Archive for the ‘Education’ Category

What does society look like in 2030?

Tuesday, January 18th, 2011

I’ve just been reading a paper that sketches out four possible scenarios for “vulnerability” in 2030. It was written by something called the Institute for Alternative Futures for the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and lays out a most likely scenario, a gloom and doom option, and two possible brighter futures (one of which we get to by having a catastrophe that allows for non-incremental improvements).

I’m somewhat chagrined that I think their baseline scenario is overly optimistic, especially with regard to education.  The gloom and doom scenario requires everything to go wrong — a double-dip recession, peak oil,  global climate disruption.  I think the odds of all of these happening in the next 20 years is very low — but it seems quite possible that one — or something not even on our list — could happen.

If you have the time to take a look at the report, I’d love some other reactions.  (There’s also a formal way to comment to the folks who wrote it.)


Monday, March 15th, 2010

So, it’s terribly self-indulgent to be writing about lice when the health care vote is hanging in the balance, but I’ve already contacted my members and signed the MoveOn pledge to support primary challenges to any Dems who vote against health care reform (and that includes you Mr. Kucinich).  So I’m going to be self-indulgent and write about lice.

The good news is that only N appears to have them so far.

The bad news is that I’ve been itching like crazy since I saw the first one.

The good news is that T tells me I don’t have any.

The bad news is that I’m not sure I believe him.  We may have finally found the limit of my faith in my husband’s parenting ability — he can change diapers with the best of them, walk a colicky baby, bake cookies, find a pediatric dentist open for an emergency on a Saturday morning, name at least 50 different Pokemon, make lunches, chaperon a school trip, coach a soccer team, and more, but I’m not sure I believe him when he says I don’t have lice.  I can spot check my kids, but I haven’t figured out how to spot-check myself.

The good news is that none of us have long hair.

The bad news is we now have a garage freezer full of stuffed animals.

The good news is the boys are being brave and going to bed without their doggies without much complaint.

The bad news is that I’ve read Marion Winik’s lice essay, and so have absolutely no faith that we’ve resolved this.  (Actually, I’ve heard her read it, which is even more funny.)

The good news is that our school does not have a “no nit” policy and so N was able to go to school after we reported that we had treated him.

The bad news is that it does seem to have a “chemicals required” policy — T had to bring the box of the shampoo that we used.   The over the counter lice medicines aren’t too terribly toxic (versus the prescription ones, which are seriously vile), but there’s also increasing evidence that the lice are resistant to them.  My guess is that parents who find lice on their own kids and don’t want to use chemical treatments just won’t tell the school, which is somewhat counterproductive.

D watched us freaking out over the lice this morning, and finally asked “so, what do lice do to you if you don’t get rid of them?”  I told him that, mostly, they just itch, and they spread really easily.  He didn’t get why we had to use a toxic chemical (that includes a warning that people with asthma should avoid it) to get rid of something that just makes you itch.  I had to agree that he had a point.  Someday someone is going to file a HIPAA suit over lice policies and win.

peer effects

Monday, May 18th, 2009

It doesn't take an economist to tell you that just one or two really disruptive kids in a class can absorb a disproportionate share of the teacher's time and make things harder for everyone.  But two economists, Scott Carrell and Mark Hoekstra, have studied the question of just how much effect does a disruptive kid have on the outcomes of the other students in a class.  Here's the paper, here's a less technical version of it, and here's a Freakonomics post about it.  (From last summer, although the paper is dated this month — I guess there was a pre-publication version circulating.) 

They were able to link school records with court records for domestic violence cases, and looked at both the children of the parents in the DV cases, and their classmates.  And they did find worse school outcomes — poorer grades and more disciplinary infractions — among the children who had classmates from these troubled families than among their peers in other classes and even than the same children in other years.

This is elegant research, but the findings shouldn't shock anyone.  Catholic schools pay their teachers worse than public school teachers (even when they're not nuns) and have bigger classes, but their not-so-secret advantage over the public schools is that they can kick the troublemakers out.  The Great Expectations School isn't great literature, but it's a brutally honest report by a rookie teacher of how the classroom management challenge just kicked his ass and made his teaching skills pretty much irrelevant.

This also once again makes me wonder how much of the success of places like KIPP is due to selection.  I don't think they can expel kids any more easily than the regular public schools, but making parents go through even modest hurdles to enroll their kids probably winnows out a lot of the most troubled kids.  And is that ok?  If the lifeboat is sinking and they can rescue some of the kids, but not all, isn't that better than letting them all drown?

