Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Dudeney's Honeycomb

The object of this puzzle by Henry Dudeney is to find the hidden proverb.

I'm thinking about doing a Puzzler's Guide to Problem Solving video on this, but I'm still working through the applicable heuristics.

Sunday, May 29, 2016

This is, of course, root beer and non-alcoholic wine

TFA's enrollment woes – the importance of putting numbers into context

[Originally posted at the statistics blog.]

This Washington Post piece by Emma Brown on the problems at Teach For America is interesting on a number of levels, definitely something you should take a look at if you've been following the story. [emphasis added]

Applications to Teach for America fell by 16 percent in 2016, marking the third consecutive year in which the organization — which places college graduates in some of the nation’s toughest classrooms — has seen its applicant pool shrink.


TFA received 37,000 applications in 2016, down from 57,000 in 2013 — a 35 percent dive in three years. It’s a sharp reversal for an organization that grew quickly during much of its 25-year history ["grew quickly" is certainly true in terms of budget, not so much in terms of members. See below -- MP], becoming a stalwart in education reform circles and a favorite among philanthropists.

Teach for America now boasts 50,000 corps members and alumni; some have stayed in the classroom and others have gone on to work in education in other ways, joining nonprofits, running for office and leading charter schools. Its alumni include some of most recognized names in public education, including D.C. Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson and her predecessor, Michelle Rhee.


The declining interest means that TFA is providing fewer corps members to school districts each year: The organization generally accepts about 10 percent of its applicant pool, and it refuses to lower its bar for admission, [Elisa Villanueva Beard, TFA’s chief executive] wrote. This year’s corps is likely to be several hundred smaller than last year’s.

“These shortfalls matter. Corps members are good at their work,” she wrote. “Our school and district partners want to hire far more of them than our current recruitment effort is producing.”

This certainly sounds like a big deal, but a few seconds on Google and some very quick, back of the envelope calculations reveal just how small these numbers are in relative terms.To put things in perspective, there are over 3 million full-time teachers. A drop of several hundred applicants won't be all that noticeable, even if all of them were going to high-need areas (and quite a few aren't).

As previously discussed, TFA is a minor player viewed as a supplier of teachers, but in terms of fundraising, it's a big deal.

From Wikipedia:

Year# of Applicants# of Incoming Corps Members# of RegionsOperating Budget

If all TFA did was recruit six thousand new teachers a year, there would be no way to justify these budgets, but of course, that was never the main focus. TFA is an advocacy group with a stated mission to "enlist, develop, and mobilize as many as possible of our nation's most promising future leaders to grow and strengthen the movement for educational equity and excellence." [again, emphasis added]

Though the organization is sometimes coy on the point, the focus has never been on leading from the classroom. The positions of real value are administrators, think-tank fellows, politicians, and education journalists, and the program is set up to help them rise to those spots, often at exceptional speed. We can go back and forth on whether a decline in the influence of TFA would be a good thing or a bad, but we probably don't need to worry about what the loss of "several hundred" prospective TFA members will do to the teaching pool.

Saturday, May 28, 2016

If we really want to close the achievement gap...

Perhaps the first step is simply making sure poor children receive adequate nutrition.

From Microeconomic Insights via Mark Thoma:

Adults who participated in the Food Stamp Program, renamed the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) in 2008, as children are healthier and better off financially than poverty-stricken families who did not have access to the program, according to findings in joint work with Douglas Almond and Diane Schanzenbach (this paper and a companion paper Almond, et al. 2011). Children with access were more likely as adults to graduate from high school, earn more, and rely less on government welfare programs as adults than impoverished children who did not have access to SNAP. Women, in particular, are substantially more likely to self-report they are in goffc905od health and are more economically self-sufficient in adulthood. We find no additional long-term health impacts for children from more exposure to the program during middle childhood, but individuals with access to food stamps before age 5 had measurably better health outcomes in adulthood with significant impacts for those in early childhood.

Friday, May 27, 2016

Remember that old saying about trying the same thing and expecting different results?

Here's an interesting one from Dean Dad that I've been meaning to go around to for a while:
In fact, students taking a class for the second time pass it at lower rates than students taking it the first time.  The third time at lower rates than the second.  With each new attempt, the percentage who pass gets lower.  (To be fair, the sample size gets pretty small once you hit really high numbers of attempts, so it’s hard to say if the percentage keeps going all the way to zero.  But it never reverses direction.)  You’d think it would get easier, but the data suggest otherwise.

It's possible that DD is being partially rhetorical with that part about expecting it to get easier (he's a smart guy, so my first impulse is to assume the best). Of course, it's generally true that reviewing material increases comprehension (particularly when there's a decent foundation to build on, something you usually don't have with students who failed the class before), but it's also true that approaches that have been tried twice and have failed both times are unlikely to succeed on their third try.

When I was teaching, I always tried to avoid simply repeating myself when students didn't understand what I had just said. The very fact that they were confused meant that I needed to try a different approach. If I were to become an administrator (and hell was frozen and pigs were flying and ... ), I would extend this way of thinking to the course level, first by collecting good diagnostic data and then by devising courses with different styles and instructional methods better suited to this population of students. This is one of the rare occasions where a MOOC might be my first choice.

a 102 year old bit of perspective

...From Sam Loyd

The problem with many of the education reform movement ideas is not so much that they're wrong, but that the reformers think they're the only ones to come up with them.