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Archive for the ‘education’ Category

## Duke deans drop the ball on scientific misconduct

Former Duke University cancer researcher Anil Potti was found guilty of research misconduct yesterday by the federal Office of Research Integrity (ORI), after a multi-year investigation. You can read the story in Science, for example. His punishment is that he won’t do research without government-sponsored supervision for the next five years. Not exactly stiff.

This article also covers the ORI decision, and describes some of the people who suffered from poor cancer treatment because of his lies. Here’s an excerpt:

Shoffner, who had Stage 3 breast cancer, said she still has side effects from the wrong chemotherapy given to her in the Duke trial. Her joints were damaged, she said, and she suffered blood clots that prevent her from having knee surgery now. Of the eight patients who sued, Shoffner said, she is one of two survivors.

What’s interesting to me this morning is that both articles above mention the same reason for the initial investigation in his work. Namely, that he had padded his resume, pretending to be a Rhodes Scholar when he wasn’t. That fact was reported by a website called Cancer Letter in 2010.

But here’s the thing, back in 2008 a 3rd-year medical student named Bradford Perez sent the deans at Duke (according to Cancer Letter) a letter explaining that Potti’s lab was fabricating results. And for those of you who can read nerd, please go ahead and read his letter, it is extremely convincing. An excerpt:

Fifty-nine cell line samples with mRNA expression data from NCI-60 with associated radiation sensitivity were split in half to designate sensitive and resistant phenotypes. Then in developing the model, only those samples which fit the model best in cross validation were included. Over half of the original samples were removed. It is very possible that using these methods two samples with very little if any difference in radiation sensitivity could be in separate phenotypic categories. This was an incredibly biased approach which does little more than give the appearance of a successful cross validation.

Instead of taking up the matter seriously, the deans pressured Perez to keep quiet. And nothing more happened for two more years.

The good news: Bradford Perez seems to have gotten a perfectly good job.

The bad news: the deans at Duke suck. Unfortunately I don’t know exactly which deans and what their job titles are, but still: why are they not under investigation? What would deans have to do – or not do – to get in trouble? Is there any kind of accountability here?

## Gender And The Harvard Math Department

This is a guest post by Meena Boppana, a junior at Harvard and former president of the Harvard Undergraduate Math Association (HUMA). Meena is passionate about addressing the gender gap in math and has co-lead initiatives including the Harvard math survey and the founding of the Harvard student group Gender Inclusivity in Math (GIIM).

I arrived at Harvard in 2012 head-over-heels in love with math. Encouraged to think mathematically since I was four years old by my feminist mathematician dad, I had even given a TEDx talk in high school declaring my love for the subject. I was certainly qualified and excited enough to be a math major.

Which is why, three years later, I think about how it is that virtually all my female friends with insanely strong math backgrounds (e.g. math competition stars) decided not to major in math (I chose computer science). This year, there were no female students in Math 55a, the most intense freshman math class, and only two female students graduating with a primary concentration in math. There are also a total of zero tenured women faculty in Harvard math.

So, I decided to do some statistical sleuthing and co-directed a survey of Harvard undergraduates in math. I was inspired by the work of Nancy Hopkins and other pioneering female scientists at MIT, who quantified gender inequities at the Institute – even measuring the square footage of their offices – and sparked real change. We got a 1/3 response rate among all math concentrators at Harvard, with 150 people in total (including related STEM concentrations) filling it out.

The main finding of our survey analysis is that the dearth of women in Harvard math is far more than a “pipeline issue” stemming from high school. So, the tale that women are coming in to Harvard knowing less math and consequently not majoring in math is missing much of the picture. Women are dropping out of math during their years at Harvard, with female math majors writing theses and continuing on to graduate school at far lower rates than their male math major counterparts.

And it’s a cultural issue. Our survey indicated that many women would like to be involved in the math department and aren’t, most women feel uncomfortable as a result of the gender gap, and women feel uncomfortable in math department common spaces.

The simple act of talking about the gender gap has opened the floodgates to great conversations. I had always assumed that because no one was talking about the gender gap, no one cared. But after organizing a panel on gender in the math department which drew 150 people with a roughly equal gender split and students and faculty alike, I realized that my classmates of all genders feel more disempowered than apathetic.

The situation is bad, but certainly not hopeless. Together with a male freshman math major, I am founding a Harvard student group called Gender Inclusivity in Math (GIIM). The club has the two-fold goal of increasing community among women in math, including dinners, retreats, and a women speaker series, and also addressing the gender gap in the math department, continuing the trend of surveys and gender in math discussions. The inclusion of male allies is central to our club mission, and the support from male allies at the student and faculty level that we have received makes me optimistic about the will for change.

Ultimately, it is my continued love for math which has driven me to take action. Mathematics is too beautiful and important to lose 50 percent (or much more when considering racial and class-based inequities) of the potential population of math lovers.

## Fingers crossed – book coming out next May

As it turns out, it takes a while to write a book, and then another few months to publish it.

I’m very excited today to tentatively announce that my book, which is tentatively entitled Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy, will be published in May 2016, in time to appear on summer reading lists and well before the election.

Fuck yeah! I’m so excited.

p.s. Fight for 15 is happening now.

## The achievement gap: whose problem is it?

On Monday night I went to see Boston College professor Henry Braun speak about the Value-Added Model for teachers (VAM) at Teachers College, right here in my hood (hat tip Sendhil Revuluri).

