kitchen table math, the sequel: 2015

Friday, December 25, 2015

Jerome Groopman on replication

I've been mulling over the replication issue, not least because I was using a lot of social science research for the book. Given that our topic is the cognitive unconscious, I was especially worried because the research on priming may be especially suspect.

I ended up jettisoning studies I had originally intended to include, just to be on the safe side (assuming there is a safe side).

I find this observation by Jerome Groopman helpful:
I have been intrigued by the controversy over the Open Science Collaboration, a loosely organized group of researchers who seek to reproduce the findings of published studies in a variety of fields. As the head of a laboratory, I know how daunting this can be. Even the most trivial deviation from a technical protocol—culturing cells, quantifying proteins, detecting RNA—can make an experiment difficult to replicate. A basic-science laboratory like mine is a relatively controlled environment compared with the human body, so it’s not surprising that confirming findings from clinical research, particularly experiments involving the mind and behavior, is even harder. In August, the Open Science Collaboration reported that it had reattempted a group of studies from the fields of cognitive and social psychology and failed to reproduce the results of nearly two-thirds of them. This should not be taken as an indication that the original researchers were either sloppy or dishonest. But it does suggest that we should regard such results with a skeptical eye, especially since experimental studies in psychology are too quickly touted in the general media as revealing fundamental truths about our nature.

The Most Notable Medical Findings of 2015

Il Est Ne Le Divin Enfant

Merry Christmas

(I'm going to see if we can get an in-focus photo taken on Sunday...)


A big year.

Andrew graduated high school in June and, in August, moved into Jimmy's group home.

His move was sudden and a shock to everyone's system; we hadn't planned to move him to a group home until he was 22. But a room came open in Jimmy's house, which is of course where we had hoped Andrew would live, and the system changed, so if we didn't take that spot, we wouldn't have a spot at all.

Apparently New York is now filled with aging parents living with aging developmentally disabled children ... and so far I haven't been able to figure out what, exactly, is going on.

It's possible there's another 'reform' underway, similar to deinstitutionalization; the literature we've been given to read inveighs against the horrors of developmentally developed adults having to share bedrooms in group homes. Apparently, living alone in an apartment with a succession of aides coming in and out respects human dignity; living with 6 other people in a house with aides coming in and out doesn't. That seems to be the idea.

Beyond that, the other concept seems to be that developmentally disabled adults should have homes of their own ----- funded and staffed by parents?

I can't tell. (Very odd not to be able to parse the politics of a situation you're directly involve in.)

So that's Andrew. Safe and sound, it looks like.

Now that he's settled, we know where we want to be next: down the road from the group home, in walking distance. So we're working on that.

Chris is in his senior year at NYU (imagine!) -- and, very big news, has just learned he's been accepted by NYC Teaching Fellows for next year! He found out on the way home when he checked his spam filter.

As for me, I've finished a draft of my book, and have two final exercise sets to edit and revise (Katie Beals did first drafts, thank heavens .... )

The sad news: Surfer and Abby have died, both on the day after Thanksgiving. Abby's death has hit me especially hard. She was with me all the time, often sitting directly on my feet if possible.

The happy news: I've regained my composure sufficiently to have figured out what's next, and that is a puppy from MuddyBay Retrievers.

Last but not least: I have blogging time again!

Very excited to get back to ktm... I've been away far too long.

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays!

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

"Sit and get"

I actually hadn't heard that one. (Well, I think I had, but I'd forgotten....)

So we've got:

Sit and get
Drill and kill
Talk and chalk
Guide on the side

Did traditional teachers have slogans about the badness of student-centered classrooms?

I don't think they did.

Comments needed

If you have time to comment on Barry and Katharine's new article at The Atlantic, please do!

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Help desk - is this question worded properly?

This problem is from Engageny math. Here's the sheet I assume it appeared on. Grade 2 - Module 3.

Here's Andrew Gelman.

Speaking as a writer, and as a parent who spent a lot of time teaching my son and myself grade-school math, I don't like the wording at all.

"Sally did some counting" ---- the word "count" means count by ones, especially to a 2nd grade child.

Plus the question about why Sally did what she did invites commentary on Sally, not Sally's method.

Is there a way to ask this question that makes more sense?

And is there a reason to ask it this way -- to ask a student to analyze Sally's answer -- rather than to ask the student to use 1s and 10s to count up to 214?

I have to say .... offhand, I see no reason to ask this question this way.

I would much rather see this as a story problem about giving change.

Sally has pennies and dimes in her pocket.
Her friend Jane sells her a glass of lemonade for $2.14.
Sally gives her $1.77.
How many more pennies and dimes does Sally owe?

That wording doesn't produce the specific sequence, of course ....

What if you just said, "Count up from 177 to 214 using the fewest (whole) numbers you can. You can count by 1s or skip-count by 10s."

Here's a question.

Does "skip counting" by 10s only mean 10, 20, 30, etc.?

Can it mean 177, 187, 197?

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Against grit

Give Up 

New research shows that grit can be costly and unnecessary.

What if it’s more important to know when to hold 'em, know when to fold 'em, and know when to walk away?

For a recent study published in the Journal of Research in Personality, researchers from the University of Southern California and Northeastern University put hundreds of participants through a series of three studies on grit. In each, the researchers quizzed subjects about how “gritty” they are, based on how much they agree with statements like, “Setbacks don’t discourage me” and “I finish whatever I begin.”

The first test was a set of anagrams, or word scrambles, which participants were rewarded for solving by being entered into a $100 lottery for each correct answer. Sprinkled amid the do-able anagrams were 16 unsolvable words and 21 very difficult ones, like “kismet.” The participants who ranked higher on the grit assessment attempted fewer anagrams overall—a sign they didn’t skip the difficult or unsolvable ones like their less determined peers did.

Next came a computer-game exercise, which the researchers rigged such that some participants would feel like they were losing for much of the game. The grittier subjects worked harder when they were losing, but not when they were winning.

For the final test, the researchers gave the subjects a math game, which was also rigged so that some of the participants felt like they were fighting an uphill battle. They also gave the participants an offer: When things got tough, they could either drop out of the experiment and get $1 for their troubles, or they could press on and get $2 if they won, but nothing if they lost. Grittier people didn’t solve any more math problems than their lazier counterparts, even though they felt more optimistic about the test than the others. They were, however, more likely to continue the game when they were losing, even though they risked walking away with nothing.

It would seem, then, that grit comes with a downside.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Looking for puppies...

This is funny.

(To me.)

I've mentioned several times becoming a Fed watcher in the wake of the crash. Which puts me in a tiny little group of about 5 people in the country:
Using polling data for the US, Binder (2015) documents that the US public lacks knowledge about monetary policy. In particular, only one in every three Americans was able to correctly identify the chair of the Federal Reserve System. Very few were able to predict low levels of inflation when asked about inflation over next ten years. Nor did they appear to display much eagerness to learn about the Fed and monetary policy. In terms of social media, numbers of Twitter and Facebook followers of the Federal Reserve System do not appear remarkable. In fact, FBI, the CIA, and Paul Krugman, among others, have more followers than the entire Federal Reserve System. Google searches confirm this paucity of interest. Total online searches for macroeconomic variables like GDP, the unemployment rate, and inflation are consistently topped by online searches for puppies.

Inflation Targeting and Expectations thing I will say.

It's a lot easier to find puppies on the Internet than GDP (never went back to trend), the unemployment rate (employment to population ratio still up by 3 points, even for prime working age adults), or inflation (low and going lower).

Saving the hard stuff for home

Auntie Anne writes:
This has been our experience as well. Teachers are always trying to make "learning fun!", which means no boring stuff like worksheets and drills, but lots of group chatting/working, lots of craft work, lots of "exploration" in the classroom.

Still, the hard stuff has to happen, so they just send it home at night. Instead of school being where kids work, and home being where they can play and relax, the opposite is now true.

Meanwhile, the people who have the burden of getting kids through the not-fun part of their education end up being the parents who have to get their kids to get their homework done.
That's what suddenly hit me, the other day, talking to the mother of a second grade child who is melting down over her homework.

What is her child doing during the day?

I also realized that one aspect of Morningside Academy I haven't stressed is the fact that students there don't do homework.

Interestingly, I don't recall Kent Johnson telling us that Morningside kids don't do homework. I found out later, when I visited a precision teaching school in CT, where the kids did lots of homework. The principal told me that Kent's philosophy was that Morningside students worked hard during the day and should be free to play after school. She may have been wrong, of course, but in fact I don't think I saw children take homework home during the two weeks I attended the Summer Institute.

I definitely didn't see teachers collect homework.

So think about that.

Morningside teaches children in grades K through 8.

It guarantees that each students will make two years' progress in one year's time, in their subject of greatest difficulty, or tuition will be refunded. Most or all students are there because they're having difficulty in their regular schools.

And they make two years of progress in just one year without doing homework.

I know I've told this story before, but by the time we finally pulled C. out of our schools here, I had recurring images of the school scooping up heaping armloads of his childhood and tossing them in the trash.

(Does anyone remember Carolyn J. setting up the "FWOT" category on the old ktm? I sure do. Had never encountered the acronym before.)

More from Anonymous:
Yup. This was our experience as well. Soft, touchy feely classroom activities, and the hard stuff came home. Not only did it come home, it came home with a child who hadn't received any instruction about how to do whatever it was (and this was middle school).

Why can't they get it all done in the 6-7 hours the kids are in school? There should be no homework in K-8. Frankly, I don't think there should be homework in high school either unless they go over to a university model and drastically reduce the amount of time in class. K-8ers need time to be kids, and high school students need time to learn who they are beyond their schoolwork.
And chemprof:
The whole idea of homework with kids this age does mean that you are asking them to do the most intense academic work when they are totally wiped out.

That said, by second grade she needs to know her addition and subtraction facts (and if she doesn't, that's something they should be working on at home). They are starting to do multi-digit addition and subtraction, and that's tough without knowing the facts. That's where we are right now (2A Singapore Math), and without those math facts, we'd have lots of tears.

Since we are homeschooling, we do a lot of our heavy work in the morning or early afternoon. Sometimes we do work in the evenings, but only if she's in the mood. But we are also working on a checklist, so she's got a lot of control over what she does on a given day.

This is a great example of how FedUpMom says our educational system is neither traditional or progressive, but the worst of both. A real traditional system would have them doing the hard work all day, with a little homework to reinforce it at night. In a real progressive system, students would do projects and group work all day in school, with a lot more choice of activity, but then not have homework. Instead, they do the projects but follow up with homework that they aren't prepared to do.
And--ding! ding! ding!--lgm's district takes the cake yet again:
Well, the hard stuff didnt come home here. The tears come during prep for the state math test...when the district tries to cram the top kids into earning a 3. Most of the year is spent in remediation to benefit the included and poverty. The parent of the lad needs to afterschool like everyone else that is serious.
My conclusion: things have gotten worse.

C. didn't have lots of onerous homework to do--and I did start taking his math homework away from him & doing it myself at one point, as education realist advises.

Taking homework away from a conscientious child, by the way, is easier said than done. I took C's math homework away because I was trying to accelerate him so he could take algebra in 8th grade, which meant that he needed to do math practice well ahead of the homework being sent home. But C., only in 5th grade at that point, absolutely could not stand the idea that we were lying to the teacher and doing things wrong. So I didn't do it often.

Anyway, C. didn't have lots of onerous homework, so our time was taken up with reteaching, as opposed to reteaching and beaucoup homework, which may be where things stand today.

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Help desk - math HW

What's the story with this little boy's homework? (And how old do you think he is? I'm guessing 2nd grade - ?)

If you click on the link, you'll see a photo of a little guy crying, presumably about his math homework. The worksheet is titled "Using Mental Math to Add" or "Doing Mental Math to Add."

This photo was posted. Watch what happened next.

Assuming he's crying over the worksheet (I have no reason to think he's not) -- what's the problem?

By this point, would he know his addition facts?

Or is he having to do these problems without knowing his facts by heart?

Is there something else going on?

One thing I've become concerned by of late: children spending their days engaged in mini lessons and peer discussion, then doing the 'hard stuff' at home, when they're tired.

I was talking to the mother of a second grade child here who has some sensory issues. The little girl is getting completely overwhelmed at night, trying to do her homework. She melts down and sobs unless her other is in the room with her. Even with her mother by her side, she struggles to get through the work.

I asked how much homework she's doing, and it sounded like a lot. Too much. In math alone, she has a full worksheet to do and several minutes of computer practice.

Listening to the mom, I suddenly realized: it's entirely possible students here are doing no worksheets during class time at all.

The kids have to do worksheets because Common Core, but worksheets aren't constructivist and we are now a Tony Wagner district so .... maybe all the worksheets have to happen at home. Out of sight, out of mind.

But that means kids go through a full day of school and a full raft of after school activities before they start the real work.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

A loss is a loss

x = opening balance, index fund
y = monthly deposit to index fund
z = 1 - % by which market has declined. (For example, if the previous balance was $100, and the market was down by 2%, z would equal 0.98.)

I mentioned a couple of weeks ago that Ed and I were trying to figure out what to do about our 401(k).

What we're told to do, and what we did do during the 17-month bear market of 2007-2009, is nothing.

That's John Bogle: "Don't do something. Just stand there."

That's what we did.

We stood there for the entire 17 months.

Worse than that: we continued to contribute money.

Ed finally took a close look at his Vanguard statement last week. Seven years later. He found that for the first several months of the bear market, his balance stayed the same.

Which meant that every penny he and NYU were putting into the fund, month after month after month, was instantly burned up in the market. Every penny. Not one survived.

Then at some point, presumably in October 2008, the account balances started going down. Which meant that not only was every new penny being burned up, but now the old pennies were being disappeared as well.

17 months of this.

We're not doing that again.

A paper loss is a real loss

The money we lost didn't come back.

New money came in.

That may sound like a distinction without a difference, but it's not.

The reason the market made such huge gains after 2011 was that the Fed did quantitative easing. If the Fed hadn't done quantitative easing, there was no reason for stocks to go back up. The Bank of Japan didn't do quantitative easing when they hit zero, and Japan's stock market declined for two decades, losing 3/4 of its value in that time.

This is America, and the Fed did do quantitative easing, so all things equal I assume they'll do it again if need be.

But I don't assume they'll do it before the market loses more than it has already. The Fed obviously wants, desperately, to tighten money, and tight money is bad for markets.

If, at some point during those 17 months, Ed and I had redirected his monthly deposits to a money market, we would be far ahead of where we are now.

We couldn't have timed the move exactly, of course. We would have sustained losses for a few months going into the bear market, and we would have missed the return of the bull market for a couple of months on the other side.

Doesn't matter. We'd still be far ahead because when we got back in we'd have had lots more to invest than we did when we got out. We've have had all the money we'd protected by putting it in a money market instead of the stock market.

The trend is your friend

The reason people like us are told to put our money in index funds and forget about it is that people like us can't time the market.

(I used to think no one could time the market, but a friend of mine, whose money is managed by Neuberger Berman, tells me she's been earning 1% above market returns, after fees, for years.)

It's true that I can't time the market.

But there's no trick to timing a market that goes down 17 months and loses 56% of its value. That's not a blip. It's a trend.

My new rule: if the trend is up, we're in the market. If the trend is down, we're not in the market. If the market is moving "sideways," which is more or less what it's doing now, we're also not in the market, but we're paying attention so as not to miss too much of the bull market when the bull market returns.

My Fed watching hobby helps with all this, needless to say.

Because the Fed is a monetary superpower.

Another one bites the dust

Carol Dweck's "growth mindset" has been hijacked by constructivists:
Recently, someone asked what keeps me up at night. It’s the fear that the mindset concepts, which grew up to counter the failed self-esteem movement, will be used to perpetuate that movement. In other words, if you want to make students feel good, even if they’re not learning, just praise their effort! Want to hide learning gaps from them? Just tell them, “Everyone is smart!” The growth mindset was intended to help close achievement gaps, not hide them. It is about telling the truth about a student’s current achievement and then, together, doing something about it, helping him or her become smarter.

I also fear that the mindset work is sometimes used to justify why some students aren’t learning: “Oh, he has a fixed mindset.” We used to blame the child’s environment or ability.

