Archive for the ‘Education’ Category

TBR: Three Cups of Tea

Tuesday, October 7th, 2008

This week’s book is Three Cups of Tea: One Man’s Mission to Promote Peace One School at a Time, by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin.  It’s the story of how Mortenson’s failed attempt to climb K2 led to his receiving hospitality from the residents of a small village in Pakistan and to a promise to build them a school.  This promise eventually led him into founding the Central Asia Institute (CAI) and building dozens of schools in the hardest to reach corners of Pakistan and Afghanistan.

It’s a pretty amazing story, as Mortenson started out as a climber and a night nurse, without any particular expertise about that part of the world, building schools, or raising money.  But he plunged ahead anyway, and learned what he needed to do along the way.  And he did it more or less in obscurity, until 9/11 suddenly made a lot of people start to pay attention to that particular corner of the world.  Mortenson and Relin argue persuasively that the CAI’s work does a great deal to create peace, in part by showing people that the US can do things other than drop bombs, but more significantly by providing an alternative to the radical madrassas that have filled the gaps left by the lack of government schools in much of Pakistan.

While it’s an amazing story, I can’t say it’s an amazing book.  It focuses directly on Mortenson, without ever pulling back to provide a greater context about the culture and history of the area.  And while his successes in building the schools are improbable unto the point of miraculous, if you pick up the book, you probably know already that he’s going to build the school, he won’t get killed driving off a road, neither the Taliban nor the CIA will leave him in a jail cell to rot, etc.  So, while it was clearly very suspenseful to live through all of this, it’s not that suspenseful to read.  My sister in law gave it to me last spring, and I read about half of it right away, and then got bogged down in the middle.

But read it anyway.  Because you’ll learn a little about that part of the world, and because you’ll regain some hope about one person’s ability to make a difference.  And you’ll be inspired to give what you can to CAI.  And to tell our elected officials to live up to their promises to help rebuild Afghanistan.

First day of school

Tuesday, September 2nd, 2008

It was a pretty uneventful first day of school around here.  Both boys are continuing at the same schools (preschool in N’s case) that they attended last year, so there was relatively little drama.  And the school bus even showed up on time.

It was an odd feeling for me to be standing around at the "parents’ coffee" at N’s preschool, looking at the teary-eyed parents of the younger children, and realizing that this is our last year of preschool. 

Some of my previous posts on the topic:

interesting odds and ends

Monday, July 28th, 2008
  • I thought this article on the growth in Fairfax school enrollment was interesting  It says enrollment is up by 2,500, in part due to a shift of 1,000 students from Prince William county.  Some hypothesize it’s due to Prince William’s crackdown on undocumented immigrants; others suggest it’s due to the high price of gas.  It’s likely that both contribute, and may even affect the same families. I wonder what the typical shifts between the two counties are.
  • Via Yglesias, I ran into this study arguing that redshirting of kindergarteners leads to reduced high school completion, since it means that kids have completed fewer years of school when they reach the age where they’re no longer required to attend school.  This doesn’t make sense to me, as it’s overwhelmingly upper-middle-class families who hold their kids back a year, but lower-income kids who drop out as soon as they’re legally able to.  Anyone want to take a crack at it?
  • I love Alan Blinder’s idea of stimulating the economy by buying back polluting clunkers for more than book value.  One of my pet bugaboos is that when people talk about "green jobs" they always focus on the sexy futuristic stuff like solar and wind power, when you could get a lot more bang for the buck subsidizing new boilers and more insulation in low-cost rental housing.  (As long as renters pay for the utility bills, it almost never makes economic sense for landlords to make those investments on their own.)

summer time

Tuesday, June 17th, 2008

My current dilemma: if we let the kids stay up late because they don’t have to go to school in the morning, the window of time between when they go to bed and when I fall into bed becomes increasingly narrow.  When am I supposed to blog?

Just before bed, D showed us the digital slideshow of the first grade year. Overall, I’d say he had a good year.  I don’t think he was challenged, but he didn’t seem to be bored either.  He made friends, improved his self-control, decided that he likes science, and improved his writing.

The school said that you can submit letters about your child’s "learning style" to help them make class placements for next year.  We’re not sufficiently hooked into the parents network to know who the second grade teachers are, and if there are code words that we should be using to try to avoid certain ones.  (And yes, I sometimes think that I’d be more hooked in if I were the at-home parent, but I’m not sure that’s really true.)  So, I guess we’ll have to actually write about his learning style. The main thing I’d like him to learn is persistence through difficulty, and I sure don’t know how one goes about teaching that.  So far, video games seem to be our best bet.