I wrote about VAM recently, and I’m not a fan, so I was excited for the event. Here’s the poster from Monday:

The room was not entirely filled with anti-VAM activists such as myself, even though it was an informed audience. In fact one of the people I found myself talking to before the talk started mentioned that he’d worked on Wall Street, where they “culled” 10% of the workforce regularly – during downsizing phases – and how fantastic it was, how it kept standards high.

I mentioned that the question is, who gets decide which 10% and why, and he responded that it was all about profit, naturally. Being an easily provoked person, I found myself saying, well right, that’s the definition of success for Wall Street, and we can see how that’s turned out for everyone. He stared blankly at me.

I told that story because it irks me, still, how utterly unscathed individuals feel, who were or are part of the Wall Street culture. They don’t see any lesson to learn from that whole mess.

But even more than that, the same mindset which served the country so poorly is now somehow being held up as a success story, and applied to other fields like public education.

That brings me to the talk itself. Professor Braun did a very good job of explaining the VAM, and the inconsistencies, and the smallish correlations and unaccountable black box nature of the test.

But he then did more: he drew up a (necessarily vague) picture of the entire process by which a teacher is “assessed,” of which VAM plays a varying role, and he asked some important questions: how does this process affect the teaching profession? Does the scrutiny of each teacher in this way make students learn more? Does it make bad teachers get better? Does it make good teachers stay in the profession?

Great questions, but he didn’t even stop there. He went on to point something out that I’d never directly considered. Namely, why do we think individual responsibility – i.e. finger pointing at individual teachers – is going to improve the overall system? Here he suggested that there’s been a huge split in the profession between those who want to improve educational systems and those who want to assess teachers (and think that will “close the achievement gap”). The people who want to improve education talk about increasing communication between teachers in a school or between schools in a district, and they talk about improving and strengthening communities and cultures of learning.

By contrast the “assess the teachers” crowd is convinced that holding teachers individually accountable for the achievement of their students is the only possible approach. Fuck the school culture, fuck communicating with other teachers in the school. Fuck differences in curriculum or having old books or not having enough books due to unequal funding.

It got me thinking, especially since I read that book last week, The New Prophets of Capitalism (review here). That book explained how hollow Oprah’s urging to live a perfect life is to people whose situations are beyond their control. The problem with Oprah’s reasoning is that it ignores real systemic problems and issues that radically affect certain parts of the population and make it much harder to take her advice. It’s context free in a world where context is more and more meaningful.

So, whose problem is the achievement gap? Is it owned in tiny pieces by every teacher who dares to enter the profession? Is it owned by schools or school systems? Or is it owned by all of us, by the country as a whole? And if it is, how are we going to start working together to solve it?

Categories: education, modeling

If you were wondering why I didn’t blog yesterday, which you probably weren’t (confession: I don’t read other peoples’ blogs and I don’t listen to any podcasts. So I would never, ever ask anyone to read my blog or listen to my podcast), it was because I was completely confused and irritated by this NYTimes opinion piece on the rising cost of college, written by University of Colorado Law Professor Paul Campos.

I really think the Times needs to either have footnotes or hyperlinks in their opinion pieces, because this guy was playing so fast and loose with his numbers that I had really no idea what he was talking about most of the time. That’s saying something considering that this, the cost of college and its causes, is something I have spent many hours thinking about and researching.

So what happened was, I didn’t have time to completely formulate my opposition to why his reasoning was muddled and confusing. I spent way too much time trying to figure out where he was getting his data. Waste of time.

Good news, though, my Slate Money co-host Jordan Weissman has done all that work for us, in his piece aptly entitled The New York Times Offers One of the Worst Explanations You’ll Read of Why College Is So Expensive. Who says procrastination doesn’t work?

As usual, if you’ve ever listened to my podcast (and this isn’t a request for you to do so!), I don’t agree completely with Jordan. However, my delta of agreement with Jordan is very manageable compared to the delta of disagreement I had with Campos. Basically I would quibble with laying any of the blame at the feet of instructors, but since he barely does that, let’s just go with his awesome take-down.

Take-down of what? Well, Campos basically hates college administrators, and pretends there’s no other problems in the world except them. It’s a mistake that he doesn’t have to make.

I mean really, who doesn’t hate college administrators? As a former college administrator myself, I know it’s universal; I certainly hated myself the entire time.

