The Missing Institution

Tuesday, September 30th, 2014

There is no Jaime Escalante School of Mathematics Teaching, Michael Strong notes, but that’s the kind of missing institution we need to scale up quality instruction:

Teaching is fundamentally a performance art – real time interactions in chaotic and complex human situations. There are no institutions in our society that provide for an environment in which master practitioners of this performance art systematically transfer their expertise.


Imagine, instead, if Escalante had been a great martial arts teacher. He might have established his own school. Students from around the world would have flocked to learn directly from him. Gradually, some of his best students would open up their own schools. They would prominently display their lineage, the fact that they had studied directly with Escalante. People who were interested in becoming serious about a particular martial arts form would ask around to discover who were the best teachers. Those schools could charge a premium. Sometimes such schools would trace their lineage back through several generations of great teachers.

Becoming an Adult Prodigy

Tuesday, September 30th, 2014

Child prodigies get a lot of attention, Daniel Coyle says, but adult prodigies are even more impressive:

I’m talking about people in their thirties, forties, and beyond — people who are miles past any of the “learning windows” for talent, and who yet succeed in building fantastically high-performing skill sets.

People like Dr. Mary Hobson, who took up Russian at 56, and became a prize-winning translator. Or Gary Marcus, a neuroscientist who took up guitar at the age of 38 and taught himself to rock, or pool player Michael Reddick, or Dan McLaughlin, a 31-year-old who took up golf for the first time four years ago and now plays to an outstanding 3.3 handicap (and who also keeps track of his practice hours — 4,530 and counting, if you wanted to know).

We tend to explain adult prodigies with the same magical thinking as we use to explain child prodigies: they’re special. They always possessed hidden talents.

However, some new science is shedding light on the real reasons adults are able to successfully learn new skills, and exploding some myths in the process. You should check out this article from New Scientist if you want to go deeper. Or read Marcus’s book Guitar Zero, or How We Learn, by Benedict Carey.

The takeaway to all this is that adult prodigies succeed because they’re able to work past two fundamental barriers: 1) the wall of belief that they can’t do it; and 2) the grid of adult routines that keep them from spending time working intensively to improve skills.

Ivy League Admissions

Monday, September 29th, 2014

The most-read article in the history of the New Republic is not about war, politics, or great works of art, Steven Pinker notes, but about the admissions policies of a handful of elite universities:

At the admissions end, it’s common knowledge that Harvard selects at most 10 percent (some say 5 percent) of its students on the basis of academic merit. At an orientation session for new faculty, we were told that Harvard “wants to train the future leaders of the world, not the future academics of the world,” and that “We want to read about our student in Newsweek 20 years hence” (prompting the woman next to me to mutter, “Like the Unabomer”). The rest are selected “holistically,” based also on participation in athletics, the arts, charity, activism, travel, and, we inferred (Not in front of the children!), race, donations, and legacy status (since anything can be hidden behind the holistic fig leaf).


t would be an occasion for hilarity if anyone suggested that Harvard pick its graduate students, faculty, or president for their prowess in athletics or music, yet these people are certainly no shallower than our undergraduates. In any case, the stereotype is provably false. Camilla Benbow and David Lubinski have tracked a large sample of precocious teenagers identified solely by high performance on the SAT, and found that when they grew up, they not only excelled in academia, technology, medicine, and business, but won outsize recognition for their novels, plays, poems, paintings, sculptures, and productions in dance, music, and theater. A comparison to a Harvard freshman class would be like a match between the Harlem Globetrotters and the Washington Generals.

What about the rationalization that charitable extracurricular activities teach kids important lessons of moral engagement? There are reasons to be skeptical. A skilled professional I know had to turn down an important freelance assignment because of a recurring commitment to chauffeur her son to a resumé-building “social action” assignment required by his high school. This involved driving the boy for 45 minutes to a community center, cooling her heels while he sorted used clothing for charity, and driving him back — forgoing income which, judiciously donated, could have fed, clothed, and inoculated an African village. The dubious “lessons” of this forced labor as an overqualified ragpicker are that children are entitled to treat their mothers’ time as worth nothing, that you can make the world a better place by destroying economic value, and that the moral worth of an action should be measured by the conspicuousness of the sacrifice rather than the gain to the beneficiary.

Chinese Diving Training

Sunday, September 28th, 2014

Rett Larson is performance manager for EXOS-China in Shanghai, where he helps oversee and organize the Chinese Olympic team’s training. He shares 10 surprising truths from that talent hot-bed:

We mix ages like crazy: The juniors aren’t all lumped together like they are in most systems — instead, three-time Gold medalists train with top 10-year-olds. Each diving coach might be responsible for five athletes – three Olympic veterans and two juniors. The juniors get to mirror the elites all day, from training to eating to bedtimes. It also creates a sense of humility in the juniors, who have likely dominated in their provinces since they were six years old.

