Setting the Record Straight on Choice

March 28, 2019


(Guest post by Greg Forster)

OCPA carries my article fisking an especially sloppy smear job attacking school choice:

I call it a strange document because it’s trying to present itself as some sort of scholarly press release. It’s published by something calling itself Scholars Strategy Network, and the byline is from two academics, with their academic affiliations and emails listed at the top. But it’s not a work of scholarship, nor is it informed by scholarship. It’s two pages of emotive bullet points, unsubstantiated bumper-sticker assertions, shoddy reasoning, and deceptive characterizations of the empirical research. An impressively long list of “sources,” formatted to look like scholarly citations, is supplied at the end in the desperate hope of simulating gravitas.

Come for the blatant dishonesty about easily checkable facts:

Assaulting private school choice, the authors appear to be afraid to make their own assertions, but quote someone else’s claim that no “independent studies” have ever found that students using private school choice in Milwaukee, Cleveland, or Washington, D.C. performed better than children who remained in public schools. But the official study in Washington, D.C. looked at exactly this question, using random-assignment methods (the gold standard), and found huge increases in high school graduation and college attendance rates. No doubt the report being cited here doesn’t count this study as “independent,” because it was a federal program and the study was federally funded as part of the program. That’s blatantly dishonest cherry-picking. And what is their excuse for leaving out the two—two!—gold-standard studies of this question finding academic improvements in Milwaukee?

Not to mention that it’s cherry-picking to include only selected cities. Across all private-choice programs, there have been a total of 18 gold-standard studies (no cherry-picking). Of these, 14 found academic improvements, two found no visible effect, and two (both examining a poorly designed program in Louisiana) found negative results.

Stay for the outrageous ideological claptrap!

The authors complain that schools in choice programs are not “transparent.” But parents have the power to demand whatever information they think important, or not attend the school. This is why private schools are already more transparent, by orders of magnitude, than organizations are typically required to be when participating in other kinds of government programs. Look at the reams of hard data on named, particular private schools on or in the U.S. Department of Education’s Common Core of Data. Then try getting comparable data on apartment buildings that take Section 8 housing vouchers, or grocery stores that take food stamps.

Send me a scholarly press release letting me know what you think!

New Arts Studies Lost in Busy Week

March 15, 2019

Image result for lost in the shuffle

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.

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.

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.


Class Sizes, Again

February 6, 2019


(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!

Only Retributive Justice Is Restorative: Plummeting Outcomes Edition

February 6, 2019


(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Rand reports that a big randomized trial of super-lax discipline policies in Pittsburgh schools had negative effects on student achievement and big negative effects on African-American student achievement. Of course, Rand buries the negative finding under mountains of politically palatable pablum, but if you dig (search for “not all PERC impacts were positive”) you can find it just barely acknowledged. Or, if you grok geek, check out Table 6.7 on p. 56.

Via this thread, which reviews other studies with similar findings in LA and Philly. Backfill from Max Eden at (sigh) Fordham.

As I’ve written before on JPGB, the most destructive aspect here is that advocates have chosen to label the loosey-goosey discipline policy “restorative justice.” They accept a false and outrageous distinction between “restorative” and “retributive” justice, and cling to the absolutely unsupported prejudice that lax policies will be more restorative, while it is the desire for retributive justice that produces harsher policies. The reality is that in most cases, justice must be both retributive in intention and strict in application to be truly restorative. There is a place for mercy, but not too much and not too often. Nothing ruins young people more effectively, or prevents their “restoration” more completely, than lax discipline.

This is destructive because the lesson most people will take from their failures is that justice should not be restorative if we want it to be either retributive or effective:

The increasing tendency of some to dehumanize criminals and demand harsher and harsher treatment of them cannot be fought by advocacy of lax punishments in the name of “restorative justice.” It is directly caused by advocacy of lax punishments in the name of “restorative justice.”

Only retributive justice, which affirms that punishment is not an arbitrary tool of social control but a just and necessary consequence of the crime that the criminal is morally obligated to suffer, can be effective in restraining the abuse of criminals – and promoting their genuine restoration.

As C.S. Lewis once said, I plead for retributive justice not primarily for the sake of society, or for the sake of crime victims, but for the sake of the criminal.

“Get Me Roger Stone”

January 26, 2019

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

I do as much as I can to avoid paying any attention to Washington DC. The House passes bill with full knowledge that the Senate won’t do anything other than greet themselves in the mirror each morning as “Good morning Mr./Madame President.” It’s a unique combination of pointlessness and vanity imo. Anyway I had never heard of Roger Stone until CNN was there with a news camera to arrest him on something to do with Russiagate. I heard something about him having a tattoo of Richard Nixon’s face on his back. A friend strongly recommended that I watch “Get Me Roger Stone” on Netflix, which I did this morning.

I’m still trying to process it.

If you mix Forrest Gump’s proclivity for being around big events with a Denny Crane scale ego and a large dash Idiocracy politics, that maybe kind of sorta is a starting place, but only a start. I’ve never seen anything remotely like it. It is both profoundly disturbing and occasionally hilarious, and it leaves people like me politically homeless living in a VAN down by the RIVER.

Go watch it. Like now! And then see if you can console me in the comments section. This is all going to be ok like somehow right?