Big and Fragmented: K-12 Education

There’s an increasing amount of attention being paid by tech companies to how data is used in K-12 education.  More and more start-ups (as well as larger companies, including the education publishers) are focusing on how to capture and make use of student, school, and district data to drive academic gains — e.g. capturing student performance in real-time to enable teachers to provide personalized learning, differentiated instruction, etc.

I was curious about what kind of publicly available K-12 data exists today, so I headed over to the National Center for Education Statistics (which is run by the US Dept of Ed) to see what they have.

What I found was mostly a collection of macro-level, dated info (some of the most recent data is from 2010).  More useful for policy makers than for students and teachers.  But what’s clear from the data is that while K-12 market is massive, it’s extremely fragmented — and it’s why the emerging tech companies will face distribution challenges unlike in any other tech market.

1) Big Market: Growth in K-12 Student Population

The growth of the US elementary and high school population has almost doubled in the last 60 years to 56 million.  Interestingly, much of that growth occurred from 1950-1970 with the baby boom explosion, and for the last decade, the population has remained essentially flat.   By 2019, the US DOE predicts there will be an additional 3 million K-12 students or about 60 million.

2) Fragmented Market:  Dispersion of K-12 Student Population

The 17,00 US school districts are highly fragmented:

  • ~30% of districts (nearly 5,000) have only 1 school, accounting for just 3% of students
  • ~99% of districts have 50 schools or less, accounting for 72% of students
  • Only 0.4% of districts (just 65) have more than 100 schools.  But these account for 16% of students


Battling Evolution: The Difficulty (And Importance) of Keeping Your Cool

In the dizzying hours following JFK’s assassination, while most were understandably overcome with emotion, the man right in the center of it all who suddenly found himself ascended to the Presidency, was by many accounts extremely calm.

As Robert Caro describes in “The Transition”, his gripping New Yorker article this week, LBJ’s life instantly transformed from a going-nowhere-fast Vice Presidency that was likely about to be embroiled in a kick-back scandal, to the most powerful man on the planet.  Yet in those few hours on November 22, 1963 — when he was whisked away from the shots being fired, to the hospital where JFK was pronounced dead, to Air Force One to be sworn in — he’s described generally as calm, cool, and collected.

LBJ is sworn in on Air Force One, Nov 22, 1963

We know such composure can be valuable.  But according to Laurence Gonzales in his book Deep Survival, “only 10 to 20 percent of people can stay calm and think in the midst of a survival emergency.”


If being calm is good in emergencies, why doesn’t it come easily to us?  Said another way, why is LBJ’s poise unusual and noteworthy even 50 years later?

Gonzales argues that stress, which releases hormones that interfere with the part of the brain that allows us to perceive our broader environment and make decisions, “causes most people to focus narrowly on the thing that they consider most important.”  Could be fight.  Could be flight.  Could be anything.  The problem is, we live in a modern world where it’s not just all about getting to safety — every day we face an infinite set of “hazards” that evolution couldn’t possibly have forseen to prepare us for.

He continues: “Emotions are survival mechanisms, but they don’t always work for the individual.  They work across a large number of trials to keep the species alive.  The individual may live or die, but over a few million years, more mammals lived than died by letting emotion take over, and so emotion was selected.  For people who are raised in modern civilization, the wilderness is novel and full of unfamiliar hazards.  To survive in it, the body must learn and adapt.”

One of those key adaptations is the ability to control one’s fear, enabling the brain to maintain its ability to perceive and make informed decisions.

Great adventurers have described this necessity in their own way.  Gonzales quotes one of the first South Pole explorers in 1910 as saying the “quality which is perhaps the only one which may be said with certainty to make for success [is] self-control.”

Shear acts of will might be required to extert self-control and overcome our ingrained instincts.  As Teddy Roosevelt wrote many years after his time in the North Dakota badlands:  “There were all kinds of things which I was afraid at first, ranging from grizzly bears to ‘mean’ horses and gunfighters; but by acting as I was not afraid I gradually ceased to be afraid.”

Some Like it Hot

Today was hot.

Maybe not Ted Stricker hot, but still hot enough that walking around outside qualified as a workout.  In Central Park today, the National Weather Service said it reached 73 degrees.

Let’s put that in context: normally it’s 51 degrees on March 20th in New York.  Fittingly, last year, it was 51 degrees on this date.  Today wasn’t an all time record — that belongs to 1945’s 83 degrees — but safe to say this has been an unusually warm winter in the city, as well as in many other parts of the country.

