Bookbyte Blog

Archive for the ‘Education’ Category

Ethiopian Kids Go From Illiterate to Hackers in 5 Months

Kids are smart. Much, much smarter than we give them credit for. Most kids have an inherent curiosity, a craving for knowledge and a greater patience with the learning process than most adults. And curiosity is the most powerful force in education.

That was the hope of the non-profit OLPC (One Laptop Per Child) project, an organization that provides educational resources to kids in the poorest communities. For this particular project, they shipped a box full of Android tablets to a rural village in Ethiopia. The town was illiterate. The kids had no concept of written language. Yet they were suddenly gifted a box of English-language tablets. No instructions, no instructor, just a powerful device.

The old axiom tells us that teaching a man to fish is better than giving him a fish. But what about giving the man a fishing pole? OLPC wanted to see how well these kids would perform if they simply had access to better tools. Would the kids’ curiosity be enough?

The answer was yes, but to a much greater degree than anyone expected. These kids went from having never seen the printed word to accessing hidden and disabled features on the tablet in months.

It’s an amazing story, but kind of a bittersweet one. There is limitless potential inside kids who haven’t yet had access to education and millions more who will never have access to education. There aren’t many causes as noble as providing that access.

For more information on OLPC, visit

The Problem With Grade Inflation (and the Problem With Fighting It)

grade_inflateThere’s a problem at a lot of well-known, hyper-competitive schools. As it turns out, when you get thousands of very successful students who’ve made their way into a top-tier college by getting straight A’s, they don’t want to stop getting straight A’s just because they’re suddenly surrounded by kindred spirits. Suddenly, just about everyone‘s getting A’s for doing a comparatively average job and the grades start to mean very little.

The consequences are far reaching. The more grades get devalued, the more a college education gets devalued as well. If you ask Google whether or not you should include your GPA on your résumé, you’ll get wildly differing advice. That’s too bad, because it shows how little faith many employers have in what’s supposed to be a standardized marker of academic achievement.

The data on grading trends is pretty shocking. Take a look at the chart below. You’ll notice a huge spike in A’s through the ’70s, then another slow but steady climb starting in the early ’90s and not stopping. You’ll also notice that private schools have a steeper slope than public schools. Not sure if means there’s more grade coddling at private schools or if it’s just because those students are most likely in a better socioeconomic status.



So a handful of schools, notably Notre Dame and Princeton, have decided to combat this practice by setting limits on the percentage of students who can earn A’s.

At least Princeton seems to be going about it intelligently. The school recommended that no more than 35% of students should earn an A. But rather than pulling A’s from students who’ve already earned them, they’ve been pressuring the faculty into being more conservative with their grading. Consequently, they’ve been able to bring the total number of A grades down from nearly half to just above their goal.

I hope other Princeton’s practice of setting goals, not quotas, becomes the model solution. Quotas pit students against each other in direct competition while taking all the responsibility out of the hands of the professors. Goals, on the other hand, give incentive to professors to hold their students to a higher standard.

A Mixed Drink Inspired by Today’s Russian Meteor and Close-Call Asteroid

meteorBetween Asteroid 2012 DA14 passing a mere 17,200 miles from the surface and the meteor impact in Chelyabinsk, Russia causing over 1,000 injuries, I think it’s time we  start calling February 15th International Space Junk Day. Children can celebrate by throwing rocks at each other. Adults can coat ice cubes in 151, light them on fire, and drop them into a vodka & tonic. We can call the drink an “Atmospheric Entry,” or maybe a “Siberian Sky.”

Do Colleges Teach Individualism More Than Teamwork?

Futurama Fry meme: "Not sure if I hate group projects or just hate people."

Futurama Fry meme courtesy of

A professor at Northwestern’s management school recently published a study critiquing the cultural effects of encouraging independent work and independent values at colleges. The paper argues that middle- and upper-class students thrive in an environment that pushes independent values — like “express yourself” and “do your own thing.” Students that are the first in their family to attend college, however, thrive in environments that push interdependent values — like “work with others” and “do collaborative research.”

Leaving aside the stuff about socioeconomic status, how true is this? Do colleges do a better job at teaching individualistic students how to succeed than collaborative students? Do students even want schools to focus more on collaboration?

Before any hard research, I asked Google its thoughts. When I typed “college group assignments” into Google, this is the headline on the first hit I get:


Well that doesn’t bode well. Let’s try “working in a group college”. The second hit was: (more…)

15 Examples of Insane Textbook Writing

Writing textbooks has got to be pretty tedious work. So you can hardly blame the writers when they slip in something that seems a little bit… off. My theory is that one of three things happens:

#1. The writer slips something in to see if anybody notices.

A word chart that says "OMG WTF STFU PWN3D"

Best optometry chart ever.

A word problem with the heading: "When am I ever going to use this?"

The heading asks a very good question that the problem doesn’t really address.

A picture of a family posing with somebody in a Spongebob Squarepants suit. Caption: "Here is an American nuclear family comprised of mother, father, and two children. Please note that the large yellow kid with the poor complexion is not a member of this nuclear family."

