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The Poseidon Misadventure

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I’ve said before that the Democratic Party isn’t really a political party at all, but rather something closer to a think tank—a kind of failed academic enterprise whose principal output is dubious research written in the style of a press release and the occasional bemusing and ineffectual appearance on the cable news. Although they endlessly carp that dastardly Republican gerrymandering has locked them ever out of real legislative power, in point of fact it’s the institution of the Democratic Party that’s benefited. The GOP gave birth to a feisty swamp monster of Tea-Party activism. Convince yourself all you want that this was the result of Koch-Bros astroturfing; in reality, it’s the Republican Party that’s been roiled by primary challenges to established teat-suckers; it’s the Republican Party that’s tossed out its goldfish-mouthed leadership in favor of a class of politicians really committed to exercising power. The Democratic leadership looks hardly different than it has for my entire adult life, a grim and aging collection of Clinton apparatchiks totally secure in their sinecures—all the more so because the only time the party ever does use what power it has, it’s to quash any discontent from its base or its leftward flank. It would be tempting to call it a zombie, but a zombie is living dead; a zombie is compelled by a lustful, powerful hunger. A zombie is all appetite—it is more than alive. The GOP is a zombie. The Democratic Party is a ghost—diaphanous, spooky, and utterly unable to interact with the actual world. At best, it can rattle the pots, or leave a little trail of slime.

The ACA, which may or may not die in the Senate, only ever made sense as an intermediate step toward a universal provision of health care. It was a big, ugly, ungainly, cobbled-together thing that, for all the partisan paeans to its wonderfulness and indispensability, never really worked very well. The part that did work was Medicaid expansion. In other words, the part that worked was the single-payer program that the Democrats so ardently refused—continue to refuse—to endorse. Supposedly the party of incremental progress, they seem to view each increment as the final end state of civilization and history. America Is Already Great, and all that. In order to sell progress as incremental, a series of steps in a journey of miles, there must be some destination in mind, a vision of a truly better society, an ideal. But the Democrats don’t have ideals; they just need you to be scared of Republicans.

Well, fair enough. Republicans are scary, though given the alacrity with which the Democrats rushed to praise Donald Trump for blowing up another little piece of Syria, you have to imagine that this relative terror is a matter of proximity, that the farther you get from the border, the more it appears that the American government moves with an awful unanimity of terrible, singular purpose. Anyway, the thing about the health care debate, such as it is, is that while every Democrat voted no, no one bothered to articulate a compelling alternate vision. Republicans want to kill you! Yes, yes—look, life is a conspiracy against itself; we’re all gonna die. You become inured to this sort of thing after a while. What we want to hear is not that the seas are rising (the Republicans!) and we’re gonna die alone (the Republicans!) and tumorous on the street because our chemo costs $50,000 every half hour and a hangnail is a preexisting condition (the Republicans!). What we want to hear is that there can be a better world, that through collective endeavor we can as a people feed our poor, care for our sick, and find at least some better balance between our rapacity and the health of our planet. Instead we get negation; we get Trump is a meanie and Paul Ryan wants to eat your kids, which does not get the 40% of people whose boss is a meanie and who can’t pay their deductibles to the polls.

The specter of Democrats literally singing in the halls of Congress because they imagine that more than a year from now they’ll reap some reward from the GOP’s pettiness and failure to construct any real alternative system is just despicable. Who are these people? Even if the bill dies in the Senate, even if they take the house in 2018 . . . Liberals accuse the GOP of forgetting about people, of sacrificing public good to the cruel idols of their idées fixes, but it’s the ostensibly liberal party that is actually abstracted from the human mass; it’s Nancy Pelosi for whom this whole thing is just a career. The Republican Party steers the ship of state toward an iceberg, and from below decks, Steny Hoyer gleefully cackles that this sure is gonna reflect badly on the captain. Grab your life vests people, though they may not save you, because the water’s real cold.




