Thursday, September 30, 2010

"Phase one: change incentive system"

Prepare for a rare intra-blog dispute. Joseph found something to like in Megan McArdle's reply to Felix Salmon's post on airports. Here's the relevant section from the Atlantic:

Still, I think there's quite a lot about American airports that is important, and inadequate. Given the ubiquity of electronic devices, and the importance of airports to business travelers, we could probably enhance national productivity quite a bit if so many airports didn't force travelers to spend their wait times fighting each other for the one electrical socket located behind an out-of-order ATM machine. The ridiculous security theater procedures which have queues stretching out towards the long-term parking lot could be streamlined. And whatever engineer designs monstrosities like Heathrow's 40-minute walk-time from security line to gate should be tracked down and . . . um . . . reeducated, or something.

We might also give serious thought to whether something can be done about the incentives system--and local authorities--who fix things so that the only important customers of airports are the airlines. In many places, a combination of zoning, and the local authorities who often run the airports, means that there's no meaningful competition. The result is that they don't have to do anything to please passengers, and boy, they sure don't. If Felix's point is that improving the airports is probably not going to be a matter of huge government expenditures--or that this is not the best use of said expenditures--I'm pretty sure I agree. But we might think about regulatory changes that would give them reasons to improve.

For starters, I can't award any points here for criticizing the TSA. Everybody hates the TSA. Joseph does. I do. Felix Salmon does. Pretty much anybody who's been in an airplane in the past nine years does. You can't give a writer credit for voicing a universal opinion.

What's left?

A couple of complaints about airport amenities and some wonderfully McArdlesque notions about how market forces work.

It's certainly true that airports could provide a more pleasant experience for passengers but, as Felix Salmon points out, "[T]he airlines are the customers, and the passengers are the goods being transported." This isn't a case of misalligned incentives; this is the business model.

As far as I can tell, the Atlantic post doesn't propose an alternate business plan or a slate of restrictive airport regulations (which are far more difficult to justify than additional regulations for flying). Instead you get a classic McArdle action plan:

Step One -- Relax zoning and other restrictions.

Step Two --

Step Three -- Traveler's paradise.

Just how far apart are steps one and three?

Even with the laxest possible restrictions, there are practical limits on where you can put airports. For one thing it's kind of important to space them out. Would a change in zoning rules add enough airports to create meaningful competition? Almost certainly not.

And even if it did, that would do nothing, absolutely nothing, to reform the more absurd TSA policies. An improvement in airports that doesn't address the security procedures is a damned small improvement.

What's worse, there's reason to believe that even those small improvements wouldn't come to pass. Under the current business model, the only leverage passengers have is the option of voting with their feet, avoiding an airport in such large numbers that the airlines pressure that airport to improve.

Unfortunately, this runs into the same ugly business reality that airlines have encountered when trying to attract customers with all-class amenities. When you go online to book a flight you are normally presented with a handful of choices that vary widely in price* and convenience. The variation in these factors tends to swamp everything else. Factors like a more comfortable plane or better customer service only come into play in the case of a very close tie. This is one reason why most airlines moved away from pushing amenities and focused on loyalty rewards programs.**

Airlines are far more competitive than airports will ever be and most people value a comfortable flight much more than a comfortable airport. If market forces haven't made flights pleasant, they aren't going to do any better with the places we wait for them.

* As Dave Barry explains it:

Q. Airline fares are very confusing. How, exactly, does the airline determine the price of my ticket?
A. Many cost factors are involved in flying an airplane from Point A to Point B, including distance, passenger load, whether each pilot will get his own pilot hat or they're going to share, and whether Point B has a runway.

Q. So the airlines use these cost factors to calculate a rational price for my ticket?
A. No. That is determined by Rudy the Fare Chicken, who decides the price of each ticket individually by pecking on a computer keyboard sprinkled with corn. If an airline agent tells you that they're having "computer problems, " this means that Rudy is sick, and technicians are trying to activate the backup system, Conrad the Fare Hamster.

** Because most people tend to go to the closest airport, an airport loyalty program would spend most of its budget on customers it would have gotten anyway. Bad idea.


It is not everyday that I agree with Megan McArdle over Felix Salmon. But this is an extremely good point:

Still, I think there's quite a lot about American airports that is important, and inadequate. Given the ubiquity of electronic devices, and the importance of airports to business travelers, we could probably enhance national productivity quite a bit if so many airports didn't force travelers to spend their wait times fighting each other for the one electrical socket located behind an out-of-order ATM machine. The ridiculous security theater procedures which have queues stretching out towards the long-term parking lot could be streamlined.

To be blunt, the modern American airport seems designed to make a basically unpleasant activity (flying around in a packed airplane) as unpleasant as possible. Your humble narrator has been doing a lot of travel lately and I remember airports as being more pleasant once. For example, when you did not have to go through a lengthy screening process then you did not have to arrive as early at the airport. As a result, the airport had fewer bored people sitting around competing for limited seating and eating facilities.

So I would also be in favor of finding ways to make it easier for airports to make flying a pleasant experience.

But I can definitely see the GOP as Lucy

From the Boston Globe by way of Mippyville, here's some mildly warped satire to end your day. Not as funny as it might have been but lovingly executed.

(depending on your browser, you might need to click on the image to see the fourth panel.)

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

The heroin's still doing the heavy lifting -- why Ivy League legacies work

From Christopher Shea's Boston Globe column:
Richard D. Kahlenberg, editor of the forthcoming book "Affirmative Action for the Rich: Legacy Preferences in College Admissions," points out that universities in other countries don't give so-called legacy preferences to sons and daughters of their alumni. (Even Oxbridge colleges don't, despite the class-bound history of British education.) So, he asks, why on earth do we do it in America?
Broadly speaking, students go to college in search of four things: certification; instruction; reputation; and connections.

In terms of certification, any well-accredited school would do. In terms of undergraduate instruction, the best deal for the money (and perhaps the best deal period) is the small four-year school. (I'm leaving this as an assertion but I'm fairly confident I can argue the point if anyone wants to debate.)

In the next two categories, however, the Ivy League cannot be surpassed, in part because of the legacy system.

Without loss of generality, look at Harvard. The student population of the school consists entirely of two overlapping groups: people who can get into Harvard; people whose parents can get them into Harvard.

The first group is hard-working, ambitious and academically gifted. Assuming the number of need-based legacies is trivial, the second group comes from families that are wealthy (they're paying for a Harvard education) and well-connected (at least one parent went to Harvard).

Putting aside luck, you can put the drivers of success into three general categories: attitude, drive and work habits; talent, intelligence and creativity; reputation and connections. It is possible to succeed with just one of these (hell, I can think of people who made it with none), but there is a strong synergistic effect. A moderate talent who works hard and has connections will generally go farther than a spectacular talent who's lazy and isolated.

Connections are governed by the laws of graph theory. I'm not going to delve too deeply into the subject (since that would require research and possibly actual work on my part), but as anyone who has read even the cover blurbs on Linked or Small Worlds can tell you, adding a few highly connected nodes (let's call them senator's sons) can greatly increase the connectivity of a system.

It would be interesting to model the trade off between picking a well connected legacy over a smarter, harder-working applicant given the objective of producing the greatest aggregate success. Because of the network properties mentioned above, it wouldn't be surprising if the optimal number of legacies turned out to be the 10% to 15% we generally see.

Optimized or not, this mixture is almost guaranteed to churn out fantastically successful graduates regardless of what the schools do after the students are admitted. I'm certain the quality of instruction on the Ivy League schools is very good, but, like most education success stories, the secret here is mostly selection and peer effects.

Update: For a different interpretation (this time with actual data), check out this post at Gene Expression.

Updated update: Why doesn't spell check work in the title field?

Ecological Fallacy

The recent debate on education has been pretty broad and I wonder if a key point has been overlooked. In the cross country comparisons, Mark has been arguing that "even if we grant that cross country comparisons are useful, they don't necessarily say what you think they say".

This has led to overlooking the key problem in these comparisons: it is nearly impossible to relate the performance of a specific country to that of individual students because the make-up of the students differ. The real question we want to ask is: if we adopted the educational system of country X then would our students do better? But that the student in country X do better than Americans is no proof -- maybe they are handicapped by an inferior educational system and would do even better in an American style educational environment.

This problem is a key limitation in epidemiological studies of all kinds. If we observe that the Japanese have fewer myocardial infarcts then we still don't know why. There are many exposures that could explain this finding. It is easy to go wrong. For example, in 2002-2003 47% of Japanese men smoking and 20% of American men smoked.

Yet in 2002, the age standardized death rate for American men from CHD was 216 per 100,000 whereas it was 54 per 100,000 in Japan. (now this association is cross sectional but most cross country educational debates are as well). Does this mean we should promote smoking to reduce heart disease?

If the answer is "no" then we should apply similar caution to other international comparisons.

"The war situation has developed not necessarily to Japan's advantage"

You gotta love the headline writer for the New York Times:

"Republicans’ Deficit-Cut Pledge Lacks Specifics"

Over on the op-ed page* Paul Krugman is a little more blunt:

"‘Pledge to America’ is at war with arithmetic"

Here are some of Krugman's specifics:

True, the document talks about the need to cut spending. But as far as I can see, there’s only one specific cut proposed — canceling the rest of the Troubled Asset Relief Program, which Republicans claim (implausibly) would save $16 billion. That’s less than half of 1 percent of the budget cost of those tax cuts. As for the rest, everything must be cut, in ways not specified — “except for common-sense exceptions for seniors, veterans, and our troops.” In other words, Social Security, Medicare and the defense budget are off-limits.

So what’s left? Howard Gleckman of the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center has done the math. As he points out, the only way to balance the budget by 2020, while simultaneously (a) making the Bush tax cuts permanent and (b) protecting all the programs Republicans say they won’t cut, is to completely abolish the rest of the federal government: “No more national parks, no more Small Business Administration loans, no more export subsidies, no more National Institutes of Health. No more Medicaid (one-third of its budget pays for long-term care for our parents and others with disabilities). No more child health or child nutrition programs. No more highway construction. No more homeland security. Oh, and no more Congress.”

* I could have linked this directly to the New York Times, but frankly they annoy me.

p.s. Keep an eye on TNR and Economist's View for reactions to the rest of David Leonhardt's article. When Chait, Krugman, DeLong and company get to Leonhardt's defense of Paul Ryan and Rand Paul, things are going to get bloody.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Doesn't Microsoft have a template like this on Word?

Check out the ultimate in science reporting here, then watch Andrew Gelman experiment with meta-posting.

Was I too tough on Seyward Darby?

We've recently had a huge uptick in viewers. This is great (and I'm tremendously appreciative), but I do have to remind myself most of the people in the room walked in on the middle of the conversation.

If you do a keyword search, you would see we've been hammering away at Ms. Darby for a long time and you might get the impression that we are trying to depict her as the mad relative chained up in the New Republic's attic. We're not and she isn't. (TNR's attic position was filled long before she got there.)

Ms. Darby, a talented and well-qualified journalist, takes the brunt of the criticism because she writes the bulk of TNR's articles on education, not because those articles deviate from the magazine's position on, well, anything.

The indispensable Jonathan Cohn has handed his blog over to Darby's education posts while Jonathan Chait, arguably the best political blogger out there, has taken an almost identical position on the subject.

I addressed Chait's uncharacteristic education writing a couple of weeks ago (seems like longer) in "Strange Bedfellows":
There's too much here to cover in one post (I could do a page just on Chait's weird reaction to Samuelson's looks, a topic that I had never given any thought to up until now). I may take another pass at another section later but for now I'm going to limit myself to this particularly egregious bit:
How does Samuelson explain the existence of new charter schools that produce dramatically higher results among these lazy, no-good teenagers? He insists, "no one has yet discovered transformative changes in curriculum or pedagogy, especially for inner-city schools, that are (in business lingo) 'scalable.'" This is utterly false. The most prominent example is the Kipp schools, which have shown revolutionary improvements among poor, inner-city students and have rapidly expanded.
It is strange to see Chait take the pro-privatization side of the debate, stranger still to see him accuse critics of charter schools of having an anti-government bias*, but what pushes this into Rod Serling territory is the spectacle of having Chait, one of the most gifted bullshit detectors of the Twenty-first Century, rolling out the same sort of flawed argument that he has made a career out of dismantling.

In order to be viable, a reform has to improve on the existing system by a large enough margin to justify its implementation costs, but if you accept the metrics used by the reform movement, then you will have to conclude that charter schools do worse than public schools more often than they do better.**

So we have a major push to privatize government services which, after about two decades of testing have been shown to under-perform their traditional government-run alternatives. Rather than show why this statistic is misleading, Chait pulls out vague, anecdotal evidence of a single out-lier. Now, given the variability of the data, we would expect the top schools (or even chains) to do pretty well. That alone rebuts Chait's point, but it gets worse. Self-selection, peer effects and selective attrition*** all artificially inflate KIPP's results. When you take these factors into account, it's hard to make a compelling statistical case that even the best charter schools are outperforming public schools (though the second footnote still applies).

At the risk of over-emphasizing, this is Jonathan -- freaking -- Chait we're talking about, a writer known for his truly exceptional gift for constructing logical arguments and, more importantly, spotting the fallacies in the arguments of others. Under normal conditions, Chait would never fall for a badly presented argument-by-anomally, let alone make one, just as, under normal circumstances, a confrontation between Samuelson and Chait would result in little pieces of the former being scraped off of the walls of the Washington Post.

But Chait loses this confrontation decisively. From his ad hominem opening to his factually challenged close he fails to score a single point. And this is far from the only example of this odd reform-specific impairment affecting otherwise accomplished writers. OE has spilled endless pixels on the reform-related lapses, both statistical and rhetorical, of smart, serious, dedicated people like Chait, Seyward Darby and, of course, Ray Fisman (just do a keyword search). None of these people would normally produce the kind of work we've cataloged here. None of them would normally ignore the defection of one of the founding members of the reform movement. None of these people would normally feel comfortable dismissing without comment contradictory findings from EPI, Donald Rubin and the Rand Institute.

David Warsh has aptly made the following comparison:
Remember the recipe for a policy disaster? Start with a handful of policy intellectuals confronting a stubborn problem, in love with a Big Idea. Fold in a bunch of ambitious Ivy League kids who don’t speak the local language. Churn up enthusiasm for the program in the gullible national press – and get ready for a decade of really bad news. Take a look at David Halberstam’s Vietnam classic The Best and the Brightest, if you need to refresh your memory. Or just think back on the run-up to the war in Iraq.
but along with Halberstam, it might be time to brush off our copies of Cialdini's Influence.

From a data standpoint, the past few years have been rough on the reform movement. Charter schools have been shown to be more likely to under-perform than to outperform. Joel Klein's spectacular record turned out to be the product of creative accounting (New York City schools have actually done much worse than the rest of the state). Findings contradicting the fundamental tenets of the movement accumulated. Major figures in research (Rubin) and education (Ravitch) have publicly questioned the viability of proposed reforms.

As Cialdini lays out in great detail, when you challenge people's deeply held beliefs with convincing evidence, you usually get one of two responses. Sometimes you will actually manage to win them over. More often, though, they will dig in, embrace their beliefs more firmly and find new ways to justify them.

I think it's safe to say we don't have response number one.

* Almost all of the major tenets of the modern reform can be traced back to the Reagan era and were closely associated with the initiatives described in Franks' The Wrecking Crew.

** Ironically, if you consider the intellectual framework of the reform movement to be flawed and overly simplistic, you can actually make a much better case for charter schools.

*** From Wikipedia: "In addition, some KIPP schools show high attrition, especially for those students entering the schools with the lowest test scores. A 2008 study by SRI International found that although KIPP fifth-grade students who enter with below-average scores significantly outperform peers in public schools by the end of year one, "... 60 percent of students who entered fifth grade at four Bay Area KIPP schools in 2003-04 left before completing eighth grade."[7] The report also discusses student mobility due to changing economic situations for student's families, but does not directly link this factor into student attrition. Six of California's nine KIPP schools, researched in 2007, showed similar attrition patterns.[citation needed] Figures for schools in other states are not always as readily available."

[You can find more on KIPP here]

Encouraging/Discouraging words from President Obama

(Time for another trip into N-Space -- test/retention axis)

From the President's NBC interview:

What is your message to the leadership of unions and to teacher union members?

"We want to work with you; we're not interested in imposing changes on can't defend the status quo in which a third of our kids are dropping out...when you've got 2,000 schools across the country that are drop-out factories, in those schools you have to have radical change. ... The vast majority of teachers want to do a good job, they're not in it for the money. ... Ultimately if some teachers are not doing a good job they've got to go."

This is encouraging because, unlike the test-scores scare, the drop-out crisis hasn't received nearly enough attention. After gangs and school violence, it is the problem that worries me the most.

This discouraging because many of the schools being held up as models by the reformers have built much of their reputation by systematically excluding and/or chasing away the very students who drop out of traditional schools.

The wonders of shifting rationales

(What a great week to be an education blogger)

The old case for sweeping reforms
: The changes we're suggesting are drastic and costly with bad track records and the potential to severely damage the system they are meant to save, but the current state of education is so bad that the future of our country depends on implementing radical reforms.

The new case for sweeping reform: it turns out the problem is not that big or wide-reaching but it's good that people mistakenly thought it was so bad because that encourages us to make all these changes.

(h/t Matthew Yglesias)

Monday, September 27, 2010

Does Seyward Darby think Seyward Darby should be fired?

I don't. I have always believed that firing is a last resort, but Darby has certainly gone on the record as being for firing incompetent performers even when the metrics for measuring competence are unreliable and the firings would cause severe damage to the economy. Given the quality of her reporting on education, it's difficult to believe she's not currently lobbying TNR to get herself fired for things like this:
But the real star of the show was Waiting for Superman, the much-hyped documentary about school reform that opens nationwide this week. Gregory started the program with a clip from the movie that shows how poorly we rank, education-wise, against other developed countries.
Does the clip really show how poorly we're doing? Let's roll the tape:
Since the 1970s, U.S. schools have failed to keep pace with the rest of the world. Among 30 developed countries, we ranked 25th in math and 21st in science. The top 5 percent of our students, our very best, ranked 23rd out of 29 developed countries. In almost every category, we've fallen behind.
If you've been following OE, you recognize these oft-quoted numbers as coming from the PISA test which can't possibly support the first sentence since it was first administered in 2000.

It would seem that Seyward Darby doesn't know that.

She also doesn't seem to know that the older, better-established TIMSS test has us doing fairly well internationally. Nor is she apparently aware that using PISA to argue for the standard slate of reforms is problematic since at least one of the highest scoring countries (Canada) has adopted pretty much the opposite approach.

We can let David Gregory off with a warning -- this isn't his beat -- but Darby is the education specialist for one of America's best and most respected publications. There's no way for the New Republic to justify keeping an education reporter who can't spot obvious distortions involving one of the two best known measures of international academic performance.

I would suggest immediate reassignment. If Darby would like to argue for her own dismissal, I'd be happy to debate the issue.

[update: you can find some more thoughts on TNR's education reporting here.]

Perceived vs. Actual Income Distribution

James Fallows points out an interesting study (h/t to Jonathan Chait):

The context is the previous discussion, here and here, about the capacity for feeling short-changed and ill-treated, even among some of the most materially-fortunate people ever to live on Earth. No doubt it's a primal human trait, but for various reasons (as explained here) the ever-polarizing distribution of wealth and income in America has allowed more people to feel bad about their own situation by looking at the handful who are stratospherically better off.

To some extent this is an "information" problem: people don't know where they really stand. A creative way to demonstrate that is with a forthcoming paper by Michael Norton of Harvard Business School and Daniel Ariely of Duke, which compares: (a) how wealth actually is distributed in America; (b) how people think it's distributed; and (c) how they think it should be distributed. The paper is available in PDF here.

The chart below conveys the central point: people think the distribution of wealth is more equal than it actually is; and they think it should be much more equal than their already unrealistically-equal notion of its current state. Eg: the top 20% of the US wealth distribution actually controls nearly 85% of total wealth; people think the top 20% controls under 60%; and they think it should control just over 30%


Similarly: people feel that the bottom 20% of the economic pyramid "should" have about 10% of the total pie; they think it actually has about 3% or 4%; in fact, its share appears to be too small to show up on the chart.

Today's must read on education

Nicholas Lehmann writing for the New Yorker:

There have been attempts in the past to make the system more rational and less redundant, and to shrink the portion of it that undertakes scholarly research, but they have not met with much success, and not just because of bureaucratic resistance by the interested parties. Large-scale, decentralized democratic societies are not very adept at generating neat, rational solutions to messy situations. The story line on education, at this ill-tempered moment in American life, expresses what might be called the Noah’s Ark view of life: a vast territory looks so impossibly corrupted that it must be washed away, so that we can begin its activities anew, on finer, higher, firmer principles. One should treat any perception that something so large is so completely awry with suspicion, and consider that it might not be true—especially before acting on it.

We have a lot of recent experience with breaking apart large, old, unlovely systems in the confidence of gaining great benefits at low cost. We deregulated the banking system. We tried to remake Iraq. In education, we would do well to appreciate what our country has built, and to try to fix what is undeniably wrong without declaring the entire system to be broken. We have a moral obligation to be precise about what the problems in American education are—like subpar schools for poor and minority children—and to resist heroic ideas about what would solve them, if those ideas don’t demonstrably do that.

Obama's education interview

Visit for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

I'll have to think about this one for a little while.

