Jacob J. Walker's Blog

Scholarly Thoughts, Research, and Journalism for Informal Peer Review

Archive for September, 2013

Last Night’s Twin Rivers Board Meeting

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The following is what I said at last night’s Twin Rivers board meeting

Dr. Martinez, Trustees; thank you for time to talk this evening.  Tonight you will be hearing from several laid off Adult School teachers about why an adult-serving charter school would be good for our community, and why Twin Rivers should keep self-sustaining adult school programs open, at least through this school year.

But believe it or not, that is only a part of what I’m personally talking about tonight.  I want to address the bigger issue.  That is the issue of the unbelievably high dropout rate within the Twin Rivers district, such that I estimate about 1,000 kids dropout or simply don’t graduate between Kindergarten to 12th grade. Further, the census shows that their are parts of the Twin Rivers district where over half of the adults don’t have a high school diploma.  This is atrocious on many levels, including being one of the major factors that keeps our communities in poverty.  It also costs the districts millions of dollars, which in turn is the loss of a large number of jobs for both teachers and classified staff.

I believe that this problem can cost-effectively be solved through a 3-prong approach.  First, by improving the use of data within the district, there could be more effective dropout prevention.   Second, by improving marketing and setting a program up properly, there could be a fifth year senior program that could be self-supporting through ADA.  And finally, adults who have been out of school for a while could finish high school through either the adult school or the adult-serving charter school.

To build upon the vision of Dr. Martinez, I ask:  “Why not save dropouts?”


Written by Jacob Walker

September 18th, 2013 at 6:04 am

Posted in Twin Rivers USD

Can Data Science Save Dropouts?

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Recently I started reading Data Science for Business, and it struck me that the example it gives of a  company wanting to predict customer churn is quite a bit like what a school might want in predicting whether a student is likely to dropout.

For some time, I’ve been fascinated with the idea of using data to solve human problems. We know that the current economy runs on data science; Facebook and Google are quite upfront that they want to predict what you want, so they can show you ads.  Brick and mortar stores are doing it too, as Target can predict when its customers are pregnant, and send appropriate coupons.   I believe it must be possible to use data science in a manner that is less profit driven and more humanity driven.  And so this brings me to this question, can data science save dropouts?

Looking at an example, in the Twin Rivers school district, I did some rough calculations, and it looks like the district loses approximately 1,000 students from kindergarten to high school graduation.  This is 1,000 kids that will generally find the rest of lives much more difficult than if they were able to graduate.   Further these 1,000 dropouts cost Twin Rivers over $10,000,000 in lost revenue.  If only half of these kids could be recovered, the district would be able to fund at least 50 faculty and staff positions.

So how could the district solve this problem?  There are two answers: dropout prevention and dropout recovery.  I have personally worked a lot with dropout recovery for adults, and I am currently working on creating an adult-serving charter school that can help solve this problem, which I will talk about more soon in other posts.

Dropout prevention is something that is usually done in very broad strokes, and if these programs are more targeted, with support groups or extra help, they usually aren’t consistently applied across the student population (they often are based upon self-selection, parent selection, or teacher selection).

But what if there were patterns in the existing data about students that might show they were highly likely to dropout?  These particular students could more cost-effectively and consistently be targeted with intervention strategies to help them stay in school.

The first question would be whether there were predictors in the current data that could be used?  Most traditional demographics should not be used.  Gender, race and ethnicity may at times have a correlation with students dropping out, but these are proxies to other societal issues, and any such use of the data would surely have people up in arms about “racial profiling”, etc.  Some demographics might play a role in doing this type of analysis, specifically looking at socioeconomic status and English language learners. But since these two variables are so broad and change slowly, they would be useful as a tangential or supporting variable at best.  Looking at specific teachers should also not be done as it would be perceived as a form of teacher evaluation, and would probably not be compatible with the contract.  As such it would also likely get the ire of the teacher’s union, and getting their support is important to getting a successful outcome.

So I think the answer is to see if there are patterns in student behavior that might be predictors of a student dropping out.  A school’s various student information systems has attendance data, grades, the courses students have taken, standardized test scores, etc.  By using automated statistical techniques, it could be determined if these variables often have some types of patterns to them when students drop out, and if so, then in almost real-time (although more likely on a weekly basis), the school could look for these patterns, and have counselors or teachers work with the students who were determined to be most at-risk to see if these student can be saved from dropping out.

I am going to share this post with some of the folks with Twin Rivers, and I hope to post more soon about how such a project like this might be able to be done, and which specific steps would be involved.  Maybe, I’ll even be able to be involved with working with Twin Rivers to do it…  We will see!

Written by Jacob Walker

September 13th, 2013 at 9:55 pm

What I Said at Tonight’s Twin Rivers Board Meeting

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The following is what I shared with at tonight’s Twin Rivers Board Meeting:

Dr. Martinez and Board Members: Thank you for the time to speak this evening.

Tonight I want to bring back an idea that deserves a second thought.  What I am talking about is the idea of an Adult-Serving Charter School.  When we brought this up last year, I think there were misunderstandings of our petition that led to misinformation about our proposed school.

What we would like, is to open up dialogue with the board and stakeholders about how an adult serving charter school could work in harmony with the district to serve the community while also bringing more revenue to the district and also hire back adult school teachers who were laid off; of which I am one.

I want to reiterate that adult serving charter schools get apportionment funding that does not take away from district funding.  And with this funding, we could develop innovative programs for adults, and partner with district programs for kids.  For example, we could partner with the district to provide apprenticeship opportunities to parents and other adults while the district provides apprenticeship opportunities to high school students. We can help parents get their diplomas, and at the same time help them to learn how to help their children with their school work.  We have the opportunity to do many innovative programs, and support the districts mission.

I only ask that you remove any prejudice to the word “charter”; Listen to what we are proposing, and work with us so we can have something that works for everyone.

Written by Jacob Walker

September 4th, 2013 at 10:18 pm

Posted in Twin Rivers USD

Why I am Skeptical of Religion

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Usually I don’t post much about my religious beliefs, as they are nuanced, and I don’t fit easily into any category that generally one might want to put someone in.

But, when I heard the following came from a preacher in Texas I was dumbfounded: “So I’m going to tell you what the facts are, and the facts are the facts, but then we know the truth. That always overcomes facts.”   According to an NPR news report, this preacher has spread the misinformation that vaccines cause autism, and many in the church did not get their children vaccinated, and now their is an outbreak of measles.

This to me says that it is critical that we must place our faith in the right people and the right ideas.  There is not enough faith in the scientific method, and too much faith in the simplified interpretations of a contradictory highly transcribed set of writings, now called the bible, that were written when most people didn’t have a clue that the earth was only a “pale blue dot” from only a tiny astronomical distance away, and really nothing to be seen from even the closest star to us.

Science is not easy to digest, as we don’t want to believe that we are specks in the universe, we don’t want to believe that we had a great to x power grandparent that was an ape, and an x to an even greater power grandparent that was a bacterium.  We have a hard time comprehending quantum physics, bending of the fourth dimension, etc.  We often can not connect with a philosophy of following evidence, when it is counter-intuitive and disagrees with our common sense.  And of most challenge, we can not think in probabilistic terms.  Most of us, want “black” or “white”, some of us can handle shades of grey, but few of us (myself often included) can handle the possibility that it might be this or that, or both, or something different all together.

FUD (Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt) is often easier, like believing the alarmist who says vaccines have a link with autism, which came from a paper that had extremely poor methodology, and has been disproved over and over again.  And when there are critical alarms we should be worried about, such as global warming, we would rather generally stick our heads in the sand, and call the science wrong or inconclusive*.   How strange is that!  It brings more evidence to the proposition that humans are more rationalizing than we are rational.


* – All science is inconclusive, that goes back to our need for probabilistic thinking.

Written by Jacob Walker

September 1st, 2013 at 3:32 pm

Posted in Uncategorized