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plewis
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two sets of universities, two countries, two futures

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image by Flickr user John Walker used under CC License

Today, Yale University’s 316th commencement will take place. Beaming young people and their proud parents will flock to the immaculate New Haven campus, eager to start their climb further up the ladder of American success. They know, as they surely knew the day they arrived, that their passage through such an august institution prepares them for a life of financial security and high social standing. They know, in other words, that as much as any young people, they are positioned to advance to the rarefied world of elite America.

Meanwhile, elsewhere in Connecticut, twelve community colleges and four public universities – including one found in the very same city – are starved to death by austerity and neoliberalism, as the Democrat governor and a Democratic state legislature in a rich blue state enact brutal cuts to education, social services, and mental health care, while fighting to cut taxes on corporations. The cuts to the Connecticut State University system are particularly devastating. They risk killing majors, shuttering departments, and destroying tenure. Programs that help shepherd a student body that comes disproportionately from non-traditional backgrounds, and thus needs help the most, are under threat. Classes may be cut from course schedules, making it even harder for working students and students who are parents to fit school into the schedules. In every way, a university system that already struggles to serve its students and its state thanks to resource constraints will be hurt even more.

These cuts are personal, for me, as I am a graduate of Central Connecticut State University in the CSU system. I will risk self-aggrandizement in saying that I am an example of the kind of success story that is routinely produced by the CSU system and systems like it. In my early 20s I was lost – orphaned, broke, alcoholic, struggling from then-undiagnosed mental illness, and completely without direction or a sense of purpose. But I took classes at the local community college for a year, then transferred to Central, where I met warm, engaging, committed educators who shepherded me through my education and showed me that I had skills and knowledge that had value – that my life had value. Today, I have a PhD, live in New York City, work at a wonderful public college myself, and have been published by some of the most prominent newspapers and magazines in the world. I owe all of that, without exception, to my time in the CSU system. It was there that I put my life back together, thanks to the dedication of the professionals who worked there and the relatively low tuition costs that enabled me to attend. I say with no exaggeration: the Connecticut State University system saved my life. And now, for shortfalls of less than $100 million a year, that system risks being permanently crippled.

To make all of this worse, down I-91 from my old university, Yale sits on a mountain of money, and yet receives more and more from public funds. The degree to which our government subsidizes the immensely wealthy Ivy League schools defies belief. A report from Open the Books, an organization that works for transparency in government spending, estimates that the federal and state governments spent over $40 billion on the Ivy League schools in tax exemptions, contracts, grants, and direct gifts from 2010 to 2015. The eight Ivy League universities – small, elite institutions from one region of the country that serve a tiny fraction of our college students and who could scarcely need government support less – receive more money annually from the federal government, on average, than 16 states. Four in ten students from the top 0.1% of families by income attend the Ivy League or similarly elite institutions; in 2012, 70% of Yale’s incoming freshmen came from families making more than $120,000; the median family income for Harvard students is triple the national average. The overwhelming majority of these students go on to lives of economic security, and many to the upper echelons of our economy.

Yet we continue to pour in government money to these rich institutions, and their wealthy alumni pour in hundreds of millions of dollars to their endowments untaxed, often invoking the spirit of giving and the need for equal opportunity while they do so. Meanwhile, we know empirically that systems like the CSU system, or the City University of New York system (where I now work), or the California State University system – America’s Great Working Class Colleges – do a far better job of creating social mobility than their elite counterparts. Yet each of these systems struggles under brutal cuts to their funding even though our country has never been richer.

What political philosophy, exactly, could possibly justify this condition? What ideology would conclude that this is a good use of resources, either public or philanthropic?