Propensity Score Matching

The latest from Peter Austin (University of Toronto):

Propensity-score matching is increasingly being used to estimate the effects of treatments using observational data. In many-to-one (M:1) matching on the propensity score, M untreated subjects are matched to each treated subject using the propensity score. The authors used Monte Carlo simulations to examine the effect of the choice of M on the statistical performance of matched estimators. They considered matching 1–5 untreated subjects to each treated subject using both nearest-neighbor matching and caliper matching in 96 different scenarios. Increasing the number of untreated subjects matched to each treated subject tended to increase the bias in the estimated treatment effect; conversely, increasing the number of untreated subjects matched to each treated subject decreased the sampling variability of the estimated treatment effect. Using nearest-neighbor matching, the mean squared error of the estimated treatment effect was minimized in 67.7% of the scenarios when 1:1 matching was used. Using nearest-neighbor matching or caliper matching, the mean squared error was minimized in approximately 84% of the scenarios when, at most, 2 untreated subjects were matched to each treated subject. The authors recommend that, in most settings, researchers match either 1 or 2 untreated subjects to each treated subject when using propensity-score matching.

This result is quite interesting. It's intuitive if you think about it for a bit (the closet matches will be the best possible controls) but it varies from the wisdom of case control studies a lot (always use between 4 and 20 controls per case, if possible, so that the size of the confidence intervals is dependent on the cases).

I think that there are two things that need to be considered. Peter Austin works with ICES which uses prescriptions claims from the province of Ontario. So the types of study that he works with are typically large (and even his small samples were 500 cases). So variance is low, anyway, and a focus on bias makes perfect sense.

Second, complex propensity scores (based on many variables) are rarely the same for any two participants whereas the matching in case control studies is often on factors (age, sex) that can be perfectly matched.

So it is a useful and interesting result. What I really want to know, having never managed to get AJE to accept a paper from me at all, is how he managed this feat:

Received April 21, 2010
Accepted June 18, 2010


This American Life on HCZ's Baby College

Joseph and I have spilled a lot of pixels recently trying to debunk some of the bad statistics coming out of the educational reform movement. We have, perhaps, gotten so caught up in that task that we have neglected some of the bright spots in the movement.

This is one of those bright spots and it's definitely worth paying for the download:

Act One. Harlem Renaissance.

Paul Tough reports on the Harlem Children’s Zone, and its CEO and president, Geoffrey Canada. Among the project’s many facets is Baby College, an 8-week program where young parents and parents-to-be learn how to help their children get the education they need to be successful. Tough’s just-published book about Geoffrey Canada and the Harlem's Children Zone is called Whatever It Takes. You can see a slideshow of more photographs from the project here. (30 and 1⁄2 minutes)
p.s.I'm still not entirely comfortable with some of the research around HCZ, but, as I said earlier, it's "an impressive, even inspiring initiative to improve the lives of poor inner-city children through charter schools and community programs."

Sunday, September 26, 2010


With all do respect to Professors DeLong, Krugman and company, probably the best piece of reporting you'll find on the recent wave of self-pity among the wealthy is this revealing and appalling segment from the This American Life episode, "Crybabies":

Act One. Wall Street: Money Never Weeps.

Ira with Planet Money economics correspondent Adam Davidson on why—even after everything President Obama has done to save Wall Street, actions which have led to record profits and bonuses—Wall Street seems ungrateful. Adam and producer Jane Feltes head out to a Wall Street bar where they're told by three finance guys that there's no reason to thank the President for saving their jobs. Planet Money is a co-production of This American Life and NPR News. (14 minutes)
The episode is available for free download this week (though you might feel a little better about yourself if you donate a buck or two).

Principal Agents

I was talking to Mark about his post on retnetion policies in large corporations. One item came up that I think is quite interesting. Both schools and publically traded companies have a serious principal agent problem. In the case of the schools, the principals and school board act on behalf of the taxpayer. In the case of the publically traded company, the CEO and board act on behalf of shareholders.

One thing that we see in large companies is that it is impossible to completely eradicate the conflicts of interest that are so posed. Management will try to optimize their outcomes (see CEO pay) even whe it might not be in the best interest of the shareholders (see Mark's post).

In the same sense, it would be naive to assume that you won't have some of these principal agent problems happening in any publicly funded educational system. I suspect that this is the price we have to pay for having a universal education system. Shifting our education system to a more corporate model isn't going to remove these issues -- it is only going to change who the winners and losers in the system are.

Should we tolerate these issues? Why not private schools (with a much more direct link between the education producer and consumer)? I think the real reason is that a broadly educated population is a public good and that there are always going to be inefficiencies in providing public goods. We all know of cases where road construction was less than ideal (in terms of contractor extracting extra value). But that doesn't mean we whould either abandon roads entirely or go to subscription-based roads.

The trick here seems, to me, to be to develop an education system that provides high quality outcomes. Mark keeps asking why the Canadian model isn't more widely studied given that they have issues with a multi-cultural population, geographical distance, and english as a second language students. I think the conversation would benefit from seeing more about how they handle this principal agent issue.

"Ignore the parts about crystal meth and pancakes"

The education reform movement relies heavily on anecdotes of remarkable, odds-beating schools, but when you take a close look at those schools that had significantly superior performance, some if not most of the difference in scores could be explained by selection and peer effects.

This isn't to say these schools weren't benefiting their students. Regardless of the reason, these kids were better off. Nor is this to say that these schools weren't doing something right. I can tell you that many are well-run and highly innovative.

But even taking all of that into account, selection and peer effects are huge and can swamp almost any other factor you can think of. These effects are seldom if ever adequately accounted for (And before anyone says the word 'lottery,' please take a look at this). This makes it all but impossible to accurately measure the impact of these schools but people like Jonathan Chait continue to cite them without any caveats.

I came across a segment of This American Life that beautifully captured my feelings on the subject. Just play the clip below and every time you hear 'heroin,' substitute in 'selection and peer effects' (you can just ignore the parts about crystal meth and pancakes).

From Kumail Nanjiani:

So remember, selection and peer effects are doing the heavy lifting.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

The trouble with clever theories

This issue is one of the more serious ones in modern academic research. Frances Woolley of Worthwhile Canadian Intiative details the case of Hepatitis B and missing women. The theory (that the imbalanced sex ratio seen in India and China could be explained by rates of viral infection) advanced by Emily Oster was both compelling and incorrect:

Someone arguing in Levitt's defence might say "well, no one could have known that Oster's hypothesis would turn out to be wrong." Could they? In 2005, the year that Oster's paper appeared in the JPE, Monica Das Gupta published a rebuttal in the Population and Development Review. She describes the results of a 1993 paper by Zeng et al, one cited by Oster:

...the sex ratio at birth varies sharply by the sex composition of the living children the woman already has.... Zeng et al. show that the sex ratio at birth was normal (1.056) for first births. For second births, it was strikingly different depending on whether the first child was male or female: women whose first child was a son had a low sex ratio (1.014) for the second child, while those whose first child was a daughter had a very high sex ratio (1.494) for the second child.

To produce a pattern like that, Hep B has to be one heck of a smart virus. So the first point is: anyone with even a passing familiarity with the literature would know there was something suspicious about the Oster results.

This is actually a really good point and one that deserves more thought. The hypothesis being put forward had very little chance of being true given the actual literature cited and yet it was widely accepted as an important theory (being given wide publicity). Why is this?

