Thursday, March 31, 2011

Test Scores

Diane Ravitch has some comments on the evidence that there may have been some alterations of D.C. test score results:

What will this revelation mean for Rhee's campaign to promote her test-driven reforms? Her theory seemed to be that if she pushed incentives and sanctions hard enough, the scores would rise. Her theory was right, the scores did rise, but they didn't represent genuine learning. She incentivized desperate behavior by principals and teachers trying to save their jobs and meet their targets and comply with their boss' demands.

Rhee's advocates point out that D.C. scores went up on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the federal test. This is true, but the gains under Rhee were no greater than the gains registered under her predecessor Clifford Janey, who did not use Rhee's high-powered tactics, such as firing massive numbers of teachers.

I think that this type of issue is another reason that making testing into such a high stakes gamble may be problematic -- it could massively incent poor behavior (at all levels). Furthermore, that a more humane approach had the same absolute level of improvement as the draconian approach is worth noting. I am sympathetic to arguments that education is important but it seems that dramatic reforms aren't really beating incremental reforms. I suspect that this behavior may be true of many complex systems (and learning is nothing if not complex) that are challenging optimization problems.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

If you haven't used your 20 yet...

This one's definitely worth a click.
In Prison for Taking a Liar Loan

A few weeks ago, when the Justice Department decided not to prosecute Angelo Mozilo, the former chief executive of Countrywide, I wrote a column lamenting the fact that none of the big fish were likely to go to prison for their roles in the financial crisis.

Soon after that column ran, I received an e-mail from a man named Richard Engle, who informed me that I was wrong. There was, in fact, someone behind bars for what he’d supposedly done during the subprime bubble. It was his 48-year-old son, Charlie.

On Valentine’s Day, the elder Mr. Engle said, his son had entered a minimum-security prison in Beaver, W.Va., to begin serving a 21-month sentence for mortgage fraud. He then proceeded to tell me the tale of how federal agents nabbed his son — a tale he backed up with reams of documents and records that suggest, if nothing else, that when the federal government is truly motivated, there is no mountain it won’t move to prosecute someone it wants to nail. And it was definitely motivated to nail Charlie Engle.

Mr. Engle’s is a tale worth telling for a number of reasons, not the least of which is its punch line. Was Mr. Engle convicted of running a crooked subprime company? Was he a mortgage broker who trafficked in predatory loans? A Wall Street huckster who sold toxic assets?

No. Charlie Engle wasn’t a seller of bad mortgages. He was a borrower. And the “mortgage fraud” for which he was prosecuted was something that literally millions of Americans did during the subprime bubble. Supposedly, he lied on two liar loans.


Apparently, though, it’s only a high priority if the target is a borrower. Mr. Mozilo’s company made billions in profit, some of it on liar loans that he acknowledged at the time were likely to be fraudulent and which did untold damage to the economy. And he personally was paid hundreds of millions of dollars. Though he agreed last year to a $67.5 million fine to settle fraud charges brought by the Securities and Exchange Commission, it was a small fraction of what he earned. Otherwise, he walked. Thus does the Justice Department display its priorities in the aftermath of the crisis.

It’s not just that Mr. Engle is the smallest of small fry that is bothersome about his prosecution. It is also the way the government went about building its case. Although Mr. Engle took out the two stated-income loans, as liar loans are more formally called, in late 2005 and early 2006, it wasn’t until three years later that his troubles began.


The film, “Running the Sahara,” was released in the fall of 2008. Eventually, it caught the attention of Robert W. Nordlander, a special agent for the Internal Revenue Service. As Mr. Nordlander later told the grand jury, “Being the special agent that I am, I was wondering, how does a guy train for this because most people have to work from nine to five and it’s very difficult to train for this part-time.” (He also told the grand jurors that sometimes, when he sees somebody driving a Ferrari, he’ll check to see if they make enough money to afford it. When I called Mr. Nordlander and others at the I.R.S. to ask whether this was an appropriate way to choose subjects for criminal tax investigations, my questions were met with a stone wall of silence.)

Mr. Engle’s tax records showed that while his actual income was substantial, his taxable income was quite small, in part because he had a large tax-loss carry forward, due to a business deal he’d been involved in several years earlier. (Mr. Nordlander would later inform the grand jury only of his much lower taxable income, which made it seem more suspicious.) Still convinced that Mr. Engle must be hiding income, Mr. Nordlander did undercover surveillance and took “Dumpster dives” into Mr. Engle’s garbage. He mainly discovered that Mr. Engle lived modestly.

In March 2009, still unsatisfied, Mr. Nordlander persuaded his superiors to send an attractive female undercover agent, Ellen Burrows, to meet Mr. Engle and see if she could get him to say something incriminating. In the course of several flirtatious encounters, she asked him about his investments.

After acknowledging that he had been speculating in real estate during the bubble to help support his running, he said, according to Mr. Nordlander’s grand jury testimony, “I had a couple of good liar loans out there, you know, which my mortgage broker didn’t mind writing down, you know, that I was making four hundred thousand grand a year when he knew I wasn’t.”

Mr. Engle added, “Everybody was doing it because it was simply the way it was done. That doesn’t make me proud of the fact that I am at least a small part of the problem.”

Unbeknownst to Mr. Engle, Ms. Burrows was wearing a wire.

It gets worse from there

One more radio story then I'll call it a night

More extraordinary journalism from This American Life about how a small drug-related offense at the wrong place and the wrong time can have truly horrifying consequences.

Ira reports from Glynn County Georgia on Superior Court Judge Amanda Williams and how she runs the drug courts in Glynn, Camden and Wayne counties. We hear the story of Lindsey Dills, who forges two checks on her parents' checking account when she's 17, one for $40 and one for $60, and ends up in drug court for five and a half years, including 14 months behind bars, and then she serves another five years after that—six months of it in Arrendale State Prison, the other four and a half on probation. The average drug court program in the U.S. lasts 15 months. But one main way that Judge Williams' drug court is different from most is how punitive it is. Such long jail sentences are contrary to the philosophy of drug court, as well as the guidelines of the National Association of Drug Court Professionals. For violating drug court rules, Lindsey not only does jail terms of 51 days, 90 days and 104 days, Judge Williams sends her on what she calls an "indefinite sentence," where she did not specify when Lindsey would get out.
As the story notes, Williams' court is also unusually ineffective.

Harsh, cold moments of self-realization

I write for a blog called Observational Epidemiology.

I actually look forward to listening to podcasts on math history.

It's a wonder I date at all.

Why we need NPR

Here's All Things Considered covering the Japanese nuclear crisis with a calm tone and meaningful context.

And then there's this...

Just pay the 99 cents, you cheapskate!

A while back, This American Life did a piece on college partying. It's a fantastic piece of journalism and it's highly relevant to the debate over the impact, positive and negative, of colleges on the areas that host them.

And while we're on the subject, our friend at Metaphor Hacker sends us another relevant radio piece (this time on the BBC).

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

"The best report ever on media piracy"

You probably don't have time to read the entire 440 page report (I didn't), but you should at least clear out a few minutes for Salmon's sharp and insightful summary.

Student Assessment

From Dana Goldstein:

The good news is that Campbell’s Law does not mean we should give up on assessing students and holding school systems accountable for their academic success. Research shows that certain kinds of exams—those that require essay writing on broad themes, for example—enhance student learning of key concepts. We can also assess students by requiring them to give oral presentations, or by looking for growth in portfolios of their work over the course of a year. Effective teachers produce students who excel when held to these more sophisticated standards, which are difficult to fudge or cheat.

This actually matches my experience with teaching quote well. Standardized tests are the only feasible way to handle large classes (how else do you assess 400 students?). But my best results come from asking essay questions (in free hand) and requiring many, many class presentations. Not only is the assessment a lot more complete but I gain a very good idea of what concepts and ideas that I failed to communicate well.

This type of assessment is a valuable tool in making next years class better than the one before it (a process I hope never stops). Sadly, it is not well suited for mass comparisons between schools. But then complex phenomena rarely summarize well (just consider confounding by indication for how hard it is to use summarized data to capture complex processes).

