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Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Harsh Reality: Many students are set up to underachieve by their parents

I've posted before about how many students are showing up on campus without realizing that they will need to work hard. In my mind, I blamed the "self-esteem" centered culture that seems to be prevalent in our school system. I've also talked about the "helicopter parents" in a previous post.

Then in today's Peoria Journal Star, I read the following column by Leonard Pitts:

By Leonard Pitts Jr.

Tribune Media Services

Perhaps you remember white flight.
That is, of course, the term for what happened in the '60s when African Americans, newly liberated from legal segregation, began fanning out from the neighborhoods to which they'd once been restricted. Traumatized at the thought of living in proximity to their perceived inferiors, white people put their houses on the market at fire sale prices and took flight.
Well, something similar is happening now in Northern California. Similar in the sense of being completely different.
Where whites once ran because they felt they were superior to their new neighbors, they are apparently running now because they feel they are not quite as good.
I refer you to a Nov. 19 story in the Wall Street Journal. Reporter Suein Hwang interviewed white parents who are pulling their kids out of elite public high schools, schools known for sending graduates to the nation's top colleges. They are doing this, writes Hwang, because the schools are too academically rigorous, too narrowly focused on subjects like math and science.
Too Asian.
Yes, you read right. Hwang reports that since 1995, the number of white students at Lynbrook High in San Jose has fallen by almost half. At Monta Vista High in Cupertino, white students now make up less than a third of the population.
White parents are putting their kids into private schools or moving to areas where the public schools are whiter, less Asian and less demanding. Where sports and music are also emphasized and educators value, as one parent put it, "the whole child."
One white woman told Hwang how she dissuaded a young white couple from moving to town, telling them their child might be "the only Caucasian kid in the class." Another said, "It does help to have a lower Asian population."
Which plays, of course, into the old stereotype of the hyper-competitive Asian. But the new white flight has also given rise to a new stereotype one educator calls "the white boy syndrome." It says that white kids just don't have it between the ears.
The irony speaks for itself.
I have no idea why Asian kids tend to lap the field, academically speaking. I do know it has nothing to do with the simple fact of being Asian, any more than the fact of being black makes you a great basketball player. To attain proficiency in any field, it helps to want that proficiency and to belong to a culture that rewards it. We strive for the things we deem important.
I make no argument for punishing, joyless education. Sports and music are important, too. On the other hand, most kids are hardly in danger of studying too hard or being insufficiently entertained.
Consider the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a federal study released last month. It found that, despite some improvement, American kids remain academically underwhelming. Only 31 percent of fourth graders, for instance, were rated "proficient'' or better in reading. Just 30 percent of eighth graders managed to hit that mark in math.
In recent years, I've taught writing at an elite public high school and three universities. And I've been appalled how often I've encountered students who simply could not put a sentence together, had no conception of basic grammar and punctuation. They tell me I'm a tough grader, and the funny thing is, I think of myself as a soft touch. "I've always gotten A's before," sniffed one girl to whom I thought I was being generous in awarding a C plus.
It occurs to me that this is the fruit of our dumbing down education in the name of "self-esteem." This is what we get for making the work easier instead of demanding the students work harder - and the parents be more involved.
So this new white flight is less a surprise than a fresh disappointment. And I've got news for those white parents:
They should be running in the opposite direction.

So there you have it. What parents want these days is for their kids to make good grades; whether they learn anything or not seems to be irrelevant. After all, it is "that piece of paper" that is important, right?

What many don't understand is that the value in education is NOT the degree itself, but how it changes one's mind for the better.

This reminds me of something that happened this semseter: I gave an exam and this one student failed yet again; this time with a grade in the 40's (out of 100). she came up to me with tears in her eyes exclaiming in anguish that she "had taken a two semester class in calculus out of a college book and had gotten A's". Well, on this exam, she couldn't even differentiate a simple function like "cos(x)". I told her that she could drop the class, settle for a D or F, or do what I told her and to learn the material properly.

Happily, on the next quiz, she made a low "A" (on more difficult material) and did everything I told her to do.

I've noticed similar stuff even when I was back in grad school (1985-1991). I remember several times, Asian students would see me in my office late a night, working away and say "hey, what are YOU doing here; aren't you an American?" And, many times when I took the 11 pm bus home, I'd be the only "round eyes" on the bus.

Judging a book by its cover

  • Judging a book by its cover.
First, I'd like to thank Mawk for altering me to what follows. Ok take a look at the following photo. This person plays the part of a physicist in a popular television series. Do you have a reaction?

I know that I do. What a joke! This model probably couldn't integrate e^x if you spotted her with a computer, right? Why can't they cast someone who at least looks like a scientist, right?

