Danish kids absent from school for a month

The two youngest passengers on our Northwest Passage cruise were 13 and 15, public school students in Denmark. I asked the parents what kind of bureaucratic obstacles there had been to taking the kids out of school for a month. “None,” replied the dad. “The teacher said that they’ll probably learn more on this trip than in school.” Hurtigruten’s promise of working Internet on the Roald Amundsen did not materialize due to (a) limited satellite coverage, and (b) inability of the ship’s antennae to point low enough. Had the disconnected children experienced trouble in completing their assignments? “They weren’t given any,” said the father. “The curriculum in Denmark is standardized at the federal level, which can be great, but for children who are stronger than average academically it means they have no trouble catching up if they miss a month.”

[I also learned from this family that Denmark has instituted a busing system for children of immigrants. If a born-in-Denmark child does not speak Danish well, he or she is bused away from the neighborhood school, which presumably will also contain a bunch of children who speak a non-Danish language, to a school full of Danes. Where are these folks from? “Syria, after four straight years as the biggest generator of asylum-seekers in Denmark, lost its crown to Eritrea last year, but this year it is back on course to generate the highest number. … Uffe Østergaard, a Danish university academic specialising in identity history who works for both Aarhus University and Copenhagen Business School, has suggested in a Politiken opinion piece that Europe should build a wall around its perimeter… ” (CPH Post)]

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Improving our dismal public schools with the dismal science

Misbehaving: The Making of Behavioral Economics, by Richard Thaler, has some potentially practical advice for improving our schools:

A good example of a domain where field experiments run by economists are having an impact is education. Economists do not have a theory for how to maximize what children learn in school (aside from the obviously false one that all for-profit schools are already using the best methods). One overly simplistic idea is that we can improve student performance just by giving financial incentives to parents, teachers, or kids. Unfortunately, there is little evidence that such incentives are effective, but nuances matter. For example, one intriguing finding by Roland Fryer suggests that rewarding students for inputs (such as doing their homework) rather than outputs (such as their grades) is effective. I find this result intuitively appealing because the students most in need do not know how to become better students. It makes sense to reward them for doing things that educators believe are effective. Another interesting result comes directly from the behavioral economics playbook. The team of Fryer, John List, Steven Levitt, and Sally Sadoff has found that the framing of a bonus to teachers makes a big difference. Teachers who are given a bonus at the beginning of the school year that must be returned if they fail to meet some target improve the performance of their students significantly more than teachers who are offered an end-of-year bonus contingent on meeting the same goals. A third positive result even further from the traditional tool kit of financial incentives comes from a recent randomized control trial conducted in the U.K., using the increasingly popular and low-cost method of text reminders. This intervention involved sending texts to half the parents in some school in advance of a major math test to let them know that their child had a test coming up in five days, then in three days, then in one day. The researchers call this approach “pre-informing.” The other half of parents did not receive the texts. The pre-informing texts increased student performance on the math test by the equivalent of one additional month of schooling, and students in the bottom quartile benefited most. These children gained the equivalent of two additional months of schooling, relative to the control group. Afterward, both parents and students said they wanted to stick with the program, showing that they appreciated being nudged. This program also belies the frequent claim, unsupported by any evidence, that nudges must be secret to be effective.

Imagine the outcry if teachers got money at the beginning of the school year, spent it on vacations, recreational marijuana, etc., and then some of them had to give the money back at the end of the year due to evidence that their students hadn’t learned much!

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American regulations meet smart immigrants: free college tuition with guardianship

Sadly paywalled, but one of my favorite recent news articles: “The College Financial-Aid Guardianship Loophole and the Woman Who Thought It Up” (WSJ).

A smart immigrant from Bulgaria read the rules for college financial aid written by comparatively dumb Americans and figured out how any child can get a free college education, as long as the parents are smart enough to waltz down to the local probate or family court and transfer guardianship.

Of course, under the “almost everything is a federal crime” system, the government is now planning to make an example of her.

