Los Angeles Public School Food Waste: $100,000 per Day

Tuesday, April 15th, 2014

Three-quarters of LAUSD students are Latino.

By coincidence, 80 percent of LAUSD students qualify for free or reduced-price meals. (They’re not just lunches anymore. LAUSD now offers free breakfast via its “Food for Thought” program.)

Federal rules — this is all federally funded — require that students take at least three items each day — including one fruit or vegetable — and that’s leading to kids throwing away $100,000 worth of food per day:

The extra produce costs school districts $5.4 million a day, with $3.8 million of that being tossed in the trash, according to national estimates based on a 2013 study of 15 Utah schools by researchers with Cornell University and Brigham Young University.

Other studies also have found significant waste, including 40% of all the lunches served in four Boston schools. In L.A. Unified, a forthcoming study of four middle schools has confirmed substantial waste and “significant student aversion to even selecting a fruit or vegetable serving,” according to McCarthy, who co-wrote it. He declined to provide further details until the study is published.

Yet federal rules bar schools from allowing people to take the uneaten food off campus. The school board voted to allow nonprofits to pick up extra food under the federal Good Samaritan food law that allows such actions to aid people in need. But Binkle said that not enough schools participate to solve the massive waste problem.

Teachers and parents have also complained about widespread waste in the Breakfast in the Classroom program, which requires L.A. Unified students to take all three items offered.

Nationally, the cost of wasted food overall — including milk, meats and grains — is estimated at more than $1 billion annually. A U.S. General Accountability Office survey released in January found that 48 of 50 states reported that food waste and higher costs have been their top challenges in rolling out the 2012 rules.

The massive amount of food dumped into the trash shows that the diverse students aren’t starving, Brenda Walker suggests, but see free-to-them meals as an entitlement.

How to Make People Quit Smoking

Monday, April 14th, 2014

How do you get people to quit smoking?

Warner: What we know is that if you increase the price by 10 percent you will decrease total cigarette consumption by 3 to 4 percent.

Dubner: Now, you may think, well of course Warner would talk about price theory – he’s an economist! But even a layperson can look at the data and see the relationship between cigarette prices and smoking. The economist Frank Chaloupka has calculated the inflation-adjusted price spike of cigarettes over the past few decades, and where that spike comes from. Overall, he found that a pack of cigarettes costs more than twice as much today as it did in 1990. Some of that increase comes from the manufacturers – especially since the late 1990’s, that’s when cigarette companies began passing along the costs from the Master Settlement Agreement. That was the deal between the big tobacco companies and 46 state attorneys general, which required the companies to pay out billions of dollars for, essentially, producing a dangerous product. By passing along some of that settlement cost to smokers, the companies added about 50 cents a pack. But a variety of taxes also made cigarettes much more expensive. Between 1990 and 2009, Chaloupka found the federal excise tax on cigarettes rose from 16 cents to more than $1 per pack. And state taxes, on average, more than quadrupled. Now, keep in mind that’s on average. There’s huge variance across states. Missouri adds only 17 cents a pack; Rhode Island adds a state tax of $3.46 per pack! On top of of all that, some cities add their own taxes. In 2002, for instance, New York City raised its excise tax from 8 cents a pack to $1.50. So, today, a pack of cigarettes in New York City costs, on average, more than $11. It is probably not coincidental, therefore, that New York State has one of the lowest smoking rates in the country. And who does an $11 price tag hit the hardest? The smokers who are most “price sensitive” – like teenagers. Indeed, between 2000 and 2012, the smoking rate among high schoolers in New York State fell by 56 percent. So if you want to fight smoking, you can see why economists, at least, agree that raising the price will work. Here’s Kip Viscusi, at Vanderbilt:

Viscusi: It’s a very powerful tool. You know, it doesn’t wear out. As you keep on the increasing price, it will keep on decreasing the demand for cigarettes.

Dubner: But just as different states in the U.S. have wildly different tax rates on cigarettes, different countries have wildly different cigarette taxes and prices, which are influenced by all sorts of factors. In China, for instance, the average cost is about $2 per pack of cigarettes; in Australia, it’s about $11, with talk of pushing that up to $20 a pack. And smoking rates around the world are extremely diverse. Among the lowest are the U.S. and Canada, Australia, much of South America, and most of Africa. Europe is generally in the middle, and Asia – well, if you look at the World Health Organization’s map of smoking rate by country, Asia is basically one big cloud of smoke. But even in the U.S., where as Kenneth Warner told us we’ve returned to the smoking rate of the 1930’s, that still translates into a lot of smokers.

Culture, Resources, or Genetics

Sunday, April 13th, 2014

Gregory Clark discusses social mobility — or the lack of it — and whether it comes down to culture, resources, or genetics:

DE: So social mobility does take place but over many generations. What are the mechanisms by which people revert to the mean?

GC: For me, as a social scientist, this is the most interesting part of the story. The question that really comes up is: is this a cultural phenomena? Is it a familial culture that is being passed on? Is it resources? Or is the basic genetics of inheritance? And if it’s cultural or resources, what it says is that societies are dramatically failing to achieve appropriate rates of social mobility; that it’s a number one problem for all societies; that President Obama is right to say that this is the problem his administration will tackle. If it’s just a basic issue of genetics and of assortative mating and then the transmission of certain types of abilities or competencies, then actually two things: one is we don’t have a problem. And the second thing is we shouldn’t devote enormous resources to trying to deal with it.

DE: So let me press you on that. So, one interpretation is that all that’s happening is that intelligent people are passing their genes on to intelligent people and so remaining in the elite. Another is that there are barriers to a meritocratic society. Which is it?

GC: My own personal bet is that genetics plays a much greater role in this than people have been willing to consider. One test would be, in cultural explanations, your grandparents; your cousins; your other relatives should all have some influence on your outcomes. If you’re from the Jewish community, for example, then being part of that larger community network should have significant influence on your outcomes. In a genetic interpretation, if we truly knew the status of your parents – the underlying status – that would be the only predictor of your outcomes. Your grandparents, all the rest of the stuff would not matter. And also, things like resource shocks should be relatively unimportant. And interestingly, again using Oxford and Cambridge data, we can actually test. do your parents only matter or does your more extended lineage matter to predicting future success?

And the answer is: it’s only your parents. If we can get the data, it’s only your parents that matter. Another test is a genetic explanation would say that any elite group that only intermarry internally would not actually regress to the mean. Because, the genetic information is not being lost from that group. And that, again, we can test by looking at various examples. And what we find then is that in societies with a high degree of endogamy, the rate of social mobility doesn’t seem to slow down. Another interpretation here would be that any elite group would simply have been selected from a larger population by some mechanism – or any underclass group. And we again can test this by looking at history and saying for example: Ashkenazi Jews are elite; Sephardic Jews are elite. Are they a subset of a larger population? And the answer overwhelmingly and very clearly is yes. Only a small fraction of the original Jewish population has survived as Jewish. The rest converted to Christianity. And, there’s very strong evidence that that was the elite share of the population.

And, we can also see in modern America that new social elites are actually being formed by immigration policy which means that people coming from areas distant from the US, without familial connections to the US, are being drawn from very high-level elites in those societies. So now, the super-elites in the US are Coptic Christians; Indian Hindus; Iranian Muslims; Maronites. And when you look across those groups, what you see is – culturally – an incredible diversity. The only groups that are not represented now in the modern US elites are protestant Anglo-Saxons. (Laughs.) So what you actually see when you look at this data, it seems to me, is that eliteness has nothing to do inherently with culture; it’s to do with the familial transmission of abilities.

Bryan Caplan on College, Signaling and Human Capital

Thursday, April 10th, 2014

Russ Roberts interviews Bryan Caplan on College, Signaling and Human Capital:

Bryan Caplan: So, in terms of the research, one very well-established fact that gets very little play is what’s called the ‘Sheepskin Effect’. So, we’ve sort of been touching on this point on how not finishing, starting college without finishing seems to raise earnings by only 10%, whereas it raises earnings by, seems to raise earnings by 83% if you do finish. So, this is actually part of a much more general fact, which is that a lot of the payoff for education comes from getting your degree. It comes from crossing the finish line. Right now, in the early decades of the signaling model, this fact was not well-established. And so there was a lively debate: Is there a sheepskin effect? Is there not a sheepskin effect? But until the sheepskin effect was well-established, when it was still in debate, almost everyone took for granted that a large sheepskin effect would show that signaling was important. Because otherwise, why would it be so important to just get over that finish line? So, in terms of the human capital model, it’s really puzzling. What is it, the last class that teaches you —

Russ Roberts: The capstone. It’s the capstone class. The whole idea.

Bryan Caplan: Yeah, the capstone class. So, like, why is it the person one [?] class short of graduation is only getting 10%, whereas if you finish that class you would get 83%?

Russ Roberts: Well, hang on. Two things. First of all, for those who are — I don’t know if this is a universally understood name, but a ‘sheepskin’ is another word for graduating college. ‘Getting your sheepskin.’ I don’t know the origin of that. Do you know it, Bryan?