Must it always come back to finding a reason why some children just can’t learn, as opposed to finding a way to help them learn?

Carol Dweck Revisits the 'Growth Mindset'
Yes, Carol, it must.

All cool-sounding psychology concepts will be used to justify the fact that some children aren't learning.

Growth mindset, grit, noncognitive skills, what have you.

Whatever you've got, it will be used to blame failure on children and parents (and poverty, where  applicable).

Not on teachers, administrators, schools, ed schools, teaching philosophies, curriculum, or lack of curriculum.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Terrific comments on Willingham's "Teachers Aren't Dumb"

As a parent whose children just graduated from elementary school, I whole heartedly agree. Some of my kids' teachers were wonderful writers, but a lot of them seemed to have a middling grasp of basic grammar. Once, a teacher corrected my son's proper use of "all together" as in "My family was all together" to read "My family was altogether." That was altogether unfortunate! No wonder the kids can't spell.


I could not agree with Mr. Willingham more. I would only add that there is a huge ideological hurdle to surmount that dwarfs the one requiring an overhaul of the teaching of the teachers. It is ideological. There is a mass of thought that children will learn to read when they are ready, instead of learning because they are given the tools and taught. There is a revolt against "drilling". It's true in math, science, and all the literary arts: reading, writing, spelling.

Many, many children today are labeled learning disabled when they are only curriculum disabled. There is no artist, athlete, farmer, architect, doctor or nurse that didn't have to practice, didn't have to memorize information so that it might be accessed instantaneously without thought when needed. But somehow asking teachers to cause children to practice and children to do so is perceived as destructive, uncreative. Even coders practice, fail and try again. It's called a learning curve


My daughter transferred to a university that has a fast-track program to certify STEM majors as teachers. In her 2nd day of her introduction to teaching class, the lecturer, a former geneticist, said "We don't believe in the scientific method." She said there are no truths. This is part of the discredited pedagogy they are pushing: that teachers are the "guide on the side" and are hardly even allowed to tell students things. Students are expected to come up with complex rules themselves.

As someone who has been teaching math and Computer Science at the college level for 20 years, this makes my skin crawl. Actually I wouldn't know how bad this method of teaching is unless they had already tried to practice it on my daughter. Perhaps there is some good way to do this, but how it ends up in the hands of young unskilled, poorly educated, teachers is that they don't tell the students anything and the students flounder, feel lost, get discouraged, and doubt themselves. It makes me crazy.

Teachers Aren't Dumb by Daniel Willingham 9/8/2015

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Just world

For quite a while now, I've been fascinated by the degree to which a sense justice comes built in (not just in people but in "non-human" animals as well):
When responding to ownership violations, children can focus on the victim’s needs, the perpetrator’s punishment, or both. Recent studies show that 3- and 5-year olds are equally likely to respond to second- and third party violations, and 3-year-olds return objects to their rightful owners. Children’s interventions are consistent with justice for victims.


Together, these results suggest that although children intervene in loss events experienced by them- selves and others, their interventions are a general re- sponse to any unpermitted loss of property rather than punishment of theft.

Young children remedy second- and third-party ownership violations
Julia W. Van de Vondervoort and J. Kiley Hamlin
Trends in Cognitive Sciences | September 2015, Vol. 19, No. 9
A "second-party" violation means that the child himself or herself was the victim; a third-party violation means that a puppet was the victim.

In either case, your basic 3-year old's attitude, with which I completely agree, is: Give it back.

I wonder at what age children start to feel that justice requires punishment? (Or perhaps children at this age innately feel that punishment relates to a different set of wrongs?)

I'm pretty sure I've come across a fair amount of research showing that a desire to see wrongdoing punished is built-in, too.

Monday, September 7, 2015

Aloha from guillotine-deadline land

This weekend's events:

I just got the answer to this problem right:
Ten out of every 1,000 women have breast cancer. Of these 10 women with breast cancer, 9 test positive. Of the 990 women without cancer, about 89 nevertheless test positive. A woman tests positive and wants to know whether she has breast cancer for sure, or at least what the chances are. What is the best answer?
I realize most ktm readers can do this in their sleep, but I had to reason it through ... and I did!

That really makes me happy.

Which brings me to yesterday's challenge: I wrote a proof!

On purpose!

I had been talking to friends about index funds, the stock market, and the ever-terrifying Federal Reserve...and pretty soon I found myself utterly confused.

My question was whether Ed and I needed to get the 401(k) out of an index fund and into cash while the stock market is losing its mind.

Both of my friends seemed to think that something called "dollar cost averaging," which I had never heard of, meant that you don't actually lose more money when the stock market declines because your dollar cost average now goes down as you buy more shares with each new deposit into the 401(k).

One said she sees stock market declines as opportunities to buy more stock at a discount. She doesn't seem to worry about stock market "corrections" at all.

Neither of my friends was making an argument about timing the market. Both seemed to be saying that when the market falls, your dollar cost average falls, too, so you come out OK regardless of whether the market has hit bottom or not.

I was so flummoxed that I pulled up an Excel sheet and did three hypotheticals comparing two investors starting with the same amount of money distributed between the market and savings. In each one the investor who stayed in the index fund as it sank, or who put more money into the fund from savings as it sank, ended up worse off.

Then I wrote a proof!

That was a moment.

Regardless of whether my proof is correct or incorrect, I had just had a real-life experience of the incredible power of mathematical proof. I was thinking about all those people asking when students will ever use algebra in 'real life' -- I just used mathematical proof in real life.

Several years ago, I read a book which explained that a loss is a loss is a loss: money you've lost in the stock market today doesn't come back tomorrow. That made sense to me, but now I find that, apparently, few people believe it.

And it is a hard idea to hold on to, because intuitively it feels like money "comes back" when the stock market rises again.

Intuitively, it feels like you lose the money only when you sell after the loss, not when you hold.

Now I can look at my proof and know that money lost is money lost. You can sell, you can hold. Either way, that money is gone.

What to do about it--if anything--is another question, of course.

Wednesday, August 5, 2015


Speaking of recessions and teachers, the Hamilton Jobs Gap calculator now projects a return to pre-recession job levels sometime between January and August 2017.

The recession began in December 2007 (the crash came nine months later, in September 2008).

So ten years.

The Hamilton projection surprises me because everyone else I read seems to think we'll never return to pre-recession job levels -- "never" meaning not in this generation, at least. A big chunk of workers has been sidelined, the thinking goes, and they're not coming back.

But Hamilton seems to be assuming we can get back to the employment-population ratios of 2007.

At least, that's what I think Hamilton assumes. I don't have the patience to work through their explanation tonight. Or maybe ever.



In January 2007, 80.3% of people age 25 to 54 were employed.

Today that figure is 77.2%, up from a low of 74.8% in November 2010.

Prime working age.

Weaker economy, better teachers

Department of silver linings.


Markus Nagler
Marc Piopiunik
Martin R. West
1050 Massachusetts Avenue
Cambridge, MA 02138
July 2015


How do alternative job opportunities affect teacher quality? We provide the first causal evidence on this question by exploiting business cycle conditions at career start as a source of exogenous variation in the outside options of potential teachers. Unlike prior research, we directly assess teacher quality with value-added measures of impacts on student test scores, using administrative data on 33,000 teachers in Florida public schools. Consistent with a Roy model of occupational choice, teachers entering the profession during recessions are significantly more effective in raising student test scores. Results are supported by placebo tests and not driven by differential attrition.


How do alternative job opportunities affect teacher quality? This is a crucial policy question as teachers are a key input in the education production function (Hanushek and Rivkin, 2012) who affect their students’ outcomes even in adulthood (Chetty et al., 2014b). Despite their importance, individuals entering the teaching profession in the United States tend to come from the lower part of the cognitive ability distribution of college graduates (Hanushek and Pace, 1995). One frequently cited reason for not being able to recruit higher-skilled individuals as teachers is low salaries compared to other professions (e.g., Dolton and Marcenaro-Gutierrez, 2011; Hanushek et al., 2014).

