Tag 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.

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.

Op Ed on Funding in Higher Education

The New York Times published an op-ed by CU Boulder professor Paul Campos about funding in higher education. Campos claims that funding is not actually a problem because overall funding has gone up over the past few decades. This claim has been subject to a great deal of criticism.

I would say that much of the criticism seems quite well founded. In particular, Campos’ assertion is that military expenditures are 1.8 times higher than in 1960 while education expenditures are 10 times higher is wildly disingenuous. Overall spending is not the relevant metric to compare. Rather, per capita spending (per student for universities and per soldier for the military) would be a much better metric. The number of college students is far higher than it was in 1960 (when many colleges were still closed to women and ethnic minorities) while the military is much smaller in terms of actual manpower (though not firepower). Campos also doesn’t address the problem that sudden severe funding cuts can have a hugely negative effect on higher education when a gradual planned decrease could potentially be weathered much better. Cuts could mean that contingent faculty are not renewed and classes must be canceled, which could hurt students in any number of ways.

Professors can only handle so many students at once before the quality of education starts flagging, so education spending is going to scale roughly linearly with student number. The CHE post mentions that per-student appropriations have in fact fallen significantly over the past 30 years. Furthermore, massive increases on spending on things like administration (some increase was probably needed but much of it probably wasn’t), athletics, and expensive student facilities mean that even less money is able to go to actually support the academic mission of the universities (Campos talks about this, but I thought it was important to mention again here).

Elite private universities can use the excuse that tuition, fees, room and board are set as a ceiling for what students can pay. Wealthy students’ tuition money is used to offset losses from students who need financial aid. Public universities often offer much less generous aid packages, so their increases in tuition have a much more serious effect on their students. It seems difficult to argue that state money has no effect on tuition when some flagship state universities now have to make due with less than 10% of their funding coming from the state.

The Atlantic: Science Fairs Aren’t Fair

The Atlantic has an interesting article out about science fairs. Science fairs seem to be the bane of many students’ existence, requiring them to come up with some science project and then make an exhibit about it. While the goals of science fairs – to encourage students in science and to identify especially gifted students – seem to be reasonable – even commendable – the article argues that the reality is very different.

When you look at the projects from people winning prominent science fairs such as the Intel program, which offers hundreds of thousands of dollars of scholarships each year, troubling patterns appear. It looks like some of the things winners have in common are living in or near towns with major universities, having close connections to professional scientists, and having parents who are willing to put in a lot of time and money to get the best project. Thus, instead of identifying the most promising students, science fair competitions often just amplify inequalities between students. Apparently, the same happens in Canada as well, so this isn’t just an American phenomenon.

This is something that I’ve always suspected was probably true. Similar problems plague education at all levels, and selective programs such as colleges and scholarship programs always seem to struggle at identifying the best students when students come from very unequal backgrounds. I’m not sure how to fix things, and the article doesn’t provide many suggestions. Students with scientifically-oriented parents will probably always have some advantage simply due to more exposure to science and technology. Perhaps unfair advantages can be mitigated by requiring projects to be done on a limited budget and barring any work done in a professional environment. At least that way, a student from a small town or poor district doesn’t have to compete with someone working in a university lab with a multimillion dollar budget.

Small Women’s College to Close

Sweet Briar College, a small women’s college in Virginia, has announced that it will be closing this summer. Like many small colleges, Sweet Briar has been having trouble both maintaining enrollment and maintaining financial health at the same time. Small private colleges in rural areas seem to be getting less popular with many students.  Private colleges without large endowments can be very dependent on tuition revenue and thus can be very sensitive to anything that could depress enrollment. The high cost of tuition is also a major issue nowadays, which might hurt these schools even more as students are less willing to pay the full cost of attendance.

It’s almost always sad to see a college close, but this one at least made the decision to close in such a way to hopefully give all stakeholders a chance to make arrangements to prepare for it. That’s much better than trying to stay open as long as possible by drawing the endowment down to nothing while cutting staff, stopping maintenance, and cutting back on course offerings. At least this way, the school is honest with students and faculty about the future.

Many people expect to see more small colleges like Sweet Briar College close in the coming years. Many have already been trying to alter their academic missions in order to shore up enrollment and finances.

Oklahoma Trying To Ban AP US History

It was reported a couple days ago that some people in the Oklahoma legislature were trying to ban funding for Advanced Placement US History courses. The main objection is that the course guidelines are insufficiently patriotic (i.e. focus too much on negative aspects of history). The objections appear to stem from a fundamental misunderstanding of the goals of a history course. A history course – and an advanced high school course in particular – should not simply be about regurgitating names and dates. The goal should really be to use factual evidence to make arguments about historical events and historical trends. Knowing the impact of ideas and events on society and how that shapes future events is more important than being able to name every president or recite the Declaration of Independence from memory. This often will mean that greater focus should be given to events that don’t exactly portray society in a positive light. Those events often have a greater impact in setting the course of future history than the exploits and accomplishments of individual heroic figures. Studying the latter too easily devolves into little more than learning propaganda and mythology. Looking at the sample exam provided by the College Board, it seems that the AP US History test has deemphasized simple multiple choice questions about basic facts and now focuses much more on responding to passages by placing them in their historic context and deciding what the text says about historical events. I think this is exactly what the test should do.

The Oklahoma bill passed through a legislative committee by a large majority. Fortunately, it now appears that the bill will be modified before coming up to a final vote after the massive public outcry since this became widely reported in the media.