Category Archives: Education

Is Teaching Coding Actually Helping Kids?

The Atlantic has an article from about a week ago questioning if the growing effort to teach children, particularly those in underperforming school districts, coding skills will actually help them in the end. The author and many of the people she interviews are worried that there is a danger that many of these programs will only teach a very limited set of skills that will leave the students locked out of all but the easiest and lowest-paying jobs.

The biggest concern here is that many people seem to think of coding as job training for careers in “tech” when that’s not really true. If “tech” just means web and mobile application development (and I think that is what it means to a lot of people), then maybe that’s not so far off, but knowing how to code will only get you so far in a job. Several of the people quoted stress that educators need to instead treat coding as being equivalent to the “three ‘R’s” of reading, writing, and arithmetic. I think that comparison is an exaggeration, but the general point isn’t wrong. Coding is a tool (one of many) that can be used to solve various problems or achieve various goals. Coding, however, does not necessarily teach you how to design and implement a large project. It doesn’t teach you much of anything about anything involving hardware, or about the mathematics needed to solve complicated equations in a science or engineering problem. If you know how to code but don’t know any of the underlying principles of the program you’re trying to write, you’ll always be stuck following someone else’s directions and implementing someone else’s solutions. That kind of work doesn’t necessarily pay well and won’t necessarily lead to a long-lasting, fulfilling career. Basically, tech isn’t coding and neither is computer science. Coding is an important skill for many (but not all) jobs in tech and computer science.

The author mentions Java and Javascript several times as if these aren’t appropriate languages to learn, but I don’t see any problem with that. You can’t teach every language, but something like Java is close enough to other languages like C that the transition is pretty easy. If students were learning Haskell or lisp then I could see that criticism being more valid.

The article brings up the important point that students who want careers in fields involving computers should learn coding in order to have an easier time succeeding later in their education not in order to get a job right out of high school. With coding they’ll be able to spend more time thinking about the actual problems they’re given and less about how to write the code to get a solution. There are actually many different ways that programming can be incorporated into the curriculum outside just a programming class. Simple math programs could be used to help students better understand things like calculus (one-dimensional limits and Riemann sums can be very easy to implement and might lead to greater understanding), intro physics (numerical solutions of differential equations can be written well before students are ready to actually solve the equations by hand, letting students see how equations of motion lead to the solutions in the textbook). Of course, doing this requires that students all have regular access to computers, which is a serious problems in the underprivileged schools that the article is focusing on.

People Finally Interested in Trump University

Trump University, Donald Trump’s ill-conceived foray into “higher” “education” from the mid-2000s has suddenly been all over the news. There are multi-million dollar lawsuits coming up soon and a torrent of criticism from other Republican candidates.

For anyone who doesn’t know, Trump University was a program where customers could pay tens of thousands of dollars for various business seminars and other resources sponsored by Trump. It eventually turned out that the state of New York doesn’t look too kindly on businesses calling themselves universities without actually being universities, so the venture had to change its name. Regardless, there are legal claims that Trump University didn’t even provide the kinds of services that it claimed it would (even ignoring the lack of being anything resembling a university). I, for one, am mostly surprised that anyone didn’t think that the whole thing sounded like a scam. (To be fair, it did provide some actual services for all the money that was spent on it so it, just maybe not what people were expecting according to the lawsuits.)

Is the GRE Useful?

The Atlantic has an article criticizing the GRE, which is the main graduate school entrance exam for most fields (professional schools like law, medicine, and business have their own exams). As with the SAT, also an ETS test, there is a general GRE (with verbal, math, and written parts) and a bunch of subject tests for various individual fields. Prospective physics grad students typically need both the general test and the physics subject test.

The main criticism in the piece is that the GRE too often acts as a gatekeeper that prevents many talented students from being accepted to grad school. In physics, I would say that the opposite is most likely true for the general exam. The general exam has little relevance to physics grad school (as the piece argues), but it is in many ways far too easy. The math section covers math only up to early to mid high school level, so physics majors would be expected to get perfect or near perfect scores. Having lots of students pile up around the maximum scores means that it becomes basically impossible to use the test to compare students. The verbal and written parts are largely irrelevant, although it might be nice if schools spent more effort on improving technical writing. I would guess that the physics test is much better, but it’s still very different than the kind of problems that students will see in either college or grad school. Like the SAT, the subject GREs are mostly about solving many fairly simple problems quickly. Most of the time, students will actually be confronted with long, open ended questions that require a lot of work.

