Saturday, September 26, 2009

New Jersey ≠ Arkansas

There has been some controversy over a video from a New Jersey school wherein third graders were led in chants of praise to Barack Obama. The New Jersey school is named B. Bernice Young Elementary, which is quite similar in name to Bernice Young Elementary in my Arkansas hometown. Unfortunately some people aren't quite able to figure out the difference between New Jersey and Arkansas:
Officials at an elementary school in northwest Arkansas say they're getting angry calls over a You Tube video by students at a New Jersey school with a similar name.

Bernice Young Elementary School in Springdale is getting calls from across the nation and Canada from people mad about students shown singing about President Barack Obama. Principal Debbie Flora says the callers claim the school is teaching political opinion and that some "did not use very kind language."
. . .

Flora says that, so far, she has received no calls from Arkansas.
As a public service announcement, I would like to remind Americans and Canadians that New Jersey ≠ Arkansas.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

People Who Don't Believe in Their Beliefs

So I was reading Reading Beyond Race, by Paul M. Sniderman and Edward G. Carmines (Harv. Univ. Press, 1997), which analyzes a bunch of survey work about racial attitudes.

In an initial chapter, they point out that white opposition to affirmative action was overwhelming even among "the most racially tolerant 1 percent of whites." My immediate reaction was, "So then how did affirmative action ever come about, if almost no one supported it?"

A subsequent chapter had the answer. The researchers came up with a very clever idea that they called the "List Experiment," which consisted of giving people a survey in which the interviewer reads a list of things that could possibly upset people (pollution, an increase in gas taxes, etc.), and then asks simply to know how many of the listed items (not which particular items) upset the person being interviewed. But some of the interviewees got an extra item in the list: affirmative action. This allowed the researchers to know that if the average number goes up when affirmative action is included in the list, some number of people are picking affirmative action in addition to the other items.

What were the results? Here's where things get interesting. When liberals are asked directly about their attitude toward affirmative action, they largely support it. But this is "a result of liberals saying what they think they should say, not what they really think. . . . it turns out that about 57 percent of white liberals include 'black leaders asking the government for affirmative action' among the things that make them angry or upset, compared with 50 percent of conservatives (and 55 percent of moderates . . .). These three figures are statistically indistinguishable."

I wonder how much of politics (and religion?) is a matter of people saying what they think others want to hear, not what they really believe. But by the same token, how much of the very fact that we have civilized society at all is because we squelch our true feelings and say what other people will find acceptable? (Witness the difference between the vast majority of face-to-face conversations vs. the sorts of things that anonymous Internet commenters will say when unencumbered by the social pressure to hide their true feelings.)

Monday, September 21, 2009

Charter Schools and Merit Pay

In a new post, educational historian Diane Ravitch says, among other things:
As I predicted on this blog, President Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan are now the spear carriers for the GOP's education policies of choice and accountability. An odd development, don’t you think? The Department of Education dangles nearly $5 billion before the states, but only if they agree to remove the caps on charter schools and any restrictions on using student test scores to evaluate teachers.

What is extraordinary about these regulations is that they have no credible basis in research. They just happen to be the programs and approaches favored by the people in power.

* * *

There is also no research that justifies the Obama administration’s belief that tying teacher evaluations to student scores will improve schools.

No research?

Take the charter school point first. In a study that Ravitch herself cites, the Center for Research on Education Outcomes at Stanford University found that "states that have limits on the number of charter schools permitted to operate, known as caps, realize significantly lower academic growth than states without caps, around .03 standard deviations."

To be sure, .03 standard deviations isn't huge. But it's something. And it's a "credible basis" for the Obama administration to give states a financial incentive to eliminate charter school caps. I am aware of no studies finding any benefit whatsoever from state laws restricting the number of charter schools that can open. Incidentally, Arkansas currently restricts the number of charter schools statewide to 24. There is no basis for this limit.

Second, take the merit pay issue. No research? Consider David N. Figlio and Lawrence W. Kenny, "Individual Teacher Incentives and Student Performance," Journal of Public Economics 91 no. 5-6 (2007): 901-14. Looking at national data from the National Education Longitudinal Study, they find that "test scores are higher in schools that offer individual financial incentives for good performance." To be sure, Figlio and Kenny concede that their cross-sectional study can't tell definitively whether it was better schools that adopted performance pay, rather than vice versa.

But here are a few studies that weren't cross-sectional:

1) Gary Ritter and Josh Barnett, "When Merit Pay is Worth Pursuing," Educational Leadership 66 no. 2 (2008). Ritter and Barnett studied a Little Rock merit pay program. After two years, "schools implementing the program achieved average gains of approximately seven percentile points for students in mathematics and reading. Scores of students in the pilot schools improved, whereas those of students in comparison schools decreased."

