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Using data to predict students headed for trouble

Wed, 2014-11-12 11:12

Principal Kelley Birch’s office at Vacaville, Calif.'s Willis Jepson Middle School has the usual stuff: elaborate scheduling calendars, photos, and a neat stack of papers. 

What you won’t see, unless you walk around to Birch’s desk, is a whiteboard with handwritten names of the 56 students at Willis Jepson who have been struggling, the 7th and 8th graders who might not graduate high school a few years down the road.

Next to each name on the list are their trouble spots, things like poor grades, poor attendance, serious behavior issues. On the same list are notes about the ways the school has tried to help. The more marks next to a kid’s name, the more interventions the teachers and counselors attempted. 

“When I see that board,” says Birch, “I have an urgency that these kids need something now.” 

In the past, Birch says, getting a full view of which kids were in trouble took time. “We would wait for the teacher. And the teacher would go to the counselor and say, 'I have this student and they aren’t doing well," Birch says. "And the counselor would go look and say, 'Yeah, they aren’t doing well.' But by then, it’s a quarter into the school year, a semester into the school year.” 

Now, Birch uses what’s known as an Early Warning System. Her team gathers and processes a steady stream of student data, like GPA, attendance, demerits, and test scores, to peer into the future and spot the 7th and 8th graders most at risk of dropping out of high school in the future. 

An example of an Early Warning System.

Maine Department of Education

“It’s about using data that are available to predict which students are at risk, identify them, and then provide supports and interventions so they can get back on track,” says Susan Bowles Therriault, Principal Researcher for the education program at American Institutes for Research. 

The national graduation rate has been climbing steadily. Today, about 80 percent of public high school seniors will graduate. A decade ago, that number was closer to 70 percent, but educators, parents, and politicians all want to see that number increasing. 

Early Warning Systems are one way schools are trying to make that happen. 

Therriault says the proliferation of individual-level student data has made these systems possible, even common. “There are probably schools  and districts in every state across the nation that are using Early Warning Systems in some format,” she says. 

Research shows that the two most important factors when trying to predict whether a kid will graduate from high school on-time are academic performance and attendance. But, different schools, districts, and states have their own models. They might include their own variables, or they start looking for signs a kid is at risk at different points in their education. And they flag them in different ways.

Dan Hill for LearningCurve

In Wisconsin, every 6th grader in the state is given a score between 0 and 100 that represents the child’s expected chances of finishing high school on time. Students under 78.5 are flagged “high risk,” and highlighted in red in the state’s student database.

“It’s early, and that’s the real advantage of it,” says Jared Knowles, a Research Analyst at the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, which calculates the scores.

Knowles says predicting the path of a 6th grader gives teachers a long lead time to change that path. Plus, he says, it can be cheaper to intervene early, before problems multiply.  

But Knowles acknowledges, using data this way, to mark kids as potential dropouts, has risks. “We do a lot of work to communicate about the limits of the prediction,” Knowles says, “that it’s not destiny.”

Not destiny.

You don’t want a teacher to see a kid with score of 20, and give up, in order to help the kids with 80s. You don’t want a kid to know she’s got a red flag next to her name, and give up on herself.

The data, says Knowles, is just a snapshot of how a child is doing. It’s a symptom of trouble, but it’s not a diagnosis, and it’s not a cure. “The school has to do that hard work to re-engage them back into the education system,” says Knowles.

It’s that work that’ll actually change an outcome for a struggling student, not data or data systems.

These school interventions take a lot of forms, everything from special-ed evaluations, to behavioral counseling, to mentoring, to intervention classes in a subject area back at Principal Birch’s middle school in Vacaville.

In the English intervention class, about a dozen students are going over the basic of reading comprehension. In the Math intervention class, students are struggling to calculate discounts and tips.

These classes take resources, and Willis Jepson Middle School didn’t have extra money, so Birch came up with an elaborate bell schedule to squeeze them into the day. She also made some classes a little bigger, to free up teachers to run these interventions.

Birch says all the extra work like data crunching and schedule crunching is worth it to get kids back on track.

And, hopefully, erase their names from that list in her office.

Big banks get fined in foreign exchange rigging

Wed, 2014-11-12 11:00

The big banks had a fine time on Wednesday – as in they had to pay $4.3 billion worth of fines to financial regulators in the United States, the United Kingdom and Switzerland.

Traders at several big banks – including UBS, JPMorgan Chase and Citigroup – manipulated foreign exchange rates over a five-year period starting in 2008. Essentially, they banded together to get rich at the expense of their clients.

Foreign exchange, or forex, is by far the biggest market in the world in terms of the amount of money that changes hands. According to Carol Osler, a professor at the Brandeis University International Business School, forex is “easily 10 or 20 or 30 times bigger than any other single market you could imagine.”

Every day, more than $5 trillion moves through the market.

“Trading is literally 24/almost-7,” Osler says. “Over the weekends, very little happens, but there is trading almost any time you want to trade.” 

Companies trade currencies to import and export products, and to buy and sell bonds. Banks want to be sure they have enough yen or euros to buy or sell something at a moment’s notice.Because currency trading happens all the time, there is no closing price.

“There was a need for some sort of formal price that institutions could use to value their portfolios,” Osler says.

And so the “fix” was born.

“They had to find an arbitrary time to grab off a rate, and they just decided to do it at 4 p.m.,” says Kathryn Dominguez, a University of Michigan professor of public policy and economics.

Every day, for one minute around 4 p.m. London time, Reuters takes the average exchange rate and that becomes the “fix.”

According to Darrell Duffie, who teaches finance at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, if you are buying and selling currencies, sometimes you do it in real time, “but sometimes you tell the bank, well, never mind giving me a price now, I’ll just pay whatever the 4 p.m. fixing price is.”

And because of that, currency dealers had an easy time colluding to drive that price up or down. Brandeis’ Carol Osler says that, in private chat rooms, traders told each other how much they had to buy and sell to move the price.

“The dealers are thinking, 'Well, gosh, if almost all of us are going to be buying, then we know the price is going to go up,'” Osler says. “Well, it would be helpful to know what is going on with everyone else.”

When they announced the fines, regulators called on banks to change their corporate culture – and left the door open for criminal prosecution.

Big banks get fined for fixing the forex fix

Wed, 2014-11-12 11:00

The big banks had a fine time on Wednesday, as in, they had to pay $4.3 billion worth of fines to financial regulators in the United States, the United Kingdom, and Switzerland.

Traders at several big banks, including UBS, JPMorgan Chase, and Citigroup, manipulated foreign exchange rates over a five-year period starting in 2008. They, essentially, banded together to get rich at the expense of their clients.

Foreign exchange is the biggest market in the world, by far, in terms of the amount of money that changes hands. According to Carol Osler, a professor at the Brandeis University International Business School, forex is “easily 10 or 20 or 30 times bigger than any other single market you could imagine.”

Every day, more than $5 trillion moves through the market. “Trading is literally 24/almost-7,” Osler says. “Over the weekends, very little happens, but there is trading almost any time you want to trade.” Companies trade currencies to import and export products, and to buy and sell bonds. Banks want to be sure they have enough Yen or Euros to buy or sell something at a moment’s notice.

Because currency trading happens all the time, there is no closing price. “There was a need for some sort of formal price that institutions could use to value their portfolios,” Osler says.

And so, the “Fix” was born.

“They had to find an arbitrary time to grab off a rate, and they just decided to do it at 4:00 p.m.,” says Kathryn Dominguez, a professor of public policy and economics at the University of Michigan. Every day, for one minute around 4:00 London time, Reuters takes the average exchange rate and that becomes the “Fix.”

According to Darrell Duffie, who teaches finance at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, if you are buying and selling currencies, sometimes you do it in real time, “but sometimes you tell the bank, well, never mind giving me a price now, I’ll just pay whatever the 4:00 p.m. fixing price is.”

And because of that, currency dealers had an easy time colluding to drive that price up or down. Brandeis’s Carol Osler says that, in private chat rooms, traders told each other how much they had to buy and sell to move the price.

“The dealers are thinking, 'Well, gosh, if almost all of us are going to be buying, then we know the price is going to go up,'” Osler says. “Well, it would be helpful to know what is going on with everyone else.”

When they announced the fines, regulators called on banks to change their corporate culture, and they left the door open for criminal prosecution.

Why the U.S.-China climate deal isn't crazy ambitious

Wed, 2014-11-12 11:00

The agreement between President Barack Obama and his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, committing both countries to major reductions in greenhouse-gas emissions in the next 10 years, has been widely hailed as a political and diplomatic breakthrough. Until now, one big point of contention in debates about reducing U.S. emissions has been, “What’s the point? China’s the biggest emitter now. Without their participation, world emissions barely budge.”

Less-discussed has been the size of the undertaking itself. President Obama is committing the U.S. to dialing back emissions to less than 75 percent of 2005 levels. That sounds tough. 

But here’s the secret: Essentially, these are reductions the Obama administration has already committed to. 

"If you’re in the clean energy industry in the U.S., and you’ve been keeping up on these developments already, then this announcement probably doesn’t represent a major game-change for you," says Ethan Zindler, an analyst with Bloomberg New Energy Finance.

If you’re not in the clean-energy industry, you may wonder what developments Zindler is talking about. One should be familiar: The Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Power Plan, proposed in June, is designed to decrease emissions from existing power plants. That’s big.

A less well-known rule — still getting finalized — would strictly limit emissions from any new power plants. Old-style coal plants, the biggest emitters — effectively, new ones would be forbidden.

Then there’s a rule that’s already in force: fuel-efficiency standards for cars.  "The average car that’s sold this month is about 25 percent more fuel-efficient than the one that was sold about five years ago," says Zindler.

The power-plant rules are still proposals, and a new president could eventually undo them. But this agreement makes the whole framework a little stronger. "Any time two major leaders reach an agreement, it has some level of authority to it," says Dan Bakal, director of the electric-power program at the non-profit group CERES.

Finally, a diplomatic partnership opens the door wider to cooperating on the how of reducing emissions. "There will continue to be really advanced technologies that we will cooperate on together," says Susan Tierney, an energy consultant with The Analysis Group. "We need to figure out how to deal with the carbon emissions associated with coal."

Right now, technology for cleaning up emissions from coal generators is experimental and costly. Tierney thinks teaming up with China could help.

At a Starbucks near you: Chestnut Praline Lattes

Wed, 2014-11-12 11:00

Just in time to satisfy your holiday sweet tooth, Starbucks announced its first new holiday beverage in five years: the Chestnut Praline Latte.

In the lineage of holiday flavor trends, Starbucks is throwing chestnut into the ring. 

The drink, according to Starbucks is, "a blend of fresh espresso and flavors of caramelized chestnuts, with freshly steamed milk, topped with whipped cream and spiced praline crumbs."

Which ultimately just sounds like a delicious cup of caffeinated ice cream. So why not just eat ice cream?

Twinkies: brought to you by private equity

Wed, 2014-11-12 11:00

Private equity saved the Twinkie by buying up its manufacturer, Hostess Brands, and reportedly tripling its value in the process.  

Hostess’ owners, Apollo Global Management and Metropoulos and Co. bought the company for $410 million almost two years ago.  Today, there’s speculation it’s worth almost $2 billion.  How do private equity firms do it?

“They buy the company’s assets and then they start looking for inefficiencies,” says David Robinson, a finance professor at Duke University's Fuqua School of Business.

In the case of Hostess, that meant outsourcing delivery of Twinkies and Ding Dongs, slashing the labor force, and closing some plants.

But the private equity buyers also capitalized on nostalgia for Hostess snacks, and the panic that they would soon disappear. 

Their social media campaign featured stars like Snoop Dogg tweeting about a special delivery of Twinkies. 

Even Wall Street analysts weren’t immune.

“I’m a Ding Dong man,” says Bruce Cohen, senior partner at Kurt Salmon.   He did some panic-buying for his office. “We went on Amazon and we bought Twinkies and Ding Dongs and apple pies and the small doughnuts and we had a big celebration.”

With Hostess’s value apparently soaring, other private equity firms are trying the same thing. 

“Just because a company is financially a wreck, it doesn’t mean there’s not a loyalty and it symbolizes a certain thing and it  brings a certain joy and a deliciousness,” says Peter Cowen, managing director of  Clear Capital Advisors.

Cowen says there are other examples of money being made from nostalgia.  Just look at the turnarounds of  Pabst Blue Ribbon beer and Old Spice cologne.

The numbers for November 12, 2014

Wed, 2014-11-12 10:16

Before leaving to continue his tour of Asia, President Barack Obama signed a climate change agreement with Chinese President Xi Jinping.

The announcement Wednesday was part of a nine-month planning process. The U.S. will double its current rate of carbon cuts with a target of reducing 26 to 28 percent by 2025, while China pledged to peak its emissions growth by 2030. The plan is already getting pushback from the new Republican Senate majority, the Wall Street Journal reported.

Here are some stories we're reading and other numbers we're watching Wednesday:

$9.9 billion

That's how much merchandise Alibaba sold during its 11/11 shopping event Tuesday, shattering last year's 11/11 and all online sales around Thanksgiving last year, AdAge reported. Nearly half of those sales came from mobile and Chinese brands dominated.

50 million

That's Spotify's active user base, and 12.5 million of them pay for the subscription service. Spotify has seen powerful growth, but the start-up could very well be threatened by YouTube, which is launching its own service with an invite-only beta this week. It's called YouTube Music Key, and yes, it has Taylor Swift.

732,732

The number of followers Alex Lee, a.k.a #AlexFromTarget, had on Twitter as of Wednesday morning. When a photo of Lee at work went viral earlier this month, he was bombarded with requests for photos, endorsements and television appearances as well as threats and harassment. A New York Times story published Wednesday tracked the explosion of fame from Lee's perspective.

39 grams

That's how much sugar is in Starbucks' first new holiday beverage in five years, the Chestnut Praline Latte, which debuts Wednesday. That's actually on the low side - the eggnog latte, peppermint mocha and pumpkin spice latte all hover around 50 grams. ABC News has a taste test.

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