I was curious what stats are available to help us quantify how mild the season has been, so I headed over to the National Weather Service’s site, which, if you can get past the 1995 look n’ feel, is actually pretty useful (they have NY data back to 1869).

Here’s what I found:

  1. This winter has been the second warmest on record — interestingly, 4 of the top 5 have occured in the last twenty years.
Average Temperature for Dec-Feb (Warmest Rankings)
Temperature Season
41.5 2001-2002
40.5 2011-2012
40.1 1931-1932
39.6 1997-1998
39.2 1990-1991
Normal: 35.1

2.  Over the past 150 years, the average monthly temperature for March has been 40.3 degrees — interestingly, since 2000, that average is 7% higher at 43.1 degrees.

So today’s temperature of 73 degrees is over 80% higher than the usual monthly average in Central Park.

Feels great in the short term.  But if the warming trend is only in one direction, it does make you wonder what are the implications for the long term.

Food for Thought (Literally)

Now that lent has begun, seems right for Historicalness to look at another side of food (besides key lime pies and king cakes).

1) An interesting article at this week called “How Exercise Fuels the Brain” discusses how hungry the human brain is and how we’re starting to understand better how it feeds itself.

It also highlights findings from a new study that indicates animals who exercised regularly (here, over a 4 week period), built up more fuel reserves in the brain (in the form of glycogen) — you also get temporary bursts of glycogen if you exercise but don’t do so regularly.  This led the author of the study to say ” ‘it is tempting to suggest that increased storage and utility of brain glycogen in the cortex and hippocampus might be involved in the development’ of a better, sharper brain”.

Maybe that’s why I seem to come up with some of my best ideas — like! — when I’m on a run.

That's me, all the way in the back

2) In a related piece, Harvard Professor of Human Evolutionary Biology, Daniel Lieberman, in this 13 min video, “Making the World Smaller,” discusses how, before humans began to form agricultural societies and we were hunter/gathers, would exercise — by necessity — 9-15 KM per day (or, for those of us who don’t speak metric, 5.6-9.3 miles per day).

We love to eat and pack on fat to feed our big brains and enable us to hunt & gather.  Today, we still enjoy rest and fatty foods to feed our hungry brains, but there’s no longer the hunter/gatherer imperative to catch our meals or eat healthy foods.  As he says, “We evolved to: enjoy rest, but to have to exercise; crave fat, sugar & salt, but have to eat wild foods”.   So we eat more and exercise less.

As a result, today we intake 300-900 more calories on average than even our great grandparents did.  Prof. Lieberman argues that since we can’t change our biology, we should change our environment — starting by mandating exercise in schools (or at least at Harvard).

Do any universities that you know of currently mandate this?  Please email me at matt [ @ ] historicalness [ dot ] com if you know of any.

Me, Sandy, and Mardi Gras

We shared a moment.  Me and Sandra Bullock.  It was Mardi Gras in New Orleans and good cheer was in the air.  So too was a set of small green beads she’d flung randomly into the crowd from her float as that year’s Celebrity Monarch for the Krewe of Orpheus parade.  I reached out my arm and caught one end as the other hit me in the forehead.  A bonding experience extraordinaire.   

Pre or post Miss Congeniality?

As you may know, tomorrow marks yet another Mardi Gras. Sandy may not be there, but no matter — the celebrations will be grand, and it seems like an appropriate time to learn a little more about this festivity.  So let’s do some Q&A:

How old is Mardi Gras?

Old.  Not horseshoe old.  More like after Christianity began old.  The celebrations provided some merrymaking before the penitence during Lent.

 I don’t speak French….what does “Mardi Gras” mean

“Fat Tuesday”, cause you’re definitely not getting slimmer after all the eats and drinks. 

 Speaking of eats, what’s a king cake?



Is it true they hide things in the cakes?

Yes.  Find the trinket inside and you get perks. 

Was Sandy Bullock the best Celebrity Monarch of all time?

Yes.  Although the cast of Reno 911 (in 2009) is a close second.

Happy Mardi Gras everyone! 

The Grammy’s and Horseshoe Crabs

This is probably the post where I should write about Sunday night’s Grammy awards…sprinkling in a little history here and there, and talking about how the Rihanna plus Cold Play collaboration was false advertising since it was just Rihanna and Chris Martin.

But what I really want to write about is horseshoe crabs.

You see, last week I held a horseshoe crab.  For most of us, there are probably a million other animals we’d prefer to hang out with.  After all, a horseshoe crab is not exactly cuddly pet material.  It doesn’t wag its tail when it’s excited.  And it doesn’t purr when you stroke it.

But it does have two major things going for it which have made me a big-time fan.

First, it’s old.  I mean really old.  So old that it doesn’t even make any sense.  Horseshoe crabs trace their lineage back at least 300 million years ago.  To put that in context:

  • Dinosaurs appeared 230 million years ago, 70 million years after the ‘shoes.  What’s more, the dinosaurs were extinct as of 65 million years ago.  So the ‘shoes have been on planet earth a combined 135 million more years than the likes of T-Rex.  I’m no mathematician, but that seems like a lot.
  • Modern-day humans appeared 100,000 years ago.  So we’ve been around 0.03% of the time as the ‘shoes.

Second, it plays a key role in modern medicine.  The next time you get an injection and walk away without getting infected from it (which hopefully is par for the course these days), you can thank the horseshoe crab.  In the 1970s, scientists began to use horseshoe crab blood to identify if products were contaminated with bacteria — since then, pharma companies have used it for creating safe new antibiotics, vaccines, and medical devices.

So next time you see a horseshoe crab turned over, show it some love and give it a flip.

The Greatest Dessert Ever

If there were to be a vote by the 7 billion of us alive today plus the other 100 billion of us (give or take) who have ever walked the earth, the one thing we would of course unanimously agree on is that the best dessert of all time is Key Lime Pie.

Which leads to the natural question: where did this creation come from?  Did Key Limes and graham crackers become more than friends one day, combining two great families of tart and sweet lineage?  Seems plausible.

But consensus seems to be that that the Key Lime Pie was born in the late 1800s at the hands of a cook in Key West, Florida, who built on the work of a dessert created by local fishermen.

The cook, named Aunt Sally, worked for the town’s richest man, William Curry, who made his fortune as a “wrecker”, the term for those who salvaged cargo on shipwrecks and then resold their captured booty for a handsome profit. (Hemmingway, who lived in Key West from 1931-1940, lived in a grand home built by another local wrecker.)

In recognition of its invaluable contributions to taste buds everywhere, Key Lime Pie was made the official pie of Florida in 2006.

No doubt further accolades are not far behind.

Super Bowl Edition: Top 3 Questions

Well, the big day is finally here.  A rematch of the classic Giants-Patriots Super Bowl of four years ago — hopefully the game is just as good (with the same result).

In equally big news, after culling through gobs of fan mail with questions galore, has selected three of the most popular reader inquiries and set our crack research team to neither sleep nor eat until they’ve come back with answers.  Thankfully for us (and for them) their work is complete and the Q&A can begin.

Question #1: Which team should I root for?

Well, this is, so the team’s historical strength is obviously the measure that matters most.  The clear winner is: the Giants.

The Giants joined the league in 1925.  The Patsies didn’t join until 1970.

The Giants’ storied history includes 18 hall of famers.  The Patsies have only 4.

The Giants have 7 league championships.  The Patsies have 3.

And the list goes on…

Question #2: Where does the name “Super Bowl” come from?

Good question.  In 1970, the two rival football leagues, the NFL and AFL, merged.  Lamar Hunt, who owned the AFL’s Kansas City Chiefs, coined the term in reference to the newly created championship game between the top two teams in each league.  The “Super Bowl” name became official in the new league’s third season.

Question #3: Why does Belichick only wear hoodies?

Perhaps the best question of all.  But there are certain things in the cosmos that even can’t answer.

Go Jinties.

Best History Show Out There

If you’re not already on the bandwagon — although I suspect many of you are since I’m apparently late to this tea party — the most entertaining historical show on TV right now is Downton Abbey, a drama set in WWI era England which follows the lives of a British aristocratic family and their trove of servants.

I only heard about it a couple of weeks ago, but thanks to our British friends who made the series, there are already two complete seasons — with a third kicking off in September.  For those of you playing catch up, you can:

  1. Power through Season 1 with some weekend dedication via Netflix (do the streaming option), and then set your DVR to your local PBS station to haul in the first four episodes of Season 2 (“new” episodes are on Sunday evenings).
  2. Buy the DVDs for both seasons

You’ll quickly settle on your favorite character as you imagine yourself running around this place in one way or another 100 years ago:

My favorite is the cook Mrs. Patmore, and I’ve reached the point now where I can decipher every fifth or sixth word she says under her thick accent.  Just makes her all the more lovable.

Let me know your favorites — as long as it’s not Thomas…