West Overtakes East in Improbable 2015 Comeback

June 4, 2015

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

While East leads West 3 ESA programs to 2, West has pulled an improbable victory over East with much broader eligibility.

To wit:

The once lonely Arizona program has been joined by neighboring Nevada. The Arizona ESA makes around a quarter of Arizona public school students eligible to participate. The new kid on the Western bloc makes 100% of public school students eligible.

While East has three programs, wonderful programs I might add, all three focus exclusively on special needs students, and in two out of three cases not even all special needs students.

I’m calling it: West is your leader in the clubhouse.

Who Says Culturally Enriching Field Trips Are in Decline?

June 2, 2015


Colleagues, students, and I have been studying the effects of culturally enriching field trips on students.  We’ve published research on field trips to see live theater (so far here) and to visit an art museum ( so far here, here, and here) and generally lamented that these kinds of enriching trips are in decline (see here and here).  They are either being replaced with “reward” field trips to places like amusement parks and bowling alleys or disappearing altogether.  Enriching trips not only have the potential of conveying important content knowledge, but also help convey our values and priorities to future generations.

Yesterday, the Minneapolis Star Tribune  carried a piece about a small private school, the Gaia Democratic School, which took its students on a field trip to the Smitten Kitten, a local store featuring sex toys and erotica, as part of their sex education class.

This seems like a culturally enriching field trip to me.  It has potentially useful content knowledge and it is conveying to those children the values and priorities of the parents and educators at that school.  The article does quote one parent who withdrew his children from the school after his two daughters, ages 11 and 13, went on the field trip.  But my guess is that most parents at the Gaia Democratic School know and support exactly what their school stands for.  The Star-Tribune says, “Gaia is a K-12 school with a motto promising academic freedom, youth empowerment and democratic education. Parents say the school has about 25 students, including several described by administrators as transgender.”

That’s the beauty of school choice.  If this school doesn’t teach their values, parents can go somewhere else.  But for those families who want something like Gaia Democratic School, why should they be forced to attend a school that drags their kids to Chuck E. Cheese on field trips?

I wonder if Gaia has thought about having an RCT evaluation of their filed trips, although that would be hard with only 25 23 students.

Nevada Legislature Embraces the Way of the Future

May 29, 2015

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Silver State lawmakers have sent an account-based choice bill to Governor Sandoval. With a signature Nevada will have the most robust parental choice program in the country. All students having previously attended public schools will be eligible to receive a use-restricted account to pursue their K-12 education under state oversight.  Bill specifics from FF. No existing law can match this measure’s combination of broad eligibility and multiple uses- education choice, not just school choice.

Jason Bedrick has some useful details about why this is an especially great policy for Nevada (Las Vegas public schools = deluged with enrollment growth).  The Nevada Constitution guarantees public education, it’s not going anywhere, and it needs all the help it can get. The overwhelming experience of previous choice programs demonstrates that there will be no mad exodus. Instead the program will take the edge off of a crushing rate of public school enrollment growth and create a crucial exit option that will provide positive pressure to improve.

Nevada lawmakers have made history-an experiment in liberty giving parents the ability to customize the education of their child. Big problems require bold leadership: hats off to Silver State legislators! Congrats also to the #Team ESA folks scattered across multiple organizations who worked so hard and effectively on this effort.






Does School Spending Matter After All?

May 29, 2015

This is the question raised by a new study by C. Kirabo Jackson, Rucker C. Johnson and Claudia Persico  in Education Next.  Jackson, et al claim to have up-ended decades of school finance research by finding a link between school spending and improved student outcomes.  After reading that article and an earlier, more detailed version posted on the NBER web site, I find nothing to persuade me to abandon the long-standing and well-established finding that simply providing schools with more resources does not improve student outcomes.

Let’s remember how well-established this finding is by noting that Eric Hanushek conducted a comprehensive review of the literature and concluded:

…the research indicates little consistent relationship between resources to schools and student achievement. Much of the research considers how resources affect student achievement as measured by standardized test scores. These scores are strongly related to individual incomes and to national economic performance, making them a good proxy for longer run economic impacts. But, the evidence – whether from aggregate school outcomes, econometric investigations, or a variety of experimental or quasiexperimental approaches – suggests that pure resource policies that do not change incentives are unlikely to be effective. (p. 866)

Jackson, et al acknowledge that past research has failed to find a link between school resources and student outcomes:

Coleman found that variation in school resources (as measured by per-pupil spending and student-to-teacher ratios) was unrelated to variation in student achievement on standardized tests. In the decades following the release of the Coleman Report, the effect of school spending on student academic performance was studied extensively, and Coleman’s conclusion was widely upheld.

But they believe that past research was flawed in two important respects.  First, test scores may be a weak indicator of later-life success, so it would be better to look at stronger measures, like educational attainment, employment, and earnings.  Second, they believe that past studies of school spending may suffer from an endogeneity problem.  That is, extra money has tended to go to schools facing challenges.  The failure to find a link between more resources and better achievement may be because schools with a weaker future trajectory are the ones more likely to get more money.  So, the causal arrow may be going in the wrong direction.  Weak performance may be causing more resources rather than more resources causing weak performance.

Jackson, et al solve the first issue by focusing on longer-term student outcomes, like educational attainment and earnings.  They claim to have a solution to the second problem by finding a type of spending increase that is unrelated to the expected trajectory of school performance.  Court-ordered spending, they say, is exogenous, while regular legislative increases in spending are endogenous.

The surprising findings of the Jackson, et al article hinge entirely on this claim that court-ordered spending is exogenous.  Looking at attainment and earnings by itself does not produce a different result than past research that has focused on test scores.  The thing that allows Jackson, et al to find that spending is linked to better student outcomes is the fact that they do not examine actual spending increases.  Instead, they predict changes in spending based on court-orders and use that predicted spending in place of the actual spending.

This instrumental variable technique developed by James Heckman, however, only works if the instrument is in fact exogenous.  That is, court-ordered spending has to be unrelated to the future trajectory of school performance.  Given how critical this point is to the entire article, you might think Jackson, et al would spend a fair amount of energy to justifying the exogeneity of court-ordered spending.  They do not.

It is completely mysterious to me why we should believe that court-ordered spending differs from legislatively-originated spending in the likelihood that it is linked to the expected future trajectory of school performance.  That is, schools facing challenges are just as likely to get extra money if the spending originates in the courts or in the legislature.  If we are concerned that the causal arrow is going in the wrong direction in that weak performance causes more money rather than the other way around, we should have that concern just as much whether the motivation for the money came from the court or the legislature.

Jackson, et al do not make a proper case for the exogeneity of court-ordered spending other than to describe it as a “shock” to school spending.  But there is nothing more shocking about spending that originates in the courts than in the legislature.  Court cases take years to develop, be decided, and complete appeals.  And then they have to be implemented by legislative action.  The timing of court-ordered spending is no more surprising to schools than regular legislative spending.  Nor is the amount of spending change necessarily more dramatic than those originating in legislatures.  The passage of ESEA and its re-authorizations infused large amounts of money into schools.

Jackson et al need to convince us that court-ordered spending is exogenous to get their unusual result.  If they just used conventional methods, they would confirm the wide-spread finding that extra money does not improve outcomes.  As they describe it:

We confirm that our approach generates significantly different results than those that use observed increases in school spending, by comparing our results to those we would have obtained had we used actual rather than predicted increases as our measure of changes in district spending. For all outcomes, the results based simply on observed increases in school spending are orders of magnitude smaller than our estimates based on predicted SFR-induced spending increases, and most are statistically insignificant.

But Jackson, et al fail to justify the claim that court-ordered spending is exogneous on which their entire article depends nor does such a claim seem plausible.

But even if you were to somehow believe that court-ordered spending is exogenous, it would still be unwise to jump to the conclusion that we now know money matters and should open the resource spigots to K-12 education.  First, the past research Hanushek reviewed includes studies that do not suffer from either of the concerns raised by Jackson, et al.  That is, some of those studies examine later-life outcomes for students and not just test scores and some of those studies rely on experimental methods with which there is no problem with causation.  Why should we disregard those studies for this one new study even if we were to ignore the concerns I’ve raised above?