Just don’t tell Spongebob he’s not a member. He’ll be crushed.

"This chapter might have been called 'Introduction,' but nobody reads the introduction and we wanted you to read this. We feel safe admitting this here, in the footnote, because nobody reads footnotes either." Whoever wrote this is my hero.

“This chapter might have been called ‘Introduction,’ but nobody reads the introduction and we wanted you to read this. We feel safe admitting this here, in the footnote, because nobody reads footnotes either.” Whoever wrote this is my hero.

Crying: (def) what you feel like doing after writing statistics textbooks.

This explains every other entry on this post.


Should Some Majors Cost Less Than Others?

"Science can tell you how to clone a Tyrannosaurus Rex. Humanities can tell you why this might be a bad idea."

Unfortunately, as we’ve mentioned here before, this isn’t exactly true.

A report thrown together by a Florida task force on education has proposed that more in-demand and higher paid majors (science, engineering, math, and tech) should pay less for tuition than the less in-demand majors (art, history, English, etc.).

You can read the whole proposal here, and marvel at the delightfully cheesy stock photography included for no reason.

Now before anyone in the comments turns this into a science vs. humanities spitting contest, please remember that we are not anti-science. Far from it. We’re not anti-anything, other than really bad ideas. And this is one of those really bad ideas.

Now, loyal readers will remember that I’ve used this blog to object to the misguided good intentions of a Florida educational task force once before. This post is going to read a bit like that one again. Once again, the state has a problem, in this case, not enough people entering fields that really boost the state’s economy. Once again, a short-sighted solution doesn’t seem to take into account the way people actually think.

The proposal would institute a tuition freeze for the fields the Florida government decided are the most valuable. So while studio art degrees go up and up year after year, engineering degrees would stay where they are. “Most valuable” here means “will lead to jobs that make the most money.” This is valuable to the state, of course, because higher earners will pay more in taxes.

Now before you claim there’s some sort of anti-right brain bias, know that the task force chair suggested Florida State could theoretically lobby to freeze the tuition for creative writing and film as well, since there’s been some success getting people into the entertainment industry so far. So if your school has celebrity alumni, than congratulations, you can pay less for taking the same classes they did.

The proposal seems to operate on this assumption: if certain degrees are cheaper, more people will get those degrees. But this makes no sense. These degrees are for higher paying jobs. If a higher salary for life doesn’t convince someone to work in a certain field, why would paying slightly less for four years make any difference at all? (more…)

California Students: Vote or Face Higher Tuition

You can educate yourself about candidates, but at the end of the day, most people will vote along party lines. That’s just the way things are.

But in most elections, there are other things at stake than just who will take office. The times democracy really gets to chance to shine are with propositions (or ballot initiatives or measures or whatever your state calls them).

That’s when doing your homework before the election really matters. You can’t just say, “More like NObama! LOL! Straight Republican ticket!” or “Binders full of women! LOL! Straight Democrat!” When you’ve got an initiative, you actually need to pay attention to what’s being asked.

This election, college students (and rising college students) in California are faced with two competing propositions, Prop 30 and Prop 38, that could significantly impact how public institutions earn money. If neither of them pass, students should expect to get a tuition hike of around 20%. The schools have to find the money somewhere.

Here’s what each of the propositions are asking:

Prop. 30 — The Schools and Local Public Safety Protection Act of 2012

  • Tax hike of 1-3% on single taxpayers earning over $250,000. Also, sales tax goes up a quarter of a cent.
  • Will raise $6 billion over 7 years.
  • If it doesn’t pass, University of California and California State University lose $250 million and K-12 schools lose 3 weeks off the school year.

Prop. 38 — Our Children. Our Future. Local School and Early Education Investment and Bond Reduction Act

  • Tax hike of 0.4-2.2% on single taxpayers earning over $7,316.
  • Will raise over $10 billion over 12 years.
  • No immediate repercussions, but that’s a lot of money K-12 schools won’t get. Plus the state can’t start to pay off its bonds.

Only one of these will be accepted, so if they both receive enough votes to pass, then the one with more votes will get passed into law.

That creates a weird situation, since it makes the two propositions half-compete with each other. The ballot wants you to consider each of these propositions independently, allowing you to vote “yes” or “no” for both, if you want. But both can’t pass.

That means you need to vote strategically. Do you want CA schools to get more money no matter what? Vote both. Do you think the difference between these propositions is significant enough that you want to pick a favorite? Vote for one. Do you think any tax increase isn’t worth it? Vote neither.


Should You Vote in Your Home State or Your College’s State?

Vote pin on an American flagI was an out-of-state student. For four years, my family and mailing address were in Virginia, but I spent the majority of the year up in Massachusetts. I kept my voting registration in Virginia, mostly because I’d rather cast a vote in a swing state than in one that tends to lean blue.

Many students might not realize it, but it’s a choice all out-of-state students can make. Confirmed by the 1979 Supreme Court case Symm vs. United States, students are permitted to register as voters in either their home state or the state where they attend school. This applies at the local level too. (The Supreme Court case actually dealt with a dispute over voting in a particular county.)

