Wednesday, March 26, 2008

The Tuition Game

I have a column in today's USA Today called "The Tuition Game." The piece talks about recent big changes in financial aid at some elite colleges, and the self-help requirement. My point is basically that -- given the size of endowments at elite universities these days, and their newly generous aid packages -- it's interesting that these colleges still drum students themselves for token contributions. Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Stanford, etc., all require that kids on financial aid work 7-12 hours per week, and often over the summer, to contribute financially to their own education.

Let me say right up front that there is absolutely nothing wrong with this. One of the reasons I think kids don't take high school so seriously is they don't have to work to pay for it. I fully approve of kids working while going to college. But given that elite colleges don't need the money a kid working 10 hours a week will cough up, it's important to realize that this is a philosophical choice more than anything else. Elite colleges believe that kids on financial aid should work in the cafeteria, answer phones at the campus center, deliver newspapers, or whatever other jobs are available on campus in order to earn their keep.

But if Harvard, Yale, and the others believe it's good for kids on aid to work to pay for their education, why don't they think all kids should work for their education? One of the biggest benefits of an elite education is the connections you forge with classmates during non-class hours. If kids on aid are working all the time, and wealthier kids are not, it contributes to an already-too-prevalent class divide on elite campuses.

I'd like to see these elite colleges require everyone to work to earn their keep. There's no reason not to; tuition represents only about 60% of the cost of a student's education at private universities, so every student is -- to some degree-- on financial aid. I see no reason that there should be a distinction between kids on obvious financial aid and those on less obvious aid. Furthermore, private colleges can ask for whatever they want. They could require all students to learn origami for graduation if they felt like it. You can always go elsewhere.

For an example of a college that does have a work requirement, I highlight Berea College in Kentucky. This fascinating institution has less of a class divide issue because, well, all students are from families earning less than about $50,000 a year. The college charges no tuition, and to keep costs low, asks all students to work what comes out to about 10-15 hours a week. Berea administrators have found that this requirement boosts community and keeps students academically engaged. On the whole, I think those are pretty good outcomes.

Monday, March 24, 2008

A birthday party for a budding scientist

I subscribe to a rather humorous number of magazines, one of which, Cookie, is extremely humorous in its own right. Written for a small, urban demographic of well-to-do moms, it's full of tips on taking your kids to Sweden, dressing them in Kenneth Cole, and sporting Tod's or Chanel rain boots yourself when school drop-off time looks like it will be a bit overcast.

Of course, moms who take the kids to Sweden will not be content to merely send the kids to Chuck E. Cheese's for a birthday party. They want something a little more fun, authentic, and possibly educational. Which leads me to the way-cool "Good Chemistry" birthday party idea featured in the April issue, which even families who aren't into Chanel rain boots will enjoy.

We start with the outfits. Cookie recommends handing out safety glasses ($6 from and lab coats ($24 with embroidered names from Kids can sip juice from flasks ($3.50 from They can also eat Jell-O made in Petri dishes ($5.50 for 20 from As Cookie explains, "Jell-O is a scientific wonder in itself...gelatin powder is made of long molecule chains. When you add hot water, those chains break. But as the mixture cools, the molecules rebond around pockets of water, resulting in that wiggly consistency."

No lab party is complete without goo and other crazy substances, so Cookie recommends setting up three "experiments." The first involves making snow from polymers that expand in liquid (purchase Insta-Snow Powder from You can also make slime -- a non-Newtonian fluid which can behave like both a liquid and a solid -- from the Atomic Shaker Slime kit (also from To make test-tube lava lamps, order jumbo test tubes from the same Steve Spangler Science, and fill halfway with water, and halfway with vegetable oil (perhaps squeezed from wash bottles; $2.25 each at Drop in Alka-Seltzer and food coloring and watch what happens.

A little over a year ago on this blog, we discussed the decline of home chemistry sets. Many scientists got their start by blowing things up in their garages, something that -- in this age of liability and worries about crystal meth labs -- is becoming increasingly rare. I'm not saying that you need strong oxidizers to make a good party, and certainly making goo isn't particularly intense as science lessons go. But kids don't get to do much hands-on these days in school, and there's always this idea that science is this strange, slightly dangerous foreign thing. A birthday party like this makes it cool. So kudos to Cookie for sharing the idea.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Intel, part 2

An article in the New York Times from two weeks ago confirms that contests such as the Intel Science Talent Search actually do inspire high schools to beef up their science offerings -- including their laboratory offerings. One might expect this in top-notch districts with buckets of extra money. But, in fact, Intel is even sparking such a renaissance in less well-to-do districts. You can read the article, "A Science Prodigy in an Unlikely Place," here.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Seeking Intel/Westinghouse Winners and Finalists

Last week, Intel and the Society for Science and the Public announced the winners of the 2008 Intel Talent Search. You can read the announcement here.