I think that modern academics love the counter-intuitive theory that turns conventional thinking on its head. These are compelling stories because they seem to show how careful observation and being clever can reveal important secrets. But the very fact that these theories rely on clever stories and unexpected twists makes them more likely (and not less likely) to be incorrect.

In a sense, this feature is what I dislike about instrumental variables. One needs to tell a story about why an instrument actually has the correct statistical properties. But this relies on strong and unverifiable assumptions that cannot be directly tested. So one ends up telling an interesting story . . . but it is one that could well be wrong.

Dr Oster is a very good scientist and I don't want to generalize to the rest of her work. But it is a trap we should all look out for!

One more thought on seeing McKinsey's “Closing the Talent Gap”

(And then I really have to be going)

I'm not sure they want to go with TIMSS here.

From the McKinsey report:

While Singapore does not participate in PISA, it ranked in the top three on math and science on the quadrennial Trends in International Mathematics and Science Studies assessments in 2007, after having come in first place in 1995, 1999 and 2003.
from the National Center for Education Statistics:

In 2007, the average mathematics scores of both U.S. fourth-graders (529) and eighth-graders (508) were higher than the TIMSS scale average (500 at both grades). The average U.S. fourth-grade mathematics score was higher than those of students in 23 of the 35 other countries, lower than those in 8 countries (all located in Asia or Europe), and not measurably different from those in the remaining 4 countries. At eighth grade, the average U.S. mathematics score was higher than those of students in 37 of the 47 other countries, lower than those in 5 countries (all of them located in Asia), and not measurably different from those in the other 5 countries.

My first thought on seeing McKinsey's “Closing the Talent Gap”

Where's Canada?

Here's the PDF of the report via this post from Matthew Yglesias. It just crossed my desktop and I have to be on the road in about five minutes. I've just had time to skim the report so I may be missing the obvious but the absence of our northern neighbor strikes me as strange, particularly given the report's use of PISA data.

Forget teachers-- hell, forget employees, what does it take to fire a CEO?

One of the fundamental tenets of the modern educational reform movement is faith in the private sector. In the last post, I discussed the contradictions in using that faith to justify attrition policies that are pretty much unheard of in the corporate world.

There's a second potential danger in looking to the private sector for answers. Companies are not very transparent. Most go to great lengths to hide incompetence and depict every effort as a success. There's nothing illegal or even unethical about this. If anything, the people who run a company have an obligation to present it in the best possible light.

Though you can't blame businesses for spinning their results, you can get into a great deal of trouble by imitating them. For example, a school system might adopt an innovative system of project management and never know that it was responsible for hundreds of millions in cost overruns.

Occasionally, however, you will run into a corporate screw-up so massive that no degree of opacity, no amount of spin can obscure it. When you encounter one of these, you should take a moment to remind yourself that the snafus that break the surface represent a minute share of the general population.

Which brings us to Jeff Zucker.

Zucker was brought in as president of NBC Entertainment in 2000 after a stint at the Today Show where his most notable accomplishments were moving the studio and introducing the Today Show's outdoor rock concert series.*

His tenure on the Today Show represented one of Zucker's two specialities: making tiny tweaks to a hit then claiming credit for its success. The other speciality was screwing up on an almost biblical scale. Under Zucker, NBC was the first network to ever go from first to fourth place and he came very close to destroying their lucrative late night slate. According to an executive for another network (quoted by Maureen Dowd), "Zucker is a case study in the most destructive media executive ever to exist... You’d have to tell me who else has taken a once-great network and literally destroyed it."

Zucker was grossly incompetent. The cost to share holders is difficult to estimate but it's probably in the hundreds of millions (possibly billions**). His poor performance was widely discussed in the industry.

And yet it took a change of ownership to force him out and he still gets terms like these:
Zucker's contract had been renewed last year to run through January 2013 with an annual salary of $6.3 million and a guaranteed annual bonus*** of $1.5 million. If he leaves by January, he can expect at least a $15.6 million check.
The moral of this story is: next time people tell you that schools should be run like a business, make sure to ask them which business they have in mind.

* Apparently the Today Show has an outdoor rock concert series.

** Here are some numbers from Wikipedia to put things in context:

On December 1, 2009, CNBC reported that a tentative agreement had been reached between Comcast and GE.[26] The deal was formally announced on December 3, 2009.[7] Under the agreement, NBC Universal would be 51% owned by Comcast and 49% by GE. Comcast is to pay $6.5 billion cash to GE. Comcast will also contribute $7.5 billion in programming including regional sports networks and cable channels such as Golf Channel and E! Entertainment Television. GE plans to use some of the funds, $5.8 billion, to buy out Vivendi's 20% minority stake in NBC Universal.[7] After the transaction completes, Comcast will reserve the right to buy out GE's share at certain times. GE will also reserve the right to force the sale of their stake within the first seven years. The deal is subject to regulatory approval.[7]

Vivendi will sell 7.66% of NBC Universal to GE for US$2 billion if the GE/Comcast deal is not completed by September 2010 and then sell the remaining 12.34% stake of NBC Universal to GE for US$3.8 billion when the deal is completed or to the public via an IPO if the deal is not completed.[27][28]

*** I just love the idea of a "guaranteed annual bonus."

Friday, September 24, 2010

Forget teachers, what does it take to fire an incompetent corporate employee?

We have often heard (and I do mean often) that schools need to emulate the firing practices of corporations and promptly fire the incompetent regardless of tenure with the institution.

One of the flaws with this suggestion is that corporations don't actually do this. Anyone who has built attrition models for a large company can tell you that, unlike layoffs, firings of employees with more than four years of tenure are extremely rare. Defenders of corporate practices would argue that those employees who make it to the four year mark are almost all competent, that pretty much everybody you'd want to fire has quit or been fired by that time.

The trouble with this defense is that, though it may be perfectly reasonable in isolation, it is difficult to reconcile with the standard reform argument. You can't believe that the culling process is this effective and still accept the premises that education should follow the corporate model and large scale firings of tenured teachers will significantly improve our schools.

Moving past that paradox, how do corporations handle the occasional incompetent? Even if we stipulate to an amazingly effective culling process, a few losers will inevitably make it through. Anyone who has logged some time in cubeville will tell you these people can be difficult to dislodge. Removing them disrupts the company, hurts morale and entails admitting a huge mistake. Faced with with all this, companies often employ the same strategies that reformers decry in schools -- they either shuffle incompetents off into meaningless make-work jobs or they leave them where they are.

Most of the incompetents go unseen by the general public but there are some conspicuous exceptions, something I'll save for the next post.

Alphametics, the SAT and the theory behind math tests

I once saw an alphametic in an SAT question -- simpler than this one but with the same basic principle. My first thought (after, "Was that an alphametic?") was what a great question.

Of course, solving alphmetics is a completely useless skill. No one has ever or will ever actually needed to do one of these. It is that very frivolousness that makes it such a good question for a college entrance exam. It requires sophisticated mathematical reasoning but it comes in a form almost none of the students will have seen before.

For comparison, consider a problem you would not see on the SAT*, factoring a trinomial that wasn't the square of a binomial (this is another skill you'll never actually need but it's not a bad way for students to get a feel for working with polynomials). Let's look a two students who got the problem right:

Student one hasn't taken algebra since junior high but understands the fundamental relationships, finds the correct answer by multiplying out the possibilities;

Student two was recently taught an algorithm for factoring, doesn't really understand the foundation but is able to grind out the right answer.