A website called is designed to help students with the decision by comparing the number of electoral college votes, the breakdown of votes in the last election, the number of issues and candidates on the ticket, and the registration deadline to determine which state is “worth more” in the election.

One the one hand, it’s kind of sad that the value of a vote can measured by a simple online algorithm. It’s kind of sad that we can say, and prove, that one vote counts “more” than another. On the other hand, it’s the way our society is structured and I applaud the site for keeping potential voters informed.


Supreme Court Reviewing Affirmative Action

The Supreme Court of the United States

The Supreme Court heard oral arguments in Fisher v. University of Texas, a case that could potentially change the way our country handles affirmative action.

Here’s the bare-bones facts of the case. Abigail Fisher, a student whose application to the University of Texas was rejected, sued the school for discrimination. She’s white, and arguing that if she had been a racial minority, she would’ve been accepted.

This isn’t the first time a case dealing with affirmative action has appeared in the court. 1978′s Regents of the University of California v. Bakke declared that a quota system, that is, saying that a certain number of spots are reserved for people of a certain race, is unconstitutional. 2003′s Grutter v. Bollinger, regarding the admissions policy at the University of Michigan, upheld affirmative action by arguing that a school has an interest in diversifying their student body, and should be permitted to consider race as a contributing factor in admissions.

Like most Supreme Court cases, Ms. Fisher’s experience will ultimately not have much to do with the debate. That’s doubly true in this case, since she’s already graduated from a different university. Her circumstances aren’t particularly complicated; she just attended Louisiana State University instead of Texas.

Instead, the case could become an argument over how we can decide when we’ve had “enough” affirmative action. At least, that seems to be the direction the justices were steering the conversation. In other words, at what point will the country decide that schools and other institutions are “diverse enough” and let the policy be race-blind?

That may be a loaded question, but it’s hard to talk about affirmative action without using loaded questions.

Florida Approves Setting Different Academic Goals for Different Races

The Florida State Flag

In its official strategic plan, Florida’s Board of Education projected its goals for the next few years. The document set targets for the percentages of students the board hopes will be at grade level in the near future. But then it further breaks down those targets. By race.

Take a look below (or view the full document here):

 1.3	  Percentage of students  scoring at or above grade  level on statewide English  Language Arts, science,  and mathematics  assessments by subgroup  to reduce the  achievement gap   Current  (2011-12 unless noted) Reading:  • American Indian 55%  • Asian 76%  •	 Black/African American  38%  • Hispanic 53%  • White 69%  • Economically  Disadvantaged 46%  • English Language  Learners 33%  • Students with Disabilities  29%  Math:  • American Indian 58%  • Asian 82%  •	 Black/African American  40%  • Hispanic 55%  • White 68%  • Economically  Disadvantaged 48%  • English Language  Learners 41%  • Students with Disabilities  32%  2017-18 Goal  Reading:  • American Indian 82%  • Asian 90%  •	 Black/African American  74%  • Hispanic 81%  • White 88%  • Economically  Disadvantaged 72%  • English Language  Learners 72%  • Students with Disabilities  78%  Math:  • American Indian 81%  • Asian 92%  •	 Black/African American  74%  • Hispanic 80%  • White 86%  • Economically  Disadvantaged 78%  • English Language  Learners 74%  • Students with Disabilities  72%

Now you can see right there in the chart that this was driven by good intentions. In terms of raw percentages, Florida’s plan is an ambitious one, looking for around 20-30% boosts in each subgroup. And while the differences in projected percentages between the different subgroups is disturbing, the differences in the current percentages is much, much more disturbing. Clearly the people on the board thought that by pointing out the harsh realities of the achievement gap, they’d be better positioned to fight it.

Now, I can understand why you’d want to point out the numbers in the second column. Those are terrible numbers. 38% of African-American students in Florida are at grade level for reading. That’s tragic. What I don’t understand is why we need that second column. It follows up the first awful statistic with, “…therefore it’s OK if we can only get 3 out of 4 students up to par.” How does that help anyone?

The closer you look at the projections, the more troubling the discrepancies become. African-American students currently have a 9% higher rank than students with disabilities in reading, but the board’s goals are to bring the students with disabilities 4% ahead. What data could that possibly be based upon?

It doesn’t take a PhD in psychology to see how this could become a self-fulfilling prophesy. Ever heard of the Pygmalion effect? It states the greater the expectation placed upon a person, the better that person will perform. Conversely, the lower the expectations, the worse the performance.

The problem with this plan is that it doesn’t simply tell teachers, “hold everyone to a much higher standard.” The document says “92% of Asian students and 80% of Hispanic students should be at grade level for math.” So the teachers hear, “the Asian students will be better at math.” If the public school system sends out documents lowering teachers expectations of certain groups of students, the teachers will project those lowered expectations on to the student. And, according to the Pygmalion effect, students being held to lower expectations are more likely to underperform.

For the record, this has nothing to do with teachers, or even the members of the school board, being bigots. It’s an institutional form of bigotry. It’s setting up a system that places a lower value on the success of certain students. It’s just hard to see that when it’s buried beneath good intentions.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 58 other followers

%d bloggers like this: