Kindle talk, with touches of autism

So my son Peter and I were noodling back and forth by e-mail, as we do now and again when some vagrant idea catches our fancy, and along the way it occurred to me that there were some points that might be of
interest to onlookers. So, with his permission (and mine if he wants to
post it on his blog) is a slightly edited version [with comments in

For background, Peter, now in his mid-30s, is autistic, but formally
diagnosed only a year or so ago. And his spouse Jesse Hajicek has
published (with a print-on-demand house called Lulu) a novel titled The
God Eaters,
which has sold passably well on Amazon.

So I’m reading an article about Kindle and bookstores, and it occurs to
me to wonder, is God Eaters available on Kindle? Can Jesse organize
that, or does it have to be the publisher?

I don’t know.

Erm, that was a speech act. It doesn’t mean “Do you know?”; it means
“You ought to check this out.”


… Yeah, that makes sense.

So, here’s a puzzle:

Why do languages form these patterns?  What’s the *benefit* of having
structures which have meaning other than their face-value meaning?

I think the generally accepted answer is that primates (not only us, and
actually not only primates among mammals) are intensely status-conscious for reasons that are clearly connected to reproductive success, and the ability to signal and discern status is valuable. Being able to do both indirectly is an additional asset, because it allows everybody involved to save face, and thus avoid open conflict, which can lead to becoming dead.

Since you have some intuitive limitations in the indirectness dimension, you might find some of the work on speech acts, and on pragmatics more generally, of considerable practical use. For a start,

I can’t remember what text we used in Pragmatics, but that’s the general
subject heading under linguistics. I do remember writing my final exam
in the middle of the night from a hotel in New York, though not what I


I’m innately disposed to dislike [Searle], because the Chinese Box
is so stupid, but I’m fascinated by the topic anyway.

I don’t see how they save face, though.

It’s like a vote of confidence in a parliamentary government. If a
high-status individual gives an explicit order, and it is openly
disobeyed, that precipitates a leadership challenge. But non-explicit
“orders” allow everyone concerned to pretend that there was no
disobedience, of course not, oh, no, just some plausible
misunderstanding, and we don’t need to fight/vote about that right now,
do we?

Man, you people are complicated.

That was sort of my point.

The more I study human communication, the more I conclude that most
people are MUCH more complicated internally than I am.

I rather think we’re complicated in different ways. If humans had been
subjected to selection pressure in your ways, for say six million years,
and primates whose internal states resemble those of neurotypicals had
been existing on the fringes for all that time, and suddenly there were
environments where they could flourish differentially, what do you think
a) human society would be like now? and b) where would it be heading?

No clue.  I suspect we’d have a lot less art, though.

So much art is rooted in internal conflict, and my internal conflicts are
pretty much consistently trivial.  Similarly, so much of it relies on
people being ashamed of their state, or afraid of it, or something, and…
I just don’t get it.

By the way, Jane [Gmur] tells me there is Carnelli
[] on the program for the
RG [Minnesota Mensa Regional Gathering in April]. Goody. I love
Carnelli. I beat Jon Evans once. He was usually the Carnelli master, but
for some reason he was playing, we were the last two in the circle and
the timer was down to five seconds. The key title word was “up” as in
“Up the Down Staircase,” or “Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up to Me,”
and I said, “Up Yours.”

Which is not, so far as I know, the title of anything, but it was so
unlike me, as Jon knew, that he exploded in guffaws and the
(five-second) clock ran out.


Brilliant? Maybe, if I’d had time to think about it, but I didn’t. It
was just the first thing that came into my head.

That’s the brilliant part.  :)

Also, I bluff a lot in Carnelli. That is, I lie; I make up stuff. You
have to do it fast, or be prepared to do it as if you were saying
something true spontaneously, because people who challenge you
incorrectly lose their place in the circle. (If challenged, you are not
allowed to lie.) People who’d played with me before knew I might be
bluffing, but they also knew it was risky to challenge, because I will
choose to say something true but improbable whenever I can.  At five
seconds, these things don’t matter, because there isn’t time to think
them through.

Puns are also highly valued. “Guns of Navarone” followed by “Never on
Sunday,” is canonical, and one I had never heard but found on MPedia is
“Tequila Sunrise” followed by “To Kill a Mockingbird.” Or maybe the
other way around.

I was in a game once where the prevailing key word was “thing” and I was
beside myself with anticipation hoping it would still be apposite when
my turn came, and it was, and I got to say, “Of Thee I Thing.” Jon was
the Carnelli Master in that game, I think.

… And there’s where I get my mileage back off being so much simpler
than normal humans.  Five seconds is a LONG time to me.  In games timed at a few seconds, I have time to consider game theory.

My models are simplistic, but VERY fast.

[All this happened incidentally to whatever else we were doing, over five hours or so, but at this point, we switched to the telephone. Peter also lives in Northfield, about three miles from me, not that it matters. One more bit, later:]

Peter (after rereading the exchanges above):

This is the part that fascinates me still.  I can’t imagine how people can get anything done, given how long it apparently takes them.  And yet…

I think that’s the other reason ADHD wasn’t easy to spot when I was a kid. You check for it by seeing whether the kid can solve problems that take more than five seconds to solve, right?  If he can, that means he’s paying attention for more than five seconds… Right?


Oh, I’ve gotta put that bit in too.

Posted in Eclectic (nothing in particular), Linguistics | 2 Comments

Simplified spelling — don’t go there

Over at Kitchen Table Math, Catherine Johnson has recently written in favor of simplifying English spelling. She asks:

Suppose you simplified spelling so that written English became a perfectly transparent writing system like Spanish. It would be obvious to one and all that written English is a code, that spelling means encoding the sounds of the English language, and that reading means decoding the sounds of the English language.

Would schools use phonics to teach children how to read?

To which the obvious answer is “No.” People so determinedly wrong-headed as those in ed schools would just find some other excuse to miseducate prospective teachers. Math is, after all, perfectly transparent, and they’ve got that entirely wrong.

Anyway, I disagreed, and in the comments I said:

“Simplified spelling” is a false hope. There are reasons why linguists (that is, people with actual credentials in the study of language — I was a grad student in linguistics) are generally unconvinced it’s a good idea.

First: You have to decide whose spoken English is encoded into this mythical “perfectly transparent” writing system. London? Boston? New Orleans? For that matter, why not Calcutta or Shanghai?

Which is more transparent, Burma or Myanmar? Cambodia or Kampuchea?

We actually do have a perfectly transparent way of transcribing spoken language, called the International Phonetic Alphabet. Do people use that to teach reading? (I understand the answer in China is sometimes “yes.”)

Second, “simplified spelling” erases the historical and logical relations between words whose pronunciation has shifted over centuries, making it harder to learn new vocabulary beyond the words children know.

An example: English plurals are spelled with “s.” Most English speakers are blithely unaware that the “s” is pronounced like the phoneme /s/ after unvoiced consonants, e.g. /t/, and like /z/ after voiced consonants and vowels.

Or at least they were until “Boyz” hit their consciousness. And now we have “Bratz.”

Thus perfectly illustrating the problem; “Bratz” is wrong. That’s an /s/, but nobody noticed.

Would it be easier to learn English plurals, or possessives, or third-person singular verbs, if children had to distinguish cats from dogz?

Third, we’d lose most of written literature. If you grew up with a simplified-spelling version of English, Shakespeare would be as remote as Chaucer, and only the relative handful of books that were translated from historical originals would be accessible to you.

The People’s Republic of China adopted simplified spelling, in the form of simplified characters, in the name of improved literacy, but the political purpose was to obliterate access to written history that did not conform to the party’s vision.

And as long as I’ve mentioned Chinese, character languages are a lot further from phonetically transparent than any alphabetic language, yet Japan, Korea and Taiwan have literacy rates that NAEP should envy. Spelling is not the problem.

Posted in Education, Linguistics | 2 Comments

Galloping human evolution II

Greg Cochran and Henry Harpending have a new book out, The 10,000 Year Explosion: How Civilization Accelerated Human Evolution. It expands on a paper they and others published last year, which I wrote about then.

The book’s website has a wealth of material, so I won’t belabor the point, but in brief their argument is that over the last 10,000 years, roughly since the beginning of agriculture — both the domestication of animals and the planting and harvesting of crops — human evolution has been happening faster than it ever did earlier in the history of the species. Faster, as in 100 times faster.

