Saturday, June 01, 2013

Novel sold to Penguin Press

Title is The Mathematician's Shiva.  What’s it about? A genius, educated in Soviet Russia and living in Madison, Wisconsin, dies. Her family and a group of emigre mathematicians who idolize her descend upon her funeral and stay for her shiva. The result is delightful chaos. There’s math, Yiddish, Polish, Russian and Hebrew. I decided to be nice and include some English as well. It will be published sometime in the fall of 2014.

Any future blog posts and news will be on

Friday, August 05, 2011

Finishing up book

So this blog is on hiatus. Ocasional short stuff (mostly new lyrics, which is my version of doing sudoku during the week) can be found at .

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Topaz Talks About Grade Inflation

My modest attempt to go viral with the topic of grade inflation by merging it with a cute pet video. Enjoy!

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

New Article in Teachers College Record on College Grading

You can download a copy from TCR (if you're a subscriber) here:

Here's the beginning of it. I'll put up the rest temporarily later. Pdf is available on request.

Where A Is Ordinary: The Evolution of American College and University Grading, 1940–2009

by Stuart Rojstaczer & Christopher Healy

College grades can influence a student’s graduation prospects, academic motivation, postgraduate job choice, professional and graduate school selection, and access to loans and scholarships. Despite the importance of grades, national trends in grading practices have not been examined in over a decade, and there has been a limited effort to examine the historical evolution of college grading.

Purpose/Objective/Research Question/Focus of Study: Here we look at the evolution of grading over time and space at American colleges and universities over the last 70 years. Our data provide a means to examine how instructors’ assessments of excellence, mediocrity, and failure have changed in higher education.

Data Collection and Analysis: We have collected historical and contemporary data on A–F letter grades awarded from over 200 four-year colleges and universities. Our contemporary data on grades come from 135 schools, with a total enrollment of 1.5 million students.

Research Design: Through the use of averages over time and space as well as regression models, we examine how grading has changed temporally and how grading is a function of school selectivity, school type, and geographic region.

Findings/Results: Contemporary data indicate that, on average across a wide range of schools, A’s represent 43% of all letter grades, an increase of 28 percentage points since 1960 and 12 percentage points since 1988. D’s and F’s total typically less than 10% of all letter grades. Private colleges and universities give, on average, significantly more A’s and B’s combined than public institutions with equal student selectivity. Southern schools grade more harshly than those in other regions, and science and engineering-focused schools grade more stringently than those emphasizing the liberal arts. At schools with modest selectivity, grading is as generous as it was in the mid-1980s at highly selective schools. These prestigious schools have, in turn, continued to ramp up their grades. It is likely that at many selective and highly selective schools, undergraduate GPAs are now so saturated at the high end that they have little use as a motivator of students and as an evaluation tool for graduate and professional schools and employers.

Conclusions/Recommendations: As a result of instructors gradually lowering their standards, A has become the most common grade on American college campuses. Without regulation, or at least strong grading guidelines, grades at American institutions of higher learning likely will continue to have less and less meaning.


Unregulated and self-regulated organizations and professions commonly have problems maintaining standards and ensuring ethical behavior (DeMarzo, Fishman, & Hagerty, 2005; Frey, 2006). Without regulation, it is likely that many individuals will pursue local benefits even if their actions are detrimental to the global good. Grading of undergraduates at American colleges and universities incorporates a system of standards that is almost always unregulated. The A–F letter grade system of American higher education has been in wide use for roughly the last 100 years (e.g., Meyer, 1908) and gradually became the basis for the now ubiquitous 4.0 grade point average (GPA) scale. Implicit in the use of our grading system is the belief that it has value both as a motivator of students and as a tool for postgraduate schools and employers to identify the best and brightest. The assumption is that college instructors will individually regulate their grading practices out of a sense of personal integrity and because they realize that how they grade and teach influences the reputations of the institutions they represent.

Efforts at employing even soft external guidelines on grading practices are almost always rebuffed by both instructors and university leadership, and often equated with a lack of faith in the integrity of the faculty. A grade should reflect an instructor’s true view of student performance, but a college instructor may be at best ambivalent about the worth of grades (e.g., Battersby, 1973). Even if an instructor feels that grades have value and purpose, there are significant perceived incentives for that instructor to abandon any objective standard and award grades that are artificially high (e.g., Feldman, 1976; Johnson, 2003). In the absence of oversight, one might expect that grading standards at colleges and universities would degrade over time. A’s would become commonplace. Failing and substandard grades would become rare. The ability of grades to motivate or serve as an indicator of performance would be impaired.

Have universities and colleges managed to maintain academic standards in the absence of regulation? We have tried to answer that question by examining undergraduate grade distributions over the last 70 years using historical and contemporary data from over 200 American four-year schools (institutions are listed in the appendix). We measure changes in academic standards over time, examine the evolution of the divergence in grading practices between public and private schools, and look at the potential causes of those changes.


We assembled our data on four-year school grades (grades given in terms of percent A–F for a given semester or academic year) from a variety of sources: books, research articles, random World Wide Web searching of college and university registrar and institutional research office Web sites, personal contacts with school administrators and leaders, and cold solicitations for data from 100 registrar and institutional research offices, selected randomly (20 of the institutions solicited agreed to provide contemporary data as long as the school’s grading practices would not be individually identified in our work).

The characteristics of the 135 institutions for which we have contemporary data are summarized in Table 1. In addition, we have historical data on grading practices from the 1930s onward for 173 institutions (93 of which also have contemporary data). Time series were constructed beginning in 1960 by averaging data from all institutions on an annual basis. For the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s, data are sparse, so we averaged over 1936 to 1945 (data from 37 schools) and 1946 to 1955 (data from 13 schools) to estimate average grades in 1940 and 1950, respectively. For the early part of the 1960s, there are 11–13 schools represented by our annual averages. By the early part of the 1970s, the data become more plentiful, and 29–30 schools are averaged. Data quantity increases dramatically by the early 2000s with 82–83 schools included in our data set. Because our time series do not include the same schools every year, we smooth our annual estimates with a moving centered three-year average. It is worth noting that the same trends we detail here are also clearly visible in the unsmoothed data. They are also clearly visible if we reduce our database to the 14 schools for which we have mostly continuous data from the 1960s (or earlier) to the 2000s.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

How Many People Should Go To College Anyway?

There is a strong bias in this country to giving all high school graduates access to college. We have no real alternative plan for 18 to 22 year old high school graduates aside from the military. There are no decent jobs for them. We don't have vocational training programs for them to become plumbers, carpenters and whatnot. If you are a high school graduate, aren't destitute, and aren't going into the military, chances are that you'll at least try college for a semester or two. About two thirds of high school graduates do just that.

In order to accommodate this extraordinary level of participation, we've created colleges for every kind of student imaginable. There are schools for the very smart, schools for the average student, schools for the high school dunce, schools for the wealthy, and schools for the poor. There is some overlap between those distinctions I've just made, but the fact is America has a very stratified, caste-like system for higher education where the strata are highly organized by SAT score, high school GPA and family income level.

Come from a wealthy (180K annual income or better) family and chances are you won't go to a public school. If you're a 2100 or better SAT kind of kid, you'll end up at places like where I used to teach, Duke. If you're an 1800 of better SAT kind of kid, you'll end up at places like Syracuse or Kalamazoo. If you're kind of slow, but rich, there are places for you as well.

Similarly, if you come from a family of relatively modest income (80K or less), you aren't going to go to a private school unless it's a sketchy for-profit one like the University of Phoenix (for profit private schools typically make their money by fleecing the poor and lower-middle class). You might try to save some money and go to a community college first before you go to a four year state school. If you're smart and can afford it, you end up at the flagship state campus. If you're slow, you'll end up at an open-admissions public school, typically a campus where there are few dorms and many students live at home or work at least part time.

Given the great variety of schools available - thousands of four year schools - one would think that graduation rates would be reasonable for our nation's students. But they aren't. Despite a large menu of schools, graduation rates have stagnated at about 50 percent for decades. Much of that stagnation is due to the low-end schools, both private (usually for profit) and public. Graduation rates for these schools can be abysmal, in the 20 percent range. But even at flagship state schools, which get the best of the students from modest income families, graduation rates are typically less than 75 percent.

There are those that think this level of failure is acceptable. A little college is better than no college at all they say. But this blithe optimism ignores that the average GPA of those that do drop out is incredibly low relative to national averages, in the 2.0 to 2.3 range from what little data I can find. In this day and age, that kind of student has learned essentially zero over his or her year or two on campus. It is a waste of time and money for these people to attend college.