Obviously, we have a confounding problem here, and a fairly common one at that. We would like to identify understanding and long term retention but these can easily be confused with familiarity with recently presented information (particularly when certain teachers bend their schedules and curricula out of shape to teach to the test). The people behind SAT have partly addressed this confounding by including puzzle-type questions that most students would be unfamiliar with.**

All too often, the people behind other standardized tests deal with the issue by pretending it doesn't exist.

* Not to be confused with the SAT II, which is a different and less interesting test.

** The type of kid who reads Martin Gardner books for recreation would generally do fine on the SAT even without the familiarity factor (though the prom may not go as well).

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Battered Party Syndrome?

Joseph and I generally try to avoid being overly political in this forum but just in terms of behavioral science, the following question is going to bother me all day.

Have the Democrats actually reached the stage where they will refuse to take an overwhelmingly popular position because, when they win, it makes the Republicans mad?

An alphametic pre-footnote

Light posting today, but since I'll be mentioning alphametics in an upcoming post I thought I'd give you something to chew on while you're waiting.

In 1924, the great Henry Dudeney published the following puzzle in the Strand Magazine:


+ M O R E


Each letter here represents a digit 0 through 9. If you substitute in the proper digits, the first two numbers (words) should add up to the third.

No one who reads this blog should have any trouble with this, but if you do, Wikipedia has a good step-by-step solution (though it does assume a passing acquaintance with number theory).

One more while we're on the subject

Though my recent posts on the subject have been a bit one-sided, I have to share my favorite example of copyrights being used to suppress (or at least attempt to suppress) creative output.

In 1994, Saul Zaentz, the man who had acquired the rights to the music of Credence Clearwater Revival sued John Fogerty for plagiarism because a song on Fogerty's latest album (which Fogerty wrote, played and sang) sounded like a CCR song (which Fogerty also wrote, played and sang). In other words an artist was basically sued for sounding like himself.

Zaentz lost and had to pay the court costs, but if Fogerty hadn't been a famous rock star with a new hit record on Warner Bros., how for do you think he would have gotten?

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Intellectual Property and Monopsony

Joseph and I seem to be on a binge (purge?) of intellectual property posts, collecting piles of facts and observations on the subject. Somewhere in one of those piles we need to make room for the concept of monopsony.

From Wikipedia:
In economics, a monopsony (from Ancient Greek μόνος (monos) "single" + ὀψωνία (opsōnia) "purchase") is a market form in which only one buyer faces many sellers. It is an example of imperfect competition, similar to a monopoly, in which only one seller faces many buyers. As the only purchaser of a good or service, the "monopsonist" may dictate terms to its suppliers in the same manner that a monopolist controls the market for its buyers.
In entertainment, the norm is to have a huge number of artists trying to sell their products or services to a small number of buyers. Not only are there few buyers but access to these buyers is tightly controlled. The result can be an effective monopsony.

The results can look like this:
CrazySexyCool eventually sold over 11 million copies in the US, and became one of the first albums to ever receive a diamond certification from the RIAA,[12] and won a 1996 Grammy Award for Best R&B Album and a 1996 Grammy Award for Best R&B Performance by a Duo or Group for "Creep".[6] However, in the midst of their apparent success, the members of TLC filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy on July 3, 1995.[16]

They declared debts totaling 3.5 million dollars, ... the primary reason being that each member of the group was taking home less than $35,000 a year after paying managers, producers, expenses, and taxes.
Here the New York Times spells out some of those expenses:
The arithmetic is simple and sobering for aspiring stars: The average wholesale price of compact discs and cassettes is about $8 a unit. Thus, an artist with a 12 percent royalty rate, which is typical, gets about 96 cents per unit, or $480,000 on a "gold" record. From that, the record label recoups a portion of its advances to the artist for recording costs, music video production, tour support, independent promotional efforts, limousine services and so forth -- often as much as $170,000.
In other words TLC, which was only getting a seven percent royalty rate, was paying for pretty much everything, including a million or so just for the video for "Waterfalls."

The history of popular entertainment is filled with examples of creators selling million (sometimes multimillion) dollar properties for the equivalent of kind words and PEZ. This is not something you find in an efficient market.

A very good point

Tyler Cowen has a very good point:

Social Security offers cash benefits, whereas Medicare is an in-kind benefit, in the form of health care (which in turn is distinct from health, itself another in-kind benefit). Therefore always cut Medicare first.

That's all.

I think there may be come cases where this view is incorrect on the margins. But as a general principle it should be front and center in the public debate (especially given that, at the moment, the two programs are roughly equal in cost).

After all, treatment for medical conditions is nice but basic food and shelter might be preferable, if one can only have one of the two. If one can have both that is obviously better but it is worth noting Paul Krugman's point on which program has sounder finances going forward.

Other degrees of patent protection

Mark has a very interesting post on the length of copyright of intellectual property. I thought that I would compare these laws (which appear to give nearly 100 years of protection) to those for pharmacuetical drugs. From wikipedia:

In the US, drug patents give twenty years of protection, but they are applied for before clinical trials begin, so the effective life of a drug patent tends to be between seven and twelve years.

Medications have enormous development costs, the low end of the estimates are $100 to $200 million dollars (the cost of the clinical trials, alone, is enormous). Yet we are content to give them an effective period of copyright of seven to twelve years.

This is an area of copyright law where we have attempted to balance the need to reimburse development costs with the value of allowing an innovation into the open market. Why do we see laws that are so much stricter with ideas like "Mickey Mouse" and "Superhero"?

It is certainly food for thought!

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Alice in Lawyerland: would the laws Disney lobbied for have prevented Disney from existing in the first place?

(disclaimer: I have cashed a number of royalties checks over the years so the following is obviously not an attack on the concept of intellectual property. I like royalty checks. I'm just worried about the consequences of taking these things to an extreme.)

In 1998, the Walt Disney company had a problem: their company mascot was turning 70. Mickey Mouse had debuted in 1928's "Mickey Mouse In Plane Crazy" which meant that unless something was done, Mickey would enter the public domain within a decade. This was a job for lobbyists, lots of lobbyists.

From Wikipedia:

The Copyright Term Extension Act (CTEA) of 1998 extended copyright terms in the United States by 20 years. Since the Copyright Act of 1976, copyright would last for the life of the author plus 50 years, or 75 years for a work of corporate authorship. The Act extended these terms to life of the author plus 70 years and for works of corporate authorship to 120 years after creation or 95 years after publication, whichever endpoint is earlier. Copyright protection for works published prior to January 1, 1978, was increased by 20 years to a total of 95 years from their publication date.

This law, also known as the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act, Sonny Bono Act, or pejoratively as the Mickey Mouse Protection Act,[2] effectively "froze" the advancement date of the public domain in the United States for works covered by the older fixed term copyright rules. Under this Act, additional works made in 1923 or afterwards that were still copyrighted in 1998 will not enter the public domain until 2019 or afterward (depending on the date of the product) unless the owner of the copyright releases them into the public domain prior to that or if the copyright gets extended again. Unlike copyright extension legislation in the European Union, the Sonny Bono Act did not revive copyrights that had already expired. The Act did extend the terms of protection set for works that were already copyrighted, and is retroactive in that sense.

