Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Ranking high schools

I received this email from a person who graduated from Mercer Island High School in the 1970s. (he can identify himself more fully in the comments if he likes -- I don't like to mention people's names/identity unless I have their explicit permission):

Was having lunch and reading the paper at the Roanoke earlier this week, and the topic of conversation at the bar was the latest Newsweek high school poll which did not mention MIHS. Went to the Newsweek site, couldn’t find MIHS  anywhere. Then Googled, and found this (

Newsweek Best Schools Report
This poll (The nation’s most challenging schools) has been ongoing for a number of years. The Education Reporter for the Washington Post makes the claim that you can define the nation’s top institutions by identifying the number of students who take AP tests divided by the total number of senior students.
Mercer Island is not on this list because we elected not to participate. Schools must submit this information themselves. Our superintendent asked the school board whether they wanted to use this as one of our indicators. The board did not want to do so. Therefore the decision was made not to participate. John has looked at our student AP testing numbers and discovered that, indeed, if we had participated, we would have been on the list (but not in the top 100). In addition, our students’ AP scores are among the highest. Our WASL scores are also the highest in the state. We have also been nominated as a National Blue Ribbon School, a much more significant recognition.

So…am I reading this right? The board thought that since MIHS wouldn’t rank in the top 100, they wouldn’t participate? I don’t know if that rating would hold true today, but it’s interesting to note that International School, Newport, Interlake, and Bellevue are all in the top 100 on that poll this year. Might be worth a public discussion, don’t you think? We – the residents – are paying the taxes that fund this school program, and we deserve to know how it compares nationally – and locally. At least, that’s how I see it. <smile>

I agree that a single statistic is misleading, and maybe even counter-productive if it causes schools to change policies to conform to the rating.  That’s the argument against WASL, NCLB, etc. etc. 

I also don’t blame schools (even the ones who rank well) for resisting such rankings, just like I resist when my boss at work ranks my team against others.  I tell him he’s comparing apples to oranges and it’s not only unfair, it’s counter-productive.  But on the other hand, all world-class companies do that, so this can't be all bad.  And although yes it can be hard and unfair sometimes, in the aggregate and over time, I think it works pretty well.

Competition is a good thing and I don’t know how you can improve without a way to keep score.  I don’t believe Mercer Island is anywhere near as good a school district as it could be –as it has to be if my kids are going to compete with China and India someday.

When I discussed this recently with an influential Islander (again, sorry not to mention him by name -- he's welcome to speak up in the comments), he said this:

I think the best way to compare schools is by measuring the way they prepare students for the next step.

In districts like ours, where 95%+ go on to higher education, it only measure how well the kids do in college.   In fact, the Newsweek lists says they choose AP/IB tests as measurements because it’s a way to measure their readiness for college.  Much better would be seeing how well kids from the different schools actually do in college.

Newsweek’s way is measuring inputs when we really care about the output.

So, go to colleges and ask them how kids from various high schools do relative to each other.  Locally, the Seattle Times has done this a few times (by measuring the GPA difference between student’s high school GPA and their freshman-year college GPAs at various Washington State colleges/universities).  While that output measure isn’t ideal (it ignores strength of schedule and soph-senior years), it’s a start. 

PS Some argue for measuring how many kids get into their first college choice.  The problem with this... is that many kids don’t have a realistic view when it comes to their first choice.

PPS  I completely agree with your comment “I don’t believe Mercer Island is anywhere near as good a school district as it could be” – we could have a very long discussion about that on many levels.  One quick note is that’s the primary reason the whole “big idea” effort is underway led by some pretty impressive folks and energy.  Here’s hoping that takes us closer to the goal.

What do you think?  Please leave comments (anonymously if you prefer) or email me (if you're too shy) and I'll summarize in a later post.

In Defense of Food [book]



"Eat Food. Not too much. Mostly Plants." That's the summary, and I'm a believer. Since reading Omnivore's Dilemma, I've been quite the fan of Michael Pollan's approach to food and nutrition. I'm not smart enough to keep up with all the new ideas of what's "healthy" and what's not -- and the conclusions seem to change day-to-day anyway . Scientists still know sooooo little after all, and Pollan reminds us that what's healthy is what our bodies evolved to eat over millions of years. Stick to food that your great-grandmother would recognize.

If you don't have time to read the entire book, the ideas in the book are well-summarized in his January 2007 New York Times essay. Here is my list of particularly interesting things I learned:

  • The idea that you must eat a low fat diet (the so-called "Lipid hypothesis") is being increasingly discredited as researchers find that the type of fat you eat is more important than the amount. And guess what? Traditional food (milk, eggs, meat, etc.) is all good fat, but man-made food-like substances (margarine, low-fat anything) are pretty nasty. [see especially: See Frank B. Hu et al, Journal of American College of Nutrition, Vol. 20, 1, 5-19 (2001)]
  • Our obsession with "health food" (Pollan calls it nutritionism) causes us to miss the forest for the trees. Paul Rozin is a U-Penn psychologist who puts this to the test, concluding that people think incorrectly that bananas, spinach, corn, alfalfa sprouts, or peaches are better for you on a deserted island than the high-protein or high-carbohydrate found in hot dogs and milk chocolate.
  • I want to follow up on the ideas behind nutritional genomics, and in particular a book Pollan cites edited by Kaput and Rodriguez: Nutritional Genomics: Discovering the path to personalized Nutrition (John C. Wiley and Sons, 2006). See the article by Walter C. Willet "Pursuit of optimal diets"
  • Eat plants, mostly leaves (not seeds).
  • Results of nutrition studies are hard to evaluate because the questionnaires are almost impossible for the subjects to fill out accurately. See Gladys Block (U-California Berkeley School of Public Health) who designed the nurses study and says these things are "a mess".
  • Aborigines' health improves when they go back to a traditional diet [See study by Karin O'Dea]
  • Wansink's diet suggestions in Mindless Eating (p. 194)
    • Examples include: use smaller plates, keep the serving pot away from your plates


Incidentally, Sam and others suggested I look at the New Yorker review this week, which discusses Pollan's book along with several other books I think are mostly silly overreactions by wolf-criers who don’t understand the free market.  The idea that something must be done to “solve” a normal ages-old supply-demand issue is, I think, just naive and the people who do it are likely to cause more problems than they solve.  Michael Pollan is right on, I think, in saying how those of us who care most about health should eat, but don't shove good food down the throats of people who disagree with us.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Real fixes to global warming

This month's Wired magazine (June 2008, not yet available on-line) is an absolute must-read for anyone seriously concerned about global warming and what can really be done about it.  The headline summarizes the thinking nicely: keep your SUV, forget organics, go nuclear, screw the spotted owl.  Like much of Wired, the title is meant to be provocative, but there is a huge grain of truth that deserves careful thought: all "fixes" have costs, and you better really know what you're doing before you make major changes in the name of "the environment".

Meanwhile, I'm following the advice posted yesterday at Crosscut's article "Sparing no expense to reduce that carbon footprint".  Here's my favorite tip:

I often hear the excuse, "With my schedule, I can't be expected to carpool." I say nonsense. Driving produces more than half your carbon footprint. I always ride with at least two people in the car, except on Sundays, when traffic is light and my driver has his day off.

Hey, every little bit counts.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Seattle Cheese Festival

We love cheese as much as we like good tofu, so of course we also dropped in on the Seattle Cheese Festival, held this weekend at Pike Place Market.  The best part of course is the sampling (suggested donation $5), though the crowds are disorganized and the lines are long, so you really have to want your samples.

Here are the ones we liked best:

  • Marin French Cheese Company (try their malange brie)
  • Sierra Nevada Cheese Company (excellent traditional and garlic cream cheese, available at PCC)
  • Sartori Reserve (SarVecchio parmesan is best)


seattle cheese festival

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Seattle's Best Tofu

Most of my friends don't like tofu, and I don't blame them. The stuff you buy at the grocery store is so dull it tastes rancid. But I remember the tofu I used to eat in Japan, made fresh by the local tofu-ya, or the excellent blocks from San Jose Tofu in Silicon Valley.  It's a completely different flavor, more like fine cheese than anything else.  Since moving here a few years ago I haven't had much tofu, since even the local Uwajimaya doesn't stock the really fresh stuff as far as I can tell.