The low graduation rates indicate that there is a profound mismatch between the academic performance of incoming freshmen and what is expected of them. It’s not really a matter of brains. We’ve already stratified students so that they, by and large, are attending the kind of college they should attend based on their scholastic aptitude. It’s a matter of commitment and finances. Many students don’t really have the financial resources or time to do the 20 to 25 hours a week of work and attendance required. They may have to work full time. They may have families to raise. Others have the resources, but not the drive.

Over the last fifty years, we’ve tried to deal with our high college dropout rates by lowering academic standards. It hasn’t worked. Part of our failure to increase graduation rates relates to the increased cost of higher education. Part of it relates to our continuing to push for higher access. Part of it relates to the increasing failure of our high schools to prepare students for college (or to be fair, the inability of high schools to produce a higher percentage of college ready students out of the high school pool).

This dilution of what a college degree means, ultimately, that our best and brightest aren’t being challenged as much as they once were. Literacy rates are down for college graduates. Study hours are down for college students. Recently, for example, I took a tour of a flagship school’s intro physics labs. The class didn’t use calculus, but somehow met requirements for many students’ majors. The campus has, on paper, the best students in the state by far. Physics without calculus for students who are, supposedly, science majors? Roll over Isaac Newton and give Albert Einstein the news.

When it comes to college education we have been emphasizing quantity over quality for decades. Curiously, this watering down has occurred across the board, even in places where student quality is, at least on paper, quite high. There is no good reason why the schools that attract the best and brightest have decided to expect less of their students. But they have done so.

Despite the high number of students who fail to graduate, there are those who continue to push for even more access to college. The Obama administration certainly is pushing hard in this direction. Obama has called for a dramatic increase in the population of college graduates. He wants an astonishing 60% of all 25 to 34 year olds to have associate degrees or better within 10 years (up from 40% today) and has argued that the increase is necessary for this country to maintain its economic competitiveness.

The Obama team’s views on access have their origins in a recent book, The Race Between Education and Technology by Goldin and Katz. It’s a very good book. I highly recommend it. For those who believe that books no longer can influence society, the profound impact of this one book on DC thinking says you’re wrong. But I think the message of this book – or at least how people like Obama are interpreting the message of this book – is also wrong. I’ll continue this next time.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

The Cost of Denying Our Mortality

Recently, I took care of two health issues, one for me and one for my cat. What happened to me? I had a couple of suspicious-looking bumps on my forehead. I'm from Slavic stock. I have two skin colors, pasty white in winter and tomato red in summer. If anyone has the type of skin prone to cancer, it's me. I went to a local skin doctor to have the bumps looked at. He took a little slice from each bump, did some biopsies, and asked for a second opinion from people at Stanford. The grand total for this tiny procedure that took ten minutes of his time and another half hour of a tech's time preparing some slides? Eight hundred and ninety bucks, 540 from my doctor and 350 from Stanford to look at the slides. The verdict? One wart and one pre-cancer growth, both of which need to be removed.

I was furious about the bill for the second opinion. Stanford's fee for looking at the slides was 110 dollars more than my skin doctor charged for his entire biopsy. It cost me three hundred and fifty bucks for one Stanford doc (or tech) to look at a couple of slides probably for no more than two minutes each. I've been trying to avoid Stanford for all my medical work for a long time. They have a wonderful gleaming facility that looks like a high end hotel. In the end, you pay for all the spit and polish, more than anywhere else in the area.

Four years ago, I had a routine colonoscopy at Stanford and they charged 800 dollars more than a nearby hospital charged my wife for the same work. For the extra money, they did give me nice booties to wear so I wouldn't slip on the floor if I walked around while I was recovering (my wife didn't get booties at her hospital). Three years ago, I had Stanford look at a urine sample and the fee was 800 bucks, about three times more than I had ever been charged before. After that, I decided to foreswear Stanford Hospital and I dropped my Stanford primary care physician. This little extra Stanford bill for my biopsies reminded me just why I hate Stanford's medical facilities.

Enough about me and my kvetching about Stanford. A week after my biopsy, my cat was attacked by a raccoon. She's lucky to be alive. I took her to the veterinary emergency room late at night and waited while they sedated her and stitched her up. The total fee? A mere five hundred ninety seven bucks. The facility was kind of run down. Nothing gleamed. The vet certainly didn't give my cat little booties to wear. But she came out of the emergency room alive and well, adorned a silly Elizabethan collar to try and keep her from ripping out her stitches. The collar lasted less then 10 minutes, the length of the drive home. Somehow, she found a way to slip it off while still in her transporter. My cat is a feline Houdini.

