Ask the grumpies: Dual-language neighborhood school vs. Gifted school

Azma asks:

I’m curious to know what you’d do in my situation. I live in the outer boroughs of NYC in a diverse, urban neighborhood with decent (but not great) public schools. My 5 year old got a spot in a dual language program (Spanish/ English) at our zoned school. He also tested very highly on the city gifted and talented test with minimal prep and got into an excellent program several neighborhoods away (he’d take a school bus to get there). There’s been a huge push in our neighborhood to convince educated, middle class families (like us) to keep their kids in the neighborhood schools. Many have historically sent their kids to charters, g&t programs, or private schools. We love the g&t program our kid has a spot in, but we also love our neighborhood and worry that we’re contributing to NYC’s problematic school segregation problems. What would you do in our place?

Right or wrong, I always put my kids ahead of general social spillovers.  So I try to decide what is best for them first, and worry about the ripple effects as a secondary concern.  Not that I ignore spillovers, but the spillovers would have to be larger than they are in this case and I would have to know for certain that the spillovers from removing my child from the district were negative.

What I mean by knowing for certain that they are negative– while we do know that having higher SES kids is good for schools (and having kids whose families have domestic violence is bad for schools) and many other network effects, the benefits to having gifted kids are not as clear-cut.  That is, it isn’t always clear that keeping a gifted kid in a non-gifted school is actually better for the school. Gifted kids are special needs and as such tend to draw resources, act up if their intellectual needs aren’t being met, etc.  The same isn’t true of kids who are high achieving but not gifted– they are more likely to provide positive spillovers. So most of the studies that find beneficial effects of, for example, cooperative learning, remove gifted kids from their experiments.

Still, worrying about neighborhood schools is still a really valid concern, and there are things you can do about that even if you don’t send your child there, *even if you don’t have kids*.  Personally, I donate a lot of money to education-related charities.  Donors Choose is a big favorite of mine. Using Donors Choose, I can also pick districts that have greater needs than the one we’re zoned in, which has even more positive effects than would donating to our relatively well-off district.  Before I had children, I supported schools more than I do now because I had lots of time to volunteer and could tutor in low income urban districts.

All of this is an argument to say, take that spillover concern out of your calculus right now.  If you’re worried about the school, there are ways you can have a bigger more positive impact than you would by sending your child there.

That doesn’t mean that you should automatically choose the G/T school, of course.  There are lots of things to think about when making your decision that only you and your family can place weights on.

  • If you feel you’ve made a mistake with either choice, how easy it is to switch?
  • How do you feel about the administration and teaching at both schools?  Do they seem willing to work with parents?
  • If you’ve visited the schools, do the kids seem happy and not acting up?
  • How will the school schedule work with your work-life?  Are there after school programs?  What happens if your child misses the bus or wants to do an after school activity?
  • How strongly do you feel about foreign language acquisition and are there other ways to get it?
  • How do you feel about the curriculum at both scohols?

If you love the G/T school I would be very tempted to stay with it.  From folks I’ve talked with, dual-language is great for keeping GT kids occupied until 2nd or 3rd grade and then they start needing more acceleration.  Hopefully that would not be a problem at the G/T school.  On the other hand, the G/T schools in the city closest to us have a reputation for not actually being very good for G/T– their main purposes is for white parents to segregate their kids without paying 40K/year for private school, which means that they’re not actually geared towards G/T.  That’s not true everywhere, and is probably not true in NYC given how competitive the testing is, but I don’t know for sure.

Here’s a related question from jlp back in 2014!  And here’s one from Sarah back in 2015.

Grumpy Nation, what have we missed?  What elements would you put on your list to help with decision-making?


Ask the grumpies: Skipping K?

The frugal ecologist asks:

Our LO is in Montessori but started early so she will do the 3 years before she’d be eligible for K. (3rd year Montessori is K). I’m intrigued about having her skip a grade and start in 1st at 5. What are factors to look for about being ready to skip, any particular grade better to skip or not, etc etc?

You may want to find the Iowa Acceleration Scale.  Here’s Hoagie’s gifted talking about it.  It basically provides questions that will help you think about what’s important in terms of skipping vs. not skipping.  For example, if your family is really really into sports, then skipping isn’t as good an idea as if you’re ok with your kid not being the star athlete at school.  It’s a bit pricey and may not be useful without having taken concurrent IQ tests, so it might be worthwhile just to read up about the general ideas it covers online without actually getting a number.  (But if you want to do testing, that works too!)

It sounds like in your LO’s case, that your child will not actually be skipping K– she will be getting K at Montessori, which is pretty common (something my sister did back in the day!).  So basically you’re asking if she should do K a second time in public school after having done it at Montessori.

