Monday, April 23, 2012

Disney World, and access to calculus and advanced math

I'm back from a week-long vacation at Disney World with my three small children. It was a lot of fun (if not exactly relaxing). My inner geek was on display, though, as I kept pondering the logistics of line management. Disney has huge crowds for the popular rides. In a keen bit of psychological insight, Disney understands that people tolerate waits better if there's transparency on time. The powers that be also know that some people detest lines enough that they will give something up (like complete flexibility) in order to be guaranteed a short wait. So all popular rides have two options: a stand-by line, with a posted wait time, and a "Fast Pass" option. To get a Fast Pass ticket, you go to a machine by the ride and insert your park pass. The ticket gives you an appointed window to show up in order to bypass the line. The catch is that there are only a certain number of Fast Pass tickets per day, and they are given out in chronological order. If you show up at 9am, you might get a fast pass time of 10am-11am. Show up at 1pm and your time window might be 8pm-9pm, with the downside that you probably can't get another fast pass ticket until you return yours to the ride in question. So you're shut out of other popular rides for the day, unless you wait in the 60-plus minute standby line.

Making best use of all this information involves optimizing various variables: how much you dislike lines, how long the lines actually are (often a function of time of day and day of week), and how much you care about this particular ride in comparison to other rides. For example, "Soarin'" is by far the best ride at Epcot. Our first day at Epcot, we got Fast Pass tickets for the ride for a roughly 8pm return. That was fine, because there weren't very many other popular rides at Epcot. Once we learned that Jasper really liked that ride, though, we showed up the next day when Epcot opened. He and I made a beeline for Soarin' and got on the first run. Meanwhile, my husband got us all Fast Passes for the 9:45-10:45 window. So we got to go on the ride twice with no wait. By the time we got on for the second time, the standby line was up at 30 minutes, and it hit 60 very shortly. Fast Passes sold out by afternoon.

Optimizing in a world of multiple variables is, of course, a real world application of math. Amusement parks are one thing, but many other fields make use of this knowledge as well: economics (and business forecasting in general), engineering, logistics. Not having a background in advanced math would make getting jobs in any of these fields rather difficult. That's why I was quite disturbed to read (in Marian Wright Edelman's Huffington Post column) about the results of the Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights survey of public schools in America. Edelman has her own opinions on tracking and funding that I don't share. But regardless, these are some disturbing statistics: "Fifty-five percent of the low-minority high schools surveyed offer calculus but only 29 percent of high-minority high schools do. Similarly, 82 percent of low-minority schools offer Algebra II compared to 65 percent of the high-minority schools."

While some enterprising students might take Algebra II or Calculus during the summer or petition the school for an online course (or do Khan Academy on their own), a school's course offerings pretty much set the tone for what a student is expected to know. That such a low percentage of high schools offer calculus -- and an appallingly low percentage of schools serving mostly minority kids -- does not bode well for a mathematically promising future. That's a far worse outcome than a 75-minute wait in the line for Space Mountain.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

A real breakthrough

In education circles, people like to use the word "breakthrough" a lot. It's to be expected, given that the space is a bit evangelical right now with people trying to come up with transformational ideas.

But what, really, would a breakthrough mean?

If we think about technology, breakthroughs tend to mean better performance for less cost. An iPhone does a lot of the stuff people use their computers for, but costs less and can travel in your pocket. A digitally-delivered magazine could have more interactive content, and not have all the distribution costs.

Viewed in that light, a real education breakthrough would mean something that raises achievement but also cuts costs from the current model.

I think that last part is going to be critical in the near future. It's no secret that many state budgets have suffered a lot in the last few years, and also that the political interest in raising taxes is, well, minimal. Some states like California are already re-working their per pupil allotments and given the benefits and pensions costs that small class sizes will come with, this is likely not going to be sustainable long-term.

That's why many people are so excited about blended learning models -- doing digital/online learning for some coursework, and redeploying teachers as tutors. A teacher who can track students in real time and let them all work at their own pace can cover more students (with non-teachers running interference and doing crowd control). Most blended learning schools are pretty new. So we'll see if their cost structure turns out to be lower or not (particularly once all their equipment is taken into account). Few things in the history of education reform have turned out to lower costs.

Sustainable financing models might be another approach to lowering taxpayer costs. The Cristo Rey Network has thrived with its urban Catholic schools by having kids work one day a week as temps at local offices. It's interesting to think if there might be ways students could raise money for their own education at other schools. I don't know, but perhaps that will be the real breakthrough someday...

Monday, April 02, 2012

Self-publishing your kid's work

My mother sent me a link to a piece in the New York Times about parents employing self-publishing companies to print books of their children's work ("Young Writers Dazzle Publisher (Mom and Dad)"). Plenty of people are self-publishing these days to sidestep the gatekeepers of publishing houses, and it makes sense that some of these people are under age 18. As the article notes, parents think that this is a great way to reward creativity and encourage persistence. If your child has taken the time to crank out a 50,000 word novel, why not publish it? Kids can play amateur lacrosse and get recognized for it. Why not amateur literature?

Of course, as the article notes, these young authors then often try to get publicity for their books (all authors do! oh, do we try), and newspapers or TV news segments pick up on the "published author at age 14" part of it. But there is a major difference in achievement between having a commercial publisher pick up your work, and having parents who can pay $250-$2500 (depending on the package) publish your musings.

As my mother asked, "Should we have published your early writings? Actually, you were published without our doing it." Which is true. I entered short story contests, won them, and sometimes sent in my work to different places. I had a story published in a children's literary journal at one point in there. I had a ghost story read on the radio. Looking back on my own middle school and high school years, there were other projects that, if my parents and I had been more savvy people, could have made for better college application material. I wrote a "book" of a dozen-plus short stories in 10th grade. I also wrote a lot of different sonnets. That could have made for an interesting book of poems in iambic pentameter.

But I got into college anyway, and I think one thing that's helped me in my writing career is that much of it has been self-motivated. I was also pondering the other day that I'm grateful that the Internet didn't really come into power until I was pretty much writing professionally. My early stuff isn't out there. While some is good or at least salvageable, much of it suffers from the usual problems of early writing. There are very few literary wunderkinds. The older I get, looking back at some novels stuck in a drawer, I realize that one has a better understanding of the human condition the more you live as an actual, you know, human. You can't wait forever to write your opus. We get better the more we write, and one way to get better is to get your stuff out there and get it criticized. But it helps to go through gatekeepers too. Sometimes they're there for a reason.

One middle ground the article suggested is to pay to have your kid's work put through the wringer by a professional editor. Now that is an idea I like.

Would you self-publish your children's writings? Jasper shows a lot of interest in writing. If he starts writing stories, should I pay to publish them?