Study of Mathematically Precocious Youth

Friday, April 18th, 2014

The Study of Mathematically Precocious Youth looks at children who took the SAT and scored well at a young age (13 or younger). In the first year, they looked only at math scores. When they broadened their scope, they kept the original name.

Today, many of these precocious youths have grown up to become CEOs, professors at top research universities, transplant surgeons, successful novelists, etc.

Lubinski’s unusually successful cohort was also a lucky group from the start—they participated in the study in the first place because their parents or teachers encouraged them to take the SAT at age 12. Previous research into gifted children has shown that many, or even most of them, aren’t so lucky: They aren’t identified early, and they don’t necessarily get special attention from their schools. Even among Study of Mathematically Precocious Youth participants, the Vanderbilt researchers have previously found that those who weren’t challenged in school were less likely to live up to the potential indicated by their test scores. Other research has shown that under-stimulated gifted students quickly become bored and frustrated—especially if they come from low-income families that are not equipped to provide them with enrichment outside of school.

Tax dollars disproportionately go to help kids with learning disabilities and other disadvantages:

In 2002, President George W. Bush signed the No Child Left Behind Act, which penalizes public schools that don’t bring the lowest-performing students up to grade level. The federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act regulates special education and provides schools with more than $11 billion annually. A provision of federal education law called Title I allocates some $14 billion to schools that have a higher proportion of students from low-income families, to pay for programs designed to keep them from falling behind.

Helping gifted kids isn’t expensive, and it gets results:

Two recent papers based on data from the Study of Mathematically Precocious Youth and published in the Journal of Educational Psychology found that, among young people with off-the-charts ability, those who had been given special accommodations—even modest ones, like being allowed to skip a grade, enroll in special classes, or take college-level courses in high school—went on to publish more academic papers, earn more patents, and pursue higher-level careers than their equally smart peers who didn’t have these opportunities. In one of the studies, the Vanderbilt researchers matched students who skipped a grade with a control group of similarly smart kids who didn’t. The grade-skippers, it turned out, were 60 percent more likely to earn doctorates or patents and more than twice as likely to get a PhD in science, math, or engineering.

“If you look at the control group” in the grade-skipping study, says Lubinski, “they’ll say, ‘The curriculum was moving too slow, I felt bored, I was frustrated.’ Those kids still do better than the norm, but the ones who have their developmental needs met, they do much better.”

But providing these smart kids with an education that matches their abilities is not as straightforward as it sounds. Politically, it raises the fraught question of whether our education system should be in the business of identifying and segregating elite students—an idea that has been tried and rejected before, for good reasons.

For good reasons? Oh, right, for good reasons. Nothing to see here. Move along.

Orbital Mechanics

Wednesday, April 16th, 2014

The latest xkcd comic, on orbital mechanics, reminds us how powerful simulations are as learning tools:

xkcd Orbital Mechanics

Los Angeles Public School Food Waste: $100,000 per Day

Tuesday, April 15th, 2014

Three-quarters of LAUSD students are Latino.

By coincidence, 80 percent of LAUSD students qualify for free or reduced-price meals. (They’re not just lunches anymore. LAUSD now offers free breakfast via its “Food for Thought” program.)

Federal rules — this is all federally funded — require that students take at least three items each day — including one fruit or vegetable — and that’s leading to kids throwing away $100,000 worth of food per day:

The extra produce costs school districts $5.4 million a day, with $3.8 million of that being tossed in the trash, according to national estimates based on a 2013 study of 15 Utah schools by researchers with Cornell University and Brigham Young University.

Other studies also have found significant waste, including 40% of all the lunches served in four Boston schools. In L.A. Unified, a forthcoming study of four middle schools has confirmed substantial waste and “significant student aversion to even selecting a fruit or vegetable serving,” according to McCarthy, who co-wrote it. He declined to provide further details until the study is published.

Yet federal rules bar schools from allowing people to take the uneaten food off campus. The school board voted to allow nonprofits to pick up extra food under the federal Good Samaritan food law that allows such actions to aid people in need. But Binkle said that not enough schools participate to solve the massive waste problem.

Teachers and parents have also complained about widespread waste in the Breakfast in the Classroom program, which requires L.A. Unified students to take all three items offered.

