New Arts Studies Lost in Busy Week

March 15, 2019

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It’s been a busy week with the publication of an op-ed by me and Rick Hess in the Wall Street Journal and a study in Education Next documenting the monolithic partisan composition of education reform advocates and those who conduct research on those efforts. One might think that folks committed to evidence-based decision-making would be very interested in facts about their field, but their social media response has generally been counter-productive and fact-free.  Those responses have focused on how they are not to blame, how Republicans are icky anyway, and how many of their best friends are Republicans.  I’m not bothering to link to those responses because there really is no point.  If folks are happy with a uniformly Democratic movement, then they are welcome to keep it… as long as someone continues to be willing to pay for this party.  Given the groupthink and political ineffectiveness that is likely to result from this lack of heterodoxy, I can only wonder why and for how long funders will subsidize it.

Lost in the shuffle of this busy week, some graduate students and I released two new studies of the medium-term effects of students receiving multiple arts-focused field trips to the Woodruff Arts Center in Atlanta.  We randomly assigned school groups to a treatment that involved three field trips per year to visit an art museum, see live theater, and listen to the symphony, or to a control condition.  Among the treated students, some received 3 experiences over 1 year and some received 6 experiences over 2 years.

We split the analyses into two separate reports.  The first, led by Heidi Holmes Erickson, found that these arts-focused field trips improved school engagement, as measured by disciplinary infractions and survey responses, as well as increased standardized test scores in math and reading. These benefits persisted even one year after treatment ended for the first cohort in the study.

The second study, led by Angela Watson, examined social-emotional outcomes.  It found that exposure to multiple arts-focused field trips increased social perspective taking and tolerance.  It also found evidence of an improvement among treated female students in their conscientiousness, as measured by survey effort.

Heidi and Angela will be presenting these results at the Association for Education Finance and Policy conference next week.  Please attend their sessions to learn more about this research and to provide suggestions for improving their papers.  And if folks at AEFP are also interested in engaging in a productive discussion of how to improve the intellectual and ideological diversity of the organization, that would also be wonderful.


Sympathy for Teachers and Taxpayers

March 8, 2019

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

I was 19 when I first heard this Rolling Stones song. Yes I know late to the party but whatevs I was born in 1967 so the Stones were not exactly on point for my generation, and to this day I hurl a trident at anyone who recognizes any Stones album besides Some Girls as their finest work.

Coo Coo!

So anyway I’m 19 and during the final exam period my dorm had something known as “yell spell” where you could make as much noise as you wanted for 15 minutes. One of my fellow residents somehow had two closet sized speakers in his broom closet sized dorm room and played the original version of this song at an unimaginably loud level. Every “Pleased to meet you!” would rattle your teeth. RAs from other floors rushed down and yelled at our RA, but it didn’t matter because no one could hear you scream. As my eardrums began to rupture, I was struck by the following lyrics:

I shouted out
Who killed the Kennedys?
When after all
It was you and me

Anyhoo this all came back to mind as I began looking into some of the factors influencing teacher pay in Arizona in a piece for the Chamber Business News:

The teacher who posted her paystub on social media however received an annual pay increase of $131.25 despite the override vote, and average salaries dropped by an average of $7,885 between 2017 and 2018. In addition, the fund balance of this district stood at $52 million on July 1, 2016 according to the Superintendent’s Financial Report but at $173 million on June 30, 2018. One cannot discern what the district plans to do with these balance funds from the report but thus far it does not seem to involve improving teacher pay.

I searched the employee association websites looking for signs of displeasure regarding the drop in teacher pay, or the percentage of funds devoted to teacher salary. I didn’t find any. Not only do teachers have reason to be frustrated with this, so do district taxpayers who supported the override.

 


Picture Yourself in a State by the Ocean with Really Low Scores and Nothing to Lose

March 4, 2019

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Believe it or not 20 years have passed since Jeb Bush kicked off the Florida K-12 reforms during the 1999 legislative session. In a kickoff post at Redefined for a series of articles I lay out the reasoning behind the Florida Supreme Court’s decisive rejection of a recently concluded challenge to these reforms.

A highly coveted Jayblog “No-Prize” goes to whomever leaves the best Beatles lyric pun in the comment section that hasn’t already been used on social media.


WV teachers strike to prevent choice to students with disabilities

February 27, 2019

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

So yes that just happened. Florida students with disabilities got the option to attend private schools at public expense without needing to sue their school district in 1999, with the program going statewide in 2001. Usual caveats apply about always having multiple factors going on etc. but I thought I’d just whip this up and leave it here for you dear reader. Right about this same time the ABC News brought us this story about WV special education:

I know special education teachers in West Virginia and elsewhere are doing a very difficult job and I’d be willing to wager that this sort of behavior is rare. However, the kids who are experiencing this sort of treatment and/or are not being served academically, could use options. The newscaster concludes “hard to hear but hopefully change comes from this.”

Indeed.


Too Many Social Scientists, Too Few Truths to Discover

February 17, 2019

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I’m teaching a seminar for the Honors College this semester on BS. It’s been a lot of fun and the students have been great.  Last week we were discussing the prevalence of BS in social science.  In particular, we were discussing the problems of file drawer and publication bias, p-hacking, and spurious relationships.  While considering why there is so much of this BS in social science we stumbled upon a possible explanation: perhaps there are just too many social scientists under too much pressure to regularly discover and report truths about human behavior when there just aren’t enough truths to be discovered.