But that doesn’t mean there’s no other factors at all. Reduced public money for colleges is in fact a huge problem, especially when you pair it with the increased federal aid money going to students at corrupt for-profit colleges. Corinthian obtained $1.4 billion in federal grant and loan dollars in 2010 alone, more than the 10 University of California campuses combined for that same year. This system is in terrible need of repair. Instead of simply hating on college admin, or rather, in addition to hating on admin, can we start thinking about an alternative no-frills state college system that is truly affordable and gives honest and basic instructions without trying to compete on the US News & World Reports stage? Categories: education, rant ## How many NYC are arbitrarily punished by the VAM? About 578 per year. There’s been an important update in the thought experiment I started yesterday. Namely, a reader (revuluri) has provided me with a link to show how many teachers are considered “ineffective,” which was my shorthand for scoring either third or fourth in the four categories. According to page 5 of this document, that percentage was 16% in 2011-2012, 17% in 2012-2013, and 16% in 2013-2014. We’ll take this to mean that the true cutoff is about 16.3%. Using my formula from yesterday, that means that after 4 years, about $1- (0.837^4 + 4 \cdot 0.837^3 \cdot 0.163) = 0.127,$ or 12.7% of teachers going up for tenure in the new system will be arbitrarily denied tenure based only on their VAM score. How many people is that in a given year? Well, this document explains that in 2000, 9,000 teachers were hired and in 2008, 6,000 teachers were hired. I’ll assume my best guess for “teachers hired” in a given year is something between those two numbers, but I’ll also assume it’s closer to the latter since it is more recent information. Say 7,000 new teachers per year. Of course, not all of them go up for tenure. There’s attrition. Say 35% of those teachers leave before the tenure decision is made (also guessing from this document). That leave us with about 4,550 teachers going up for tenure each year, and 12.7% of them is 578 people. So, according to my crude estimates, about 578 people will be denied tenure simply based on this random number generator we call VAM. And as my reader said, this says nothing about the hard-to-measure damage done to all the good teachers trying to teach their kids but having to deal with this standardized testing nonsense. It’s a wonder anyone is willing to work here. Please comment if you have updated numbers for anything here. Categories: education, math ## The arbitrary punishment of New York teacher evaluations The Value-Added Model for teachers (VAM), currently in use all over the country, is a terrible scoring system, as I’ve described before. It is approximately a random number generator. Even so, it’s still in use, mostly because it wields power over the teacher unions. Let me explain why I say this. Cuomo’s new budget negotiations with the teacher’s union came up with the following rules around teacher tenure, as I understand them (readers, correct me if I’m wrong): 1. It will take at least 4 years to get tenure, 2. A teacher must get at least 3 “effective” or “highly effective” ratings in those three years, 3. A teacher’s yearly rating depends directly on their VAM score: they are not allowed to get an “effective” or “highly effective” rating if their VAM score comes out as “ineffective.” Now, I’m ignoring everything else about the system, because I want to distill the effect of VAM. Let’s think through the math of how likely it is that you’d be denied tenure based only on this random number generator. We will assume only that you otherwise get good ratings from your principal and outside observations. Indeed, Cuomo’s big complaint is that 98% of teachers get good ratings, so this is a safe assumption. My analysis depends on what qualifies as an “ineffective” VAM score, i.e. what the cutoff is. For now, let’s assume that 30% of teachers receive “ineffective” in a given year, because it has to be some number. Later on we’ll see how things change if that assumption is changed. That means that 30% of the time, a teacher will not be able to receive an “effective” score, no matter how else they behave, and no matter what their principals or outside observations report for a given year. Think of it as a biased coin flip, and 30% of the time – for any teacher and for any year – it lands on “ineffective”, and 70% of the time it lands on “effective.” We will ignore the other categories because they don’t matter. How about if you look over a four year period? To avoid getting any “ineffective” coin flips, you’d need to get “effective” every year, which would happen 0.70^4 = 24% of the time. In other words, 76% of the time, you’d get at least one “ineffective” rating just by chance. But remember, you don’t need to get an “effective” rating for all four years, you are allowed one “ineffective rating.” The chances of exactly one “ineffective” coin flip and three “effective” flips is 4 (1-0.70) 0.70^3 = 41%. Adding those two scenarios together, it means that 65% of the time, over a four year period, you’d get sufficient VAM scores to receive tenure. But it also means that 35% of the time you wouldn’t, through no fault of your own. This is the political power of a terrible scoring system. More than a third of teachers are being arbitrarily chosen to be punished by this opaque and unaccountable test. Let’s go back to my assumption, that 30% of teachers are deemed “ineffective.” Maybe I got this wrong. It directly impacts my numbers above. If the overall probability of being deemed “effective” is p, then the overall chance of getting sufficient VAM scores will be $p^4 + 4 p^3 (1-p).$ So if I got it totally wrong, and 98% of teachers are described as effective by the VAM model, this would mean almost all teachers get sufficient VAM scores. On the other hand, remember that the reason VAM is being pushed so hard by people is that they don’t like it when evaluations systems think too many people are effective. In fact, they’d rather see arbitrary and random evaluation than see most people get through unscathed. In other words, it is definitely more than 2% of teachers that are called “ineffective,” but I don’t know the true cutoff. If anyone knows the true cutoff, please tell me so I can compute anew the percentage of teachers that are arbitrarily being kept from tenure. Categories: education, rant, statistics ## 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. Standards 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. Assessment 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. Technology 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! ## Earth’s aphelion and perihelion Sometimes the stuff I think about gets me down. I mean, jeez, I think about cynical stuff all the time, and I need to rest my brain sometimes. When that happens, I sometimes fantasize about really long-term things that happen in the solar system or even the universe. It gives me perspective. One of my favorite videos to watch at these moments is this one, which always blows my mind. The take-away: nothing is permanent unless