Narrowing Education

October 22, 2014

Some people seem determined to narrow education.  I’ve been trying to make the case for a well-rounded, liberal education, but that idea has less support than I realized.  In their effort to maximize math and reading test scores, schools have sometimes narrowed their focus at the expense of the arts and humanities.  I’ve tried to document some of the benefits that students receive from art and theater.

And today Dan Bowen and I tried to defend the role of sports in schools in the New York TImes‘ Room for Debate forum on the issue.

One of the main critics of sports in school is Amanda Ripley, reprising an argument she earlier made in The Atlantic and in her book.  In today’s forum she writes:

Here, school is about learning, but it’s also about training to compete in games that the majority of kids will never get paid to play… The problem is the dishonesty. By mixing sports and academics, we tempt kids into believing that it’s O.K. if they don’t like math or writing — that there is another path to glory. Less obvious is that this path ends abruptly, whereupon they get to spend 50 years in an economy that lavishly rewards those with higher-order skills and ruthlessly punishes those without.

Let’s leave aside that her argument ignores the systematic research demonstrating the benefits of sports in schools.  And let’s leave aside that her book and articles rely on deeply flawed “selection on dependent variable” approaches that try to infer what to do to be successful by looking only at successful places.

I think we can easily see the flaws in her argument if we consider how the same logic she employs can be used to argue against schools having orchestras, theaters, and a host of other activities.  I’ll change just a few words to illustrate how her argument can be used against music instruction in schools.  I’ve bolded the changes so you can see how her argument could be used against any effort in school other than focusing on math and reading instruction:

Here, school is about learning, but it’s also about training to play an instrument that the majority of kids will never get paid to play… The problem is the dishonesty. By mixing music and academics, we tempt kids into believing that it’s O.K. if they don’t like math or writing — that there is another path to glory. Less obvious is that this path ends abruptly, whereupon they get to spend 50 years in an economy that lavishly rewards those with higher-order skills and ruthlessly punishes those without.

Or here is how her argument could be used against having school plays:

Here, school is about learning, but it’s also about training students to act in theater that the majority of kids will never get paid to do… The problem is the dishonesty. By mixing drama and academics, we tempt kids into believing that it’s O.K. if they don’t like math or writing — that there is another path to glory. Less obvious is that this path ends abruptly, whereupon they get to spend 50 years in an economy that lavishly rewards those with higher-order skills and ruthlessly punishes those without.

See how easy this is!  The real problem here is the unwillingness to appreciate the breadth of experiences that should be part of a well-rounded education.  Yes, not every student will benefit from music, theater, or sports.  And very few of them will go on to careers in music, acting, or sports.  School is not entirely about vocational training focused on math and reading skills.  Those of us who support a broad education recognize that all of these activities have important benefits for many students and should be part of schools.  And Ripley, like most supporters of efforts that narrow education, would deny that she fails to support a broad education.  She just wants to get rid of the thing she doesn’t like.  But her logic would get rid of everything other than math and reading instruction.  And that would be a very poor education indeed.

(edited for typo and to elaborate argument)

Risky Business

October 21, 2014

Some of my current and former students, along with a colleague from the Economics department, have a new article in Education Economics called Risky business: an analysis of teacher risk preferences.  Daniel H. Bowen, Stuart Buck, Cary Deck, Jonathan N. Mills & James V. Shuls used techniques from experimental economics to measure the risk aversion of graduate students seeking degrees in education, business, and law.  They found that people training to become teachers are significantly more risk-averse than those seeking careers in business or law.

The greater risk-aversion among prospective teachers was a function of two forces.  First, women make up a much larger proportion of prospective teachers and women tend to be more risk-averse across all graduate students.  Second, the smaller group of men seeking to become teachers are significantly more risk-averse than men pursuing other professions.

This article captures the first part of Dan Bowen’s dissertation.  Dan followed-up this experiment by using the same technique to measure whether teachers drawn to schools after merit pay plans are adopted tend to be more risk-prone than the teachers previously working at those schools.  He found that they were — merit pay attracts more risk-prone teachers.  He then linked these measures of risk-aversion to test score growth achieved by the students of each teacher.  Somewhat unexpectedly, he found that the more risk-prone teachers attracted by merit pay tended to be less effective in producing student test score gains.