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11-year-olds in college

Every now and then someone is impressed that I graduated college on the younger side. I would respond by pointing out that Sho Yano got his Ph.D. at age 18 and an M.D. at 21.

Cal State Los Angeles, it seems, has set up a factory for producing kids like Sho Yano: “A sixth-grader was sick of coloring. So she skipped six grades to attend Cal State L.A.” (LA Times):

With that, Mia left Crescent Elementary in Anaheim. She studied at home for the rest of the year — and then, at age 12, jumped six grade levels to enter Cal State Los Angeles as a freshman last fall.

While the admissions scandal has transfixed the nation’s attention on elite universities such as UCLA and USC, the school of choice for many whiz kids like Mia is Cal State L.A.

For nearly four decades, the campus has provided a haven where children who are academically gifted and socially mature can bypass years of boring classwork and surge ahead. Cal State L.A. is the only university in California — and one of only a handful across the country — with a program to admit students as young as 11.

The article notes that California has limited options for gifted and talented programs within its K-12 public schools. But Massachusetts doesn’t have anything at all!

Maybe you don’t want to be a father:

The family lives in Camarillo, but Shanti and Sathya stay with their father, Ramesh Raminani, at a hotel near campus during the week. He drops them off at school, drives two hours to his pharmacy business and two hours back to pick them up. … All told, Raminani drives 200 miles a day and spends $20,000 a year on hotels on top of the roughly $12,000 in annual tuition for both children.

Why is this guy being hit with tuition bills? His children would be eligible for a free education at the local state-funded public school. Until they turn 18, why can’t they take at least whatever the state would have spent on them in K-12 and use that to offset the tuition charges? Shouldn’t a family be entitled to 13 years of taxpayer-funded schooling per child? (Maybe Elizabeth Warren will fix this!)

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Elizabeth Warren’s student loan forgiveness idea is flawed…

… because it doesn’t go far enough!

Economists have found that most of the benefits of subsidized federal student loans went to colleges, which used the money to overpay administrators (how do we know they’re overpaid? look at the quit rate!).

Colleges seem to charge students however much they think a family can cough up. When the Feds added guaranteed and/or subsidized loans, colleges just raised their prices. Students did not receive a better education because they paid more. The extra money was used for more administrative bloat and higher salaries for existing administrators.

Instead of merely forgiving student loans that haven’t yet been paid off, what would be fair is if the government admitted this was a welfare scheme for universities and, in addition to forgiving unpaid loans, refunded all payments made under these ill-advised programs.

Readers: Is it time to admit that the government helped universities fleece American families and give back the stolen money?

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Ireland’s exam-based university entrance system

My hosts in Ireland have four children, the youngest of whom is just graduating from high school. He is studying like a demon for a high-stakes “Leaving Certificate” exam. All of the responses are to be written out (i.e., it is not multiple-guess like the SATs). He will spend 10 days taking exams, typically one in the morning and one in the afternoon. Who could possibly have time to grade these? “The teachers do it during their summer vacation,” he said.

Results don’t come in until August at which point the student is informed of his or her university assignment. In other words, the young learner potentially has only one month in which to move, find an apartment, etc. (most students select universities close to their parents’ houses and continue to live at home)

There is no room for an admissions committee looking at auguries. There is no preference for children of alumni. There is no preference for children of big donors. There is no way to bribe an athletic coach because there is no preference for sports potential (though my hosts thought that there was some preference for athletes who’ve represented the country at international events).

How can they run a university admissions system with no special provisions for those who have suffered from adversity? They apparently can’t! Ireland has the “HEAR scheme“:

The scheme aims to improve access to college for school-leavers from socio-economic backgrounds that are under-represented in third-level education. Under the HEAR scheme a number of third-level places are allocated to school-leavers on a reduced points basis. To be eligible for the scheme you must meet certain indicators or criteria related to your financial, social and cultural circumstances…

There are links from the above web page explaining the criteria, but essentially your family has to be on welfare (a low bar; roughly 40 percent of residents are on some form of welfare) and/or your parents have to either not work (“housewife”) or do an unskilled job. Skin color or ethnic background is not a factor.