But what are you going to do with those kids?  Carrell and Hoekstra's methodology reminds us that these "troublemaker" kids aren't bad seeds — they're kids with pretty messed up home lives, who are probably used to violence as a way to solve problems, even if they're not being hit themselves.  If anyone deserves help, they do.  But it's probably too much to ask of overwhelmed teachers that they be the ones to provide this help, while also trying to teach 25 other kids to read.

I don’t know about the flu, but the hysteria is catching

Thursday, April 30th, 2009

There are only about 100 cases of swine flu confirmed in the US so far, but nearly 300 schools have shut down to prevent its spread.  Fort Worth, Texas has ONE student with the swine flu, but has shut down the entire system for 10 days.  This, in a country where nearly half of workers don't have any paid sick days, and many of those who do have paid sick time aren't allowed to use it to care for a family member.

But, not to worry, Vice President Biden "said he hoped U.S. employers 'will be generous' in
allowing parents to take time off to keep their children home if there has been
a confirmed case of flu at their school.”

“Fort Worth officials urged parents not to send their children to day care
or 'any venue where groups of children may gather' and pleaded with
the employers and the general population to make it possible for parents to
accommodate this request.

"This is indeed an example of how the community can rally to support
the health and well-being of students, their families and the District,"
schools superintendent Melody Johnson told reporters.”

I can write a report or take a conference call from home, but you can't cook and serve a restaurant meal, clean a hotel room, or care for a sick patient from home.  So what's going to happen?  Some parents will bring their kids to work.  Older kids may be left at home alone unsupervised.  Some parents will stay home, lose wages, and maybe not be able to afford to get their prescription filled this month, or will fall a little further behind on the electric bill.  But no one will point fingers at Ms. Johnson when a 12 year old left home alone sets a piece of toast on fire.

N has had a nasty cough the last few days, but no fever.  I'm 99.9 percent sure that it's allergies, but we've kept him home anyway, because there's not much downside to him missing a couple of days of preschool.  But there are real costs to closing schools, and I think it's hysterical overreaction to do so without any evidence that this is worse than an ordinary flu.

Summertime and the learning is easy?

Wednesday, March 18th, 2009

I added some clarifications to yesterday's post since I don't think I quite captured Gladwell's point about extreme IQ and achievement.  And I'll take the discussion about why the upper class kids showed more learning gains in the summer over here.

Let's start with the data first.  The data cited is from a study by Karl Alexander, who looked at the reading scores of a cohort of 650 first graders from the Baltimore public school system.  He took advantage of the fact that Baltimore administered the California Achievement Test to the same kids both in June, at the end of the school year, and in September, at the start of the next year.  This let them see what happened over the course of the school year, and what happened in the summer.  Here's a nice summary of the research, from the National Center for Summer Learning.

So, what's going on?  First, as Alexander notes in the summary, we're talking about Baltimore City Public Schools.  So the "upper class" kids are only relatively advantaged — they tended to have college graduate parents, but to be basically middle class. 

Second, even given that, there's a real difference in what the kids did over the summer.  As Alexander writes:

"I don’t want to break it down into a checklist, but some differences seemed relevant. For example, better-off children were more likely to go to the library over the summertime and take books home. They were more likely to engage in a variety of enrichment experiences such as attending museums, concerts, and field trips. They were more likely to take out-of-town vacations, be involved in organized sports activities, or take lessons, such as swimming or gymnastics lessons. Overall, they had a more expansive realm of experiences."

But there's still the question of why the upper class kids would learn MORE (per month) over the summer than during the school year.  My guess is that they're reading more over the summer when they get to pick what they read than they do during the school year when it's assigned.

Updated:  Sorry, I'm clearly not providing enough detail.  The years when there was the disproportionate amount of learning over the summer were after 3rd and fourth grade:

Learning gains for upper class students in Baltimore







Increase during school year






Increase during summer following












TBR: Outliers

Tuesday, March 17th, 2009

This week's book is Outliers: The Story of Success, by Malcolm Gladwell.  It's his attempt to look at the environmental and cultural factors that affect why some people succeed and others fail, and to blow apart the idea that individual genius is responsible for success.

It's a quick read (probably took me less than 3 hours front to back) and each section is reasonably entertaining, but it doesn't quite hold together as an overall book or argument.

In particular, the middle section, where he argues that Korean airlines have a terrible safety record because of the cultural pressures for subordinates to defer to their supervisors, seems to have little connection to the rest of the book.  And while it's possible that Gladwell is correct in his claim that the reason that Asian cultures respect hard work is that rice is more work to grow than wheat or corn, he sure doesn't present enough evidence to convince me.