Dan’s dissertation raises important questions about the composition of the teaching workforce and what is likely to be effective in motivating them.  In general, his work casts doubt on the appeal of merit pay given that generally risk-averse teachers are not attracted by merit pay and risk-prone teachers who are attracted by potential bonuses may not do well in a workplace where non-monetary goals appear more prominent.  This work is consistent with an earlier article that Stuart Buck and I published on how merit pay is not a promising reform strategy.

Dan is currently a post-doc at Rice University and is on the job market.  In addition, to his work on teacher risk-aversion and merit pay, Dan and I have collaborated on research on the effects of field trips to art museums and the effects of sports programs on student achievement.  At Rice Dan is continuing to work on merit pay evaluations and is assembling a study of the effects of student field trips to a Holocaust Museum.  Dan has a variety of rigorous and innovative studies that are generating grant support. He would make for an excellent hire.

Nominated for the Al Copeland Award: Markus Persson

October 20, 2014

(Guest Nomination by Jonathan Butcher)

I’ve never played Minecraft. My son and daughter play enough for the three of us, though, and I haven’t even bought the computer version of the game for them. I bought the iPad edition, which, I’m constantly reminded, is completely inferior to the computer version.

Despite most parents’ ignorance of how to play it, and in spite of graphics that look better suited to a first-generation Atari console, Markus Persson sold Minecraft and its parent company to Microsoft for $2.5 billion last month. And then he walked away.

Persson told the New York Times, “I don’t want to be a symbol, responsible for something huge that I don’t understand, that I don’t want to work on, that keeps coming back to me. I’m not an entrepreneur. I’m not a C.E.O. I’m a nerdy computer programmer who likes to have opinions on Twitter.”

Persson created a video game that doesn’t rely on eye-popping graphics or bloody combat scenarios. Yes, in survival mode you can fight zombies, and there are “mobs” to avoid (loosely defined as anything that can harm your character). However, the game revolves around the player’s imagination. In Minecraft, you create your own world, complete with buildings of any shape and size and then go on adventures, with or without players from other worlds.

What are most impressive are the add-ons that make the game interesting. Your creations can be as real or fictitious as you choose. In one YouTube how-to video, a player created a Home Depot, complete with supplies to build things. In another, a player created a replica of Disneyworld. You can change the weather, add minions from Despicable Me, drive a dirt bike, or swim in the ocean.

Schools are using the game to teach subjects like math, architecture and science. Minecraft is simple, versatile, fun (or so I’m told), and the creator shows no intention of making a sequel.

“Basically, Persson is tired,” says Wired magazine. Persson says that he wants to work on smaller web projects, and he says that if any of them become as popular as Minecraft, “I’ll probably abandon it immediately.”

Minecraft can be as unique and player-centric as a player can make it, and its creator is just fine to leave it at that and do something else. Yes, $2.5 billion is plenty to be content with, but the Copeland award doesn’t penalize for making a lot of money. Time will tell if Persson is true to his word about leaving well enough alone, but for now, he’s created something that allows others to use their imaginations the way they want to, made his money, and gone on his way.

Nominated for the Al Copeland Award: Ira Goldman

October 20, 2014

(Guest Nomination by Lindsey Burke)

Americans prize personal space. And nowhere are infringements upon personal space more insufferable than 30,000 feet above Earth, in an airplane in which the confines of your chair – and heaven forbid if you’re in a middle seat – and your armrests, and the miniscule amount of “legroom” in front of you, are the only things that separate you from your neighbor and his delusions of airline Manifest Destiny.

Until recently. In 2003, Mr. Ira Goldman recognized this injustice, and invented the Knee Defender.

The concept is simple. You simply slide the Knee Defender, which fits in the palm of your hand, onto the arm of your lowered tray table, then slide it down the arm of the tray table until it fits flush against the seat in front of you. As one website selling the Knee Defender explains:

“Whether you are intent on protecting yourself from being crunched, want to maintain enough leg room to do some in-seat exercises because of health concerns – such as Deep Vein Thrombosis (DVT), sometimes called “economy class syndrome” – or you just want some warning so you can move your notebook computer out of the way before the seat is reclined, Knee Defender™ works ‘like a charm’.”