There are two principal, interacting, reasons. First, agriculture allowed people to live in larger and more densely settled groups, which altered the selective pressures influencing reproductive success. Different foods, different diseases, different social expectations — all changed which people were more likely to have children who themselves lived long enough to successfully raise children of their own. Not much more likely, usually, but a very small percentage advantage is powerful enough to sweep a whole population in a lot less than 10,000 years.

Second, agriculture supported a much larger total population, meaning more mutations, more bodies testing whether this version of a gene or that offered better odds in the lottery that pays off in more descendants. And there’s no rule that limits players in the lottery to buying just one ticket. Many different genetic changes may be happening simultaneously in a population.

There’s been plenty of discussion on blogs for you to explore, but you could start with 2blowhards, which did a weeklong series of interviews with Greg Cochran. Check the archives for the week of Jan. 25.

And Steve Sailer has a great review he wrote for VDare. Michael Blowhard calls it “rowdy.” I think I’d go for “rollicking” myself. Sailer writes, “Perhaps my gravestone will read, ‘He introduced Cochran to Harpending.’ ”

Posted in Science and technology | 1 Comment

Fun with Click and Jane

Virginia Heffernan writes a media column for The New York Times, and last week’s, titled “Click and Jane,” asks “What are kids learning to read when they learn to read online?”

The question was prompted, she tells us, by her 3-year-old son, who objected that something he’d been watching on his laptop wasn’t a book, as the computer had described it. “It’s more like a movie or a video,” he said.

Well, yeah, though I think she may be making a bit too much of this. If the child masters the reading code, I’m not sure whether it makes much difference where or how he learns. Yes, college professors complain that their students no longer have the attention capacity to slog through long or difficult texts. But I suspect college professors were saying that long before their students grew up with TV or laptops.

I’d like to draw your attention, however, to a point she made in passing:

In their book “Freakonomics,” Stephen J. Dubner and Steven D. Levitt write that kids who grow up in houses packed with books fare better on school tests than those who grow up with fewer books. But they also contend that reading aloud to children and limiting their TV time has no correlation with success on tests. If both of these observations hold, it’s worth determining what books really are, the better to decisively decorate with them. The widespread digitization of text has complicated the matter. Will Ben benefit if I load my Kindle with hundreds of books that he can’t see? Or does he need the spectacle of hard- and softcover dust magnets eliminating floor space in our small apartment to get the full “Freakonomics” effect? I sadly suspect he needs the shelves and dust.

I haven’t read Freakonomics, though I do like the blog, so I can’t say whether Heffernan has correctly reported what the authors say. And I don’t doubt the first claim, that children who grow up surrounded by books do better on school tests than those who don’t (though I’m not so sure about the next part). What seems odd to me is that she seems to imply the books are the causal factor, to the extent of speculating whether having them in pixels rather than on paper will lessen their influence.

Doesn’t the chief causal argument run like this?

  • Smart people on average do better on school tests
  • Smart people on average have more books around the house
  • Smart people on average have smarter children
  • Oh, we all know exceptions to these correlations, but the significant point is that the causal relation doesn’t run backwards. Doing better on school tests won’t make you smarter than you would be if you never took them, though it has other benefits that can amplify the effects of being smarter, in line with Malcolm Gladwell’s example of children who are among the oldest in their cohort when they begin playing hockey. Filling your house with books won’t make you smarter, though reading voraciously may make you more successful than others who start with similar smarts. Having smart children doesn’t retroactively make you smarter, though it might cause people who know you to wonder whether they may have underestimated you.

    When I read things like this, I always wonder whether the writer is truly oblivious to what’s in front of her eyes, or whether she just feels it is obligatory to pretend she doesn’t see.

    Posted in Education, Science and technology | Leave a comment

    She’s Geeky

    That’s the name of a series of conferences,  the most recent of which just concluded in Mountain View, Calif.

    The site describes the intended audience:

    She’s Geeky events are neutral, face-to-face gathering spaces for women who like to geek out. Attendees include women involved in all aspects of technology, including those who like to use geeky tools, not just coders, programmers and engineers. You don’t even have to be from the computer industry. You just have to be a woman who identifies as a geek.