Bryan Caplan: Yes. Yes, I do. So, it’s another word for ‘diploma.’ And the reason is diplomas used to be written on sheepskins, actually.

Russ Roberts: Oh, which is called, like, is it vellum? What’s it — there’s a name for sheepskin. What’s another name?

Bryan Caplan: Yeah, that sounds right.

Russ Roberts: I’m not sure that’s right. But I see what you are saying. It’s a form of ancient paper-like stuff. Um, so —

Bryan Caplan: Yes. So, anyway —

Russ Roberts: Hang on. My question is: Is 10% — you said the return is 10% if you don’t finish. Is it 10% if you go for —

Bryan Caplan: Yeah, the premium.

Russ Roberts: The premium. Sorry. The premium over high school students is over 10% if you don’t graduate. That is, attending college makes you a little more money relative to a high school graduate. Is that true if you go for one year, two years, three years? What you are claiming is, you might be claiming — if you go for 3 and a half semesters and you are 1 course short of graduation, you still only get 10%? Is that true?

Bryan Caplan: It’s a little more complicated than that. So, if you go and take a very close look at the data for college, you’ll see something like for the first year of college, that might increase, if you [?] essentially finish that, that might increase your earnings by 5-10%. Then year 2, maybe another 5-10%. Year 3 seems to give you nothing. And then it’s year 4 that gives you the remainder. Which is huge.

Russ Roberts: I guess the question would be —

Bryan Caplan: And we see that’s very similar for high school as well. So, like, 9th grade seems to give you a bit, 10th grade a bit; 11th grade seems to give you nothing at all; and then 12th grade, finishing that, getting a diploma, that’s what gives you a very big raise over what a high school dropout would earn.

Russ Roberts: Yeah. I guess the complication is that the people who do get, say, three and a half years into their college degree or one course short, why don’t they finish? And what does that tell you.

Bryan Caplan: [?] Exactly. Now you’re thinking like someone who believes in signaling. Now you’re saying, [?] asking, why didn’t this person finish? What is wrong with that person? Maybe they just had some bad luck. But also it suggests, look, in our society it’s expected that you finish; you [?] finished; there are a lot of different ways that you could have made up whatever problems that you had; so I’m nervous about you as an applicant. But let me go back to how the debate played out. So there was a long period when economists just weren’t sure if there was a sheepskin effect or how big it was. During that period everyone took for granted that a large sheepskin effect would show that signaling was important and the lack of one would at least undermine that. Now, in the late 1980s, early 1990s, it became totally clear that there were huge sheepskin effects — better data came along and several papers were published and they’ve never been challenged successfully. Not even challenged successfully — no one’s even tried to challenge them. The data are now so clear. But almost as soon as the evidence came in very strongly that sheepskin effects were very real and very large —

Russ Roberts: Let me guess —

Bryan Caplan: Then labor economists moved the goal posts and said, Well, that doesn’t really prove anything.

Russ Roberts: Of course not.

Bryan Caplan: And then they came up with some very sophisticated mathematical models where it wouldn’t have to prove anything. So, yes, well, you can come up with a model where it doesn’t prove anything, but that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t. In order to show that it — basically, in order to say that it doesn’t mean anything, you have to say, well, there’s got to be some totally unmeasurable difference between the people who just finish and the people who just don’t, and I can’t tell you what that thing is; and none of the things we actually measure worked; but that’s my story. Right? And when you know that these people making these arguments have been through the entire educational process; they finished at least three different degrees. To be a researcher on this, you finished your high school degree, you finished your bachelor’s degree, your master’s, probably your Ph.D. And for people like that to say, I’m totally unconvinced that it matters whether you actually get your degree and cross the finish line, to me it’s just insane. Like, you know very well, you were a student, you know that if you didn’t finish that would ruin your life and prevent you from getting this job. You know that. Everyone around you knew that. If you were to go and deny that to your fellow students and say, I’m not showing up for the final exam because what difference does it make? It makes a lot of difference. And it makes a lot of difference because people who don’t finish are quite different from people who do, and employers will hold it against you.

Russ Roberts: Yeah, it’s fascinating. Any other empirical evidence you want to cite that’s relevant besides the sheepskin effect?