Well, to find out who this lady is, go here:

Yes, she is a world famous particle physicist in real life, with professorships at Harvard, numerous awards as well as some popular books. She speaks a bit about having some traditional female interests here:

Thursday, November 10, 2005

Teaching Remedial Students

Cross posted at blueollie:

At my university, we have a special class called "Calculus with review". What we do is we take our standard first semester science/engineering major calculus class and split it into two semesters and cover the material at half speed. The students who take this are those who don't do well on our placement tests or who have low (for us) entrance exam scores.
We really hit the algebra hard during this course. Now, some students are doing well; I have an unusual number of A's so far (3 out of 28 starters). Others have had to drop. Many have told me that they have grossly understudied so far.
The real trouble that we have in this class are with the students who claim to have taken a calculus course in high school (and have gotten an A or B!). I had the following conversation with a student this morning (who asked me if she could still pass; she got a 38 out of 100 on the last exam): "but I understand this stuff; I just can't answer your questions." I laughed and said "that is like saying, 'I know how to swim, but when I get in the pool I drown.' If you understand it, you can do it." She exclaimed "that's not true!"
This person just hasn't grasped that they don't know what they are doing; evidently their high school grade gave this student an overinflated opinion of where they are, in terms of mathematical ability.
I suppose it is a fine line between trying to build a student's confidence and being realistic; what this student doesn't want to accept is that he/she is going to have to work very very hard just to achieve at an average level; the current attitude seems to be "hey, I am bright so if I have to work hard just to get a C, then something is wrong with the course or my professor."
So, I have to find a nice way of saying: "this course is designed for people who are better prepared and more talented than you are. Therefore if you don't work your rear end off, you are doomed to fail. Forget what you were told; you have an inflated opinion about your current abilities."
I had another interesting conversation with a student; this person wanted to know why they got no credit on a problem. The problem said something like:
"if y = (x^2 + 3x + 1/x)/x, then y' = He wrote: y = x + 3 + 1/x^2 and then circled his answer.
I said: ok, the problem told you to differentiate, right? He read the problem and nodded his head. Then I said: "ok, where did you differentiate?" He looked open mouthed and slinked away.
The problem was is that he was so sure that I had shorted him; this kid has had an attitude for the whole semester. He is another one who has an inflated self image.
I think that what we have to work toward is an attitude of "yes, you are smart enough to be successful, IF you are humble enough to do what you are told and IF you work hard. Your success is far from guaranteed; this is a very conditional sort of thing!""

I posted the above at I recieved the following comment, which is hysterical:

"When I was a graduate student in physics, we were required to spend 1 hr per week in the "study hall" for the physics undergraduate students. I was trying to help a student who was in the honors program with a simple electrostatics problem. It was a line charge, so he had to integrate dx/x. He couldn't do the integral! But he didn't think that was a big deal. He told me that his high school calculus class they had used Maple for everything, so he was used to just typing stuff in.
But, my best story was from tutoring. I had this student, who by the way she dressed, came from some money. She wasn't great at physics, but she wa a hard working student. I always forced them to do the algebra 1st, then substitute in numbers at the end. So we get to the "numbers part", and she reaches for the calculator. I say: "you can do that may w/o a calculator."
She says: "I always use a calculator for math."
I say: "But what do you do when your shopping & the tag says 25% off and you have to figure out the price?"
She deadpans: "I never look at prices, I just buy what I want."
Silence. I deadpan: "I'm not charging enough am I" "

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Those Pesky Error terms...

I am teaching the "numerical methods" class for engineers this year. I've learned many things while preparing the lessons. But one of the most fascinating things I've learned is how one can use the error terms of a series (say, a Taylor series) to obtain a weighted average of an approximating scheme to improve the accuracy of the approximation! Here is but one example: suppose one wants to approximate the derivative of a function, and one has only the function itself to work with, along with the fact that it is known (or hypothesized) that a certain number of higher order derivatives exist. Assume that we are working about x = 0.
Then, from the theory of Taylor Series:
f(x) = f(0) + f'(0)x + f''(0)(1/2)x^2 + f'''(0)(1/6)x^3+ terms where x has order 4 or more.
So, to approximate f'(0) one does some algebra to obtain
f'(0) = (f(x)-f(0))/x -f''(0)(1/2)x -f'''(0)(1/6)x^2 - terms where x has order 3 or more
Which is not a surprise as we are approximating the derivative by a difference quotient. Note that the error terms have order 2 or more. Call this approximating scheme F(x). Now, if we want to get our error terms to have order 2 or more:
Let F(x/2)= 2(f(x/2)-f(0))/x -f''(0)(1/4)x -f'''(0)(1/24)x^2 - terms where x has order 3 or more. So now, F(x)-2F(x/2) = -f'(0) + f'''(0) (-1/6 +1/12)x^2 - terms where x has order 3 or more
Then 2F(x/2)-F(x) = (4f(x/2)-f(x)-3f(0))/x is an approximation scheme which reduces the error of estimating f'(0) to a second order (roughly 4 times as good) at the expense of using one closer value of f in the scheme.
Similar ideas are used in many other approximation schemes, such as those to approximate integrals (e. g., Romberg integration) and those to approximate solutions to differential equations (Runge-Kutta schemes, for example). If you always wondered why those funny weighted averages were the way that they were, it was to reduce the order of the error terms as stated above.
Anyway, I never realized any of that when I previously taught calculus. Those pesky error terms in the series have a practical use!