Monthly Archives: March 2012

What the Haves Have

If there is any question about meritocracy when it comes to educational resources for children, who have no say in their parents’ income level, look no further than this morning’s New York TimesAn article about the increased centrality of fundraising in private schools states:

Tuition, more than $40,000 at some schools, typically covers only 80 percent of the cost of educating a student. So schools need additional fund-raising to cover financial aid, maintain and expand facilities and broaden program offerings.

We also find that the state tuition pays only about 80% of the costs of our school’s program, with its various academic interventions and antipoverty initiatives.  But that tuition checks in at one-third the level cited in the article: $13,443.

The Haves don’t only benefit from more money spent on helpful adults, fancy technology and state of the art facilities; the main idea of the article is that private schools now as a matter of course incessantly research parents’ lives to determine how much money they could give to the fundraising campaign.  It does not mention giving by alumni and the tracking of their data by schools, but this practice is of a piece with parent data collection and usage.

Wouldn’t it be nice if all schools kept track of their alumni at such a high level?

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Lies, Obesity and Statistics

A friend of a friend posted on facebook:

What am I missing here? The article says: “According to the CDC, approximately 17 percent of American children are obese, which means their BMI lies in the ninety-fifth percentile or higher for their age and height.” Wouldn’t that mean that 5% of American children would be obese?

(The article in question was commentary on a Vogue article about putting a 7-year old girl on a diet, to which I won’t link because of profanity.)

I happen to share the commenter’s confusion; if the numbers are that far apart, shouldn’t the percentile table be recalculated?

The CDC might not think it’s necessary since the general public doesn’t seem to understand what percentiles are anyway.  (If you’re a math phobe reading this, check out the first paragraph of the Wikipedia entry for a brief and clear definition.)

Percentiles are by definition norm-referenced and not criterion-referenced.  In other words, the exact BMI or weight (or any other measure) required to be considered obese will change with the times as the population grows heavier, slimmer, or more or less healthy.

It’s just like grading on a curve.  If everyone were obese, we wouldn’t be able to use this definition to identify most obese people because they would be less obese than the ones who are labeled obese.

My sense is that most people reading the statement wouldn’t think twice.  The innumeracy!

In case you are interested in the recursiveness of this post, the answer is yes: this is commentary on a comment on an article commenting on another article.

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Brain Functioning & Math Anxiety

So the facts are in: a study by behavioral psychiatrists at Stanford has shown the links between elementary aged student self-reported math anxiety and brain functioning.

I’m not sure that this study proves much of anything, except that there is a biological component to math anxiety.  The amygdala, a part of the brain that is responsible for regulating fear and other heightened emotions, is overly active when solving math problems in children who report higher math anxiety.  Self-reported anxiety is also associated with lower performance in math, according to the study.

The study is described in an article on the Health Imaging website.

Which leaves one big question: Two trains 100 miles apart are heading toward each other at 50 miles per hour…

Any reaction?

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Response to Some Student Activism

http://www.harlemlink.org/documents/LettertoShamyah.pdf

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Hearing, Interrupted

State Senator Bill Perkins ruined the evening.

The occasion was the required public hearing on March 15 about a proposal to move fifth grade classes from Harlem Success Academy 2 and 3 into the buildings that Harlem Link shares with three other schools.

Because Perkins had to catch a train to Albany, the hearing facilitator from the New York City Department of Education (DOE) gave him the floor to start the proceedings.  Unfortunately, he set an angry, vitriolic and frankly unprofessional tone.  Rather than raise real concerns about process, transparency and the finer details of impact on schools, he decided to use the opportunity to grandstand. He whipped the crowd into a frenzy with baseless accusations about charter schools destroying public education and privatizers ripping off schoolchildren.  After he set the tone, a number of the adults spoke inappropriately throughout the night: screaming out of turn, gesturing angrily, name-calling and generally being disrespectful.

I’ve seen a lot worse in our community, but I have to say that this night was a special embarrassment because of what it taught the hundreds of children who were there.

PS 208, the Alain Locke Magnet School for Environmental Stewardship, had courageously invited its student body to attend the hearing.  The young scholars in their uniform green polo shirts sat in the front rows of the auditorium and watched as the senator spewed nonsense and then as other adults spoke and embarrassed themselves.  While some of the commenters followed the guidelines of respectful language and stayed within the rules of the hearing, on numerous occasions the DOE moderator had to stop the proceedings to remind the frothing grownups that there were children present and it was their duty to be good role models for the kids.  Perkins was long gone, when some of the crowd shouted down a six-year-old boy talking about Harlem Success, causing him to stop his speech midsentence and turn away crying.

Harlem Link parent Chantel Jackson made what was for me the most cogent point of the night.  Having a (superbly performing) daughter at Harlem Link, a godson at PS 208 and another young relative at Harlem Success, she pointed out that the schools shouldn’t be pointing fingers at each other but at the DOE.  It’s the DOE that is responsible for the equitable distribution of the educational resources that it owns.  And it’s the DOE that obscures the decision-making process so that it can decide things quietly and behind closed doors, limiting public participation to combustible three-hour shouting matches like the one on March 15.

I get it.  With 1.1 million schoolchildren and seemingly as many perspectives on how resources should be allocated, the DOE has an impossible job.  All of us at some point will have to hear bad news and deal with decisions with which we don’t agree.  But it would be a lot better if we had all of the information available to the decision makers in front of us when we heard of their verdicts.  In this case, the DOE did give the community the opportunity to ask questions and learn those facts, but unfortunately with Perkins setting the tone at the hearing, the relevant information was obscured.  And respect was shoved aside.

It wasn’t until the very end of the night, for example, when most of the kids and the other attendees were long gone, that we learned that the DOE had at least two other buildings in Districts 4 and 5 (where Harlem Success 2 and 3 are located) with enough available seats to be alternative placement sites next year.  But the facilitator was unable to fully answer questions about those sites and why they were not chosen, because he kept getting interrupted by some of the few members of the audience who were left.

Imagine if Perkins had started by saying, calmly and forcefully: “There are some real concerns about this proposal.  I urge the members of the public to ask pointed questions about these concerns and request as much information about the key facts as possible.  Do it respectfully and persistently, and we will get the answers we need.”  Of course, less shouting by Perkins would have meant he’d have less chance of getting on the evening news and that might add up to fewer votes.

The DOE complied with the new state law requiring that the department  provide more information about decisions that affect the sharing of school space, but by holding back key facts it did not live up to the spirit of this law or build the trust the law was designed to engender in the community.  So I’ll end by goading Perkins some more by quoting one of those private sector bankers he loves to hate: Greg Smith, who famously resigned from Goldman Sachs in The New York Times last week and thereby gave a lesson that the DOE would do well to learn:

“It astounds me how little senior management gets a basic truth: If clients don’t trust you they will eventually stop doing business with you. It doesn’t matter how smart you are.”

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