Tuesday, May 31, 2011

What is vegan sugar?

Iris asked me why we buy the two pound bag of organic vegan sugar that costs the same as a five pound bag of regular sugar. And isn't all sugar vegan?

She was too small to remember, but we took a vacation to Australia in 2003. On the shuttle from the Cairns airport to our hotel, we drove past many sugar cane fields. A blur of a fast-moving animal caught my eye as it crossed the road and ran into the sugar cane.

I asked the driver what kind of animal lives in the cane. He replied that quite a few animals live in the cane fields.

Then we passed some cane that had been cut by a mechanical harvester.

"What happens to the animals when the cane is cut?"

"They become animal by-catch."

I told him that I just went off sugar.

Then he said that there were more reasons to go off sugar. He told us about all the chemicals that are sprayed on the sugar cane. Then the cane is cut, crushed, and the juices collected--chemicals, animal by-catch and all*.

Vegan sugar is made from hand-cut sugar cane, which gives the animals a chance to get away.

We've been buying organic vegan sugar ever since. The cost is revenue-neutral because I was looking for an excuse to cut down on our sugar intake anyway.

* In theory, the animal blood and guts are removed in the sugar refining steps. Our family does not eat vegan, but we didn't like the idea of "regular" sugar after we learned how it is made.

Household Sewing

This was some of the most boring sewing I did all year. But it was necessary.

Ten years ago, we bought a bag of rags from Home Depot, sharing half with my MIL. The rags have worn down over the years and some have ripped to shreds. The absurdity of buying rags hit me. Rather than buy another bag, I asked my MIL if she had any old towels lying about.

Sure enough, she gave me three towels that had endured bleach accidents. (A reason why I don't bleach my laundry.) A few minutes with my rotary cutter and serger, and I had a stack of 10 rags.

The mop cover for the hardwood floor thingy was a bit more difficult. The HD replacement covers are too small for the mop that the hardwood floor installer left us. After struggling with covers that didn't fit, I decided to make my own to measure. The elastic was rather tricky and I broke a needle while stretching the elastic to fit the cloth. In the end, I had to resort to a combination of stretching the elastic and pushing the fabric through with an awl. It's done and a pile of stuff left the sewing room floor.

Why do I have so much stuff on the sewing room floor? Because when you make stuff from castoffs, like these three skirts and the little girls' blouse from 3 old sport-shirts, one old t-shirt and factory remnants, then people take give you more refashioning materials.
  • The gray skirts were blogged about in Hello Goth!.
  • The four-tiered skirt pattern was first introduced in Blue.
  • The pink hoodie was first seen in Two kits.
  • I haven't blogged about the little girl's skirt and blouse yet, but I made them back in January 2011. Notice that she put ultra-secret notes in the working pocket at the skirt hem.
I didn't make my t-shirt or sweater, but all the other clothes were made by me with cast-off materials. Well, I bought new thread and elastic.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

It gets better, the gifted version

Bad Dad and I were wondering if it is time for a It Gets Better campaign for gifted kids.

I was talking with a reporter about my finding that super-high-test score districts are less likely than average to advance their kids in math. He wondered how I stumbled upon that finding. Why had I bothered to look at the data in that way?

The short answer is that it is because I care. But I care for a reason that was not immediately obvious to him. I better spell it out really clearly.

It's not about bragging rights about whose child is more advanced.

It's about the child who is sitting in math class, thinking she just might not be cut out for math because she will tear her hair out if she has to sit through another fracking demonstration of long division.

It's about the child who gets sent to the principal's office for reading a book in math class (and being told to go back to the classroom to apologize).

It's about the child who quickly turns over her 100% test grade so that the other kids don't see it--lest she get beat up in the school yard over that.

It's about the child that got beaten up in the school yard anyway, while the other kids watched, and then took turns kicking her once she was pulled down to the ground.

It's about the kid who looked to the teacher across the school yard for a rescue, and watched the teacher walk away instead.

It's about me.

I'm here today to tell you that, if they ever let you go beyond long division and fractions, it gets better.

You'll learn that rational numbers are a field under addition, negation and multiplication but integers are not. Integers are merely a ring because they lack the inverse under multiplication. And every system of algebra opens up a different universe of possibilities.

