Reflections on school performance in the US

The US has just had a release of the 2017 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) results. They are not good. Of grade 8 pupils in public schools, 65% failed to meet proficiency standards in reading, and 67% failed to meet proficiency standards in mathematics. This is a serious problem, and it is worth getting to the bottom of it.

Doing a multiple regression on average state grade 8 reading scores, the politics of the state governor has no effect (p = 0.67). States vary enormously in the money they spend on education, ranging from $6,575 per pupil in Utah to $21,206 per pupil in New York. This makes no difference either (p = 0.93). What does make a difference is the state poverty rate (R2 = 0.49, p = 0.000000014).

For grade 8 mathematics scores, the story is similar. Politics of the state governor (p = 0.76) and money spent on education (p = 0.51) have no effect, but the state poverty rate does (R2 = 0.55, p = 0.0000000008).

Clearly, poor children do much less well in school, and spending money on schools does not address the problem. Why do poor children do less well in school? Research shows that on day one, poor children have a cognitive and behavioural disadvantage. Poor children eat less well. Poor children are starved of words, because their parents, on average, spend less time talking, singing, and reading to them.

The problems lie at home; the solutions must also lie at home. Rather than spending more money in schools, the US seems to need more assistance to parents at home. For example, the State Library of Queensland has started a wonderful Dads Read programme in Australia. Bookstart in the UK offers a free pack of books to children at 0–12 months and at 3–4 years. Also helpful would be guides to teaching number skills, guides to nature walks, discounts for families at museums, and other assistance in STEM areas (I’m start to feel like it’s time to write another children’s book). Surely this problem with reading and mathematics needs to be addressed with urgency!


Story time at the Dover Air Force Base library, Delaware (USAF photo by Roland Balik)


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Mathematics in Action: Vehicle Identification Numbers

Motor vehicles have a 17-character Vehicle Identification Number or VIN on a metal plate like the one below, usually on the driver’s side dashboard, or on the driver’s side door jamb, or in front of the engine block:


A Vehicle Identification Number (VIN) plate (Photo: Michiel1972)

VINs offer an interesting example of check digit calculation. The central digit (or an X representing 10) is a check digit (calculated modulo 11) used to detect errors. Any letters in the rest of the VIN are decoded like this:

A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 1 2 3 4 5 7 9 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9

The check digit calculation involves decoding the VIN, and multiplying the resulting numbers by the weights shown in blue, giving the products in purple:

VIN L J C P C B L C X 1 1 0 0 0 2 3 7
Decoded 3 1 3 7 3 2 3 3 10 1 1 0 0 0 2 3 7
Weights 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 10 0 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2
Product 24 7 18 35 12 6 6 30 0 9 8 0 0 0 8 9 14

These products are added up modulo 11 (meaning the sum is divided by 11 and the remainder taken). In this case, the sum is 186 = 10 = X (mod 11), which makes the VIN valid, because it matches the original central X. What about the VIN on your vehicle?


The Sand Reckoner

In his short work The Sand Reckoner, Archimedes (c. 287 BC – c. 212 BC) identifies a number larger than what he believed was the number of grains of sand which would fit into the Universe. He was hampered by the fact that the largest number-word he knew was myriad (10,000), so that he had to invent his own notation for large numbers (I will use modern scientific notation instead).

Archimedes’ began with poppyseeds, which he estimated were at least 0.5 mm in diameter (using modern terminology), and which would contain at most 10,000 grains of sand. This makes the volume of a sand-grain at least 6.5×10−15 cubic metres (in fact, even fine sand-grains have a volume at least 10 times that).

Archimedes estimated the diameter of the sphere containing the fixed stars (yellow in the diagram below) as about 2 light-years or 2×1016 metres (we now know that even the closest star is about 4 light-years away). This makes the volume of the sphere 4×1048 cubic metres which means, as Archimedes shows, that less than 1063 grains of sand will fit.

A more modern figure for the diameter of the observable universe is 93 billion light-years, which means that less than 1095 grains of sand would fit. For atoms packed closely together (as in ordinary matter), less than 10110 atoms would fit. For neutrons packed closely together (as in a neutron star), less than 10126 neutrons would fit. But these are still puny numbers compared to, say, 277,232,917 − 1, the largest known prime!


Four worlds

The picture above shows four possible worlds: a (slightly oblate) sphere, a torus, a disc, and a Klein bottle (images © Anthony Dekker). The darkened end of the Klein bottle is shifted through the fourth dimension to connect with the other end, making it a one-sided surface (like the Möbius strip). How do we know which world we live in?


Measuring the Earth this (Southern) Christmas

In around 240 BC, Eratosthenes calculated the circumference of the Earth. The diagram above (from NOAA) shows how he did it. This Christmas, people in the Southern Hemisphere can repeat his work!

Eratosthenes knew that, at the summer solstice, the sun would be directly overhead at Syene (on the Tropic of Cancer) and would shine vertically down a well there. He also knew the distance to Syene.

On 21 December, the sun will be directly overhead on the Tropic of Capricorn at local noon. This table show the time of local noon on 21 December 2017, and the distance to the Tropic of Capricorn, for some Southern Hemisphere cities:

City Local Noon Distance to Tropic (km)
Adelaide 13:14 1270
Auckland 13:19 1490
Brisbane 11:46 450
Buenos Aires 12:52 1240
Darwin 12:45 1220
Hobart 13:09 2160
Johannesburg 12:06 310
Melbourne 13:18 1590
Perth 12:15 940
Santiago 13:41 1110
Sydney 12:53 1160

At exactly local noon, Eratosthenes measured the length (s) of the shadow of a tall column in his home town of Alexandria. He knew the height (h) of the column. He could then calculate the angle between the column and the sun’s rays using (in modern terms) the formula θ = arctan(s / h).

You can repeat Eratosthenes’ calculation by measuring the length of the shadow of a vertical stick (or anything else you know the height of), and using the arctan button on a calculator. Alternatively, the table below show the angles for various shadow lengths of a 1-metre stick. You could also attach a protractor to the top of the stick, run a thread from the to of the stick to the end of the shadow, and measure the angle directly.

The angle (θ) between the stick and the sun’s rays will also be the angle at the centre of the Earth (see the diagram at top). You can then calculate the circumference of the Earth using the distance to the Tropic of Capricorn and the fact that a full circle is 360° (the circumference of the Earth will be d × 360 / θ, where d is the distance to the Tropic of Capricorn).

Height (h) Shadow (s) Angle (θ)
1 0.02
1 0.03
1 0.05
1 0.07
1 0.09
1 0.11
1 0.12
1 0.14
1 0.16
1 0.18 10°
1 0.19 11°
1 0.21 12°
1 0.23 13°
1 0.25 14°
1 0.27 15°
1 0.29 16°
1 0.31 17°
1 0.32 18°
1 0.34 19°
1 0.36 20°
1 0.38 21°
1 0.4 22°
1 0.42 23°
1 0.45 24°
1 0.47 25°
1 0.49 26°
1 0.51 27°
1 0.53 28°
1 0.55 29°
1 0.58 30°
1 0.6 31°
1 0.62 32°
1 0.65 33°
1 0.67 34°
1 0.7 35°
1 0.73 36°
1 0.75 37°
1 0.78 38°
1 0.81 39°
1 0.84 40°
1 0.87 41°
1 0.9 42°
1 0.93 43°
1 0.97 44°
1 1 45°