Existing research provides evidence consistent with the argument that outside options matter. A first strand of the literature has used regional variation in relative teacher salaries, finding that pay is positively related to teachers’ academic quality (e.g., Figlio, 1997). A second strand has used long-run changes in the labor market – in particular, the expansion of job opportunities for women – finding that the academic quality of new teachers is lower when job market alternatives are better (e.g., Bacolod, 2007). However, both bodies of evidence suffer from key limitations. First, relative pay may be endogenous to teacher quality. Second, measures of academic quality are poor predictors of teacher effectiveness (cf. Jackson et al., 2014). This important policy question therefore remains unresolved.


We find that teachers who entered the profession during recessions are roughly 0.10 standard deviations (SD) more effective in raising math test scores than teachers who entered the profession during non-recessionary periods. The effect is half as large for reading value-added. Quantile regressions indicate that the difference in math value-added between recession and non-recession entrants is most pronounced at the upper end of the effectiveness distribution. Based on figures from Chetty et al. (2014b), the difference in average math effectiveness between recession and non-recession entrants implies a difference in students’ discounted life-time earnings of around $13,000 per classroom taught each year.2 Under the more realistic assumption that only 10% of recession-cohort teachers are pushed into teaching because of the recession, these recession-only teachers are roughly one SD more effective in teaching math than the teachers they push out. Based on the variation in teacher VAMs in our data, being assigned to such a teacher would increase a student’s test scores by around 0.20 SD.


Our finding that the effect of recessions on teacher effectiveness is twice as strong in math as in reading is consistent with evidence that wage returns to numeracy skills are twice as large as those to literacy skills in the US labor market (Hanushek et al., 2015).


Our results also suggest that recent improvements in cognitive skills among new teachers in the US documented by Goldhaber and Walch (2013) may be attributable to the 2008-09 financial crisis, rather than an authentic reversal of long-term trends.


To our knowledge, ours is the first paper to document a causal effect of outside labor market options on the effectiveness of entering teachers in raising student test scores.


We find that teachers who started their careers during recessions are more effective.


Chetty et al. (2014b) find that students taught by a teacher with a one SD higher value-added measure at age 12 earn on average 1.3% more at age 28. Using this figure, our preferred recession effect translates into differences in discounted lifetime earnings of around $13,000 per classroom taught each school year by recession and non-recession teachers (evaluated at the average classroom size in our sample).

Saturday, August 1, 2015

Way too much thinking

I've mentioned (a gazillion times -- sorry!) that I'm writing a book to do with the basal ganglia.

The basal ganglia handle nonconscious learning and intuition. (Turns out intuition is a real thing - ! Basically, intuition is nonconscious category learning.)

Meanwhile, the entire education world is obsessively focused on conscious processes.

Critical thinking.

Problem solving.

GROUP problem solving.

Cognitive science (and common sense) tell us that all of these activities depend upon nonconscious processes, but never mind.

Here's a typical passage describing current thinking (thinking!) in cognitive science:
A great deal of complex cognitive processing occurs at the unconscious level.


It is largely accepted that lower levels of processing (e.g., motor reflexes, sensory analysis) can operate outside of perceptual awareness (implicitly) (e.g., Castiello, Paulignan, & Jeannerod, 1991). And although the existence of nonconscious computations at higher levels (e.g., semantic or inferential processing) has been controversial (Dixon, 1971; Eriksen, 1960; Greenwald, 1992; Holender, 1986), a range of empirical findings on the unconscious over the last several decades has led most cognitive neuroscientists today to believe that mental activity can occur outside of conscious awareness (Hassin, Uleman, & Bargh, 2005). Some have argued that all information processing can, at least in principle, operate without conscious experience, and that consciousness (C) may thus be of a different nature (Chalmers, 1996). This view goes along with the hypothesis that nonconscious processes can achieve the highest levels of representation (Marcel, 1983). A large amount of complex cognitive processing appears to occur at the unconscious level in both healthy and psychiatric and neurological populations. For example, evidence from patients with blindsight (Goebel, Muckli, Zanella, Singer, & Stoerig, 2001; Weiskrantz, 1986), prosopagnosia (Renault, Signoret, Debruille, Breton, & Bolgert, 1989), implicit awareness in hemineglect (Cappelletti & Cipolotti, 2006; Marshall & Halligan, 1988; Vuilleumier et al., 2002), nondeclarative learning even in amnesia (Knowlton, Mangels, & Squire, 1996; Knowlton, Squire & Gluck, 1994; Turnbull & Evans, 2006), and the “split-brain” syndrome (Gazzaniga, 1995) supports the idea that unconsciously processed stimuli can activate high-level cortical regions.

- The Neural Basis of the Dynamic Unconscious
Expertise is heavily nonconscious. Most of the time experts don't know how they do what they do,  they just do it.

Yet all of K-12 these days seems to be premised on the belief that being able to "explain your answer" equals "understanding."

That belief is nonsense on stilts.

Yes, experts think when they solve problems. But eureka moments come out of the depths.

We have no access to our nonconscious minds, and we can't explain what our nonconscious minds do.

What's more, if we didn't have nonconscious minds, we wouldn't solve problems.

So what happens to problem solving when you stop teaching the nonconscious mind?

What happens to problem solving when you believe that conscious "thinking" is all that matters?

Here's Barry on Explaining Your Answer.

Pythagorus (& the cognitive unconscious)

I've just come across this post by Gary Rubenstein: You-reeka-math.

Here's a question.

For 8th grade students, Rubenstein prefers a visual proof of the Pythagorean Theorem to the algebra-based proof in Eureka Math/engageny math.

I follow the engageny math proof, but I can't make head or tails of the visual proof Rubenstein argues is more appropriate.

Am I missing something?

Is the visual proof easier for the teacher to explain, but harder for me to explain to myself?

Related: I've been meaning to read Rubinstein's Reluctant Disciplinarian forever.

I remember a fabulous passage (which I don't have time to fact-check at the moment, so if I'm remembering some other book, I'll have to come back and revise): something to do with novice teachers (Rubinstein) asking the old hands how they dealt with things like spitballs and talking out of turn and the like.

The old hands' advice: "I don't put up with that."

"I don't put up with that" is a classic example of experts having no idea how they do what they do.

Filed under: cognitive unconscious.

The cognitive unconscious is a sadly neglected concept in K-12.

K-12 education: way too much thinking, way too little knowing.


Andrew graduated high school in June and is now, all of a sudden, moving to Jimmy's group home.

Sad story: New York state has zero new group homes opening up for adults with developmental disabilities--and this at the very moment the children of the autism epidemic reach 21. The only adults able to enter the system are homeless and/or orphaned, and they're all on waiting lists. Andrew is getting in by the skin of his teeth because his brother lives in the home and Andrew was already 'in process.' All of which means we can't delay. We take this spot, or we take nothing.

I'm not ready.

I've spent the past two mornings crying, then recovering enough to get some work done.

I remember, several years ago, when my brother's firstborn was leaving for college. My brother and his wife were a wreck. I said, "Well, at least you have two kids still at home," and my brother said, "Right. We get to keep going through this over and over and over again."

Andrew is the third to leave home. Third and last.

Making it so much worse .... he doesn't want to leave. Jimmy didn't want to leave, either, but he was less verbal than Andrew and, after all, we still had two children at home. Hard on him, not as hard on us.

We've found a condo development we love (and that we can probably afford) that's just down the street from the group home, so we plan to be close by forever.

Still, it's not the same.


I don't even know if this is the right thing.

But I don't see, immediately, what else we can do given the fact that we are not going to live forever, and given the equally salient fact that Ed will not be employed forever.

New York seems to be moving to a "system" whereby parents will essentially set up their own group homes with state support .... which so far means 80-year old parents living with tantruming 50-year old autistic people and trying to hire, train, and oversee staff at a time when they themselves are at high risk of becoming disabled if they aren't already.

The officially sanctioned idea seems to be that parents will buy an apartment or a house that becomes the developmentally disabled adult's permanent home.

I don't know whether the state helps with cost of purchase. Sounds like no.

I'm not at all against having such an option, but how many parents who've spent their lives raising a developmentally disabled child are now in a position to buy a second apartment or house in Westchester County, beyond the apartment or house they've living in themselves?