And the special algebra of infinite-dimensional Hilbert spaces will open up the world of quantum mechanics to you. And, once you gain entree into that world, you will see how the quantum world manifests itself in the macro world all around you.

Who knows? You might even learn about general relativity and make relativistic corrections for satellite-to-satellite communications.

You might even work at a place alongside 850 other PhD-holding rocket scientists, marry one of them, raise a family and take fantastic trips (with the MIT alumni travel program).

Tuesday, May 03, 2011

More implications of academic redshirting

First read Implications of academic redshirting for how redshirting, holding kids back a year for kindergarten, can impact identification of giftedness.

California gives a small amount of money to school districts to help them provide appropriate schooling for gifted students. The federal government also helps, particularly for poor communities.

(This doesn't sound fair, until you learn that gifted kids are THREE times more likely than non-gifted ones to drop out of school early. This problem is especially acute in poor communities. NCLB has been catastrophic for bright kids left behind in schools struggling to raise their standardized test scores to avoid being closed down. Class time is often devoted to drilling for the tests, rather than the open-ended inquiry that gifted kids thrive on.)

Anyway, the districts themselves set their criteria for GATE (gifted and talented) identification. For MBUSD, the students must score in the 97th percentile on the OLSAT. RBUSD requires 95th percentile on the OLSAT but also accepts kids in the 90th percentile on the OLSAT but do very well in classroom or in the arts into the program. Another poorer district in the area is even more lenient. Is this cheating? Not necessarily.

MBUSD students, with their April birthday cutoff, are older than their peers in RBUSD. They have an edge on the OLSAT. The poorer district has a very high percentage of English-learners and parents with low educational attainment. They prefer to err on the side of providing more kids with more educational enrichment (and qualifying them for state and federal $).

MBUSD was sued for their higher than average test score requirement for GATE. I am not sure what decision was reached. But I learned something interesting when looking just at the test scores of GATE students for:
MBUSD has about the same percentage of GATE kids as the state average, ~10-15% while RBUSD identifies 10-24% of the kids in a grade as GATE.

The RBUSD GATE kids outperform their statewide peers slightly, but lag behind MBUSD GATE kids. The advantages of age, wealth, parental education and a more selective approach should come as no surprise.

But I do wonder if the winning candidates for the recent school board election are on to something. They said that RBUSD either burns kids out in the honors program, or they hold them back in the regular program. (No one is suggesting changes for the kids identified as needing extra help, the ones at the learning center.) They campaigned to make the curriculum for the "kids in the middle" more challenging so the kids on the cusp don't have to make such a stark choice.

I think it is laudable, but my wish is for a four track system instead of a three track one. Good luck finding the money in this climate.

From these posts, it looks like I am more concerned about the plight of GATE kids of well-educated parents. I'm sorry; I write what I know.

But, my volunteer work with the schools has put me in contact with kids that are from economically struggling families and whose parents do not have much formal education. I am very impressed with the ingenuity and hard work of the kids and the parents.

Peruse the CA STAR database, and you will find that RBUSD is a leader in providing challenging coursework to economically disadvantaged kids. Poorer districts often don't offer accelerated classes at all. While poor kids in RBUSD are less likely to be in the GATE program or in the accelerated classrooms, they are more likely to do so than in schools serving surrounding middle income and wealthy communities.

And the kids (mostly) rise to the occasion. I am proud to be in a community and school district that serves everyone's kids.

STAR test scores and external influences

Monday, May 02, 2011

More thoughts on STAR testing

As we enter week two of STAR (standardized) testing in California, I have a few more thoughts. Actually, Pennamite and I came up with these ideas together.

First, listen to Diane Ravitch's interview on Fresh Air. She spoke about the intent of standardized testing--to collect data--and the results of standardized testing--to punish schools. It was never her intention that standardized tests would be used as a blunt instrument and that they would become a tool for those who aim to privatize the US public school system.

After my What the STAR tests really tell us post, Pennamite suggested that schools (and school districts) that are known for their ultra high test scores become prisoners of their past results. They must get ever higher scores--or at least stay flat--or risk the wrath or displeasure of the parents.