What does welfare look like in a society that is, on a per-capita basis, now much more productive than the U.S. (CIA Factbook ranking)? A retired police detective explained that he rents a small-town house to a “town council” for 750 euros per month on a 10-year lease. They’ll likely buy it from him when the lease ends. The town gives it away free to a family with five children in which neither parent has ever worked. “I know the family; nobody has worked for the past three generations,” said the former policeman. “Once they get on social welfare, why would they?” (I also learned that the front-line officers in Ireland who deal with day-to-day issues don’t carry guns).

Welfare bureaucrats occupy an office in the nicest part of what the guidebook says is the nicest seaside village in Ireland (Kinsale):

What does college look like for those who score high? (or who score reasonably high and have parents who don’t work?) Dodging tourists at Trinity College:

“An idea that is not dangerous is unworthy of being called an idea at all,” from Oscar Wilde is supposed to inspire the young scholars. Does that exclude most scientific and engineering advances? What is “dangerous” about Katherine Clerk Maxwell‘s equations? Are today’s T-shirt decorations not worthy of being called “an idea”? How about the “waves can propagate through a vacuum (without ether)” concept of Margaret Hemingway and Imbella A. Birdsall, confirmed in the Michelson–Morley experiment. That’s not an “idea”? Or it is somehow “dangerous”?

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Can rich parents move to a poor neighborhood for a year before their brat applies to college?

We know from the recent college bribery scandal that wealthy parents are willing to commit (federal!) crimes to get their brats into a good college (apparently contradicting the assertion that being born into a wealthy family guarantees success due to “privilege”).

Now the SATs will include an “adversity score” that considers the neighborhood and the school of the test taker (NYT explains the 31 factors). What stops a rich family from renting an apartment in a poor neighborhood starting in August of the applicant’s senior year of high school. The kid then takes the SATs in September, after enrolling in the local public school.

The NYT article is fun because it shows that American educrats aren’t interested in academic achievement:

“If you’re a really well-educated, higher-income family living in a poor neighborhood, this measure is going to overstate the disadvantage you face,” said Sean Reardon, a professor of education at Stanford University.

But, he added, “The question is not whether it’s perfect, but whether it’s better than the alternative of what colleges have had access to, to date. It sounds like this will be better than nothing.”

I.e., nobody questions the idea that students from unsuccessful neighborhoods are to be preferred and students from successful parents and neighborhoods should be admitted only as a last resort. (But if The Son Also Rises is correct, in the long run this means that the most successful people in a society will be graduates of universities that don’t discriminate against children of the successful!)

The long-term goal is to pry into the individual student’s situation:

Among the scholars who consulted for the College Board was Richard D. Kahlenberg, a fellow at the Century Foundation and a proponent of class-based affirmative action. He said he would like to see the College Board tool evolve to also include information on a student’s individual family. Still, he called the measure “an enormous step forward.”

Doesn’t that open up more opportunities for resourceful parents to game the system? Big factors are “single parenthood” and parental income. A one-income married couple living in Nevada, for example, could avail themselves of the state’s no-fault divorce laws and get divorced just before the child takes the SATs. The non-working parent will be getting the $13,000/year (tax-free) child support cap and therefore qualify as low income. The applicant can tell the SAT folks that the working parent is nowhere to be found and that the working parent’s income is unknown.

[Is this already happening for financial aid? The non-custodial parent (a.k.a. “loser parent” the winner-take-all states) is not considered by the Federales for financial aid, though finaid.org says that private colleges can “require a supplemental financial aid form from the non-custodial parent”. But the typical child of an American divorce hasn’t seen the loser parent within the preceding year, so how is the child supposed to get that person to fill out a form? Massachusetts is a classical winner-take-all state and Massachusetts Educational Financing Authority says:

What if there is no contact with the non-custodial parent?