there is actually a physical law forcing it to be. Here it is: p.s. I vote for “tropical year” because I love analemmas. p.p.s. Looking forward to Vega being the pole star once again. p.p.p.s. This came up because my husband and I got into a conversation about earth’s aphelion and perihelion and we were wondering if it’s just by chance that perihelion happens near the beginning of winter. The answer is yes, because [take-away above]. p.p.p.p.s. How cool is the name “invariable plane”? And how amazing that the period of the orbiting plane of the earth and the period of the axial tilt are different? There’s really nothing that we can rely on, is there? Categories: education, musing ## Neil deGrasse Tyson at NJPAC Last night I went to the New Jersey Performing Arts Center (NJPAC) with my 12-year-old son to see Neil deGrasse Tyson, whom we both love from the Cosmos series. I also loved this rant on women and blacks in science: So here’s what he talked about last night, which was stimulating and interesting. I’m not covering absolutely everything, of course, and I am doing my best to summarize what he said: • You can follow scientific progress by who gets to name things, because naming follows discovery. • For example, looking at the history of the discovery of the periodic table, you learn a lot. Except for Sweden, which just had a lucky break with some weird cave. • By this token, from 800 AD to around 1100 AD, mathematical and scientific advancements were happening in the Middle East (see for example the history of algebra and mathematician Muḥammad ibn Mūsā al-Khwārizmī, who invented the terms algebra and algorithm). Then some imam decided it was anti-religious to do anything like that, and progress – scientific and otherwise – stopped. • Cultures that embrace science have more growth. • In the U.S., about half of the people don’t acknowledge evolution, and that’s a bad sign for our future. • In fact we are a hugely prolific scientific force, like Europe and Japan, but unlike them, our power is shrinking rather than expanding. • We should go back to the 1960’s, at least in terms of the way we promoted and dreamed about scientific progress, and bottle up the energy and enthusiasm, and bring it back to today. • Space flight is a great thing and we should reinvest in it as an inspiration for science in this country and in the world. • We should stay curious, and investigate things we don’t understand, and talk to people about their beliefs even if we don’t agree. Childlike and insatiable curiosity and wonderment is the goal. Categories: education, women in math ## Educational feedback loops in China and the U.S. Today I want to discuss a recent review in New York Review of Books, on a new book entitled Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Dragon? Why China Has the Best (and Worst) Education System in the World by Yong Zhao (hat tip Alex). The review was written by Diane Ravitch, an outspoken critic of No Child Left Behind, Race To The Top, and the Common Core. You should read the review, it’s well written and convincing, at least to me. I’ve been studying these issues and devoted a large chunk of my book to the feedback loops described as they’ve played out in this country. Here are the steps I see, which are largely reflected in Ravitch’s review: 1. Politicians get outraged about a growing “achievement gap” (whereby richer or whiter students get better test scores than poorer or browner students) and/or a “lack of international competitiveness” (whereby students in countries like China get higher international standardized test scores than U.S. students). 2. The current president decides to “get tough on education,” which translates into new technology and way more standardized tests. 3. The underlying message is that teachers and students and possibly parents are lazy and need to be “held accountable” to improve test scores. The even deeper assumption is that test scores are the way to measure quality of learning. 4. Once there’s lots of attention being given to test scores, lots of things start happening in response (the “feedback loop”). 5. For example, widespread cheating by students and teachers and principals, especially when teachers and principals get paid based on test performance. 6. Also, well-off students get more and better test prep, so the achievement gap gets wider. 7. Even just the test scores themselves lead to segregation by class: parents who can afford it move to towns with “better schools,” measured by test scores. 8. International competitiveness doesn’t improve. But we’ve actually never been highly ranked since we started measuring this. What Zhao’s book adds to this is how much worse it all is in China. Especially the cheating. My favorite excerpt from the book: Teachers guess possible [test] items, companies sell answers and wireless cheating devices to students, and students engage in all sorts of elaborate cheating. In 2013, a riot broke out because a group of students in Hubei Province were stopped from executing the cheating scheme their parents purchased to ease their college entrance exam. Ravitch adds after that that ‘an angry mob of two thousand people smashed cars and chanted, “We want fairness. There is no fairness if you do not let us cheat.”’ To be sure, the stakes in China are way higher. Test scores are incredibly important and allow people to have certain careers. But according to Zhao, this selection process, which is quite old, has stifled creativity in the Chinese educational system (so, in other words, test scores are the wrong way to measure learning, in part because of the feedback loop). He blames the obsession with test scores on the fact that no Chinese native has received a Nobel Prize since 1949, for example: the winners of that selection process are not naturally creative. Furthermore, Zhao claims, the Chinese educational system stifles individuality and forces conformity. It is an authoritarian tool. In that light, I guess we should be proud that our international scores are lower than China’s; maybe it is evidence that we’re doing something right. I know that, as a parent, I am sensitive to these issues. I want my kids to have discipline in some ways, but I don’t want them to learn to submit themselves to an arbitrary system for no good reason. I like the fact that they question why they should do things like go to bed on time, and exercise regularly, and keep their rooms cleanish, and I encourage their questions, even while I know I’m kind of ruining their chances at happily working in a giant corporation and being a conformist drone. This parenting style of mine, which I believe is pretty widespread, seems reasonable to me because, at least in my experience, I’ve gotten further by being smart and clever than by being exactly what other people have wanted me to be. And I’m glad I live in a society that rewards quirkiness and individuality. ## What the fucking shit, Barbie? I’m back from Haiti! It was amazing and awesome, and please stand by for more about that, with cultural observations and possibly a slide show if you’re all well behaved. Today, thanks to my math camp buddy Lenore Cowen, I am going to share with you an amazing blog post by Pamela Ribon. Her