    I read about this event in a post by Amy Gahran, who blogs for the Poynter Institute. She was planning to attend, and she cited it as an example of the kind of activity that journalists should be participating in more often, as a way of breaking out of their “insular, self-referential” culture.

    Not a bad idea, although many newsroom managers are quite allergic to the idea of their reporters and editors getting deeply involved with community affairs. However, what struck me about her description of the desirable aspects of this particular convention was this, under the heading “Female culture” (emphasis mine):

    Most tech conferences are a heavily male playground. This affects not only the topics covered and event structure, but the tone of interaction. In my experience, conferences that are primarily oriented toward women in a given field tend to be more welcoming and less cliquish or hierarchical than at events where male culture predominates. This means that even male journalists who are newcomers to tech culture might get more out of an event like She’s Geeky than an uber-geekboy rave like Gnomedex (which is fun, but maybe not for your first stop).

    Perhaps her experience with conferences for women is more extensive than mine, because I do not join separatist organizations or routinely attend separatist events (“You just have to be a woman . . .”). But I did attend one once, and a less welcoming and more cliquish environment is hard to imagine.

    In 1996, I was invited to join a panel discussion on the California Civil Rights Initiative, then on the ballot in that state, which was part of the program at the fall conference of the Journalism and Women Symposium held that year in Napa, Calif.

    “Come for the weekend,” they said, so I did.

    I didn’t belong there. At the mix-and-mingle introductory wine tasting, in the interims between talks, it was clear that one was expected to establish her right to be there by bashing (the absent) males.  So wonderful, I’d hear, to be free of masculine domination and hierarchy. And who are you?

    Well. in the belief that every good garden party  deserves a skunk, I started telling them how discomforting I found it to be among people who despised half of humanity, or, at least were willing to say they did in order to establish their credentials with the other half.

    Actually I thought it was like being at a Klan rally, but I think I didn’t go quite so far as to say so.

    The panel discussion was an Experience. The two of us who had been invited to support the initiative, which bans racial (and gender) preferences in government policy were hissed from the audience. That’s female solidarity, yes. Some woman (an affirmative action token professor at Berkeley) spoke at length from the audience about Cal’s admission policies, but didn’t know what they were. One of the two pro-discrimination panelists snidely implied that I and anyone else who supported CCRI were allies of David Duke. I pointed out that it was her side who had paid David Duke to come to California to speak in favor of CCRI (a good idea may be supported for bad reasons). She miffed that she didn’t deserve to suffer personal attacks.

    Hey lady, you started it.

    In contrast,  my experience with largely male professional events has been just as largely positive. Leave aside the fact that I was a college math professor for a while, and ran a small printing company, and then worked as an editorial writer (all male-dominated jobs), and just look at BlogNashville, 2005.

    I signed up, because it sounded like fun and I’d get to meet lots of people I knew only online. Bill Hobbs, who organized it, invited me to be on a panel, and that was a hoot. True, the attendees skewed white, male and young. But they didn’t care.

    Mark Tapscott, then at the Heritage Foundation, had a car and generously offered to ferry me and my walker around.  We were joined by Robin Burk — ooh. She is a touch-the-hem-of-her-garment someone. She helped build Darpanet. She knew Adm. Grace Murray Hopper. You know, computer bug.

    Anyway, Mark’s car was later joined by La Shawn Barber. When we all got out together, three females, two old, one black, we were trampling stereotypes underfoot with every step we took. And everybody thought it was cool, if they noticed at all.

    Not noticing at all seems to me to be the ideal we should aim at.

    Posted in Journalism and media | Leave a comment

    Tea’d-up outrage

     A woman who writes a monthly fluff’n'stuff column for The Denver Post’s Lifestyle section, Kristen Browning-Blas, delivered herself this week of a Meaningful Protest Against Racism.

    To set the stage she now sees herself taking, she invokes not only Gandhi and Rev. King, but Rep. John Lewis, who was beaten by Alabama state troopers as he and others marched in Selma in 1965. “They knew they might be hurt, yet they stepped on past the fear.”