(A few of these folks are familiar faces to those who have been following the Davidson Fellows awards over the past few years. First place winner Shivani Sud was a 2006 Davidson Fellow Laureate, and second place winner Graham Van Schaik was a 2007 Davidson Fellow who received a $10,000 award).

Over the past several years, awards like Intel and Davidson have changed the name of the game when it comes to high school science projects. Suffice to say, the vinegar and baking soda volcano won't cut it anymore... The existence of these awards creates incentives for high school students to do independent lab-based research. Hopefully many will leverage the experience to continue in science research-based careers.

Which leads me to my main point on this blog post -- what are former Intel (or Westinghouse, who used to sponsor the competition) winners up to these days? I suppose some are in science. Some are probably working in finance or consulting. Some are probably caring for children, and some are doing other things. The Society for Science and the Public website lists the winners back to 1998, but I suspect that -- academic training taking as long as it does these days -- many of these folks are still in school. I would love to track down some Westinghouse winners from earlier days. What have they learned about building a scientific career after their initial success? What are the joys and woes of science -- or if they left science, why did they do so? What advice would they give to young scientists? What was good and bad about the way they learned science in school?

If anyone has any information on finding former winners and finalists, or if you are one, please email me at lvanderkam at yahoo dot com. Thanks!

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Tracking: The Kenyan Experience

"Tracking," or "Ability Grouping," or "Readiness Grouping" as we sometimes call it here, is a controversial subject. While most schools engage in it to some extent (at least for reading groups and math), many educators aren't entirely comfortable with its broad use. The "diamond in the rough" concept is deeply ingrained in the American imagination, and people worry that an unpolished kid consigned to the Vo-Tech track will be forever limited in his achievements by the distinction.

So I'm always interested to see studies that examine whether tracking has a negative effect on children assigned to the "slower" track. The answer, according to one recent study of Kenyan school children, is a resounding no. In fact, not only do students in both higher and lower tracks do better on tests than their peers in heterogeneous classrooms, the teachers are actually more likely to show up for class.

This fascinating finding is part of a larger study looking at all sorts of school reform ideas that occasionally gain followings here in the US as well. For instance, in Kenya, reducing class size in and of itself did not boost test scores (though to be fair, the reduction was from 80 students to 40 per teacher -- a reduction to, say, 15, might have produced more results). However, reducing class size, coupled with instituting a 2-track system, raised test scores by 0.25 to 0.31 standard deviations, and not just in the upper track. "Both lower and higher achieving students benefited from tracking," the paper notes. Indeed, students in the lower track were more likely to be promoted to the next grade than their peers in the non-tracked classrooms.

The paper also puts to rest a worry about kids right on the dividing line between tracks. Students who scored in the 5th or 6th deciles (meaning the margin of error on their scores could have put them in either track) improved equally well whichever track they were assigned to, compared with their heterogeneously grouped peers. "The average quality of peers does not appear to matter, while homogeneity does," the authors write.

Perhaps one of the reasons kids learned more in the tracked classes is that the teachers actually showed up in the classrooms more often. From the data in the study, it sounds like Kenya has a reasonable problem with absenteeism in its schools. But civil service teachers were 8.6 percentage points more likely to be in class teaching in tracked schools than in non-tracked schools. "One interpretation is that teaching is easier and thus more pleasant when students have less heterogeneous levels of academic preparation," the authors postulate.

As we've discussed on this blog before, excellent, professional, brilliant teachers can teach a class of kids at various levels, and achieve great results for most of them. Unfortunately, excellent, professional, brilliant teachers are not as numerous as we might like for a variety of reasons including pay, training, working conditions, etc. Merely decent teachers have a harder time teaching kids whose readiness levels span the full bell curve. Teaching kids of vastly differing levels is frustrating and exhausting. In Kenya, the response is to not show up. In American schools, the result can be disengagement and mediocre results.

All of which leads me to this conclusion: It's one thing for de-trackers to talk about some ideal world where our learning communities are little democracies where students learn collaboratively and bring along slower learners out of a sense of shared responsibility. But most of us live in the real world. And the reality is that tracking fails better. If you get a mediocre teacher, you can still get OK results. That's what the Kenyan experiment found.

Friday, March 07, 2008

Math Doesn't Suck!

So this week I found myself reading actress and mathematician Danica McKellar's new book, Math Doesn't Suck: How to Survive Middle School Math without Losing Your Mind or Breaking a Nail. I am not entirely sure what to think of it.

