Thursday, August 23, 2007

The coach's son

Recent list work: 4, 94.

This article from Slate is a bit old, but I came across it today and it got me thinking. For those who don't want to follow the link, it's about how the coach's son often gets to monopolize time in the game in youth sports, play the coveted positions, and get onto travel teams, regardless of skill level. I've seen various examples of the coach's son in my own athletic experiences, and I think this stance is an oversimplification.

For one, I was a coach's son for a while. My Dad coached my softball team in the summer for a few years when I was a small kid--part of that me being from a 1950s sitcom thing. My Dad was worried about people thinking that I'd get perks for being the coach's son, so in reality...I played fewer innings than anyone else who showed up to every game, and got to play the positions I enjoyed less often than the other players on the team got to for the first few games, until a few of the other players spoke up and said it wasn't fair that I wasn't playing as much.

A similar but rather opposite experience took place a few summers later, on a different team. That coach kept putting his son in as the starting pitcher. His son, while a highly skilled baseball and softball player, was not a softball pitcher. he was on our high school's baseball team, but I think he was short stop. He finally snapped at one point and yelled at his dad that our team had the top two pitchers in the league, he wasn't one of them, and he wasn't going to pitch in another game even if that meant he had to sit on the bench. These two incidents illustrate my point that I think sometimes adults tend to forget that many kids have a definite sense of fair play, and even unwritten rules are typically enforced rather equitably.

These softball teams I was on weren't competitive ones. There were no playoffs, nothing special for being the best team in the league, none of that. Even so, most of the players both wanted to play fair and wanted to win. I imagine on more competitive teams, the desire to win increases substantially, so the coach faces a potential problem from overplaying his son: the rest of the team being resentful not because the coach's son gets to play more than they do, but because the coach's son gets to play more often than players he's worse than. That can lead to a pretty bad backlash.

Friday, August 17, 2007

Another take on test scores

Recent list work: #9, #94

I've spent much of today catching up on recent issues of Nature and Science, as I've not been reading them as much this summer as I should. So, this is old news, but I just came across it today.

For those with access to Science, a few letters appear in the June 22nd issue regarding a study from February advancing a claim that higher standardized test scores are a predictor in graduate student success, as measured by things such as publications, etc. The first of these is the one I think is the more insightful.

As the letter's authors (Manuel Lerdau and Christopher Avery) point out, the initial finding hypothesized the twin causal links: 1) greater aptitude --> higher test scores, and 2) greater aptitude --> increased probability of success. That's a potentially valid causal chain. On the other hand, they suggest that the causal chain might be more along the lines of higher test scores --> greater support (both financial and mentoring) --> greater probability of success. This also strikes me as potentially valid.

As the letter writers state, these two different causal chains lead to very different policy views. I think it would be interesting to try to disentangle the two effects. One way of doing so off the top of my head would be to look at departments where students are given essentially the same financial support and teaching duties regardless of whether they have fellowships or not. (For instance, Stanford's Department of Biological Sciences). Another would be to look at students who have the very high test scores but don't have fellowships for other reasons--perhaps by being non-citizens and therefore disqualified from national fellowships such as those through the NSF. It would also be interesting to look at students who have fellowships and thus don't need to teach, yet have lower standardized test scores than peers in their departments. There could be some difficult things to control for in these examples--for instance, students with low test scores who have fellowships most likely have significant undergraduate research experience, which might let them hit the ground running--but I think the general idea of studying these things is worth exploring.

The yearly fun with numbers

Today, US News & World Report released their annual college rankings. And, as always, there's fallout from it. This NY Times article, for instance, mentions one college administrator who filled out that he didn't know about any of his peer's programs, but gave his own school an outstanding rating. Other anecdotes are told of people knowing that other schools spread donations over multiple years to boost the alumni giving rate, and the like.

I'm sure that the existence of these rankings does alter how some institutions behave. However, I don't think these are all bad ways. My friends and I used to laugh about how our college -- USC -- had bought us by offering far more merit-based scholarships in an effort to boost their rankings. If this was the intent, it's worked; USC is now up to 27th, and it was 44th when I applied. Average SAT scores of the entering class went up substantially while I was there, and presumably have continued to do so. If that's being driven by the rankings, that's fine by me.

On the other hand, people really can take these numbers way too seriously. USC was the second lowest rated school I applied to at the time. I got into schools rated much higher, but didn't feel they were as good of a fit for me. There truly are intangibles which these numbers don't capture.

At the end of the day, I think these numbers are primarily useful for getting a general sense of roughly where a school falls. The differences, however, between schools nearby each other in the rankings are probably pretty small as far as what they will mean for your future. For instance, I felt that I wanted a school in the top 50 or so for undergrad, as that would put me in better standing for a good grad school. I didn't really think, though, that there'd be a big difference in my likelihood of acceptance coming from school 44 as there would have been from school 6. Given that the first grad school I went to was ranked #1 in my subject, it seems like that assumption was valid.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

List update 070816

Recent list accomplishments: #45, #64, #88
Other items which have been worked recently but not finished: #4, #9, #36, #69, #70, #94

At the moment, I'm happy about my phrasing with organize the basement. The basement's not entirely clean--I have about 3 garage bags' worth of stuff to throw out (but no garbage bags at home), and I'm still working on getting all the dirt out of it, but everything else is organized and it looks a lot better than it has since, oh, right around when I moved in. It'll be even better within a week, when my current renter takes all his stuff off to the dorm and I can move the shelving units I bought for it down to the basement and therefore not have things stacked quite so tightly.

Number 9 I still lag some on for having read and annotated some papers which I haven't stuck in EndNote yet. I need to do that soon.

Outside the realm of the list, things are going quite well. I spent a week and a half at my Dad's place on the lake, which was extremely relaxing. I've got a fairly good draft of an encyclopedia article in to my advisor, waiting for his feedback on it (which I might count as a scientific paper--it's going into an Encyclopedia of Microbiology and is 12,000 words long). I have a committee meeting schedule for next week, so it probably makes sense to not do a huge amount in the lab until then. And I have a new renter moving in today, who from what I can tell I'm going to get along with quite well.