What doesn’t explain US education outcomes

Really liked this post from Amanda Ripley summing up all the reasons that do not explain educational outcomes in the US relative to other nations:

2. Class Sizes

Around the world, class sizes are not predictive of education results. In the U.S., small class sizes seem to be better for very young students, but as usual, it depends on the teacher and the principal.

3. Time in School

Despite popular belief, most U.S. schools require at least as much instructional timeas schools in other countries. The quality of that time matters more than the quantity. I have seen a lot of time wasted in schools all over the world…. More time may be useful, particularly for kids from low-income families, but only if that time is used wisely (i.e. by giving teachers more time to watch strong teachers teach).

4. School Choice

Around the world, there is no clear relationship between the amount of school choice and competition and students’ performance on a test of critical thinking in math, reading and science. In fact, if anything, school choice seems to be related to greater levels of segregation in some countries.

Here again, the quality of choices appears to matter more than the existence of choices. So investing in the supply of great teachers and principals seems to be more effective than relying on parental demand.

So what matters?  Challenging our students (Common Core anyone?) and investing far more in good teachers:

So what does matter, now that we’ve covered what doesn’t? Rigor matters: the work that kids do, the quality of teacher training, the seriousness of the entire system. That matters in every time zone.

There is more than one way to get rigor, of course. In my experience, the best approaches start at the beginning–focusing on how teachers get selected and coached, how principals are developed and chosen, and how schools and parents work together to challenge all kids to think for themselves.


Daily Show on Fox and race

This is awesome:

Photo of the day

From the Telegraph’s animal photos of the week:

A man rows a makeshift raft to evacuate a pig from a flooded village in Lishui in east China's Zhejiang province

A man rows a makeshift raft to evacuate a pig from a flooded village in Lishui in east China’s Zhejiang provincePicture: AP

Science vs. status quo (high school edition)

Ugh, I’m tired.  Why?  My oldest started high school this week, complete with it’s utterly absurd 7:25 start time.  My own high school started school at 7:30, but I did not recognize until years later that I basically spent my entire high school years chronically sleep-deprived.  Then I got to college, never took classes before 9:10, and knew what it meant to be sufficiently rested.

I don’t know the history of the early high school start times, but when these decisions were first made, we did not have scientists and doctors telling us that these times were simply not compatible with optimal adolescent health.  But now we know.  The evidence on the inappropriateness of these early start times keeps piling up and school districts just keep ignoring it.  Status quo bias is a very, very powerful thing.  Very nice piece in the Atlantic summarizing the evidence on the matter:

These early school start times result in sleepy kids and frustrated parents. But, as of Monday, those kids and parents have the formidable weight of the American Academy of Pediatrics on their side. The organization released a new policy statement saying that “insufficient sleep in adolescents [is] an important public health issue that significantly affects the health and safety, as well as the academic success, of our nation’s middle and high school students.”

“The empirical evidence [of] the negative repercussions of chronic sleep loss on health, safety and performance in adolescents … has been steadily mounting for over the past decade,” wrote Judith Owens, a pediatrician and the lead author of the report, in an email. “For example, an important recent study published this spring by Dr. Kyla Wahlstrom documented the positive effects of school start time delay in over 9000 students from eight high schools in three states, including improved grades and standardized test scores and up to a 65 to 70 percent reduction in teen car accidents.”

Lest you thing, “those damn whiny kids (and their whiny parents) just need to go to bed earlier,” it is not so simple:

Moving bedtimes earlier is not going to fix the problem, particularly for adolescents. Teens stay up later not because they don’t want to go to sleep, but because they can’t. Due to the delayed release of melatonin in the adolescent brain and a lack of “sleep drive” in response to fatigue, teens do not feel sleepy until much later at night than young children or adults and have difficulty falling asleep, even when they are tired.

That’s why the American Academy of Pediatrics is focusing on school start times. “Although many changes over the course of adolescence can affect the quality and quantity of sleep, one of the most salient and, arguably, most malleable is that of school start times,” it says.