    On Inauguration Day, she tells us, she dropped by the cafe/bar of her gym to get some soup.

    One of the employees was checking the tea and noted out loud that they were out of black tea. To the other server, she made a joke about ordering some more “Obama tea.”

    On this day, of all days, I could not turn away, pretend I didn’t hear.

    My pulse raced a little. Butterflies fluttered in my stomach. In the larger scheme of things, calling her on it was a small act.

    You could say that, yes.

    So she “did the uncomfortable thing” and spoke to the club manager. He asked what she wanted him to do, and she “suggested racial sensitivity training at the very least.”

    As if that would help with the problem, if there were a problem, which there wasn’t.

    Look, there are times when people should mark even casual comments as distasteful. If the server had said something about “(N-word) tea,” I too would think it worth complaining about, and I hope I would. The thing is, the opportunity doesn’t arise that often. The only time in the last 50 years I, personally, have heard a white person use the N-word, it was the trainer at a court-mandated “racial sensitivity training” session our employer required everyone to attend. She intended, presumably, to instruct the audience in how to do all the things they should not do, and which they were already not doing.

    Obama tea? That’s like suing Southwest Airlines for “Eeeny meeny miny mo.”

    As it happens, Browning-Blas’s 13-year-old son understands the lesson she taught him better than she does. At school the same day, he told her, one of his classmates in geography class said, as Obama placed his hand on the Bible to take the oath of office, “It’s still not too late to shoot him.” Her son told his classmate to be quiet, as well he should. Butterflies and racing pulses, if any, not reported.

    James Taranto, at the Wall St. Journal, has a great send-up of this pretentious delivery.

    He concludes:

    We shall overcome–but we haven’t yet. Racism in America is far from dead. It turns out there is even a Web site called, featuring a caricature of President Obama in which his face appears to be made of herbs and fruit.

    Let us all follow Kristen Browning-Blas’s example and take a stand against injustice. If not us, who? If not now, when? If not honey, lemon?

    Posted in Journalism and media, Politics | Leave a comment

    Heterogeneous classes

    Catherine Johnson at Kitchen Table Math posted a link to research about the long-term effects on children who are placed in mixed-ability classes far ahead of their level.

    Years later, they are more likely to be depressed.

    From Science News:

    “We found that students in the first grade who struggled academically with core subjects, including reading and math, later displayed negative self-perceptions and symptoms of depression in sixth and seventh grade, respectively,” said Keith Herman, associate professor of education, school and counseling psychology in the [University of Missouri] College of Education. “Often, children with poor academic skills believe they have less influence on important outcomes in their life. Poor academic skills can influence how children view themselves as students and as social beings.”

    Johnson cites Zig Engelmann on the misguided justification for placing children in classes too hard for them:

    Rule 3: Always place students appropriately for more rapid mastery progress. This fact contradicts the belief that students are placed appropriately in a sequence if they have to struggle—scratch their head, make false starts, sigh, frown, gut it out. . . . The assumption seems to be that students will be strengthened if they are “challenged.”

    This belief is flatly wrong. If students are placed appropriately, the work is relatively easy. Students tend to learn it without as much “struggle.” They tend to retain it better and they tend to apply it better, if they learn it with fewer mistakes.

    Johnson’s been in the trenches.

    If schools grouped kids homogeneously and used precision teaching or Direct Instruction, you wouldn’t see the less-talented kids developing depressions 5 years down the line. Even without precision teaching or Direct Instruction, you wouldn’t see depression. You wouldn’t see it because these kids wouldn’t be struggling. They’d be taught at their level, they’d be given the time they needed, and they’d learn.I think it’s time to look into the emotional costs of heterogeneous grouping.

    Having lived through 3 years of my own child struggling through a class that was over his head, I can tell you that it’s not good for the child. Heterogeneous grouping is no picnic for the kids on the bottom.

    And one of Johnson’s commenters sums it up:

    Maybe there aren’t groupings that are effective for everyone, but the heterogeneous grouping seem to be bad for most.

    It has been a disaster for my children. My oldest child has learned not to pay attention in class. She reads novels all day. My middle child has learned that children of a specific ethnic group are dumb. My youngest thinks that school is where you goof off with your friends.

