Luck Be A Lady

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We've played the lottery more times this year than ever before. But it's not what you think. Sure, when the Mega-Millions prize reached 690 gazillion dollars, I put my five bucks into the office collection to purchase a sliver of dreams. I promised our fifth-grader that, if we won, he could take a year off school and we'd roam the world. Surely that offered a more interesting education than what spring brings at school: weeks of drilling for the state standardized tests in reading and math.

The lottery also became an opportunity to talk about probability and statistics -- the quotient of p over one minus p, and the odds of life's goods and bads rolling your way -- from scoring a hole-in-one to being sucked into a black hole. Plus, there is the fact that a fraction of lottery proceeds go to support schools.

Speaking of which: That's the lottery we've been playing more often this year. Next fall, our fifth-grader enters middle school. Sadly, the neighborhood school is on the list of the worst 1,000 schools in California. But our district runs a choice program for middle schools, and you're in a lottery if you don't want your children to go to your neighborhood middle school. Along with that game of chance, charter school lotteries appeared on our horizon. Computer-generated numbers and pieces of paper plucked from a jar determine our destiny.

The good news: the odds haven't gone against us when it comes to being hit by an asteroid this year. But they haven't gone in our favor when it comes to getting into the schools that seemed a good fit for the boy. Still, our fifth-grader thought he spied a glimmer of hope in the California Standards Test. Maybe if he got a perfect math score again this year -- which would make three yeas in a row -- they'd take him at the school he really wanted.

But it doesn't work that way. Ability and hard work don't factor into school lotteries, which teaches a very different lesson than the one intended by award assemblies where the schools hand out ribbons and medals.


There are still the wait lists. And still a couple more lotteries to come. And figuring that our number has to come up some time. After all, that gazillion-dollar jackpot was shared by three teachers, right?

With a Perspective, I'm Steven Saum.