We actually give David supplemental melatonin every night and it generally works (he’s predispositionally prone to insomnia plus he’s got remaining Adderall in his system).  I honestly wonder if parents of most high school kids with these 7:30 and similar start times just shouldn’t be given their kids melatonin every night.  Now, of course, the obvious solution is right in front of everybody with moving the start times, but that is a lot of change.  I do understand the reluctance, but I wish people would listen to the science and their over-tired teenagers.

I think at some point enough school districts will make a change and show a clear relationship to rising test scores that it will finally catch on widely (that would be one good effect of our standardized test obsession).  Hopefully before Sarah goes to high school, otherwise I’ve got 15 years of these early start times ahead of me.

Photo of the day

So, Itchy shared a link to this amazing gallery in a comment in yesterday’s photo.  Apparently a couple of Russian guys love to take photos from the rooftops of skyscrapers in Hong Kong.  Pretty amazing stuff.  This one blows me away:

US vs. UK (police shootings edition)

The Economist on police shootings in America vs the UK:

In 2012, according to data compiled by the FBI, 410 Americans were “justifiably” killed by police—409 with guns. That figure may well be an underestimate. Not only is it limited to the number of people who were shot while committing a crime, but also, amazingly, reporting the data is voluntary.

Last year, in total, British police officers actually fired their weapons three times. The number of people fatally shot was zero. In 2012 the figure was just one. Even after adjusting for the smaller size of Britain’s population, British citizens are around 100 times less likely to be shot by a police officer than Americans. Between 2010 and 2014 the police force of one small American city, Albuquerque in New Mexico, shot and killed 23 civilians; seven times more than the number of Brits killed by all of England and Wales’s 43 forces during the same period.

Wow.  And what could account for this?  How about more guns equal more police getting shot and more police shooting people:

The explanation for this gap is simple. In Britain, guns are rare. Only specialist firearms officers carry them; and criminals rarely have access to them. The last time a British police officer was killed by a firearm on duty was in 2012, in a brutal case in Manchester. The annual number of murders by shooting is typically less than 50. Police shootings are enormously controversial. The shooting of Mark Duggan, a known gangster, which in 2011 started riots across London, led to a fiercely debated inquest. Last month, a police officer was charged with murder over a shooting in 2005…

In America, by contrast, it is hardly surprising that cops resort to their weapons more frequently. In 2013, 30 cops were shot and killed—just a fraction of the 9,000 or so murders using guns that happen each year. Add to that a hyper-militarised police cultureand a deep history of racial strife and you have the reason why so many civilians are shot by police officers

Now, I realize that gun-wise, we are culturally a million miles away from the UK and wishful thinking is not going to get us there.  But in the UK, where for the most part, only criminals have guns, a hell of a lot less people get shot.  And a lot less of those people are police or victims of “justifiable” shootings on the part of the police.  Call me crazy, but that sounds a lot better than America’s gun-infused culture.


Where did all the teen moms go?

Loved this post from last week at Vox looking at the rather dramatic, and not well-understood, decline in the teen birthrate.  Sarah Kliff systematically explores each hypothesis and the evidence in favor and against.  Now that’s good stuff, damnit, and hard to imagine many places other than Vox where you’d find analysis like this.  First, the decline and why it’s a good thing:

For five years now, America’s teen birth rate has plummeted at an unprecedented rate, falling faster and faster. Between 2007 and 2013, the number of babies born to teens annually fell by 38.4 percent, according to research firm Demographic Intelligence. This drop occurred in tandem with steep declines in the abortion rate. That suggests that the drop isn’t the product of more teenagers terminating pregnancies. More simply, fewer girls are getting pregnant…

The massive decline in teen birth rates is undeniably good news for public health advocates. Teen mothers are significantly more likely to drop out of high school. Most teen mothers do not receive financial support from their child’s father; 48 percent live below the poverty line. Avoiding early motherhood undeniably opens additional doors in a teen’s future.

But there’s something uniquely frustrating about the recent, steep decline in teen birth rates: nobody knows why it’s happened.

So, why has the teen birth rate gone down so much?  Best guess is a perfect storm of a whole bunch of factors working in concert:

We may have just gotten lucky.

It’s not an especially scientific answer, but it’s one that seems to describe how teen pregnancy researchers view the dramatic slowdown in the birth rate: a collision of lots of trends that all serendipitously happened in the late 2000s and early 2010s.

