Friday, June 29, 2007

Desegregation Decision

In all of the commentary I've seen on the Supreme Court's desegregation decision yesterday, Jan Crawford-Greenburg (as is often the case) picked up on a neglected aspect of the story:
White, single mom Crystal Meredith and African-American matriarch Mattie Jones come from different worlds and opposite sides of Louisville, Ky., but both hailed today's 5-4 Supreme Court decision in Meredith v. Jefferson County Public Schools, which threw out the city's school assignment plan because it was based, in part, on a child's race.

Meredith is 34 years old, juggling graduate school, trying to launch a career as a "success coach" for corporate executives and manage child care for her 10-year-old son, Josh.

Mattie Jones, widowed after half a century of marriage, has raised nine children on the city's predominantly black West Side, and now watches over 31 grandchildren. A lifelong civil rights activist during the volatile decades of the '50s, '60s and '70s, she was arrested 28 times at marches, sit-ins and protests.

Today she serves as president of the city's Justice Resource Center, a storefront office run by her pastor that advocates for the poor and dispossessed.

Both women believe in the same thing: Their children should be able to get a good education at a neighborhood school and not have to ride buses crisscrossing the city to find equality in educational opportunity.

* * *
Jones said her decades of experience with Louisville's school integration efforts have convinced her the solution is better schools in the neighborhoods.

"We don't have to sit next to a white person -- our kids don't -- to be educated," said Jones.

* * *
Mattie Jones believes the decision was right and hopes it will mean that the schools in her own West side neighborhood will get some of the money and resources they need.

"I used to sit on my porch to hear the laughter and the chatter" of the children as they went to the corner elementary school," she said.

But that building is now a fire station. As for the sounds of schoolchildren, she said, "all we hear now is the noise of the buses."


Wednesday, June 27, 2007

NEA Chairman Dana Gioia recently said this:
There is an experiment I'd love to conduct. I'd like to survey a cross-section of Americans and ask them how many active NBA players, Major League Baseball players, and American Idol finalists they can name.

Then I'd ask them how many living American poets, playwrights, painters, sculptors, architects, classical musicians, conductors, and composers they can name.

I'd even like to ask how many living American scientists or social thinkers they can name.

Fifty years ago, I suspect that along with Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays, and Sandy Koufax, most Americans could have named, at the very least, Robert Frost, Carl Sandburg, Arthur Miller, Thornton Wilder, Georgia O'Keeffe, Leonard Bernstein, Leontyne Price, and Frank Lloyd Wright. Not to mention scientists and thinkers like Linus Pauling, Jonas Salk, Rachel Carson, Margaret Mead, and especially Dr. Alfred Kinsey.

I don't think that Americans were smarter then, but American culture was. Even the mass media placed a greater emphasis on presenting a broad range of human achievement.

I grew up mostly among immigrants, many of whom never learned to speak English. But at night watching TV variety programs like the Ed Sullivan Show or the Perry Como Music Hall, I saw—along with comedians, popular singers, and movie stars—classical musicians like Jascha Heifetz and Arthur Rubinstein, opera singers like Robert Merrill and Anna Moffo, and jazz greats like Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong captivate an audience of millions with their art.

The same was even true of literature. I first encountered Robert Frost, John Steinbeck, Lillian Hellman, and James Baldwin on general interest TV shows. All of these people were famous to the average American—because the culture considered them important.

Today no working-class or immigrant kid would encounter that range of arts and ideas in the popular culture. Almost everything in our national culture, even the news, has been reduced to entertainment, or altogether eliminated.
In light of what my kids have been watching recently [via DVD, mind you; no cable for us], I'd point out that in a 1948 Bugs Bunny cartoon ("Long-Haired Hare"), Bugs strolls into the middle of an orchestra dressed in a tuxedo and wearing a wig that gives him a shock of white hair on the back of his head. Something like this:

As Bugs enters the scene, the orchestra members start saying worshipfully, "Leopold! Leopold!" Of course, they mean Leopold Stokowski, the famous mid-20th-century conductor.