It takes a bit of massaging to maintain such steady upward progress in the face of statistical noise and educational policy and demographic changes. Remember, people's jobs (and pensions) depend on the pleasure of the parents. Take a look at the math classes taken by 8th graders in California, Redondo Beach and Manhattan Beach.
Former Governor Schwartzenegger wanted to have ALL California 8th graders to take Algebra or beyond. All is a tall order, but most districts are trying to comply.

Statewide, 57.3% of 8th graders are taking Algebra 1 and another 4.8% (have already taken it and) are taking Geometry. 62% are meeting the new goal.

In RBUSD, it's 57.3% and 18.9% respectively. 78% are meeting the new goal. RB parents are wealthier and better educated than the statewide average (but not by much), so these numbers are not that surprising.

In MBUSD, it's 35.0% and 9.2% respectively. 44% meet the new goal. Despite having some of the wealthiest and best-educated parents in the state, the students are taking lower level math classes than the state-wide average. They are a full grade level behind comparable schools with similar demographics.

This is even more alarming because MBUSD used to exert strong pressure on parents to hold kids born after April back a year. See Implications of academic redshirting.

It wasn't always this way. Look at the data from prior years. The rest of the state leapt to accelerate students in math while MBUSD moved more slowly. They are where the rest of the state used to be.

Pennamite pointed out that the ultimate losers in this game are the kids. They are being held back until the school is sure that they will perform very well on the standardized tests. The default is to not challenge/stress the students. Otherwise, the kids might not score so highly and the schools will face some angry parents.

There is some grumbling on the soccer fields about the lack of challenge in math curriculum in MBUSD. One MB mom who has her kids on permit in RB has cited that as the main driver for leaving their school district. She works in the education field. I wonder how long it will take for the rest of the parents to become aware of how fixation with test scores is shortchanging their kids?

A (IMHO) good use of standardized test scores:
The RBUSD superintendent and the administrators of RBUHS are concerned that the middle schools are pushing the kids too far and too fast into higher level math. When 9th graders take Algebra 2, some of them do very poorly in the class. Would they have done better with an extra year of maturity? Did the system set them up for failure?

The standardized test scores support that view. The average test scores of the kids in the accelerated math track in RBUSD are slightly above the statewide average for kids of the same age, and they are twice as likely to be on an accelerated math track. But they are far behind the kids in MBUSD, which takes a much more selective approach. Are higher test scores (which I hope means mastery of the subject) a consequence of the extra year of arithmetic and pre-pre-Algebra? That's a subject worth further study.

The district and the HS want to try a more selective approach. Giving only kids that we are confident will succeed a chance to succeed will certainly result in higher test scores. But is that a laudable goal? As I explained in Math class is tough!, my bias is to put kids in the most challenging math class they can handle. That might mean putting some kids on the edge to see if they surprise us--and themselves. I've triumphed over difficult math classes and it has changed me profoundly for the better.

RBUSD MS math teachers suggest that they intervene with struggling students earlier, before students start to fail. They already use benchmark tests several times a year to discover what the students do and do not fully comprehend. (The STAR test results come out during the summer so they are useless for individualized course correction.) Why don't the schools use the data they already have to call in students who have lapses in their math skills?

The teacher said that my conjecture in What the STAR tests really tell us was wrong. They do cover the entire Algebra 1 book before STAR testing in early May. The problem is that the pace may be slightly too fast for some of the kids. Math is a cumulative subject. Because Geometry is so orthogonal to Algebra, those gaps do not necessarily impair performance in Geometry. But missing some key concepts in Algebra 1 could really impair understanding in Algebra 2.

Teachers can use quiz and benchmark tests to identify struggling students and set up appointments at lunch and after school to help them. The teachers are already available at lunch and for one hour after school each day for tutoring. (The teachers cooperatively work out a schedule so that one teacher for each subject will be available each day.) But the students in most need of help may not be the ones savvy or confident enough to ask for help.

So they only thing they want to do differently is to reach out to those students rather than wait for them to come in on their own. It can be done at no extra cost--the teachers at this school work off the clock so much anyway. Only after exhausting all these options, would they recommend that the kids take a step back in math.

I think that's worth a try.

UPDATE:  STAR test scores and external influences