post is called Barbie Fucks It Up Again and it describes a Barbie book entitled Barbie: I Can Be a Computer Engineer The other book is called “I Can Be an Actress” Just to give you an idea of the plot, Barbie’s sister finds Barbie engaged on a project on her computer, and after asking her about it, Barbie responds: “I’m only creating the design ideas,” Barbie says, laughing. “I’ll need Steven and Brian’s help to turn it into a real game!” To which blogger Pamela Ribon comments: What the fucking shit, Barbie? Update: Please check out the amazing Amazon reviews of this book (hat tip Chris Wiggins). BEST UPDATE EVER (hat tip Marko): BARBIE CAN CODE REMIXED ## Will Demographics Solve the College Tuition Problem? (A: I Don’t Know) November 14, 2014 14 comments I’ve got two girls in middle school. They are lovely and (in my opinion as a proud dad) smart. I wonder, on occasion, what college will they go to and what their higher education experience will be like? No matter how lovely or smart my daughters are, though, it will be hard to fork over all of that tuition money. It sure would be nice if college somehow got cheaper by the time my daughters are ready in 6 or 8 years! How likely is this? There has been plenty of coverage about how the cost of college has risen so dramatically over the past decades. A number of smart people have argued that the reason tuition has increased so much is because of all of the amenities that schools have built in recent years. Others are unconvinced that’s the reason, pointing out that increased spending by universities grew at a lower than the rate of tuition increases. Perhaps schools have been buoyed by a rising demographic trend – but it’s clear tuition increases have had a great run. One way colleges have been able to keep increasing tuitions is by competing aggressively for wealthy students who can pay the full price of tuition (which also enables the schools to offer more aid to less than wealthy students). The children of the wealthy overseas are particularly desirable targets, apparently. I heard a great quote yesterday about this by Brad Delong – that his school, Berkeley, and other top universities presumably had become “finishing school[s] for the superrich of Asia.” It’s an odd sort of competition, though, where schools are competing for a particular customer (wealthy students) by raising prices. Presumably, this suggests that colleges have had pricing power to raise tuition due to increased demand (perhaps aided by increase in student loans, but that’s an argument for another day). Will colleges continue to have this pricing power? For the optimistic future tuition payer, there are some signs that university pricing power may be eroding. Tuition increased at a slower rate this year (a bit more than 3%) but still at a rate that well exceeds inflation. And law schools are already resorting to price cutting after precipitous declines in applications – down 37% in 2014 compared to 2010! College enrollment trends are a mixed bag and frequently obscured by studies from in-industry sources. Clearly, the 1990s and 2000s were a time a great growth for colleges – college enrollment grew by 48% from 1990 (12 million students) to 2012 (17.7 million). But 2010 appears to be the recent peak and enrollment fell by 2% from 2010 to 2012. In addition, overall college enrollment declined by 2.3% in 2014, although this decline is attributed to the 9.6% decline in two-year colleges while 4-year college enrollment actually increased by 1.2%. It makes sense that the recent college enrollment trend would be down – the number of high school graduates appears to have peaked in 2010 at 3.3 million or so and is projected to decline to about 3.1 million in 2016 and stay lowish for the next few years. The US Census reports that there was a bulge of kids that are college age now (i.e. there were 22.04 million 14-19 year olds at the 2010 Census), but there are about 1.7 million fewer kids that are my daughters’ age (i.e., 5-9 year olds in the 2010 Census). That’s a pretty steep drop off (about 8%) in this pool of potential college students. These demographic trends have got some people worried. Moody’s, which rates the debt of a lot of colleges, has been downgrading a lot of smaller schools and says that this type of school has already been hit by declining enrollment and revenue. One analyst went so far as to warn of a “death spiral” at some schools due to declining enrollment. Moody’s analysis of declining revenue is an interesting factor, in light of reports of ever-increasing tuition. Last year Moody’s reported that 40% of colleges or universities (that were rated) faced stagnant or declining net tuition revenue. Speaking strictly, again, as a future payer of my daughters’ college tuition, falling college age population and falling enrollment would seem to point to the possibility that tuition will be lower for my kids when the time comes. Plus there are a lot of other factors that seem to be lining up against the prospects for college tuition – like continued flat or declining wages, the enormous student loan bubble (it can’t keep growing, right?), the rise of online education… And yet, I’m not feeling that confident. Elite universities (and it certainly would be nice if my girls could get into such a school) seem to have found a way to collect a lot of tuition from foreign students (it’s hard to find a good data source for that though) which protects them from the adverse demographic and economic trends. I’ve wondered if US students could get turned off by the perception that top US schools have too many foreign students and are too much, as Delong says, elite finishing schools. But that’s hard to predict and may take many years to reach a tipping point. Plus if tuition and enrollment drop a lot, that may cripple the schools that have taken out a lot of debt to build all of those nice amenities. A Harvard Business School professor rather bearishly projects that as many as half of the 4,000 US colleges and universities may fail in the next 15 years. Would a sharp decrease in the number of colleges due to falling enrollment have the effect of reducing competition at the remaining schools? If so, what impact would that have on tuition? Both college tuition and student loans have been described as bubbles thanks to their recent rate of growth. At some point, bubbles burst (in theory). As someone who watched, first hand and with great discomfort, the growth of the subprime and housing bubbles before the crisis, I’ve painfully learned that bubbles can last much longer than you would rationally expect. And despite all sorts of analysis and calculation about what should happen, the thing that triggers the bursting of the bubble is really hard to predict. As is when it will happen. To the extent I’ve learned a lesson from mortgage land, it’s that you shouldn’t do anything stupid in anticipation of the bubble either bursting or continuing. So, as much as I hope and even expect that the trend for increased college tuition will reverse in the coming years, I guess I’ll have to keep on trying to save for when my daughters will be heading off to college. Categories: data science, education ## Core Econ: a free economics textbook Today I want to tell you guys about core-econ.org, a free (although you do have to register) textbook my buddy Suresh Naidu is using this semester to teach out of and is also contributing to, along with a bunch of other economists. This was obviously not taken in New York. It’s super cool, and I wish a class like that had been available when I was an undergrad. In fact I took an economics course at UC Berkeley and it was a bad experience – I couldn’t figure out why anyone would think that people behaved according to arbitrary mathematical rules. There was no discussion of whether the assumptions were valid, no data to back it up. I decided that anybody who kept going had to be either religious or willing to say anything for money. Not much has changed, and that means that Econ 101 is a terrible gateway for the subject, letting in people who are mostly kind of weird. This is a shame because, later on in graduate level economics, there really is no reason to use toy models of society without argument and without data; the sky’s the limit when you get through the bullshit at the beginning. The goal of the Core Econ project is to give students a taste for the good stuff early; the subtitle on the webpage is teaching economics as if the last three decades happened. What does that mean? Let’s take a look at the first few chapters of the curriculum (the full list is here): Once you register, you can download a given chapter in pdf form. So I did that for Chapter 6, The firm and its employees, and here’s a screenshot of the first page: Still dry but at least real. The chapter immediately dives into a discussion of Apple and Foxconn. Interesting! Topical! Like, it might actually help you understand the newspaper!! Can you imagine that? The project is still in beta version, so give it some time to smooth out the rough edges, but I’m pretty excited about it already. It has super high production values and will squarely compete with the standard textbooks and curriculums, which is a good thing, both because it’s good stuff and because it’s free. ## The business of public education September 25, 2014 25 comments I’ve been writing my book, and I’m on chapter 4 right now, which is tentatively entitled Feedback Loops In Education. I’m studying the enormous changes in primary and secondary education that have occurred since the “data-driven” educational reform movement started with No Child Left Behind in 2001. Here’s the issue I’m having writing this chapter. Things have really changed in the last 13 years, it’s really incredible how much money and politics – and not education – are involved. In fact I’m finding it difficult to write the chapter without sounding like a wingnut conspiracy theorist. Because that’s how freaking nuts things are right now. On the one hand you have the people who believe in the promise of educational data. They are often pro-charter schools, anti-tenure, anti-union, pro-testing, and are possibly personally benefitting from collecting data about children and then sold to commercial interests. Privacy laws are things to bypass for these people, and the way they think about it is that they are going to improve education with all this amazing data they’re collecting. Because, you know, it’s big data, so it has to be awesome. They see No Child Left Behind and Race To The Top as business opportunities. On the other hand you have people who do not believe in the promise of educational data. They believe in public education, and are maybe even teachers themselves. They see no proven benefits of testing, or data collection and privacy issues for students, and they often worry about job security, and public shaming and finger-pointing, and the long term consequences on children and teachers of this circus of profit-seeking “educational” reformers. Not to mention that none of this recent stuff is addressing the very real problems we have. As it currently stands, I’m pretty much part of the second group. There just aren’t enough data skeptics in the first group to warrant my respect, and there’s way too much money and secrecy around testing and “value-added models.” And the politics of the anti-tenure case are ugly and I say that even though I don’t think teacher union leaders are doing themselves many favors. But here’s the thing, it’s not like there could never be well-considered educational experiments that use data and have strict privacy measures in place, the results of which are not saved to individual records but are lessons learned for educators, and, it goes without saying, are strictly non-commercial. There is a place for testing, but not as a punitive measure but rather as a way of finding where there are problems and devoting resources to it. The current landscape, however, is so split and so acrimonious, it’s kind of impossible to imagine something reasonable happening. It’s too bad, this stuff is important. ## Reverse-engineering the college admissions process I just finished reading a fascinating article from Bloomberg BusinessWeek about a man who claims to have reverse-engineered the admission processes at Ivy League colleges (hat tip Jan Zilinsky). His name is Steven Ma, and as befits an ex-hedge funder, he has built an algorithm of sorts to work well with both the admission algorithms at the “top 50 colleges,” and the US News & World Report model which defines which colleges are in the “to 50.” It’s a huge modeling war that you can pay to engage in. Ma is a salesman too: he guarantees that a given high-school kid will get into a top school, your money back. In other words he has no problem working with probabilities and taking risks that he think are likely to pay off and that make the parents willing to put down huge sums. Here’s an example of a complicated contract he developed with one family: After signing an agreement in May 2012, the family wired Ma$700,000 over the next five months—before the boy had even applied to college. The contract set out incentives that would pay Ma as much as $1.1 million if the son got into the No. 1 school in U.S. News’ 2012 rankings. (Harvard and Princeton were tied at the time.) Ma would get nothing, however, if the boy achieved a 3.0 GPA and a 1600 SAT score and still wasn’t accepted at a top-100 college. For admission to a school ranked 81 to 100, Ma would get to keep$300,000; schools ranked 51 to 80 would let Ma hang on to $400,000; and for a top-50 admission, Ma’s payoff started at$600,000, climbing $10,000 for every rung up the ladder to No. 1. He’s also interested in reverse-engineering the “winning essay” in conjunction with after-school activities: With more capital—ThinkTank’s current valuation to potential investors is$60 million—Ma hopes to buy hundreds of completed college applications from the students who submitted them, along with the schools’ responses, and beef up his algorithm for the top 50 U.S. colleges. With enough data, Ma plans to build an “optimizer” that will help students, perhaps via an online subscription, choose which classes and activities they should take. It might tell an aspiring Stanford applicant with several AP classes in his junior year that it’s time to focus on becoming president of the chess or technology club, for example.