    I have also seen how awful the heterogeneous grouping is for my friend’s son with a learning disability. He sits in class all day struggling. He knows he is at the bottom of the class, and so do all the other kids. He is in the same classroom as my daughter who reads at a high school level. The teacher doesn’t have anywhere near the time to deal with both kids.

    It is hard to see that there would a solution that is worse for the low and high kids than the current heterogeneous groupings.

    Posted in Education | 1 Comment


    The news agency Reuters posted a story the day after the inauguration claiming:
    “President Barack Obama’s inauguration generated an unprecedented 35,000 stories in the world’s major newspapers, television and radio broadcasts over the past day — about 35 times more than the last presidential swearing-in — a monitoring group said on Wednesday.”

    Bloggers seem to like this story — I’ve run into it several times — but they also seem to be accepting it as legit, though the idea that the second inauguration of President Bush garnered a mere 1,000 stories is implausible on its face. Fewer than Obama? Sure, I believe that. But by a factor of 35? Not likely.

    So who was Reuters relying on for what we journalists call a one-source story? Why, it was Paul JJ Payack, president of Global Language Monitor.

    He’s got form as a purveyor of dubious linguistic self-promotions. The guys at Language Log nailed him good for a series of predictions about the millionth word in English. Benjamin Zimmer wrote:

    Gullible reporters keep falling for a self-aggrandizing scam perpetrated by Paul J.J. Payack, who runs an outfit called Global Language Monitor. As regular Language Log readers know, Mr. Payack has been trumpeting the arrival of “the millionth word” in English for some time now. In fact, he’s predicted that the English language would pass the million-word mark in 2006… and 2007… and 2008… and now 2009. As reported in the Christian Science Monitor and The Economist, the date that Payack has now set for the million-word milestone is April 29, 2009.

    In a previous installment of the Payack saga, I wrote that the Million Word March was “a progression that he turns on and off based on his publicity needs.” So I can’t say I was terribly surprised to learn that April 29, 2009 just happens to be the publication date of the paperback edition of Payack’s book, A Million Words and Counting: How Global English Is Rewriting The World. What a stupendous coincidence that Global Language Monitor’s word-counting algorithm has timed itself to accord with Payack’s publishing schedule!

    Payack calls Obama “the biggest story of the century so far,” and Reuters quotes him further:

    Payack said that according to his group’s monitoring, the Obama campaign and election story had generated 717,000 citations in print, television and radio across the world in 2008 and 254 million mentions on the Internet and in Web blogs.

    That surpassed media interest generated by Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the global financial meltdown in 2008, the Iraq War in 2003 and the September 11 attacks on New York and Washington, Payack said.

    The tallies were calculated using the group’s proprietary algorithm which tracks the frequency of words and phrases in the global print and electronic media, the Internet and major databases.

    People with editors are not supposed to fall for silly press releases.

    Posted in Journalism and media, Linguistics | 1 Comment

    Differentiated instruction

    Joanne Jacobs recently posted a link to a news story about how much California teachers make. The comment thread drew predictable responses from teachers who don’t make that much, or who think it’s only reasonable for how hard they work, or — well, I bet you can recite that litany yourself.

    I’ve excepted below my comments (not about pay) and the context that prompted them.


    See how well your school district pays its teachers, writes  the Sacramento Bee. California’s average teacher earned $65,808 last year, an increase of 3.4 percent from 2007, but pay varies.  High school districts pay the most, unified (K-12) districts are in the middle and elementary districts usually have the lowest pay.

    I noticed pay averages $93,283 at my local high school district, with a starting salary of $59,692 and top pay of $112,796. That’s the highest, especially the starting pay, in our high-cost county.

    From comments:
    # 30 linda seebach Jan 12th, 2009 at 7:52 am

    McSwain, above (# 9 McSwain Jan 11th, 2009 at 1:06 pm), says, “With NCLB and mainstreaming, I have special ed students, gifted students, and English Learners in my classroom of 30+ kids, and I have to differentiate instruction for ALL of them. The planning time for that is astronomical, and there is zero down time in the classroom.”