Monday, March 28, 2011

"We had a reason..."

A few years ago, I was working on the roll out of a big project (think lots of zeros) for a company which will remain nameless for obvious reasons. Though impressive in many ways, the initial launch was set up in a way that seemed to preclude us from using most of the data that we had spent a tremendous amount of time and money acquiring.

One day, toward the end of the project, I was having a few beers with one of the chief architects and I asked him point blank why they chose to set things up this way. His answer was (and I'm giving you this verbatim) "I remember we had a reason but I don't remember what it was."

I've been flashing back on that conversation quite a bit recently as the details of the NYT paywall emerge. Of course, the resemblance could be the result of incomplete information. If I had access to all of the data and analyses, I might be loading up on their stock instead of mocking their corporate strategy (I would continue to mock Maureen Dowd regardless), but being limited to an outsider's view, I have to wonder what would happen if you downed a couple of beers with Sulzberger then asked him about this post from Philip Greenspun: the NY Times spent a reported $40-50 million writing the code (Bloomberg; other sources are consistent). Google was financed with $25 million. The New York Times already had a credit card processing system for selling home delivery. It already had a database management system for keeping track of Web site registrants. What did they spend the $40-50 million on? A monster database server to keep track of which readers downloaded how many articles? They should already have been tracking some of that for ad targeting. In any case, a rack of database servers shouldn’t cost $40 million.

What am I missing?

[I built a pay wall back in 1995 for the MIT Press, restricting access to some of their journals, e.g., Cell, to individual subscribers and people whose IP addresses indicated that they were at institutions with site-wide subscriptions. I can't remember exactly what I charged the Press, but it was only a few days of work and I think the invoice worked out to approximately $40 million less than $40 million.]

What exactly are the localized benefits of a university?

I grew up in a small university town and I can say definitively it was a great environment. There were plays and concerts and speakers. When I started writing fiction as a high school sophomore, I got to sit in on a class taught by a well-established novelist. When I was a senior there was a program where I could take my remaining high school requirements in the morning and take college classes in the afternoon.

I am, as you might imagine, a great supporter of colleges and college towns as is Joseph, my co-blogger. This puts us in an odd position. We are always looking for an excuse to promote higher education but the current line of argument about the economic benefits of universities at the local level is so weak and ignores so many counter-examples that it may do more harm than good.

The focus on local benefits is almost fatally flawed from the beginning by the fact that most of the benefits accrue at the state or more often national level. Both innovations and people tend to flow with the market. When we fund research and produce skilled workers, the chances of a big long-term pay-off are very good but predicting the exact form and location of that pay-off is all but impossible.

Keeping in mind that we are leaving out the majority of the return we expect on our investment, what benefits do we expect a university to provide to its host?

First there are the soft benefits such as enriching an area's intellectual and cultural life, providing role models, enhancing reputation. Viewed from a high enough level, the soft benefits may turn out to be the far most important, but they are difficult to measure and plan around. For now let's focus on the hard benefits.

University as employer

Universities are often seen as an almost ideal industry -- pollution-free, creating a number of stable, middle-class jobs and generating charming, highly liveable neighborhoods.

The problem here is that, if the suburban model takes hold and the town doesn't have a lot to recommend it outside of the school, the results can be really ugly, leaving the area with no tax base, an economy based on delivering pizzas and thousands of poor, badly-behaved students who get loud and drunk on Thursday night then head back to their parents' houses on Friday.

How do you avoid this fate?

One way is simply to stay small enough to maintain that Mayberry quality where it is possible for a professor to afford a decent little house within three or four miles from the school. I could give you some examples but while they may be charming, they aren't relevant to this discussion.

Another solution is to have a university in a large, economically diverse town where the economy and quality of life won't be completely overwhelmed by the ebb and flow of the academic calendar. Unfortunately, even very large universities only have twenty or thirty thousand employees (academic and administrative). College Station can build an economy around a university. Seattle really can't.

University as incubator

Call this the SAS model. Entrepreneurs who began as students and faculty decide to start some innovative new business just down the street. It's great when these things happen, but they don't seem to happen frequently enough, particularly not on the scale we'll need if we want to count on them to revitalize a stagnating city.

To further complicate matters, this desire to start a business in the vicinity of a school is directly related to the appeal of the area (students who hate to leave a town are more likely to find a way to stay). The vibrant urban areas that are likely to attract these small businesses are the very areas that don't need them.

University as labor supplier

This is probably the most commonly cited effect and it's certainly true that many of the more attractive industries require highly educated workers. It is not, however, so clear that these workers have to be in the area before the jobs are there or that the advantages of being able to recruit from an area college are that great. With only one very small nationally ranked school, Houston can't hope to supply itself with the first string academic talent it needs but that hasn't stopped its phenomenal growth (plenty of Ivy League grads are willing to move south), nor have the advantages of a local school caused Microsoft to focus its attention on UW instead of Waterloo.

Universities are vitally important to our intellectual, cultural and economic future and they have paid for themselves many times over. They do not, however, have that great a record of revitalizing urban areas. It would appear that you need more than a "build it and they will come" attitude, that certain conditions have to be in place and, even with those conditions, the short-term magnitude of the effects may be less than we hope.

Things it's too late to blog about

Felix explains how the NYT paywall is like baseball.

"Like it's 1999..."

A good James Kwak column with a Joe Nocera link that might be worth using one of your twenty on.

A worthwhile Worthwhile Canadian Initiative post.

An sad story that would have been tragic if not for the amazing restraint and professionalism of the cops on the scene.

Off to bed.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Weekend Gaming -- Escape the orthogonal

Personally and pedagogically, I'm a big believer in finding new spots to drop the marble,* finding a different way of approaching old problems. This is particularly valuable when plateaus (defined here as periods of at best negligible improvement) are a concern.

Variants are a good way to get new insights into old familiar games and keep things from getting stale. Some of the most interesting variants are based on replacing the square tiles of a standard chess board with hexagons.

Most games played on an eight by eight rectangular board have been adapted to a six by six by six hex board (such as the one used for Agon). You can find game sets with these boards at many game stores (including mine) or you can create them yourself with pretty much any computer graphics program.

The following list is by no mean exhaustive but it should be a good introduction. You can find complete rules for each game by following the links.

Hexagonal Checkers

I don't know that there's really a standard version of hexagonal checkers so I decided to play around with this one and borrowed the border restriction from Kruzno (you can find a number of others online). There's no reason you can't do some experimenting on your own. (let me know if you come up with something interesting.)

Hexagonal Chess

As previously mentioned, Władysław Gliński's chess variant is hugely popular in Europe (more than 100,000 sets have been sold). I've played this one quite a bit and had a good time with it.

You can probably figure most of the moves out for yourself. The only pieces that might give you trouble are the bishops and,to a lesser extent, the knights.

Bishops come in three colors, which points out an interesting topological feature of a hexagonal grid which I'm betting you can spot for yourself.


I believe Piet Hein himself may have come up with this variation on his game TacTix.

Hexagonal Reversi

There's a rather complicated intellectual property background to the game Reversi/Othello, but the game itself couldn't be simpler. Here's one configuration for playing it on a hexagonal board.

I wasn't able to find a standard version of hexagonal reversi. This version seems to work well but there may be room for improvement.

* Always remember to flip your fitness landscape upside-down before dropping your marble. Energy landscapes should be good to go.

For a more on this, take a look at "Fitness Landscapes, Ozark Style."

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Another New Haven thought

Matt Yglesias wonders if looking at just New Haven alone is the wrong unit of analysis as the surrounding county is quite prosperous. I think that this quote nicely summarizes the problem with this analysis:

But even the strongest cities can't -- and shouldn't have to -- handle the costs of urban poverty by themselves/ In the 1960s and 1970s, rich and middle-class city dwellers fled to the suburbs in part to escape having to pay the costs of addressing urban inequality. Rich enclaves have often formed right outside of urban political boundaries, where the prosperous can be close to the city without having to pay its taxes or attend its schools. A level playing field mans that people should be choosing where to live based on their desires for neighborhood or opportunity, not based on where they can avoid paying for the poor.

-- Edward Glaeser, Triumph of the City, page 258.

The difference between Seattle and New Haven is that the core of Seattle had managed to capture at least part of the prosperity that comes from institutions like the University of Washington and Microsoft. This suggests to me that there is at least a two stage process to using a university to enhance urban prosperity.

It also suggests we might want to be leery about things like significant budget cuts as it would be foolish to risk disrupting these types of success stories.

"Academic Intimidation"

One of the reasons we have tenure is to protect the intellectual independence of academicians. If you think they no longer require that protection, you haven't been paying attention.

From Paul Krugman:

Regular readers may recall my praise for William Cronon’s Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West, a great book that had a big influence on my work in economic geography. Cronon has inspired many other people; Josh Marshall was deeply influenced by his environmental history of New England. Cronon, who teaches at the University of Wisconsin, is, quite simply, a great historian.

He also feels some duty as a citizen, in particular a citizen of his state. So earlier this week he published an op-ed in the Times condemning the power grab by the state’s governor.

And what happened next? Wisconsin Republicans have demanded access to his personal email records.

Yes, personal. Cronon has a email address — but nobody, and I mean nobody, considers such academic email addresses something specially reserved for university business. Actually, according to Cronon he has been especially careful, maintaining a separate personal account — but nobody would have considered it out of the ordinary if he mingled personal correspondence with official business on the dot edu address. And no, the fact that he’s at a public university doesn’t change that: when my students take jobs at Berkeley or SUNY, they don’t imagine that they’re entering into a special fishbowl environment that they wouldn’t encounter at Georgetown or Haverford.

But then, we know perfectly well what’s going on here. Republicans aren’t looking for some abuse of Cronon’s position; they’re hoping to find some statement that can be quoted out of context to discredit him. At the very least, they hope that other academics will henceforth feel intimidated...

Friday, March 25, 2011

Universities and prosperity -- another data point

Re our ongoing discussion of universities and economic growth, when we think of universities supplying skilled labor to specific companies, we generally expect the relationships to form primarily between businesses and nearby universities. That's often, but not always the case.

From Wikipedia:
During his visit to Waterloo in October 2005, Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates stated, "Most years, we hire more students out of Waterloo than any university in the world, typically 50 or even more."*
This raises some additional questions about the University of Washington's role in Seattle's success.

*For a somewhat different take on this relationship, take a look at this.

Cancer survival rates

An important point (and a nice piece of statistics writing for the general public) by Paul Krugman:

Beyond that, there’s a well-known problem with survival-rate comparisons, acknowledged in the Lancet Oncology study:

Cancer survival is a valuable indicator for international comparison of progress in cancer control,despite the fact that part of the variation in cancer survival identified in this study could be attributable to differences in the intensity of diagnostic activity (case-finding) in participating populations.

Here’s how I understand the over-diagnosis issue, in terms of an extreme example: suppose that there’s a form of cancer that kills people 7 years after it starts, and that there is in fact nothing you can do about it. Suppose that country A screens for cancer very aggressively, and always catches this cancer in year 1, while country B chooses to invest its medical resources differently, and never catches the cancer until year 4. In that case, country A will have a 100% 5-year survival rate, while country B will have a 0% 5-year survival rate — because survival is measured from the time the cancer is diagnosed. Yet treatment in country B is no worse than in country A.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Credit where credit is due

I have resumed reading Edward Glaeser's book Triumph of the City. I am not always a fan of Dr. Glaeser's arguments but his discussion of urban sprawl is interesting, perceptive, and (I suspect) correct. The section is worth it for the discussion of Paris and alternative models of urban density alone.

I am not convinced that he has modeled the predictors of urban prosperity well but I find his arguments for the drivers of sprawl to be compelling. I would be skeptical of any attempt to seriously engage the problem that did not consider these points. For example he references a fixed time cost to public transportation (waiting for the bus, traveling between destinations and stops) that puts the focus on car use in a whole different light.

I was back to being impressed with his work in this section.

Teachers are nervous about Michelle Rhee's suggestions because they're afraid other people in power will act like Michelle Rhee

The debate over job security for teachers is often employs an analog of the "If you're not hiding something..." argument in national security. Just as those who are guilty of nothing are supposed to have no reason to object to searches and wiretaps, teachers who are effective and conscientious have nothing to fear from the elimination of tenure and LIFO.

The argument works on two levels: it has a convincing though overly simplistic logic and it casts aspersions on the competence and character of those who object to it.

Of course, it collapses completely if those with the power to hire and fire ignore educators' accomplishments, make arbitrary and opaque decisions, play politics, let small factions gain undue influence over the process.

In other words...

Rhee Dismisses Principal of School That Her Children Attend

By Bill Turque
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 9, 2008

Oyster-Adams Principal Marta Guzman can recall the ripple of anxiety that ran through some faculty members last summer when they learned that the new D.C. schools chancellor, Michelle A. Rhee, had chosen the bilingual school for her two daughters, a kindergartner and a third-grader.

But Guzman, an educator with more than 30 years' experience, said she wasn't concerned. The dual-immersion program, where native English and Spanish-speaking children learn side by side, has long made the Cleveland Park school among the city's most coveted, with high test scores and a national Blue Ribbon for academic achievement. Every year, parents from outside its attendance boundaries vie through a lottery for a handful of spaces to enroll their children.

"I thought it was a good thing," she said of the Rhee children's enrollment.

This week, Rhee fired her.

Guzman received a form letter from Rhee informing her that she was out of a job effective June 30, one of at least two dozen principals whose contracts for the 2008-09 school year were not renewed. Guzman said she was given no reason for her dismissal, either in the letter from Rhee or at a Monday meeting with Assistant Superintendent Francisco Millet.


Guzman's departure has stunned many Oyster-Adams parents who wonder why, in a city filled with under-performing public schools, Rhee would sack a principal who has presided for the past five years over one of its few success stories. The move has also heightened ethnic and class tensions within the school's diverse community. Eduardo Barada, co-chairman of the Oyster-Adams Community Council, the school's PTA, said Guzman was toppled by a cadre of dissatisfied and largely affluent Anglo parents with the ear of a woman who was both a fellow parent and the chancellor.

"I believe there are some parents who want to control and dominate," he said. "They want to silence the Latinos there."

Claire Taylor, council co-chairwoman, said she "absolutely respects Eduardo's position" but doesn't agree with it. "From what I've seen of Michelle Rhee, she is an exceedingly fair person who wants what's in the best interests of the students," she said.

Taylor added that ethnic and class divisions are the norm at Oyster-Adams. "A leaf falls and there are issues," she said.

Taylor was one of a group of Oyster-Adams parents, both white and Latino, who dined with Rhee in November and aired complaints about Guzman. Among the issues raised with Rhee, who took notes, according to another attendee, were Guzman's alleged lack of organization, reluctance to delegate and sometimes-brusque style.

Asked to discuss the dinner, which was at the home of another parent, Taylor said she was "not going to get into intra-school politics."


The first sign that her job was in jeopardy, Guzman said, came last month, when Millet convened a meeting of Oyster-Adams teachers to discuss her leadership. Guzman, who was not invited to the meeting, said she learned from a teacher that Millet began the meeting by announcing that a national search was underway for her replacement.

She quickly asked for a meeting with Rhee, who told her about the dinner meeting. Rhee said parents were frustrated by Guzman's lack of organization and "not comfortable with her" on a personal level.

Maureen Diner, who has a fourth-grader at the school, said Rhee's silence is not seemly for a chancellor who came into office a year ago promising reform.

"Anybody asked not to return deserves a process, at the very least a community meeting," Diner said. As for Rhee, "she talked about creating a culture of accountability. At the same time, she needs to be accountable for her own actions."
I wish I could say I was shocked to read this, but I can't. I can't tell you that this sort of politics is unusual. I can't even claim that this is my first encounter with a dinner party putsch.

At the risk of putting too fine a point on what is already a damned sharp spike, a group of parents who invite the chancellor of a major metropolitan school district over for dinner will not, as a rule, be poor, simple, honest workin' folk. They will tend to be wealthy, influential and grossly unrepresentative. To accept their invitation at all showed exceptionally poor judgement. To fire one of the district's most effective administrators based on their influence showed none whatsoever.

Of course, under the current system, teachers have protections that principals don't. They can give poor grades for poor work, keep the wooden and the clumsy in the chorus and the second string respectively, write honest evaluations. They can, and often will, be harassed for doing their jobs but they aren't in danger of losing them.

At least for now.

NYT Paywall -- still getting the feeling they haven't thought this through

As Felix Salmon observes "Here’s the difference, Arthur: stealing a paper on 6th Ave is illegal."

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

In coal's defense, it is a wonderful source of mercury

From Michael Froomkin (via DeLong):

The little tiny box is “nuclear.”

I knew this, and the chart still is effective. And my kids were at first very skeptical last week when I tried to tell them that so far coal had killed far more people than nuclear power. (Of course the very worst case scenario for a nuclear plant is much worse than the very worst case scenario for any coal-fired plant; but the very worst case scenario for coal plants aggregated is…global warming.)

Introducing the headless clowns analogy

(Believe it or not, I really am going somewhere with this.)

From Friends, season 2:
Chandler: Please tell me you know which one is our baby.
Joey: Well, well that one has ducks on his t-shirt, and this one has clowns. And Ben was definitely wearing ducks.
Chandler: Ok.
Joey: Or clowns. Oh, oh wait. That one's definitely Ben. Remember, he had that cute little mole by his mouth.
Chandler: Yeah?
Joey: Yeah.
Chandler: Hey, Ben, remember us? Ok, the mole came off.
Joey: Ahh!
Chandler: What're we gonna do? What're we gonna do?
Joey: Uh, uh, we'll flip for it. Ducks or clowns.
Chandler: Oh, we're gonna flip for the baby?
Joey: You got a better idea?
Chandler: All right, call it in the air.
Joey: Heads.
Chandler: Heads it is.
Joey: Yes! Whew!
Chandler: We have to assign heads to something.
Joey: Right. Ok, ok, uh, ducks is heads, because ducks have heads.
Chandler: What kind of scary-ass clowns came to your birthday?

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

"Is economics a science?" and other silly question

There are few debates more annoying than the perennial economics-as-a-science discussion. For one thing, it almost invariably prompts someone to bring out the old "look at our math" argument, apparently unaware that unnecessarily complicated mathematics is a standard trait of pseudo-science (just try talking to an astrologer or a relativity denier).

Worse yet is the idea that being a scientist buys you a certain credibility, that your pronouncements should automatically be given weight because of the lab coat. (There's a reason the FDA doesn't let actors in drug ads dress as doctors any more.) A well-reasoned, well-supported argument from a historian still trumps a stupid one from a scientist.

But if you have to make the classification, it seems obvious to me that economics is a social science, albeit one facing some special challenges (as discussed in this previous post):
Compared to their nearest neighbors, film criticism and economics (particularly macroeconomics) are both difficult, messy fields. Films are collaborative efforts where individual contributions defy attribution and creative decisions often can't be distinguished from accidents of filming. Worse yet, most films are the product of large corporations which means that dozens of VPs and executives might have played a role (sometimes an appallingly large one) in determining what got to the screen.

Economists face a comparably daunting task. Unlike researchers in the hard sciences, they have to deal with messiness of human behavior. Unlike psychologists, microeconomists have few opportunities to perform randomized trials and macroeconomists have none whatsoever. Finally, unlike any other researchers in any other field, economists face a massive problem with deliberate feedback. It is true that subjects in psychological and sociological studies might be aware of and influenced by the results of previous studies but in economics, most of the major players are consciously modifying their behavior based on economic research. It is as if the white mice got together before every experiment and did a literature search. ("Well, there's our problem. We should have been pulling the black lever.")

Faced with all this confusion, film scholars and economists (at least, macroeconomists) both reached the same inevitable conclusion: they would have to rely on broader, stronger assumptions than those colleagues in adjacent fields were using. This does not apply simply to auteurists and freshwater economists. Anyone who does any work in these fields will have to start with some sweeping and unprovable statements about how the world works. Auteurists and freshwater economists just took this idea to its logical conclusion and built their work on the simplest and most elegant assumptions possible, like Euclid demonstrating every aspect of shape and measure using only five little postulates.

(Except, of course, Euclid didn't. His set of postulates didn't actually support his conclusions. The world would have to wait for Hilbert to come up with a set that did. The question of whether economists need a Hilbert will have to wait for another day.)
Having said that, the current debate is several notches above what I expected. Brad DeLong is asking some tough questions about economics not just as a science but as a discipline and we're getting some interesting and insightful comments from scientists in other fields.

This time, it's a discussion worth following.

If you can't say something nice, quote Kaufman

I had started writing this post to complain about a waste-of-space article I had read about on a well-known blog, a complaint I would wrap up with a memorable George S. Kaufman anecdote. As I was looking up the quote, though, it hit me that there is nothing less necessary than journalism complaining about unnecessary journalism.

So here's the good part. You can fill in the rest.

Kaufman was one of three panelists on a live, black-and-white TV show called “This is Show Business.” A performer would come on, tell the panel a problem of his, perform and then return to sit before the panel. Each panelist would then comment on the person’s “problem.” (There is a tantalizing glimpse of the great man on this show, on YouTube.)

On the memorable night, Pfc. Eddie Fisher — in uniform, looking about 16 — laid out his problem. It was a complaint. He said he was appearing at the Copacabana night club and because of his extreme youth and boyish looks, none of the gorgeous showgirls would consent to go out with him. Then he sang, probably, “O Mein Papa” and sat down to receive the panel’s remarks and advice.

It began with “The Gloomy Dean of American Comedy,” as Kaufman had been labeled by someone. (My guess would be the wit Oscar Levant.) Kaufman’s dark countenance as he balefully gazed upon the juvenile Mr. Fisher promised something good — but what? Though I’m working from memory, the thing is so indelible in my mind that I can just about guarantee you that what follows is no more than — here and there — a few words off. At a measured pace, Kaufman began:

Mr. Fisher, on Mt. Wilson there is a telescope. A powerful telescope that has made it possible to magnify the distant stars to approximately 12 times the magnification of any previous telescope. [pause]

And, Mr. Fisher, atop Mt. Palomar, sits a more recently perfected telescope. This magnificent instrument can magnify the stars up to six times the magnification of the Mt. Wilson telescope.

(Where is he going?, I wondered, glued to the screen, back in Nebraska.)


As improbable as it would doubtless be, if you could somehow contrive to place the Mt. Wilson telescope inside the Mt. Palomar telescope, Mr. Fisher . . . you still wouldn’t be able to see my interest in your problem.

Make that 300... No, make that 400 years

From Edward Glaeser:
The late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan of New York is often credited with saying that the way to create a great city is to “create a great university and wait 200 years,” and the body of evidence on the role that universities play in generating urban growth continues to grow. (Disclosure: I work for a university.)
I'm a big believer in more funding for education and research, but as for generating urban growth, the evidence is decidedly Glaeserian.

I'll let Joseph take it from here:

Mark has been discussing Edward Glaeser and his comments on how universities Now, I am a big fan of universities and think that they serve an important role in global economic development. However, I am dubious that they make any particular community prosperous. Consider New Haven, CT -- the home of Yale University (recently ranked the #11 university in the world).

According to wikipedia, the poverty rate in New Haven is 24%, which compares unfavorably with the rest of the United States where it is 14%. The poverty rate in New Haven, despite the presence of Yale, is nearly twice that of the United States as a whole.

Now, one might note that many of the poor residents of New Haven are likely to be students. This is true. But these students still use municipal services and thus require the local tax base to support them (in addition to the long term residents). They do not (after they graduate and make additional income) send money back to New Haven so, in a sense, New Haven is actually subsiding the urban communities that Yale graduates move to.

So, it is actually possible that a large university in a small community could be a drag on the economy due to the lower per capita tax base. Plus, you have a large segment of the population with only a short term interest in the community which may make long term planning more difficult. And New Haven, CT is not the only university town that I can think of with high levels of poverty.

Furthermore, if a strong local university (like the University of Washington) is a solution to urban poverty (as it was presented in the Detroit versus Seattle comparison of Edward Glaeser) then it is unclear why a stronger economy has not grown up around Yale which is a strong school by any measure.

Doesn't Alton Brown have a hand puppet for this?

Andrew Gelman feels he may have the solution to the mystery of why Nathan Myhrvold (billionaire, physicist and former Microsoft CTO) became so fixated on solar cells acerbating global warming that he convinced the authors of Superfreakonomics to include an almost immediately discredited section on the subject.
Aha! Now, I'm just guessing here, but my conjecture is that after studying this albedo effect in the kitchen, Myhrvold was primed to see it everywhere. Of course, maybe it went the other way: he was thinking about solar panels first and then applied his ideas to the kitchen. But, given that the experts seem to think the albedo effect is a red herring (so to speak) regarding solar panels, I wouldn't be surprised if Myhrvold just started talking about reflectivity because it was on his mind from the cooking project. My own research ideas often leak from one project to another, so I wouldn't be surprised if this happens to others too.
Gelman was referring to Myhrvold's writings on modernist cuisine (or what the slightly less trendy call molecular gastronomy) and specifically to this passage, "As browning reactions begin, the darkening surface rapidly soaks up more and more of the heat rays. The increase in temperature accelerates dramatically."

This may explain why Myhrvold had albedo on his mind, but the comments to Gelman's post suggest another mystery: does the change in color actually have a dramatic effect the rate of browning or is the rate primarily driven by other changes such as water boiling away from the surface of the food*?

Is it possible that Myhrvold is, at heart, basically a freakonomist? Someone who, though brilliant and accomplished, is so eager to find examples of important principles that he sees them where they don't apply?

The following clip has nothing to do with anything in this post, but it does feature an exploding turkey which is really cool.

* From Wikipedia:
High temperature, intermediate moisture levels, and alkaline conditions all promote the Maillard reaction. In cooking, low moisture levels are necessary mainly because water boils into steam at 212 °F (100 °C), whereas the Maillard reaction happens noticeably around 310 °F (154 °C): significant browning of food does not occur until all surface water is vaporized.

Time to call a lie a lie

One of the most effective rhetorical tools in the education reform movement is the "we're just in this for the children" chant. The implication, of course, is that the people who disagree with the movement's proposals must not be putting the children first. It is an obviously unfair suggestion but it done a spectacular job quelling potential criticism on the left.

Of course, the vast majority of people on both sides of the debate are there because of a concern for kids. I disagree strongly with Jonathan Chait and Ray Fisman (just to name two) but I have no doubt that both men are motivated by a desire to see young people get a better education. (For the record, that's a courtesy that many of those in the movement, such as Chait, have been reluctant to extend to the other side.)

This concern does not, of course, preclude self-interest. As functional adults we expect people to act out of a mixture of motives. When policemen lobby for more cops on the street or our dentists advise us to schedule more appointments, we know that their advice to us is also in their self-interest but, barring evidence to the contrary, we believe that they are genuinely concerned about us as well.

These two facts, that everybody has mixed interests and that their advice should still be given the benefit of the doubt, need be kept in mind during all debates. Acknowledging these facts goes a long way toward keeping things civil and, more importantly, honest. That's why, in the context of recent events, the behavior of Michelle Rhee has been so difficult to forgive.

Rhee has always played an aggressive game and has gone out of her way to portray her opponents in a negative light, but with the formation of her lobbying group StudentsFirst, Rhee has crossed the line into claiming that only she and her allies have pure motives.

Consider this quote from an interview conducted by the painfully credulous Guy Raz on Weekend All Things Considered:
"Over the last 30 years, the education policy has been driven in this country by lots of special interest groups, including the teachers union," she says. "I think that one of the missing pieces is that there is no organized national interest group that has the heft that the unions and the other groups do who are advocating on behalf of children."
The trouble with proclaiming your own purity is that someone will remember those proclamations when you have to make compromises. Rhee's recent role as an adviser/advocate for various conservative Republican governors has made some of these compromises unavoidable.

The recent debate over Florida's education bill provided an ideal example:
Among the amendments proposed and rejected as poison pills:
Requiring superintendents to offer a written explanation for denying a teacher's contract renewal, if test scores and evaluations make the teacher eligible for the renewal.
Let's take a minute and unpack this. First let's keep in mind that Rhee's philosophy is based on the assumptions that you can largely fix the current problems in education by putting better teachers in the classroom and you can accurately identify those teachers through test scores and evaluations. The teachers being denied these letters are, by definition, the same teachers Rhee says we need to keep in the classroom in order to save our school system.

Unfortunately, the main effect of denying that letter will be to force many of these teachers out of the profession forever. As I explained it before, the problem is asymmetry of information. It is incredibly difficult and disruptive to make staffing changes during the school year. This makes administrators very skittish about hiring a teacher who has been fired elsewhere. The administrators would, however, probably take a chance if they knew that the teacher got good evaluations and produced high test scores but was fired for something like budgetary reasons. In other words, that letter might have determined whether or not the effective teacher remained employable.

The effect here is two-fold: effective teachers who find themselves caught in this trap will have a great deal of trouble finding another job and may have to leave the profession; other effective teachers will see that competence and accomplishment cannot protect them from arbitrary career-ending decisions and will consider leaving the field as well. Either way, the law Rhee endorses causes us to lose more of the teachers Rhee says we need to keep.

To be blunt as a sock full of sand, from the students' standpoint this is all bad. There is no possible benefit. You simply cannot argue that causing effective teachers to leave the classroom is good for kids. Despite Michelle Rhee's titular claim, rejecting that amendment puts students a poor second.

This doesn't Rhee and the Florida GOP don't care about the quality of teachers (I'm sure they do), but it does mean that, in this case, other things mattered more. Things such as the money to be saved by firing teachers who are likely to max out the merit pay system and the power that comes from running the education department like a political machine.

If Michelle Rhee were concerned solely with the interests of children, she would have been actively lobbying for rules like the one in the amendment, rules that furthered her stated goal of having more teachers in the classroom whom she considered competent. But, of course, Rhee has to balance the interests of children against the interests of those she represents, an alliance that includes, among others, educational entrepreneurs who stand to make a great deal of money from proposed reforms and conservative Republicans who see the current conflict as a way of maintaining political power and moving back to a period when the country was on the right track.

I have no doubt that Michelle Rhee's concern for children is genuine. Rhee is a professional educator and it is exceptionally rare to find someone who has spent a career working in schools who doesn't care about kids. Nor does the fact that she has sometimes put other interests above those of students (including a particularly notorious case involving her own children) indicate a lack of concern -- making compromises is a necessary part of being an adult.

The sin here is in the lie, in claiming purity of motive and suggesting that only she was trustworthy. That was unfair to her opponents, provably false and terribly damaging to the discourse. Michelle Rhee should be ashamed of herself for saying it and Guy Raz and the rest of the press corps should be ashamed of themselves for not holding her accountable.

Monday, March 21, 2011

"How to Erase $70,000 in Debt"

First, get an income of $140,000...

You know, when Steve Martin and South Park did this sort of thing, they meant it to be funny.

Safety of Energy Sources

Here is an interesting discussion of deaths per terra watt-hour of electricity generated. I have always been surprised that coal plants generate more radioactivity in the surrounding community than nuclear plants do.

I won't vouch for the numbers being perfect, nor do I think that these rates include the risk of massive failures (like a nuclear plant blowing up). On the other hand, the otherwise fairly safe Hydro has a disaster with 170,000 deaths included in it.

This comparison does seem to put the relative level of risk in perspective. Certainly, there is no risk free alternative to power generation and we should really be focused on what non-fossil fuel options we might have.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

20 each?