The recession, the uptick in IUD use, a hit MTV show that deglamorized teen pregnancy — each of these factors could have have caused a small decline on their own. Taken together, it’s possible they caused a much bigger change.

And if that is the case, that doesn’t portend especially well for the fast decline continuing. A few of the factors might: use of IUDs, for example, might continue to rise as the health care law eliminates co-pays for the contraceptive. Cost has often been a barrier to IUD use, as co-pays could range between $500 and $1,000.

The other particulars, however, seem less likely to forecast long-term change. The economy is recovering, and so is the birth rate among older women — it’s possible that younger women could follow. Teen Momstopped airing in 2012  (a Teen Mom 2 series still does exist) and 16 and Pregnant, which wrapped up its fifth season this year, doesn’t deliver the blockbuster ratings it used to.

Researchers are waiting for the other shoe to drop: there’s a general expectation that at some point the statistics have to turn around. “A 10 percent decline per year is not something that happens forever,” said Levine. “I don’t know that it’s necessarily a bad thing if it goes back to the 2.5 percent declines we saw before.”

Anyway, good news for teens and public health, a a great example of Vox doing truly value-added journalism.

Also, Jon Cohn builds off the piece to make the point that free birth control is a really, really good thing (sorry, curmudgeonly conservatives):

Maybe this is a good time to remind everybody why this requirement [the contraceptive mandate] matters so much to those of us who support it. Many conservatives look at the price of oral contraceptives, available at places like Target or Walmart for as little as $9 a month, and wonder why anybody except the very poor would need help paying for it. But numerous studies have shown that even modest co-payments can reduce use of medications, particularly when you’re talking about less affluent people who must be careful with every dollar they spend. That’s the whole point of making certain drugs that prevent medical conditions cost-free. It works that way for diabetes and hypertension and, yes, it works that way for pregnancy. Besides, the most effective and, for some women, the most medically appropriate forms of birth control are intrauterine devices (IUDs). Those cost $500 or even $1000 out-of-pocket. Reducing their cost can have fairly dramatic effects on their usage, if the available research is correct…

Late last week, lots of people were talking about a story by Sarah Kliff, of Vox, on why teen pregnancy has been declining in just the last few years. It’s a great article, well worth your time, but the part that jumped out at me was the much bigger decline in teen births that occurred many decades agoin the 1960s, when the teen pregnancy rate fell by about 25 percent. What changed? The big factor, as social scientists (and friends of QED) Harold Pollack and Luke Shaeferreminded me over the weekend, was birth control. The Food and Drug Administration first approved the pill in 1960.

Birth control.  Good for the users.  Good for society.  Bad for conservatives who want to control women’s sexuality.

Ice bucket activism

I’ve read a lot of complaints about the ice bucket challenge, but I think too many of them are hoping for a better world where people simply give money to charities without viral campaigns to inspire them to do so.  I thus, very much enjoyed this rebuttal to the skepticism from a young ALS sufferer:

Yes, people are spending money on ice to dump over their heads, but that’s an element of fundraising, like making team T-shirts for a charity or bringing cookies to a bake sale. All the cynics who want people to donate in humility and not post it on our social media feeds completely overlook the fundamental reality that humans are social animals. In the hierarchy of needs, we search for community and fulfill the urge to belong, so donating without dumping buckets of water on our heads disconnects us from a cause. It’s about being a part of something.

The hashtag activists actually create that community. Since when did fighting for something—whether a cure for a disease or gay rights—mean that you needed permission to sit with the cool kids at lunch? What’s the harm of having them there, even the ones who ended up there by accident, the people dumping buckets of iced water on their heads with zero connection to the cause? They are the people who end up at a bar where the proceeds go to charity, and they’re only drinking for fun, but who the fuck are you to kick them out of the party? They’re pumping up the crowds, having a fabulous time, and building momentum. Or are you that desperate for your Facebook feed to go back to engagement announcements and mediocre attempts at food photography?

Keep dumping buckets of iced water over your head and I’ll keep “liking” it. The Ice Bucket Challenge is one of the few things that’s given me hope since I got diagnosed with early ALS six weeks ago, at age 29.