We spend most of our time working on super-basic dives: The Chinese have a higher training volume than the rest of the world – often more than 100 dives per day. But many of those dives are very basic. The first ten dives of the day might all be starting with your butt on the edge of the platform and falling into a simple dive. That’s it — and that’s the point.

We applaud spectacular failures: For the past decade China has won almost every competition by doing simple dives very, very well. Their technical proficiency is incredible because they practice longer and harder than any other country. But, they also know that they have to push themselves and innovate. You’ll see in the video a male diver attempting to be the first human to do four flips from the 10-meter board starting from a handstand. He doesn’t make it — spectacularly. What you don’t see is the ovation he gets from the rest of the team after his failed attempt.

We are obsessive about coaching every single rep: Each dive is given feedback, even the basic ones. A dozen coaches sit on the side of the pool and give immediate feedback on every dive that their athlete performs that day.

We avoid allowing our athletes to specialize in one discipline: The 10-meter platform divers won’t spend all day on the 10m board. They’ll have dives on the 3m, 5m, 6m, 7m, and even the springboards depending on what their coach wants them to work on. Each day the athletes receive a laminated sheet with their daily dives listed.

We accomplish our most important work outside of the pool: Chinese divers perform dry-land training better than anyone else in the world. If you ask the coaches — this is what has led to China’s dominance. As you’ll see in the video, their dryland training facilities are a Disneyland for divers. Like their dives in the pool, each athlete has a laminated sheet of dryland exercises that take them from the trampoline to the foam pit to the mats or to the runway to practice approaches. They move around the gym and are never on one piece of equipment for more than 20 minutes.

We seek lots of feedback from lots of coaches: As the athletes move around the dryland training area, they move into the zones of different coaches who offer a variety of corrections based on what their “coaching eye” sees. Chinese coaches all share a basic methodology so there’s no worry of conflicting messages being sent.

We use video as much as humanly (and technically) possible: In both the dryland facility and the pool there are closed circuit cameras that catch the dives being performed. After the athletes get out of the pool and receive feedback from the coach, they can look up on the huge monitors and see the dives for themselves.

We seek ways to establish team identity through sacrifice: No other Olympic team in the complex trains before 9 a.m. — but three days a week, our team rises early to train at six — because it’s a sacrifice. There’s no need to train at 6am instead of 9am. They do it because it’s inconvenient, and it creates an air of “we work harder than anyone else.”

We have way more fun than you might guess: Dryland training is a place where there is frequent playing around and laughing. The coaches let the athletes be kids. Now I’m not saying that it’s like a frat party (this is Communist China, after all), but compared to many teams I’ve worked with over the last 2.5 years in China, they have a good time.

Cultural Literacy and Common Core

Tuesday, September 23rd, 2014

At age 86, educational theorist E.D. Hirsch is finally being rehabilitated:

“It’s hard to feel like a guru,” he says, quietly. Then he offers a soft chuckle. “I’ve been a pariah for so long.”

It was back in 1987 that “Don” Hirsch, then English department head at the University of Virginia, published his first popular work, Cultural Literacy. The book proposed that all public schoolchildren should be provided with instruction aimed at familiarizing them with a wide variety of topics, including literature, geography, history, math, science, art and music, in order to have the background knowledge that would make them successful readers and learners. But the book, subtitled “What Every American Needs To Know,” quickly became famous not for its seven dense chapters of educational theory but for The List — a 63-page index of 5,000 essential subjects and concepts that Hirsch believed teachers should impart to their students, arrayed in alphabetical order: A.D., ad absurdum, adagio, Adam and Eve, Adams, John.


The liberals of America’s educational establishment, meanwhile, responded to Cultural Literacy as if it were a manifesto for what one called “a new cultural offensive” aimed at writing the common man out of history. The book, they insisted, was a traditionalist polemic that would replace higher-order thinking in the classroom with a dry-as-dust set of increasingly irrelevant names, dates and places. As for Hirsch, they saw him as little better than a lone reactionary trying to prevent the tide of multiculturalism from eroding the hegemony of the vanishing WASP.

Even now Hirsch can’t hide his irritation. The lifelong Democrat — “I’m practically a socialist,” he insists — was particularly rankled to find himself described by a Harvard education professor as “a neoconservative caricature of contemporary American education.” “I was,” he says, “inundated by irrationality.”

But the progressives, while dominant, have been unable to improve educational outcomes for low-income students, particularly African-Americans and Latinos, and today, liberal educators and politicians are giving Hirsch’s ideas a second, much more admiring look. Many now support a set of grade-specific guidelines developed by the National Governors Association in 2009 known as the Common Core State Standards. Hirsch didn’t write the Common Core, but the guidelines match the expectations set forth in the rigorous public school curricula Hirsch developed with his Core Knowledge Foundation, and he is credited with laying the intellectual groundwork.

“He showed the fundamental importance that knowledge plays to develop the foundations of literacy,” says David Coleman, one of the chief architects of the Common Core, who calls Hirsch’s research “absolutely foundational.”