Colleges that require the CSS Profile in addition to the FAFSA understand there are cases when a second parent is not involved in the student’s life. For students in this situation, colleges have a waiver process. Students should go to the college website or call the college and ask about a non-custodial parent waiver form or process. Students will need to do this for every school that requires the non-custodial parent to submit a Profile. Colleges are understanding of cases when the other parent is truly not a part of the student’s life at all, but will not waive the requirement for a case when the other parent simply does not want to complete the application or contribute toward college costs.

Since children of single parents are preferred by colleges, why would any applicant whose parents aren’t married admit to having spoken with the loser parent?]

This would seem to penalize children of low-income parents who make the effort to move to public housing in nicer towns with better schools. I know a few immigrant “single moms” who live in Newton, Massachusetts for example. Upon arrival in the U.S. they realized that there was no stigma to being divorced and promptly sued their husbands. As these guys were low-income immigrants themselves, the child support revenue from the divorce did not disqualify them from public housing. So they live in taxpayer-subsidized apartments in Newton and send their children to the Newton schools. Their SAT scores will come with a “no adversity” tag even though they (a) did not speak English as their first language, (b) did not have two parents in their home, and (c) did not live in a high-income household.

If the mission of American universities is to educate young people (God forbid they should admit anyone significantly over the age of 18!) who have suffered from adversity, why would they admit anyone who grew up in the U.S.? An American on welfare has a greater spending power (housing, food, health care, smartphone) than a middle class family in most parts of the world.

In a global economy, what’s special about residents of the U.S.? Why are they entitled to take a spot at Harvard, for example, ahead of someone with a similar SAT score who grew up in Vietnam (excellent academic scores, but few people living better than an American on welfare).

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Percentage of public school teachers who are “excellent”

I was chatting with a dyslexia specialist at a public middle school in a wealthy Northeast U.S. district. The union pay scale for teachers reaches $100,000 per year for those with a bit of experience. The specialist interacts with nearly all of the roughly 70 teachers in the school.

  • me: How many of the teachers would you say are excellent?
  • her: About 2 percent. But another 50 percent are “good”.
  • me: So 48 percent of the students aren’t getting the curriculum delivered as designed?
  • her: True. But you have to remember that it is all about the school leadership. They’re not investing enough in teacher training. The administrators send one teacher to a class and then expect the teacher to come back and teach other teachers. That’s not what they’re qualified to do.
  • me: Suppose that the district had infinite budget and time for training teachers. How many would then work hard enough to become “excellent”?
  • her: Maybe 10 percent.
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New York Times highlights academic achievement-skin color correlation

“Only 7 Black Students Got Into N.Y.’s Most Selective High School, Out of 895 Spots” (nytimes):

Students gain entry into the specialized schools by acing a single high-stakes exam that tests their mastery of math and English. Some students spend months or even years preparing for the exam. Stuyvesant, the most selective of the schools, has the highest cutoff score for admission, and now has the lowest percentage of black and Hispanic students of any of New York City’s roughly 600 public high schools.

My comment on the piece:

What if you heard about a reporter and some editors who hung around outside an academic testing center and noted the skin color of every person who failed a test? And then published the observation that people with a particular skin color were very likely to fail?

If that isn’t racist, what would be?

Readers: What does this story even mean? If Elizabeth Warren had gotten into Stuyvesant, would the NYT have included her in their Native American participation statistics? Who is the arbiter of race or skin color in the NYC public schools? Also, how does it help a group of people when there is a front page story underlining for employers the correlation between membership in this group and low academic achievement?

Thought Experiment: Suppose that Fox News had run a story revealing the same statistics and then Donald Trump had referenced that story in a Tweet. What would the NYT Editorial Board have said?

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Totally unqualified students were admitted to our most intellectually rigorous universities based on bribes…

… yet none of the unqualified admittees had any difficulty in doing the required coursework or graduating, perhaps with honors.

“College bribery scandal: students sue elite schools in class action” (Guardian) says that second-rate students went to Yale and Stanford, for example, but there is no mention of them encountering any struggles with the academics.

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