Alumni profile: Dashiell Young-Saver, S.M. '21
Making statistics more accessible for thousands of high school students
Dashiell Young-Saver’s students were bored. He was trying to teach a lesson from the AP Statistics textbook at his high school in San Antonio, but the material was too irrelevant to the students’ lives. So, Young-Saver asked them a seemingly simple question: what did they want to learn about?
“If you’re working a job outside of school or have very adult problems on your shoulders, the contrived stuff from a textbook is just maddening and infantilizing and certainly not compelling,” said Young-Saver, S.M. '21. “They told me they wanted to learn about gerrymandering, food deserts, online dating, and sports -- things that are more or less serious, but actually truly relevant to them.”
That experience led to a realization that by changing his lessons, Young-Saver could make statistics accessible for his students, many of whom came from underserved communities and low-income backgrounds. This strategy presented a way to “Skew the Script,” a slogan he keeps displayed in his classroom.
“The first year I did that curriculum shift, we had more students take and pass the AP Statistics exam than in the previous 16 years combined,” Young-Saver said. “And more than the quantitative results, I noticed my students were more engaged and able to think critically as citizens when statistics were presented to them. When they tried to decipher data about the world, they’d be able to break it down in a nonpartisan way and figure out what’s going on.”
Young-Saver turned that slogan and strategy into a website in June 2020, just a few months before beginning his master’s degree in data science at the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS). Within a week, 3,000 teachers had signed up. Three years later, “Skew the Script” has turned into a full-fledged nonprofit organization, with 20,000 teachers and 400,000 students using its math lessons.
“There was a real pent-up demand for actually compelling math lessons with real-world context,” Young-Saver said. “What surprised me is that it wasn’t just students from low-income backgrounds. It was compelling for students from all backgrounds, and the teachers teaching students from all backgrounds. The dual mission of the site is to better engage students from underserved backgrounds in math, and to take students from all backgrounds and develop their ability to think critically as citizens.”
Young-Saver first came to Harvard as an undergraduate from Thousand Oaks, Calif. He studied English and statistics and spent the summer before his junior year as a newsroom intern for the Los Angeles Times. He covered several education stories in L.A. and returned to campus wanting to be an educator himself.
“If you go to summer camps for different schools, the east side of the city versus the west side, Beverly Hills vs. Compton, across different corners and zip codes of Los Angeles, you see very tangible differences in the resources kids are afforded,” Young-Saver said. “I wanted to do something about it. At the same time, I’d gotten more interested intellectually in statistics. If there’s a subject that lets you talk about evidence and policy change at a systems level, it’s statistics and data.”
Wanting a way to combine his two passions, Young-Saver worked as a summer data intern in the District of Columbia Public Schools system. He got the opportunity through the Harvard Kennedy School Public Service Fellowship, and his projects included using enrollment data to recommend better education policy for D.C. public schools.
Young-Saver came away from that internship with a bird’s eye view of education policy, but he wanted to balance that with a more ground-level experience. After completing his undergraduate degree, he joined Teach for America and began working in San Antonio. He then ran Skew the Script throughout his three semesters in the data science masters program at SEAS.
“A lot of those students have gone on to become data science majors in college,” he said. “We have AP statistics and algebra lessons, but we’re building precalculus materials, and eventually we want to move into geometry and middle-school math. We want to create this pathway to relevant math lessons for students of various secondary grade levels.”
SEAS provided a much deeper understanding of statistics and data science, and some of Young-Saver’s coursework directly related to education and Skew the Script. In one data visualization course, he studied how algorithms used by the International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme during the pandemic might be biased against low-income students, while in another course he used machine learning to help predict the locations of lead pipes in cities. That lead pipe data turned into a lesson available on Skew the Script.
“I really enjoyed that the masters let me take classes in multiple departments,” he said. “I walked away from my time at SEAS with new techniques for analyzing education policy data, new examples for the Skew The Script curriculum, and with a host of ideas for modernizing outdated math and statistics curricula in high schools.”
Young-Saver now splits his time between the organization and teaching AP Statistics at the IDEA South Flores charter school. Young-Saver wants to make math accessible for as many students as he can, but never at the expense of the individual student-teacher relationships that fuel him.
“Skew the Script is becoming more and more my main thing, but I always want to be in the classroom,” he said. “I’m addicted to it.”
Matt Goisman | email@example.com