There is state funding available for staff to look after developmentally disabled adults living in parent-bought homes, but who's in charge of the staff?

Is it the parents?

And if it is, what happens when the parents are gone?

Plus: autism is neither simple nor intuitive. A high school graduate can't walk in off the street and know how to deal with a nonverbal autistic adult who has challenging behaviors and an eating disorder to boot.

But maybe there's something I'm not seeing here. I'm going to look into things as soon as I finish my book.

Nevertheless, I suspect what I'll really be doing is finding out that I need to engage politically.

The literature we've been given reeks of good intentions and person-centered ideology run amok.

Developmentally disabled adults must have their own private bedrooms!

Because having your own private bedroom is synonymous with human dignity!

So close down the group homes because adults living in group homes sometimes have roommates!

It sounds to me as if the day programs may be in danger, too.

Developmentally disabled adults have a right to employment in real businesses, outside the confines of sheltered workshops!

Because human dignity!

It's full inclusion for developmentally disabled adults but without the institutional backing or training for the people making all of it happen.

I despair.

No one has a right to employment in private-sector businesses, and the number of "discouraged workers" in prime working age (25-54) is at record or near-record highs.

When only 54% of high school graduates are employed, how exactly are aging parents running their own private group homes going to find private-sector employment for 100% of their developmentally disabled adult children?

And I'm just thinking about autistic adults at the moment, who tend to be hale and hearty. At least, my own two autistic adult children are hale and hearty. One of Jimmy's friends at his group home is in a wheel chair. His mother has diabetes & an infected leg, & she has had difficulty walking herself for several years now. How exactly are people in such circumstances going to get their wheelchair-bound adult child to a job at McDonald's?


I have to hang onto my hat.

We're incredibly lucky to have a loving home for Andrew to move to, where he'll live with his brother, with his father and me just down the street.

I need to hang onto my hat, figure out who's leading the charge, and join the ranks.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

The deskilling of U.S. jobs

No idea what to make of this.
The Great Reversal in the Demand for Skill and Cognitive Tasks
Paul Beaudry, David A. Green, Benjamin M. Sand

Many researchers have documented a strong, ongoing increase in the demand for skills in the decades leading up to 2000. In this paper, we document a decline in that demand in the years since 2000, even as the supply of high education workers continues to grow. We go on to show that, in response to this demand reversal, high-skilled workers have moved down the occupational ladder and have begun to perform jobs traditionally performed by lower-skilled workers. This de-skilling process, in turn, results in high-skilled workers pushing low-skilled workers even further down the occupational ladder and, to some degree, out of the labor force all together.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

When oh when will I have time to take the new "core maths quiz"?

Quiz: Could you pass the new core maths test?

I'm in book hell.

Jet lagged in high school

Andrew has graduated!

In June --- (which reminds me, I must try to get the photos the director of pupil personnel took...)

We've been getting up at 6:15 am for years (is it 7 years now? longer?).

The bus for his new program comes around 9, so now we get up when we wake up.

It's amazing, but also disorienting. Have to figure out a new morning routine.
In a series of conversations with sleep scientists this May, facilitated by a Harvard Medical School Media Fellowship, I learned that the consequences of lack of sleep are severe. While we all suffer from sleep inertia (a general grogginess and lack of mental clarity), the stickiness of that inertia depends largely on the quantity and quality of the sleep that precedes it. If you’re fully rested, sleep inertia dissipates relatively quickly. But, when you’re not, it can last far into the day, with unpleasant and even risky results.

Many of us have been experiencing the repercussions of inadequate sleep since childhood. Judith Owens, the director of the Center for Pediatric Sleep Disorders at Boston Children’s Hospital, has been studying the effects of school start times on the well-being of school-age kids—and her conclusions are not encouraging. Most adults are fine with about eight hours of sleep, but toddlers need around thirteen hours, including a daytime nap. Teens need around nine and a half hours; what’s more, they tend to be night owls, whose ideal circadian rhythm has them going to bed and waking up late. As schools have pushed their start times earlier and earlier—a trend that first started in the sixties, Owens says—the health effects on students have been severe. “It’s not just sleep loss. It’s circadian disruption,” Owens says. “They have to wake up when their brain tells them to be deeply asleep. Waking a teen at six in the morning is like waking an adult at three at night.”

The result is a kind of constant jet lag—and one that is exacerbated by sleeping in on the weekends. Executive function and emotional responses get worse, hurting everything from judgment to emotional reactivity. The ability to make good decisions can suffer, and kids can become more prone to act out and get depressed. In fact, the rise in A.D.H.D. diagnoses may, in part, be the result of inadequate sleep: in children, symptoms of sleep deprivation include hyperactivity and impaired interpretation of social cues. Owens has seen many such misdiagnoses in her clinical practice. The effects are physical, as well. Children who undersleep are more likely to gain weight and become obese. Even for infants as young as six months, amounts of sleep can predict weight gain three years later.

Schools with healthier start times, on the other hand, see an increase in attendance, test scores, G.P.A.s, and health. In one study in which an intervention pushed start times later, it wasn’t just academic outcomes that improved; car crashes went down by as much as seventy per cent, and self-reported depression rates fell. Even a delay of as little as half an hour, Owens has found, improves outcomes. “It should be about the health and well-being of the students,” she told me, “and not the convenience of adults.”

The Walking Dead by Maria Konnikova | July 9, 2015 | The New Yorker

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Cluster event

Race to the Top was driven by a bureaucratic application process. The demands were so onerous that the Gates Foundation offered $250,000 grants to 16 favored states to help hire consultants to pen their grant applications. Racing to meet program deadlines, states slapped together proposals stuffed with empty promises. States promised to adopt “scalable and sustained strategies for turning around clusters of low-performing schools” and “clear, content-rich, sequenced, spiraled, detailed curricular frameworks.” Applications ran to hundreds of jargon-laden pages, including appendices replete with missing pages, duplicate pages, and everything from Maya Angelou’s poetry to letters of support from anyone who might sign a paper pledge. As one reviewer described it to me, “We knew the states were lying. The trick was figuring out who was lying the least.”

Lofty Promises But Little Change for America’s Schools by Frederick Hess

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Technology coordinators behaving badly

This is rich.

The staff member who informed on Rafe Esquith was the technology director.

I rue the day every district in the county hired a technology director.

Saturday, July 4, 2015

Icahn charter schools

I mentioned hearing Jeffrey Litt speak at a Fordham Prep luncheon.

Peter Meyer sent me a link to a post about Litt and the Icahn charter schools at Reason:
When students leave Success Academy schools for whatever reason, the administration stops replacing them with new students after the fourth grade, so the enrollment of each class dwindles over the years. Icahn, on the other hand, replaces the kids who leave with new students from the district schools. Generally, those students have a lot of catching up to do, and they bring down Icahn’s overall scores.


And while Success has been widely criticized for often suspending students and stigmatizing low achievers, Icahn has a less punitive atmosphere. In the 2013-14 school year, 11 percent of students at the Success Academy schools were suspended at least once. At Icahn, half a percent were suspended, or a total of 10 kids among all seven schools.
After Litt's talk, I asked him how many students flunk out of the school.

The number was 0.

 He also told me they accept transfers all the way through.

I also spoke briefly with Gail Golden-Icahn, who said they had deliberately avoided media attention because they didn't want to become a target.

Here is Reason's take:
Though Ican was a runaway success, Litt’s (sic) was programmed early in his career not to antagonize the public education bureaucracy that he runs circles around. "We stay under the radar," he says. "Our culture is non-confrontational."
Litt told us he was the first principal in the country to adopt Core Knowledge, back in 1991.

Friday, July 3, 2015

The H-factor

Explains all.

Here's a useful article about the "HEXACO" model of personality structure in the Telegraph: How Machiavellian Are You?

When we hire the next superintendent, assuming I still live here, I'm going to push the board hard to select for high honesty and high humility ("H Factor").

Honesty and humility are the opposite of what we have now.

The H-Factor of Personality by Kibeom Lee and Michael C. Ashton is terrific. The most helpful revelations so far:
  • Honesty and humility track together... to the degree that, while the authors don't say this, the two qualities seem almost to be different facets of the same quality
  • High-H people like and associate with High-H people; Low-H people like and associate with low-H people. 
These propositions probably sound obvious to many, but they weren't to me. 