Cory Doctorow's post (via DeLong) on the New York Times' new paywall has me thinking:

New York Times paywall: wishful thinking or just crazy? - Boing Boing: lots of people are going to greet the NYT paywall with eye-rolling and frustration: You stupid piece of technology, what do you mean I've seen 20 stories this month? This is exactly the wrong frame of mind to be in when confronted with a signup page (the correct frame of mind to be in on that page is, Huh, wow, I got tons of value from the Times this month. Of course I'm going to sign up!)

Which means that lots of people will take countermeasures to beat the #nytpaywall. The easiest of these, of course, will be to turn off cookies so that the Times's site has no way to know how many pages you've seen this month

Of course, the NYT might respond by planting secret permacookies, using Flash cookies, browser detection, third-party beacons, or secret ex-Soviet vat-grown remote-sensing psychics. At the very minimum, the FTC will probably be unamused to learn that the Grey Lady is actively exploiting browser vulnerabilities (or, as the federal Computer Fraud and Abuse statute puts it, "exceeding authorized access" on a remote system -- which carries a 20 year prison sentence, incidentally)

I'm running a dual boot operating system (Windows and Linux). Barring Doctorow's recently decanted telepaths, I assume that puts me up to forty a month which is about four times what I expect my monthly demand to be.

A nice post on Education Reform

There is a nice post in the Daily Kos talking about education reform. The whole piece is worth noting but this point seems especially apt:

Those advocating the end of seniority-based retention practices in favor of "performance" based on student test scores have to concede that districts, which must stretch dollars these days like never before, will be tempted to staff their classes in such a way to protect their younger (and, it must be noted, markedly cheaper) staff members.

I will never forget in my third year on the job drawing a Freshman Geography class that felt, on bad days, like a training session for America's Most Wanted. When I half-jokingly teased a counselor about how I managed to draw every wild-eyed boy in the freshman class, she smiled and told me, "But, Steve, we all know how good you are with difficult students."

At the time, I took it for the backhanded compliment that it was. In this brave new world being promoted by the GOP (and an alarming number of Democrats), it would be my ticket to lower pay. Worse yet, it could be my ticket out of the profession.

The worry here is that, in the short term, this approach will save a lot of money. Having a lot of inexpensive and enthusiastic junior teachers will do wonders for budgets (at a time when tax cuts are a priority). While teachers will recognize what is happening, in an environment with unemployment hovering around 10% (and basic things like Health Insurance depending on employment) it is likely that schools will not suffer in the short term. In the long term, the new world of teaching will require much higher pay for equally qualified teachers as we know have to compensate the teachers for the fear and uncertainty in such a system.

Not to mention to concern that class assignments could be used to protect liked but less capable teachers. Do we have a solid plan for preventing this from happening?

Sunday Morning Funnies

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Weekend Gaming -- the heated chess/checkers debate

Andrew Gelman joined in the Chess/Checkers debate and added Go to the mix (which was outside of the scope of the original post but is certainly relevant to the discussion). There have been around two dozen comments so far (and Gelman always has unusually thoughtful discussion threads). Definitely worth a look.

Tenure and the end of mandatory retirement (Canada edition)

Frances Woolley has a nice post about the intersection between tenure and the lack of a mandatory retirement age in Canada. It is a different case than the debate in Canada. The background is that salary scales and tenure agreements (at Canadian Universities) were negotiated when there was a mandatory retirement age of 65. The removal of mandatory retirement was a windfall for professors who were already employed as they work under a salary scale designed for workers who would leave at 65.

In practical terms this can have a fairly important impact on budgets as it adds additional years of salary at the highest levels (often 2.5 x starting salary in a Canadian University). Frances has a nice chart here. The short term implications are stark:

Such a pay structure can be profitable as long as the pay structure is similar to the one shown in the diagram above, where the high costs of paying workers between 45 and 65 are counter-balanced by the low cost of paying workers between 25 and 45. But if the terms of the employment arrangement were changed so that workers stayed on until 75, the firm's pay structure would no longer be profitable: the costs of paying experienced workers more would exceed the gains from underpaying junior workers.

I think that there is an important balance between job security and balancing out employment contracts. In this case, due to regulatory changes, I think it would make a lot more sense if tenure elapsed at the traditional retirement age. In this case we have the reverse of what is happening in the United States for teachers -- the employment contract changed in mid-stream. I think it is consistent to argue, in both cases, that a change of contract terms should not result in a windfall for either party unless the change was by mutual consent.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Not all that broken up about the paywall

[I'm working an a post on the Florida education bill but I'm taking my time. The truth here is so ugly that even the slightest over-reaction would be going too far. In the meantime, here's something light and snarky for your Friday afternoon.]

As you've probably heard, there's a paywall going up around America's most over-rated newspaper (I'd put the Wall Street Journal, the LA Times and maybe a half-dozen other papers above it). The limit for free articles is twenty a month though you can still apparently follow blog links after you've run through those so you should still be able to keep up with most of what you're reading now (almost all of which is probably summarized by bloggers like Thoma and DeLong anyway).

As far as I can tell, the big loss will be those articles that catch your eye while you're browsing the site and most of those tend to read like this piece on the spectacular failure of Mars Needs Moms (a bomb that may leave a nine-figure crater).

The explain-the-fiasco story is one of the annoying perennials of entertainment journalism (the object is to explain why a show tanked without addressing the fact that it stank) and even by the low, low standards of the genre, this article by Brooks Barnes leaves much to be desired, consisting of widely-available facts, conventional wisdom and analysis like this:
It is quite rare for a Disney release to flop as badly as “Mars Needs Moms,” which is based on an illustrated book by Berkeley Breathed, best known for the comic strip “Bloom County.” Part of the problem may have been the story. What child wants to see a movie about his mom being taken away from him? But studio executives also pointed to the style of animation as a culprit.
Do the names Bambi and Dumbo not ring any bells whatsoever? Does Barnes not know that early Disney features (Snow White, Pinocchio, Dumbo, Bambi) expertly played expertly on children's fear of being separated from their parents? Or that this template remains popular to this day (Finding Nemo)? More importantly, does this strike you as an insight you'd pay $15 a month for?

If you're in the mood for more fun at the gray lady's expense, check out this amusing bit of mockery from Wonkette.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

I'm heading out the door but before I go...

Make sure to check out this post by Andrew Gelman. It's relevant to a number of big but underdiscussed issues in the education reform debate.

New Education Bill

Okay, there was a new law passed today in Florida:

School teachers would lose tenure and see future pay raises based on student performance under a politically charged package of education changes the Florida House sent to Gov. Rick Scott Wednesday on a straight party-line vote.

The new bill:

The legislation will establish a statewide teacher evaluation and merit pay system in 2014 and do away with tenure for new teachers hired after July 1 this year. It also chips away at teachers' due process and collective bargaining rights.

Among the amendments proposed and rejected as poison pills:

Requiring superintendents to offer a written explanation for denying a teacher's contract renewal, if test scores and evaluations make the teacher eligible for the renewal.

In the new system contracts need to be renewed annually. I am unclear how not offering an explanation for failure to renew (for teachers that test well) is an unreasonable requirement. After all, if we trust these test-based metrics than it should be perfectly reasonable to explain why a high performing teacher is being let go (e.g. drop in student enrollment at their school). If we do not trust these metrics to give an unbiased picture of how is an effective teacher then why are we tying pay so closely to these metrics?

It just seems to be inconsistent.

It is also unclear where any money for merit raises might come from in a state focused on tax cuts. Overall, I am underwhelmed.

Mark: Any thoughts?

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Cloning Jaime Escalante -- a thought experiment

One of the fundamental tenets of the reform movement is the belief that we could fix all of our schools problems if, through big bonuses and wholesale firings, we could replace all of the lazy and incompetent teachers with great ones. Counterarguments generally point out that our metrics for identifying good teachers were unreliable and that, even with high-quality metrics, trying to restaff a major industry so that, say, 80% of the new recruits were in what had been the top 10% is simply not practical.