The product even comes with a Knee Defender courtesy card, which the user can hand to the passenger in front of him to let him know he’s using the leg-saving tool. “If you would like to recline your seat at some point during the flight, please let me know and I will try to adjust myself and my Knee Defender so that it can be done safely,” the card reads.

Had Ben Franklin lived during the time of aviation and been able to fly to Paris, he would have surely invented the knee defender.

This humble piece of plastic has been the cause of derision from opponents and cheers from proponents. “The person who wants it most will end up owning the rights, but the person with the recliner button holds an advantage. The Knee Defender reallocates the rights. Now I can claim the four inches in front of my face,” wrote Damon Darlin recently in the New York Times.

Indeed. Is there nothing more callous than a passenger who chooses, without any regard to the poor soul behind him, to recline his seat, without the slightest regard as to what pain and inconvenience he might be bringing upon his fellow traveler? Is nothing – kneecaps, lap tops, small vodka tonics – sacred? For the person bent on reclining – because a modest change in the angle of his spine is more important than every aspect of the flying experience for the person behind him – nothing is.

And for us lowly folks who ride coach to spread the word about education reform – Mr. Goldman, we salute you. Indeed, it’s the little things in life that make the biggest differences.

Like Al Copeland, Ira Goldman surely invented the knee defender out of his own 6 foot 3 inch necessity. But in so doing, has made the flying experience that much more comfortable for thousands of long-legged travelers.

Jules and Ringo on the Week in College Football

October 19, 2014

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

C’mon Yolanda- what is Fonzie like?!?


Correcto-mundo! And that’s what we’re gonna be, we’re gonna be cool. Now Ringo, I’m gonna count to three, and when I do, I want you to let go of your gun, lay your palms flat on the table, and then tell me what happened in college football this weekend. But when you do it, do it cool. Ready?


Say what again! I dare you! I spent the weekend detailing a car with a toothbrush, I missed all the college football games and I am NOT IN THE MOOD. One, two, THREE!!!

Alright mate (puts gun down)

Good- now tell me what happened.

So…it breaks down like this- Florida State beat Notre Dame on a controversial late call, but it probably doesn’t matter ’cause the selection committee is going to recognize the fact that the Irish outplayed the Seminoles on their home field. So if the Irish win out, I think they will still make the playoff. IF they do, they might get the chance to play FSU on a neutral field.

I would like to see that! Go on….

Oklahoma got beat by Kansas State, so that’s their second loss and they are out unless things go 2007 levels of weird. Baylor also had their first loss at West Virginia, and they looked bloody sloppy doing it.

Would you say that they are eliminated Ringo?

No I would not say they are eliminated, but they had better get their act figured out quick because TCU and Kansas State will be competing with them for a Big 12 birth, if there is going to be a Big 12 birth. TCU looked really strong beating up on Oklahoma State.

Too bad they blew that huge lead last week. What about the Big 10?

Michigan State, Nebraska and Ohio State all beat middling conference opponents, but that will all sort itself out eventually. They all have lost a game already so no guarantees.

How about the West?

Oregon, Utah and Arizona State are still in the running after victories this weekend. Arizona was off this week but also has only one loss.

What else happened this weekend? Anyone send a message? I mean besides Florida State?

Alabama sent one loud and clear by beating Texas A&M 59-0.

59 to nothing? Just a couple of years ago they were selling t-shirts claiming that A&M was like the moon ’cause they ‘control the Tide.’ Well well well- a’int nobody gonna shepherd them through the valley of SEC West darkness!

They’ve been blown out three weeks in a row…

THREE.WEEKS.IN.A.ROW! That is just inspiring. Now…reach in the bag and hand me my wallet.

How will I know which one it is?

You’ll know it when you see it.

(Finds wallet)

Now this is the situation. Normally both of you would be dead as fried chicken. But you happened to pull this while I’m in a transitional period. I don’t wanna kill ya, I want to help ya.  What’s in my wallet Ringo?

Don’t you mean ‘what’s in your wallet’ mate?

Don’t get cute Ringo- open the wallet!