Well that all changed this morning when I discovered Northwest Tofu, just east of Rainier on Jackson street in Seattle.  It's right around the corner from the Seattle Japanese Language School where I take my daughter each Saturday morning.  The make it fresh every day, throughout the day.  You can buy it for the unbelievable price of 80 cents per one pound pack.

On colder days I sometimes boil it, but on a hot day like today, I just eat it cold right out of the bag.  I served it to my 6-year-old, who loves it with a touch of soy sauce. If you like, sprinkle it with some chopped ginger, or Japanese seasonings like furikake or katsu-ou-boshi (available at Uwajimaya). Another option is to cut into slices and pan-fry with some butter (and garlic if you like).  Finally, during the summer I often keep some around for grilling, right there with the hamburgers and hotdogs.  Again, a touch of soy sauce and the kids love it.

One catch: thanks to the outrageous high price of soybeans lately (thanks again, you ignorant biofuels people), the owner has lately been finding it hard sometimes to get the ingredients.  He told me he buys from Minnesota, but the price has doubled in the last year and occasionally his supplier can't get him anything.

Northwest Tofu factory

 Northwest Tofu

It's part of a Chinese restaurant that apparently specializes in tofu and caters apparently mostly to Chinese--I was the only native English speaker inside when I visited.  Here's the exact address:

1913 S Jackson St
Seattle, WA 98144
(206) 328-8320

But if you just want tofu, drive your car all the way around the back and go through the (clearly-marked) door where you can buy it straight from the guy while he makes it.  Mmmmmm!!

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Marxist teachers at Mercer Island High School

Oh dear, looks like I've seriously underestimated the challenges facing Mercer Island schools.  Not only are we underfunded, but look at what one blogger uncovered about our community:

The school Ann [Dunham, mother of Barack Obama] attended, Mercer Island High School, was a hotbed of pro-Marxist radical teachers. John Stenhouse, board member, told the House Un-American Activities Subcommittee that he had been a member of the Communist Party USA and this school has a number of Marxists on it's staff. Two teachers at this school, Val Foubert and Jim Wichterman, both Frankfurt School style Marxists, taught a critical theory curriculum to students which include d; rejection of societal norms, attacks on Christianity, the traditional family, and assigned readings by Karl Marx. The hallway between Foubert̢۪s and Wichterman classrooms was sometimes called "anarchy ally."

The pieces are beginning to come together.  Censorship of offensive art, the band's recent trip to Communist China, photos of Lenin on a new Mercer Island resident's blog?  Coincidence?  or am I just drinking too much raw milk?

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

David's Picks for the Weekend

My long-time work friend David Burd has a reputation as the guy around the office who always seems to have something fun planned for the weekend.  He's lived in the Northwest forever, so he knows everything, and his activities always revolve around family too, so the rest of us with kids like to ask him what he's doing. Well, now he's formalized his lists of things to do and is posting them to a web site: David's Picks.

Best bet this weekend looks like the Mother's Day Social at the Bellevue Botanical Gardens.  My in-laws are in town, so maybe I can get them to take the kids there tomorrow so I can veg out at home :-)

Sunday, May 04, 2008

2 Million Minutes [film]

Life's biggest challenges involve knowing which questions to ask. Once you know the right questions, schools in China and India are great at teaching students the discipline and focus to answer them, especially in science and math. But are American schools, by contrast, squandering the high school years with frivolous activities that leave kids underprepared to compete in a global economy?

