March 13, 2010

"The Death and Life of the Great American School System"

In Slate, Sara Mosle offers an interesting review of veteran neoconservative education guru Diane Ravitch's new book, in which Ravitch admits that she was naive about how to fix schools:

[Ravitch] argues that if we think the data hold the answer, we're indulging in wishful thinking, and her case should be enough to unsettle the best and the brightest as they take their turn at reform. Teacher quality, recruitment, and retention have become the new frontlines of this reform, spurred in part by powerful computer programs that can now mine mountains of data with relative ease. Ravitch focuses on the analyses of William Sanders, then a statistician at the University of Tennessee, whose previous work was in agriculture, manufacturing, and engineering. Drawing on past studies rather than on visits to classrooms, he decided that the single most important variable affecting students' performance is their teacher. (This is contrary to much research that suggests levels of poverty, health, parental education, and peer influences have equal or greater impact.) Since teachers' abilities vary widely, Sanders developed models for performing what is known as "value-added assessments"—that is, determining how much specific teachers boost achievement (based on test scores) for specific students over time.

Enter Stanford economists Eric Hanuchek and Steven Rivkin, whose further explorations Ravitch scrutinizes. They looked at how different variables—certification, general education level, salary—affected teacher quality. Nothing, in their judgment, was predictive. "A good teacher," they concluded, "would be one who consistently obtained high learning growth from students, while a poor teacher would be one who consistently produced low learning growth." So schools, they argued, should just open the profession to anyone and see who sinks or swim. They offered a tidy formula for how swimmers could be saviors: If a student had a teacher in the 85th percentile of teachers for five years in a row, they calculated, this would be enough to eliminate the persistent "achievement gap" between low-income and high-income students—the still-elusive grail of reform.

Hanuchek and Rivkin understandably want to improve the quality of instruction in impoverished schools, which undeniably can become repositories for the worst teachers. What Ravitch doubts is that this intervention all by itself can realistically promise to turn around failing schools in such extraordinary fashion, without any attention to other variables that affect student outcomes. And as a practical matter, she asks, how are schools—especially in inner-city neighborhoods—supposed to attract these large stables of consistent superstars? As Ravitch writes, "This is akin to saying baseball teams should consist only of players who hit over .300 and pitchers who win at least 20 games every season; after all, such players exist, so why should not such teams exist." The model also assumes yearly gains are cumulative, when most studies show that students (particularly low-income students) backslide substantially during summer months. At the very least, such an intervention would likely need to be coupled with efforts to extend the school day and school year.

But perhaps most damning, Ravitch writes:

No school or school district or state anywhere in the nation had ever proved the theory correct. Nowhere was there a real-life demonstration in which a district had identified a top quintile of teachers, assigned low-performing students to their classes, and improved the test-scores of low-performing students so dramatically in three, four or five years that the black-white test score gap closed.

Yet suddenly this one theory is driving reform. ...

The dirty dark secret of NCLB is that we may know how to identify the worst performing schools, but no one (yet) knows how to turn them around in any consistent and reliable way. And I mean no one. Not the Gates Foundation to date. Not most charter programs. No one.

As one study Ravitch cites concludes: "The only guaranteed strategy [for improving schools] is to change the student population, replacing low-performing students with higher-performing students." And this is, in fact, what the rare success stories—like KIPP—typically do: skim off the best and most motivated students from disadvantaged neighborhoods. These best students deserve better options, but this approach doesn't address the larger problem of how to fix chronically failing schools.

My published articles are archived at -- Steve Sailer

March 11, 2010

Obama's first discriminating school district: LAUSD

Now we know the very first target of the Obama Administration's discrimination investigations of local school districts: This obvious discriminator against Spanish-speaking students is the Los Angeles Unified School District (Ramon Cortines, Superintendent). It must be all those white racist gangs in lily-white LA.

I sent my kid to an LAUSD middle school with an excellent science magnet program, so I'm fairly familiar with how LAUSD policies produce their statistical outcomes. Yet, as far as I can tell, almost nobody who works for LAUSD understands that logic. (I applied my kid to a charter high school that did, however, understand selection so well that their admissions "lottery" was rigged in his favor.) Almost all school performance statistics are primarily driven by selection, and only evil people like James Watson and Charles Murray understand the implications of selection. And LAUSD staffers tend to be as innocent of intellectual awareness as new-born lambs. And I'm sure that the Obama Dept. of Ed will never, ever understand school statistics.

From the LA Times:
The federal government has singled out the Los Angeles Unified School District for its first major investigation under a reinvigorated Office for Civil Rights, officials said Tuesday.

The focus of the probe, by an arm of the U.S. Department of Education, will be whether the nation's second-largest district provides adequate services to students learning English.

Officials turned their attention to L.A. Unified because so many English learners fare poorly and because they make up about a third of district enrollment, more than 220,000 students.

Uh ... Doesn't the federal government, which has only been so lax about enforcing the border, share some responsibility for why there are such an enormous number of students with poor English skills in Los Angeles?
Federal analysts will review how English learners are identified and when they are judged fluent enough to handle regular course work. They'll examine whether English learners have qualified, appropriately trained teachers. And they'll look at how teachers make math and science understandable for students with limited English.

The ultimate goal of federal officials is to exert pressure on L.A. Unified and other school districts to close the achievement gap that separates white, Asian and higher-income students from low-income, black and Latino students.

Like all those other school districts that have closed The Gap, such as Erehwon, Utopia, Wishfulthinkingville, and Wouldn't-It-Be-Nice-by-the-Sea.
Federal authorities aren't accusing L.A. Unified of intentional discrimination, but the civil rights office seeks to uncover policies and practices that result in a "disparate outcome." Enforcement options include withholding federal money; more than 23% of the district's $7.16 billion operating budget comes from the federal government.

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan launched the ramped-up enforcement effort Monday at the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., where law enforcement officers beat and drove back 600 civil rights marchers on March 7, 1965. Without naming school systems, officials said 38 faced compliance reviews; on Tuesday it became clear that L.A. Unified was among them.

Some observers hailed a resurgent civil rights office they said had languished under the George W. Bush administration.

"This is a big deal after eight years of lackluster enforcement," said Thomas A. Saenz, president and general counsel of the locally based Mexican American Legal Defense & Educational Fund.

Less impressed was Mike Petrilli of the Fordham Institute, based in Washington, D.C.: "School districts are going to see this announcement and freak out, take shortcuts and just push minority kids into Advanced Placement whether they are ready for them or not," he wrote on his blog.

In L.A., second grade is the apparent high-water mark for English learners. At that level, 33% test as proficient in English. By eighth grade, proficiency levels decline to 2%, although that includes recent immigrants and excludes students who have moved into the "fluent" category.

Uh, if you are proficient in English, why would you be classified as an English Learner? Obviously, what's happening is that the brighter kids from non-English speaking homes are quickly picking up spoken and written English in school, passing tests, and getting reclassified out of the "English Learner" category, leaving the dumber kids to remain with that label.

Moreover, lots of those 220,000 "English learners" speak English okay. Since 1999, due to Ron Unz's Proposition 227, California doesn't have a lot of "bilingual education" (i.e., Spanish-speaking teacher) courses.

But huge numbers of young people who speak English with Valley Girl accents remain classified from K through 12 as "English Learners" because they don't score well on written tests of reading and writing English. They typically also don't score well on tests of math and science. How come? Because a lot of them don't "test well" -- i.e., they aren't very bright.

Heather Mc Donald explained in City Journal:
But the “persistent test-score gap” argument has a more fundamental flaw. California defines English learners as students who are less than fluent in English and who occupy the bottom rungs of reading and math achievement. To be reclassified out of English-learner status, a student must score well not just on the test of English proficiency but also on statewide reading and math tests. As soon as a student becomes more capable academically, he leaves the English-learner pool and enters a new category: Reclassified Fluent English Proficient, or RFEP. By fiat, then, the English-learner pool contains only the weakest students, whereas the native-speaker pool contains the entire range of students, from the highest achievers to the lowest.
The LA Times goes on:
But even among newly fluent students, only 35% test as academically proficient in English in the 11th grade.

"Proficient" is the second highest ranking on a scale running from Far Below Basic to Below Basic to Basic to Proficient to Advanced. In other words, in LAUSD, even among the students from non-English speaking homes bright enough to pass a test of written English, most are mediocre-to-bad students.

Meanwhile, the LA Daily News reports:
Poor performance of LAUSD prompts feds' probe:
District's statistics - not complaints - spur review of English learners

Federal officials who plan to launch a probe of Los Angeles Unified's English-language learner program next week said Wednesday they targeted the district because of its size and low performance, but not because of any complaints or violations.

The investigation of Los Angeles Unified will look at whether the district is honoring the civil rights of English-language learners and providing them equal access to educational opportunities.

The compliance review, focusing initially on schools in the west San Fernando Valley and southeast Los Angeles, is the first of 38 planned nationwide by the federal Office for Civil Rights.

"I believe this review could have a tremendous impact not only in Los Angeles, but across the nation," said Russlynn Ali, assistant secretary for civil rights with the U.S. Department of Education.

She said LAUSD was chosen because of the high proportion of ELL students and their dismal academic performance compared to their counterparts in other districts.

About a third of LAUSD's students are English-language learners. In fact, the district educates 11 percent of the nation's population of students learning English. But only 3 out of 100 of LAUSD's English learners score at the proficient level in English and math in high school.

Superintendent Ramon Cortines, acknowledging that the district's English-language learner programs need improvement, welcomed the probe. ...

The compliance review comes as the district struggles to close a $640-million budget gap.

Some local education experts said studies have already proven that the district has not provided these students with a fair and equitable education.

A study last fall by the Thomas Rivera Policy Institute found that 30 percent of children who start as English-language learners in kindergarten fail to leave their remedial courses by the time they are seniors in high school. Of those students, about 70 percent are native-born U.S. citizens.

In other words, we are talking overwhelmingly about people of below average intelligence who can't read or write as proficiently as people of above average intelligence.

Try to imagine the quantity of cluelessness that will be on display -- the furrowed brows, the blank stares -- on both sides of the table as the Obama Administration investigates the LAUSD over the question of why kids who can't pass tests can't pass tests...

My published articles are archived at -- Steve Sailer

March 10, 2010

The Nice White Lady's Burden

Newsweek explains in "Why We Must Fire Bad Teachers" that:
It takes a certain kind of teacher to succeed at a KIPP school or at other successful charter programs, like YES Prep. KIPP teachers carry cell phones so students can call them at any time. The dedication required makes for high burnout rates. It may be that teaching in an inner-city school is a little like going into the Special Forces in the military, a calling for only the chosen few.

Thank God we only have a few inner city school children for those chosen few Special Forces teachers to teach. If there were a lot of inner city school children, then we might have a problem. Fortunately, there's nothing to worry about.

In totally unrelated news, from the AP:
Minorities make up nearly half the children born in the U.S., part of a historic trend in which minorities are expected to become the U.S. majority over the next 40 years.

In fact, demographers say this year could be the "tipping point" when the number of babies born to minorities outnumbers that of babies born to whites.

The numbers are growing because immigration to the U.S. has boosted the number of Hispanic women in their prime childbearing years. Minorities made up 48 percent of U.S. children born in 2008, the latest census estimates available, compared to 37 percent in 1990.

Oh ... so, maybe the scale of the problem requires more than a chosen few Special Forces teachers. It sounds like we're going to need Cannon Fodder teachers.

My published articles are archived at -- Steve Sailer

Forbes: Carlos Slim finally world's richest man

He's been knocking on the door for a few years, but Lebanese-Mexican communications monopolist Carlos Slim is now Forbes' official choice for world's richest man. Due largely to the high prices (the average monthly phone bill is more than 100% higher in Mexico than in the U.S.) charged by the telephone monopoly he acquired from the Mexican government in the 1990s, Slim has $3,000 in net worth for every family of six in Mexico.

As punishment for Windows Vista, Bill Gates is now only the second richest man in the world. Karma's a bitch, baby!

My published articles are archived at -- Steve Sailer

March 9, 2010

Obama Administration Promises to Make Public Schools Even More Dysfunctional

I've been pointing out for years that the theory and practice of disparate impact is fundamentally catastrophic to American public education, since any realistic, effective policy will have a racially disparate impact, and therefore make schools vulnerable to discrimination lawsuits. The Obama Administration today announced: Undermining public education is not a bug of disparate impact, it's a feature!

From the New York Times:
Officials Step Up Enforcement of Rights Laws in Education

Seeking to step up enforcement of civil rights laws, the federal Department of Education says it will be sending letters in coming weeks to thousands of school districts and colleges, outlining their responsibilities on issues of fairness and equal opportunity.

As part of that effort, the department intends to open investigations known as compliance reviews in about 32 school districts nationwide, seeking to verify that students of both sexes and all races are getting equal access to college preparatory curriculums and to advanced placement courses. The department plans to open similar civil rights investigations at half a dozen colleges.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan is to announce the initiatives in a speech on Monday in Selma, Ala., where on March 7, 1965, hundreds of civil rights marchers were beaten by Alabama state troopers.

Mr. Duncan plans to say that in the past decade the department’s Office for Civil Rights “has not been as vigilant as it should have been in combating gender and racial discrimination and protecting the rights of individuals with disabilities,” according to a text of the speech distributed to reporters on Sunday.

It continues, “We are going to reinvigorate civil rights enforcement.”

At the end of high school, white students are about six times as likely to be ready to pursue college-level biology courses as black students, and more than four times as likely to be ready for college algebra, department officials said. White high school graduates are more than twice as likely to have taken advanced placement calculus classes as black or Latino graduates.

Assertions about discrimination in access to Advanced Placement (AP) classes can be easily tested by looking at performance on AP tests.

If smart blacks and Latinos are being kept out of AP classes at an unfair rate, then blacks and Latinos should be scoring higher on the actual Advanced Placement Calculus AB test, right? Because so many more low-potential whites are being channeled into taking the class and thus the test, whites should be doing worse, right?

Except that the average score, according to the College Board, on Calculus AB is (on a 1 to 5 scale with 5 being best):

Asian: 3.23
White: 3.14
Mexican-American: 2.13
Black: 2.00

Since about 70% of blacks get a 1 (the lowest possible score, equivalent to an F in a freshman Intro to Calc course at an average college) on the Calculus AB AP test compared to about 30% of whites, there is more evidence to suggest that too many blacks are enrolled in Calculus AP courses than too few. Kids who get a 1 on the Calculus AB AP test would probably have been better off taking Statistics or a less fast-paced Calculus course or something else, because they apparently didn't get much out of their AP Calculus class.

The department enforces civil rights laws in schools and universities by responding to specific complaints from parents, students and others, but also by scrutinizing its own vast bodies of data on the nation’s school and university systems, looking for signs of possible discrimination.

I.e., the feds sniff out Disparate Impact.
A school seen to be expelling Latino students in numbers far out of proportion to their share of the student population, for instance, might become a candidate for compliance review, officials said.

The NYT Magazine and Newsweek have articles this week complaining that public school teachers can't maintain discipline in their classrooms.

Effect, meet Cause.

How are schools going to punish troublemakers fairly when the federal Department of Education threatens them if they do? What the schools end up doing, of course, is not punishing troublemakers adequately, which damages the learning environment for the good kids.
... Russlyn H. Ali, assistant secretary of education for civil rights, said in an interview that the department would begin 38 compliance reviews before the current fiscal year ended on Oct. 1. That number compares with 29 such reviews carried out last year, 42 in 2008, 23 in 2007 and nine in 2006, she said.