2) Adele Atkinson, Simon Burgess, Bronwyn Croxson, Paul Gregg, Carol Propper, Helen Slater and Deborah Wilson, "Evaluating the impact of performance-related pay for teachers in England", Labour Economics 16 no. 3 (June 2009): 251-261 (a working version is available here). Atkinson et al. use a sophisticated methodology to evaluate a merit pay scheme in Englnad, controlling for pupil effects, school effects, and teacher effects. They find that "the scheme did improve test scores and value added increased on average by about 40% of a grade per pupil."

3) Victor Lavy, "Performance Pay and Teachers' Effort, Productivity, and Grading Ethics," NBER Working Paper 10622. Lavy evaluates a merit pay program in Israel that gave cash bonuses to teachers whose students earned more "credits" on national graduation exams. He used two sophisticated methods: regression discontinuity design and propensity score matching. His results are substantively significant: As to one estimation, he notes that "the effect of treatment on credits earned in math is 0.256, a 18 percent improvement relative to the mean of the control schools (1.46). The effect of treatment on awarded credits in English is 0.361, a 17 percent improvement relative to the mean of the control schools (2.11)."

These aren't the only studies, of course, and incentive schemes sometimes don't show much benefit. Still, to claim that there is no evidence in their favor isn't accurate. Once again, the position that lacks evidence here is the position that Obama and Duncan are trying to combat, i.e., that it should be illegal to use test score data to assess a teacher's performance (as is the case in several states). These states might as well have passed a law stating that because so much of a patient's health depends on factors outside a doctor's control, it should therefore be illegal to consider whether a doctor's patients were killed by incompetence.

On the bright side, I applaud Diane Ravitch's announcement of the Partnership for 19th Century Skills.


Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Fallibility of Eyewitness Testimony

If the legal system ever started to take into account studies like this, there would be drastic changes.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

My Investing Advice

If you took my investment advice 11 months ago, you'd have earned about 13.65% since that time.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

The Broken Windows Theory of Schools

BrokenWindowIn a famous article in the 1982 Atlantic Monthly, James Q. Wilson and George Kelling argued that a good way to prevent serious crime would be for police to intervene as to seemingly low-level crimes or misdemeanors:
[D]isorder and crime are usually inextricably linked, in a kind of developmental sequence. Social psychologists and police officers tend to agree that if a window in a building is broken and is left unrepaired, all the rest of the windows will soon be broken.
* * *

We suggest that "untended" behavior also leads to the breakdown of community controls. A stable neighborhood of families who care for their homes, mind each other's children, and confidently frown on unwanted intruders can change, in a few years or even a few months, to an inhospitable and frightening jungle. A piece of property is abandoned, weeds grow up, a window is smashed. Adults stop scolding rowdy children; the children, emboldened, become more rowdy. Families move out, unattached adults move in. Teenagers gather in front of the corner store. The merchant asks them to move; they refuse. Fights occur. Litter accumulates. People start drinking in front of the grocery; in time, an inebriate slumps to the sidewalk and is allowed to sleep it off. Pedestrians are approached by panhandlers.

At this point it is not inevitable that serious crime will flourish or violent attacks on strangers will occur. But many residents will think that crime, especially violent crime, is on the rise, and they will modify their behavior accordingly. . . . Such an area is vulnerable to criminal invasion. Though it is not inevitable, it is more likely that here, rather than in places where people are confident they can regulate public behavior by informal controls, drugs will change hands, prostitutes will solicit, and cars will be stripped. That the drunks will be robbed by boys who do it as a lark, and the prostitutes' customers will be robbed by men who do it purposefully and perhaps violently. That muggings will occur.

Via the New York Times' Idea Blog, Folwell Dunbar (Louisiana's academic adviser for charter schools) describes his very similar rules of thumb for guessing whether a school is any good. The title: "You don't always need a standardized test to know a school is in trouble. Just look in the boys' john." In other words, just as broken windows are a sign of a bad neighborhood, a school bathroom with graffiti, trash, and unflushed toilets is a good sign that the academic achievement level isn't too hot. That is, the fact that school administrators are incapable of monitoring bad behavior is a sign that students are probably being hampered from learning.

To be sure, Dunbar's theory doesn't rest solely on bathrooms. He lists many other conditions that, in his experience, indicate a poorly run school, such as:

  • Administrators are unwilling to let credentialed visitors roam. Instead, they insist on "giving a tour" of the usual, safe suspects.

  • Teachers read newspapers and take cell phone calls during professional development events.

  • Teachers play solitaire on their computers during planning periods (or class). Or: the Web sites most visited by teachers include eBay, ESPN and

  • Teachers and staff talk more about their latest degree or certification program than what they are doing with the kids.

