Sunday, May 29, 2011

Poor Economics

I loved the new book Poor Economics: A Radical Rethinking of the Way to Fight Global Poverty, by Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo, both renowned economists at MIT, and both of whom are pioneers in using randomized experiments to evaluate the effectiveness of anti-poverty interventions in developing countries.

I was intrigued by their analyses of Pratham, an NGO in India that focuses on remediation and tutoring of children who are woefully behind (p. 75). One program run by Pratham is called "Balsakhi," which means "children's friend" (p. 84). The program takes children "who most needed help [in school] and sent them to work with the balsakhi, a young woman from the community, on their specific areas of weakness. Despite an earthquake and communal riots, the program generated very large gains in test scores for these children . . . . Yet these balsakhis were much less educated than the average private (or public) school teacher -- many of them had barely ten years of schooling, plus a week's training by Pratham" (pp 84-85). "By the end of the program, all the participating children who could not read before the program could at least recognize letters (in contrast, only 40 percent of those in the comparison villages could read letters by the end of the year). Those who could read only letters at the beginning were 26 percent more likely, by the end, to be able to read a short story if they had participated than if they had not" (p. 85).

In addition to education, Banerjee and Duflo discuss a wide variety of issues, from how to improve public health (which involves the difficulty of convincing people to go along with medical advice in countries where doctors have traditionally been quacks), whether micro-finance is all it's cracked up to be, how insurance often fails to work in developing countries, and how to improve political institutions.

It's a wonderful book, full of thought-provoking insights and surprising advice about how to improve life for the world's poorest people.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Sheldon Vanauken Letters

I used to love the book "A Severe Mercy," by Sheldon Vanauken. I first came across it at age 13 or so; I was browsing through a bookstore and found a book with the words "18 letters by C.S. Lewis" blazoned across the front. I was trying to read everything that Lewis ever wrote (a goal that I still have not fully met), and hence bought the book. I loved the romance and the descriptions of the intellectual and artistic atmosphere at Oxford in the 1950s. (I'm a bit more dubious about the notion that it was an act of God's mercy for Vanauken's wife to die tragically at a young age, although I imagine that Vanauken found it comforting to believe that.)

When I was a 17-year-old college freshman in 1991, I started writing letters to Vanauken, mostly about his books and theology, but occasionally about other topics such as Bach, art, and Neil Postman (whose "Amusing Ourselves to Death" I had recently read). He kindly wrote back, typing or writing on postcards in all instances except one.

It's one of my greatest regrets that I never made a trip up to Lynchburg, VA to visit him before he died in 1996 (he welcomed visitors, so I heard, and I could have chatted with someone who knew C.S. Lewis . . . ).

Here are his letters to me. Click to enlarge the images.

1. November 1991 (two images):

2. December 1991:

3. March 1992 (two images):

4. April 1992:

5. May 1992 (3 images):

6. October 1992 (two images):

7. February 1993:

8. October 1993:

9. November 1993:

Monday, May 23, 2011

New Book

I look forward to reading The Appalling Strangeness of the Mercy of God, a new book edited by Michael Pakaluk about his late wife Ruth, who died of breast cancer leaving him with six children.

The book comes highly recommended from several of my good friends, and I was especially impressed with Michael Novak's blurb:
“I have never read a more beautiful and touching book – a book about a joyous life and overpowering death, and grief and joy. Michael and Ruth Pakaluk’s account of love and grief towers head and shoulders above the justly acclaimed accounts of C.S. Lewis in A Grief Observed and Sheldon Vanauken in A Severe Mercy. Throughout, I felt in my heart that Ruth is a marvelous saint for our times.”
I'm not sure that it's even possible for a book to "tower" above Lewis and Vanauken, but it's surely a good addition to that genre.

Here's an article about her life and death; I was struck by this:
In a network of friends that now stretched across at least three continents, hundreds of people were now praying for a miracle cure. But Ruth, who had packed so much activity into her 41 years, had a different perspective. "Why would I want a cure?" she asked Mary Mullaney. "Why would I trade the face of God for life on this earth?"

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Interesting Quote

From Frank Chalk's memoir of teaching in a British school ("It's Your Time You're Wasting"):
Exercise is a major key to solving behavioural problems, I think, as I watch them hare around the field having fun. Nowadays, they do far less physical activity than the children of the past. Labour-saving devices are everywhere to enable more time to be spent in front of the television. Kids are driven to school because parents have got it into their heads that child molesters lurk behind every hedge.

