teach concepts better again. This time more flexibly, less abstractly, with more examples. At least that’s the hope, and I share that hope.

I also agree with your point about needing some common standards defining what gets taught at each grade level. You don’t want to be super-prescriptive, but you need to ensure some kind of consistency between schools. Otherwise, what happens when a kid switches schools? Math, especially, is such a cumulative subject that you really need to have some big picture consistency in how you teach it.


ES: What I disagree with is the increased emphasis on standardized testing, especially the raised stakes of those tests. I want to see better, more consistent standards and curriculum, but I think that can and should happen without putting this very heavy and punitive assessment mechanism on top of it.

KW: Yes, claiming to want to assess ability (which is a good thing), but then connecting the results to a teacher’s effectiveness in that moment is insincere evaluation. And using a standardized test not created by the teacher with material not covered in class as a hard percentage of a teacher’s evaluation makes little sense. I understand that much of the exam is testing critical thinking, ability to reason and use logic, and so on. It’s not about specific content, and that’s fine. (I really do think that’s fine!) Linking teacher evaluations to it is not.

Students cannot be taught to think critically in six months. As you mentioned about the spiraling back to concepts, those skills need to be revisited again and again in different contexts. And I agree, tests needn’t be the main driver for raising standards and developing curriculum. But they can give a good read on overall strengths and weaknesses. And if PARCC is supposed to be about assessing student strengths and weaknesses, it should be informing adjustments in curriculum.

On a smaller scale, strong teachers and staffs are supposed to work as a team to influence the entire school and district with adjusted curriculum as well. With a wide reach like the Common Core, a worrying issue is that different parts of the USA will have varying needs to meet. Making adjustments for all based on such a wide collection of assessments is counterintuitive. Local districts (and the principals and teachers in them) need to have leeway with applying them to best suit their own students.

Even so, I do like some things about data driven curricula. Teachers and school administrators are some of the most empathetic and caring people there are, but they are still human, and biases exist. Teachers, guidance counselors, administrators can’t help but be affected by personal sympathies and peeves. Having a consistent assessment of skills can be very helpful for those students who sometimes fall through the cracks. Basically, standards: yes. Linking scores to teacher evaluation: no.

ES: Yes, I just don’t get the conventional wisdom that we can only tell that the reforms are working, at both the individual and group level, through standardized test results. It gives us some information, but it’s still just a proxy. A highly imperfect proxy at that, and we need to have lots of others.

I also really like your point that, as you’re rolling out national standards, you need some local assessment to help you see how those national standards are meeting local needs. It’s a safeguard against getting too cookie-cutter.

I think it’s incredibly important that, as you and I talk, we can separate changes we like from changes we don’t. One reason there’s so much noise and confusion now is that everything – standards, curriculum, testing – gets lumped together under “Common Core.” It becomes this giant kitchen sink that’s very hard to talk about in a rational way. Testing especially should be separated out because it’s fundamentally an issue of process, whereas standards and curriculum are really about content.

You take a guy like Cuomo in New York. He’s trying to increase the reliance on standardized tests in teacher evaluations, so that value added models based on test scores count for half of a teacher’s total evaluation. And he says stuff like this: “Everyone will tell you, nationwide, the key to education reform is a teacher evaluation system.” That’s from his State of the State address in January. He doesn’t care about making the content better at all. “Everyone” will tell you! I know for a fact that the people spending all their time figuring out at what grade level kids should start to learn about fractions aren’t going tell you that!

I couldn’t disagree with that guy more, but I’m not going to argue with him based on whether or not I like the problems my kids are getting in math class. I’m going to point out examples, which he should be well aware of by now, of how badly the models work. That’s a totally different discussion, about what we can model accurately and fairly and what we can’t.