The cheery blue cover (and cute photo of the lovely Ms. McKellar, of Wonder Years and West Wing fame) bears a striking resemblance to Teen magazine. Cover lines scream "Are you a math-o-phobe? Take this quiz!" "Horoscope inside!" and "Do you still have a crush on him?" This last line is somewhat misleading; there is very little about crushes covered in this book. The crush reference comes from an intro to the Greatest Common Factor section, in which McKellar notes that often times, it seems like you have a crush on one guy and then...a few months later you have a crush on another guy who actually has a lot in common with the first guy. OHMIGOD!! This is kind of like math, because numbers have a lot of factors in common too and...

Math Doesn't Suck continues on in this fashion as it covers decimals and percents, fractions, basic algebra, etc. There are various drawings and notes interspersed throughout; repeated "What Do You Have to Say?" text boxes contain such assurances as "Smart girls are cool. They are generally fun to be around and good to have conversations with," -- Mackenzie, 19.

Overall, the book is fun and, as UCLA math prof Veeravalli Varadarajan notes on the back cover, "A brilliant and successful effort to bring a little glamour to the teaching of mathematics." There's nothing wrong with trying to make math accessible and interesting to girls. Math Doesn't Suck explains the reasoning behind problems and why these concepts make sense in the real world.

But there are also a few problems with this book. The biggie for me is... this is middle school math? One of the reasons we're so far behind other nations mathematically is that 7th and 8th graders are still learning fractions and percents. I maintain that reasonably bright kids should be able to learn pretty much all pre-algebra math by 6th grade. And yet, as this book shows, much of the middle school math curriculum around this country remains more about marking time than anything else. This is not McKellar's fault, but she could have thrown some more geometry, statistics, slightly higher level algebra, etc., into the mix.

The constant references to being "smart" or "dumb" are also annoying. As we've talked about on this blog before, there's a danger to talking much about kids' abilities as if they were fixed, unchanging labels. Kids who think of themselves as "smart" -- as a state of being -- become afraid of being "dumb." And so they don't like to try hard things. There's no reason to think that assurances to girls that it's OK to be smart should be exempted from this rule.

And a girl who never needed her math wrapped up in pink paper, I worry that this book will feed into the stereotype that girls are only interested in math insofar as it relates to horoscopes, crushes, babysitting, clothes, cell phones, etc. Someone who thought girls were not naturally good at math would not be dissuaded from that thought by a book offering constant reassurances that you can do this! Really! You're a smart girl! Math is OK!

That said, if Danica McKellar gets a few more girls interested in math, or helps kids understand concepts despite boring or incompetent teachers, then she will have done a real service. So I hope there's a lot of that going on. Heaven knows we need it.

Monday, March 03, 2008

Learning to Lie

The cover story of Feb. 18th’s New York Magazine (no, not the Lindsay Lohan one) is a fascinating look, by writer Po Bronson, on "Learning to Lie."

For all we value honesty, almost all children lie at some point. Bronson postulates that children learn this habit from their parents. They see us lie to telemarketers, lie to be polite when people give inappropriate gifts, lie to avoid conflict, etc. Research shows that fear of punishment does not make children lie less. Rather, they learn to lie less as they learn to think about how other people might feel – in other words, as they become socialized to be empathetic.

To curtail the habit, Bronson recommends making sure that even small lies are noticed, and assuring the child that telling the truth will be better (because you won’t react unreasonably). You should also avoid entrapping kids and putting them in positions to lie unnecessarily. Bronson recounts noticing his 3-and-a-half-year-old daughter scribbling on the dining room table with a washable marker. “Disapprovingly, I asked ‘Did you draw on the table, Thia?’ In the past, she would have answered honestly, but my tone gave away that she’d done something wrong. Immediately, I wished I could retract the question. I should have just reminded her not to write on the table, slipped newspaper under her coloring book, and washed the ink away. Instead, I had done just as [McGill University child development professor Victoria] Talwar had warned against. ‘No, I didn’t,’ my daughter said, lying to me for the first time.”

The article in general is worth a read, but most fascinating for our purposes is the link between intelligence and early lying. “Bright kids – those who do better on other academic indicators – are able to start lying at 2 or 3,” Bronson writes. The article quotes Talwar saying that “lying is related to intelligence.” While truthfulness is a virtue, lying requires skill. As Bronson notes, “A child who is going to lie must recognize the truth, intellectually conceive of an alternate reality, and be able to convincingly sell that new reality to someone else. Therefore, lying demands both advanced cognitive development and social skills that honesty simply doesn’t require… That puts parents in the position of being either damned or blessed, depending on how they choose to look at it. If your 4-year-old is a good liar, it’s a strong sign she’s got brains. And it’s the smart, savvy kid who’s most at risk of becoming a habitual liar.”

I’m curious if readers of this blog have found that to be the case. Are gifted toddlers capable of telling very tall tales? How do you stop them?