Hirsch himself started in public schools until a prolonged illness led him to a progressive private school with project-based learning.

His big idea came to him while his was conducting research at a community college near UVA, where he was head of the English department:

There, he observed that the largely African-American low-income students could read short works of narrative fiction but could barely wring meaning from a piece about Gen. Robert E. Lee’s surrender to Gen. Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox because they lacked basic knowledge about the Civil War. “What I saw is that background knowledge really mattered,” Hirsch says.

Over time, he expanded on this idea until his central observation ran like this: Children can be taught to read — to decode words — but teaching them to comprehend all but the simplest text requires a shared body of knowledge between writer and reader. For example, when a biographer describes her subject’s central flaw as his “Achilles’ heel” or a disastrous turn of events as a “Waterloo,” people who have acquired a passing knowledge of mythology and European history can easily understand that the first means a potentially devastating personal vulnerability and the second, a staggering defeat. But others just don’t get anything from the words themselves.

Knowing the national language of culture, even haphazardly, has a vast, far-reaching and brutally cumulative impact on learning. For those who begin their education with sufficient stores of background knowledge, it forms a virtuous circle: They have higher levels of reading comprehension, which helps them understand the daily social, intellectual and political discourse, which in turn helps them obtain more background knowledge. Those who do not have it languish. To level the playing field between rich and poor, schools should intentionally build background knowledge in all children in a wide range of subjects, or, says Hirsch, “It will be impossible to break the cycle of illiteracy that persists from parent to child.”

The Fruits of Democracy

Monday, September 22nd, 2014

If you establish a democracy, Jerry Pournelle reminds us, you will in due time reap the fruits of a democracy:

Almost all the political philosophers of prior eras concluded that democracy was actually suited only to rather small states. When Jefferson said that the basis of the American experiment was that governments are instituted to secure the rights of the people, and derive their just powers from the consent of the governed, was being profound: but he was also indicating that there have to be limits to government.

Consent of the governed is impossible in societies that value ‘diversity’ more than assimilation, and which seek to incorporate more and more people into the decision making entity. The California education system, once the envy of the world, was seen as inefficient: it left control of the schools to locally elected officials in rather small — and thus inefficient — districts. The key would be to consolidate those districts, and take the personal interests of the taxpayers and parents out of the picture: have huge districts governed by boards elected by people who had no relationship with each other beyond living within an arbitrarily drawn boundary, and who often had no actual common interests. The result was predictable and predicted, but that didn’t slow the disaster.

Where it was once thought shameful that only 90% of those enrolled in high schools actually graduated, that is now seen as an impossible dream. The LA Unified School District is a wreck, with widespread illiteracy, little discipline, and — except for some outstanding schools of which our local school is one — are worse than useless. Moreover the district cannot fire incompetent teachers, despite growing evidence that the simplest and fastest way to improve a rotten school is to fire the worst 10% of teachers and not replace them; disperse their students into other classes. Astounding improvement — 100% and more — often follows. But it will never happen.

George Bernard Shaw, who valued Socialism far more than democracy, once said

Democracy means the organization of society for the benefit and at the expense of everybody indiscriminately and not for the benefit of a privileged class.

A nearly desperate difficulty is the way of its realization is the delusion that the method of securing it is to give votes to everybody, which is the one certain method of defeating it. Adult suffrage kills it dead. Highminded and well-informed people desire it: but they are not in the majority at the polling stations. Mr. Everybody, as Voltaire called him — and we must now include Mrs. Everybody and Miss Everybody — far from desiring the great development of public organization and governmental activity which democracy involves, has a dread of being governed at all…

… I do not see any way out of this difficulty as long as our democrats insist in assuming that Mr. Everyman is omniscient as well as ubiquitous, and refuse to consider the suffrage in the light of facts and common sense.

Perhaps a better way would be to limit the scope of government, and not attempt the great development of public organization and governmental activity. Or perhaps, as we should have learned form ruining the best public school system the world has ever seen, allow local control of local matters, even though it is certain that some of those districts will misuse their freedom to do things we don’t want them doing, or which we see as not as good as what we do, and so we should help them — by force if needed — to see reason. And since we can’t watch them all the time, we appoint an organization of experts, who after all must know better, to manage the whole thing while we get back to watching TV or video games or another beer. And “DCPS is unable to excuse Avery’s absences due to her piano travels, performances, rehearsals, etc.,” Jemea Goso, attendance specialist with the school system’s Office of Youth Engagement tells us. Imagine! An entire Office of Youth Engagement, with an attendance specialist! I wonder how many other school districts have such marvels.

Somehow I think the nation would be better served with opulence and excellence. But that will never happen.

Reap, reap, reap.

