Monthly Archives: July 2017

Education by the Numbers

here are as many American public school educations as there are students. One shared factor that affects a vast number of them, however, is race. Its impact drives the four narrative features in this week’s Education Issue. But numbers can tell their own stories too. The statistics here suggest how much has changed — and not changed — in the more than 60 years since the Supreme Court’s ruling in Brown v. Board of Education was supposed to make education equally accessible to all Americans.

Demographics

The racial makeup of the U.S. school system is shifting. Public schools are seeing surges in the enrollment of students of color; Latinos are leading the increases, while the numbers of white students are shrinking. In Washington private schools are majority white, as fewer black students have enrolled over time.

Segregation

Over the course of decades, court-ordered desegregation led to more diverse student bodies in Southern schools. But after integration peaked in 1988, courts began releasing schools from their mandates, and segregation began to take hold again. The trend extends beyond the South, too: Metropolitan districts from California to New York are seeing higher and higher concentrations of black and Latino students in certain schools.

Resources

Schools filled with students of color receive less funding, but employ more inexperienced teachers. Accelerated programs and classes remain less accessible for black and Latino students — and their inability to tap these resources can lead to the further stratification of classes by race.

Achievement

New York City’s highest middle-school test scores in English come from a majority-white-and-Asian district; its lowest come from a nearly all black and Hispanic district. However, attendance at specialized high schools in New York almost always leads to on-time graduation, and pre-kindergarten programs have proven to be remarkably beneficial for black children.

Lotfi Zadeh, Father of Mathematical ‘Fuzzy Logic,’ Dies at 96

Lotfi Zadeh, the computer scientist and electrical engineer whose theories of “fuzzy logic” rippled across academia and industry, influencing everything from linguistics, economics and medicine to air-conditioners, vacuum cleaners and rice cookers, died on Wednesday at his home in Berkeley, Calif. He was 96.

His son, Norman, confirmed the death.

Emerging from an academic paper Mr. Zadeh published in 1965 as a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, “fuzzy logic,” as he called it, was an ambitious effort to close the gap between mathematics and the intuitive way that humans talk, think and interact with the world.

If someone asks you to identify “a very tall man,” for instance, you can easily do so — even if you are not given a specific height. Similarly, you can balance a broom handle on your finger without calculating how far it can lean in one direction without toppling over.

Mr. Zadeh envisioned a mathematical framework that could mimic these human talents — that could deal with ambiguity and uncertainty in similar ways. Rather than creating strict boundaries for real world concepts, he made the boundaries “fuzzy.” Something was not in or out, for example. It sat somewhere on the continuum between in and out, and at any given moment a set of more complex rules defined inclusion.

“It was a bridge between theory and reality,” said Rudolf Seising, a professor at the University of Jena in Germany who specializes in fuzzy logic and worked alongside Professor Zadeh in his later years.

In academic circles, Professor Zadeh’s work was controversial and sometimes ridiculed, in part because it challenged other forms of mathematics and in part because of his terminology. “Fuzzy logic” seemed to make fun of itself.

But the logic itself was not fuzzy, said Professor Timothy Ross of the University of New Mexico. It was a way of dealing with “fuzzy sets,” collections of information whose boundaries were vague or imprecise. Over the years it proved to be an enormously influential idea.

According to the website Google Scholar, Mr. Zadeh’s 1965 paper, titled “Fuzzy Sets,” has been cited by more than 90,000 scholarly works, and his mathematical concepts have provided practical new ways to build consumer electronics, trade stocks, forecast weather and more.

Lotfi Asker Zadeh was born on Feb. 4, 1921, in Baku, Azerbaijan, which was then a part of the Soviet Union. His father was a journalist, and his mother, born in Russia, was a doctor.

After the family moved across the Soviet border to Iran, Mr. Zadeh graduated with a science degree from the University of Tehran. During World War II he sold goods to the American Army, earning enough money to continue his education in the United States, his son said. He received a master’s degree in electrical engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1946 and a Ph.D. from Columbia in 1949.

Lotfi Zadeh in an undated photograph.CreditUniversity of California, Berkeley

As a professor at Columbia, working alongside John Ragazzini, Mr. Zadeh developed a mathematical method called z-transformations, which became a standard means of processing digital signals inside computers and other equipment. He moved to Berkeley in 1959.