“But the big difference is not in the number of the reviews we intend to carry out, but in their complexity and depth,” Ms. Ali said. “Most of the reviews in the recent past have looked at procedures.”

In cases analyzing potential sex discrimination, for instance, federal investigators would often check to see if schools and universities had grievance procedures in place, and if so, take no enforcement action, she said.

“Now we’ll not simply see whether there is a program in place, but also examine whether that program is working effectively,” she said.

The department plans to begin a major investigation on Wednesday in one of the nation’s largest urban school districts, Ms. Ali said. She declined to identify it because, she said, department officials were still notifying Congress and others of the plans.

The compliance reviews typically involve visits to the school district or university by federal officials based in one or more of the department’s 12 regional offices.

The department intends to send letters offering guidance to virtually all of the nation’s 15,000 school districts and several thousand institutions of post-secondary education, officials said.

The letters will focus on 17 areas of civil rights concern, including possible racial discrimination in student assignments and admissions, in the meting out of discipline, and in access to resources, including qualified teachers. Other areas include possible sex and gender bias in athletics programs, as well as sexual harassment and violence. Other letters will remind districts and colleges of their responsibilities under federal law with regard to disabled students.

My published articles are archived at -- Steve Sailer

"The Lost Books of The Odyssey:" Better than Borges?

From my Taki's Magazine column "Zachary Mason and the Legacy of Borges:"

In synopsis, The Lost Books of the Odyssey, a lapidary first work of fiction by Silicon Valley computer scientist Zachary Mason, sounds like an overly clever postmodern literary jest. This elegant collection of very short stories consists of 44 purported pre-Homeric variations on the legends of the Trojan War and the pragmatic Odysseus’s homeward wanderings, as recounted in the arch manner of a more recent blind poet, Jorge Luis Borges.

Borges (1899-1986), composer of metaphysical conundrums about infinite libraries, has become a Siren for bookish young men of the computer age.

I first read Borges several decades ago. Overwhelmed, I immediately began to write a short story in the style of that sightless librarian. I resolved to fictionalize the true but oddly Borgesian story of how the economist John Maynard Keynes, as tribute to his favorite hero of the Enlightenment, Isaac Newton, bought a trunk of the physicist’s unpublished papers, only to discover that Newton cared more for alchemy and numerology than for science. In Keynes’s words, “Newton was not the first of the Age of Reason. He was the last of the magicians, the last of the Babylonians and Sumerians …”

Then, however, I found a girlfriend, and the world was spared my ersatz Borges story.

The Lost Books of the Odyssey might have turned out almost as dire. Mason presents a pseudo-translation of a “papyrus excavated from the desiccated rubbish mounds of Oxyrhynchus,” as he explains with Borges’s deadpan combination of intimidating scholarship (Oxyrhynchus is an actual archaeological site in Egypt) and adjectival extremism (not “dry,” but “desiccated”).

John Updike listed Borges’s fixations as “Dreams, labyrinths, mirrors, multiplications approaching infinity, … Zeno’s second paradox, Nietzsche’s eternal return, the hidden individual destiny, the hard fate of … warriors, [and] the manipulations of chance.”

Read the rest there and comment upon it below:

My published articles are archived at -- Steve Sailer

March 8, 2010

Are people still growing up taller than their parents on average?

When I was a kid, it was noticeable that young people were taller on average than their parents: better nutrition, antibiotics, and all that. You could see that there was a difference between the generations in average height from evidence all around you, the great majority of which was in agreement: not just government statistics and scientific opinion, but daily life, sports, celebrity culture, and business innovations all suggested the Baby Boom generation was growing up taller than their parents. You could believe your lying eyes.

It was an early introduction for me to questions of statistical evidence. I'm a statistical omnivore. A lot of pundits aren't -- they suggest it's in bad taste to notice patterns until a blue ribbon commission has certified them (and then they usually try hard to ignore the findings of the blue ribbon commission).

For me, though, you can find evidence everywhere. If 7-1 Wilt Chamberlain could average 50 points per game in 1962 by being more gigantic than everybody else, but by 1972 he couldn't, that suggests something.

In the 1970s, it was assumed that the future of basketball was ever-taller players: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (7-2) was taller than Wilt, and Magic Johnson was a 6-9" point guard as a rookie in 1979.

Or, 6'4" and 235 pound Los Angeles Rams quarterback Roman Gabriel (who, interestingly, was Filipino on his father's side) was famous for his immense size during the early years of his NFL career (1962-1977). Late in his career, that didn't get mentioned as much.

In 1962, 5-10 Yankees pitcher Whitey Ford went 25-4. Today, only about 5% of major league innings are now pitched by pitchers between 5-10 or 5-11 (no big league pitcher in 2008 was shorter than 5-10). (Yes, Pedro Martinez is only 5-11, but then he's Pedro Martinez.)

But, it's not as obvious anymore that people are continuing to get taller from generation to generation in America.

NBA players don't appear to have gotten taller over the last 20+ seasons. In the 2008 season, the average height in the NBA was 6-6.98, down from 6.736 in 1986. (However, players have the right to be listed either with their heights measured either with their shoes on or off, which makes a difference of about 1" to 1.5" -- I don't know whether there has had any effect.)

Similarly, high school seniors aren't clearly taller on average than their parents or teachers, as you used to notice.

So, I can't tell from incidental data whether people are now getting modestly taller or are staying the same size. Thus, we need blue ribbon data for this.

The government periodically collects "anthropometric" data on a large sample of people. By comparing the 1988-1994 study to the 2003-2006 study, we can see that over this 13.5 year (on average) stretch, young men of each race tended to be a little less than half an inch taller. In 1988-1994, non-Hispanic white men of age 20-39 averaged 5-9.95 versus 5-10.4 in 2003-2006, for an increase of 0.45 inches. That suggests a growth rate of about 1 inch per generation in recent years.

Among blacks 20-39, average height has grown from 5-9.75 to 5-10.1.

Among Mexican Americans, from 5'7.0 to 5-7.2. (Immigration tends to keep Mexican height down.)

So, I think the explanation for height stalling out in the NBA is that the influx of foreign players is balanced off by the decline in the number of U.S. born white players. The NBA's American players are drawn from a more limited population today (essentially, African-Americans) than in the past, so players have gotten a little shorter.

In 1972, the future of the NBA was assumed to be ever taller Kareems throwing in unblockable Sky Hooks. My guess is that better coaching has somewhat neutralized the huge advantage that giant centers had in the earlier days of the NBA, but I'm not convinced of this, mostly because nobody ever figured out how to neutralize Kareem himself. He was 3rd in the MVP voting as a rookie in 1970, went on to win six MVPs, and was fifth in the MVP voting as late as 1986. He was Finals MVP in 1985.

Kareem was kind of boring, but he was just insanely effective. So, I'm still baffled why there weren't more tall, thin, hook shot-shooting centers after him. When young, Kareem wasn't considered so much a once-in-a-lifetime freak of nature as The Next Stage in the process. But there hasn't really been a Next Stage since then.

My published articles are archived at -- Steve Sailer

March 7, 2010

"Hurt Locker"

Good movie.

Still, giving it the "Best Picture" award is going to raise expectations a little too high among the many who have yet to see it. It's kind of like if an early Ramones album that had sold 10,000 copies had beaten out multi-platinum Stevie Wonder or Fleetwood Mac albums for a 1970s Grammy Award. "The Hurt Locker" is not exactly The Return of the King or The Departed in terms of satisfying a broad checklist of qualities that you would expect in a Best Picture. "The Hurt Locker" does a few things very well, but don't expect it to do more than that.

If The Big Lebowski had won Best Picture, would it seem as funny? Instead, it was considered a disappointment when it came out, and most people later stumbled upon it with low or no expectations. For people seeing it for the first time now, it has a hard time living up to the legend.

My published articles are archived at -- Steve Sailer