Had I been attacked like my cat and gone to the emergency room at Stanford or El Camino hospitals, I know what the fee would have been for being sedated and patched up. Somewhere around 10 times more than the fee for my cat (and since my insurance deductible is 8K, I would have paid for all of that out of my own wallet). Thinking about the difference in cost made me think about the difference in care. The pet hospital was very basic. The hospitals on the other hand are both gleaming towers. Forty years ago, they weren't that way I know. Stanford and El Camino hospitals weren't as grungy as the pet hospital, but they were modest, no-frills things. It's not surprising that they both charged much less way back when.

I know I'm being glib here, but after taking my cat home I really did start to think to myself, "You know next time I have a medical problem that needs emergency treatment, I'm going to stop talking, start meowing, drive myself to the pet hospital, and try to convince those vets that I'm a cat. The care will probably be fine and I'll save myself several thousand dollars."

It's obvious that animal hospitals charge less than human hospitals chiefly because we value our pets' lives far less than our own. Had the animal hospital told me it would cost 6K to treat my cat's raccoon wounds, I would have balked, though I really do like my cat. Vets charge what the market bears. The quality of their facilities reflects their lower fees. No one gets outraged when we put a cat down and talks about death panels for Fluffy.

I'm going to say something outrageous here. We can learn something about our own health care from how we treat our pets when they are sick. We put limits on the care we provide them. We put a value on their lives.

Americans don't do this when it comes to human life. We believe that we should spend whatever it takes to keep the ones we love alive whether it be for a day or month longer. We've even embedded this idea into our insurance policies, which no longer are allowed to have monetary caps. We believe that hospitals should be symbols of life everlasting, possessing every piece of equipment known to keep us going for as long as possible. This effort at extending life no matter what, ignoring the definite inevitability of our mortality is slowly but surely bankrupting this country.

I have seen this denial of mortality in my own family. My parents and grandparents were all European. Both my father and grandparents came here as full adults and their attitude toward death was much more pragmatic and realistic than what I see is typical with Americans. For example, after a decade of dealing with Parkinson's disease, my father was more than willing to say good bye to this world. "Give me a pill," he said to me. "This is no way to live." I would have done just as he requested, but first I asked my mother for permission. She said no, she wanted him to go on for as long as he could. He did live for several more years, but I never saw the point in it, and neither did my father. Then again, despite all the hardship, I truly believe my mother was grateful to have my father for that extra time.

My mother's attitude toward death was far more aligned with American attitudes (of course I'm generalizing and assigning cultural trends to individual behavior). After living with a fatal cancer for more than a year, far longer than anyone thought was possible, she had major surgery to remove a tumor so that she could live a few more months. The cost was about 100K, almost all of it paid by Medicare and a Medicare supplement. I'm a mama's boy through and through, and was happy to have her live those extra months. But I knew that had we lived anywhere else, that surgery would have never happened.

My wife's family is a typical American one and not surprisingly in my view, there have been major surgeries involving my wife's family for people in their eighties that have totaled hundreds of thousands of dollars in costs. One of those surgeries left the patient unconscious for over a month. She was eventually electro-shocked back to consciousness, but now suffers from dementia. She is in a nursing home, bedridden, and the bills keep piling up. When all is said and done, the cost of her care will be over one half-million dollars.

As I write this another relative in his nineties - who has been blessed with health and a sharp mind for almost all those years - has spent a week in the hospital in and out of consciousness as doctors continue to keep him going. Only in America.

America is by its nature an optimistic, can-do country. I've never seen any other place quite like it. We believe that no hurdle is insurmountable. It's wonderful to see this optimism in action. But when it comes to dealing with sickness and inevitable death, that optimism has a limited place. Somehow we need to come to terms with the fact that it is neither desirable nor financially viable to extend the lives of our citizens no matter the cost and the quality of that life.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Our Ridiculous Expectation For Politicians

Suppose you worked for a company, did your job well, and in your free time had an affair or went online and sexted with someone other than your wife or husband. Your boss found out about the dalliance and fired you on the spot or demanded that you resign. Unless you're in the morals and values business - you're a church pastor for example - your response should be, "I'll see you in court." Whether you are or aren't cheating on your spouse has nothing to do with your job. It's not a criminal offense. Can you imagine if it were? We'd have to outsource our prisoners, we'd have so many of them.