Gladwell is correct that Bill Joy (one of the founders of Sun) and Bill Gates were extraordinarily lucky in having the opportunity to program a lot when very few people had access to computers at all.  And there's no doubt that practice is necessary (if not sufficient) for being good at programming.  On the other hand, the reason that Gates is one of the richest men in the world has very little to do with his coding skills. (He didn't write the code for DOS, after all.)

I thought the discussion of the relationship (or lack thereof) between extreme intelligence* and success** was the best part of the book.  In particular, Gladwell tells the story of an early 20th century researcher who identified 1470 highly gifted California elementary school students, and was shocked to learn that only a small fraction of them were particularly successful later in life.  Moreover, there was a huge correlation between economic class and success (not exactly shocking to me, but still sad).  Gladwell cites Lareau and argues that the upper class kids know how to manipulate systems to their advantage, but I'm not convinced –I'm pretty sure that "concerted cultivation" wasn't around in the 1920s.

In the last part of the book, Gladwell returns to the question of education and class, and argues that the intensive school setting of KIPP lets poor kids spend enough time learning to catch up with their middle class peers.   Among other things, he cites the data that shows that much of the growth in the gap between poor and upper class kids during elementary school is not about what happens during the school year, but that the wealthier kids continue to gain over the summer, while the poor kids stagnate, or even slip backwards. I've heard that before, but had never seen the underlying data before — what struck me the most is that for the upper class kids, they gained about half as much over the 3 month summer vacation as they did over the 9 month school year.  In other words, per month, the upper class kids learned more during vacation than during school. 

*When I initially wrote this post, I omitted the word "extreme" which significantly fails to represent Gladwell's argument.  He cites Arthur Jenson (whom he calls an "IQ fundamentalist") as saying that the four cutoffs that matter for IQ are 50, 75, 105, and 115 — and that for real world applications, the difference between having an IQ of 115 and 150 or between 150 and 180 is less important.

**Jennifer asked what constituted success.  Here's what Gladwell writes "But few of his [Terman's] geniuses were nationally known figures.  They tended to earn good incomes — but not that good.  The majority had careers that could only be considered ordinary, and a suprising number ended up with careers that even Terman considered failures.  Nor were there any Nobel Prize winners in his exhaustively selected group of geniuses.  His fieldworkers actually tested two elementary school students who went on to be Nobel laureates — William Shockley and Luis Alvarez — and rejected them both.  Their IQs weren't high enough… if Terman had simply put together a randomly selected group of children from the same family backgrounds as the Termites — and dispensed with IQ altogether — we would have ended up with a group doing almost as many impressive things as his painstakingly selected group of geniuses."

What does the PTA pay for?

Monday, March 2nd, 2009

I can't find the link now, but last week I heard a story on NPR about a PTA that was buying paper for the teachers to use in the classroom, with money they had been saving for new playground equipment.  The reporter was shocked that this was necessary, but I went to public schools in New York City in the 1970s, and I definitely remember the school running out of paper (for the mimeos!) by late in the term.

Laura at 11d linked to this article about a Long Island school district where parents raised over half a million dollars to preserve school sports and other extracurriculars after the school system's budget was turned down.  Laura wonders if this undermines school equity.  I'm less worried about that situation, where the largess seems to have been spread across the whole district, than the situation you sometimes see where parents raise hundreds of thousands of dollars for specific schools, sometimes hiring extra teachers.  They're willing to do it, because it's still cheaper than private school.

Our school PTA's total annual budget is about $25,000, with the largest fundraisers being sale of Sally Foster giftwrap, a silent auction, and a craft fair.  When the economy gets better, I want to look into putting the big items for the auction online and marketing them outside the school community — we get some really nice donations, but there's just not enough people in the school who can afford them for them to go for more than the minimum bid.  But we sweat the small stuff too.  We had an election day bakesale, and we collect General Mills box tops.

What do we pay for?  The two biggest expenses are teacher workshops and training, and buses to let each class go on two field trips a year.  We buy some computer equipment for the school (smart boards) and books for the school library.  We bring in visiting authors, and give all the teachers small stipends to cover some of the things they buy for the classroom, which otherwise come out of their pockets.  It's not a ton of money, but it makes life measurably better for the school.

Oh yeah, and we also pay for cheese sandwiches for kids who don't have lunch money.  Unlike in some places, this hasn't been a big deal.  My guess is that it's because slightly more than half of the school qualifies for free or reduced price lunch, so the kids who wind up getting cheese sandwiches aren't particularly poor.  They're either kids whose families are having sudden hard times and haven't gotten the paperwork in, or they're kids who just forgot to bring in lunch money.  We do send a note to the parents, asking them to reimburse the PTA and giving them info on how to apply for school lunches. 