(Opens wallet)

Two tickets to the college football national championship game in ATT stadium?!?

Correct. Put them in your pocket Ringo-they are yours. Now with the rest of them wallets and the register, that makes this a pretty successful little score. I ain’t just givin’ it to you. I’m buyin’ somethin’ with those tickets. Wanna know what I’m buyin’ Ringo?


I TOLD you NOT to say that!!!!


Your life Ringo. I’m givin’ you those tickets so I don’t have to kill you. You read the Bible?

Not regularly.

There’s a passage I got memorized….nevermind, it’s not a real verse anyway. Take the tickets and get out of here before I change my mind. I’m almost certain that the Tide will be rolling into Jerry-world so you’d best get out of here before I snap out of it.








The Trouble with Baking Achievement Gap Measures into State Accountability Systems

October 17, 2014

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

On March 9, 1974 Yoshimi Taniguchi, a Japanese book merchant and former Major in the Japanese Imperial Army, traveled to the Philippines in order to order a former subordinate, Second Lieutenant Hiroo Onoda to stand down from combat operations. Lieutenant Onoda had received news of Japan’s surrender in World War II, but had concluded that it was mere enemy propaganda. Firm in this misapplied conviction, Onoda carried on a long since concluded war for almost 30 years.

Onoda may have misspent three decades in an island jungle, but on a positive note he at least inspired an episode of Gilligan’s Island (Ginger in fact defeated his doppelganger in a judo battle).  More disturbingly, he may have also passed his die-hard spirit on to NCLB’s last stalwart defenders of achievement gap mania and the dream of mandated perfection.

I should begin by saying that I do believe that achievement gaps are very important. I went back to review a post I wrote a blog post three years ago called In Defense of Achievement Gap Mania and found nothing that I had changed my mind about on this subject.  Getting low-performing American students on a faster academic pace is of the utmost importance.

I am however mystified by the Onoda-style defense of NCLB’s unworkable division of schools into multiple subgroups with targets for narrowing and ultimately closing all achievement gaps on the equivalent of a train schedule. That would have all been enormously beneficial if it had worked, but let’s just say that the trains weren’t showing much sign of arriving on time, sometimes at all. We could discuss various ways states found to escape from the NCLB subgroup noose at length (hello n-size manipulation!) but there are deeper problems to discuss.

Today we find NCLB diehards sprinkled throughout the K-12 reform conversation archipelago. In this recent post on Eduwonk, Anne Hyslop  goes Banzai! corrects factual problems in a recent New York Times story focusing on the flaws of NCLB. My own take on this is that Hyslop is probably completely correct in her assertions. I however believe that they are largely irrelevant to the bigger picture.  When I read a paragraph explaining how technical mumbo jumbo safe harbor confidence intervals actually mean that the mandated 100% proficiency mandate doesn’t actually arrive until 2016 instead of in 2014, it makes me chuckle. Do we imagine that when educators read the fine print they will rush to embrace NCLB’s machine of mandated universal proficiency with open arms? Or would it be more accurate to say that many educators never took AMO schedules seriously in the first place, confident that they would be dropped (they were- through the waiver process).

Ed Trust released a report recently critical of NCLB waivers. I personally don’t like NCLB waivers either given the Secretary’s lack of obvious authority to grant conditional waivers, but that is not what has Ed Trust excited. They think that the Secretary ought to have used his non-existent conditional waiver authority to mandate gap closing measures into state accountability systems.

Stand down Lt. Po…that’s an ORDER!

Ed Trust is careful towards the end of their study to say that they are NOT calling for a return to NCLB’s multiple pathways to failure based on myriad subgroups in pursuit of mandated improvement on a schedule. Hey its 2014 and they aren’t that crazy, you see, they just seem to want Secretary Duncan to work something out with these states that will be the functional equivalent of NCLB’s multiple pathways to failure based on myriad subgroups in pursuit of dramatic improvement by mandate on a schedule. That would do just fine.

Ed Trust (and others) seems sufficiently wedded to NCLB-era mechanics that they dislike an elegant improvement-the super subgroup. Florida policymakers grade schools half on proficiency (the % passing state exams) and half on student progress over time. They double-weighted the importance of the progress of the lowest performing 25% of students from the last year’s test. The students falling behind thus constitute the “super subgroup” and they became the most important students in the building for determining a school’s grade. They count against all three of the main three components of a school grade: overall proficiency, overall growth and the growth of the students who have fallen behind.

