Monday, February 28, 2011

Needs an RCT: Study Hall Edition

Jay Mathew's surveys student and teacher opinions on the 45-minute free periods given at some local high schools.

Bonus: The suggestion of a later start to the school day has been at the top of my "Needs an RCT in education" list.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Do movies suck these days?

This guy thinks so. I stopped reading shortly after he used the phrase "high concept." The irony was too much.

I'm going to gather some data and see if there is evidence that the quality of movies has declined over the years.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Why is college so expensive?

Tyler Cowen with some insightful comments.

Also: The interview that spawned those comments. I like the last few sentences and the comments on the HOPE scholarship. Another point: when we means-test food stamps it's so that we can direct the aid to the poor. Means-testing college scholarships, however, doesn't do much to shift aid to the poor. It all ends up in the hands of the (soon to be) upper middle-class.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Do educated people need to read Shakespeare?

I like Shakespeare, but I don't think you should have to read it to understand a newspaper. Writers shouldn't expect a reader to understand a sentence like this:
Being awestruck at "Halo" does not entail awe any more than "grieving" for Cordelia entails grief. 
The review is otherwise interesting throughout. But I have a hard time getting over the obscure Shakespeare reference and the implication the writer is a snob.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Is TFA scalable?

TIME with five TFA myths. Note: The writer is clearly biased by his friends and co-worker's ties to the organization. He only admits this late in the article.

I agree that four of them are myths. TFA teachers are, on average, better than the alternative (mostly full-time substitutes or uncertified teachers). TFA math teacher are better than average teachers too. That is the most important one.

But number four, that TFA isn't scalable, may well be a myth. The writer even seems to grant this at the end of his discussion. I did a calculation once, however, that suggested TFA was effect despite its out of control costs. Here's how:

Let's say we want to scale TFA so that it's teaches can teach the 20% of American students who live in poverty. We have 3 million teachers so we'd need to train 3*0.2 = 0.6 million = 600,000 teachers. Say each teacher teaches for 20 years on average (a mix of short-term busts and long-term commits). That means we have to train 600,000/20 = 30,000 new teacher each year to keep a steady supply of teachers.

At 30,000 teachers * $20,000 / year in training costs * 3 years of training = $1.8 billion. That's less than half of what Race to the Top cost. But it wouldn't come close to erasing the achievement gap. TFA teachers only increase scores by (I think) 3 percentile points. The gap is about 35 percentiles. So TFA would have to become vastly more effective before it even makes sense to talk about erasing the achievement gap. That said, if they could do it at the cost by unit of achievement gap that they are doing now, it would cost just 4% of the defense budget or $21 billion per year.

TFA is scalable in the sense that it is not unreasonably expensive and there are probably enough quality teachers to fill the ranks. It isn't a scalable in the sense that it can erase the achievement gap just by expanding.

Study's result shouldn't surprise us

Conservatives attacked Clegg for backing “quotas” and “social engineering,” and said admissions decisions should be based strictly on “academic merit.” But backers of the plan suggest that it is more meritocratic to consider economic disadvantages alongside grades and test scores rather than raw scores in isolation. As I noted in a recent blog post, the argument is supported by new British research which finds that public school students with lower entrance exam grades performed as well in college as private school students with higher entrance exam grades.

The article is here.

Two reasons this should no shock anyone. First, private school students can afford tuition so they can probably afford test prep. No student has shown test prep works but it would shock everyone if it didn't. In the U.S. elite schools also tailor their curriculum to tests, or the tests align with elite school curriculum. Either way, that could be a factor in England.

Second, and more importantly, we can think of "education production" as a function of resources, effort, and innate ability. Private school students have more resources in high school, so they have higher standardized test scores, all else equal. When a private and a public school student attend the same college, however, the resource gap closes. If the scores used to be equal then the public school student's output is now going to be higher than the private school student's. Private school students also tend to have better parents, who force them to put in more effort. A public school student with worse parents will put in less effort, on average, which means they must have more innate ability to achieve the same test scores. The resource gap leads me to strongly back school-based affirmative action. The effort gap makes me a little cautious about a strong policy since it incentives a shift toward lazy parenting.

Degree for < $2,500 a year

CCAP with a good post on "$10,000 college degrees." Disclaimer: I don't agree with a lot of things they write, but they make some good points from time to time.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Quote of the Day

In New York the ruling passion is the pursuit of money, whereas in Washington it is the pursuit of power.
From Irving Kristol in a 1988 article "Why I Left" for The New Republic.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

U.S vs China

I never thought I'd say it but Jeff Jacoby wrote a good column. Here's the link. (HT: Greg Mankiw)

Diversity argument isn't a total crock?

I've always thought that when people said we need affirmative action to promote diversity they were either lying or deluding themselves. No one actually took the idea of diversity seriously? If they did, wouldn't it bother them that all the students at Harvard are Democratcs, or that whites are underrepresented at MIT?

