Category: Education

Why don’t American teenagers have better test scores?

On those international tests they take, nothing is at stake.  They do much better when something is on the line, here is the story.  There is nothing at stake in Japan as well, so this suggests that American kids are the consummate period-by-period optimizers.

By the way, I am in New Zealand now, don’t be thrown by Alex’s mention of Australia.

Using cartoons to promote reform

From my inventive colleagues at the World Bank: using cartoons to promote economic reform. Follow the stories of people such as Bosnian entrepreneur Max as they struggle through red tape (my favorite example: an ‘atomic shelter fee’).

Comics can be so effective in spreading information because they use drama and
humor to educate without being overly didactic or preachy.  Unlike brochures,
they have a long shelf-life.  People rarely throw out comics – they either save
them or give them to a friend.

Comics are also cheap to produce and can be placed as advertisements in newspapers. The disadvantages? They’re very hard to edit by committee, which may explain why the big institutions have been slow to pick them up. That said, you can order your Federal Reserve comics here.

Why are we organizing our kids so much?

The data confirm what I have long suspected:

Childhood’s outdoor pastimes are declining fast and the rate has accelerated in the past decade, especially the past five years, according to the National Sporting Goods Association (NSGA) annual survey of physical activity.

Since 1995, the portion of children ages 7 to 11 who swim, fish or play touch football has declined by about a third. Canoeing and water skiing are down by similar amounts.

The relationship between kids and their bikes is especially telling. In 1995, 68% of children ages 7 to 11 rode a bike at least six times a year. Last year, only 47% did. The sales of children’s bikes fell from 12.4 million in 2000 to 9.8 million in 2004, a 21% decline, according to Bicycle Industry and Retailer News,an industry magazine…

Children today tend to get outdoor exercise by appointment.

Soccer participation has been unchanged in the past decade – about 28% of kids age 7 to 11 play the sport. Soccer leagues and soccer camps are in full bloom this summer, although non-organized soccer games are uncommon.

Organized outdoor activities have kept kids moving. They are declining but much more slowly that unstructured outdoor play.

Little League participation has fallen to 2.1 million children, down 14% from its peak in 1997. But overall baseball playing – pick-up games, catch, pickle – has declined nearly twice as fast, the NSGA surveys show.

Here is the full story.  Now how about some hypotheses? 

1. Escalation of a signaling game.  You have to get those kids ready for college now.

2. Reference frames are relative, and an initial slight increase in parental paranoia has fed upon itself and has been bumping up safety and control standards for many years.

3. Suburban sprawl is a tax on spontaneity.  And as more kids get trapped into planned networks, it becomes harder to go it alone.

4. Parents have always wanted to exercise such control; only now has the ongoing growth of civil society provided the requisite institutions.

Any other nominations?

Bounty Hunting, the sad part

The sky was dark as I drove to Baltimore to try my hand at bounty hunting; it was 5:15 am.  Fugitives from the law tend not be early-rising types so bounty hunters search homes in the morning and the streets at night.

Dennis, who has been in the business 21 years and has volunteered to show me the ropes, hands me a photo.  Our first fugitive is a surprise.  Taken a few years ago in better times, the photo is of an attractive young woman perhaps at her prom.  She has long, blond hair and bright eyes.  She is smiling. 

We drive to the house where a tip places her recently.  It’s a middle class home in a nice suburb.  Children’s toys are strewn about the garden.  I’m accompanied by Dennis and two of his co-workers, a former police officer and a former sherrif’s deputy.  One of them takes the back while Dennis knocks.  A women still in her nightclothes answers.  She does not seem surprised to have four men knocking at her door in the early morning.  She volunteers that we can search the house.  We enter and get the whole story.

"Chrissy" is her niece.  She was at the house two days ago and may return. Chrissy has had her life ruined by drugs.  Or, perhaps she has ruined her life with drugs – sometimes it’s hard to tell.  She is now a heroin addict whose boyfriend regularly beats her.  The aunt is momentarily shocked when we show her the photo.  No, she doesn’t look like that anymore – her hair is brown, her face is covered with scabs and usually bruised, she weighs maybe 85 pounds.  "Be gentle with her," the Aunt says even though "she will probably fight."

The Aunt gives us another location – Chrissy is living out of her car with her mother.  We are about to leave when the Aunt thanks us for being quiet, there’s a child in the house who was scared when the police last came.  The child is Chrissy’s son.

Rogue Economist!

A famous economist is trying to capture terrorists by combing through data on banking records.  Wimpy. Wimpy. Wimpy.  A real rogue economist would go after them with his bare hands.  Grrrrr! 🙂

Today, I am in Baltimore, one of the roughest cities in the United States.  Not content to study bounty hunters from the safe confines of my desk I am going hunting with the real thing.  Is this my dangerous summer?  Nah, that is next summer!

I am really going to Baltimore to learn.  Tyler writes on development and globalization and spends a lot of time traveling and living in poor countries.  It’s a good model to emulate.  Blackboard economics can only get you so far.  I am working on a book about bounty hunting but also about bounties and prizes more generally.  I figure one less equation and one more story about Doc Rock and the Fugitive will double my sales.    