Bryan Caplan: Sure. Well, so there is some abstruse research evidence that I could go over, but actually I’d rather focus on some arguments that — in a way I think there should be research on them although in a way they are too simple and clear to get a paper out of it. Like, here is one fact that I’ve often noticed. What do students do when a professor cancels class? They are happy. They cheer. And from a human capital point of view this is bizarre. Basically, the rest are saying, you know how you [?] for me to train me to be a better worker so you can do better in real life? Yeah. Well, I’m going to keep your money and I’m not going to give you the training. See ya’. That is effectively what the human capital model is saying is happening when a professor cancels class. On the other hand, so the signaling model says, well why don’t the why are the students happy? Because the employers will never know that you canceled class. What they are learning they are probably going to never need to know again. It’s not going to show up on their transcripts. If everybody learns less then this is not going to change the distribution of grades in all likelihood. So then students get an extra afternoon off and then it’s not going to affect their future. So, this is something that my 11-year-old sons who are fanatical about doing their homework, yet they are delighted with every snow day, say, why are you delighted? Well, it doesn’t disadvantage us compared to anyone else. Aren’t you worried you are going to need to know the stuff you didn’t learn? Even 11-year-olds, they’re cynical enough to go, yeah, right, like that’s ever going to happen. Kid, you appear deeply in the system and [?]

Russ Roberts: I fight off the urge to say, Well, Bryan, in your classes they cheer, but in my classes they weep. But I’m going to leave that out. I’m not going to say that. That would be cruel.

Bryan Caplan: Or here’s another one of my favorite debating points. Claim: Right now you can get the best education in the world for free if you want it. What am I talking about? Well, suppose you think Princeton is the best education in the world. You don’t need to apply; you don’t need to get admitted. All you do is move to Princeton and start attending classes. And in my experience, no one will stop you; no one will card you. If you go to the professor and say, I’m not a student here but I’m interested in your class, most professors get a tear in their eye: Someone actually wants to learn from me. But if you go and get this totally free Princeton education for four years, there is one thing you won’t have at the end: any proof you ever did it. Right. And if you consider — Deal A is you go to Princeton and you get a Princeton education with no record you ever did it, or you go to a much lower-ranked school where you admit you are getting a worse education but there is a record, which one is going to do more for your career? Almost everyone says, well, obviously the second one. The first one may make you an interesting person, may be a great experience, but employers aren’t going to care. They won’t believe you if there is no sign you were ever there. Whereas getting a bachelor’s degree by the book from Podunk State on the other hand, that actually, that gives you — it doesn’t give you nearly as much as getting a bachelor’s degree from Princeton but it gives you something that is real and tangible.

Sacred Crimea

Thursday, April 10th, 2014

Crimea wasn’t always sacred land — but it has been for a while:

Consider the Crimean city of Sevastopol, home to the Russian Black Sea Fleet. Initially this port was just a convenient naval base that allowed Russia to project power into the surrounding region. Because of this geopolitical value, the city played a key role during the Crimean War of 1853-1856, when Russia fought Britain and France for the right to expand into the waning Ottoman Empire. This first ‘heroic defence’ of Sevastopol left a significant imprint on Russia’s collective psyche; not least Leo Tolstoy’s important early work, Sevastopol Sketches (1855).

The second ‘heroic defence’ of the port came in 1941-42, during the war against Nazi Germany. Indeed, the siege of Sevastopol remains only slightly less resonant for Russians than the more famous Siege of Leningrad. But it is climbing the rankings. In the midst of the present conflict, Russia designated Sevastopol a city of federal significance, a status it shares only with Moscow and St Petersburg, the city formerly known as Leningrad. As we watch, Sevastopol is being woven ever more tightly into Russia’s national mythology.

If Crimea is so precious, one might wonder why Russia ever let it go. The simple answer is that it didn’t mean to. In 1954, the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev transferred it to Ukraine as an essentially symbolic gesture. Ukraine was then a Soviet imperial possession, so this seemed an innocuous arrangement. Then, when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, Russia itself started fragmenting. Chechnya achieved de facto independence. In a more peaceful fashion, Tatarstan was acquiring greater autonomy. There was talk of the Far East seceding. Crimea, in short, was not the priority.

Such periods of disintegration generally end in one of two ways. Russia rallied. During the 1990s and 2000s, it gradually squeezed out its pro-Western liberal elite, though not before they had almost halved GDP, created extreme differentials of wealth, and lost Russia its Great Power status. With the liberals in disgrace, a new, nationalistic cadre seized the moment. Under Vladimir Putin’s leadership, Russia began to claw back its lost lands, beginning, in 1999, with the reconquest of Chechnya. And now here we are.

Sacred Land

Wednesday, April 9th, 2014

States typically fight over territory:

Land supports a population, which provides the state with taxes and army recruits. It can also have strategic value, if it allows the state to project power or control a choke point. And, of course, states are essentially territorial entities: without land, they are nothing.

States often behave in an opportunistic manner, grabbing real estate when they can and giving it up when the cost of holding it becomes too great. In 1732, Russia returned a large chunk of Persian territory that Peter the Great had conquered in the previous decade. In return, the Persians entered an alliance with the Russians against the Ottoman Empire. This kind of behaviour is well-described by realism. However, most states, historical and modern, also put some territory into a special category, one that is not subject to rational geopolitical calculation. Such land is ‘sacred’. It must be held at all costs.

Here we find an obvious manifestation of the bourgeois strategy in the hawk-dove game. States and populations that are willing to escalate conflict as far as necessary in defence of their sacred lands are more likely to persist in the international arena. Those that treat their core territory in a rational manner — forfeiting it in accordance with strategic imperatives, as, for example, several Germanic tribes did repeatedly during the Migration Period — get wiped out. As a result, we observe the coevolution of geopolitics and what the anthropologist Scott Atran has identified as ‘sacred values’. Geopolitical assets acquire an aura of sanctity.

Where Communism Ended and Russia Began

Tuesday, April 8th, 2014

When the Soviet Union cracked up, a major New York publisher signed Anne Williamson to a contract for a book on Russia in 1993:

But when she finally delivered a manuscript in 1997 predicting that the Russian bond market would crash in 1998 (which it did), nobody in the publishing world would touch it. Williamson believes that her criticism of the Clinton Administration and, especially, of George Soros made it radioactive. According to a 2001 essay in the New York Review of Books, Williamson’s unpublished book was “widely read in manuscript.”

By the way, all this interest in Russia recently reminds me of an old mystery from before the recent economic unpleasantness: the Harvard endowment grew in the 1990s at a rate that would seem to call into question the hallowed Efficient Markets Theorem. When asked to share tips for how you too could achieve such a high ROI, Harvard’s gnomes usually made vague noises about investing in timber.

It finally occurred to me that during this period, Harvard was, coincidentally enough, being paid by American taxpayers to advise the government of Russia how to privatize its vast holdings. Indeed, this process went so swimmingly for Harvard that in 2001 Harvard made the Clinton Administration’s central manager of Russian policy, Larry Summers, its president.

Anne Williamson’s 1999 testimony before the Committee on Banking and Financial Services of the United States House of Representatives points out two mistakes:

In the matter before us — the question of the many billions in capital that fled Russia to Western shores via the Bank of New York and other Western banks — we have had a window thrown open on what the financial affairs of a country without property rights, without banks, without the certainty of contract, without an accountable government or a leadership decent enough to be concerned with the national interest or its own citizens’ well-being looks like. It’s not a pretty picture, is it? But let there be no mistake, in Russia the West has truly been the author of its own misery. And there is no mistake as to who the victims are, i.e. Western, principally U.S., taxpayers and Russian citizens’ whose national legacy was stolen only to be squandered and/or invested in Western real estate and equities markets.

The failure to understand where Communism ended and Russia began insured that the Clinton Administration’s policy towards Russia would be riddled with error and ultimately ineffective. Two mistakes are key to understanding what went wrong and why.

The first mistake was the West’s perception of the elected Russian president, Boris Yeltsin; where American triumphalists saw a great democrat determined to destroy the Communist system for freedom’s sake, Soviet history will record a usurper. A usurper’s first task is to transform a thin layer of the self-interested rabble into a constituency. Western assistance, IMF lending and the targeted division of national assets are what provided Boris Yeltsin the initial wherewithal to purchase his constituency of ex-Komsomol [Communist Youth League] bank chiefs, who were given the freedom and the mechanisms to plunder their own country in tandem with a resurgent and more economically competent criminal class. The new elite learned everything about the confiscation of wealth, but nothing about its creation. Worse yet, this new elite thrives in the conditions of chaos and eschews the very stability for which the United States so fervently hopes knowing full well, as they do, that stability will severely hamper their ability to obtain outrageous profits. Consequently, Yeltsin’s “reform” government was and is doomed to sustain this parasitic political base composed of the banking oligarchy.

The second mistake lay in a profound misunderstanding of Russian culture and in the Harvard Institute of International Development advisers’ disregard for the very basis for their own country’s success; property rights. It was a very grave error. Private property is not only the most effective instrument of economic organization, it is also the organizational mechanism of an independent civil society. The protection of property, both of individuals’ and that of a nation, has justified the existence of and a population’s acceptance of the modern state and its public levies.

Hawk, Dove, Bourgeois

Tuesday, April 8th, 2014

Game theorists have long turned to the classic hawk-dove game to study conflict:

‘Doves’ are individuals who never fight. If attacked, they run away. ‘Hawks’, on the other hand, are always ready for violence and will attack anybody who has something that they want. In a country populated by meek doves, the hawk strategy does very well. But as hawks become more numerous at the expense of doves, they spend more and more time fighting and killing each other.

There is, however, a simple modification of the hawk strategy that is superior to both hawks and doves: playing ‘bourgeois’. First, you declare a resource item — a herd, a piece of cropland — as your private property (hence the ‘bourgeois’ designation). Then you signal that you are willing to defend it no matter what it takes. Again, this is not rational in the narrow sense. You must be willing to escalate conflicts to the point where your life is at stake, even though your life is worth incomparably more than the disputed property. But again, in evolutionary terms, the strategy is a winner. While the hawks overreach, getting embroiled in self-destructive conflict, the bourgeois steadily divide the spoils among themselves, fighting only to defend their property against hawks. In the long run, the bourgeois always replace the hawks.

I’m no ornithologist, but there has to be a notoriously territorial bird we could use to extend the metaphor, doesn’t there?

Why national honour trumps rationality

Monday, April 7th, 2014

Peter Turchin explains why national honour trumps rationality — because it works:

Imagine a livestock herder – a traditional Kazakh nomad or an American cattleman on the Western frontier – who lives in a stateless, anarchic society. His wealth is movable and therefore vulnerable to theft. Since there are no police and no courts, he must rely on his own efforts to protect himself, just as states must rely on themselves to ensure continued survival. In such a situation, one strategy is to maintain a reputation for extreme toughness: ‘If you mess with me, you’ll regret it.’ Potential rustlers are deterred because they know that the owner will go all-out to punish them for any transgression.

Now, on a realist view such as Mearsheimer’s, such retribution would seem irrational. It yields no immediate gain and entails significant costs. If one does it oneself, there is the risk of injury or death. If one outsources the work, a bounty must be paid. But in spite of these liabilities, the punishment strategy turns out to be the one that wins in the long run. Herdsmen who do not cultivate a tough reputation become ‘men without honour’. Eventually they lose all their herds and become extinct (indeed, that possibility is what makes this genuinely an evolutionary process, although the relevant adaptation is probably more cultural than genetic). ‘Honour’ means that your commitment to punish a thief is credible. You cannot be dissuaded by danger and you cannot be bought off. If you succumb to either temptation, you lose your credibility, and with it, the capacity to deter robbers.

The problem is that rustlers are also under pressure to cultivate tough reputations: they have to intimidate the herders and deter punishment. So we end up in a coevolutionary arms race in which everybody becomes increasingly tough. The end result is a spiral of violence in which all parties run a high risk of extermination. An apparently sensible strategy leads, in short order, to suicidal madness. This is hard to understand within the rationalist framework of offensive realism. From an evolutionary point of view, on the other hand, it seems inevitable.

The Charter School Performance Breakout

Thursday, April 3rd, 2014

Do charter schools get results?

Initial assessments were mixed. In the early days, charter authorizing was very loose, nobody knew what worked best, and lots of weak schools were launched. The system has since tightened. In Washington, D.C., for instance, seven out of nine requests to open new charters are now turned down, and 41 charters have been closed for failing to produce good results.

Nationwide, 561 new charter schools opened last year, while 206 laggards were closed. Unlike conventional public schools, the charter system allows poorly performing schools to be squeezed out.

As charter operators have figured out how to succeed with children, they are doubling down on the best models. Successful charter schools have many distinctive features: longer school days and longer years, more flexibility and accountability for teachers and principals, higher expectations for students, more discipline and structure, more curricular innovation, more rigorous testing. Most charter growth today is coming from replication of the best schools. The rate of enrollment increase at high-performing networks is now 10 times what it is at single-campus “mom and pop” academies.

The combination of weak charters closing and strong charters replicating is having powerful effects. The first major assessment of charter schools by Stanford’s Center for Research on Educational Outcomes found their results to be extremely variable, and overall no better than conventional schools as of 2009. Its follow-up study several years later found that steady closures and their replacement by proven models had pushed charters ahead of conventional schools. In New York City, the average charter-school student now absorbs five months of extra learning a year in math, and one extra month in reading, compared with counterparts in conventional schools.

Other reviews show similar results, and performance advantages will accelerate in the near future. Charter schools tend to start small and then add one additional grade each year. Thus many charters in New York and elsewhere are just getting started with many children. As the schools mature, and weak performers continue to be replaced, charters will become even more effective.

But the results top charter schools are achieving are already striking. At KIPP, the largest chain of charters, 86% of all students are low-income, and 95% are African-American or Latino, yet 83% go to college. In New York City, one of the academies Mr. de Blasio has denied additional space to is Harlem’s highest-performing middle school, with its 97% minority fifth-graders ranking No. 1 in the state in math achievement. It and the 21 other schools in its charter network have passing rates on state math and reading tests more than twice the citywide average.

Judged by how far they move students from where they start, New York charter schools like Success Academies, Uncommon Schools, Democracy Prep and Achievement First—and others like them across the country—are now the highest-achieving schools in America. The oft-heard claim that charters perform no better than conventional schools on the whole is out of date and inaccurate.

Who Had Richer Parents, Doctors Or Artists?

Saturday, March 29th, 2014

Who had richer parents, doctors or artists?, NPR’s Planet Money asks. Professional artists and musicians tend to have rich parents, it turns out.

Household Income During Childhood vs. Income During Adulthood

Is Learning a Foreign Language Really Worth It?

Monday, March 24th, 2014

Is learning a foreign language really worth it?

Dubner: Saiz is from Barcelona — Barthelona — and he’s an economist at MIT, where he teaches urban planning. On today’s show we’re asking about the return on investment of learning a foreign language and, wouldn’t you know it, Saiz has calculated exactly that. He tracked about 9,000 college graduates to see how a foreign language affected their wages.He was surprised by what he found.

Saiz: Yeah, unfortunately, and I have to say, of course, because I try to speak three, I was pretty disappointed, and actually we found a very, very small return. What we did find is that after controlling for a host of characteristics, and using, a lot of experimental research designs that are basically trying to compare people who are identical for everything except for the second language, we did tend to find a premium in the labor market of about 2 percent of wages. In other words, if you speak a second language, you can expect to earn, on average, and that’s across many, many different people, on average you can be expected to earn about 2 percent higher wages. To contextualize this, think about your income or your wage being about $30,000, then you would expect to earn about $600 more per year.

Dubner: Now that’s not nothing. There are a lot of things you can do that won’t increase your earnings by even 2 percent. But still, that’s not a huge premium. And, I hate to tell this to our young Spanish speakers back at the Little Red School House in New York, but there is a rank order in terms of how different foreign languages translate into higher earnings.

Saiz: We know that the lowest return is Spanish, where you get about 1.5 percent, and then French 2.7 percent, and then German 4 percent. So you know learning a second language is something that’s worth to do by itself, but as a financial decision, probably, if you’re focusing on financial returns, they’re relatively low, and you should focus on languages that are rarely spoken in the United States.

[...]

Dubner: So as Bryan Caplan sees it, learning a foreign language, especially in school, just may not be worth it. Unless — that foreign language is English. Remember what Albert Saiz told us? His study of college graduates found only a 2 percent wage premium for learning a foreign language. But those were American college graduates:

Saiz: I can tell you that there’s research in other countries. Actually the findings in the United States do contrast with what other people following the same methodology found in Turkey, in Russia and in Israel. In these three countries, actually speaking English, which would be the second language, was associated with a substantial return of around 10 to 20 percent. So it’s really I think English speaking countries where that effect is relatively low. And again I think the explanation is very clear. English is the lingua franca.

Gregory Clark on Social Mobility

Tuesday, March 18th, 2014

Gregory Clark discusses The Son Also Rises with Prospect:

One of the things that will make this book controversial is that it’s claiming that all the standard methods for measuring social mobility in fact miss the mark, and are likely to find differences in social mobility across societies and time periods that are in fact just spurious. People look at income correlations across generations and extrapolate from that. What this book says is that although there’s a lot of random fluctuation in terms of people’s income or occupation, there’s a much greater underlying persistence. And only by looking at things like surnames do you see that feature.

If you look at England, for example, what we measure is whether you were at Oxford or Cambridge; how long you live, which is another good indicator of social status; occupational status; are you a member of parliament? Now one of the interesting findings here is that it doesn’t really matter which measure you use. For the families we’re looking at, all these things are actually highly correlated. The wealthy at any time are also the educated, members of parliament, those who live long. What the book shows is that there’s an underlying physics of social mobility which all of our political efforts seem to have no effect upon. And the startling conclusion is that we may never be able to change social mobility rates.

No doubt people will read this as a gloomy book. But the title, The Son Also Rises, was deliberately chosen to emphasise that there are some very positive elements in it. One of the things it emphasises is that the current data, which finds rapid social mobility in Sweden and slower social mobility in Britain and the US, and slower mobility still in South America, seems to suggest that you have massive social failures going on in a bunch of societies. The book finds no evidence of these failures because it finds very similar social mobility rates everywhere. Another implication is that if even in meritocratic Sweden you get very slow mobility, then it must be based largely on people’s abilities, aptitudes and drive. All that we’re discovering here is that we’re living in a surprisingly fair world—one in which, at birth, we could predict a surprising amount about your prospects. Is that a gloomy fact about the world?