Division Restructuring Study

Monday, September 22nd, 2014

Gen. DePuy describes the Division Restructuring Study, which became Division 86:

Division 86, which is what they now call it — we called it the Division Restructuring Study — is an effort to adapt our organization to new weapons which are more lethal and more complex. For example, the XM-1 tank, the Infantry Fighting Vehicle (IFV), the Improved Tow Vehicle (ITV), the new air defense weapons, the attack helicopter, advanced tactical fighters, new artillery ammunition, TACFIRE, and other automated control systems, are, in most cases, as complicated or more complicated than World War II aircraft, which were all flown by officers. I say it is not too great a stretch of the imagination to have only lieutenants in XM-1 tanks. I could justify that. I am not suggesting that we do it right now. Frankly, I would suggest that we put warrant officers in as an immediate solution just to raise the quality of the tank commanders. If we already are having trouble in achieving full performance with the weapons we have today, and I maintain that we are having great difficulty in extracting the full potential from our weapons and from our organization, then we have to look for solutions.

There are two areas of solution and Division 86 is simply a reflection of that search. The first question we must answer is whether or not we intend to raise the quality of the operators to match the quality of the weapons. We just don’t have the last surviving corporal in charge of a XM-1 if you want to exploit the capabilities of the XM-1 any more than the Air Force would put the oldest surviving mechanic in the cockpit of an F-15. The Air Force would never consider it, yet we consider it every day. We even take people out of the orderly room and the mess hall and put them in tanks. The Air Force doesn’t do that. In the Army you buy quality by rank. If you can only get so much quality for $400 a month and you need to pay $1500 a month for the kind of quality you need, then what you are talking about is a lieutenant. If you are willing to pay $800 a month then you are talking about a sergeant. So, in the Army you get quality by raising the rank or increasing the rank mixture.

Now, because of the complexity of these weapons, both tactically and mechanically, the second thing you want to do is simplify the tactical training and maintenance responsibilities of the platoon leaders, company commanders and battalion commanders, to a level where they can cope with it. Right now they can’t cope with it. They have too many men to be trained on too many weapons, in too short a time, with too many diversions. We know from testing that the difference between a well-trained crew and an average crew is very great. It can range from 20 to 50 percent of effectiveness, sometimes even more. So, that means you can get more combat effectiveness by increasing the performance of the unit than you ever could by putting new weapons in it. Well, that’s what Division 86 is all about — an effort to improve performance by improving quality, by increasing the leadership mix, and through simplification by reducing the size of units so that the tactical and technical training comes back down to manageable levels.

Training at TRADOC

Sunday, September 21st, 2014

Gen. DePuy describes the lack of actual training he found at TRADOC when he arrived:

Well, I would have to say that when I first visited the schools and the training centers I was unimpressed. I was horrified by some of the things that I found. For example, at the Engineer School I discovered that the engineer lieutenants were never given an opportunity to learn how to drive a bulldozer, or run a road grader or a front-end loader. Yet, they would eventually go to an engineer platoon having that type of equipment, and I couldn’t understand how they would be able to supervise, or to criticize, or to train. Down at Fort Benning most of the training of the lieutenants was accomplished in a classroom instead of out with troops. The orientation was very academic, very intellectual. I don’t know whose fault it was. Some people didn’t think it was a fault. There’s been a big argument for years about education and training. I’m not sure what all the differences are, but I do know that the Army had moved pretty much towards education and away from training. TRADOC is now criticized for going too far towards training. My conviction is that we were totally unbalanced towards education, and that as hard as TRADOC works, it will only bring the thing back into balance. As between the two, education and training, you need both.

At Fort Knox I thought that the training of the tank lieutenants, the armor lieutenants, was awful. They really weren’t being trained to be tank commanders first and tank platoon leaders second. They were really being trained to be tank company commanders. The basic courses in all of the service schools taught them not to be what they were about to be, but what they eventually might be. And, when they went to the advanced course, they were taught about brigades and battalions instead of about being a company commander. I found that to be very interesting. It was part of the philosophy of the Mobilization Army in which everybody got a job one or two grades above where he then stood. But, we don’t have a Mobilization Army; we have an 800,000 man Army! That’s what we are going to go to war with. Why should we go to war with untrained platoon leaders, untrained company commanders, and untrained battalion commanders, when they have to win the first battle? So, the first thing I tried to do was to bring the school system back closer to where the Israeli school system is, which is a training system that trains tank commanders, tank platoon leaders, and tank company commanders at about the time that they are going to discharge those duties. As I said, this is controversial, and right now there is a bit of a reaction setting in to all of that. I just hope things do not go back to where they were, which was really bad.

Now, the training centers really upset me. CONARC had run the training centers with an iron hand. Everything that was done in the training centers was prescribed by CONARC. There was no latitude or flexibility, and the first consequence of that was that there was also no feeling of responsibility. No matter how dumb it might be, the answer always was, “It’s in the directive. It’s in the Program of Instruction (POI). We’re doing just what we were told to do.” This meant that the major general commanding the training center went around and inspected only to see how well his Center was doing what CONARC had told them to do. The colonels, the lieutenant colonels, and the captains all went around with their eyes glazed over, bored to death. The drill sergeants had taken over. Over time, the drill sergeants will distort even a very clear directive, and find some little aspect of it that was never intended to be important and make that the centerpiece of some training exercise or bit of instruction. Well, it was really bad. The execution was bad, the concept was bad, the training was bad, the supervision was bad, morale was bad, and motivation was bad.