But what if we moved past those arguments altogether? What if we could create perfect duplicates of any teacher we want and place them in a million classrooms? Surely that would do it, but who should we pick?

How about Jaime Escalante, the teacher immortalized in the movie Stand and Deliver? Escalante was beyond question a spectacular teacher and he managed to build one of the country's most successful math programs in a very troubled urban school, Garfield High. By the end of his time at the school, he was teaching huge calculus sections (for HS) and producing better than a 90% pass rate on the AP exam. Only four schools in the country had more students passing the test.

So what would happen if you could clone "the best teacher in America" (as reporter Jay Matthews called him) and have him teach your AP calculus class? We can never be sure but I suspect that it would go something like this:
In 1991, he packed up his bag of tricks and quit Garfield, saying he was fed up with faculty politics and petty jealousies.

He headed to Hiram Johnson High with the intention of testing his methods in a new environment.

But in seven years there, he never had more than about 14 calculus students a year and a 75% pass rate, a record he blamed on administrative turnover and cultural differences.
Jaime Escalante was a great teacher, but to achieve those amazing results at Garfield he had to be in the right place at the right time. He needed a compatible and supportive administrator and, more importantly, a unique and powerful bond with the student body and the community. Compatibility and rapport are difficult to measure and next to impossible to predict but they are often the difference between adequate and astounding results.

Krugman joins the nuclear debate

I'm not sure this is the best time to be having this debate (a once in a millennium disaster tends to interfere with the ability to accurately evaluate risks), but Paul Krugman has a good post on the subject:

As Nordhaus’s RA, I spent the summer of 1973 on this project: my days were spent in the geology library, reading Bureau of Mines circulars on the engineering and costs of alternative energy sources, my nights at the computer center drinking vending machine coffee. (These were still the days of big mainframes and punchcards; you handed a deck of cards to the high priests behind the glass wall, then an hour later you got back a huge stack of hexadecimal garbage because you made an error on one of your cards.)

In short, I was in heaven.

Nordhaus’s paper was wonderful. (Sorry, for technical reasons I can’t put up a full version from my current undisclosed location.) But as it turned out, it was much too optimistic. Not his fault or mine: it was those Bureau of Mines circulars.

What was wrong with those circulars? They were much too optimistic about the costs of alternative energy sources, especially alternatives to oil. Basically, the engineers were understating the difficulties involved. Later Marty Weitzman would formulate a law on this: the cost of alternatives to crude oil is 40% above the current price — whatever the current price is.

And hence my skeptical reaction to the new study about the costs of running an all-renewable economy.

To be fair, we probably have much more solid ideas about the cost of wind and solar power than we did about shale oil and coal liquefaction back in 1973: wind is already a widely used technology, and concentrated solar power — probably the main way we’ll use the sun — is pretty well understood too. But there will be surprises, not all of them positive.

None of this is meant to disparage the work, or the need to use much more renewables than we are using now.

More Glaeserian causality

We all occasionally make too much of anecdotes and jump too quickly from correlation to causality, but with Edward Glaeser, this sort of thing is starting to become a habit.

From the New York Times:
Vast public infrastructure projects, like high-speed rail, helped create Spain’s current fiscal morass and did little to revitalize Japan during its lost decade.
Of course, given the magnitude of the demographic and economic forces acting on Japan, it's difficult to say exactly what effect high-speed rail had.

As for Spain, do we really have reason to believe massive spending on public works helped cause the crisis? Here's Paul Krugman's answer:

On the eve of the crisis, Spain was running a budget surplus; its debts, as you can see in the figure above, were low relative to GDP.

So what happened? Spain is an object lesson in the problems of having monetary union without fiscal and labor market integration. First, there was a huge boom in Spain, largely driven by a housing bubble — and financed by capital outflows from Germany. This boom pulled up Spanish wages. Then the bubble burst, leaving Spanish labor overpriced relative to Germany and France, and precipitating a surge in unemployment. It also led to large Spanish budget deficits, mainly because of collapsing revenue but also due to efforts to limit the rise in unemployment.

Wouldn't Glaeser's argument imply that Spain was spending too much and wouldn't that, in turn, show up in the debt to GDP numbers?

If you want to understand what's wrong with American education...

You need to follow stories like this.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

The Annotated "Evaluating New York Teachers, Perhaps the Numbers Do Lie"

As promised, here are some comments (in brackets) on Michael Winerip's NYT article on the city's teacher evaluation process.
Last year, when Ms. Isaacson was on maternity leave, she came in one full day a week for the entire school year for no pay and taught a peer leadership class.


[One thing that Winerip fails to emphasize (though I suspect he is aware of it) is how common stories like this are. Education journalists often portray ordinary excellence as something exceptional. This is partly due to journalistic laziness -- it's easier to describe something as exceptional than to find something that actually is exceptional -- and partly due to the appeal of standard narratives, in this case the Madonna/whore portrayal of teachers (I would used a non-gender specific analogy but I couldn't come up with one that fit as well.)]

The Lab School has selective admissions, and Ms. Isaacson’s students have excelled. Her first year teaching, 65 of 66 scored proficient on the state language arts test, meaning they got 3’s or 4’s; only one scored below grade level with a 2. More than two dozen students from her first two years teaching have gone on to Stuyvesant High School or Bronx High School of Science, the city’s most competitive high schools.


[Everything in this article inclines me to believe that Ms. Isaacson is a good teacher but we need to note that this is a fairly easy gig compared to other urban schools, particularly for someone with her background. Students at places like the Lab School tend to be more respectful and attentive toward academically successful people like Ms. Isaacson. In many schools, this can actually make students initially distrustful.]

You would think the Department of Education would want to replicate Ms. Isaacson — who has degrees from the University of Pennsylvania and Columbia — and sprinkle Ms. Isaacsons all over town. Instead, the department’s accountability experts have developed a complex formula to calculate how much academic progress a teacher’s students make in a year — the teacher’s value-added score — and that formula indicates that Ms. Isaacson is one of the city’s worst teachers.

According to the formula, Ms. Isaacson ranks in the 7th percentile among her teaching peers — meaning 93 per cent are better.

[One of the fallacies that follow from this Madonna/whore narrative is the idea that, since you have such a clearly bi-modal distribution, any metric that's correlated with teaching quality should be able to winnow the good from the bad. In reality you have a normal distribution with noisy data and a metric that doesn't correlate that well. The result, unsurprisingly, is a large number of teachers apparently misclassified. What is surprising is that more people didn't foresee this fairly obvious outcome.]

This may seem disconnected from reality, but it has real ramifications. Because of her 7th percentile, Ms. Isaacson was told in February that it was virtually certain that she would not be getting tenure this year. “My principal said that given the opportunity, she would advocate for me,” Ms. Isaacson said. “But she said don’t get your hopes up, with a 7th percentile, there wasn’t much she could do.”

That’s not the only problem Ms. Isaacson’s 7th percentile has caused. If the mayor and governor have their way, and layoffs are no longer based on seniority but instead are based on the city’s formulas that scientifically identify good teachers, Ms. Isaacson is pretty sure she’d be cooked.

[Well, as long as it's scientific.]

She may leave anyway. She is 33 and had a successful career in advertising and finance before taking the teaching job, at half the pay.

[This isn't unusual. I doubled my salary when I went from teaching to a corporate job. Plus I worked fewer hours and they gave us free candy, coffee and the occasional golfing trip.]

The calculation for Ms. Isaacson’s 3.69 predicted score is even more daunting. It is based on 32 variables — including whether a student was “retained in grade before pretest year” and whether a student is “new to city in pretest or post-test year.”

Those 32 variables are plugged into a statistical model that looks like one of those equations that in “Good Will Hunting” only Matt Damon was capable of solving.

The process appears transparent, but it is clear as mud, even for smart lay people like teachers, principals and — I hesitate to say this — journalists.

[There are two things about this that trouble me: the first is that Winerip doesn't seem to understand fairly simple linear regression; the second is that he doesn't seem to realize that the formula given here is actually far too simple to do the job.]