Elijah Polak, a professor emeritus at Berkeley, recalled in an interview that Professor Zadeh’s theory of fuzzy sets emerged during their walks across the campus. Professor Zadeh began noticing that when people parked their cars, they would intuitively turn their wheels slightly to the left and then slightly to the right before pulling into a parking space.

“But how much is slightly?” he would ask.

Fuzzy sets began as an effort to use mathematics to define “slightly” — or “tall” or “fast” or “beautiful” or any other concept that has ambiguous boundaries.

Professor Zadeh originally envisioned fuzzy sets as simply a framework for harnessing language. But the idea expanded into other areas. It could provide a way for insurance companies to assess damage after an earthquake, for instance. Is the damage serious, moderate or minimal under company rules? Fuzzy sets could help.

“They opened up a whole new way of addressing problems where you don’t have precise data,” said Professor Ross, the author of a textbook on the practical uses of fuzzy logic.

The method could also help build machinery and electronics that gradually move from one state to another, like an automobile transmission, which shifts smoothly from first gear to second, or a thermostat, which flows just as smoothly from hot to cold. Hot and cold need not be precisely defined. They could exist on a continuum.

In the 1980s, Professor Zadeh’s ideas became popular among Japanese manufacturers, thanks to heavy investment from the government. Today the hype has faded, but fuzzy logic remains an active part of the mathematics that underpin the modern world.

In recognition of his work, Professor Zadeh received more than 50 engineering and academic awards. From 1963 to 1968 he was chairman of Berkeley’s electrical engineering department, helping to shift its focus toward computer science, a move that gave rise to one of the world’s top university computer science programs.

Professor Zadeh’s son is his only immediate survivor. His wife, Fania, died this year. A daughter, Stella, died in 2006. He was to be buried in Baku.

Professor Zadeh and others saw fuzzy logic as a tool for eventually building true artificial intelligence, and though many academics, including some Berkeley colleagues, questioned how effective these methods would be, he held firm.

“He always took criticism as a compliment,” said Stuart Russell, a Berkeley professor who worked next door to Mr. Zadeh for many years. “It meant that people were considering what he had to say.”

Regents Approve Plan to Evaluate and Improve New York Schools

The New York State Board of Regents on Monday approved a plan laying out the state’s goals for its education system, as required by the sweeping federal education law signed by President Barack Obama in 2015 known as the Every Student Succeeds Act.

The Regents’ approval means the state can now submit its plan to the federal Department of Education for review and approval.

The plan details how the Regents will implement the federal law, including how individual schools will be evaluated and identified for what the law refers to as either comprehensive or targeted support and improvement.

Under the plan, elementary and middle schools would continue to be evaluated on English and math test scores and high schools on graduation rates. But the plan would also hold schools accountable for other measures, such as performance on science and social studies exams, the number of students making progress in achieving English language proficiency, college and career readiness, chronic absenteeism and, eventually, out-of-school suspensions.

Under the plan, the lowest-performing 5 percent of schools receiving Title I federal funds, which go to low-income schools and high schools with six-year graduation rates less than 67 percent, would be identified for comprehensive support and improvement. Those schools would receive additional funding and supervision, including visits from external reviewers, and will be required to choose at least one school improvement strategy from a list approved by the state. Schools not receiving Title I funds that performed within the range of that bottom five percent would also qualify for the program.

In general, schools that fail to get off the comprehensive support and improvement list after three years would be put into the state’s receivership program, which might lead them to close.

One source of controversy has been the plan’s treatment of transfer high schools, which give students who have fallen behind or dropped out of other schools a second chance to graduate. New York City has 51 such schools, serving 13,000 students. Because they serve students who have struggled elsewhere, very few transfer schools have six-year graduation rates of 67 percent or higher, meaning that almost all transfer schools would be designated as in need of comprehensive support and improvement.

In response to concerns expressed by city officials and advocates for transfer schools, the state modified the plan so that transfer schools will not automatically be put into receivership if they are on the list for three years. However, some educators are still worried that putting transfer schools on the list would stigmatize them and create an incentive to avoid serving the neediest students.

Chad Aldeman, a principal at Bellwether Education Partners, a nonprofit education research and consulting firm, praised the academic standards and assessments on which New York’s plan is based, as well as its blueprint for helping schools in need of improvement. But he said that the very complicated system by which the state will identify the lowest-performing five percent of schools could be a problem.

“The biggest challenges, I think, will be translating this system for teachers and parents and educators,” he said. “If someone doesn’t understand what they’re being held accountable for, there’s a risk that they can’t change their behavior.”

After the Storm, It’s Finally the First Day of School in Houston

HOUSTON — Kacey Cartwright and his family lost their home during Hurricane Harvey, spent a few difficult nights sheltered at a convention center and are now living in a hotel far from their old neighborhood. So the first day of school here on Monday was a welcome respite.

“It takes my mind off of everything that’s going on,” said Kacey, who is 16, a junior at Wheatley High School and a lineman on the football team. Last week, he picked up some donated clothes from the school gym after losing most of his possessions in the storm. “I get to see my friends and go to practice and just escape reality.”

On Monday, about 80 percent of the Houston Independent School District’s 287 schools opened after a two-week delay caused by the storm that drenched this region in late August. Most of the other schools are slated to reopen for classes later this month.

This district serves about 215,000 students across a vast 312 square miles, and saw an estimated $700 million in costs and damage, including swamped classrooms, soaked drywall and computers that might not work. Still, a remarkably speedy recovery appeared to be underway here on Monday, suggesting that the school system may be able to avoid the extent of upheaval and tumult that teachers and students in New Orleans experienced after Hurricane Katrina.

A social worker, Brittney Matthews, second from left, helped Wheatley students find their classroom assignments on Monday. CreditIlana Panich-Linsman for The New York Times

An anticipated exodus of Houston students to public schools in other big cities — Dallas and Austin — has so far not occurred. As of Monday morning, the Dallas Independent School District said it had enrolled 220 evacuated children. It appeared that although many Houston families remained out of their swamped homes, they were lodging with friends and relatives across the Houston region.

“To be online two weeks after Harvey hit is just amazing,” Mayor Sylvester Turner said.

Still, big challenges remain. Nine campuses with the worst damage will be moved to vacant properties or will share space with other schools. By this week, some buildings were still being assessed for safety — leaving thousands of parents unsure when their children would be back in a classroom, or where that classroom might be. And 270 teachers have been unable to go to work because of damage to their own homes or other disruptions after the storm, school officials said.

School officials have distributed thousands of free uniforms to families who lost school supplies in damaged homes, and announced that all students would receive three free meals a day for the duration of the school year, regardless of family income. Richard A. Carranza, the Houston schools superintendent, who formerly led the San Francisco school system, secured a $1 million donation for recovery efforts from Marc Benioff, a Silicon Valley philanthropist and the founder of Salesforce.com.

Monday looked in many ways like any other first day in Houston: Crossing guards stood on the corners, parents hugged their children, students chatted with friends and found their names on class assignment lists.

At Wheatley, a high school that is northeast of downtown Houston, the principal, Shirley A. Rose-Gilliam, greeted upperclassmen by name and directed traffic in the halls. She said she had been unsure how many students to expect. In the end, she was relieved. More students were at school on Monday, she said, than on any first day in her four-year tenure here.

A drop-off in enrollment could have led to a decrease in state funding and potential reassignment for teachers at a time when the school is already under scrutiny. Wheatley, whose student body is about half Hispanic, half African-American and 70 percent low-income, is in its sixth year with “improvement required” status. If test scores and graduation rates do not go up, the school could be shut down by the state.

“We’re working to get the scores where they need to get to, but at the same time, it’s not necessarily about scores,” Dr. Rose-Gilliam said. She said she was encouraging teachers to discuss the flooding in their classes, and urged her staff to help displaced students access counseling, clothing and even toiletries.

In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina 12 years ago, most New Orleans public schools remained closed for more than four months. The State of Louisiana took over most New Orleans public schools, instituting changes that created the nation’s first so-called “portfolio” school district, in which the majority of schools are independently managed charter schools. Gains in test scores and the high school graduation rate followed, yet the overhaul started a fierce, ongoing debate about how to balance education reform efforts with community control of schools. Thousands of experienced African-American educators with deep roots in New Orleans were replaced by a movement of largely young, white teachers from outside.