For instance, whenever I suspect a pretentious administrator of lying, I feel guilty. I feel I'm being harsh, and I set my suspicions aside.

From now on, I'm going to simply assume that pretentious administrators are lying, as a matter of statistical likelihood. That's going to save time and put me in touch with reality to boot.

As to assortative friending and mating, that High-H people like other High-H people is obvious (to me), but I've always been mystified by the fact that dishonest, pretentious people seem perfectly content in the company of other dishonest, pretentious people. I'm still mystified, but at least now I know I'm not hallucinating. Obnoxious people like obnoxious people, and they don't like people who aren't obnoxious. 

So there's no winning them over. Not via honesty and humility, at any rate.

(I'm becoming more Machiavellian by the moment.)

Another implication: wealthy suburban school districts are going to be a magnet for low-H individuals. Low-H people are more motivated by money than any of the other personality types, and they tend to have more of it as a result. So they're not moving to Yonkers. They're moving here.

Worse yet, low-H people are also motivated by status, which means they run the PTSA and the school board and the technology committees and the fundraising NGOs, and on and on.

(So good luck persuading a school board in an affluent suburb to hire an honest, non-pretentious superintendent.)

I was talking to Ed about wanting to live in a place where High-H dominates Low-H.

Ed said: That's easy.

Move somewhere with a bad school system.

A bad school system people know is bad.

Books are better, part 2

In The Atlantic:
A few years ago, I started having trouble helping my son with his first-grade homework. I’m a data-journalism professor at Temple University, and when my son asked me for help on a worksheet one day, I ran into an epistemological dilemma. My own general knowledge (and the Internet) told me there were many possible “correct” answers. However, only one of these answers would get him full credit on the assignment.

“I need to write down natural resources,” he told me.

“Air, water, oil, gas, coal,” I replied.

“I already put down air and water,” he said. “Oil and gas and coal aren’t natural resources.”

“Of course they are,” I said. “They’re non-renewable natural resources, but they’re still natural resources.”

“But they weren’t on the list the teacher gave in class.”

I knew my son would start taking standardized tests in third grade. If the first-grade homework was this confusing, I was really worried about how he—or any kid—was supposed to figure out the tests. I had been spending time with civic hackers, the kind of people who build software and crunch government data for fun, and I decided to see if I could come up with a beat-the-test strategy derived from a popular SAT prep course I used to teach.

In essence, I tried to game the third-grade Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA), the standardized test for my state. Along with a team of professional developers, I designed artificial-intelligence software to crunch the available data. I talked to teachers. I talked to students. I visited schools and sat through School Reform Commission meetings.

After six months of this, I discovered that the test can be gamed. Not by using a beat-the-test strategy, but by a shockingly low-tech strategy: reading the textbook that contains the answers.

Why Poor Schools Can't Win at Standardized Testing
The entire world has completely lost its mind.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

The security mindset

From the site Mark linked to:
[S]ecurity also requires a particular mindset -- one I consider essential for success in this field. I'm not sure it can be taught, but it certainly can be encouraged. "This kind of thinking is not natural for most people. It's not natural for engineers. Good engineering involves thinking about how things can be made to work; the security mindset involves thinking about how things can be made to fail. It involves thinking like an attacker, an adversary or a criminal. You don't have to exploit the vulnerabilities you find, but if you don't see the world that way, you'll never notice most security problems." This is especially true if you want to design security systems and not just implement them. Remember Schneier's Law: "Any person can invent a security system so clever that she or he can't think of how to break it." The only way your designs are going to be trusted is if you've made a name for yourself breaking other people's designs.
So You Want to Be a Security Expert
This is pretty much the opposite of the mindset in my district.

Technology and discipline (and help desk)

Parents everywhere should be taking a look at their schools' Codes of Conduct, particularly where "technology" is concerned.

Ours are here.

Our Code specifies that "Electronic Media Crime" will be reported to the police.

As far as I can tell, searching the Code, "Electronic Media Crime" is the only form of misbehavior that automatically triggers a call to the police. Even bringing a gun to school, which carries the same penalty -- a one-year suspension -- doesn't seem to require police involvement.

The Code doesn't say what an "Electronic Media Crime" is, and I'm skeptical anyone explains it to the kids.

The district does require students and staff to sign an agreement called "Acceptable Use Form for Computers," but the form doesn't mention that police will be called if a child logs onto the system and does something he shouldn't. (So far it's always been boys.)

At this point, it's looking to me as if computers in schools are a real and present danger to adolescent boys.

Computers are dangerous because public schools don't seem to have real IT people, so the systems are wide open. At least, our system is open. I'm told, by more than one student, that the password for the WiFi system is the same as the password for the teacher section of the network. Lots of students have the password, and some of the teachers rely on kids as young as age 13 to help them with their computers.

I was talking to my California sister about this, and she pointed out that "Technology Directors" in schools aren't trained in IT. They're just teachers with an interest in computers. They don't know any more about network security than I do. (Is that true elsewhere?)

So we send kids to school in buildings where the network has limited security at best, and in a country where "unauthorized access" to a computer is a federal offense.

While you're checking your district's Code of Conduct, you should take a look at the regulations governing questioning of students. Here in New York, schools don't have to notify parents that they are questioning their child, no matter how serious the infraction.

So far I don't see a limit to the length of time school personnel can question students without parents present, either.

Does anyone know whether there are federal regulations requiring schools to secure their networks?

Or whether the doctrine of "negligent supervision" applies?

Florida Teen Charged With Computer Hacking After Changing Teacher's Computer Background To Gay Kiss Image

"Glued to the screen"

With two dozen third-graders using all these apps and programs, technical glitches are inevitable. One girl discovers that the camera on her device is not activated, something Mercaldi promises to fix.

Working on MobyMax, Angelica Moreira cannot call up the math quiz she wants. Other children try to help her, something the school encourages. “We teach the kids how to troubleshoot,” Jackson Avenue principal Janet Gonzalez says. “Some of the kids are teaching the teacher.”

In the meantime, Angelica selects new backgrounds for her tablet. “I do this a lot while I wait around,” she says. But even after her new wallpaper is in place, the quiz will not load. Eventually someone realizes that MobyMax is preventing Angelica from trying a second quiz too soon after taking the first.

Despite being so-called digital natives, the students vary in how expert they are on the iPads and how much they like them. “Some people know more than other people on the iPad and they get jealous,” says Joshua Parr. Joseph Parrino has had trouble with the iPad’s flat electronic keyboard — “my fingers slip,” he explains — and so has brought a plug-in keyboard from home. And several children say they prefer old-fashioned books to the digital alternative.

Glued to the screen: A third grade class where kids spend 75% of the day on iPads
by GAIL ROBINSON | June 18, 2015

Friday, June 19, 2015

The black magic of "technology"

If you haven't read Education Week's new article on education technology, you should. I'll try to get a post up excerpting it later.

Why Ed Tech Is Not Transforming How Teachers Teach
Subtitle: Student-centered, technology-driven instruction remains elusive for most

"Why Ed Tech Is Not Transforming How Teachers Teach" explains, as clearly as anything I've seen, why constructivists want mobile devices in the classroom.

Constructivists want mobile devices in the classroom because mobile devices create student-centered learning.

That's what they think.

And that's what is happening here.

For the administrators who run my district, aided and abetted by a 3-person board majority, "technology" is magic. Nothing matters more.

Nothing matters more because once you have mobile devices in the classroom, the teacher decamps to the back of the room, from whence she can survey students' Google docs.

In the wake of today's traumas, I've discovered yet another horrific aspect of our administrators'  "passion" for technology.

I've discovered a double standard where disciplinary actions are concerned.

An infraction involving technology is punished far more harshly than the same infraction involving paper.

Swipe a set of teacher notes from the teacher's desk and you get detention.

Swipe the same set of notes from the district computer system after having been given the system password by a district technology advocate and you get two hours of interrogation without your parents present and a year's suspension from school. And the police sent to your house.

Because technology.

And see: help desk

Help desk - & another black mark on "technology"

If you are so inclined, could you and anyone else you know like these two Facebook posts?