    Deliberately mixing academically dissimilar students in a single classroom not only requires astronomical planning time, it guarantees an unsatisfactory outcome for nearly all the students. All in pursuit of an illusory goal of “inclusion.” Wouldn’t it work better to group similar students together, so they could progress at similar rates?

    Of course it would, but that’s one of the things that Cannot Be Said. Let alone done.

    The system does make teachers’ jobs harder than they need to be. On the other hand, a lot of the people filling those jobs would have a hard time making the same kind of money (considering security and benefits. especially retirement benefits, as well) in other careers. They certainly wouldn’t in journalism.

    # 31 Margo/Mom Jan 12th, 2009 at 8:04 am

    linda–it can be said, and frequently is said–particularly by those who advocate for advantaged students. the problem is that while it appears to be “logical,” based on our post-industrial experiences, to group students by “ability” and achieve better outcomes for all, the evidence doesn’t point in that direction. Most research that I have seen on the topic shows that, particularly at an early age, ability grouping reinforces, rather than compensates for differences. Furthermore, mixed groupings typically produce better outcomes for those on the bottom with no harm to those on top.

    # 36 Tracy W Jan 13th, 2009 at 1:30 am

    Margo/Mum, one of the programmes shown to be most effective at teaching students is Direct Instruction, which uses grouping by ability. See and

    This programme focuses on grouping children by two factors – how much they already know and how much they learn. So a kid with an IQ of 120 who starts school not knowing their alphabet would be placed earlier in the lesson sequence than a kid with an IQ of 80 who starts school knowing their alphabet. Kids can and often are placed in different places in the maths and reading sequences based on their results. Replacements are frequently reviewed. And if a kid misses a chunk of school, say due to illness, they’re placed back where they left the sequence, rather than being expected to have magically learnt everything their class learnt while they were missed. There are a lot of other things that Direct Instruction does, including providing scripted lessons to teachers and providing school backup for teachers dealing with difficult students. But this brief description of how placement by ability is done in Direct Instruction indicates how difficult it is to make general statements about grouping by ability – the Direct Instruction system is very different to, say, giving kids an IQ test and then using the results of that test to assign them to one stream for all their academic lessons.

    # 37 Margo/Mom Jan 13th, 2009 at 6:19 am

    [To] Tracy W.
    I am no intuitive fan of Direct Instruction–but I do pay attention to research and what it says, and I am aware of the research re DI and what it says and doesn’t say. The grouping used in DI is flexible ability grouping. This means that children are assessed frequently and placed in groups accordingly. These groups are used for reading instruction. This is a very different thing from ability streaming or tracking–which is what I understood to be advocated. These systems typically lack flexibility, apply across the board–so that students are abundantly clear regarding who are the smart kids and who are not, and the earlier that this tracking takes place, the less likely kids are ever to move from one group to another (particularly upward).

    . . .
    Early studies with school integration, in which minority students who performed less well were integrated with better performing majority students. The minority students tended to do better with no detriment to the majority students. Studies of inclusion of students with disabilities have tended towards similar results.

    # 39 linda seebach Jan 13th, 2009 at 10:01 am

    Margo/Mom above said, “Most research that I have seen on the topic shows that, particularly at an early age, ability grouping reinforces, rather than compensates for differences. Furthermore, mixed groupings typically produce better outcomes for those on the bottom with no harm to those on top.”

    It is almost certainly correct that ability grouping reinforces differences. But that’s not a bug, as she seems to think; it’s a feature. The difference between a child with -2 S.D. IQ and +2 S.D. cannot be “compensated for;” the only thing mixed grouping can guarantee is that time does not widen it as much as should happen if every child is achieving his or personal best.

    (See Malcolm Gladwell’s example of the Canadian hockey rules that inadvertently privilege young players who happen to be born early in a calendar year.)

    If one child makes (or can make) two years’ progress in a school year, and her sister can make only a half-year’s progress in one year, it is immoral to hold the brighter child back so the gap between them does not grow.

    And as public policy, it’s insane. If you’re worried about America’s global competitiveness, worry about the competition at the top for the best-trained brains, not the competition for slightly better performance in entry-level jobs, however important the latter is to the life chances of people who will never get much past entry-level jobs.