If this link works [cool, wordpress handles FB video embeds], here’s my version.  The screaming has been a big hit.

Photo of the day

On the rare occassion my wife was nearby while I was looking at photos, she commented, “I would not drive on that road!”  From the National Geographic Found tumblr:

Motorists pass people on a scenic road atop a cliff overlooking a bay near Trieste, Italy, 1956.Photograph by B. Anthony Stewart, National Geographic Creative

Motorists pass people on a scenic road atop a cliff overlooking a bay near Trieste, Italy, 1956.PHOTOGRAPH BY B. ANTHONY STEWART, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC CREATIVE

Homeschooling and the common good

I’ve always been someone suspect of homeschooling.  I know a number of parents with special needs kids who have resorted to it because they felt their children’s very unique needs could not be met by the school system.  Personally, I’ve been very pleased with how the school system has done by Alex, but I certainly understand this choice.  A lot of other people, though, I’ll admit to being skeptical.

My first encounter on the issue happened not long after moving to NC I took David to a nearby park and we ended up playing with some other young kids.  I asked the sweet little girl where she went to school.  Her literal response… “Do you know God?”  Umm, okay.  “Sure, I know God,” I responded.  Turns out the public schools don’t and that’s why her parents were homeschooling her.  I don’t need to expound on the idea that it’s a damn good thing that the public schools are not for learning about God, but it seems to me that this is quite different from algebra and grammar anyway, so what exactly is the problem?  Can’t your children learn math, writing, etc., at school and learn about God at home and church?

Anyway, really enjoyed this recent Op Ed in the N&O about homeschooling in NC:

In 2011, 91 percent of homeschooling parents said that one reason they homeschooled was concern about the public school environment. Seventy-seven percent cited “a desire to provide moral instruction,” and 74 percent cited “dissatisfaction with academic instruction at other schools.”

That homeschooling is increasing is clear. Less clear is what these trends mean for public education in North Carolina and in the United States…

Another way to look at it is that higher-than-ever numbers of parents are removing themselves and their children from the public education system that is such an important part of the culture of the United States – a public education system that needs constant and continuous maintenance to improve. The contract of our public education system includes that such maintenance, at least in part, comes from the families of students in the system.

When families leave in higher and higher numbers, what does that mean for the public education system? And what does it mean for our sense of community?

In her 2012 book “Homeward Bound,” Emily Matchar puts the increasing number of homeschooled students in a historical context. During the social and political reform of the Progressive Era, from 1890 to 1920, Matchar writes, “Parents with high socioeconomic status – the ones with the greatest social and political clout – advocated for policy changes that ultimately benefited everybody,” including a number of school-reform bills, such as a more widely available high school education.

Today, though, Matchar notes, “Historian Janet Golden observes that we’ve abandoned the idea of communal good in favor of individual, family-focused solutions.” That means “there are fewer people … volunteering to improve the public schools.” She describes it as “opting out” of the social contract.

When parents are committed only to their own child’s education, that affects the education of other children, those whose parents don’t have the time or inclination to fight for improved school conditions, those whose parents must work long hours and can’t devote evenings to school projects and PTA meetings. When parents are committed only to their own child’s education, that affects communities for whom schools have long been a source of unity. What does that do to education in North Carolina, education in the United States?

Now, I do understand that many people have a variety of reasons for wanting to homeschool, but when the parents most committed to their children’s education pull out of the school systems that undoubtedly hurts the school systems.  Yes, families have a right to do what’s best for their child, but if some of that effort went into working to improve public schools, than everybody’s child would benefit.

My third son attends an elementary school that is majority-minority (it’s about 30% white).  A lot of the more committed white parents have pulled their kids out for a whiter magnet school further away.  I know it’s not about race for most, but it has left our school with a much higher percentage of kids on free/reduced lunch.  The truth is, my son is still getting a very good education at our neighborhood school.  Would it be even better at the magnet?  Probably.  But the difference is not going to mean the difference between Evan going to Duke versus community college.  Meanwhile, our school benefits from still having committed, higher SES families involved.

Diet Coke diet

Naturally, I cannot let the latest research on diet soda go uncommented upon.  There is some research that correlates diet soda with overweight, but I think it is a great example of correlation does not equal causation.  The other day at lunch when I got my Diet Coke, a friend mentioned that I was about the only thin person they know that drinks diet soda (I can think of many others, prominently JP who is surely the biggest Diet Coke addict I know and reading this post).

I think a lot of overweight people drink diet soda because they are overweight.  But if that’s the only change you make to an unhealthy diet, it surely will not be enough.  As I think about it, most of my healthier friends don’t drink soda at all, diet or otherwise.  That is probably the healthiest course.  But it has always seemed pretty clear to me that if the diet soda is replacing regular soda, that’s very likely got to be a good thing.

Anyway, onto the latest research via James Hamblin (who makes the most wonderful oddball videos on health, by the way) in the Atlantic:

The September issue of The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition just published a meta-analysis of the existing research on artificial sweeteners and weight gain. The conclusion lands in support of artificial sweeteners in the right context, specifically when they are substituted for sugar. People tend to see “modest weight loss,” suggesting that low-calorie sweeteners (LCSs) indeed “may be a useful dietary tool to improve compliance with weight-loss or weight-maintenance plans.”

That might seem obvious, but several studies have suggested that eating/drinking these nutritive sweeteners actually leads to weight gain. That has to do with satiety signals, effects on insulin levels, changes in the body’s fluid balances, and other not-immediately-apparent downstream factors…

Those are all just correlations, but consuming artificial sweeteners in isolation has also been shown to make people hungrier later on. Dr. Barry Popkin, a distinguished professor of global nutrition at the University of North Carolina, wrote in a recent literature review that since most artificial sweeteners aren’t consumed in isolation, that’s not really an issue. So the key distinction in studying and using these sweeteners is the idea of replacement as opposed to addition…

“It would not be expected for a single dietary change, i.e., replacement of sugar with low-calorie sweeteners, to cause clinically meaningful weight loss,” the current study reads. Weight management is really about overall dietary and lifestyle patterns. But it’s worth considering if you think of an afternoon Diet Coke as a bonus, as opposed to replacing a regularly scheduled Coke heavy.

In my case, the strategic replacement is exactly what I’m doing.  Since I often track my food intake weight watchers style (and stick with weight watchers principles even when not tracking), I’m quite confident that my lunch time binge of 4-5 Diet Coke (or Diet Dr Pepper at the places fortunate enough to have it) are simply replacing regular soda (or water) and not leading me to consume any extra calories.  And now I can say the science is backing me up.

Photo of the day

From a recent Telegraph photos of the week gallery:

This jaw-dropping shot shows a shadow 15 miles long.  The distinctive dark triangular shape has been cast by Mount Fuji, Japan's highest mountain at 3,776 metres high.  Kent photographer Kris J Boorman captured the amazing image from the mountain's summit on a visit there two years ago.  The 28-year-old's photograph, which he took at sunrise around 5am, has now garnered international praise after he posted it online on Reddit last week. This was actually Kris' second attempt at capturing the spectacle. After being left unsatisfied with a picture he took the year before, he had arranged to scale the peak the following year especially to try again.  Kris' photograph is notable as the view is often obscured by fog or low-hanging clouds. 'When the time came to shoot the shadow I had an absolutely crystal clear sky - near unheard of for Fuji outside of winter,' he says.

The distinctive dark triangular shape of Japan’s highest mountain, Mt Fuji, casts a 15 mile shadow. Kent photographer Kris J Boorman captured the image from the mountain’s summit (3,776 metres) on a visit there two years ago. The 28-year-old’s photograph, which he took at sunrise around 5am, has now garnered international praise after he posted it online on Reddit last week. This was actually Kris’s second attempt at capturing the spectacle. After being left unsatisfied with a picture he took the year before, he had arranged to scale the peak the following year especially to try again. Kris’s photograph is notable as the view is often obscured by fog or low-hanging clouds. ‘When the time came to shoot the shadow I had an absolutely crystal clear sky – near unheard of for Fuji outside of winter,’ he says.Picture: Kris J Boorman/Rex Features

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