The crucial thing is that the makers of Bugs Bunny assumed that the audience would know who was being spoofed, with nothing more to go on than Bugs Bunny's appearance and the whispered name "Leopold." Do childrens' cartoons today make similar allusions to classical music conductors? [Answer: Not that I've ever seen.]

Monday, June 25, 2007

First-Borns and IQs

I'm not surprised by the news that first-borns apparently have IQs that are a couple of points higher than later-borns. Just the difference in parental environment would do the trick, I think. With my own first-born, we had plenty of time to play with him, read to him, talk with him, and so forth. He was the only kid around, and he got 100% of our attention. Thus, for example, he could identify the entire alphabet at 18 months. But our youngest two children have been about a year behind. Instead of 100% of the parental attention, they each get 20% (give or take). There's just not as much time to read the alphabet book with the youngest, when the seven-year-old wants to show you whatever book he's reading.

I have noticed, however, that the youngest children have been able to pick up quite a vocabulary from the older kids, one that's quite different from the vocabulary our oldest had when he was two years old. For instance, "I tell Mom!," or "Get out of here," or "Stop copying me."

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Voucher Study

A new study done by Patrick Wolf and his colleagues (full disclosure: I know and like Prof. Wolf) for the Department of Education looked at the performance of students in the D.C. voucher program, after about a year's worth of instruction in private schools. The New York Times summary is pretty accurate:
Students who participated in the first year of the District of Columbia’s federally financed school voucher program did not show significantly higher math or reading achievement, but their parents were satisfied anyway, viewing the private schools they attended at taxpayer expense as safer and better than public schools, according to an Education Department study released yesterday.
As page xxii of the study makes clear, previous research has shown that you usually see positive achievement results after at least two years in a voucher program, whereas this study looked only at the first year.

Note also that the voucher provides only up to $7,500, while the per-pupil spending in the D.C. public schools is nearly $13,000, close to the highest in the nation. (And as we've seen recently, the D.C. public schools doesn't do a very good job of spending that money wisely.)

The Washington Post story features a few negative comments:
"Vouchers have received a failing grade," said Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.). "This just makes the voucher program even more irrelevant."
* * *
The Bush administration wants to expand vouchers nationwide through revisions in the No Child Left Behind law. But Democrats said the new report will make it easier for them to kill such proposals.

"This report offers even more proof that private school vouchers won't improve student achievement and are nothing more than a tired political gimmick," Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), chairman of the House education committee, said in a statement.
So a program that (at worst) achieves the same results, that makes parents more satisfied, and does so for about 57% of the cost, is a failure? It must take a more subtle and sophisticated mind than mine to understand such a view of the world.


Sunday, June 17, 2007

Placebo Effect

The placebo effect is everywhere, even in exercise.

But what about education? I've never heard of an educational reform that was double-blind. All reforms (whether charter schools, vouchers, raising teacher pay, reducing class size, changing curricula, or whatever) take place in public view, with the full awareness of both the teachers themselves and the students.

It's far easier for me to imagine how the placebo effect would take place in education, as opposed to medicine or exercise. In education, a reform is announced. The students and/or parents think to themselves, "This is it; this is the key thing that's going to make a difference." And they start to become more enthusiastic about learning, with the result that the kids do learn more. Or the teachers start to show more enthusiasm, to draw more of the kids' interest, and to have higher expectations.

So whenever a finding comes out that one reform or another leads to such-and-such percentage increase in educational achievement, how much of the improvement is really due to the reform and how much is due to the placebo effect? On the other hand, how long lasting would a placebo effect in education be? If it lasts a few weeks or months and then dissipates, any reform that shows a longer-lasting effect would not be as tainted.