Maybe, I was wrong. Psychologists are overwhelming liberal. The lack of conservatives in the field biases the interpretation of findings, choices of experiments to fund, and can even drive people to censor evidence contrary to their politics (remember Larry Summers?). This didn't bother anyone because, I assumed no one cared about intellectual diversity.

Here's the story.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Bad Arguments

Steve Landsburg makes a great point better than I've ever made it despite repeated attempts.

That's my nomination for blog post of 2011, thus far.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Summary of my view on Financial Aid

Gary Becker, quoted on the Economix blog, summarizes a key point about financial aid. When I discovered this for myself my views changed a lot:
The average college graduate earns much more than the average individual who does not go to college. As a result, college graduates earn a lot more on average than does the typical taxpayer. It is a questionable system of regressive taxation when taxes are spent on subsidizing individuals who will earn more than those paying the taxes.
Financial aid goes to currently poor people who will soon be rich. That's how a lot of our welfare has the potential to work--you can be homeless one day then start a business and be rich--but rarely does. With financial aid, taking from the poor to give to the (soon to be) rich is institutionalized. I'm not a big fan of it.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Virtual Economies

Tim Harford has written a lot of great economics columns, but this one might be the best.


From the Wikipedia article on Singlish:
Singlish is commonly regarded with low prestige in Singapore. The Singaporean government and many Singaporeans alike heavily discourage the use of Singlish in favour of Standard English. [. . .] In the last two decades, an increasing amount of Mandarin words have found their way into Singlish[.]
On a related note: Chinese apparently doesn't have plural nouns, but I've found that when Chinese people speak English and don't use plurals properly they are still 100% comprehensible. In some cases, what they say makes more sense. For example, "who are going?" as opposed to "who is going?"

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

MIT and, Google's disappointing philanthropy arm, is the topic of a great new story form the NYTimes. MIT humanitarian programs have a lot of the same problems:
[] never understood that technology is a means to an end, and that in the developing world, sometimes basic technology, like the collection and compilation of data, can have enormous impact,” said another [] program officer

Reforming health and education

I've been reading a lot about Tyler Cowen's new book, including this review from Ezra Klein. One theme in the commentary that continues to pop up is health and education are the two fastest growing sectors and the two sectors that seem to be disappointing us. They seem ripe for reform.

I haven't heard a lot of good ideas, so here is my take as those are two of my fields of interest.

1. On health, we are looking at the wrong things. There has been a ton of growth in two important health "sectors," but they have nothing to do with hospitals or doctors. One in lifestyle choices: food makers are providing more whole grain and low sodium foods and people are eating more of them. Look no further than Wal-Mart's new program to improve nutrition. Exercising more is also becoming both hip (see yoga) that ever rich people want to do it (rich people run so much now that they often call it their "sport") and a priority (see things like Play60).

But that is actually the lower priority change. The biggest gains will come from improvements in mental health. Positive psychologists have developed a battery of interventions for preventing depression and improving quality of life over the past few decades. Few are in the mainstream: personal improvement is still dominated by quacks. But if some of these things penetrate our schools and catch fire, that is where I see most of the improvement in quality of life coming over the next few decades.

2. On education, I think there are a lot of minor improvements to suggest: more discipline, more testing, start the school day later, perhaps single gender classrooms, paying teachers more, firing bad teachers, using video lectures, and others. But none of that striking me as the big fix because I'm not sure there is a consensus on what education is about. There are two questions: (1) is education (and college esp.) about education for its own sake, to cultivate the mind (see Mathra Nussbaum's new book) or is it about getting a job. I think this debate is fading: its about getting a job. But there is a second issue that you boil to the front the most when people talk about PISA scores. Roughly the issue is something like: are schools supposed to teach facts and abilities or should they be cultivating something that could be described vaguely as creativity or an entrepreneurial spirit (or both). Under the former view PISA is a good test that shows we're behind. Under the later view we don't even have the right metrics.

However those debates are resolved, the biggest idea in education for the next couple decades can be summed up in one word: experiments. We can make dramatic gains in any direction is we start taking the ideas of experimenting and letting experiments guide policy seriously. We would have a debate about what an online class needs to achieve to be worthwhile, test it, and if it achieves the benchmarks end the discussion. I don't know how long or how far we an move in this direction, though.


Scott Aaronson posts a funny political joke.

He was inspired to post it because he wrote, sarcastically, about the need to cut funding for theoretical computer science research, but the sarcasm was lost on most readers.

I think there is a valuable lesson here, but ironically it isn't stated. Sometimes the positions people take are obvious--Aaron is obviously against cutting his own funding--but when people don't explain why, we end up with a lot of confusion.

And a lot of the confusion, in my opinion, is on the part of the person expressing the opinion. If you can't explain why you are against the war, in favor of eating local foods, or want to end trade with China, maybe you shouldn't have a strong opinion.