Nationally, the cost of wasted food overall — including milk, meats and grains — is estimated at more than $1 billion annually. A U.S. General Accountability Office survey released in January found that 48 of 50 states reported that food waste and higher costs have been their top challenges in rolling out the 2012 rules.

The massive amount of food dumped into the trash shows that the diverse students aren’t starving, Brenda Walker suggests, but see free-to-them meals as an entitlement.

Infant IQ Tests Predict Scores in School

Monday, April 14th, 2014

Twenty-five years ago, Gina Kolata of the New York Times reported on infant IQ tests that predicted later school performance:

The tests, which attempt to measure what babies remember, are based on the assumption that they will be more interested in stimuli they have not previously encountered. One test involves showing infants photographs or pictures and measuring how long they look at them. In theory, babies will look at a new stimulus for a longer time than one they remember having seen before. Babies that are likely to be below average in intelligence will remember fewer of the stimuli they have seen before.

Working independently, Dr. Bornstein and Susan Rose of Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York have found that a baby’s performance at age 4 months and 6 months on tests of visual memory correlate with I.Q. at 4 and 6 years of age. They used tests that they developed themselves but that are similar to those developed by Dr. Fagan. The predictions are independent of the parents’ education and income group, which also are correlated with I.Q.

The original article is full of fears that such tests might give already-advantaged children even more advantages.

Kenneth Change, also of the Times, revisits the original article:

For the most part, the validity of the Fagan test holds up. Indeed, Dr. Fagan (who died last August) and Dr. Holland revisited infants they had tested in the 1980s, and found that the Fagan scores were predictive of the I.Q. and academic achievement two decades later when these babies turned 21.

“It’s really good science,” said Scott Barry Kaufman, scientific director of the Imagination Institute at the University of Pennsylvania and the author of “Ungifted: Intelligence Redefined.”

But Dr. Fagan’s hope for widespread screening of infants has not come to pass. “There are some centers that have it,” Dr. Holland said. “It never came to be the kind of thing where it’s widely available.”

The trend is perhaps in the other direction, away from dividing young children by I.Q. and its surrogates out of concerns that the labels become self-fulfilling prophecies. Private schools in New York City, for example, have agreed to abandon intelligence tests for 4- and 5-year-old applicants.

This stands out:

For the last decade of his life, Dr. Fagan was unexpectedly drawn into the “genes versus environment” debate over intelligence after he found that babies from widely different cultural backgrounds performed equally well on his test. That, he argued, undercut the argument for a biological basis for the stark “achievement gap” between white and black children, or rich and poor.

Bryan Caplan on College, Signaling and Human Capital

Thursday, April 10th, 2014

Russ Roberts interviews Bryan Caplan on College, Signaling and Human Capital:

Bryan Caplan: So, in terms of the research, one very well-established fact that gets very little play is what’s called the ‘Sheepskin Effect’. So, we’ve sort of been touching on this point on how not finishing, starting college without finishing seems to raise earnings by only 10%, whereas it raises earnings by, seems to raise earnings by 83% if you do finish. So, this is actually part of a much more general fact, which is that a lot of the payoff for education comes from getting your degree. It comes from crossing the finish line. Right now, in the early decades of the signaling model, this fact was not well-established. And so there was a lively debate: Is there a sheepskin effect? Is there not a sheepskin effect? But until the sheepskin effect was well-established, when it was still in debate, almost everyone took for granted that a large sheepskin effect would show that signaling was important. Because otherwise, why would it be so important to just get over that finish line? So, in terms of the human capital model, it’s really puzzling. What is it, the last class that teaches you —

Russ Roberts: The capstone. It’s the capstone class. The whole idea.

Bryan Caplan: Yeah, the capstone class. So, like, why is it the person one [?] class short of graduation is only getting 10%, whereas if you finish that class you would get 83%?

Russ Roberts: Well, hang on. Two things. First of all, for those who are — I don’t know if this is a universally understood name, but a ‘sheepskin’ is another word for graduating college. ‘Getting your sheepskin.’ I don’t know the origin of that. Do you know it, Bryan?

Bryan Caplan: Yes. Yes, I do. So, it’s another word for ‘diploma.’ And the reason is diplomas used to be written on sheepskins, actually.