But our bodies have not evolved to be sedentary and need regular exercise; kids have loads of energy and they can either use it up through running around or they can use it up in your lesson, causing mayhem. Young men, especially, need an outlet for their natural physical aggression to prevent it bubbling over at an inappropriate time.

Ask any teacher who has taken kids on a walking holiday, or has been on a school ski trip abroad; they are no trouble after the first three days. They burn it all off during the day and are pleasantly tired in the evening. I've seen kids with the most awful records and every fashionable acronym complaint under the sun sit still and listen for the first time in years, simply because they doing what their bodies have evolved to do, often for the first time in their lives. When they return home they immediately revert to their former behaviour.


Saturday, May 14, 2011

Are Schools Teaching Too Much Math and Reading?

One of the objections often heard to No Child Left Behind and state accountability testing of schools is that schools spend too much time focusing on math and reading, compared to the good old days when they could spend more time on science, social studies, the arts, etc.

Here's what the Center for Education Policy said a few years ago:
“In 2005-06, as shown in table 4-C, our survey found that 71% of districts reported reducing instructional time in elementary schools for one or more subjects in order to make more time for reading and/or math. On average, districts in our survey spent about an hour and a half on reading and a little over an hour on math. Urban districts, however, spent significantly more time on reading than suburban and rural districts: 113 minutes or almost two hours” (p. 95).
One might wonder how that compares to what schools did long before accountability testing or NCLB. By chance, I recently came across evidence on that very point. It's from a book published by the National Institute of Education in 1980, reviewing a large classroom observation study from California called the "Beginning Teacher Evaluation Study."*

Here's a page summarizing how much time the observed California classrooms in the 1970s spent on math, reading, and other subjects: (Click to enlarge.)

The chart says that 2nd grade classrooms in 1970s California spent 1.5 hours per day on reading, 35 minutes on math, and all of 8 minutes on other academic subjects (which included social studies and science, but not music or art). Fifth grade classrooms spent an hour and 50 minutes on reading, 45 minutes on math, and 17 minutes on social studies and science. (Note that activities within other classes could be counted as reading or math time.)

How about even further back? Here's a chart from the same book reviewing previous studies from the 1860s, 1904, 1914, and 1926, respectively:

(Click to enlarge.)

In all of the previous studies from the 1860s to the 1920s, 2nd grade classrooms were spending well over 2 hours per day on reading -- more than the amount of time that is today cited as a "narrowing" of the curriculum. Fifth grade classrooms spent between 108 and 146 minutes per day on reading. In math, the classrooms spent between 29 and 61 minutes per day. Classrooms spent between 15 and 63 minutes per day on other academic subjects such as geography, history, and science.

Thus, it seems that long before anyone had thought of testing math and reading on a standardized basis, a lot of schools were still spending the bulk of their academic time on those subjects (especially reading).

* The full citation: Carolyn Denham and Ann Lieberman, eds. "Time to Learn." National Institute of Education, 1980.


Testimony for US Civil Rights Commission

I testified before the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights yesterday about the "acting white" problem. (See the video here, with my testimony starting at about 16:15.) It was part of a day-long session on bullying in the nation's schools. I also had a nice lunch with Eugene Volokh of UCLA Law School, whom I hadn't seen a long time.


Friday, May 06, 2011

The Nature of Education Debates

Some bloggers are debating what sort of pegagogy and curriculum should be used in schools that serve poor inner-city children.

Whenever this sort of debate arises, I think there may be some miscommunication going on, and that what both sides want to see in the classroom may not be all that different. Here's how each side is interpreting the other side's position:

What “Progressives” Say:

“I want the best education for all children, just like what rich children receive at Sidwell Friends or Phillips Exeter. Instead of focusing so much on math and reading, I want schools to teach the love of learning, critical thinking, and democratic values.”
What Traditionalists Hear:
"I don't care if kids are illiterate, lack basic math skills, and are at high risk of dropping out -- as long as teachers have the chance to live out their lifelong ‘Dead Poets’ Society’ fantasy, the kids will probably be fine.”
What Traditionalists Say:
“Poor children are being ill-served by the schools today – many of them drop out and those who remain often are years behind in basic academic skills. In order for them to function in modern society, they may often need extra time and attention (such as KIPP provides) in order to catch up on essential math and reading skills.”
What “Progressives” Hear:

"I want poor kids to be taught by modern day Gradgrinds, who make them spend all day doing rote memorization and multiple choice worksheets in math and reading. Kids should never be taught any other subject at all.”