Monday, June 2nd, 2008

Via Kathy G at the G Spot, I found this debate between Gary Becker and Richard Posner on the NYC experiments about providing cash incentives to parents and older teens to reward school attendance, parent-teacher conferences, and good grades.  This is part of Bloomberg’s broader anti-poverty strategy, something that I had been meaning to discuss for a while, so I’ll jump on in.

Becker has what is probably the classic economist’s take:  "boys and girls as well as adults respond to incentives."  While recognizing that there may be challenges with targeting the program correctly, he thinks that it’s worth trying the experiment to see if it work.  I basically agree with this — I think it’s funny that people get horrified about "bribing" kids to do well in school, but aren’t upset when workers get bonuses for good performance.

Posner comes up with a number of nitpicks of the program, but his fundamental concern is that poor attendance is a symptom, not the disease: "Paying children to attend school will reduce truancy rates some but
without improving school quality, and perhaps without improving the
education of the children receiving the payments."  (He thinks that school vouchers are the solution, but that’s another story.)

Interestingly, this has a lot in common with Margy Waller at Inclusionist’s concern that the Bloomberg anti-poverty initiative assigns the blame for poverty to poor people’s bad choices.  If the schools are fundamentally falling down at their job of educating kids, giving the kids money for passing tests is like giving me money to make a jump shot.  Similarly, low-wage workers have high job turnover in large part because that’s how the jobs are designed.  But, that said, MDRC has been studying programs designed to improve job retention and advancement.  And so far, one of the most effective programs has been one in Texas, which provided financial incentives to former welfare recipients who were employed full-time.

I agree that I worry about the framing of these payments as all about overcoming poor people’s bad values.  You can also tell a convincing story about how the financial incentives make it possible for a worker who is paid by the hour to take off from work to go to a parent teacher conference, or wait in a crowded medical clinic to get the kid immunized, or let the parent keep their job by hiring a more reliable babysitter, but that’s not how these payments are being covered in the media.

Kathy notes that behavioral economics also raises the issue that there are some times when cash incentives can have perverse effects. In Ariely’s language, a financial incentive can shift things from a social setting to a market setting.  So people were less likely to help someone load a car when offered an insultingly low wage than when asked to do it out of altruism, and were more likely to pick up their kids late from child care when the center instituted a late fee.  That’s one of the reasons I won’t tie my kids’ allowances to their picking up their rooms or helping out around the house — it would implicitly allow them to choose to forgo the allowance and not pitch in.  But I’m not convinced that this analogy applies to the incentives in the experiment.

When I look back on all the crap I learned in HS…

Wednesday, April 23rd, 2008

Christine tagged me to come up with a list of five classes that I wish they’d taught (or I’d taken) in high school.  Here’s my list, in no particular order:

  1. An economic history of the United States.  It wasn’t until I got to college and took a class on the American Labor Movement that the Jacksonian era and the bank wars made any sense to me.
  2. A class in US history that got past World War II.
  3. A class in robotics. 
  4. A sex ed class that used Cycle Savvy as the text book.
  5. Spanish.  I took 6 years of French, but and then a year of college German, but am not fluent in either.  I’d have far more chances to use Spanish.

The most useful classes I’ve taken (at various levels of schooling) are:

  1. Typing.  (6th grade — on manual typewriters — I hated every minute of it, and am so glad that they made me take it.)
  2. American Government (high school.  Not because of the content, but because the teacher made us write papers that could not be longer than 3 pages, double spaced.)
  3. American Labor History (college)
  4. Microeconomics (grad school)
  5. Statistics (grad school)
  6. Group Dynamics (grad school)

The most useless classes I’ve taken are:

  1. Drafting (mandatory at my high school)
  2. "Energy shop" (You had to take a shop, and didn’t get to choose which one.  The only part I remember is making a wind powered goose ornament)
  3. Yiddish (took a term of it in college, mostly because my favorite teacher was teaching it)

I’m not going to tag anyone, but post a comment if you feel like taking this one up.

My father is right

Wednesday, April 9th, 2008

After reading yesterday’s post, my dad emailed me to say that he thought the question of whether young adults are better off than their parents depends mostly on what level of education each generation has attained.  Specifically, he argued that a young adult with a college degree is likely to be better off than her parents if she’s a first generation college student, but not if her parents also went to college.

Let’s look at the possibilities. 

  • If your parents went to college, and you went to college, they are probably earning more than you are.  (Obviously, there are exceptions when the parent suffers from a disability, or chose to be a starving artist, or got laid off, or when the kid joined Google or Microsoft at just the right time, but on average, 55 year old college grads earn a lot more than 25 year old college grads.  To be precise, in 2006, the average 25-34 year old with a bachelor’s degree in 2006 earned $40,276 and the average 55-64 year old with bachelor’s degree earned $50,397. 
  • I wasn’t convinced that young college graduates were necessarily earning more than their non-graduate parents but I looked up the numbers, and my father is right.  The average 55-64 year old with a high school degree and no college education earned  $29,283 in 2006.  While there are some plumbers and union mechanics who earn good money with just a high school degree, there’s not enough of them to affect the median.
  • Young high school graduates are also earning less than their HS-grad parents — the average 25-35 year old with a high school degree and no college earned just $25,0354.
  • And, to fill out the options, the HS grad child of college-graduate parents is clearly downwardly mobile.