The evolution of Southern American English

SAE also modifies the English auxiliary system by allowing for the use of more than one modal in a verb phrase. For instance, for most Southerners “I might could leave work early today” is a grammatically acceptable sentence. It translates roughly as “I might be able to leave work early,” but might could conveys a greater sense of tentativeness than might be able does. The use of multiple modals provides Southerners with a politeness strategy not available in other regional dialects. Although no generally agreed upon list of acceptable multiple modals exists, the first modal in the sequence must be might or may, while the second is usually could, can, would, will,should, or oughta. In addition, SAE allows at least one triple modal option (might shouldoughta) and permits useta to precede a modal as well (e.g., “I useta could do that”).

Read more here, and thanks to the ever-excellent for the pointer.  The comments are open for other good examples.

How to improve student evaluations

Bryan Caplan hits the nail on the head:

I have a simple solution: stretch the scale upwards. If students call 60% of their professors "excellent," we need to add stronger adjectives to the list of responses. I suggest we add 6="best professor I’ve had this year" and 7="best professor I’ve ever had."

I still suspect students would overuse these options – during their four years, a student might give out ten 6’s and five 7’s, instead of four 6’s and one 7 like they should. But my reform would publicly distinguish teachers who do their job and appease complainers from professors who change their students’ lives but refuse to coddle them.

Economics is a hot major

U.S. colleges and universities awarded 16,141 degrees to economics majors in the 2003-2004 academic year, up nearly 40% from five years earlier, according to John J. Siegfried, an economics professor at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn., who tracks 272 colleges and universities around the country for the Journal of Economic Education.

Since the mid-1990s, the number of students majoring in economics has been rising, while the number majoring in political science and government has declined and the number majoring in history and sociology has barely grown, according to the government’s National Center for Education Statistics.

The number of students majoring in economics has been rising even faster at top colleges. At New York University, for example, the number of econ majors has more than doubled in the past 10 years. At nearly 800, it is now the most popular major.

Economics also is the most popular major at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass., where 964 students majored in the subject in 2005. The number of econ majors at Columbia University in New York has risen 67% since 1995. The University of Chicago said that last year, 24% of its entire graduating class, 240 students, departed with economics degrees.

Here is the full story, with a discussion of job prospects as well.

Lunch Matters

At lunch with Bryan and Tyler last week the question arose as to what we would do differently if we were immortal.  After a nerdy discussion to clarify what sort of immorality we were talking about; the kind where you can’t be killed but can be imprisoned or the kind where you are forever young but may be hit by a truck?  (it was the former) –  I answered that I would travel more.

Later the question was asked, what would you do differently if you found out you had only a short time to live.  I answered again that I would travel more.  Click, buzz, whirr…does not compute, does not compute.  Even before Bryan or Tyler could point out the inconsistency I realized there was a problem.  Given that I would travel more if I was to live either less or more the probability that I was at just that level of mortality that I should not be traveling now must be vanishingly small.

I leave for a solo trek to Machu Picchu July 25.  Lunch matters.


I always hated homework

LeTendre and Baker led a team of researchers who analyzed educational data collected in the fourth, eighth and 12th grades in more than 40 countries in 1994, as well as data from an identical study in 50 countries, conducted five years later.

Virtualy wherever they looked, the researchers found no correlation between the average amount of homework assigned in a country and academic achievement.  For example, teachers in many countries with the highest scoring students — such as Japan, the Czech Republic and Denmark — gave little homework.  At the other end of the spectrum, countries with very low average achievement scores — Thailand, Greece and Iran — have teachers who assign a great deal of homework, Baker noted.

Note that U.S. teachers have been increasing homework amounts, while Japanese teachers have been decreasing it.  In neither country do general achievement levels appear to be responding.

That is from Richard Morin’s WP Unconventional Wisdom column, although this installment is not yet on-line (I added the link to the text).  Here is a good summary, with more information, it notes that homework may place a special burden on poor families. 

We need to be careful about drawing strong inferences from negative results on heterogeneous data, nonetheless this fits my priors.  I worry about this more than grade inflation, although I suspect the latter, by making grades less informative, induces overinvestment in extracurricular activities.

Simple advice for academic publishing

Last week I gave a talk on career and publishing advice to a cross-disciplinary audience of graduate students.  Here were my major points:

1. You can improve your time management.  Do you want to or not?

2. Get something done every day.  Few academics fail from not getting enough done each day.  Many fail from living many days with zero output.

3. Figure out what is your core required achievement at this point in time — writing, building a data set, whatever — and do it first thing in the day no matter what.  I am not the kind of cultural relativist who thinks that many people work best late at night.

4. Buy a book of stamps and use it.  You would be amazed how many people write pieces but never submit and thus never learn how to publish. 

5. The returns to quality are higher than you think, and they are rising rapidly.  Lower-tier journals and presses are becoming worth less and less.  Often it is the author certifying the lower-tier journal, rather than vice versa.

6. If you get careless, sloppy, or downright outrageous referee reports, it is probably your fault.  You didn’t give the editor or referees enough incentive to care about your piece.  So respond to such reports constructively with a plan for self-improvement, don’t blame the messenger, even when the messenger stinks.  Your piece probably stinks too.

7. Start now.  Recall the tombstone epitaph "It is later than you think."  Darth Sidious got this one right.

8. Care about what you are doing.  This is ultimately your best ally.

Here is a good article on academic book publishing and how it is changing.