Second, Jackson, et al are examining the effect of court-ordered spending in the 1970s when spending levels in real terms were much lower and variation in spending across districts within states was much higher.  It’s quite a leap to think that more money now would have the same effect as then.  To my surprise, Bruce Baker made this same point in response to the Jackson, et al article in comments to Education Week:

“[E]xploring such [far-apart] outcomes, while a fun academic exercise, is of limited use for informing policy,” he wrote in an email to Education Week. “Among other things, these are changes that occurred under very different conditions than today.”

Mr. Baker also disagreed with the researchers’ caveat that similar changes might have a much smaller effect if introduced today, in part because total school funding nationwide increased by 175 percent over 43 years, from an average of $4,612 per student in 1967 to about $12,772 per student in 2010, as measured in 2012 dollars.

So does school spending matter after all?  I think the answer is still clearly “no.”

The Phantom Poverty Menace?

May 27, 2015

This is my apprentice, Darth Baloney…

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

I was intrigued by President Obama’s claim that when one includes transfers that the poverty rate has declined substantially from the 1960s. This would seem to represent a considerable problem for those attempting to waive off the poor performance of American public education based upon a poverty mantra. Spending up and poverty down makes for a tough sell.

Well sure enough, the left-leaning Center on Budget and Policy Priorities has a handy-dandy blow-by-blow on how the official poverty rate masks progress on poverty. It has charts like:

Hmm, that looks like 11% when it used to be 22.5% or so. An addition illuminating chart:

If you are squinting at that last one, it basically shows that the inflation adjusted (in constant 2011 dollars) income of the poorest fifth of Americans almost doubled between 1964 and 2011 once various transfers (food stamps, EITC etc.) have been taken into account.

Before you ask, childhood poverty is also down (see Figure 5a on page 23). So basically you have a very hard time blaming increasing poverty for this:



Best Cover Songs That Are Nothing Like the Original

May 26, 2015

It’s summer and time for a Random Pop Culture Apocalypse post.

Sometimes the person who creates something is not as well positioned as others to interpret and present it as someone else with a fresh perspective.  I learned this during grad school when Paul Peterson would annually host a conference in which discussants presented papers rather than the authors.  As it turns out, authors fall too much in love with every detail of their own papers and have difficulty distinguishing between what is important and interesting and what is not.  The authors could respond to clarify or rebut the interpretations offered by the discussant, but the bulk of presenting was done by someone other than the author.  And that approach made otherwise dreadful and boring academic conferences much more interesting and productive.

The separation of creator and performer is a common occurrence in other fields, particularly music and theater.   The cover song, however, is especially challenging because we already know the interpretation offered by the original creator.  When the cover differs from the expected pattern of the familiar original it sounds wrong to us.  We tend to enjoy familiar repetition in music, something that Lisa Margulis writes about in On Repeat: How Music Plays the Mind.  The trick of a successful cover is to offer an interpretation that is dramatically different from the original.  This allows us to forget the expected familiar song and appreciate the same song as something new and different.

I’m going to start a list of great cover songs that sound nothing like the original.  Feel free to add your own in the comments.

Jump by Aztec Camera

David Lee Roth and Eddie Van Halen have got nothing on this cover by Scottish new wave band, Aztec Camera.

Our Lips are Sealed by Fun Boy Three

The song was actually co-written by Jane Wiedlin, the guitarist in the Go-Go’s, and Terry Hall, who was in Fun Boy Three and The Specials.  The Go-Go’s released their original recording in 1981 and Fun Boy Three followed with their version in 1983.  Strictly speaking the Fun Boy Three version is not a cover since it was co-written by Hall, but it is awesome enough to include in this list.

Mad World by Gary Jules

The Tears for Fears original is pretty great but this interpretation by Gary Jules is even better.  And it has a great video.

I Just Don’t Know What To Do With Myself by The White Stripes

Jack White nails this cover of the Dusty Springfield original.  And the video is… um… er… also fun to watch.

Heartbeat by The Vulgar Boatmen

This is an unusual cover in that the original was done by an earlier incarnation of the same band (or at least some of the same people).  I know both are obscure, but I’ve previously written about The Vulgar Boatmen as the best band you’ve never heard of.  The original by The Gizmos is by a band that you’ve certainly never heard of.  But listen to both and marvel at how much a different interpretation can change a song, even when both versions are really good.


What do you think are the best cover songs  that are nothing like the original?  No fair picking covers that are better known than the original (e.g. most covers of Bob Dylan, etc…)

(H/T Brian)


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