Della Lenz, Irvington, NY

Thanks -- I appreciate it.

These are the 3 posts I've written about this situation:

Passwords on Post-its (superseded by next post...)

More in a second post

Thursday, June 11, 2015

AoPS is hiring

I know people on KTM have mentioned Art of Problem Solving before. Just a quick note to let y'all know that they are actively recruiting people to work in their office in San Diego and are trying to add several full-time people to the AoPS school. You can see the job descriptions here.

Monday, June 8, 2015

"There was no committee"

Here in my district (woe is me), we seem to have dodged the Chinese language instruction bullet.

I don't know why.

Maybe our central administrators, neither of whom is particularly interested in academics (the super cares about fields; the curriculum director is "passionate" about technology) decided the ruckus that would ensue when they swapped out French for Rosetta-Stone Chinese wasn't worth the trouble.

Or maybe they just haven't gotten around to it yet.

In any event, I've just come across a terrific article on English v. Chinese as lingua franca:
English is becoming a global lingua franca not just for trade, industry, aviation, research, and entertainment, but also for higher education. We scarcely needed the conclusions of a new research report by the department of education at the University of Oxford in collaboration with the British Council, released Wednesday, to tell us that.

Ph.D. students in countries like Finland or the Netherlands have (at least in my field) long been writing their dissertations in English rather than in Finnish or Dutch. But at undergraduate as well as graduate and professional levels, more and more non-English-speaking countries are making the decision to use what they are calling English as a Medium of Instruction (EMI).

Nothing about the dialect of the southern region of the island of Great Britain makes it especially suited to a global role. In fact, choosing English, with its maddeningly stupid spelling quirks (Finnish has none), and its nearly 200 irregular verbs (Swahili has none), and its phonology replete with brutally complex consonant clusters (Hawaiian has none), looks like a choice made by a committee of idiots.

But it was not. Accidents of history conspired to determine the present status of English.

Which language was spoken by the people who managed to gain lasting political control in North America and Australasia, and had temporary political dominance in all of southern Asia and most of eastern, western, and southern Africa?

Which language is spoken in the one place on earth where blockbuster movies for worldwide release are made on budgets running into the hundreds of millions of dollars?

Which is the main language used by the closest to approach Radio Earth, namely the BBC World Service?

Which is the only language used officially for government purposes in more than 60 countries?

Which has been chosen as the norm for all air-traffic control conversations?

A long succession of such accidents has put English so far in the race for dominance in global communication that it can hardly even be called a race now.

Some people talk as if Mandarin Chinese was gaining on English. It is not, and it never will. A Tamil-speaking computer scientist explaining an algorithm to a Hungarian scientist at a Japanese-organized scientific meeting in Thailand calls on English, not Chinese. Nowhere in the world do we find significant numbers of non-Chinese speakers choosing Mandarin as the medium for bridging language gaps. There are no signs of that changing.

The burgeoning of English is pushing ever-larger numbers of small minority languages into extinction, and many linguists lament that. There are two sides to the issue, though. It saddens us linguists that so many grammatically fascinating and diverse languages in so many language families should be dying out, yet who are we to tell an African father, proud of raising his children to speak a multinational lingua franca like Swahili or English, rather than the local dialect of his traditional village, that he is wrong?


Personally, I would never have proposed making English a global language for education or anything else, and I think my life has been rendered poorer by the fact that because I speak English natively I have never been forced by circumstances to develop real fluency in a foreign language. But nobody placed me on the committee to decide on the global language for education. There was no committee.
And here is Victor Mair, writing at Language Log:
As to why Mandarin is very unlikely ever to displace English as the world language, it's the writing system, my friends.

"Chineasy? Not" "Chinese characters are not easy, neither for Chinese nor for non-Chinese. Chinese characters are hard."]

Now, if ever a true digraphia were to develop in China, Mandarin might have a fighting chance.

"Character amnesia and the emergence of digraphia" (see also here and here).

But I doubt that will ever happen. It seems that most Chinese people would sooner learn English than use Romanization to write Mandarin.
Actually, I've heard exactly the opposite.

A year ago, I talked to a high school graduate who had just spent a year in China.

He told me smartphones are causing the Chinese to switch to the Romanization system the phones use. Just because it's there, on the phone, and they use it all the time.

Is that true?

Does anyone know?


Commas, up and down

Ben Yagoda on commas coming and going:
An interesting Slate piece a few months back by Matthew J.X. Malady noted many Twitter users’ disdain for commas. It’s not just a matter of being frugal with punctuation in order to fit a thought into 140 characters. Punctuational minimalism has emerged as one of the hallmarks of casual online style—social media, texting, commenting, message boards. One inescapable example, which I’ve previously discussed, is the sea change in email greeting from “Hi, Name” to “Hi Name.” This is by no means exclusively the province of kids and illiterates....(Exceptions to the minimalism rule are ellipses, question marks, and exclamation points, which have spread online like Asian carp in a predator-free freshwater ecosystem.)

Skilled Twitter users drop commas, in particular, to punch up the comedy. Malady quoted a tweet by the writer Jen Doll on a day that Gmail went down for almost an hour: “I guess all those losers outside skiing or like at the movies or whatever missed out on this exciting adventure we just had.”


In certain quarters, the trend, if anything, is more commas. Dropping the suspense, the quarters I refer to are the offices of The New Yorker, the soon-to-be-90-year-old magazine that is the veritable St. Peter’s Basilica of the comma. For The New Yorker, using this punctuation mark in all generally accepted and even optional spots, including after the penultimate item in a series, goes without saying. The magazine’s secret sauce in generating commas is its extreme strict constructionist view of nonessential (also known as nondefining) elements in a sentence. Consider: “By the time Blockbuster got around to offering its own online subscription service, in 2004, it was too late.” Virtually everybody else would leave out the commas after “service.” The New Yorker insists on it, the logic being that otherwise, the writer would be implying that Blockbuster offered its own online subscription service in years other than 2004.

Some people count sheep to get to sleep. I lie in bed reading New Yorkers on my Kindle, counting the commas. Normally, six or seven in a sentence is a number that allows me to close my eyes and drift off. Imagine my surprise, a couple of months ago, when I came upon this, in a review of a book about William Burroughs.
The biography, after its eventful start, becomes rather like an odyssey by subway in the confines of Burroughs’s self-absorption, with connecting stops in New York, where he lived, in the late nineteen-seventies, on the Bowery, in the locker room of a former Y.M.C.A., and, returning to the Midwest, in the congenial university town of Lawrence, Kansas, where he spent his last sixteen years, and where he died, of a heart attack, in 1997, at the age of eighty-three.
That’s right. Sixteen commas. I had the feeling that the magazine’s editors were having a laugh among themselves, which I was lucky enough to share in.

I think so much about New Yorker commas that sometimes my head gets all in a spin, especially when pondering what I call the prepositional-phrase conundrum. It comes up in a series of prepositional phrases (as in Burroughs’s New York and Kansas experiences, above) or with verb-prepositional-phrase constructions, in cases where the verb is not preceded by a subordinate conjunction, such as the two “where”s in the Burroughs example. Consider these fairly recent quotes from the magazine:
  1. “It first appeared in 1959, in Paris, as ‘The Naked Lunch’ (with the definite article), in an Olympia Press paperback edition, in company with ‘Lolita,’ ‘The Ginger Man,’ and ‘Sexus.’”
  2. “Brigham’s Allentown and Pittsburgh clinics finally closed, in 2012.”
  3. Robert Frost “was born in 1874 in San Francisco, where his father, William Frost, a newspaperman from primeval New England stock, had taken a job.”
No. 1 (also from the Burroughs review) omits a comma after “appeared.” Presumably that’s because “in 1959″ is considered an essential element, as is “in 1974″ in example No. 3. But why? There was only one year that Naked Lunch first appeared, as there was only one year Robert Frost was born. And sure enough, in example No. 2, recognizing there was only one year that the clinics finally closed, the magazine’s copy desk kept or put in the comma.

But down that road leads madness. Abraham Lincoln died just one time, but even The New Yorker would never print the sentence, “Lincoln died, in 1865.”

Or, would it?