Roughly estimating, there are at least 2,000 institutions worldwide that give priority to research and expect their faculty to produce it regularly.  And there are at least 50 active researchers in the social sciences at each of those institutions who depend on publishing novel insights about human beings, sometimes annually, in order to obtain and keep their jobs as well as receive promotions. In my back of the envelope calculation, there is demand for “discovering” roughly 100,000 true things about human behavior each year.

Now let’s consider the supply side.  My general worldview is that there is a very limited number of universally true things we could say about human behavior.  I’d wager that there are no more than several dozen true things that generally apply to human beings across time, place, and context.  And perhaps there are several hundred more contingently true things, observations that would be true for specified groups of people in particular circumstances.  The number of universally or contingently true observations we could make about human behavior may not exceed a thousand.

I understand that this description of the supply side is merely an assertion with which many may disagree.  But if you accept that much about human behavior is truly random or the function of idiosyncratic factors that make them impossible to predict, then you’d have to accept that the number of true observations about human behavior is quite limited. Even if it is more than a thousand, it is almost certainly well short of the number being demanded by social science researchers.

This shortage of truths to discover about human beings is especially severe when you consider that many of the possible true things have already been discovered.  Social science may only be about a century old, but the search for true observations about human beings goes as far back as we have written records.  Poets, philosophers, artists, and historians have been casting their nets for generalizations about human beings for millennia, so it is questionable how many fish are left in the sea.

I don’t want to be understood as making the equivalent of the claim that all discoveries have been made so let’s close the patent office.  I’m confident that there are new and interesting observations to be made about human behavior.  And I’m even more confident that we can do much to confirm or to dis-confirm previously made observations.  I just can’t escape the impression that the number of these true things to be said is dwarfed by the number of people with professional pressures to uncover them.

If I’m right, several implications follow.  The prevalence of BS in social science, including replication problems, file-drawer and publication bias, p-hacking, etc…, cannot be addressed with improved training or enforcement of more rigorous standards.  The pressure to make claims that are not really true is simply too great to be controlled by ethics or peers facing the same pressure.

Even if we could remove the external incentives for generating dubious findings by altering standards for promotion and tenure, we are left with the problem that searching for these findings is built into the self-definition of social scientists.  Social scientists think of themselves as explorers and they will continue to sail the world’s oceans shouting “Land!” at every mirage on the horizon even if much of the Earth has already been mapped.

I suspect that a main solution is to reduce the number of people engaged in social science research.  I don’t see this as particularly likely to happen given our desire to reproduce ourselves.  But pressure to reduce the number of social science researchers might come from those who foot the bill for these adventures, including taxpayers, tuition-paying students, and benefactors.

It might also be helpful if the social sciences begin to change how they think of what they do to be more like the humanities.  Scholars in the humanities are not so much focused on making new discoveries as they are on documenting and disseminating the insights of the past.  This makes them more interested in teaching and longer-form scholarship, like books.  Of course, given the celebrity-worship status hierarchy in the social sciences, how will we know who the coolest kids are if they do things that are hard to rank and compare, like teaching and only periodically writing books?

I don’t hold out much hope for the social sciences beginning to thin their ranks of researchers or shifting to a humanities orientation.  But thinking about the mismatch between how many people are searching for generalizations about human behavior and how many valid generalizations they are able to find is still useful for diagnosing how the social sciences may have gone astray.

 


Teaming with Goldwater’s New Improved Matt to Tackle the Subject of AZ District Space Glut

February 12, 2019

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

The Arizona Chamber of Commerce Foundation and I teamed up with the Goldwater Institute to create a white paper on vacant district space. Arizona has one of the fastest growing student populations but oddly finds itself with a large glut of underutilized district space.

How large is it?

Ah well no one really knows because of severe flaws in reporting but the statewide floor starts at 1.4 million sq feet but the Arizona Auditor General found more than that in a single district by poking around a bit so the ceiling is much much higher. In any case Arizona’s district space increased by 2004 and 2017 by 22.6 million square feet—a 19 percent increase—despite a student enrollment increase of only 6 percent during this same period. Arizona not only has a glut of underutilized district space it appears to be growing.

Research from MIT of co-location of charters within district space demonstrates both financial and academic benefits to districts-specifically in increasing district resources and classroom spending in districts. Arizona has tens of thousands of students stranded on waitlists at high demand district and charter schools, millions of square feet in underutilized district space, and a need to increase resources for classroom use. Mutually beneficial arraingements are there for the taking between high demand schools with waitlists and districts with underutilized space. The scale of these gains are of a scale that Goldwater’s Matt Beienburg and I swallow our pride to point to legislation in California and New York (someone just yelled “get a rope and find a big cactus!) to serve as possible models.

Anyhoo- check it out here. It’s fun to be back writing with GI again.

 


Class Sizes, Again

February 6, 2019

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(Guest post by Greg Forster)

OCPA carries my article on class sizes:

California enacted a big class-size reduction policy in 1996. It sounded easy when it was pitched to voters, but it ended up costing the state billions of dollars. And it produced no measurable improvement in any education outcomes—not test scores, not graduation rates, nothing.

Alas, the lesson was not learned. Florida enacted an even more ambitious class-size reduction policy in 2002. It cost the state $20 billion to implement as it was scaled up over eight years, and costs between $4 billion and $5 billion to maintain every year. And it produced no positive effect on education outcomes.

Let me know what you think!