Debate Over Math Curriculum Resurfaces

The debate over primary & secondary school math curricula that was sparked in part by a New York Times editorial a couple years ago has come up again in the Chronicle of Higher Education.

The main argument now, as before, is that subjects beyond basic arithmetic are too hard for many students and should not be required for graduation nor seen as necessary for gaining entrance into colleges. This includes subjects like geometry and algebra.

The original article was met with widespread scorn, and this one, which includes an interview with the author of the old article, should too. Basically, there are a huge number of problems with eliminating a requirement that high school students take algebra or even discouraging students from taking classes like algebra, trigonometry, and calculus. For subjects involving math, these courses represent something more like grammar and composition than an advanced course in literary analysis. They are fundamental subjects that must be mastered before a student is capable of succeeding and not arbitrary barriers to success. Entering college without any knowledge of calculus puts students in many fields at a serious disadvantage compared to most of their peers. Without algebra, even introductory classes in many fields are inaccessible, and the corresponding majors become impossible to complete in less than five or even six years.

What Hacker, the author of the original article, suggests doing will effectively lock many students out fields like engineering, physics, chemistry, mathematics, computer science, statistics, and even many (most?) social sciences. All that will be left will be humanities and the arts (and even then some classes may be impossible to complete). He makes the claim that “coding is not based on mathematics,” yet the opposite is true. In many ways, computer science is a subfield of mathematics. There is more to computer science than just programming, but a programmer that knows no serious math will quickly find that their options are limited.

Furthermore, at many colleges, lower-level math classes (basically, anything below calculus) aren’t even considered college material. This is true of the schools that I attended. If students matriculate without being able to take at least calculus, they’ll be forced to waste a lot of time and money taking non-credit remedial courses to catch up.

Hacker’s arguments seem to be based on the assumption that mathematics beyond arithmetic is uniquely expendable out of all the basic primary and secondary school subjects. Somehow other fields like statistics (which is really just a form of applied math) can be taught independently of mathematics. Anyone who has actually studied a field that requires a decent amount of math knows how important a strong background in as many math topics as possible can be. Physics uses topics like group theory, complex analysis, ordinary and partial differential equations, differential geometry, linear algebra, and many others quite regularly. Students don’t typically see any of these until after several semesters of calculus.

I can’t help but think that Hacker sees math as nothing more than rote memorization of basic formulae (which maybe isn’t surprising for someone who has so much disdain for any math harder than arithmetic). Even if literary analysis is just as rigorous as mathematics, that doesn’t mean that we should get rid of mathematics. We should demand that all subjects be as rigorous as possible. Being able to solve complex mathematical problems can be just as important as being able to read complicated works of literature and write coherently about them.

Texas Clock Saga Still Not Quite Over

By now, you’ve probably heard of the story of Ahmed Mohamed, a high school student in Irving, Texas who was recently arrested on suspicion of brining a fake bomb to school when it was in fact just a homemade clock. This story has brought near universal mockery onto the town of Irving and the authorities involved, and it fortunately seems like there shouldn’t be any real negative consequences for the student. In fact, he’s been made into something of a celebrity. Barack Obama has even invited him to come visit the White House.

Of course, the story isn’t quite dead yet. The police are unbelievably continuing to defend their actions. Apparently, responding that the clock was, in fact, just a clock wasn’t considered to be forthcoming enough. Everyone seems to agree now that there was no intent to cause any problems, so the hoax bomb angle was a red herring all along. And, not surprisingly, Mohamed will be transferring to what is hopefully a more supportive school.

Obviously, as many point out, this whole case raises quite a few issues. There’s overly aggressive disciplinary procedures leading to law enforcement getting involved for fairly (in this case totally) innocuous behavior at school. There’s jumping to the conclusion that a student with the last name Mohamed must be up to no good if he has something with wires and a clock. There’s also an extreme lack of technical skills. Should anyone really think that even a fake bomb would have a big countdown clock like in a cartoon? Students often get in less trouble for far more dangerous things like putting dry ice in sealed containers. It should be apparent to basically anyone that the device was not a danger. Furthermore, schools should be encouraging students to work on projects outside class. It’s much more productive than playing video games all day.