[Sources PINC-03-part 37 and PINC-03-part 91.  All figures cited are medians.]

My dad’s point was that because the fraction of the population going to college has increased so much, a significant portion of college graduates are from families where their parents didn’t go to college. And they’re doing better than their parents.  At least in terms of income — they also have more college debt. And, as lots of people commented yesterday, their parents probably own a home that has appreciated significantly since they bought it, while in a lot of the country, homeownership is still out of reach for most young people, even those with good incomes.

Also, check out Figure 4 in this report.

Fairfax school board

Monday, November 5th, 2007

It occurred to me earlier today that tomorrow is election day and I still hadn’t figured out who I was voting for in the school board election.  There are 8 people running for the 3 at-large seats, and I didn’t have a good sense for the issues or the personalities.  It’s a non-partisan election, but the parties do endorse candidates.

So I started looking at the endorsements.

The Post endorsed Moon, Braunlich, and Cooper.
The teacher’s union endorsed Hone, Hunt, and Moon.
The Connection newspapers endorsed Cooper, Hone, Moon, Hunt, and Braunlich.
SLEEP (which wants Jr High and High Schools to start later) endorsed Hunt, Hone and Moon.
Fairfax Democrats endorsed Moon, Hone and Raney
Stop Redistricting endorsed Braunlich, Hunt, and Raney.

After reading the endorsements and looking at some of the websites, I think I’ve made my choices — Moon, Hone, and Cooper.

I haven’t figured out why the Dems endorsed Raney — his website just sounds like he’s drunk the management consulting kool-aid (everything is couched in terms of the "business case).  I seriously considered Hunt, as I do think it’s important for the board to be more than an echo chamber for the schools administration, but just couldn’t get past his letter to all the principals recommending ex-gay videos.

And I don’t really know all the issues around redistricting, but it seems like a mistake to take it off the table as an option.  Yes, redistricting can be traumatic.  But boundary lines weren’t handed down to Moses on tablets.  I’m almost certainly biased from our experience at D’s old school, but my perception of anti-redistricting advocates is that they’re trying to keep what they have, and tough luck to anyone else.

TBR: A Class Apart

Tuesday, September 25th, 2007

This week’s book is A Class Apart: Prodigies, Pressure, and Passion Inside One of America’s Best High Schools, by Alec Klein.  Klein, a Washington Post journalist, spent a year at Stuyvesant High School, one of New York’s competitive math and science high schools.  He tells the stories of a handful of students and teachers as the school year progresses, occasionally cutting back for a bigger-picture look at the questions such as the value of gifted and talented education and the huge under-representation of black and Hispanic students.

In topic and approach, A Class Apart bears a striking resemblance to another recent book, The Overachievers, in which Alexandra Robbins reports on three semesters she spent with students at Walt Whitman High School in Montgomery County.  (Both authors attended the schools they wrote about.)  But I whipped through A Class Apart in a couple of days, while I gave up on The Overachievers after finishing less than 100 pages in the three weeks the library allowed me.  So what’s the difference?

  • I also went to Stuy, so I had more of a personal interest in the book.  It was interesting to see what things had changed (more racial divisions in the student body, far more organized prepping for the entrance exams) and what hadn’t (Sing!, Ms. Lorenzo, the existence of an assistant principal who would approve schedule changes for the desperate).
  • Klein included teachers’ experiences which made for a greater variety of stories.
  • Klein clearly felt a great deal of affection for the students, the teachers, and for the school as an institution.  I didn’t get that from Robbins.
  • I think Klein is just a better writer than Robbins.

Klein’s book doesn’t really have a thesis — it’s just descriptive.  To the extent that it has an argument, it’s a plea that there ought to be more schools like Stuyvesant.  By that he means schools that push bright kids to excel, but he also means schools where parents are involved (sometimes to a fault) and schools where students feel a sense of ownership (again, sometimes to a fault) and teachers and administrators are willing to bend the rules in the interest of learning.


Thursday, September 6th, 2007

I went to the first PTA meeting of the year this evening.  I’ll admit it was nice to attend a PTA meeting where all the participants couldn’t fit at a single table.

I did find it a bit ironic that the evening’s presentation was on handling stress, with one of the main suggestions being to do less.  Now where would the PTA be if everyone listened to that message?