The Commas Suit Ya by Ben Yagoda 4/29/2014
I've been thinking about New Yorker commas ever since reading an excerpt from Mary Norris's Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen, a book I'm going to be buying as soon as I finish writing mine.

Friday, May 29, 2015

Math in the real world

Excerpt from:
Multiple Numeric Competencies: When a Number Is Not Just a Number
by Ellen Peters & Par Bjalkebring
Journal of Personality and Social Psychology
May 2015, Vol. 108, No. 5, 802–822
Jeff is a friend of one of the authors and a highly skilled carpenter who claims he is “no good at math.” He excels, however, at estimating the angles, lengths, and areas that are critical to his craft. Ruth, a smart and personable woman in her 70s, broke down crying while attempting to answer questions about numeric data in a Medicare insurance choice experiment. She explained through tears that she was “not a numbers person” and that her husband always did such tasks for them until his death 2 years prior. Numbers were fraught with emotion for her. Individuals like Jeff and Ruth are common. Although students often ask why they should learn math and whether it will ever be useful, Jeff and Ruth provide examples of the importance of everyday math, belief in one’s numeric ability, and (in Jeff’s case) how compensatory numeric skills might exist.

Making good choices in life often involves understanding and using numeric information (Hibbard, Peters, Slovic, Finucane, & Tusler, 2001; Thaler & Sunstein, 2003; Woloshin, Schwarz, & Welch, 2004). Choosing the best health insurance involves calculating likely annual costs from monthly premiums, deductibles, and office and pharmacy copayments. Making an informed decision about a medical treatment or screening option requires understanding risk and benefit information (including their probabilistic nature). Such numeric data are provided to facilitate informed choices, but numbers can be confusing and difficult for even the most motivated and skilled individuals, and these issues are exacerbated among the less numerate. In the present article, we explore the value of explicitly considering multiple measures of numeric competence—objective numeracy, subjective numeracy, and the mapping of symbolic numbers. We review their likely interrelations, test their possible dissociable roles in evaluations and decision processes, and consider future directions in personality and social-psychological processes.
I find the image of a woman in her 70s crying over math profoundly sad.

I guess that's what I was trying to say about my years reteaching math at home--about not getting what I wanted, but getting what I needed instead. (scroll down to end of post)

After all the crying shouting over math around here during the middle years, I'm pretty sure I managed to raise a child who does not, at this point, define himself as "no good at math."

It wasn't easy.

But it was definitely fun.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Books are better

On NPR this morning:

The book also has fans from other unexpected quarters. David Gelernter, a professor of computer science at Yale, pioneered advances like "parallel computation," yet he admires the brilliant design of the codex. "It's an inspiration of the very first order. ... It's made to fit human hands and human eyes and human laps in the way that computers are not," he says, wondering aloud why some are in such a rush to discard a technology that has endured for centuries. "It's not as if books have lost an argument. The problem is there hasn't been an argument. Technology always gets a free pass. ... [People] take it for granted that if the technology is new it must be better."

As far as I can tell, the reason inferior technology wins inside schools isn't that "people" take it for granted. 

The reason is that tech companies sell to schools who force iPads and Chromebooks on families and taxpayers.

That's certainly been my experience here.

Monday, May 25, 2015

Art Garfunkel, thinking in proportions

In the Telegraph:
[Art Garfunkel] also does a lot of mathematics, having read it as a student at Columbia. “I’m precise. I think in proportions. I play games with numbers and I proportionalise. I imagine we have now done 1/8th of our interview.” I check my watch.

He even took a job as a maths teacher at one point, in the Seventies, despite being a world famous pop star.

“I’d just got married and moved to Connecticut, and there was a nearby preparatory school and so I taught math there. It was a weird stage of my life, to leave Simon & Garfunkel at the height of our success and become a math teacher. I would talk them through a math problem and ask if anyone had any questions and they would say: “What were the Beatles like?”


When he drifts off back to the lifts, singing to himself again, I check my watch. Turns out his mental clock, when he guessed how far we were through the interview, was exactly right.

Art Garfunkel on Paul Simon: 'I created a monster'
By Nigel Farndale | 10:25PM BST 24 May 2015

Sunday, May 24, 2015

How to Google stuff when you don't know anything

I've been joking with some of my friends about how exactly you would Google stuff when you don't know anything about the subject you're Googling.

Take history.

How do you Google history when you don't know any history?

What is your question?

"Did something bad happen one hundred years ago that I should know about?"

Robert Shiller has a really bad idea

In the Times today:
Most people complete the majority of their formal education by their early 20s and expect to draw on it for the better part of a century. But a computer can learn in seconds most of the factual information that people get in high school and college, and there will be a great many generations of new computers and robots, improving at an exponential rate, before one long human lifetime has passed.

Two strains of thought seem to dominate the effort to deal with this problem. The first is that we teachers should define and provide to our students a certain kind of general, flexible, insight-bearing human learning that, we hope, cannot be replaced by computers. The second is that we need to make education more business-oriented, teaching about the real world and enabling a creative entrepreneurial process that, presumably, computers cannot duplicate. These two ideas are not necessarily in conflict.

What to Learn in College to Stay One Step Ahead of Computers by Robert J. Shiller | May 22, 2015
Number 1: General, flexible, insight-bearing human learning in the sense of "critical thinking" does not exist, and you would know this if you troubled yourself to dip into the relevant research in cognitive science before writing an op-ed for the New York Times.

Number 2: We already know what type of education produces general-flexible-insight-bearing-human-learning, and that is liberal education, precisely the kind of education Shiller is argues we should abandon because computers. Liberal education gives students a broad foundation in history, literature, science, math, and the social sciences, which they can then draw upon for a lifetime. I am living proof. I'm still using my Wellesley/Dartmouth education in psychology to write books about the brain. I learned nothing about the brain in college, but I can write about the brain today because I learned some fundamentals of biology, math, and psychology.

Number 3: New computers and robots don't invent themselves. If students don't study computer science in college and graduate school, there aren't going to be any new generations of computers and robots.

Speaking of which, Ed attended the Masters graduation ceremony at NYU last week. Every student receiving a degree in math was Asian, and all seemed to be Asian-Asian, not Asian American. Same with computer science.

Number 4: Business-oriented...real world...creative entrepreneurial process.... This is exactly what public schools have now moved on to. (In my district, Common Core has been swallowed whole by Tony Wagner, and I see the same process elsewhere.)

Why spend another four years, not to mention many thousands of dollars in tuition, room, and board, doing more of the same in college? Surely 13 years of pretend entrepreneurialism is sufficient.

Which reminds me.

C. took a marketing course this semester.

I was excited. I wanted to learn what there is to learn about marketing, too, and I figured I would.


The course had no textbook, just case studies, which I never did manage to get my hands on. The class seems to have learned something about loss aversion, and also something about not dissing your initial contact at a hospital you're trying to sell major medical equipment to. Beyond that, nothing seems to have made much of an impression (which is not true with C.'s traditional liberal arts courses in history and literature).

As their final assignment for the course, students did a group project. C's group did theirs on tampons. (He was the only male in the group. So: tampons.)

The course did afford me one moment of joy.

C. came home and reported that the professor had given the class a marketing algorithm.

(Did I ever tell you that I taught C. to remember "algorithm" by having him recall "Al Gore has no rhythm"?)

The marketing class was mostly girls, and not one of them was having anything to do with the  algorithm. Not one. They wouldn't touch an algorithm with a 10-foot pole.

Not C.! Not only did C. deploy the algorithm--and with some alacrity, too--he was mildly scandalized by the fact that the rest of the class did not.

Also gratifying: C. seemed to have a pretty clear perception that There but for the grace of God go I. Sometimes having a mother who spends four years of her life reteaching the entire math curriculum at home comes in handy.

I've been savoring the moment ever since. My years of afterschooling didn't achieve what I wanted them to, but they did do what I needed them to. C. didn't make it to calculus (that's another whole story), but he is today a young adult who is on reasonably good terms with mathematics, and who will be able and willing to learn whatever math he needs to learn as an adult.

Other famous people with really bad ideas:
Kofi Annan
David Brooks
The Daily
Barry Eichengreen
Reed Hastings
President Obama
Larry Summers