So let’s have that discussion. Starting point: if you want to use test scores to evaluate teachers, you need a model because – I think everyone agrees on this – how kids do on a test depends on much more than how good their teacher was. There’s the talent of the kid, what preparation they got outside their teacher’s classroom, whether they got a good night’s sleep the night before, and a good breakfast, and lots of other things. As well as natural randomness: maybe the reading comprehension section was about DNA, and the kid just read a book about DNA last month. So you need a model to break out the impact of the teacher. And the models we have today, even the most state-of-the-art ones, can give you useful aggregate information, but they just don’t work at that level of detail. I’m saying this as a math person, and the American Statistical Association agrees. I’ve written about this here and here and here and here.

Having student test results impact teacher evaluations is my biggest objection to PARCC, by far.

KW: Yep. Can I just cut and paste what you’ve said? However, for me, another distasteful aspect is how technology is tangled up in the PARCC exam.


ES: Let me tell you the saddest thing I’ve heard all week. There’s a guy named Dan Meyer, who writes very interesting things about math education, both in his blog and on Twitter. He put out a tweet about a bunch of kids coming into a classroom and collectively groaning when they saw laptops on every desk. And the reason was that they just instinctively assumed they were either about to take a test or do test prep.

That feels like such a collective failure to me. Look, I work in technology, and I’m still optimistic that it’s going to have a positive impact on math education. You can use computers to do experiments, visualize relationships, reinforce concepts by having kids code them up, you name it. The new standards emphasize data analysis and statistics much more than any earlier standards did, and I think that’s a great thing. But using computers primarily as a testing tool is an enormous missed opportunity. It’s like, here’s the most amazing tool human beings have ever invented, and we’re going to use it primarily as a paperweight. And we’re going to waste class time teaching kids exactly how to use it as a paperweight. That’s just so dispiriting.

KW: That’s something that hardly occurred to me. My main objection to hosting the PARCC exam on computers – and giving preparation homework and assignments that MUST be done on a computer – is the unfairness inherent in accessibility. It’s one more way to widen the achievement gap that we are supposed to be minimizing. I wrote about it from one perspective here.

I’m sure there are some students who test better on a computer, but the playing field has to be evenly designed and aggressively offered. Otherwise, a major part of what the PARCC is testing is how accurately and quickly children use a keyboard. And in the aggregate, the group that will have scores negatively impacted will be children with less access to the technology used on the PARCC. That’s not an assessment we need to test to know. When I took the practice tests, I found some questions quite clear, but others were difficult not for content but in maneuvering to create a fraction or other concept. Part of that can be solved through practice and comfort with the technology, but then we return to what we’re actually testing.

ES: Those are both great points. The last thing you want to do is force kids to write math on a computer, because it’s really hard! Math has lots of specialized notation that’s much easier to write with pencil and paper, and learning how to write math and use that notation is a big part of learning the subject. It’s not easy, and you don’t want to put artificial obstacles in kids’ way. I want kids thinking about fractions and exponents and what they mean, and how to write them in a mathematical expression, but not worrying about how to put a numerator above a denominator or do a superscript or make a font smaller on a computer. Plus, why in the world would you limit what kids can express on a test to what they can input on a keyboard? A test is a proxy already, and this limits what it can capture even more.

I believe in using technology in education, but we’ve got the order totally backwards. Don’t introduce the computer as a device to administer tests, introduce it as a tool to help in the classroom. Use it for demos and experiments and illustrating concepts.

As far as access and fairness go, I think that’s another argument for using the computer as a teaching tool rather than a testing tool. If a school is using computers in class, then at least everyone has access in the classroom setting, which is a start. Now you might branch out from there to assignments that require a computer. But if that’s done right, and those assignments grow in an organic way out of what’s happening in the classroom, and they have clear learning value, then the school and the community are also morally obligated to make sure that everyone has access. If you don’t have a computer at home, and you need to do computer-based homework, then we have to get you computer access, after school hours, or at the library, or what have you. And that might actually level the playing field a bit. Whereas now, many computer exercises feel like they’re primarily there to get kids used to the testing medium. There isn’t the same moral imperative to give everybody access to that.