Russ Roberts: Oh, which is called, like, is it vellum? What’s it — there’s a name for sheepskin. What’s another name?

Bryan Caplan: Yeah, that sounds right.

Russ Roberts: I’m not sure that’s right. But I see what you are saying. It’s a form of ancient paper-like stuff. Um, so —

Bryan Caplan: Yes. So, anyway —

Russ Roberts: Hang on. My question is: Is 10% — you said the return is 10% if you don’t finish. Is it 10% if you go for —

Bryan Caplan: Yeah, the premium.

Russ Roberts: The premium. Sorry. The premium over high school students is over 10% if you don’t graduate. That is, attending college makes you a little more money relative to a high school graduate. Is that true if you go for one year, two years, three years? What you are claiming is, you might be claiming — if you go for 3 and a half semesters and you are 1 course short of graduation, you still only get 10%? Is that true?

Bryan Caplan: It’s a little more complicated than that. So, if you go and take a very close look at the data for college, you’ll see something like for the first year of college, that might increase, if you [?] essentially finish that, that might increase your earnings by 5-10%. Then year 2, maybe another 5-10%. Year 3 seems to give you nothing. And then it’s year 4 that gives you the remainder. Which is huge.

Russ Roberts: I guess the question would be —

Bryan Caplan: And we see that’s very similar for high school as well. So, like, 9th grade seems to give you a bit, 10th grade a bit; 11th grade seems to give you nothing at all; and then 12th grade, finishing that, getting a diploma, that’s what gives you a very big raise over what a high school dropout would earn.

Russ Roberts: Yeah. I guess the complication is that the people who do get, say, three and a half years into their college degree or one course short, why don’t they finish? And what does that tell you.

Bryan Caplan: [?] Exactly. Now you’re thinking like someone who believes in signaling. Now you’re saying, [?] asking, why didn’t this person finish? What is wrong with that person? Maybe they just had some bad luck. But also it suggests, look, in our society it’s expected that you finish; you [?] finished; there are a lot of different ways that you could have made up whatever problems that you had; so I’m nervous about you as an applicant. But let me go back to how the debate played out. So there was a long period when economists just weren’t sure if there was a sheepskin effect or how big it was. During that period everyone took for granted that a large sheepskin effect would show that signaling was important and the lack of one would at least undermine that. Now, in the late 1980s, early 1990s, it became totally clear that there were huge sheepskin effects — better data came along and several papers were published and they’ve never been challenged successfully. Not even challenged successfully — no one’s even tried to challenge them. The data are now so clear. But almost as soon as the evidence came in very strongly that sheepskin effects were very real and very large —

Russ Roberts: Let me guess —

Bryan Caplan: Then labor economists moved the goal posts and said, Well, that doesn’t really prove anything.

Russ Roberts: Of course not.

Bryan Caplan: And then they came up with some very sophisticated mathematical models where it wouldn’t have to prove anything. So, yes, well, you can come up with a model where it doesn’t prove anything, but that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t. In order to show that it — basically, in order to say that it doesn’t mean anything, you have to say, well, there’s got to be some totally unmeasurable difference between the people who just finish and the people who just don’t, and I can’t tell you what that thing is; and none of the things we actually measure worked; but that’s my story. Right? And when you know that these people making these arguments have been through the entire educational process; they finished at least three different degrees. To be a researcher on this, you finished your high school degree, you finished your bachelor’s degree, your master’s, probably your Ph.D. And for people like that to say, I’m totally unconvinced that it matters whether you actually get your degree and cross the finish line, to me it’s just insane. Like, you know very well, you were a student, you know that if you didn’t finish that would ruin your life and prevent you from getting this job. You know that. Everyone around you knew that. If you were to go and deny that to your fellow students and say, I’m not showing up for the final exam because what difference does it make? It makes a lot of difference. And it makes a lot of difference because people who don’t finish are quite different from people who do, and employers will hold it against you.

Russ Roberts: Yeah, it’s fascinating. Any other empirical evidence you want to cite that’s relevant besides the sheepskin effect?

Bryan Caplan: Sure. Well, so there is some abstruse research evidence that I could go over, but actually I’d rather focus on some arguments that — in a way I think there should be research on them although in a way they are too simple and clear to get a paper out of it. Like, here is one fact that I’ve often noticed. What do students do when a professor cancels class? They are happy. They cheer. And from a human capital point of view this is bizarre. Basically, the rest are saying, you know how you [?] for me to train me to be a better worker so you can do better in real life? Yeah. Well, I’m going to keep your money and I’m not going to give you the training. See ya’. That is effectively what the human capital model is saying is happening when a professor cancels class. On the other hand, so the signaling model says, well why don’t the why are the students happy? Because the employers will never know that you canceled class. What they are learning they are probably going to never need to know again. It’s not going to show up on their transcripts. If everybody learns less then this is not going to change the distribution of grades in all likelihood. So then students get an extra afternoon off and then it’s not going to affect their future. So, this is something that my 11-year-old sons who are fanatical about doing their homework, yet they are delighted with every snow day, say, why are you delighted? Well, it doesn’t disadvantage us compared to anyone else. Aren’t you worried you are going to need to know the stuff you didn’t learn? Even 11-year-olds, they’re cynical enough to go, yeah, right, like that’s ever going to happen. Kid, you appear deeply in the system and [?]

Russ Roberts: I fight off the urge to say, Well, Bryan, in your classes they cheer, but in my classes they weep. But I’m going to leave that out. I’m not going to say that. That would be cruel.

Bryan Caplan: Or here’s another one of my favorite debating points. Claim: Right now you can get the best education in the world for free if you want it. What am I talking about? Well, suppose you think Princeton is the best education in the world. You don’t need to apply; you don’t need to get admitted. All you do is move to Princeton and start attending classes. And in my experience, no one will stop you; no one will card you. If you go to the professor and say, I’m not a student here but I’m interested in your class, most professors get a tear in their eye: Someone actually wants to learn from me. But if you go and get this totally free Princeton education for four years, there is one thing you won’t have at the end: any proof you ever did it. Right. And if you consider — Deal A is you go to Princeton and you get a Princeton education with no record you ever did it, or you go to a much lower-ranked school where you admit you are getting a worse education but there is a record, which one is going to do more for your career? Almost everyone says, well, obviously the second one. The first one may make you an interesting person, may be a great experience, but employers aren’t going to care. They won’t believe you if there is no sign you were ever there. Whereas getting a bachelor’s degree by the book from Podunk State on the other hand, that actually, that gives you — it doesn’t give you nearly as much as getting a bachelor’s degree from Princeton but it gives you something that is real and tangible.

Why One Episode Of Game Of Thrones Is Worth A Thousand History Lessons

Wednesday, April 9th, 2014

It’s about time we introduced Game of Thrones to the school curriculum, Ed West suggests, because it would teach kids more about the realities of the past than they learn in their dumbed-down, politically correct history classes:

Although fantasy, George R.R. Martin’s books and the television adaption borrow heavily from English history, most especially the extremely violent 14th and 15th centuries. It’s Shakespeare with boobs and arterial spray.

For example, the premise at the end of series one, of an adolescent pretender taking on the Queen and her psychotic young son after his father has been beheaded, while his mother seeks to protect her two younger boys — that was the actual state of affairs in 1461. After the beheading of his father Richard, Duke of York, the 18-year-old Edward of March claimed the throne as Edward IV and destroyed the army of the Queen, Margaret of Anjou, while his mother Cecily Neville sent her young sons George and Richard to France for safety.

Like Robb Stark, Edward had the blood of the old kings of the north, through his mother’s family who claimed descent from the ruling house of Northumbria, one of the seven Anglo-Saxon kingdoms that was united under King Athelstan in the 10th century.

Game of Thrones also borrows from the Byzantines (the Greeks really did know how to set fire to water, and used the trick several times), the Spartans, the Crusades and various obscure eastern religions. But the core is the realm of England, and the real game of thrones in which a large proportion of the country’s aristocrats were slaughtered in a 30-year period of madness from 1455 to 1485.

Like Robb Stark, Edward IV came unstuck when he chose to marry for love, thereby alienating his powerful cousin Warwick Kingmaker who was arranging a marriage alliance with France. According to the romanticised chronicles of the time Edward set eyes on Elizabeth Woodville when the Lancastrian widow turned up at his hunting lodge to beg for her dead husband’s lands and he was so entranced by her beauty that he tried to rape her. I say ‘romantic’ — clearly ideals of romance in the 15th century were rather different to ours, but this is something that Thrones captures so much better than most historical fiction.

The moral structures we have today, based around the idea of the freedom of the individual and the universal rights of all men, were developing in the Christian West throughout the later medieval period but would not truly flourish until the 18th century. Today in much of the world western ideas about the individual are still alien because people think in terms of the clan, which is why it is so hard to export liberal democracy to countries like Somalia or Afghanistan. Foreign policy experts could do worse than watch Thrones and ask themselves: are the Dothraki ready for democracy? What do you reckon?

Most historical fiction basically features a protagonist with 21st century values wearing a codpiece; I gave up on the Tudors when Cardinal Wolsey started giving a lecture on why we needed a ‘European community’. Most people in Britain think the EU is a pretty stupid idea today; in the 16th century it would have been inconceivable, even if Wolsey’s Treaty of London talked about ‘perpetual peace’ in Europe (a peace that was broken almost immediately, because that’s how things were).

Even the most sympathetic characters in Thrones, and I won’t give any spoilers for season four, end up doing some appalling things in the later books, not because they’re villains but because that’s the way the world was then, and how it is for much of humanity today. Bloody awful.

History classes have changed over the years:

Whereas my father’s generation would have learned about the kings of England at school, the bloody battles and usurpations, the poisonings, the tortures and the love affairs, and King Harold getting shot in the eye, by the time I was taught the subject the sort of questions we were asked went along the lines of ‘How would the social changes experienced during the 15th century have impacted on a female weaver living in Norfolk?’ Or ‘Look at Source A and Source B; what differences can you spot and why might that have been? Anyway, children, next term we’ll be reading about the Nazis. Again.’

(Hat tip to HBD Chick.)

A Third World Country with First World Infrastructure

Friday, April 4th, 2014

Fred Reed’s Mexican wife, Violeta, describes the United States as a Third World country with a First World infrastructure:

Someone famously said that democracy lasts until the unworthy learn that they can vote themselves the treasury. Yes. More generally, until they learn that they can vote themselves everything. Here is the backbone of American domestic policy, if that is the right word for floundering narcissism. The inadequate and barely lettered, by weight of numbers, can simply declare themselves the equals of their betters (or should I say “there betters”?). They don’t have to accomplish anything. They simply assert that they have done it, or that doing it is elitist and therefore reprehensible. I have in mind things like reading, scoring at the level of sentience on the SAT, or lifting mortar rounds.

The reduction of American universities to the academic level of the comic book (or, as we now say, “graphic novel”) was of course preceded and made necessary by the mob’s desire for the trappings of education. The substance they find merely annoying. They have the votes, though, and pay the tuition. Thus they get what they want, a diploma, without having to subject their tiny minds to the oppressions of thought.

[...]

And in our fourth-stage democracy, everyone has to nod and agree. Is high-school calculus too hard for minorities? Why, get rid of it. Future engineers can count on their fingers just like Chinese engineers. If women can’t lift 175mm rounds, declare ammunition obsolete, or say that it weighs less. In wars today, you just push buttons anyway.

The Charter School Performance Breakout

Thursday, April 3rd, 2014

Do charter schools get results?

Initial assessments were mixed. In the early days, charter authorizing was very loose, nobody knew what worked best, and lots of weak schools were launched. The system has since tightened. In Washington, D.C., for instance, seven out of nine requests to open new charters are now turned down, and 41 charters have been closed for failing to produce good results.

Nationwide, 561 new charter schools opened last year, while 206 laggards were closed. Unlike conventional public schools, the charter system allows poorly performing schools to be squeezed out.

As charter operators have figured out how to succeed with children, they are doubling down on the best models. Successful charter schools have many distinctive features: longer school days and longer years, more flexibility and accountability for teachers and principals, higher expectations for students, more discipline and structure, more curricular innovation, more rigorous testing. Most charter growth today is coming from replication of the best schools. The rate of enrollment increase at high-performing networks is now 10 times what it is at single-campus “mom and pop” academies.