That's the implication of this new documentary, whose title represents the amount of time kids spend in high school (4 years = 2 million minutes). It's being discussed at the Seattle Schools Blog, the P-I School Zone blog (which notes there will be a public screening at 6pm in the LeRoux Room at Seattle University), and of course many other places like the 2MM blog .  [buy a copy here for $25 if you'd like to see it yourself -- it's not yet on Amazon or Netflix]

The 54-minute film follows high-achieving kids in three different schools, one each in India, China, and the U.S. (Carmel, Indiana). The differences in student life are striking; or -- to be precise -- the difference between the US and the other countries is striking. While others focus intensively on science and math, the American kids load up on athletics, extra-curricular activities, TV watching (1500 hrs/year versus 1200 hrs/yr on homework), and socializing with friends. Chinese kids spend so much more time in the classroom ( longer school days, full Saturdays, one fewer month of vacation) that by graduation they've attended the equivalent of an extra year of high school compared to Americans.

The results speak for themselves: only 20% of white American kids are proficient at math upon graduation, blown away by their Chinese and Indian counterparts -- who, in a global economy will someday be their direct competitors! Worse, polls of school administrators, teachers, and parents show that most Americans think the homework/play balance is about right. The only area where American kids score clearly better is in self-confidence.

So how bad is this? More importantly, what can or should be done about it? I admit that I watched the film expecting to be deeply concerned about America's future. Even here on Mercer Island, which prides itself on its strong education focus, I think our schools are not anywhere near as good as they should be.

Former Labor Secretary Robert Reich, never one to be humble in prescribing top-down government mandates, is quoted in the film thinking nostalgically about how the arrival of Sputnik in the 1950s forced the government to wake up and encourage the hiring of a whole new generation of math and science teachers (many of whom are now retiring). Is that what we need now?

But the film doesn't address some issues about the real world that, to me, leave open the question about what, if anything, should be done. Consider:

  • In my experience, engineers rarely, if ever, use all that math these Chinese and Indians spend so much time learning. Why? A lot of it (e.g. calculus, physics/chemistry depending on your field) is just not relevant to many high-tech fields, which depend more on logic and discrete math, which still isn't taught much in schools.
  • The best engineers and scientists spend more actual time on, say, collaborating with others, project management -- and most importantly--learning brand new things that didn't exist when they were in school. How do you teach that?
  • Although many/most of the recent huge success stories of the US economy are high tech companies -- yes, often founded by scientists and engineers -- it wasn't just the math and science that got them there. The best engineer founders stop doing day-to-day engineering as soon as they're in charge.

I think it's revealing that, of all the kids in that film, it's pretty obvious which one you'd expect to lead a company or create a new industry someday: it's Neil, the laid-back football player who doesn't study because it gets in the way of his extra-curriculars . While his Indian/Chinese counterparts are hitting the books so someday they can get their PhDs, he's organizing new after-school activities and learning how to win class elections. If he ever needs a PhD, it's pretty clear what he'll do: go hire one of those smart Indian or Chinese guys.

Maybe in fact, that's the trouble with the film: it focuses only on the top schools and not the middle or lower schools which are training the vast majority of kids in either country. Who's Neil going to hire for his new businesses or industries? Can you teach more kids to be like Neil -- especially in those lesser-performing schools? Or maybe what they really need is just focus, maybe on math/science, or maybe just on something, anything that teaches the discipline to take on new, unfamiliar challenges. But how do you do that?

So I'm left with a bunch of questions, but as always, which are the right ones to ask?

Saturday, May 03, 2008

Cirque Du Soleil

Cirque Du Soleil

This weekend we took the kids to Cirque Du Soleil, which is showing till June 1st in Redmond's Marymoor park.  I must say, although I've been many times before (including once in Tokyo), I hate these things.  The acrobats are extremely talented, I grant you, but I find it hard to watch them without a tinge of pain for myself thinking how awful it would feel to twist my body that way.

It was pretty hard getting in to the event, with all the cars coming off 520 on that little exit.  If you go on a weekend, I'd suggest coming from the other direction.  Exit instead at 40th, the turn left on W Lake Sammamish parkway.  There didn't seem to be any cars from that direction, and it's a right turn no stop into the park.  Parking is $15.