Friday, June 15, 2007

Baby Confinement

My two-year-old daughter has reached one of the worst stages of human development: She's learned how to climb out of her crib. She now does this about 8-12 times before she finally figures out that we want her to go to sleep. This means, for example, that just when we think it's safe for us to go to bed downstairs, we hear the thump of little feet running around upstairs, the sound of running water as she turns on the faucet to play, the glare of lights turning on, and so forth. I think we need a Baby Cage, or at least one of these.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Schools in D.C.


1. The Dunbar High School in Washington, D.C., up through the 1950s.

2. The state of D.C. high schools today.

What explains the difference?


Nassim Taleb

Interesting reading: The Knackered Hack's three-part interview with Nassim Taleb, author of the recent book The Black Swan (here, here, and here).

American Economic Review

The latest issue of AER arrived. This issue is the Papers and Proceedings of the 199th Annual Meeting of the American Economic Association. Some of the papers reminded me of the fact-free model-building that is critically scrutinized here. But there were a few things that caught my eye.

1. Karen E. Dynan and Enrichette Ravina, "Increasing Income Inequality, External Habits, and Self-Reported Happiness," pp. 226-231.

This article is about how economic inequality affects people's happiness. The authors begin by noting the commonplace observation that your happiness doesn't necessarily depend just on your own income, but on how you compare to your neighbors/friends/peers. The interesting thing here, however, is that the authors find "some evidence that the relationship is much stronger for people whose group has above-average income than for people whose group has below-average income. It would thus appear that relative concerns do not become an issue until a person has attained a certain place within the income distribution." (p. 226). Later, the authors say that "relative concerns primarily affect people who have an above-average income but are not extremely rich." (p. 229).

Wow. So maybe the reason that professors and pundits talk about this effect of inequality in the first place is because they belong to precisely that class of people (above-average income, but not rich) who are most likely to feel jealous of their peers' income.

2. Alessandro Gavazza and Allessandro Lizzeri, "The Perils of Transparency in Bureaucracies," pp. 300-305.

The authors' main point here (and it's purely theoretical) is that transparency -- more information about how a government institution performs -- isn't always more efficient. For example, if everyone knows that a particular DMV office is more efficient, lots more people will want to go there. But bureaucrats in such offices aren't rewarded monetarily for having the most customers; they're rewarded in ease and time if they can manage to work less. Thus, more transparency might end up giving them an incentive to slack off (because they don't want to be flooded with more customers).

At least that's how I understand this paper, which has some math that I don't quite follow.

3. Raghuram Rajan and Arvind Subramanian, "Does Aid Affect Governance?," pp. 322-327.

The authors' main finding here is that "the more aid a country has received, the smaller its share of manufacturing. . . . . A 1 percentage point increase in the ratio of aid to GDP is associated with a reduced share of manufacturing in total GDP of about 0.2 to 0.3 percentage points." (p. 322). They speculate that the cause is that manufacturing -- unlike agriculture or mining -- requires "many more transactions between unrelated parties," which will happen more smoothly in a country where there is an uncorrupt judiciary, the rule of law, contract enforcement, etc. But foreign aid might reduce a government's "need to govern well." (p. 322). OK, that's a bit speculative.

The conclusion is interesting: "An important step for both aid givers and aid recipients is to recognize that aid inflows are not an unmitigated blessing, and that the worst thing that can happen with a greater quantity of aid is not only that it will be wasted. More aid, if ineffectively used, can actually set back a country in its path to development."