The super subgroup doesn’t ask whether you are White, Black, Asian, American Indian, economically disadvantaged, an English Language Learner or a child with a disability, blue-eyed or left-handed. It simply identifies the lowest performing children in the school and puts a special emphasis on their academic gains over time.  It doesn’t create a perverse incentive to ignore an academically struggling child because he or she happens to be White, or because his or her parents make a little more money than this year’s Free and Reduced Lunch standard or because you’ve been reclassified out of SPED. Done properly, super subgroup creates a powerful incentive to identify struggling students regardless of their appearance and/or circumstances and get them making progress.

Oh, and the Ed Trust’s own previous research would lead one to the conclusion that it can help reduce achievement gaps. Not eliminate achievement gaps on a train schedule, mind you, but to make substantial progress on them by creating an incentive for schools to get struggling students to catch up. Who are the kids struggling? Why it is the kids on the short end of the achievement gaps as a matter of fact.  Florida kept A-F school grading up over a good period of time and you see gaps narrow in the best way possible- bottom scoring kids making greater progress than the still progressing top scoring kids.

The Ed Trust report tut-tuts things like Black students in A graded Florida schools scoring lower than White students in C graded schools as evidence that we ought to be including gap closure in state accountability systems.

Should we work ourselves into a froth about this? I personally don’t think so. Ed Trust’s own research has documented Florida’s overall progress in narrowing achievement gaps, but it’s not like they have eliminated achievement gaps. Would anyone be shocked to learn that ELL students at A graded schools score lower than non-ELL students at C schools? What about children with disabilities? Low-income children?  Ed Trust focused only on three states, but you could find similar results in any state.

The super-subgroup mechanism creates an incentive to get all students who have fallen behind to make academic progress. A moment of reflection regarding grading schools based upon various achievement gaps would give any thoughtful person pause. Do we really want to bake perverse incentives to stall the progress of high performing students into state accountability systems? Under the super sub-group, schools have any incentive to get any child that has fallen behind back on track. If states began rating them based on trends in achievement gaps, they could create perverse incentives to ignore their plight if they happened not to have a disability, or if they were a native English speaker, if their family made too much money for a free or reduced lunch, or if they were White.

Against this backdrop, the Ed Trust report seems strategically vague- not in favor the NCLB AYP system, but vaguely in favor of including achievement gaps in state grading systems. The fuzzy nature of these recommendations deftly avoids discussion of how to avoid creating cringe-inducing perverse incentives.

We live in a nation where Black and Hispanic students score closer on PISA to students in Mexico to those in South Korea or their own Anglo classmates. Mexico, btw, has far greater poverty and far lower public school spending than the United States. This is sickening, but we should exercise good judgment in addressing it. Previous Ed Trust research and the NAEP both show that it has achieved commendable gains in narrowing achievement gaps in Florida. In the country as a whole, not so much.

Thinking more broadly, we should recognize the NCLB era as a decentralized learning process. While NCLB created a general accountability rubric, many states had already created accountability systems of their own, creating the opportunity to learn from variations in policy approaches. Florida paid far more attention to school grades than to NCLB’s AYP and achieved greater than average gains among traditionally disadvantaged student groups.  I’m not a fan of conditional waivers, but we need to study and learn from the successes and failures of the diversity of approaches as best we can as well. It is understandable that there are many with a deep investment in NCLB, but we should not allow that attachment to blind us to something more effective at achieving its aims. The importance of achievement gaps should lead us to adopt the most effective methods for reducing them rather than pining for the ones we had hoped would eliminate them in short order.




Thibaut Scholasch and Sébastien Payen for the Al

October 16, 2014

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

So Scholasch and Payen are Frenchmen who are well on their way to revolutionizing the art of making wine, and perhaps agriculture more broadly. They however have faced years of reactionary opposition and general inertia in the wine making community. No good deed goes unpunished in this wicked world, but I for one hope that these two guys become incredibly wealthy and give their skeptics something to cry about through the best sort of revenge- living well.