People cheat. Husbands. Wives. If they didn't, damn, we wouldn't have anything to write about in novels and show on TV series. It's common. I don't think it's a good idea to cheat because I personally believe it's a hurtful thing to do to the one you love. But I understand that monogamy isn't for everyone and that especially under the influence of alcohol, it can be a very tenuous concept.

I've known lots of people who have had affairs, one-night stands, and who knows what else. If I were to use monogamy as a guide for whom I can and cannot trust in matters outside of sex, I'd have to pretty much not trust a third of the people I know fairly well and like. How did I come up with that number, one third? It's a guess, based on the number of times I've seen people I know make that certain kind of sheepish to warm "we've slept together" hello with someone else. It's a tell that I think all people have, that certain kind of hello. I can't explain what it entails, but I can identify it instantly. My guess of one-third is not that much different than polls about adultery , which if I remember correctly suggest that 30 to 60 percent of all married people cheat.

I don't think it's valid to use monogamy as a guide for trust on other issues. Sex is different. We're wired for it. Our hearts are not universally steadfast and attached to one person and one person only. Just because someone is monogamous does not indicate to me that I can trust him or her on money matters. There are no data that I know of that show that those that are monogamous are better thinkers, more creative or are more conscientious workers. It's true that they do, on the whole, make better spouses.

When it comes to marriage, give me a monogamous partner, please. But in a work or business environment I don't care whether the person I'm working with is having an affair or frequents dirty book stores at night. That's his or her private business.

This country does seem to separate people's sexual appetites (at least heterosexual ones) from the workplace. It would be a ridiculous expectation to not do so. We'd have to fire a lot of key personnel in all companies if we considered monogamy to be part of someone's work description.

But when it comes to politicians, we do get ridiculous. We expect our elected officials to not do what so many others do frequently. Politicians can't have affairs. The argument is frequently made, "If you can't trust him to honor his marriage vows, how can you trust him to do anything else?" It's an absurd if and then argument. What do attitudes toward sex have to do with someone's ability to make good laws, work well with others, and honor promises concerning legislation? Nothing. Monogamy is desirable in marriage, certainly, and its absence can create hell in someone's personal life if they get caught cheating. Beyond the issue of marriage and family, however, it's of no importance.

I'll make one concession to the "those who cheat are bad through and through" argument. There are people who sexually harass others on the job routinely, whose efforts at sexual conquest overwhelm their lives to such a degree that they can do little else but wallow in sexual desire. No, I don't trust people like that, no more than I'd trust a heroin addict with my money or laptop computer.

Your garden variety cheaters, however, are just being human. They shouldn't have to wear scarlet As on their dresses or sport jackets. They can be outstanding workers and contributors to society. That's just as true of ordinary citizens as it is for politicians.

I don't like to make assessments based on small datasets, but let's, for example, look at our last three presidents. One, Clinton, has had countless affairs. The other two, Bush and Obama, seem to be (Who knows really?) loyal and true to their spouses. Was Bush any more trustworthy than Clinton? No. Is Obama any more trustworthy? Based on issues that are important to me that I've seen him waffle on, no. Bush is likely monogamous, but an idiot. Obama is likely monogamous, but has limited leadership ability (aside from speechwriting and oratory, two big exceptions) and has little skill relating to others one on one. Based on our small sample of three, I'd say not only is monogamy overrated as an indicator of presidential capability, but cheaters make the best presidents.

As I write this, a politician, Anthony Weiner, is preparing to resign from congress for sexting with a bunch of women. Yawn. I happen to think that Weiner isn't a very good congressman. He likes to get on TV and scream and shout. He doesn't seem to work effectively with others in DC. Basically, he's a loudmouth, do-nothing. That said, his district keeps re-electing him. They apparently think that all that bluster is valuable. Whether he sexts or not, whether he exchanges bodily fluids or not with someone who isn't his wife, shouldn't matter.

We've been through this before with I don't know how many politicians, both Democratic and Republican. We keep expecting and demanding that our politicians rein in their desires when, in fact, they have rock-star like access to sex. It's an expectation and demand that makes no sense, and one that isn't present in the culture of any other Western country.

We pretend that the sexual revolution never happened and our lives are like 50s television shows. We ignore the fact that in this day and age, there is no privacy and the internet can capture and send to the world every little stupid move we make. We watch with rapt attention as the media pontificates about every sexual transgression of a politician and cynically turns these events into morality plays. I wish America could be realistic about sexual desire and politics, but I expect sanctimony to be the standard response for at least the next few decades.