Mickey had been Disney's biggest hit but he wasn't their first. The studio had established itself with a series of comedies in the early Twenties about a live-action little girl named Alice who found herself in an animated wonderland. In case anyone missed the connection, the debut was actually called "Alice's Wonderland." The Alice Comedies were the series that allowed Disney to leave Kansas and set up his Hollywood studio.

For context, Lewis Carroll published the Alice books, Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, in 1865 and 1871 and died in 1898. Even under the law that preceded the Mouse Protection Act, Alice would have been the property of Carroll's estate and "Alice's Wonderland" was a far more clear-cut example of infringement than were many of the cases Disney has pursued over the years.

In other words, if present laws and attitudes about intellectual property had been around in the Twenties, the company that lobbied hardest for them might never have existed.

There's nothing unusual about a small company or start-up exploiting lapsed or unenforced copyrights to get a foothold. The public domain has long been fertile ground for stage companies, record companies, publishers, and producers of movies or radio and television; it's just been getting a lot less fertile lately.

Instrumental Variables

Reading this post by Andrew Gelman got me thinking: how do we really know if a variable is an instrument? Demonstrating that a variable is an instrument often seems to be a matter of telling a compelling clinical story but leaves one with strong and unverifiable assumptions.

This is a real issue with the Physician Preference instrument in pharmacoepidemiology where it has the potential to be either a major advance or a blind alley. But how would one know for sure? I suspect that it is more likely the former than the latter but sorting this out with any level of certainty isn't easy.

Any insights out there?

Study: Teacher bonuses don't affect student tests

from the AP:

ATLANTA – A study released Tuesday found that offering performance bonuses to teachers does nothing to raise test scores, raising doubts about the viability of the Obama administration's push for merit pay to improve education.

The study released Tuesday by Vanderbilt University's National Center on Performance Incentives researchers found that students in classrooms where teachers received bonuses saw the same gains as the classes where educators got no incentive.

"I think most people agree today that the current way in which we compensate teachers is broken," said Matthew Springer, executive director of the Vanderbilt center and lead researcher on the study. "But we don't know what the better way is yet."

The ultimate superpower is litigation

As part of our ongoing series on the surreal world of intellectual property (see the last post), here's a fun fact from comic book writer and historian Don Markstein:
Marvel and DC Comics are arch-rivals when it comes to market share in the comic book industry. But they're capable of an amazing degree of cooperation when it comes to maintaining their shared position as the industry's leaders. One of the ways they cooperate is in maintaining a joint trademark on the word "superhero" — as if Charlton, Harvey, Archie, ACG and Gold Key, to name only a few of the dozens that used both the genre and the word back before they established their mutual legal hegemony over it, never existed — to say nothing of Dark Horse, Image and others that use the genre today and aren't permitted to use the word.

In fact, here's a Dell comic book that actually made the term its very title, long before Marvel and DC decided to sew up rights to it. This should serve as a beacon to anyone willing to attempt to withstand the mighty onslaught of their lawyers, and point out that the word was in general use, with nobody even attempting to prevent others' using it, even before Superman.

Graph of the Day -- Copyrights

From Wikipedia:

I'll have more on this later.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Murphy strikes again

If you have ever wondered what else could go wrong, this is a great example.

What makes it tricky is how many different sets of rights need to be balanced. Clearly tenants need time to be able to move. It's obvious that owners need to be able to sell if ownership is to have any real meaning. And the new owners need to be able to actually take possession of their property. But somehow an outcome has happened that is sub-optimal for all involved.

What is it about real estate that makes it a locus of difficult transactions?

Today's Napoleon quote

In handy comics form:

Sunday, September 19, 2010

"Heroin's doing the heavy lifting"

I'm pretty sure I'll quote this some time in the near future.

From Kumail Nanjiani:

I first heard this on This America Life. If you enjoyed it, go by and give them a buck. They're good people.

What is rich?

This was a very interesting post by Brad Delong. There is a response by the original author here.

One thing strikes me immediately. If we look at the expected expenses of this particular person, the $60,000 per year in private school costs immediately jumps out as interesting. Perhaps part of why our public schools are having issues is that the Upper Middle class has pulled out of them?

Another thought is interesting; the author suggests that:

Returning to those “small government” days of 2000 would be a start, as this would result in a huge cut in the size of government.

But appears to be against returning to the same tax levels as 2000. At some point I would really like to see more concrete proposals for what to cut in order to make lower taxes a sustainable option.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Alex Tabarrok's literary leverage

There's a very good discussion about superstars and the winner-take-all economy over at Economist's View. Alex Tabarrok argues that the winner-take-all effect in literature can be explained by factors like technology and venue size:
J.K. Rowling is the first author in the history of the world to earn a billion dollars. I do not disparage Rowling when I say that talent is not the explanation for her monetary success. Homer, Shakespeare and Tolkien all earned much less. Why? Consider Homer, he told great stories but he could earn no more in a night than say 50 people might pay for an evening's entertainment. Shakespeare did a little better. The Globe theater could hold 3000 and unlike Homer, Shakespeare didn't have to be at the theater to earn. Shakespeare's words were leveraged.

Tolkien's words were leveraged further. By selling books Tolkien could sell to hundreds of thousands, even millions of buyers in a year - more than have ever seen a Shakespeare play in 400 years. And books were cheaper to produce than actors which meant that Tolkien could earn a greater share of the revenues than did Shakespeare (Shakespeare incidentally also owned shares in the Globe.)

Rowling has the leverage of the book but also the movie, the video game, and the toy. And globalization, both economic and cultural, means that Rowling's words, images, and products are translated, transmitted and transported everywhere - this is the real magic of Ha-li Bo-te.
But it's possible to look at these examples in an entirely different way.

There's no question that technology and the ability to leverage creative works has a tremendous effect on the economics (and therefore the content) of popular culture, but how well does this particular account support that conclusion?

Homer is a bad example partially because he probably never existed, but mainly because the model Prof. Tabarrok describes, traveling performers working small venues, didn't really apply to writers at all. These minstrels were simply repeating stories that they had accumulated. The closest analogy today would be a cover band working bars and small clubs. (Hesiod throws in a bit of a monkey wrench here, but that's a topic for another day.)

If you skip ahead two or three hundred years you do have successful writers like Sophocles having their works performed in large venues. Though it's difficult to draw an analogy between forms of compensation then and now, they were certainly well rewarded for their work. Go on to the Roman era you have successful writers producing book length poems and even novels despite the lack of printing presses.

As for Shakespeare sticking to the stage, this had little to do with the relative cost of books and actors. There were the equivalent of cheap paperback versions of Shakespeare's plays published during his lifetime. There were also productions of his plays away from the Globe. Shakespeare's words were widely leveraged. The problem wasn't technology or venue; it was the lack of modern copyright laws. The revenue went to other people.

Tolkien is a bad example for other reasons. His body of work is small. His books were difficult to translate into other media. Significant sales didn't start until years after the books were written (prompted, in part, by the mistaken belief that the copyright was limited to Britain).

A better example would be Erle Stanley Gardner who had a large body of work, sold more books than Tolkien and was, during his lifetime, adapted into movies, TV, radio, comic books and probably a few other media. Was Rowling better leveraged than Gardner? Sure, but not by as much as you might think.