The whole thing is worth reading.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Meaningless Polls

Gallup Poll, yesterday:
A new Gallup poll finds half of Americans believe the court is “about right” ideologically, an all-time high and an increase of 7 percentage points over last year.

Sixty-one percent of Americans surveyed approve of the job done by the U.S. Supreme Court, the highest level since 2001, when the court had an approval rating of 62 percent, Gallup reports.
Given this Zogby poll, which famously found that 3 times as many Americans could name two of Snow White's dwarfs as could name two Supreme Court Justices, asking Americans to rate the Supreme Court's performance is a meaningless exercise. It's like asking people who have never heard of any physicists at all, other than maybe Stephen Hawking, to rate the world's top 10 physicists.

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Obama's speech

For all of the controversy over Obama's speech to schoolchildren, the actual speech turned out to have some valuable advice. The following sounds like something that I've said many times, almost verbatim:
But at the end of the day, we can have the most dedicated teachers, the most supportive parents, and the best schools in the world – and none of it will matter unless all of you fulfill your responsibilities. Unless you show up to those schools; pay attention to those teachers; listen to your parents, grandparents and other adults; and put in the hard work it takes to succeed.

Education reformers usually focus on all of the supply-side questions: how to spend money on schools, how to get good principals and teachers, how to inject competition and choice, what are the right standards and curricula, what are the right pedagogical techniques, what are the best accountability systems and merit pay, etc.

But all of that leaves out the demand-side: the students' willingness (or not) to learn. We can deliver the perfect curriculum via perfect teachers led by perfect principals in perfect schools operating under perfect accountability standards and choice, but if the students have the attitude that "I refuse to learn, because it's not cool, or it's acting white," they won't learn very much. You can lead a horse to water, but you can't make it drink.

In fact, I might classify the cultural factors -- whatever affects a student's willingness to learn -- as more important than anything we do with the schools themselves. A motivated child can learn a lot on his or her own (say, by checking out books from the library) even if the school system is poorly run from top to bottom.

On the other hand, consider this alternative speech that Obama could have delivered.

Sunday, September 06, 2009

The Evolution of God

Robert Wright's new book The Evolution of God sounds like an interesting read, although I can't help but be reminded of this passage from G.K. Chesterton's Everlasting Man:
One of my first journalistic adventures, or misadventures, concerned a comment on Grant Allen, who had written a book about the Evolution of the Idea of God. I happened to remark that it would be much more interesting if God wrote a book about the evolution of the idea of Grant Allen. And I remember that the editor objected to my remark on the ground that it was blasphemous; which naturally amused me not a little. For the joke of it was, of course, that it never occurred to him to notice the title of the book itself, which really was blasphemous; for it was, when translated into English, 'I will show you how this nonsensical notion that there is God grew up among men.' * * *

The editor had not seen the point, because in the title of the book the long word came at the beginning and the short word at the end; whereas in my comments the short word came at the beginning and gave him a sort of shock. I have noticed that if you put a word like God into the same sentence with a word like dog, these abrupt and angular words affect people like pistol-shots. Whether you say that God made the dog or the dog made God does not seem to matter; that is only one of the sterile disputations of the too subtle theologians. But so long as you begin with a long word like evolution the rest will roll harmlessly past; very probably the editor had not read the whole of the title, for it is rather a long title and he was rather a busy man.

Friday, September 04, 2009

Muscles and Mortality

Several of the studies showing a relationship between muscle strength or mass and mortality:

1. Metter, Talbot, Schrager, and Conwit, "Skeletal Muscle Strength as a Predictor of All-Cause Mortality in Healthy Men," Journals of Gerontology Series A 57 (2002): B359-B365.

2. Newman et al., "Strength, but not Muscle Mass, Is Associated With Mortality in the Health, Aging and Body Composition Study Cohort," Journals of Gerontology Series A 61 (2006): 72-77.

3. Wannamethee et al., "Decreased Muscle and Increased Central Adiposity are Independently Related to Mortality in Older Men," American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 86 no. 5 (Nov. 2007): 1339-1346.

4. Marquis et al., "Midthigh Muscle Cross-Sectional Area Is a Better Predictor of Mortality than Body Mass Index in Patients with Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease," American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine 166 (2002): 809-13.

5. Mador, "Muscle Mass, Not Body Weight, Predicts Outcome in Patients with Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease," American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine 166 (2002): 787-89. A key passage:
Correlation, however, does not prove causation.Thus, we cannot say whether a reduction in muscle mass causes an increase in mortality or whether a reduction in muscle mass is merely a reflection of severity of disease. If a reduction in muscle mass is responsible for the increased mortality, then interventions that successfully increase muscle mass should lead to improvement in mortality. No study addressing this issue has been performed.