Ms. Isaacson may have two Ivy League degrees, but she is lost. “I find this impossible to understand,” she said.

In plain English, Ms. Isaacson’s best guess about what the department is trying to tell her is: Even though 65 of her 66 students scored proficient on the state test, more of her 3s should have been 4s.

But that is only a guess.

[At the risk of being harsh, grading on a curve should not be that difficult a concept.]

Moreover, as the city indicates on the data reports, there is a large margin of error. So Ms. Isaacson’s 7th percentile could actually be as low as zero or as high as the 52nd percentile — a score that could have earned her tenure.

[Once again, many people saw this coming. Joel Klein and company chose to push forward with the plan, even in the face of results like these. Klein has built a career largely on calls for greater accountability and has done very well for himself in no small part because he hasn't been held accountable for his own record.]

I've left quite a bit out so you should definitely read the whole thing. It's an interesting story but if anything here surprises you, you haven't been paying attention.

"Jefferson is spinning in his grave"

There's nothing remarkable about this quote until you see why the speaker thought Jefferson would be offended.

The lessons of Motown

Michael Winerip is a much better than average education reporter. He doesn't have a great grasp of the numbers or of the implications of the policies, limitations which have kept him from getting a jump on the story the way, say, This American Life did with the financial crisis, but he has kept up with it while most of his colleagues are still reporting discredited narratives from interested parties.

This article on Detroit is a good example. He doesn't connect some important dots but he does a good job reporting what he sees. (you'll find my comments in brackets):

In 2009, Detroit public schools had the lowest scores ever recorded in the 21-year history of the national math proficiency test.

The district had a budget deficit of $200 million.

About 8,000 students were leaving Detroit schools each year.

Political leaders had to do something, so they rounded up the usual whipping boys:

Wasteful bureaucrats. In 2009, the governor appointed an emergency financial manager, Robert Bobb, a former president of the Washington school board, to run the Detroit district. Mr. Bobb is known nationally for his work in school finance, and recruiting him took a big salary, $425,000 a year. He has spent millions more on financial consultants to clean up the fiscal mess left by previous superintendents.

[A large number of people are acquiring a great deal of money and power through the reform movement. This doesn't mean that these people don't have good intentions or that they are not worth the money they're being paid but it does mean that this group, which includes high profile figures like Joel Klein and Michele Rhee, has a vested interest in these policies. It also means that when Michele Rhee brags about being a counterbalance to the special interests, she's not being entirely honest.]

Greedy unions. Though Detroit teachers make considerably less than nearby suburban teachers (a $73,700 maximum versus $97,700 in Troy), Mr. Bobb pressed for concessions. He got teachers to defer $5,000 a year in pay and contribute more for their health insurance. Last week, the Republican-controlled Legislature approved a bill to give emergency managers power to void public workers’ contracts. If signed by the governor, Mr. Bobb could terminate the Detroit teachers’ union contract.

Traditional public schools full of incompetent veteran teachers. Michigan was one of the first states to embrace charter schools, 15 years ago. Currently there are as many Detroit children in charters — 71,000 — as in district schools. Now there is talk of converting the entire Detroit district (which is 95 percent African-American) to charters. Supporters say this could generate significant savings, since charters are typically nonunion and can hire young teachers, pay them less and give them no pensions.

[Before we go on, this would seem to be an almost perfect test of the large-scale charter school model (as compared to the more limited role I've advocated). Charter schools have been put forward as the solution for this very kind of troubled urban district.]

So now, two years later, how are the so-called reforms coming along?

Not great.

Since Mr. Bobb arrived, the $200 million deficit has risen to $327 million. While he has made substantial cuts to save money — including $16 million by firing hundreds of administrators [Of course, he's spent millions making those cuts] — any gains have been overshadowed by the exodus of the 8,000 students a year. For each student who departs, $7,300 in state money gets subtracted from the Detroit budget — an annual loss of $58.4 million.

[Economic conditions and demographic shifts still trump any educational reform proposed so far. People need to remember this.]

Nor have charters been the answer. Charter school students score about the same on state tests as Detroit district students, even though charters have fewer special education students (8 percent versus 17 percent in the district) and fewer poor children (65 percent get subsidized lunches versus 82 percent at district schools). It’s hard to know whether children are better off under these “reforms” or they’re just being moved around more.

[As mentioned before, there are a number of possible biasing effects (peer, placebo, Hawthorne, selective attrition, etc.) that may be inflating the charter's scores. In other words, they are not outperforming the public schools and they may be doing much worse.]

Steve Wasko, public relations director for Mr. Bobb and the Detroit schools, did not respond to a dozen voice mails and e-mails seeking comment. Those who know Mr. Wasko say he cares about Detroit and is sick of the national media portraying the city as hopeless.

[You have a public relations director who can't work a talk with the New York Times into his schedule. This alone raises questions about the Bobb administration. It also suggests some other options for cost cutting (who do you think makes more, a starting teacher or a public relations director?)]


Last spring, Mr. Bobb had planned to close 50 schools with dwindling enrollment. But his list was reduced to 30 after several public meetings at which parents and staff members pleaded their school’s case before the all-powerful Mr. Bobb.

In June, Mr. Bobb held a news conference at Carstens Elementary — one of the schools spared — to announce the 30 closings.

One reason Carstens survived was an article in The Detroit Free Press last March headlined “Carstens Elementary on DPS closing list is a beacon of hope.”

The school, surrounded by vacant lots and abandoned houses, serves some of the city’s poorest children. Thieves who broke into the school last year escaped by disappearing into what the police call “the woods” — the blocks and blocks of vacant houses.

Yet Carstens students perform well on state tests, repeatedly meeting the federal standard for adequate yearly progress.

[As seen before, good teachers and schools often end up bearing the brunt of our current crop of reforms.]

“We try to fill in the holes in our children’s lives,” said Rebecca Kelly-Gavrilovich, a Carstens teacher with 25 years’ experience. Students get free breakfast, lunch and — if they attend the after-school program — dinner.

To have more money for instruction, teachers sit with students at lunch, saving the school from having to hire lunchroom aides. Teachers hold jacket and shoe drives for children who have no winter coats and come to school in slippers. At Thanksgiving every child goes home with a frozen turkey donated by a local businessman. Twice a year a bus carrying a portable dentist’s office arrives, and a clinic is set up at the school so children can get their teeth checked.

Despite all this, teachers worry that Carstens’s appearance on Mr. Bobb’s closing list — even though it was brief — means the end is near. Anticipating the worst, several parents have taken their children out of Carstens, enrolling them elsewhere, including at charters and suburban schools.

Carstens’s enrollment is half of what it was a few years ago. Every hallway has empty classrooms, giving the school a desolate feeling.

Mr. Bobb has set off a vicious cycle undermining even good schools. The more schools he closes to save money, the more parents grow discouraged and pull their children out. The fewer the children, the less the state aid, so Mr. Bobb closes more schools.

[This is a pattern we're seen before. Check Ravitch for specifics.]

Carstens has also been harmed by poor personnel decisions made by the district. Last year, 1,200 teachers took the retirement buyout, and Mr. Bobb laid off 2,000 others in the spring. Then in the fall, he realized he needed to hire the 2,000 back, and chaos ensued.

[Also something we've been warning about.]

At Carstens, a kindergarten class of 30 had no teacher until October; teachers at the school took turns supervising the class. “How do you think parents feel when there’s a different teacher every day?” said Mike Fesik, the current teacher.

It’s hard to understand why any teacher who could leave Detroit stays, but they do. Kim Kyff, with 22 years’ experience, is one of the lead teachers at Palmer Park, the elementary and middle school that opened last fall. In 2007 she was the Michigan teacher of the year. She has had offers from suburban schools, but stays because she believes that in Detroit, she has a better shot at being a beacon of hope.

[I should say more but it's late and I'm already depressed as hell. It's times like these when I have trouble not believing that, not only do we not care about children, we actually go out of our way to screw over those who do care. (yes, that's a lot of 'not's but given the hour what do you expect?)]