This whole college coaching industry reminds me a lot of financial regulation. We complicate the rules to the point where only very well-off insiders know exactly how to bypass the rules. To the extent that getting into one of these “top schools” actually does give young people access to power, influence, and success, it’s alarming how predictable the whole process has become.

Here’s a thought: maybe we should have disclosure laws about college coaching and prep? Or would those laws be gamed too?

## Student evaluations: very noisy data

I’ve been sent this recent New York Times article by a few people (thanks!). It’s called Grading Teachers, With Data From Class, and it’s about how standardized tests are showing themselves to be inadequate to evaluate teachers, so a Silicon Valley-backed education startup called Panorama is stepping into the mix with a data collection process focused on student evaluations.

Putting aside for now how much this is a play for collecting information about the students themselves, I have a few words to say about the signal which one gets from student evaluations. It’s noisy.

So, for example, I was a calculus teacher at Barnard, teaching students from all over the Columbia University community (so, not just women). I taught the same class two semesters in a row: first in Fall, then in Spring.

Here’s something I noticed. The students in the Fall were young (mostly first semester frosh), eager, smart, and hard-working. They loved me and gave me high marks on all categories, except of course for the few students who just hated math, who would typically give themselves away by saying “I hate math and this class is no different.”

The students in the Spring were older, less eager, probably just as smart, but less hard-working. They didn’t like me or the class. In particular, they didn’t like how I expected them to work hard and challenge themselves. The evaluations came back consistently less excited, with many more people who hated math.

I figured out that many of the students had avoided this class and were taking it for a requirement, didn’t want to be there, and it showed. And the result was that, although my teaching didn’t change remarkably between the two semesters, my evaluations changed considerably.

Was there some way I could have gotten better evaluations from that second group? Absolutely. I could have made the class easier. That class wanted calculus to be cookie-cutter, and didn’t particularly care about the underlying concepts and didn’t want to challenge themselves. The first class, by contrast, had loved those things.

My conclusion is that, once we add “get good student evaluations” to the mix of requirements for our country’s teachers, we are asking for them to conform to their students’ wishes, which aren’t always good. Many of the students in this country don’t like doing homework (in fact most!). Only some of them like to be challenged to think outside their comfort zone. We think teachers should do those things, but by asking them to get good student evaluations we might be preventing them from doing those things. A bad feedback loop would result.

I’m not saying teachers shouldn’t look at student evaluations; far from it, I always did and I found them useful and illuminating, but the data was very noisy. I’d love to see teachers be allowed to see these evaluations without there being punitive consequences.

## Guest Post: Bring Back The Slide Rule!

This is a guest post by Gary Cornell, a mathematician, writer, publisher, and recent founder of StemForums.

I was was having a wonderful ramen lunch with the mathbabe and, as is all too common when two broad minded Ph.D.’s in math get together, we started talking about the horrible state math education is in for both advanced high school students and undergraduates.

One amusing thing we discovered pretty quickly is that we had independently come up with the same (radical) solution to at least part of the problem: throw out the traditional sequence which goes through first and second year calculus and replace it with a unified probability, statistics, calculus course where the calculus component was only for the smoothest of functions and moreover the applications of calculus are only to statistics and probability. Not only is everything much more practical and easier to motivate in such a course, students would hopefully learn a skill that is essential nowadays: how to separate out statistically good information from the large amount of statistical crap that is out there.

Of course, the downside is that the (interesting) subtleties that come from the proofs, the study of non-smooth functions and for that matter all the other stuff interesting to prospective physicists like DiffEQ’s would have to be reserved for different courses. (We also were in agreement that Gonick’s beyond wonderful“Cartoon Guide To Statistics” should be required reading for all the students in these courses, but I digress…)

The real point of this blog post is based on what happened next: but first you have to know I’m more or less one generation older than the mathbabe. This meant I was both able and willing to preface my next point with the words: “You know when I was young, in one way students were much better off because…” Now it is well known that using this phrase to preface a discussion often poisons the discussion but occasionally, as I hope in this case, some practices from days gone by ago can if brought back, help solve some of today’s educational problems.

By the way, and apropos of nothing, there is a cure for people prone to too frequent use of this phrase: go quickly to YouTube and repeatedly make them watch Monty Python’s Four Yorkshireman until cured:

Anyway, the point I made was that I am a member of the last generation of students who had to use slide rules. Another good reference is: here. Both these references are great and I recommend them. (The latter being more technical.) For those who have never heard of them, in a nutshell, a slide rule is an analog device that uses logarithms under the hood to do (sufficiently accurate in most cases) approximate multiplication, division, roots etc.

The key point is that using a slide rule requires the user to keep track of the “order of magnitude” of the answers— because slide rules only give you four or so significant digits. This meant students of my generation when taking science and math courses were continuously exposed to order of magnitude calculations and you just couldn’t escape from having to make order of magnitude calculations all the time—students nowadays, not so much. Calculators have made skill at doing order of magnitude calculations (or Fermi calculations as they are often lovingly called) an add-on rather than a base line skill and that is a really bad thing. (Actually my belief that bringing back slide rules would be a good thing goes back a ways: when that when I was a Program Director at the NSF in the 90’s, I actually tried to get someone to submit a proposal which would have been called “On the use of a hand held analog device to improve science and math education!” Didn’t have much luck.)