And yet the condition endures, even accelerates, year after year. No one seems to ask why those institutions who are objectively fabulously wealthy should receive such outlandish public subsidy, nor does anyone provide an answer as to why so many of our wealthiest continue to cut large checks for these institutions while our working class colleges, who need the money so desperately, starve. I am absolutely committed to the idea that higher education should be funded with public moneys, but I am also perplexed at the tendency of charitable donations to go where they are needed least of all. Where is Bill Gates to subsidize our working class colleges? Where is Mark Zuckerberg? Why does the philanthropic impulse, when it comes to higher education, always result in the rich getting richer? Connecticut is home to a small army of hedge fund managers and other incredibly wealthy types. I would love it if we could take their money by force for the good of all of society. But barring that, why don’t they use Connecticut’s starving public system for tax avoidance, rather than elite universities that are already filthy rich? Unless the entire point of such gifts is not to create equality of opportunity but to destroy it, to ensure that only those who start out at the top get to end up there. Our elite universities do many good things, but there is no question that they perpetuate and deepen inequality. That is in fact their most basic function: the replication of the ruling class.

I have no doubt that Yale’s class of 2017 is full of smart, talented, and passionate young people. I wish them the best. I also have no doubt that those among them who may not be talented or hardworking will be wholly inoculated from that condition thanks to the accidents of birth and privilege that helped them reach their rarefied station in the first place. As a socialist, I am not interested in making them more susceptible to material hardship and the vagaries of chance, but rather of giving everyone that same level of protection – and that means raiding the coffers of their school, their parents, and their future employers for the betterment of all. I also don’t doubt that, on balance, graduates of the Connecticut State system will succeed as well. College graduates writ large enjoy a substantial premium in income and unemployment rates over those without degrees, after all. But how hard will they have to struggle, as their instructors are stretched thinner and thinner by these brutal cuts? How many of them will sink deeper into debt as they are forced to take additional semesters of classes to complete their degrees? How many of them will drop out, thanks to these cuts, and suffer under the burden of student loan debt with no degree to help them secure a better life? How many people who could have been saved, as I was saved, now won’t be because of these cuts?

Today’s Yale commencement ceremony, of course, will be stocked with liberals, decent progressive folk who will tell you they believe in equality and social justice. The parents will mostly be liberal Democrats. The student ranks will be filled, no doubt, by genuine radicals, and the faculty with Marxists and socialists. They do good deeds at these places, such as how Yale’s community recently forced the school to change the name of Calhoun College, thanks to John C Calhoun’s history as a slave owner. I celebrate the activist zeal of all involved in such actions. Yet what Yale’s community can’t do – and perhaps wouldn’t, if it could – is to dismantle its place in the engine of American inequality. For all of the decent people involved in that institution, there is no chance that it will ever voluntarily abandon its role as an incubator of the ruling class. To do so would be unthinkable. That’s the reality of higher education: ostensible leftists preside over the ever-accelerating accumulation of power, money, and privilege. A better way is possible, but it cannot be achieved from within campus.

Until we reach that better world, we’ll be left with these ugly divides. In a sea of political ugliness it’s hard for me to imagine a more stark statement of America’s grand failures than this, a starving public university system that serves the poor and the brown and the needy, while next door a school for the 1% sits on $25 billion dollars, untaxed. CSU students, like Yale students, will walk on campus lawns with caps and gowns, eager to begin their new lives. Like Yale students, CSU students will seek a better life. But how many of them will be stuck here in this other America, inequality America, austerity America, while those who’ve already been given so much are given even more?

Correction: Fixed some inaccurate wording in the fourth paragraph.

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Archaic Torso of a Chicken

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You can hate Donald Trump’s views on and treatment of women — and lots of people do! But, to expect Ivanka Trump to publicly condemn her father or his record on women’s issues is a bridge too far. It’s impossible for us to know what Ivanka Trump does (or doesn’t do) to influence her father’s views behind the scenes. And, because of that — and the fact that she is his daughter! — booing her for defending her dad is poor form.

Chris Cillizza

Doing anything is wrong. You should
exist in a state of permanent repose,
a water-coddled jellyfish that goes
to where the current takes it. Honestly would
you be less happy, less inclined to good
behavior if you named your friends and foes,
or joined a youthful revolution in its throes,
wrote an op-ed, canvassed the neighborhood
than if you chose to live as if the tide
rising and falling were all that you need feel?
Cut out your conscience; consciousness is strife
embodied in the human mind; don’t act, abide;
nothing external to the endless dream is real.
You cannot see you. You must not change your life.




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Fees Add Up

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By James Kwak

Public pension funds are having a tough time. On the one hand, the average funding ratio (assets as a percentage of the present value of future obligations) is below 80% because of inadequate contributions by sponsors (states and municipalities) and poor investment returns since the collapse of the technology bubble in 2000. On the other hand, because pensions responded to low returns by shifting more of their money into hedge funds and private equity funds, a larger proportion of their assets is siphoned off as investment fees each year.

Unlike some people, I am not against hedge funds and private equity funds in principle. I think it’s highly likely that there are people who can beat the market on a sustained basis—particularly if they are people who are especially good with computers—both for theoretical reasons (someone has to be the first person to discover each relevant piece of information or actionable pattern) and empirical reasons (see Fama and French 2010, for example). Hedge funds have lagged the stock market in recent years, but what critics sometimes overlook is that they are supposed to trail the market in boom periods, because many target a beta of around 0.5. But I am mystified by the fact that, in what is supposed to be a highly competitive and innovative industry, the price of investing in a hedge fund has stayed virtually fixed at 2-and-20 (2% of assets, plus 20% of investment returns) for decades.

The consequences of these high prices are added up in The Big Squeeze, a new report sponsored by the American Federation of Teachers. Because true investment fees are usually not disclosed—fund managers insist that they are confidential and require investors not to divulge them—the report simply quantifies the potential savings from reducing fees from 1.8-and-18 to 0.9-and-9. This may seem arbitrary, but I know anecdotally that some funds, even big ones, are charging something like 1-and-10 even to ordinary investors. Since state pension funds are some of the biggest investors that exist, you would think they would be able to negotiate even lower fees.

Not surprisingly, the numbers involved add up quickly. Lower fees over the past five years would have saved the average pension fund included in the study $1.6 billion; to put things in perspective, it would have improved the aggregate funding ratio for these funds by more than two percentage points, which is nothing to sneeze at.

The important question is why high fees persist despite the potential market power of big pension funds. There are probably multiple explanations. One is a culture of secrecy, which makes it difficult for any fund to find out what other funds are paying. Another is the marketing prowess of fund managers, who are adept at explaining whey their fund is unlike any other in the world and therefore merits its high fees. A third is that pension fund managers are playing with other people’s money (in this case, the other people are the fund’s beneficiaries—teachers, firefighters, and other government employees)—and may be more interested in ingratiating themselves with the asset management industry than with getting the best deal they can. (This is even more likely the case for the investment consultants who match pension funds with asset managers.) But in a political climate that makes tax increases on rich fund managers unlikely, state governments could achieve the same results by taking a harder line on investment management fees: requiring public disclosure of all fees or even imposing hard fee caps for pension fund investments. With the amount of money involved, it’s hard to imagine that major pension funds couldn’t find anyone competent to take their money for 0.9-and-9.



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What’s the deal with the YIMBYs?

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This post is not by Andrew. It is by Phil.

There’s at least one thing people in San Francisco seem to agree on: the rent is too damn high. The median rent is between about $3000 and $3500 per month…for a one-bedroom apartment. High-tech workers and upper-echelon businesspeople can afford a place, but baristas and hair salon workers and teachers and shop clerks etc. etc. have real trouble.

Of course there is plenty of development pressure, and new high-rise apartments are going in that have hundreds of apartments each, typically with a rent of $4000 – $8000 per month. If you let a developer build “market rate” apartments, that’s what they’ll build.

Suppose San Francisco adds 10,000 market-rate units. Some will be one-bedrooms, some two- or three-bedrooms, and some will be occupied by singles, others by couples, etc. But for simplicity let’s just assume that on average each of these new 10,000 units is occupied by a household that earns $100K per year after taxes. Total, the occupants of these apartments have $1,000,000,000 in disposable income. That’s a lot! They’re going to spend some of that money — indeed, a lot of that money — in San Francisco: they will go to coffee shops, get their hair cut, buy things in shops, etc. Serving those extra 10,000 high-income households will require tens of thousands more waiters and shop clerks and car mechanics and plumbers etc etc etc….that is, there will be more jobs for the kinds of people who already have trouble affording a place in San Francisco. Those additional people will need to live somewhere, so there will be increased competition at the lower end of the market, which means higher rents. Most of these people will end up commuting from other cities.

The thing is, it’s not just lower-income people who feel priced out of San Francisco. Tens of thousands of high-income people who would like to live in San Francisco are living in Oakland and Fremont and Berkeley and Orinda because of lower rents in those places. As market rate housing is built in San Francisco, those people move into it. That’s why the ‘market rate’ is so high.

Of course, by the so-called “law of supply and demand”, building more housing does make housing cheaper. It’s easy to see why: those people with their billion dollars of disposable income are adding a lot economic activity in San Francisco, but they’re decreasing the economic activity in the cities they’re leaving, which no longer need so many waiters and barbers and shopkeepers. There is a cascade: some people move from Berkeley and Oakland to San Francisco, which allows replacements to move from Richmond and El Cerrito into Berkeley and Oakland, and so on. Ultimately, rents in San Francisco go up, and rents in some outlying communities go down. Yes, the increased supply of housing lead to decreased housing prices on average but they’ve gone up, not down, in San Francisco itself.

Admittedly it is possible in principle to build so many apartments in San Francisco that they become more affordable. One way for that to happen is if the city becomes a less pleasant place for rich people to live: crowds, traffic, lack of sunlight as big buildings fill the sky, and improved amentities in neighboring areas, could get to the point that people would rather live in a $3000 apartment in Oakland than a $3500 apartment in San Francisco. But it might take a great deal of building, and a complete change in the character of the city, for that to happen. Manhattan is 400% denser than San Francisco but it’s still not a cheap place to live [Note: I originally said ‘50% denser’ but a commenter named Ira pointed out I was looking at the density of New York City, not Manhattan]. Some people say Manhattan would be cheaper if it were easy to build more housing there, but for crying out loud, they already have 1.6 million people living on the island. What’s the theory, that housing for the first hundred thousand people didn’t make rents go down, nor did housing for the second or third or fourth or… or fourteenth or fifteenth or sixteenth tranche of a hundred thousand people, but we have finally reached the peak and the NEXT hundred thousand housing units will make housing cheaper?  Sorry, no. If the ‘market rate’ for newly developed apartments is substantially higher than the median rent of existing apartments, then building more market-rate apartments will make median rents go up, not down.

(It’s worth remembering that there are other things that could make rents go down too, such as a local or national economic collapse. Maybe the next major earthquake will put a damper on things.)

Given all of the above, until recently I found it really perplexing that San Francisco has a movement of people who loudly claim to be pro-renter and to want policies changed so that rents will go down, but who are strongly in favor of building more market-rate housing. (The broader movement is sometimes characterized as YIMBY = Yes In My Back Yard, which is also the name of an organization; there is also the Bay Area Renters Federation, BARF, which is even more explicit that they don’t care what housing gets built, as long as it gets built). Why, I wondered, are these people promoting policies that are so bad for them?

But suddenly it dawned on me, just last week, that the question “why are people in favor of policies that are so bad for them” might have the same answer in this case that it appears to have for a lot of people in national politics: they aren’t trying to do something good for themselves, they are trying to hurt their perceived enemies. (In fact, there’s a New York Times Op-Ed on the day that I’m writing this, May 14, that points out that some people on the Right are currently cheerleaders for behavior that they once would have found objectionable, not because they think it’s good for them or for the country as a whole, but because it appalls the Left).