    James Coleman explained why minority children who previously attended segregated schools did better when they began attending schools with white children; they had more effective teachers. His research was too explosive to publish at the time, he said in a lecture I heard him give much much later. So even if they did, that does not provide evidence in favor of the proposition that it was smarter *classmates* who made the difference.

    Racial issues aside, I doubt that the experience of feeling that just about everybody in your class is smarter than you are confers any academic benefit. Especially if you’re right.

    For that matter, neither does thinking you’re smarter than just about everybody in your class. Even if you’re right.

    The research that purports to show that high-achieving children are not harmed by heterogeneous grouping is methodologically suspect. (see, e.g., the work of Deborah Ruf at ). She explains that most of the instruments available to researchers have rather low ceilings, so they don’t show that children above the ceilings are making slower than normal progress (for them). That’s harm, in my book.

    Margo/Mom goes on to quote some boilerplate balderdash from the National Association of School Psychologists in defense of her support for “heterogeneous classrooms with instruction differentiated to meet the needs of all students.”

    Trouble is, in the real world most teachers can’t provide that.

    Posted in Education | 1 Comment

    Goldin, Katz and fans

    (Cross-posted at Kitchen Table Math, the Sequel)

    Goldin and Katz make two largely correct diagnostic points in The Race Between Education and Technology; that the United States got a significant head start on economic development because it expanded access to secondary and post-secondary education sooner than other countries, and we are no longer ahead in that regard. Their prescription, however, is largely incorrect. We can’t get ahead of other countries by increasing the number of Americans graduating from college, because nearly all of the students who can do so are already trying.

    Joanne Jacobs posted on this in the context of David Brooks’ NYTimes column and I left this comment there:

    If no European country in 1950 had more than 30 percent of its older teens in school, that was an inefficiency that the United States could exploit to its advantage. But if every young person who can benefit from staying in school long enough to graduate is already doing so, there’s nothing further to exploit.

    We can argue about what the ideal high school graduation rate should be, that is, what the criterion for graduation should be, and what needs to be done to ensure every child who is capable of meeting the criterion has resources and opportunity to do so. But it is delusional to believe that we can have both a meaningful criterion for graduation and a 100 percent graduation rate.

    I suspect the true graduation rate should be between 80 and 85 percent. Maybe we could push it to 90, subject to the law of diminishing returns, if we poured every possible dollar into the last few marginal students — though, as James Heckman has demonstrated, we’d get much higher returns if we invested the money in them when they were little.

    Something similar operates all along the line of returns to increasing education. There are non-economic returns to more education, but they don’t depend on credentials. If everyone who is capable of benefiting economically from higher education is already able to earn a degree, there is no further inefficiency for the U.S. to exploit.

    If other countries have larger percentages of their populations who are capable of benefiting from more years of education than the U.S. does, well, what are we supposed to do about that?

    Brooks cites economist James Heckman in support of early intervention, but Heckman’s point is not that early intervention is a panacea, but that whatever it can accomplish will be most effective if it’s done early rather than late.

    I haven’t read the Heckman paper Brooks is citing, but Heckman has said — very circumspectly — that African Americans and Hispanics begin school with similar performance deficits, but that Hispanics are much more likely to make them up.

    From a column I wrote:

    . . .
    “Our analysis of the Hispanic data illuminates the traditional study of black-white differences and casts doubt on many conventional explanations of these differences since they do not apply to Hispanics who also suffer from many of the same disadvantages.”

    I know this is contrary to just about everything you’ve heard or read, so you’re asking, “Who are these people?” They’re Pedro Carneiro, University College London; James J. Heckman, University of Chicago, American Bar Foundation and University College London (and winner of the 2000 Nobel Prize in economics for developing the kind of technical statistical analysis that undergirds this paper) and Dimitriy V. Masterov. The paper was written for the Institute for Labor Market Policy Evaluation, a part of the Swedish Ministry of Industry, Employment and Communications, in Uppsala, Sweden.

    The paper is “Labor market discrimination and racial differences in premarket factors” and it’s at on the Web.

    Steve Sailer has written about the Brooks column. See also this post at the population genetics blog gnxp.

    (For a bonus, the immediately preceding gnxp post dissects the media coverage of the math/gender study.)

    Posted in Education, Science and technology | 1 Comment