There is obviously more behind the rise of the superstar author than technology and the ability to leverage words, more than I have time to address now, but if I were to pursue it, I think I'd make the case for this being a story of lobbying and government regulation of the market in the form of copyrights. Technology has changed, but so has the law.

And now, just in case any of the above might be read as a slight against Rowling, I'll let Stephen King have the last word with his comparison of Harry Potter and the Twilight books:

Both Rowling and Meyer, they’re speaking directly to young people… The real difference is that Jo Rowling is a terrific writer and Stephenie Meyer can’t write worth a darn. She’s not very good.

OT: More table gaming thoughts

A Paladin in Citadel has an interesting post on how experience points where awarded in the pre-dungeons and dragons proto-role playing games. Note:

In the fantasy game originally played by Arneson, it was primarily through the recovery, and appropriate expenditure, of long-lost treasure hoards, that characters advanced in levels. Appropriate expenditure is a critical component for all classes, as it is only through the expenditure of gold (and the Wizard's case, both expenditure of gold for the spell-making materials, and time, in creating his spells) in ways meaningful to the character's motivations and interests that the characters can advance.

If you have not taken note yet, let me draw something striking about this experience points system to your attention now. No experience points for monsters killed in D @ D.

I think that this approach has some advantages. One, is that it militates against the recovered treasure being used to shop for the newest and coolest magic item. To expend gold in this manner is to reduce the rate of character advancement. Two, it gives character's goals outside of their adventuring life and makes the creation of a game world a necessary part of character development. Finally, it allows the monsters to remain scary and difficult to fight (as a major goal is to avoid combat, especially if it is mostly risk with little reward).

In more recent edition of dungeons and dragons, advancement is based on either defeating opponents or advancing the plot. However, plot advancement can reduce the options that players have and make them feel less in control of the direction of the game. On the other had, defeating monsters means that the monsters have to be relatively weak in every single combat. After all, with between 10 and 30 encounters per level, a high level character needs to be the victor of hundreds of combats. Not even the great duellists of history tended to manage that!

There is another (subtle) advantage to this approach -- high-level characters will tend to be accomplished in the world. High level wizards will run laboratories and teach apprentices because that is how they generate experience. High level clerics will have supported and developed churches. Even high level fighters will have connection to the world (perhaps as petty nobility) through their investment of their adventuring loot.

It's an interesting system . . .

Friday, September 17, 2010

KIPP and the Teach(er) for America (or you don't know Jake)

Sometimes the most instructive passages are the most painful to read. This account from the New York Times had me wincing every third word (though I will admit to a little schadenfreude at seeing the top of her class at Stanford being outmaneuvered by Jake from Two and a Half Men).

Time permitting I'll do a post on why this was such a disastrous lesson and how a better, more experienced teacher would have done things differently. For now, though, let's approach it from the other side: what would happen if we kept Ms. Nguyen and lost Jake. Putting aside for a moment peer effects, assuming no one else steps up to take the role, how would the Jake-less class be different?

The lesson plan would still be weak, but this is a math class and most of the actual learning in a math class takes place after the lesson when the students start on their worksheets and homework. With more time and a less adversarial relationship with the class, the teacher can go from desk to desk, checking to make sure that problems are being done correctly and helping the students who are having trouble.

Now let's add in the peer effects. Jake has reset the norms of behavior for the class. He has also established that it is possible to jerk the teacher's chain and create great entertainment value with few negative consequences. In a Jake-less class this wouldn't be an issue. The inability to assert authority is only an issue when someone questions it.

In short, losing Jake should produce a substantial gain in student performance and classroom metrics.

Charter schools are designed to be Jake-free zones but none of the effects of removing Jake are likely to show up in the lottery-based analyses so favored by charter school supporters. This creates a fatally flawed set of metrics.

Worse yet, it creates a system of reforms that have, too often, based their claims of success on leaving behind the very students who needed the most help.

Complex Systems

Libertarian Megan McArdle is in favor of education reform. However, in her latest column she points out the major obstacle faced by reformers:

That's why radical reformers so often end up vilified (and frankly, so often end up making some colossal bloomers; institutions are complicated, and reformer's prescriptions are never as complex as the institution they are trying to change).

I think observations like this elevate the debate. They raise the legitimate question of how do we improve a complex system (my view: incrementally and experimentally). But, as Mark has noted, the debate has often drifted into the surreal with even staunch leftists desperately opposing government regulation of education. It is an odd debate.

XKCD understates its case

There's no reason to resort to a double negative. Just check this out.

At last, something that Paul Krugman and Alex Tabarrok can agree on

Though it involves Middle Earth, not macroeconomics.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

One reason to look forward to the Republicans retaking Congress and the White House

At least liberals can be happy again.

A day in the life of a Teach(er) for America -- posted for future comment

I've been meaning to post this for a long time (from Michael Winerip's NYT article on Teach for America):

The 774 new recruits who are training here are housed in Rice University dorms. Many are up past midnight doing lesson plans and by 6:30 a.m. are on a bus to teach summer school to students making up failed classes. It’s a tough lesson for those who’ve come to do battle with the achievement gap.

Lilianna Nguyen, a recent Stanford graduate, dressed formally in high heels, was trying to teach a sixth-grade math class about negative numbers. She’d prepared definitions to be copied down, but the projector was broken.

She’d also created a fun math game, giving every student an index card with a number. They were supposed to silently line themselves up from lowest negative to highest positive, but one boy kept disrupting the class, blurting out, twirling his pen, complaining he wanted to play a fun game, not a math game.

“Why is there talking?” Ms. Nguyen said. “There should be no talking.”

“Do I have to play?” asked the boy.

“Do you want to pass summer school?” Ms. Nguyen answered.

The boy asked if it was O.K. to push people to get them in the right order.

“This is your third warning,” Ms. Nguyen said. “Do not speak out in my class.”
Lots of interesting jumping off points here about Teach for America, classroom life and how not to handle a math lesson. Now if I can just find time to write them up.

"We've made huge advances in what they're called" -- New Republic edition

This post by Joseph got me thinking. Charter schools are private contractors providing services that were previously provided by the government. Any statement that's true about charter schools should still be true if you substitute in the phrase "some private contractors."

But if you actually make the substitution, you often end up with statements the author would never think of making. Statements like this:
But Mead says ... she’s seen Gray hint that he’d like to more tightly regulate [private contractors]. “We have a law that gives a tremendous amount of autonomy to the [private contractors] but enables them to implement programs that can be effective. If you try to put more regulation on that, if can dissuade people from [privatizing],” Mead says.
Would Seyward Darby normally describe a push for tighter regulation of private contractors as "disappointing"? Would the New Republic normally endorse a candidate because he was against stricter regulation of private contractors? Would everyone take a moment and see if Rod Serling is taking a smoke break in the vicinity?

I strongly believe that there is a place for charter schools in our system, but those schools have to meet exactly the same criteria as other contractors. Two of those criteria are transparency and openness to regulation, and given recent history, it's safe to say that some charter schools are failing these tests.

[note: typo in the title has been corrected]

Tenure Track Jobs

Somehow the blogroll for Prof-like Substance isn't updating so I missed this post. But it is excellent advice. The worst thing that can happen is that people decline your applications. But it can be remarkable how somebody can end up as a great fit in a place that they never expected . . .