I really want to hear more about your experience with the PARCC practice tests, though. I’ve seen many social media threads about unclear questions, both in a testing context and more generally with the Common Core. It sounds like you didn’t think it was so bad?

KW: Well, “not so bad” in that I am a 45 year old who was really trying to take the practice exam honestly, but didn’t feel stressed about the results. However, I found the questions with fractions confusing in execution on the computer (I almost gave up), and some of the questions really had to be read more than once. Now, granted, I haven’t been exposed to the language and technique of the exam. That matters a lot. In the SAT, for example, if you don’t know the testing language and format it will adversely affect your performance. This is similar to any format of an exam or task, even putting together an IKEA nightstand.

There are mainly two approaches to preparation, and out of fear of failing, some school districts are doing hardcore test preparation – much like SAT preparation classes – to the detriment of content and skill-based learning. Others are not altering their classroom approaches radically; in fact, some teachers and parents have told me they hardly notice a difference. My unscientific observations point to a separation between the two that is lined in Socio-Economic Status. If districts feel like they are on the edge or have a lot to lose (autonomy, funding, jobs), if makes sense that they would be reactionary in dealing with the PARCC exam. Ironically, schools that treat the PARCC like a high-stakes test are the ones losing the most.

Opting Out

KW: Despite my misgivings, I’m not in favor of “opting out” of the test. I understand the frustration that has prompted the push some districts are experiencing, but there have been some compromises in New Jersey. I was glad to see that the NJ Assembly voted to put off using the PARCC results for student placement and teacher evaluations for three years. And I was relieved, though not thrilled, that the percentage of PARCC results to be used in teacher evaluations was lowered to 10% (and now put off). I still think it should not be a part of teacher evaluations, but 10% is an improvement.

Rather than refusing the exam, I’d prefer to see the PARCC in action and compare honest data to school and teacher-generated assessments in order to improve the assessment overall. I believe an objective state or national model is worth having; relying only on teacher-based assessment has consistency and subjective problems in many areas. And that goes double for areas with deeply disadvantaged students.

ES: Yes, NJ seems to be stepping back from the brink as far as model-driven teacher evaluation goes. I think I feel the same way you do, but if I lived in NY, where Cuomo is trying to bump up the weight of value added models in evaluations to 50%, I might very well be opting out.

Let me illustrate the contrast – NY vs. NJ, more test prep vs. less — with an example. My family is good friends with a family that lived in NYC for many years, and just moved to Montclair a couple months ago. Their older kid is in third grade, which is the grade level where all this testing starts. In their NYC gifted and talented public school, the test was this big, stressful thing, and it was giving the kid all kinds of test anxiety. So the mom was planning to opt out. But when they got to Montclair, the kid’s teacher was much more low key, and telling the kids not to worry. And once it became lower stakes, the kid wanted to take the test! The mom was still ambivalent, but she decided that here was an opportunity for her kid to get used to tests without anxiety, and that was the most important factor for her.

I’m trying to make two points here. One: whether or not you opt out depends on lots of factors, and people’s situations and priorities can be very different. We need to respect that, regardless of which way people end up going. Two: shame on us, as grown ups, for polluting our kids’ education with our anxieties! We need to stop that, and that extends both to the education policies we put in place and how we collectively debate those policies. I guess what I’m saying is: less noise, folks, please.

KW: Does this very long blog post count as noise, Eugene? I wonder how this will be assessed? There are so many other issues – private profits from public education, teacher autonomy in high performing schools, a lack of educational supplies and family support, and so on. But we have to start somewhere with civil and productive discourse, right? So, thank you for having the conversation.

ES: Kristin, I won’t try to predict anyone else’s assessment, but I will keep mine low stakes and say this has been a pleasure!