When someone proposes to build a 400-unit market-rate housing tower in San Francisco, who objects?  Well, in a minor way, the affordable housing community will usually make some noise, but they usually quiet down if the developer guarantees that 10% or so of the units will be ‘affordable’. I presume the negative impact of higher rental costs everywhere in the city is just too diffuse to energize people from distant neighborhoods.  As for the major objections, they come from people immediately surrounding the proposed project. These people complain (usually correctly) that the proposed project will cause more traffic and more noise, that two years of construction will cause major inconveniences, etc., etc., and they show up in numbers at public hearings to try to kill the project or at least get it reduced in size.

And who are these people? They’re people who already have what the YIMBY and BARF members want: a place to live that they like and can afford. These are often people who bought their condos or rented their rent-controlled apartments years ago. They’re older and often wealthier and probably smugger than the college-debt-laden millenials who desperately want rents to come down.

So this is my new theory: the YIMBY and BARF people know that building more market-rate housing in San Francisco will make median rents go up, and that this will be bad for them, but they want to do it anyway because it’s a thumb in the eye of the “already-haves”, those smug people who already have a place they like and are trying to slam the door behind them.

I hope this is the answer, because if it isn’t, I’m still at a loss.

Comments welcome.

By the way, I, Phil, do not live in San Francisco, I live in a quiet neighborhood of single-family homes across the Bay in Berkeley.  I don’t have a dog in this fight. (Remember, this post is not by Andrew, it’s by Phil.)

 

The post What’s the deal with the YIMBYs? appeared first on Statistical Modeling, Causal Inference, and Social Science.

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Study of the Week: What Actually Helps Poor Students? Human Beings

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As I’ve said many times, a big part of improving our public debates about education (and, with hope, our policy) lies in having a more realistic attitude towards what policy and pedagogy are able to accomplish in terms of changing quantitative outcomes. We are subject to socioeconomic constraints which create persistent inequalities, such as the racial achievement gap; these may be fixable via direct socioeconomic policy (read: redistribution and hierarchy leveling), but have proven remarkably resistant to fixing through educational policy. We also are constrained by the existence of individual differences in academic talent, the origins of which are controversial but the existence of which should not be. These, I believe, will be with us always, though their impact on our lives can be ameliorated through economic policy.

I have never said that there is no hope for changing quantitative indicators. I have, instead, said that the reduction of the value of education to only those quantitative indicators is a mistake, especially if we have a realistic attitude towards what pedagogy and policy can achieve.  We can and should attempt to improve outcomes on these metrics, but we must be realistic, and the absolute refusal of policy types to do so has resulted in disasters like No Child Left Behind. Of course we should ask questions about what works, but we must be willing to recognize that even what works is likely of limited impact compared to factors that schools, teachers, and policy don’t control.

This week’s Study of the Week, by Dietrichson, Bøg, Filges, and Jørgensen, provides some clues. It’s a meta-analysis of 101 studies from the past 15 years, three quarters of which were randomized controlled trials. That’s a particularly impressive evidentiary standard. It doesn’t mean that the conclusions are completely certain, but that number of studies, particularly with randomized controlled designs, lends powerful evidence to what the authors find. If we’re going to avoid the pitfalls of significance testing and replicability, we have to do meta-analysis, even as we recognize that they are not a panacea. Before we take a look at this one, a quick word on how they work.

Effect Size and Meta-Analysis

The term “statistically significant” appears in discussions of research all the time, but as you often hear, statistical significance is not the same thing as practical significance. (After “correlation does not imply causation!” that’s the second most common Stats 101 bromide people will throw at you on the internet.) And it’s true and important to understand. Statistical significance tests are performed to help ascertain the likelihood that a perceived quantitative effect is a figment of our data. So we have some hypothesis (giving kids an intervention before they study will boost test scores, say) and we also have the null hypothesis (kids who had the intervention will not perform differently than those who didn’t take it). After we do our experiment we have two average test scores for the two groups, and we know how many of each we have and how spread out their scores are (the standard deviation). Afterwards we can calculate a p-value, which tells us the likelihood that we would have gotten that difference in average test scores or better even if the null was actually true. Stat heads hate this kind of language but casually people will say that a result with a low p-value is likely a “real” effect.

For all of its many problems, statistical significance testing remains an important part of navigating a world of variability. But note what a p-value is not telling us: the actual strength of the effect. That is, a p-value helps us have confidence in making decisions based on a perceived difference in outcomes, but it can’t tell us how practically strong the effect is. So in the example above, the p-value would not be an appropriate way to report the size in the differences in averages between the two groups. Typically people have just reported those different averages and left it at that. But consider the limitations of that approach: frequently we’re going to be comparing different figures from profoundly different research contexts and derived from different metrics and scales. So how can we responsibly compare different studies and through them different approaches? By calculating and reporting effect size.

As I discussed the other day, we frequently compare different interventions and outcomes through reference to the normal distribution and standard deviation. As I said, that allows us to make easy comparisons between positions on different scales. You look at the normal distribution and can say OK, students in group A were this far below the mean, students in group B were this far above it, and so we can say responsibly how different they are and where they stand relative the the norm. Pragmatically speaking (and please don’t scold me), there’s only about three standard deviations of space below and above the mean in normally-distributed data. So when we say that someone is a standard deviation above or below someone else, that gives you a sense of the scale we’re talking about here. Of course, the context and subject matter makes a good deal of difference too.

There’s lots of different ways to calculate effect sizes, though all involve comparing the size of the given effect to the standard deviation. (Remember, standard deviation is important because spread tells us how much we should trust a given average. If I give a survey on a 0-10 scale and I get equal numbers of every number on that scale – exactly as many 0s, 1s, 2s, 3s, etc. – I’ll get an average of 5. If I give that same survey and everyone scores a 5, I still get an average of 5. But for which situation is 5 a more accurate representation of my data?) In the original effect size, and one that you still see sometimes, you simply divide the difference between the averages by the pooled standard deviations of the experiments you’re comparing, to give you Cohen’s d. There are much fancier ways to calculate effect size, but that’s outside the bounds of this post.

A meta-analysis takes advantage of the affordances of effect size to compare different interventions in a mathematically responsible way. A meta-analysis isn’t just a literature review; rather than just reporting what previous researchers have found, those conducting a meta-analysis use quantitative data made available to researchers to calculate pooled effect sizes. When doing so, they weight the data by looking at the sample size (more is better), the standardized deviation (less spread is better), and the size of the effect. There are then some quality controls and attempts to account for differences in context and procedure between different studies. What you’re left with is the ability to compare different results and discuss how big effects are in a way that helps mitigate the power of error and variability in individual studies.

Because meta-analyses must go laboriously through explanations of how studies were selected and disqualified, as well as descriptions of quality controls and the particular methods to pool standard deviations and calculate effect sizes, reading them carefully is very boring. So feel free to hit up the Donation buttons to the right to reward your humble servant for peeling through all this.

Bet On the Null

One cool thing about meta-analysis is that they allow you to get a bird’s eye view on the kind of effects that are reported on various studies of various types of interventions. And what you find, in ed research, is that we’re mostly playing with small effects.

In the graphic above, the scale at the bottom is for effect sizes represented in standard deviations. The dots on the lines are the effect sizes for a given study. The lines extending from the dots are our confidence interval. A confidence interval is another way of grappling with statistical significance and how much we trust a given average. Because of the inevitability of measurement error, we can never say for 100% that a sample mean is the actual mean of that population. Instead, we can say with a certain degree of confidence, which we choose ourselves, that the true mean lines within a given range of values. 95% confidence intervals, such as these, are a typical convention. Those lines tell us that, given the underlying data, we can say with 95% confidence that the true average lies within those lines. If you wanted to narrow those lines, you could choose a lower % of confidence, but then you’re necessarily increasing the chance the true mean isn’t actually within the line.

Anyhow, look at the effects here. As is so common in education, we’re generally talking about small impacts from our various interventions. This doesn’t tell you what kind of interventions these studies performed – we’ll get there in just a second – but I just want to note how studies with the most dependable designs tend to produce limited effects in education. In fact in a majority of these studies the confidence interval includes zero. Meanwhile, only 6 of these studies have meaningfully powerful effects, although in context they’re pretty large.

Not to cast aspersions but the Good et al. study is the kind of effect size that makes me skeptical right off the bat. The very large confidence interval should also give us pause. That doesn’t mean the researchers weren’t responsible, or that we throw out that study entirely. It just means that this is exactly what meta-analysis is for: it helps us put results in context, to compare the quantitative results of individual studies against others and to get a better perspective on the size of a given effect and the meaning of a confidence interval. In this case, the confidence interval is so wide that we should take the result with several pinches of salt, given the variability involved. Again, no insult to the researchers; ed data is highly variable so getting dependable numbers is hard. We just need to be real: when it comes to education interventions, we are constrained by the boundaries of the possible.

Poor students benefit most from the intervention of human beings

OK, on to the findings. When it comes to improving outcomes for students from poor families, what does this meta-analysis suggest works?

A few things here. We’ve got a pretty good illustration of the relationship between confidence intervals and effect size; small-group instruction has a strong effect size but because the confidence interval (just barely) overlaps with 0 it could not be considered statistically significant to a .05 level. Does that mean we throw out the findings? No; the .05 confidence interval isn’t a dogma, despite what journal publishing guidelines might make you think. But it does mean that we have to be frank about the level of variability in outcomes here. It seems small group instruction is pretty effective in some contexts for some students but potentially not effective at all.

Bear in mind: because we’re looking at aggregates of various studies here, wide confidence intervals likely mean that different studies found conflicting findings. We might say, then, that these interventions can be powerful but that we are less certain about the consistency of their outcomes; maybe these things work well for some students but not at all for others. Meanwhile an intervention like increased resources has a nice tight confidence interval, giving us more confidence that the effect is “real,” but a small effect size. Is it worth it? That’s a matter of perspective.

Tutoring looks pretty damn good, doesn’t it? True, we’re  talking about less than .4 of a SD on average, but again, look at the context here. And that confidence interval is nice and tight, meaning that we should feel pretty strongly that this is a real effect. This should not be surprising to anyone who has followed the literature on tutoring interventions. Yet how often do you hear about tutoring from ed reformers? How often does it pop up at The Atlantic or The New Republic? Compare that to computer-mediated instruction, which is a topic of absolute obsession in our ed debate, the digital Godot we’re all waiting for to swoop in and save our students. No matter how often we get the same result, technology retains its undeserved reputation as the key to fixing our system. When I say that education reform is an ideological project and not a practical one, this is what I mean.

What’s shared by tutoring, small group instruction, cooperative learning, and feedback and progress monitoring – the interventions that come out looking best? The influence of another human being. The ability to work closely with others, particularly trained professionals, to go through the hard, inherently social work of error and correction and trying again. Being guided by another human being towards mastery of skills and concepts. Not paying tons of money on some ed tech boondoggle. Rather, giving individual people the time necessary to work closely with students and shepherd their progress. Imagine if we invested our money in giving all struggling students the ability to work individually or in small groups with dedicated educational professionals that we treated as respected experts and paid accordingly.

What are we doing instead? Oh, right. Funneling millions of dollars into one of the most  profitable companies in the world for little proven benefit. Guess you can’t be too cynical.

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plewis
4 days ago
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