Wired profiled Scholasch and Payen in 2012 in an article titled the Vine Nerds. Scholasch and Payen are French ex-pats who met in California. Scholasch had worked in vineyards in Napa, France and Chile and came to feel like a scientist trapped in a profession of artists. Scholasch had an unusual desire to improve the process of making wine, which apparently verges on the blasphemous in some circles. Techniques developed in 12th Century France represent the apex of agricultural technology you see, and anyone trying to update them is something of a public menace. A mutual friend introduced Scholasch to Payen, another French ex-pat. Payen holds a Ph.D. in Mechanical Engineering from UC Berkeley. As a graduate student Payen designed a novel micro-biosensor. They teamed up to form the Fruition Sciences company, which installs sap sensors to provide real-time data on crops, in this case grapes. The technology allows wine makers to give their vines just the right amount of water precisely when needed- a substantial improvement over tasting dirt, spitting it out, and irrigating fields early and (too) often.

You can read their bios here and how the process works here. Basically their process allows wine makers to make better wine while using only a fraction of the water typically employed.

Some wine makers gave Scholasch and Payen a shot, and became believers. From the Vine Nerds:

Austin Peterson, is one of Fruition’s most vocal supporters and attests to changes the sensor arrays can produce. ‘Before, irrigation management was basically done by our vineyard foreman looking at next week’s weather forecast and at leaves that were starting to fold or tendrils that were drying,’ Peterson says. ‘But visual cues can be misleading. As we started to see the data, it started to explain some things.’

Before becoming a convert, Peterson needed to see proof. In 2007 he divided Ovid’s 15-acre property in half, using the visual method on one side, sensors on the other. Following traditional visual cues led to a regimen of shallow irrigations, which required more water and resulted in unintended side effects, like shriveled grapes and elevated alcohol levels. It also may have helped slow the ripening process and delay the harvest, which is always risky in Northern California, where early autumn rains can destroy a crop in a matter of days. Meanwhile, data gathered from the sensors dictated a near-opposite approach: fewer, deeper irrigations, primarily later in the season. After two years, the result was substantial water savings and earlier harvests. For Peterson, the experiment shed light on how profoundly irrigation affects fruit quality as well as a wine’s flavors and bouquet. ‘It was like going from having an undergraduate degree in something to a PhD, where you have a deep understanding of why vines behave the way they do’ Peterson says. ‘As a winemaker, you understand different flavors. But now you start to understand why the differences exist.’

So it turns out that wine makers have been over-irrigating their vineyards in Napa for decades and producing lower rated wine as a result. One client interviewed by Wired stated that they had dropped their water use from 36-64 gallons per vine to 0-10 gallons. They reckoned this would save them 5.8 million gallons of water and produce better wine in the process. Project that out across California, and it gets to something like a potential savings of 9.1 billion gallons of water per growing season.

Did I mention that the Southwest United States is experiencing a huge drought? It looks something like this (color = bad, dark = worse):

Agricultural technologies that help you get by with less water might come in handy about now, especially in California. So you make much better use of an increasingly scarce resource to produce a better product. Better still, this technology is branching out beyond wine to increase the productivity of other sectors of agriculture. Scholasch and Payen are just two of the most recent entrepreneurs in a long line that have repeatedly thwarted Malthusians and neo-Malthusians through the driving force of voluntary exchange.

The process of updating agriculture sounds almost as frustrating as education reform. After an enthusiastic embrace of the technology by an expert in rice cultivation, Wired noted Scholasch’s reaction:

Scholasch lowers his eyes and shakes his head. ‘The first sap-flow sensors were tested in the ’80s. What we have in place was usable in the early ’90s—and look, it’s taken 20 years to start using it,’ he says, then gives a quick smile, betraying a glimmer of hope. ‘But it’s very rewarding to get recognition from peers you respect. It’s an accreditation.’

Hang in there guys- and remember the motto of the Economist “to take part in a severe contest between intelligence, which presses forward, and an unworthy, timid ignorance obstructing our progress.” No one ever said it would be easy, but the difficulty of your struggle will only make your eventual triumph all the more flavorful- like your wine, it will get better with age.




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