(By contrast, with hindsight, I'm horrified at the memory of the oh-so-progressive elementary school I attended, where only the kids who ate "hot lunch" sat in the cafeteria, and everyone else ate in the auditorium.  The hot lunch was notoriously awful, and I'm sure that everyone who ate it was getting the free lunch.  Sigh.)

What does your PTA pay for?  And do you think it's appropriate?

PTA report

Thursday, February 5th, 2009

My blogging time tonight got consumed by putting together the PTA newsletter. 

I'm not sure whether anyone reads the newsletter, as most of the content is repeated by single-topic flyers included in the take-home folders.  But it's a chance to provide a bit more advance notice of events and to thank the volunteers who make everything happen.

I picked this job to volunteer for because it's easy to do on my own schedule.  But I don't feel like it's allowed me to get to know as many people as I'd like, since I get all the info for it by email.  Volunteering at the election day bakesale was much better for that.

The hot topic right now is the school schedules.  For years, a group of parents have been campaigning to rejigger the schedule so that the high school students don't have to get up so early.  There's a bunch of research that says that teens really are biologically wired to stay up late.  But, the same buses do multiple routes a day, so if the high schools start later, most of the elementary schools will start earlier.

I don't really personally mind if the school starts at 7.50 (as would happen under the proposed plan).  The school is right on my way to work, so I'd probably drop the boys off in the morning on my way out, rather than having them waiting for the bus at the crack of dawn.  Before we moved, D's school started at 8 am. 

But the principal is really concerned about it.  The worries that she expressed are:

  • older kids not being home in the afternoon to watch younger kids
  • teachers who live a long way out not being able to make it in on time and so transferring to other schools
  • overall, need to provide coverage for a longer day (since it will start earlier but aftercare will have to run just as late).

I don't really know how this will play out.

In somewhat-related political news, Arne Duncan says he's going to send his daughter to public school, but in Arlington, not DC.

TBR: Whatever It Takes

Tuesday, December 16th, 2008

On the plane last week, I finally had the chance to read Paul Tough's Whatever It Takes: Geoffrey Canada's Quest to Change Harlem and America.  Tough is a reporter for the NY Times Magazine, and this is his expanded coverage of the Harlem Children's Zone, which he's reported on over the years.  Obama has said he wants to create 20 Promise Neighborhoods, modeled after the HCZ, so I thought it was important to read the book.

HCZ is an attempt to change the odds for kids in a poor neighborhood by providing an extensive range of services, everything from parenting classes to preschool to charter schools to summer programs.  What makes it different from most other attempts is:

  • it tries to cover kids from birth through college, on the assumption that no program lasting just a few years is going to keep kids on the right track in the face of overwhelming obstacles.  This is in many ways an implicit rebuke to the extravagant claims sometimes made for  Head Start or  home visiting  programs.
  • it tries to reach enough kids — ideally it would be at a scale to reach every kid in the target neighborhood — to change the culture of the neighborhood for the better.  Canada explicitly argues that the well regarded KIPP charter schools encourage students to separate themselves from the community as a whole

Tough doesn't hide that he's a believer in the HCZ approach.  In general, the book is overwhelmingly positive about Canada and the HCZ, although a long section is devoted to the struggles at the charter middle school they operate, and the choice to give up on the first class of students after two years of disappointing results. 

I think HCZ is a fascinating experiment, but Whatever It Takes isn't quite a fascinating book.  It's a solid book, well-reported, with a decent popular summary of the academic literature behind the theory.  But, fundamentally, the story of HCZ is really only in its first chapter, with no one knowing how it will turn out.  Geoffrey Canada's personal story is quite intriguing, but Canada himself has already written that book.

If you like to listen to the radio, I might suggest the coverage of this book on This American Life or Talk of the Nation instead.

TBR: Mother on Fire

Tuesday, November 18th, 2008

This week’s book is Mother on Fire: A True Motherf#%&ing Story about Parenting, by Sandra Tsing Loh.  I had high hopes for this book, as I generally enjoy Loh’s essays in The Atlantic, in particular those about how she sent her kids to public school in Los Angeles and the world didn’t collapse. 

Unfortunately, Loh’s decision to send her kids to public school is the conclusion of this book, not the beginning.  Most of the book is an extended meditation on how terribly unfair it is that two artists don’t earn enough to send their kids to fancy private schools.   I can’t say I’m terribly sympathetic.

The book is based on her one-woman show, and it does have some funny moments.  My favorite was her discussion of how she suddenly became famous when she was fired from public radio for cursing on the air.  But it’s not a good sign when, of the four humorous quotes on the back of the jacket, three of them show up in the first chapter.  And making fun of the pretentiousness of ultra-expensive liberal private schools is shooting fish in a barrel.