The combination of weak charters closing and strong charters replicating is having powerful effects. The first major assessment of charter schools by Stanford’s Center for Research on Educational Outcomes found their results to be extremely variable, and overall no better than conventional schools as of 2009. Its follow-up study several years later found that steady closures and their replacement by proven models had pushed charters ahead of conventional schools. In New York City, the average charter-school student now absorbs five months of extra learning a year in math, and one extra month in reading, compared with counterparts in conventional schools.

Other reviews show similar results, and performance advantages will accelerate in the near future. Charter schools tend to start small and then add one additional grade each year. Thus many charters in New York and elsewhere are just getting started with many children. As the schools mature, and weak performers continue to be replaced, charters will become even more effective.

But the results top charter schools are achieving are already striking. At KIPP, the largest chain of charters, 86% of all students are low-income, and 95% are African-American or Latino, yet 83% go to college. In New York City, one of the academies Mr. de Blasio has denied additional space to is Harlem’s highest-performing middle school, with its 97% minority fifth-graders ranking No. 1 in the state in math achievement. It and the 21 other schools in its charter network have passing rates on state math and reading tests more than twice the citywide average.

Judged by how far they move students from where they start, New York charter schools like Success Academies, Uncommon Schools, Democracy Prep and Achievement First—and others like them across the country—are now the highest-achieving schools in America. The oft-heard claim that charters perform no better than conventional schools on the whole is out of date and inaccurate.

Twin Studies

Thursday, April 3rd, 2014

In lieu of kidnapping twins, Dalton Conley explains, the way that researchers typically calculated how much a given trait — be that extraversion or earnings — was due to genetics was by comparing how alike identical twins were with respect to how alike (same sex) fraternal twins were: 

The logic is that the fraternal twins share half their genes on average and the identical twins share all of them, so the degree to which identical twins are more alike than their fraternal counterpart pairs reflects the genetic contribution to that trait.

If two-thirds of our kids’ chances in life were due to their family background, the field of behavioral genetics would have us believe that the vast lion’s share of that predictive power of family of origin was due to genetics.  According to these studies, about half of the variation in incomes or job situations was due to our genetic makeup.  And only about a sixth resulted from the household environment on which parents could exert some conscious influence.  The remaining one-third was a product of random events outside a family’s control: an inspiring teacher, a traumatic accident, or a lucky break at work.

I initially went into the field of genetics to prove these researchers wrong.  Genes couldn’t matter that much, I figured.  It just didn’t jive with what I saw around me: Siblings seemed so different from each other; I knew plenty of poor kids growing up that I could have imagined achieving great heights had they been reared in better circumstances; and, likewise, in my adulthood I had gotten to know plenty of folks who seemed to be of mediocre talent despite their huge paychecks.  Social environment had to count for more.  So I decided to go right after the geneticists’ core assumption.

That is, their nifty little calculation relies on one hugely problematic assumption known as the “equal environments assumption.”  Put in English, these researchers had to take as a given the notion that identical twins are not treated any more similarly to each other than fraternal twins are (and that identical twins don’t interact with each other more than fraternal twins do in ways that might affect the outcomes in question — i.e. that their mutual, reciprocal influence is no different than that of same gender fraternal twins).  Since in my own experience I often couldn’t even tell who was who in an identical twin set, it seemed obvious to me that identical twins were experiencing much more similar environments than fraternal twins were in ways that were not generalizable to us non-twins in the population, and thus the behavioral geneticists were inflating the effects of genes and correspondingly underestimating the impact of family environment.[2]

Determined to prove them wrong and save the day for social scientists, I thought of a trick that would have been unimaginable before the days of 23andme and the like: I would take the fraction of twins who thought they were identical when they were really fraternal (and vice versa) and run the same analysis on them.  If they thought they were fraternal twins their whole lives but the laboratory genetic test revealed they were actually identical, we could be sure that they weren’t raised with more similar environments because they had been (mistakenly) socialized as fraternal twins.  And ditto in reverse.  But when I ran these folks through the statistical models, the results didn’t refute the behavioral geneticists at all.  In fact, my models confirmed the high genetic heritability for everything from height to high school GPA to ADHD.