A critique of a review of a book by Bruce Schneier

I haven’t yet read Bruce Schneier’s new book, Data and Goliath: The Hidden Battles To Collect Your Data and Control Your World. I plan to in the coming days, while I’m traveling with my kids for spring break.

Even so, I already feel capable of critiquing this review of his book (hat tip Jordan Ellenberg), written by Columbia Business School Professor and Investment Banker Jonathan Knee. You see, I’m writing a book myself on big data, so I feel like I understand many of the issues intimately.

The review starts out flattering, but then it hits this turn:

When it comes to his specific policy recommendations, however, Mr. Schneier becomes significantly less compelling. And the underlying philosophy that emerges — once he has dispensed with all pretense of an evenhanded presentation of the issues — seems actually subversive of the very democratic principles that he claims animates his mission.

That’s a pretty hefty charge. Let’s take a look into Knee’s evidence that Schneier wants to subvert democratic principles.


First, he complains that Schneier wants the government to stop collecting and mining massive amounts of data in its search for terrorists. Knee thinks this is dumb because it would be great to have lots of data on the “bad guys” once we catch them.

Any time someone uses the phrase “bad guys,” it makes me wince.

But putting that aside, Knee is either ignorant of or is completely ignoring what mass surveillance and data dredging actually creates: the false positives, the time and money and attention, not to mention the potential for misuse and hacking. Knee’s opinion on that is simply that we normal citizens just don’t know enough to have an opinion on whether it works, including Schneier, and in spite of Schneier knowing Snowden pretty well.

It’s just like waterboarding – Knee says – we can’t be sure it isn’t a great fucking idea.

Wait, before we move on, who is more pro-democracy, the guy who wants to stop totalitarian social control methods, or the guy who wants to leave it to the opaque authorities?

Corporate Data Collection

Here’s where Knee really gets lost in Schneier’s logic, because – get this – Schneier wants corporate collection and sale of consumer data to stop. The nerve. As Knee says:

Mr. Schneier promotes no less than a fundamental reshaping of the media and technology landscape. Companies with access to large amounts of personal data would be “automatically classified as fiduciaries” and subject to “special legal restrictions and protections.”

That these limits would render illegal most current business models — under which consumers exchange enhanced access by advertisers for free services – does not seem to bother Mr. Schneier”

I can’t help but think that Knee cannot understand any argument that would threaten the business world as he knows it. After all, he is a business professor and an investment banker. Things seem pretty well worked out when you live in such an environment.

By Knee’s logic, even if the current business model is subverting democracy – which I also argue in my book – we shouldn’t tamper with it because it’s a business model.

The way Knee paints Schneier as anti-democratic is by using the classic fallacy in big data which I wrote about here:

Although professing to be primarily preoccupied with respect of individual autonomy, the fact that Americans as a group apparently don’t feel the same way as he does about privacy appears to have little impact on the author’s radical regulatory agenda. He actually blames “the media” for the failure of his positions to attract more popular support.

Quick summary: Americans as a group do not feel this way because they do not understand what they are trading when they trade their privacy. Commercial and governmental interests, meanwhile, are all united in convincing Americans not to think too hard about it. There are very few people devoting themselves to alerting people to the dark side of big data, and Schneier is one of them. It is a patriotic act.

Also, yes Professor Knee, “the media” generally speaking writes down whatever a marketer in the big data world says is true. There are wonderful exceptions, of course.

So, here’s a question for Knee. What if you found out about a threat on the citizenry, and wanted to put a stop to it? You might write a book and explain the threat; the fact that not everyone already agrees with you wouldn’t make your book anti-democratic, would it?


The rest of the review basically boils down to, “you don’t understand the teachings of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Junior like I do.”

Do you know about Godwin’s law, which says that as soon as someone invokes the Nazis in an argument about anything, they’ve lost the argument?

I feel like we need another, similar rule, which says, if you’re invoking MLK and claiming the other person is misinterpreting him while you have him nailed, then you’ve lost the argument.


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