Then he goes off the deep end…

One of the strong conclusions of the book is that if it really is the case that more than half of people’s outcomes are predictable, then we really have to rethink the idea that it’s OK in a society to make the rewards or penalties from the accident of [who] your parents [are] as large as the market is going to throw up. I started off my life as a free-market economist. But studies such as these have these have convinced me that, in some sense, the Scandinavian or Nordic model has many attractions. If you’re going to be at the bottom of the social order, it’s better to be at the bottom in somewhere like Sweden than somewhere like the United States. That’s a decision that societies have to make. You don’t need to give that much incentive to the upper group in society to still get educated, to achieve and to maintain their status. The incentives are very low, in monetary terms, in countries like Denmark and Sweden. It doesn’t change who succeeds.

Should It Really Take 14 Years to Become a Doctor?

Tuesday, March 18th, 2014

Should it really take 14 years to become a doctor? Brian Palmer reminds us how this all got started:

An American physician spends an average of 14 years training for the job: four years of college, four years of medical school, and residencies and fellowships that last between three and eight years. This medical education system wasn’t handed down to us by God or Galen—it was the result of a reform movement that began in the late 19th century and was largely finished more than 100 years ago. That was the last time we seriously considered the structure of medical education in the United States.

The circumstances were vastly different at that time. Until the Civil War, private, for-profit medical schools with virtually no admissions requirements subjected farm boys to two four-month sessions of lectures and sent them off to treat the sick. (The second session was an exact duplicate of the first.) The system produced too many doctors with not enough training. Abraham Flexner, the education reformer who wrote an influential report on medical education in 1910, put a fine point on the problem: “There has been an enormous over-production of uneducated and ill trained medical practitioners,” he wrote. (Emphasis added.) “Taking the United States as a whole, physicians are four or five times as numerous in proportion to population as in older countries like Germany.”

In other words, our current medical education system was originally designed to reduce the total number of people entering the profession. The academic medical schools that sprang up around the country—such as the Johns Hopkins Hospital in 1889—made college education a prerequisite. Medical school expanded from eight months to three years and solidified at four years in the 1890s. Postgraduate training programs were implemented, beginning with a one-year internship. These were brilliant reforms at the time.

Over the past century, there have been additions to, but few subtractions from, the training process. Residency and fellowship programs became longer and longer … and longer. The path to some specialties is now almost comically arduous. Many hand surgeons, for example, complete five years in general surgery, followed by three years in plastic surgery, followed by another year of specialized hand surgery training. To be a competitive candidate for a hand surgery fellowship, it’s also strongly recommended to spend two additional years on research at some point during the process.

One crazy idea comes from the outcomes movement:

American medical schools and residency programs have traditionally relied on the “tea steeping” method: They expose students to information for a prescribed amount of time, and assume they’re ready at the end of it. Years can be added if a student demonstrates gross incompetence in exams, but there’s no opportunity for exceptional students to accelerate the process. Offering that chance makes educators uncomfortable—both because it relies heavily on imperfect examinations and because it partially undermines the traditional process—but it’s time to experiment.

“Experiment” is the key word. The fundamental problem here is that the argument between traditionalists and reformers is essentially theoretical—we are in an evidence vacuum. It’s ironic, because in virtually every other aspect of medicine, tradition and intuition were discarded decades ago. Researchers rigorously test what is the best moment to start someone infected with HIV on antiretrovirals or a patient with high cholesterol on statins. But doctors have very rarely examined their own training. When Emanuel and Fuchs published their proposal two years ago, they could find just a single study comparing the competence of physicians from the traditional four-plus-four medical education system with that of doctors from shortened programs.

There is no reason not to do this important research.

Employers Still Care About SATs

Tuesday, March 4th, 2014

Plenty of employers still care about a job candidate’s SAT score:

SATs and other academic artifacts remain relevant in part because they are easy — if imperfect — metrics for hiring managers to understand. This despite the fact that increased use of personality tests, data analytics and behavioral interviews have given employers more information about a candidate than ever before. Academic research has proved that cognitive ability can predict job performance, but there is scant evidence linking high SAT scores with employee success.

The real question is, why do they care so much about degrees?

Putting too much stock in standardized tests can put minority candidates at a disadvantage. In 2013, SAT test-takers in the “Black or African-American” category scored an average 431 on the exam’s critical reading section, 429 on math and 418 on writing. White test-takers, meanwhile, scored nearly 100 points higher on average in every section. There is a racial divide for ACT score reports as well.