US News College Rankings Out

US News and World Report has released its annual ranking of American college and university undergraduate programs. As usual, no big surprises. Of course, it’s always important to tell people to take these rankings with a grain of salt. The ranking criteria are set by US News, so we can be sure that things will be set to maximize sales and also to confirm what people already think so that the rankings look legitimate. The ranking quite clearly underrates public flagship universities compared to private schools and also doesn’t cover many of the most important aspects of academic life (course offerings, research opportunities, curriculum requirements, width and breadth of major offerings, etc).

Regardless, these kinds of rankings help feed a college admissions frenzy in which prospective students get into vitriolic arguments about whether or not, for example, Cornell is sufficiently prestigious compared to Brown. An exact ranking is rather pointless since at that point the rank can be easily manipulated by tweaking the methodology. Furthermore, this largely doesn’t matter anyway. I know plenty of people who went to schools that the rankings suggest are mediocre that were admitted and excelled at elite graduate programs. Some of those supposedly mediocre schools even host elite graduate programs in many subjects.

Average SAT Scores Falling

Looks like there’s a lot of hand-wringing on the Internet over new reports that the average SAT scores have fallen by a couple points on all subsections this year. Some of the articles point out that this could easily be due to changing demographics of who actually takes the test. Some states have far more students taking the ACT rather than the SAT. There are also well known effects where SAT scores correlate with family income, so falling average scores could even be a good thing in the end if it really means that more lower income students are preparing to apply to college. It could also just mean that some recent tests were somewhat more difficult than usual,leading to artificially low scores. The test is always being tweaked in some way, with the return to the two section (math and verbal) format being a notable upcoming change, so it doesn’t seem too concerning if the average score moves around a bit from year to year. I would guess that this isn’t really much of a story in the end. It would be much more interesting if we had (1) a national exam taken by all students to get a more complete cross section of the population, (2) much more detailed demographic information (not just race/ethnicity and income but also type of high school coursework, high school demographics, future plans, etc) and (3) more statistical information than just the average score.

UNC Put on Probation

In the wake of the massive academic fraud scandal involving athletics, the University of North Carolina’s main campus at Chapel Hill has been put on probation for one year by its accreditor. While this punishment sounds pretty light, there probably isn’t much else that the accreditor can do short of outright revoking accreditation. Regardless, this is hugely embarrassing for a major university like UNC and seems entirely deserved. Still no word yet on what the NCAA is going to do. Some people in the comments are also pointing out that there could be further consequences if the Department of Education finds that federal funds were misused.

USC MFA Students Withdraw En Masse

The LA Times reported a couple days ago that an entire class of USC MFA students has withdrawn from the university. While the whole class was only a handful of students, I find this to be a very interesting case. The students claim that after they matriculated, a great deal of things about the program changed and that they all decided that the changes were too great to continue and finish the program. Apparently, there were a number of changes to the curriculum and the faculty. Additionally, the students felt that TA opportunities that had been promised were not actually being offered.

Without knowing all the finer details of the story, it sounds like both sides may have some valid points. USC is correct when they say that curriculum changes and arrivals and departures of faculty members are things that happen everywhere. This is obviously true, and while it is perfectly valid for a student to withdraw if, for example, the faculty member that they were to work with leaves the institution, it also isn’t in any way newsworthy.

What the students are alleging is much more serious than that. They seem to be alleging that the entire program has been revamped so that the program that they joined effectively no longer exists. If true, this is much more troubling. If USC wants to remake the program, it ought to have an obligation to either wait until the current students graduate to make the changes or to help them transfer to equivalent programs. The fact that the new director of the program has no background in fine arts suggests that the students’ version of the events may in fact be the truth. Again, none of this would be a problem if USC openly stated what they were doing. They do have the right to decide what programs they want to offer. However, they need to make their plans clear to prospective students.

Once again assuming that the students’ claims are true, this also highlights some problems with how some sectors of higher education are changing. Focusing on things like “interdisciplinary” cooperation between different academic programs can easily end up damaging rather than enhancing the original programs in order to garner some press coverage about a new “innovative” academic program.  I would guess that the joint USC/Conde Nast master’s program (though it’s institutionally separate from the MFA) will fall into the damaging category. It looks good to the press and generates a lot of buzz but probably doesn’t actually serve the students very well. Furthermore, I wasn’t really aware that Conde Nast and were respected enough to be partners for a reasonably prestigious university like USC, and I would fear that such a program would really be a long and expensive job interview for a single company that will only take the top one or two students. I think there are so many possible issues with direct corporate influence on an academic program that no university that’s really serious about its academics should even consider this kind of deal. There are reasons why universities typically have policies that donors’ money is welcome but their influence is not.