One term they used in the training centers that conveys part of the problem was what the drill sergeants would refer to as being “on the trail.” I don’t know whether or not you know where the term “on the trail” comes from, but it refers to driving cattle herds from Texas to Colorado, or from Oregon to Colorado. That was the mentality that pervaded the training centers. The cadre were just getting one bunch of cattle through, and then another bunch of cattle would come along to be herded through, with a lot of screaming, shouting, yelling, and cursing, but with little effort to teach. It was just an effort to get through the day, to get another 100 trainees, or another 1,000 trainees through without an accident and without some sort of disciplinary problem. Well, what I did was say, “Each of you major generals running a training center is now totally responsible. If there’s anything that goes on that’s wrong or dumb, stop it, and change it. Do what’s smart, and tell me later.” I told them, “I don’t ever want to be told by you or any of your colonels, captains, lieutenant colonels, or sergeants, that you’re doing something that’s dumb, or that I find out is dumb, because you were told to do it. From now on you are going to do only what you think is right.” Well, that had quite an impact. Now, one of the impacts that it had was that they all started doing things much better, and they thought up all sorts of marvelous new things to do, and marvelous new ways of doing it. Suddenly, they were enthusiastic. They now had a man-sized job to do, and they couldn’t cover up anymore. In my opinion, it turned the whole situation around.

Recently, the Army got all excited when folks discovered that there were differences between the training programs at the various training centers. You may be sure that they are minor. You may also be sure that the price the Army pays for absolute conformity is too high. It results in lousy, irresponsible, lackluster training by officers and NCOs who are bored to death with “on the trail” type training.

Now, the last and biggest part of all of this is the whole philosophy of training. There I have to talk about General Gorman, because General Gorman and the others who were with him on the Combat Arms Training Board (CATB) at Fort Benning, brought to TRADOC a new concept of performance-oriented training, which is a systematic way to go about the setting of training objectives through the careful determination of tasks, conditions, and standards. They also brought to training some exciting new technology and procedures. It took me some time, frankly, to digest it all myself after I came to TRADOC. But, finally, I saw the great benefit and logic of what they were doing and fully supported it. The credit for the concept really has to go to General Gorman and to a number of other people who worked with him, both earlier and later. They are the ones who articulated this concept, and who were the leading proponents of it in the Army.

Up the Down Staircase

Thursday, September 18th, 2014

One reason Up the Down Staircase, Bel Kaufman’s classic novel about a New York City schoolteacher, has aged so well is the particular moment in which its story is set:

Kaufman’s own teaching career coincided with a golden age in public education, and it was a golden age for some largely ignored reasons. Public schools were only expected to send a small fraction of students on to college. Congress’s restriction of immigration in 1924, not fully lifted until 1965, gave schools two generations to acculturate and assimilate newcomers. The horrific job market during the Great Depression, combined with commonplace sexism of the day, filled public-school faculties with overqualified educators, many of them women with no other career options apart from nursing.

(Hat tip to Education Realist.)

Tarot Counselors

Tuesday, September 16th, 2014

Robin Hanson recently watched a demonstration of Tarot card reading:

The reader threw out various associations of the cards she threw down, and watched the subject carefully for reactions, moving the interpretation closer to the options in which the client seemed to be more engaged. Though the subject was a skeptic, she admitted to finding the experience quite compelling.

Contrast such life readings to school career counselors. Such counselors usually refer to statistics about the income or gradations rates of broad categories of people given certain types of careers, colleges, or majors. Such advice may be evidence based but it seems far less compelling to students. It is not connected to salient recent personal experiences or the subjects, or to outcomes in which they are very emotionally engaged. It is clear but uncertain, in contrast to the certainty and ambiguity of Tarot readings.

It seems obvious to me that many students would be more engaged by more Tarot like career counseling. It also seems obvious that many parents and other citizens would loudly object, as this would be seen as unscientific and lower the status of this school, at least among elites. Even if the process just took on the appearance of Tarot readings but mainly gave the usual career counseling content.

The high status of science seems to push many people to have less compelling and engaging stories of their lives, even if such stories are more accurate.

Video Conference Seminars

Wednesday, September 10th, 2014

Is the Minerva Project the future of college?

Minerva is an accredited university with administrative offices and a dorm in San Francisco, and it plans to open locations in at least six other major world cities. But the key to Minerva, what sets it apart most jarringly from traditional universities, is a proprietary online platform developed to apply pedagogical practices that have been studied and vetted by one of the world’s foremost psychologists, a former Harvard dean named Stephen M. Kosslyn, who joined Minerva in 2012.

Nelson and Kosslyn had invited me to sit in on a test run of the platform, and at first it reminded me of the opening credits of The Brady Bunch: a grid of images of the professor and eight “students” (the others were all Minerva employees) appeared on the screen before me, and we introduced ourselves.


[French physicist Eric] Bonabeau began by polling us on our understanding of the reading, a Nature article about the sudden depletion of North Atlantic cod in the early 1990s. He asked us which of four possible interpretations of the article was the most accurate. In an ordinary undergraduate seminar, this might have been an occasion for timid silence, until the class’s biggest loudmouth or most caffeinated student ventured a guess. But the Minerva class extended no refuge for the timid, nor privilege for the garrulous. Within seconds, every student had to provide an answer, and Bonabeau displayed our choices so that we could be called upon to defend them.

Bonabeau led the class like a benevolent dictator, subjecting us to pop quizzes, cold calls, and pedagogical tactics that during an in-the-flesh seminar would have taken precious minutes of class time to arrange. He split us into groups to defend opposite propositions—that the cod had disappeared because of overfishing, or that other factors were to blame. No one needed to shuffle seats; Bonabeau just pushed a button, and the students in the other group vanished from my screen, leaving my three fellow debaters and me to plan, using a shared bulletin board on which we could record our ideas. Bonabeau bounced between the two groups to offer advice as we worked.

(Hat tip to Al Fin.)

A Tale of Two Charter Schools

Wednesday, September 10th, 2014

Michael Strong tells a tale of two charter schools, both starting their fourth year of operation:

School A is in a precarious position. Started by an uncertified, incompetent administrator, it has received numerous audit findings and has received low performance ratings from the state department of education. State-mandated academic standards were not being taught. Many of the original faculty were unqualified, though that is finally being remedied. Building code violations were a problem throughout its first several years. The school was chronically late turning its data in to the state. Discipline problems were chronic at the school; on one occasion an unlicensed volunteer teacher tried to choke a student in the classroom. At one point the school had to be supervised by the local district because it lacked a qualified administrator; the second one had quit after only one semester. Although it is now led by an experienced, professional, properly licensed administrator, given the school’s history of chronic problems it is not surprising that the school district questions the ongoing independence of the school and has filed a complaint against the school with the state department of education. The school may yet be shut down as the district believes it ought to be.

School B is arguably one of the greatest charter school success stories in the nation. Started by an experienced administrator whose innovative pedagogy had been recognized by leading national experts in learnable intelligence and brain-based learning as well as a McArthur Genius award-winning educator, the school has been dramatically successful at creating a culture of learning in one of the most academically backward regions of the country. In its second year of operation, the school had taken students who had never taken an AP test at their previous school (AP was almost non-existent in this part of the country) and become one of the top 200 public high schools in the country based on Newsweek’s Challenge Index. In its third year of operation, it had moved into the top 100 in the nation. The state AP organization organized a week-long summer AP training so that the administrator and faculty could share their expertise with other teachers across the state. SAT scores increased at a rate double the national average. The federal department of education awarded the school a large grant to replicate its physical education program in charter schools across the state. Several foundations rewarded the school with hundreds of thousands of dollars of grants for its obvious successes. Most of the students love the school and love learning at the school. Teachers moved from across the country to teach at the school. Parents moved from across the country to send their children to this school. Students across a broad range of learning abilities, including highly gifted and autistic students, flourish at the school. Twenty percent of the students commute almost an hour each direction through a dangerous mountain canyon to get to this school. Residents of nearby towns have expressed an interest in having this school replicate itself so that their children can benefit from this school’s unique program.

The challenge facing those who would like to see charter schools lead innovation and thereby improve education for all students? School A and School B are the same school, the first seen through the eyes of the state and the second through the eyes of supporters of the school.

He recommends reading Seeing Like a State to better understand the problem.

How to Give Your Child an Expensive Private Education — For Less Than $3,000 per Year

Tuesday, September 9th, 2014

Michael Strong explains how to give your child an expensive private education for less than $3,000 per year — by working toward complete autodidacticism with a coach, rather than covering curriculum with a teacher:

Consider the advantage your child will have had if she has spent 3–5 hours each day reading for the past ten years, 2–3 hours engaged in mathematical activity for the past ten years, and 2–3 hours writing each day for the past ten years.  Most students sit in class listening for six hours per so each day, of which much of that time actually consists of teachers managing the class rather than teaching.  The only real time that children practice skills are when they do homework at night, at which point they may be tired and longing for play or free time.  A child that reads, writes, and does math from 9–5 p.m. each day, with time off for lunch, will spend far more hours actually learning than does a child who goes to school — plus that child will be free to spend family time together in the evening instead of chained to their desk at night doing homework.

In the early years, this means working on three things:

  1. Reading, reading, reading, and more reading.
  2. The development of sophisticated writing skills.
  3. As much advancement in mathematics as is possible.

“Whenever I encounter a student who is a habitual reader,” Strong says, “I regard the educational problem as 90% solved”:

Although this sounds odd to modern ears, in many cases some of the most famous thinkers in history self-educated simply by reading, “and then I read all the books in my father’s library.”

Just as reading skills are developed by means of many hours of reading, writing skills are developed by means of many hours of writing — and talking:

But expository writing, the ability to explain his or her understanding of the world and how they obtained such an understanding, is the key to all of collegiate writing and much adult professional writing. Although one can “teach” techniques for such writing, such teaching proceeds far more naturally if one has spent many thousands of hours talking with your child and asking them why they liked the story, why they respected certain characters, how and why they might have handled certain situations differently, etc.

The ideal is to create a home atmosphere in which thinking and talking about life and how one understands life has become second nature, in which dinner time conversations routinely move ever more deeply into explorations of what happened during the day and why, in which explicitly understanding the world by means of conscious thought is the daily norm.

For children raised in such a rich dialogic atmosphere, for children who have “rehearsed” their thoughts in conversations for thousands of hours, expository writing becomes a natural extension of their habitual conversations. As they write more and longer pieces, you as parent, or a hired writing coach if you prefer, can assign various structures, coach on the detailed use of mechanics, and develop in your child a rich, distinctive writing voice well before adolescence. Indeed, a bright child raised in a conversationally rich home environment can easily develop a mastery of Strunk and White by means of coached writing of long essays while most school children are still doing formulaic book reports at school.

The chief flaw of most school math programs is that the pace is far too slow:

Develop in your child the habit of sitting down to work on solving mathematics problems for at least an hour per day, preferably a couple of hours per day.

Many children spontaneously love to read, and do not need to be forced to read. With a sufficiently rich conversational atmosphere, one can develop in young people an appetite for writing. Such a spontaneous love for mathematical problem solving seems to be rarer. This is the single area in which the development of a routine, daily disciplined work period is probably the most important.

Math curricula are fairly linear and standardized. You (or your child’s math coach) should closely monitor progress to ensure that the child is practicing enough to learn each concept without engaging in repetition to the point of boredom. Ideally this would be highly individualized; there are some children who grasp some mathematical concepts almost instantaneously and do not need many repetitions. Other students may need many repetitions of some concepts but grasp other concepts quickly. Individualized mathematics coaching, combined with an ideal of two hours of highly disciplined practice each day, is one way in which your child can develop a tremendous advantage over students in school. Because even elite private schools typically adhere to the glacial grade level pace of American mathematics education, a personally coached mathematics student with good work habits can easily arrive at middle school age one, two, three or more years ahead of his or her age-level peers.

At some point your child should undertake a substantial enterprise:

In traditional cultures young people typically underwent a right of passage at the age of thirteen or so, after which they were welcomed into the adult community with adult responsibilities. In American culture prior to the imposition of compulsory schooling, individuals such as Benjamin Franklin, Andrew Carnegie, and Thomas Edison began their careers at thirteen and built a foundation for lifetime achievement upon real world achievements in adolescence. This type of real world achievement should be a goal for you and your child.

Often parents eager to get their children into elite colleges are eager for their children to participate in many school “activities.” And yet colleges are overwhelmed with students who list participation in numerous activities. They are more interested in real achievement than in long lists of “participations.” It is one thing to be student body president; it is another to create a successful business, publish an academic article, or develop a career as a professional musician prior to entry into college.

Existing K-12 education, Strong notes, is largely training in immaturity:

We neither expect nor allow our children to aspire to real achievement. It is all a game for children, and they know it. One of the goals of having read real books, magazines, journals, and newspapers rather than textbooks is to have introduced your child fully into the adult world as it really is. They should know about business, and government, and relationships, and entertainment not as “subjects” to be taught but as living realities in the adult communities in which they were raised. The thousands of hours of conversations should have focused them not on preparation for tests, but rather on understanding the real world of real life.

So, how much does this education cost?

Twenty-five dollars an hour buys an excellent tutor (or academic coach) in most parts of the country. Many graduate students or retired people would be glad to teach a well-behaved, motivated young person for $25 per hour. Two days of mathematics coaching would thus be $50 per week; another two days of humanities (reading, writing, and conversation) coaching would be another $50 per week. At one hundred dollars per week one can buy thirty weeks per year of personalized academic coaching for $3,000.

Minerva Project Business Plan

Tuesday, September 9th, 2014

The Minerva Project has an unusual business plan:

To seed this first class with talent, Minerva gave every admitted student a full-tuition scholarship of $10,000 a year for four years, plus free housing in San Francisco for the first year. Next year’s class is expected to have 200 to 300 students, and Minerva hopes future classes will double in size roughly every year for a few years after that.

Those future students will pay about $28,000 a year, including room and board, a $30,000 savings over the sticker price of many of the schools — the Ivies, plus other hyperselective colleges like Pomona and Williams — with which Minerva hopes to compete. (Most American students at these colleges do not pay full price, of course; Minerva will offer financial aid and target middle-class students whose bills at the other schools would still be tens of thousands of dollars more per year.) If Minerva grows to 2,500 students a class, that would mean an annual revenue of up to $280 million. A partnership with the Keck Graduate Institute in Claremont, California, allowed Minerva to fast-track its accreditation, and its advisory board has included Larry Summers, the former U.S. Treasury secretary and Harvard president, and Bob Kerrey, the former Democratic senator from Nebraska, who also served as the president of the New School, in New York City.

Nelson’s long-term goal for Minerva is to radically remake one of the most sclerotic sectors of the U.S. economy, one so shielded from the need for improvement that its biggest innovation in the past 30 years has been to double its costs and hire more administrators at higher salaries.


Minerva is built to make money, but Nelson insists that its motives will align with student interests. As evidence, Nelson points to the fact that the school will eschew all federal funding, to which he attributes much of the runaway cost of universities. The compliance cost of taking federal financial aid is about $1,000 per student—a tenth of Minerva’s tuition—and the aid wouldn’t be of any use to the majority of Minerva’s students, who will likely come from overseas.

Subsidies, Nelson says, encourage universities to enroll even students who aren’t likely to thrive, and to raise tuition, since federal money is pegged to costs. These effects pervade higher education, he says, but they have nothing to do with teaching students. He believes Minerva would end up hungering after federal money, too, if it ever allowed itself to be tempted. Instead, like Ulysses, it will tie itself to the mast and work with private-sector funding only. “If you put a drug”—federal funds—“into a system, the system changes itself to fit the drug. If [Minerva] took money from the government, in 20 years we’d be majority American, with substantially higher tuition. And as much as you try to create barriers, if you don’t structure it to be mission-oriented, that’s the way it will evolve.”

A Talk with an Asian Dad

Sunday, August 31st, 2014

Education Realist sat down with one of his SAT-prep students, Nick, and his dad, a genial Indian gentleman, for a little talk:

“I wonder if you could advise me on how best to prepare Nick for the PSAT this fall.”


“No practice? No classes?”

“He’s a sophomore. He was solidly over 600 on both reading and writing, over 750 on math, in all our practice tests — which are skewed difficult. If for some reason he gets lower than 60 on any section, I’d be shocked, but not because he was unprepared. He shouldn’t go back to PSAT practice until late summer or fall of junior year — he’s definitely in National Merit territory, so he’ll want to polish up.”

“But wouldn’t it be better for him to practice?”

“No. If he gets below 60 — even 65 — then look closely at his results. Was he nervous? Or just prone to attention errors? But it won’t be lack of preparation.”

“Oh, that makes sense. We are trying to see if he has any testing issues.”

“Right. Content isn’t a problem. I don’t often get kids scoring over 600 in reading and writing in this class. Which brings up another issue. I want you to think about putting Nick in Honors English and Honors World History.”

“English? That’s not Nick’s strong subject.”

“He’s an excellent writer, with an outstanding vocabulary, which means he is ready to take on more challenging literary and composition topics.”

“Really?” Dad wasn’t dismissive, but genuinely taken aback. “He gets As, of course, but I get glowing reports from his math and science teachers, not English and history. Shouldn’t he focus on science and robotics, as well as continue programming?”

“If Nick really loves any of these subjects, then of course he should keep up his work. And please know that I’m not suggesting he give up math and science. But his verbal skills are excellent.”

“But I worry he’ll fall behind.”

“He’s starting pre-calculus as a sophomore. And that’s the thing….look. You know as well as I do that Nick’s college applications will be compared against thousands of other kids who also took pre-calculus as a sophomore. His great verbal skills will stand out.”

This point struck home. “That’s true.” Dad turned to Nick. “Are any of your friends taking honors English?”

“No, most of the kids taking honors English aren’t very good at math.” (Nick’s school is 80% Asian.)

“But shouldn’t he just wait until his junior year, and take Advanced Placement US History?”

“Nick. Tell your dad why I want you to take these classes, can you?”

Nick gulped. “I need to learn how to do more than just get an A.”

“Isn’t that enough?”

I kept a straight face. “No. Nick is comfortable in math and science classes. He knows the drill. But in English and history classes, he’s just….getting it done. He needs to become proficient at using his verbal skills in classes that have high expectations. This will be a challenge. That’s why I want him to start this year, so he can build up to the more intense expectations of AP English and History. He needs to learn how to speak up in school at least as well as he does here…”

Dad looked at Nick, gobsmacked. “You talk in class?”

“….and learn how to discuss his work with teachers, get a better sense of what they want. Remember, too: Nick’s GPA and transcript is important, but ultimately, he’ll want to be able to perform in college and beyond, as an employee or an entrepreneur.”

Dad nodded; he got it. “He needs to write and read and think and express his thoughts. And this will help. Hmm. This has been most helpful. So he shouldn’t do any SAT prep this fall?”

“He shouldn’t do any SAT prep this year.”