Anyway, if you want to try a slide rule out, alas, good vintage slide rules have become collectible and so expensive— because baby boomers like me are buying the ones we couldn’t afford when we were in high school – but the nice thing is there are lots of sites like this one which show you how to make your own.

Finally, while I don’t think they will ever be as much fun as using a slide rule, you could still allow calculators in classrooms.

Why? Because it would be trivial to have a mode in the TI calculator or the Casio calculator that all high school students seem to use, called “significant digits only.” With the right kind of problems this mode would require students to do order of magnitude calculations because they would never be able to enter trailing or leading zeroes and we could easily stick them with problems having a lot of them!

But calculators really bug me in classrooms and, so I can’t resist pointing out one last flaw in their omnipresence: it makes students believe in the possibility of ridiculously high precision results in the real world. After all, nothing they are likely to encounter in their work (and certainly not in their lives) will ever need (or even have) 14 digits of accuracy and, more to the point, when you see a high precision result in the real world, it is likely to be totally bogus when examined under the hood.

Any time I see an article about the evaluation system for teachers in New York State, I wince. People get it wrong so very often. Yesterday’s New York Times article written by Elizabeth Harris was even worse than usual.

First, her wording. She mentioned a severe drop in student reading and math proficiency rates statewide and attributed it to a change in the test to the Common Core, which she described as “more rigorous.”

The truth is closer to “students were tested on stuff that wasn’t in their curriculum.” And as you can imagine, if you are tested on stuff you didn’t learn, your score will go down (the Common Core has been plagued by a terrible roll-out, and the timing of this test is Exhibit A). Wording like this matters, because Harris is setting up her reader to attribute the falling scores to bad teachers.

Harris ends her piece with a reference to a teacher-tenure lawsuit: ‘In one of those cases, filed in Albany in July, court documents contrasted the high positive teacher ratings with poor student performance, and called the new evaluation system “deficient and superficial.” The suit said those evaluations were the “most highly predictive measure of whether a teacher will be awarded tenure.”’

In other words, Harris is painting a picture of undeserving teachers sneaking into tenure in spite of not doing their job. It’s ironic, because I actually agree with the statement that the new evaluation system is “deficient and superficial,” but in my case I think it is overly punitive to teachers – overly random, really, since it incorporates the toxic VAM model – but in her framing she is implying it is insufficiently punitive.

Let me dumb Harris’s argument down even further: How can we have 26% English proficiency among students and 94% effectiveness among teachers?! Let’s blame the teachers and question the legitimacy of tenure.

Indeed, after reading the article I felt like looking into whether Harris is being paid by David Welch, the Silicon Valley dude who has vowed to fight teacher tenure nationwide. More likely she just doesn’t understand education and is convinced by simplistic reasoning.

In either case, she clearly needs to learn something about statistics. For that matter, so do other people who drag out this “blame the teacher” line whenever they see poor performance by students.

Because here’s the thing. Beyond obvious issues like switching the content of the tests away from the curriculum, standardized test scores everywhere are hugely dependent on the poverty levels of students. Some data:

It’s not just in this country, either:

Considering how many poor kids we have in the U.S., we are actually doing pretty well.

The conclusion is that, unless you think bad teachers have somehow taken over poor schools everywhere and booted out the good teachers, and good teachers have taken over rich schools everywhere and booted out the bad teachers (which is supposed to be impossible, right?), poverty has much more of an effect than teachers.

Just to clarify this reasoning, let me give you another example: we could blame bad journalists for lower rates of newspaper readership at a given paper, but since newspaper readership is going down everywhere we’d be blaming journalists for what is a cultural issue.

Or, we could develop a process by which we congratulate specific policemen for a reduced crime rate, but then we’d have to admit that crime is down all over the country.

I’m not saying there aren’t bad teachers, because I’m sure there are. But by only focusing on rooting out bad teachers, we are ignoring an even bigger and harder problem. And no, it won’t be solved by privatizing and corporatizing public schools. We need to address childhood poverty. Here’s one more visual for the road:

## The Head First book series

I’ve been reading Head First Java this past week and I’m super impressed and want to tell you guys about it if you don’t already know.

The stuff inside is even sillier.

I wanted to learn what the big fuss was about object-oriented programming, plus it seems like all the classes my Lede students are planning to take either require python or java, so this seemed like a nice bridge.

But the book is outstanding, with quirky cartoons and a super fun attitude, and I’m on page 213 after less than a week, and yes that’s out of more than 600 pages but what I’m saying is that it’s a thrilling read.

My one complaint is how often the book talks about motivating programmers with women in tight sweaters. And no, I don’t think they were assuming the programmers were lesbians, but I could be wrong and I hope I am. At the beginning they made the point that people remember stuff better when there is emotional attachment to things, so I’m guessing they’re getting me annoyed to help me remember details on reference types.

Here’s another Head First book which my nerd mom recommended to me some time ago, and I bought but haven’t read yet, but now I really plan to: Head First Design Patterns. Because ultimately, programming is just a tool set and you need to learn how to think about constructing stuff with those tools. Exciting!

And by the way, there is a long list of Head First books, and I head good things about the whole series. Honestly I will never write a technical book in the old-fashioned dry way again.