4. William Easterly, "Was Development Assistance a Mistake?", pp. 328-332.

As far as I could tell, out of perhaps 75 articles in the journal, this was the most readable. After reviewing the evidence that foreign aid hasn't worked, Easterly hits his stride:
Despite the frequency of statements like "we must end world poverty," it is seldom clarified who this "we is that is taking responsibility for world poverty. Is it the World Bank of United Nations officials? Is it national government leaders? Is it celebrities? Perhaps "development experts" are the most likely candidates.
* * *
The other possibility, that development experts are greatly overrated as a means to achieve develoopment, goes against the self-interest of everyone in this profession (including this author). Yet it is true, after all, that development experts played no role in the development of the developed countries. . . .
* * *
In sum, we don't know what actions achieve development, our advice and aid do not make those actions happen even if we knew what they were, and we are not even sure who this "we" is that is supposed to achieve develoopment. I take away from this that development assistance was a mistake.
But Easterly doesn't end on a total downer:
Yet it doesn't necessarily follow that foreign aid should be eliminated. Once freed from the delusion that it can accomplish development, foreign aid could finance piecemeal steps aimed at accomplishing particular tasks . . . -- to reduce malaria deaths, to provide more clean water, to build and maintain roads, to provide scholarships for talented but poor students, and so on.

5. A pair of papers finds effects from immigration:

Deborah Reed and Sheldon Danziger, "The Effects of Recent Immigration on Racial/Ethnic Labor Market Differentials," pp. 373-377.

They find "negative effects of recent immigration on the employment, and especially the wages, of low-skilled workers." (p. 373). For whites without high school diplomas, recent immigration is responsible for "almost one-third of their observed employment decline during the 1990s." For blacks without a diploma, it's a sixth. As for wages, "in the absence of recent immigration, wages would be about 3.5 . . . percentage points higher for blacks, almost 3 points higher for whites, and more than 5 points higher for Latinos." (pp. 375-76).

Paul Ong and Don Mar, "Differential Impacts of Immigrants on Native Black and White Workers," pp. 383-387.

The effects here are quite different. These authors claim that "recent Asian and Latino immigrants have a positive effect on native NH [non-Hispanic] whites and blacks, but as they undergo economic assimilation the impact becomes negative. This is consistent with the hypothesis that recent immigrants tend to be incorporated into sectors with jobs that are highly undesirable for native workers, and by making these sectors more viable, they have a net complementary effect on native born workers. As Asian and Latino immigrants adjust to the US labor market, however, they more likely become competitors with some native workers." (p. 386). Interestingly, the downward impact of non-recent Asian immigrants on both white and black income seems to be about three times stronger than the effect of Hispanic immigrants.

6. Neuroeconomics.

In one article on neuroeconomics, the authors mention that part of their experiment scans people's brains in an fMRI machine while they are presented with choices about whether to receive a certain amount of money now vs. more money later. Interesting, but if people are actually being put in one of these, I find it hard to imagine anything more likely to produce a sort of Hawthorne effect or observer effect.

I've had an MRI, and while I'm not particularly claustrophobic -- the one time when I nearly got stuck in a cave, I found it rather invigorating -- the MRI machine was still very confining and a bit unnerving. You're sandwiched in this narrow metal tube, tight enough that you can't even move your arms, and there are lots of strange and loud noises as the machine takes various scans. Maybe -- just maybe -- this is going to have a large effect on what goes on inside people's brains.

I don't know how neuroeconomists deal with this. It seems to me that if you want to know how people make economic (or any other kind of) decisions, you'd need some method of scanning people's brains at high resonance -- without their knowledge, as they go about everyday life. Good luck with that.

Friday, June 08, 2007

Cool Photo

This has got to be one of the coolest photos I've ever seen: A rainbow alongside a white tornado.

James Coleman on Mobility

This is rather abstract, but it's very thought-provoking if you dig down and think about what's being said. It's from pages 19-21 of sociologist James Coleman's book Public and Private High Schools: The Impact of Communities:
The destruction of the functional communities within which families live and children grow up is a destruction in which the prime mover is technological change, but in which the intermediate actors have played an important part as well. One of these actors is the family itself. Families make decisions which, taken individually, benefit the family, but at a small cost to others. When enough families make such a decision the combined costs are hamrful to all. For example, a family decides to leave a community because of a better job offer elsewhere or becuase of a promotion and transfer. Each of the other members of the community experiences a small loss, because the cycles of intergenerational closure involving that family are broken and because the family's contribution to community activities and community norms are withdrawn. These ruptures will be repaired after the family is replaced by a new one, but repairs take a period of time.