The Overprotected Kid

Wednesday, April 2nd, 2014

It’s hard to absorb how much childhood norms have shifted in just one generation, Hanna Rosin says:

Actions that would have been considered paranoid in the ’70s — walking third-graders to school, forbidding your kid to play ball in the street, going down the slide with your child in your lap — are now routine. In fact, they are the markers of good, responsible parenting. One very thorough study of “children’s independent mobility,” conducted in urban, suburban, and rural neighborhoods in the U.K., shows that in 1971, 80 percent of third-graders walked to school alone. By 1990, that measure had dropped to 9 percent, and now it’s even lower. When you ask parents why they are more protective than their parents were, they might answer that the world is more dangerous than it was when they were growing up. But this isn’t true, or at least not in the way that we think. For example, parents now routinely tell their children never to talk to strangers, even though all available evidence suggests that children have about the same (very slim) chance of being abducted by a stranger as they did a generation ago. Maybe the real question is, how did these fears come to have such a hold over us? And what have our children lost — and gained — as we’ve succumbed to them?

The irony is that our close attention to safety has not in fact made a tremendous difference in the number of accidents children have:

According to the National Electronic Injury Surveillance System, which monitors hospital visits, the frequency of emergency-room visits related to playground equipment, including home equipment, in 1980 was 156,000, or one visit per 1,452 Americans. In 2012, it was 271,475, or one per 1,156 Americans. The number of deaths hasn’t changed much either. From 2001 through 2008, the Consumer Product Safety Commission reported 100 deaths associated with playground equipment — an average of 13 a year, or 10 fewer than were reported in 1980. Head injuries, runaway motorcycles, a fatal fall onto a rock — most of the horrors Sweeney and Frost described all those years ago turn out to be freakishly rare, unexpected tragedies that no amount of safety-proofing can prevent.

Even rubber surfacing doesn’t seem to have made much of a difference in the real world. David Ball, a professor of risk management at Middlesex University, analyzed U.K. injury statistics and found that as in the U.S., there was no clear trend over time. “The advent of all these special surfaces for playgrounds has contributed very little, if anything at all, to the safety of children,” he told me. Ball has found some evidence that long-bone injuries, which are far more common than head injuries, are actually increasing. The best theory for that is “risk compensation” — kids don’t worry as much about falling on rubber, so they’re not as careful, and end up hurting themselves more often. The problem, says Ball, is that “we have come to think of accidents as preventable and not a natural part of life.”

There’s much, much more.

Staying Married for the Kids or Getting Divorced

Wednesday, April 2nd, 2014

Which is the lesser of two evils: staying married for the kids or getting divorced?

There are hundreds, if not thousands, of studies showing that kids from divorced families do worse on scores of outcomes. The problem with all of those research papers is that we can never know the counterfactual: What if those particular parents who divorced had actually stayed together? This would be an entirely different sample of folks from the parents who did in fact stay together — harkening back to Tolstoy’s famous dictum. No, we must confine our inquiry to the ones who did divorce in our sliver of the quantum universe. Would their kids really be better off if they had stayed together in some other quantum state — fighting and yelling and tiptoeing around?

The best study I know of that deals with this apples/oranges issue was by the cool hand of Jonathan Gruber, an MIT economist who examined changing divorce laws across the United States. He found that when states made divorce easier by instituting no-fault, just as New York did in the midst of my own marital split, divorce rates did in fact increase. More importantly, he showed that these kids — whose parents would have stayed together if divorce had still been more difficult — were worse off forty years later in terms of their educational attainment, their earnings, and the fate of their own marriages. Since he estimated these effects based on changes at the state level that had nothing to do with the characteristics of particular happy or unhappy couples, his study was the next best thing to a double-blind medical study that randomly dispensed divorce pills and placebos.

In fact, the way that divorce tended to disadvantage offspring(s) in Gruber’s study jibed with my own more qualitative research: In a 2003 book The Pecking Order, I deployed the term “Cinderella Effect” to argue that divorce didn’t have a universally good, neutral, or bad effect on offspring, but rather, its impact depended on the unique circumstances of the child. Namely, I found that the eldest female child was the most disadvantaged kid in the aftermath of a divorce because of the added, adult roles she tended to take on. While having to care for younger siblings in light of an absent parent and serving as the substitute partner of sorts to the remaining parent may be a maturing experience, it more often resulted in a child becoming resentful about having to grow up too fast and sacrifice his or her childhood autonomy for the sake of younger siblings and the family in general. Often these kids tried to escape the burdens of their family quickly — the same way Cinderella did — through marriage to Prince Charming. Indeed, Gruber found that the effect of divorce on lowering offspring education and earning levels, and raising their divorce rates worked through those offsprings’ own marital history. They tended to marry earlier than they would have had their parents stayed together. Earlier marriages tend to pull individuals away from additional education they might have otherwise pursued. That, in turn, depresses earnings in the long run. What’s more, as we all know, marrying younger means a higher risk of divorce.