I would look into what K is in  your state.  If you’re on the core, then they’re going to expect more than if you’re in a state that doesn’t require K, doesn’t have full-time K, or is in one of the states that refused to go on the core.  For schools on the core, you’ll want to make sure that your LO has mastered the K skillset, which may include reading and simple arithmetic.

IIRC, you’re in a state in which K is mainly for all the kids who didn’t go to preschool to learn how to play nicely with others and reading isn’t really tackled until 1st grade.  (Though your individual school district may vary.  Definitely check the K learning objectives for your district for the year.)  Given that your child went to preschool, I would be very tempted to skip out.  Unless, of course, you’re in a situation like ours in which you want to do the dual-language option and you have to start at K.

This website discusses details and research about acceleration.  One of the things it mentions is that they recommend not skipping the year before starting at a new school.  So if your elementary school is K-4, they recommend not skipping 4th grade.  I’m not sure how big a deal this is in practice, since kids get moved around from schools because of their parents’ jobs all the time.  But maybe it matters in marginal cases.

We chose acceleration for DC1 because zie was bored and starting to act out and hir preschool had run out of materials and was suggesting that the entire next year DC1 would act as a teacher’s aide.  Zie had already mastered all the K skills (except cutting, but zie mastered cutting in the summer before K).  Our private school tested hir and suggested to us doing K and 1st concurrently.  That worked out quite well, though in retrospect, zie probably didn’t need the K at all.

So, I guess I would think about the following:

  • Was the LO in preschool?  If yes, then that aspect of K is unnecessary.  Zie knows how to line up and listen to the teacher etc.
  • Has the LO mastered the skillset that will be taught in K?  This will vary by your LO, the preschool, and the school district.  If not, then there’s less value to skipping K because there’s less chance the LO will be bored in K.
  • All that other stuff on the Iowa Acceleration scale like sports and siblings and so on.

There are a lot of misconceptions people have about grade skipping– there are plenty of reasons not to skip for most kids, but for kids who can skip, the things random “helpful” people will suggest to you are just not real concerns.  So… I would not worry about your LO’s size.  DC1 has skipped two grades and has still not been the smallest kid in hir grade in public school even though zie is of exactly average height.  People also have been pretty nice to hir– hir social experience has been very different than mine was and has been much more like my experience in my single-subject skipped math classes.  I would also not worry about drivers licenses etc.  The trend right now is for kids to put off driving until they’re much older than 16.

In general, it’s easier to start out in 1st and say you’re trying it out and then drop back to K midyear than it is to start out in K and do a mid-year skip up to 1st.

In general, I’m very pro-skipping for kids who have mastered the material prior to the year starting.  For kids who have mastered most, but not all, of the material, it is going to depend on more stuff, like how much they act out when they get bored, how quickly they can pick up what they’ve missed, and so on.

For our kids, we’re still taking it a year at a time.

Update:  Before another person posts about grade skipping being bad based on one anecdote for which they do not know the counterfactual (note:  research suggests that on average, the counterfactual would have been worse!), please read this post here.

Soliciting more Ask the Grumpies!

Ask the grumpies is a feature we run almost every Friday (sometimes we post less-popular but still fascinating google questions).  You ask, we answer, or we punt and ask the grumpy nation to answer.  In any case, you get the benefit of not only our wisdom but the collective wisdom of the far wiser grumpy nation.

What questions do you have for us?  What can we bring clarity or further confusion to?  What can the grumpy nation ponder and discuss on your behalf?  Ask in the comments below or email us at grumpyrumblings at gmail dot com.

Spanish vs. Mandarin Dual Language programs?

Hypatia Cade asks:

I’m curious about your thoughts (or your readers’ thoughts) – we will have the option to lottery in to 2 dual lang programs: Spanish or Mandarin. There are other pieces of these choices (school location, true public vs. charter, curriculum differences) that make it complex….But if the language of instruction were the only variable would you pick one language over the other? Why? (And to what extent would parental familiarity with a language enter into this?)

I would probably pick Mandarin over Spanish all else equal because it’s easier to pick up Spanish at older ages as an English speaker.  (My assumption would be Mandarin as a child and then Spanish as a third language in middle school and/or high school.)  Both Mandarin and Spanish are useful languages to know — I wouldn’t, for example, choose Dutch over Spanish even though Dutch has similar pronunciation problems to Mandarin for English-speakers, because Dutch isn’t that useful (in my experience, most Dutch speakers you come in contact with know English extremely well and will prefer to use it).  Note here, that I would expect Spanish learning in either scenario– that’s non-negotiable just like swimming lessons, it’s just a matter or whether or not there’s also fluency in Mandarin.

I am pretty fluent in Spanish, but sadly have Kindergarten-level Cantonese rather than Mandarin (of which I only remember how to count up to 999 and how to write the first few numbers and the word for “big” which is the same in Mandarin as it is in Cantonese).  (I also have first grade-level French and a smattering of Latin.  And I’ve picked up a bit of school-girl Japanese from Anime, which is pretty useless unless I need to tell someone to wait or that I like like them.  DH has high school-level German.)  I think I would just trust my kids to pick up the Mandarin in school and would get a tutor if there were learning difficulties along the way.  The dual-language material we have is very adamant that we don’t have to do anything special to get DC2 prepared for dual-language K and that it’s ok if the parents don’t speak Spanish.

Here are some replies from our regular readers:


given Mandarin or Spanish, I’d let my kiddo pick, which would probably result in Spanish. Dad took Spanish, Mom took Mandarin, so that’s not a huge factor. But my kiddo is SO into soccer, and Spanish means ze can translate when we go on dream Argentina trip ;-)

If I were factoring in efficacy of language training (i.e. how proficient they are likely to end up), I’d lean toward Spanish. Though for that I’d consider possible peers who might help hir practice too. Pronunciation on Mandarin is probably easiest to learn very young, but this wasn’t the trickiest part to me. The thing I think was really hard about Mandarin was the writing. Are they doing simplified characters, or traditional, and when do they bring in typing? It’s very challenging, and I wouldn’t suggest it for most kids until about age 11 or so.


One consideration might be which language is easiest to reinforce from home or environment. I have 5 year old grand child who has been Mandarin immersion from 2 pre-school years and just finishing K. Reads and writes and speaks in both English and Mandarin. Both parents speak Mandarin, my co-grandparents speak primarily Mandarin, so lots of reinforcement happened naturally from birth. Had a Spanish speaking nanny before preschool and both parent’s Spanish increased in fluency through those years. But for last two years, post nanny, it has been harder to reinforce and keep in use. Being able to reinforce and use the language outside of school makes a huge difference.


My daughter has dysgraphia so found the Mandarin characters problematic. (She was exposed to both the characters and… pinyan?) In theory learning Mandarin sounds great, but living in the US Spanish may be more useful and enjoyable. My daughter ended up learning French and still keeps it up on her own as a young adult.


We had a choice between Mandarin and Spanish for language immersion programs, and chose Spanish based primarily on the fact that the school that does Spanish is in our neighborhood. We had low probability of getting into either, but got very lucky (a literal lottery win!) and got into the Spanish school in our neighborhood and have loved it. Also, it starts at 9 (with before care provided by the YMCA for a fee) and the Mandarin school starts at 7:45, which even for our early rising kids would have been a struggle and a PITA for the entire family.

We pay for very low key private Mandarin lessons, mostly because my oldest kid really excels at language so we want to let her push on that. But it also means that both kids will have learned the tones at an age when they can really learn them and that should make it easier for them to become fluent in Mandarin later if they want to. Bonus: the Mandarin teacher picks the kids up from the after care program one day per week, giving us extra schedule flexibility on that day. Win-win.

FWIW, we have noticed no real problems with learning two languages at once. I don’t know if that would be true if we were really pushing on the Mandarin, but with our immersion Spanish and low key Mandarin, it seems fine. We have noticed that our younger kid, who was not reading fluently in English before starting the Spanish program, tends to spell English words with Spanish phonics, which is hilariously cute. (Eg, miles is spelled “mayols”) We assume that will sort itself out by about grade 3, when her school starts working on English spelling. She is now reading fluently in English, which should help.

What would you choose, Grumpy Nation?

Ask the Grumpies: The Ideal University

SP asks

Thoughts how an ideal university would function, use of adjuncts, what is the purpose of a university? Is it to educate students and conduct research, and what is the weight of these functions.

I read occasional news media about these topics, and they hit similar themes that sometimes don’t ring true. Most recent example article (posted in my FB news feed by a former adjunct English professor at a university):

^ ok, a note on the above paragraph.  I must have written it [#2 does not have and has never had FB] but I have no memory at all of doing it.  I just read the article and don’t remember ever seeing it before.  Apparently I have lost all my memorial faculties, but I’ll comment on it now.

I have no memory of it whatsoever.But here’s a thought: Tuition is high not because there are too many administrators. It’s because states have disinvested and the feds have made unfunded mandates [#2 says, yes, this is what the research says as well]. Also, the cost of health insurance has skyrocketed, which is one of the biggest expenses for a university, aside from salary [#2 isn’t as sure about this, but maybe?].

It’s true that adjuncts are treated poorly, yes!But there are whole *systems* that need to be fixed because people voted for legislators that didn’t fund education and because health insurance companies are for-profit (among other reasons).  But yes, adjuncts don’t get paid enough. I agree there.  Adjuncts should also not be required to mentor students nor write rec letters, unless they are full-time actual faculty (even if not TT).

(I see that this doesn’t answer your question, SP, but please forgive my wool-gathering.)

There are many purposes to a university and many ways to have an ideal university.

On the subject of adjunct pay and working conditions, #2 is kind of like… that’s where supply and demand hit.  Getting a humanities PhD needs to be less attractive so it isn’t so easy to find a phd willing to work a crap job at minimum wage.  (Note:  we pay our adjuncts 10K/class and many of our lecturers make ~100K/year on top of their day jobs.)

This paper discusses compensation of faculty members.  It seems to be optimal for some definitions of optimal, but I only really read the abstract.

I don’t know what the purpose of a university is or what the ideal balance between teaching and research is.  We need research because it provides positive spillovers to society and is unlikely to be privately funded.  We need to teach students so they will become productive members of society.  I don’t know if we should move to SLACS and think-tanks or if we should keep on with our continuum of community colleges/SLACS/R3/R2/R1/think tanks.  I mean, I guess if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.  Though I do think we need more government funding to decrease the cost of education, particularly for those who are credit constrained because it is the only way we know of to productively reduce income inequality in an increasingly automated society.

So that’s not much of an answer either.  Maybe Grumpy Nation has better opinions.

Opine for us, Grumpy Nation!  What is the ideal university?

Ask the Grumpies: Where to learn economics?

Leah asks:

I’d love to learn some basic econ. Where’s a good place to start that is not too arduous but is also accurate?

I know there are a lot of Econ for laypeople books out there (Freakanomics being the most famous), but when people ask me this question I always stick to two textbook recommendations.  The first is the Intermediate Microeconomics by Robert Frank called Microeconomics and Behavior.  The second is Public Finance by Jonathan Gruber.

I love Frank because he discusses microeconomics in a way that contrasts how the rational person would behave with how people actually behave.  This I think makes the theory more believable and more powerful.

Public Finance I really think ought to be taught in high school.  If you want to understand the role for government, it is a must read.  So much of what is going on with healthcare right now violates basic economic principles and after reading about adverse selection, you, too, will understand why.

Note for these that you do not at all need to buy the most recent edition.  The 1998 edition of Frank is fine for understanding the basics.  The first edition of Public Finance by Gruber is still a fantastic read.  Get whatever is available and cheap.

What economics tomes/videos do you recommend, Grumpy Nation?

Ask the Grumpies: Knife recommendations

monsterzero  asks:

I need to get a nice sharp knife, mostly for chopping vegetables; any suggestions?

We like our Shun knives, but they are way more expensive than you need. The “best” knives on the market are much cheaper.  So, as beautiful as the Shun knives are, you can spend a fraction of their cost to get a great set of knives.

Generally if you only have one kitchen knife, you want it to be a utility knife.  I’ve noticed that a lot of “knives you must have” lists on the internet disagree with me on this, instead saying that you should have a chef’s knife and a paring knife, but we use the utility knife all the time both to slice and to pare, and we pretty much never use our paring knife.  We actually have two utility knives, our beautiful Shun knife and a more moderately priced Kitchen Aid version.  Henckels and Victronix both get good ratings online.  Note that these are sometimes listed as small chef’s knives instead of utility knives.  Generally you want 6 inches.

If you have two knives, then you should get a chef’s knife if your hands are big or a santoku if your hands are small (I love my santoku, DH usually uses the chef’s knife instead).  Victronix again wins accolades for the chef’s knife.  Seriously, Cook’s Illustrated raves about their 8 inch chef’s knife which is now ~$40 rather than the $27 it was when their ratings came out.  For santokus, it may be worth paying the extra money to get Shun or Wusthof.  Note that you chop differently with these two types of knives (the Santoku doesn’t rock)– you may want to watch a video or two if you’re not used to the kind of knife you end up with.

If you get a third knife, it should be a bread knife if you like to eat a lot of bakery-style bread.  We decided on this one from Tojiro for my little sister after discovering her hacking through artisan bread with her chef’s knife at Christmas.  At $18 it is a bargain.

Then maybe a paring knife (we never use ours though).

And that’s really all you need unless you want one for carving turkey.

One item that we really appreciate having is an electric knife sharpener.  If your local farmers market has a knife sharpening station where they sharpen by hand using a stone, that’s probably going to be better for your knives, but there’s a lot to be said for getting a quick sharpen at home and just replacing the knife a few years earlier than you would had you gotten them professionally sharpened each time, since you will still get decades of use out of the knives.  There are a lot more options now than when we got ours, but Chef’s Choice is still the sharpener people recommend.  I bet you can get away with the $40 version, but there are also $180 versions which I hope will carve at angles for you (something you would need for hunting knives, but not so much kitchen knives).

Grumpy nation, what knives do you love?  Which ones do you regularly use?  How do you keep your knives sharp?