All this does not create a problem, up to a point. But when the rate of such mobility is high, . . . then there comes a point when this high rate imposes costs on each member of the community that exceed the benefits of moving, even for the movers. The high rate means that the cycles of intergenerational closure are in a continual state of disrepair, and the norms and community activities remain in a continually weakened or disrupted state. Thus at the extreme, we may find each family with higher income, yet worse off than before, because of the loss of community resources resulting from the decisions of each. Yet it would be unwise for a family not to move as long as that move is beneficial to the family. . . . [T]hese moves, each beneficial to the mover, make everyone worse off.

There is a second point in the rate of movement, one in which each family's chance of imminent movement is sufficiently great that the investment in connections in the new community is unprofitable to the family,. "Putting down roots is not worth it," is the common expression . . . . When the community consists of such highly mobile families, then it is weakened on two counts: by its own high rate of turnover and by the high proportion of these mobile families whose prospective moves keep them detached from the community.

We have used this example of moving decisions as an illustration of the more general process. The decision need not be a moving decision. It may be a decision of the father to take a job outside the local neighborhood, or a decision by the mother to leave the household and her community activities and go to work. These are decisions driven by technological change and by the desire for economic gain, and the specific decision may be a correct one from the point of view of the individual or the family making the decision. But each individual and each family is a resource to the community, and decisions which withdraw these resources from the community are decisions which make the community a less valuable resource for its members. . . .

It is in this way that family decisions often destroy the value of a community for socializing children.
This is a collective action problem, and the usual solution would be governmental regulation. So how about it? Should there be governmental restrictions on whether you can move to another city?


Sunday, June 03, 2007

New Books

1. I've mentioned Robert Epstein's The Case Against Adolescence. I highly recommend this book. It's radical in a way that one rarely sees in mainstream books -- i.e., it questions and critically examines assumptions that 99% of society blindly accepts as fundamental. This is a good thing.

Here is an interview that depicts the book in a nutshell:
Imagine what it would feel like—or think back to what it felt like—when your body and mind are telling you you're an adult while the adults around you keep insisting you're a child. This infantilization makes many young people angry or depressed, with their distress carrying over into their families and contributing to our high divorce rate. It's hard to keep a marriage together when there is constant conflict with teens.

We have completely isolated young people from adults and created a peer culture. We stick them in school and keep them from working in any meaningful way, and if they do something wrong we put them in a pen with other "children." In most nonindustrialized societies, young people are integrated into adult society as soon as they are capable, and there is no sign of teen turmoil. Many cultures do not even have a term for adolescence. But we not only created this stage of life: We declared it inevitable. In 1904, American psychologist G. Stanley Hall said it was programmed by evolution. He was wrong.

* * *

Teens in America are in touch with their peers on average 65 hours a week, compared to about four hours a week in preindustrial cultures. In this country, teens learn virtually everything they know from other teens, who are in turn highly influenced by certain aggressive industries. This makes no sense. Teens should be learning from the people they are about to become. When young people exit the education system and are dumped into the real world, which is not the world of Britney Spears, they have no idea what's going on and have to spend considerable time figuring it out.
2. The Chocolate and Zucchini cookbook, based on the wonderful food blog by the same name. Some excellent French recipes here for a wide variety of foods, along with lots of appetizing photos and charming descriptions of the food. Looks like some delicious recipes. I made the chocolate raspberry cake this weekend -- it's wonderful, more like cheesecake than cake (ingredients are mostly eggs, butter, and dark chocolate).

Inspiring Story

Via Joanne Jacobs, a very inspiring video about Urban Prep, an all-black charter school for boys in Chicago.