Day Care vs. Home Care

Tuesday, April 1st, 2014

Dalton Conley, NYU sociologist, father, and author of Parentology: Everything You Wanted to Know about the Science of Raising Children but Were Too Exhausted to Ask looks at the academic results of day care by professionals versus home care by moms:

My reading of the “mommy wars” literature is that the secret variable that resolves many of the contradictory studies is social class. Namely, rather than it being good or bad per se for a mother to stay home with her young children, the effect seemed to depend on the socioeconomic status of the mother herself. The more time that highly educated mothers were with their kids — as opposed to sending them to day care — the better those children did on cognitive tests. But for less educated mothers, kids did better when they went off to preschool and other structured activities. Hence the big effects of Head Start and other such programs prepping low-income toddlers for K–12 schooling. But also the negative effects in Canada, for example, when universal pre-school was instituted.

How One College Boosted Female STEM Graduates

Monday, March 31st, 2014

Tiny Harvey Mudd College quadrupled its female computer-science graduates in just six years:

Maria Klawe, a former Princeton University engineering dean who became Mudd’s president that year, supported faculty members who wanted to make intro classes in computer science more interesting for freshmen who came in with non-technical backgrounds. They shifted the course content to practical applications, such as solving games and puzzles, and away from “the inner details of computers and software,” Dr. Klawe says. “They would model the spread of a disease, or program a robot who wants to find all the green Spam in a maze,” she says. The changes “turned computer science from one of the most despised courses to the most loved course in a single year,” Dr. Klawe says.

To counter the notion that computer science is a “geeky guy thing,” the school sent 40 to 60 women students annually to the Grace Hopper conference, which celebrates women in computing and exposed them to successful women in the field.

Dr. Klawe also took on psychological obstacles. Research shows women, more than men, see having to exert a lot of effort to pass STEM classes as a sign that they don’t belong, according to a 2012 study headed by Jessi L. Smith, an associate professor of psychology at Montana State University; women who are encouraged to see working hard as normal and expected are more likely to stick with STEM. The college president tackles the topic of self-doubt in her annual address to incoming freshmen.

Students who have “imposter fears,” who feel like a phony and live in fear of being exposed, aren’t alone, she says. “Whenever you take on something challenging and there are lots of people around you who seem like they’re really good at it, it’s not uncommon to doubt yourself,” she tells them. “That doesn’t mean you don’t belong. It’s just something that happens.”

In another move to dispel self-doubters, Harvey Mudd professors split introductory classes into three groups based on students’ previous experience; those with no previous computer-science exposure are placed in a different class from those who started programming at age 5, whose expertise can be intimidating to other students.

Females now make up about 45% of the college’s computer science grads, a percentage that reflects the male-female balance on campus as a whole, and is quadruple the 2006 figure.

Business Schools Flunk When CEOs Grade the Test

Thursday, March 27th, 2014

A new study from Hult International Business School shows that MBAs may be great with Excel and PowerPoint but not much else:

Hult International Business School interviewed 90 CEOs and other executives to get their take on the current state of business education, and found that the reviews are far from glowing. Respondents, from companies including Accenture, Unilever, and Liberty Mutual Insurance, said students lack self-awareness, can’t work in teams, have poor critical thinking skills and come up short on creativity.

The school initially planned to collect responses from 200 executives. “We were just hearing the same thing again and again. There was really no point in continuing the research much further,” says Hult President Stephen Hodges. He added that he was surprised by the consistency of those negative sentiments.

FSB Alpha Team Confidence Drills

Friday, March 21st, 2014

Americans have Delta Group. Russians have Alpha Group. In Alpha Group, they take their confidence drills to another level: