The Charter School Advantage

December 31, 2018
Posted by Jay Livingston

In his Wall Street Journal op-ed that I criticized last week (here), Jason Riley begins with the story of a father who was desperate to get his kid into a charter school.

I thought he was going to tell me that the charter school had smaller classes or better graduation rates. Instead, he wanted to talk about something most parents take for granted when they send Johnny and Susie off to school each morning: physical safety.

He didn’t take it for granted. He told me the atmosphere at the old school had been chaotic, that bullying was rampant, and that his son, a sixth-grader at the time, had become terrified of the place. One day the boy was attacked by other students in the school lavatory, and the father got a call to pick him up from the hospital. It was the final straw. “I didn’t know anything about charters,” said the father. “I was just looking for an escape.” After the new school assured him his child would not have to worry each day about being assaulted by his classmates, he was sold.

Riley uses this anecdotal evidence to support the decision by Trump’s Secretary of Education Betsy de Vos to rescind Obama administration efforts to reduce the disparity between discipline imposed on Black schoolkids and White schoolkids.

But this anecdote also speaks to another controversial issue in education — whether charter schools, compared with traditional public schools, do a better job of educating kids.  On that question, the scorecard is mixed. In most studies that compare charters with similarly situated publics, there’s little difference in students’ test scores. For the rest, in some places, the publics come out better. And in some cities — New York, for example —  some charters consistently outperform public schools.

Charter school boosters claim that charter students do better because their schools are unencumbered by the teachers’ unions and educational bureaucracies that hobble public schools. But critics point out that charter schools have one way of improving their test averages that is not available to the public schools, and it has nothing to do with unions or regulations: charter schools can get rid of bad students. If you can force out the low scorers, the school average will be higher not because the school does a better job of teaching but just because of the way an average is calculated.

That’s true. But the expulsion option has an impact far beyond the math. Difficult and disruptive kids don’t just bring down the class average because of their individual low scores. They affect the general atmosphere of the class and the school. As Riley’s anecdote illustrates, troublemakers make it harder for other kids to learn and harder for teachers to teach.

I wrote about this back in 2012 (here), but I was reminded of it a few weeks ago in a conversation with an expert on educational testing and measurement who also had once taught in a middle school. We were talking about rating teachers on the basis of student test scores. Disruptive kids in the classroom, he said, can undermine the efforts of a teacher. Even the good teacher who gets one kid like that is not going to score well on these measures. With more than one, the problem grows almost exponentially.

That atmosphere in the public school in Riley’s WSJ op-ed was chaotic not because of the UFT and not because of the Board of Ed. The “bureaucratic” regulation responsible for it was the law that requires public schools to find a place for all kids, even the very difficult ones.

“Other Than That, Merry Christmas”

December 28, 2018  
Posted by Jay Livingston 

Some countries have a ceremonial head of state — a person who stands above or at least apart form partisan politics and who therefore can more easily be seen as representative of the whole country. The UK has the Queen. It is the Queen, not the prime minister, who delivers the Christmas message.

When surveys ask Brits for the person they most admire, the Queen always wins. This year, Theresa May, the head of the government, didn’t even make the top five.

In the US, both roles — political/govermental leader and ceremonial head of state — fall to the president. The overlap can get tricky, but most US presidents, on ceremonial occasions, have tried to to avoid politics and to appeal to widely shared values and symbols. Their Christmas messages, for instance, project warmth and hope. Even if they mention problems (the suffering of those who are ill, poor, homeless, bereaved), they emphasize the American spirit that helps us overcome setbacks.

Donald Trump seems incapable of playing that role for more than a minute. The Trumps’ (Donald and Melania) pre-recorded Christmas message, stayed true to the genre. But on Christmas day, Trump quickly returned to the spirit of Christmas Trump — belittling and combative. On Twitter, he wrote, “I hope everyone, even the Fake News Media, is having a great Christmas!” And speaking to reporters he concluded with, “It’s a disgrace what’s happening in this country. But, other than that I wish everybody a Merry Christmas.”*

Since 1946, the Gallup Poll has been asking Americans “What man that you have heard or read about, living today in any part of the world, do you admire most?” Nearly every year, the most admired man is the president or president-elect. In the graphic below, the names in red are most-admired men who were not.

(Click for a larger view.)

When a president is not the most admired, it’s because of policy failures (Truman and Korea, LBJ and Vietnam plus domestic strife, Carter and stagflation) or personal failure (Nixon and Watergate). But with Trump, it’s something else. In most of the years in the chart, the president was not really doing anything unusually admirable. The admiration was directed to him not as a person or politician but as the symbol of the nation. For better or worse, he is our Queen. What has kept Trump from the top of the list for both years of his presidency is his unwillingness or inability to play that symbolic role.

(Earlier blogposts about our lack of a Queen are here and here )

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* I doubt that anyone was surprised that Trump lumped together this supposed national disgrace and the national holiday. After all, at his very first ceremonial occasion, the inauguration, he spoke of “this American carnage.” (In that speech, he assured us that the carnage would “stop right now.” That was two years ago. Apparently, the carnage has not been stopped but merely transformed into disgrace.)

The Ferguson Effect Goes to School

December 27, 2018
Posted by Jay Livingston

The “Ferguson Effect” has disappeared from the headlines. It doesn’t come up much in political discussions. But now, conservatives are pushing the same idea applied to schools.

In case you’ve forgotten, proponents of the Ferguson Effect sketch out this scenario:
  • A White cop kills a Black person, usually an unarmed Black person.
  • Black people protest.
  • The government, dominated by liberals, pressures police to be less aggressive, especially towards African Americans. Sometimes cops who have killed Black people are prosecuted.
  • Cops, to avoid being exposed to prosecution and accusations of racism, withdraw from proactive policing.
  • Crime in Black neighborhoods increases.
  • Conclusion: A  policy intended to reduce racism winds up hurting Black people.
The fault, in this model, is not in our cops but in our liberals.

For the schools version, just substitute teachers and administrators for police, and disruption/violence/bullying for crime. The villain remains the same — liberal government policies. The equivalent of consent decrees forced on police departments is an Obama-era policy that threatened schools with loss of funds for disproportionately punishing Black kids.

Betsy de Vos, Trump’s Secretary of Education, is rescinding that policy, and conservatives are cheering. Here is Jason S. Riley in the Wall Street Journal:

Racial parity in school discipline, regardless of who was being disruptive. . . is as silly as demanding racial parity in police arrests, regardless of who’s committing crimes.

If it’s Black kids who are less likely to be punished, it’s their misbehavior that will increase. The losers will be the other kids in their schools. And since US schools are racially homogeneous, the anti-racism policy will wind up hurting Black people. According to Riley, this Ferguson Effect has already happened since Obama policy went into effect in 2014.

The result is that more schools have been disciplining fewer students in order to achieve racial balance in suspension rates and stay out of trouble with the federal government. . .  In Oklahoma City, principals told teachers not to request a suspension “unless there was blood.”

The “blood” thing is a great quote, but if you are making generalizations about a nationwide policy, Oklahoma City is a very small n. Elsewhere in his article, Riley cites the report by the National Center for Education Statistics (here), a national survey, so that’s where I went for a broader view. The NCES asks teachers whether misbehavior is undermining their teaching.

(Click on a graph for a larger view.)


The graphs show no sharp changes after 2014. Misbehavior that interfered with teaching began to rise in 2007-2008 and continued to rise at about the same rate. Enforcement of school rules showed no change.

What were the effects of this supposed pullback in punishment? More bad stuff. Here’s Riley again.

After school districts in Los Angeles and Chicago softened their policies to curb suspensions, teachers reported more disorder, and students reported feeling less safe. Following a similar move in Philadelphia, truancy increased and academic achievement fell. Schools in Wisconsin that followed the guidance also saw subsequent reductions in math and reading proficiency.

Riley gives us three cities and one state, each with its own negative outcomes. It’s possible that these outcomes are related — more students feel unsafe so they stay away from school, and achievement falls. But Riley doesn’t tell us whether Los Angeles students, with their lower feelings of safety, also scored worse on tests of achievement. Or whether in Wisconsin, where achievement scores dropped, students also felt less safe. He mentions “disorder” but not actual crime or even bullying. Nor does he tell us the magnitude of these changes.

Were these cities and outcomes representative, or were they merely a few unusually juicy cherries that Riley picked? To get the more general picture, I went back to the NCES survey.  Had 2014 brought in a new era of  fear?


Fear decreased in the 1990s, and it leveled off in about 2010, and did not rise appreciably after that. There is no discernible effect of the 2014 policy. Bullying shows a roughly similar pattern.


In private schools, less affected by the Obama rules, bullying declined from 2013 to 2015. In public schools, it remained unchanged — hardly the effect Riley claims.

Finally, there is actual victimization. (The data is from the National Crime Victimization Survey.)


So what can we say about the unintended consequences of the Obama policy, the bad outcomes claimed by conservatives? On average nationwide, schools have not seen an increase in violence, crime, bullying, or fear.

This doesn’t mean that Riley is totally wrong. In some schools and some cities, decreased punishment of Black kids may have had the effects he claims. But it’s also possible that in some schools, the Obama policy had the good effects its proponents hoped for — Black schoolkids feeling less alienated, less resentful, and more positive towards school. At the very least, the policy did not lead to the nationwide crisis that conservatives would predict.

For the next two years (and perhaps more), thanks to DeVos-Trump, school staff will once again be free to punish who they wish, how they wish, without having to worry about charges of racism or federal pressure. If conservatives are right, bad things (bullying, crime) will decrease, and good things (attendance, learning) will increase, especially for Black kids.

Will that happen? No doubt, in 2020, our president will claim that because of this policy, schools are now beautiful, the best they have ever been in US history. The Wall Street Journal will publish cherry-picked success stories. The rest of us will have to wait for more systematic evidence.

Social Nostalgia and Myths of Decline, Part I: The Loneliness Fascination

December 12, 2018
Posted by Jay Livingston

  I. The Epidemic That Wasn’t

A couple of weeks ago, Arthur Brooks, in the New York Times, told us that an “epidemic of loneliness” was “tearing America apart.”  Brooks, citing a Cigna survey, brought us the bad news: “Most Americans suffer from strong feelings of loneliness and a lack of significance in their relationships. Nearly half say they sometimes or always feel alone or ‘left out.’”

I blogged my skepticism (here). That number — nearly half — was way out of line with what other repeated surveys like the GSS have found. Last week, Pew issued a “Facttank” report about loneliness. The Pew survey found, as had previous studies, that loneliness went hand-in-hand with feelings of dissatisfaction with family, work, and community. No surprise there. But the estimate of the scope of the problem was much smaller. Did nearly half the population suffer by these feelings? Hardly.

(Click to enlarge.)

Overall, one in ten Americans say they are lonely. Not having a partner makes loneliness more likely. So does not having money. (Nobody knows you when you’re down and out. Or rather, nobody knows 16% of you when you’re down and out, which is really not all that many — nowhere near the nearly 50% Brooks cites, thought it is more than the mere 6% of people with higher incomes.)

“Calling Claude Fischer,” I said in that blog post, because for years, Claude has been  been debunking these claims about loneliness epidemics, comparing them against the available evidence from social science. On Sunday, the Times included his response to the Brooks article.

Loneliness is a serious social problem, but there is no good evidence that it has spiked over the last couple decades or so. . . . We have no current epidemic of loneliness, but we do have periodic epidemics of alarm about loneliness.


The Times published several other letters on this topic (here) . Claude’s was the only one expressing any doubt about the loneliness panic.

Even among sociologists, he is in the minority.  The plague-of-loneliness idea and its corollary, the demise of community, have been at the core of important sociology books going back a half century or more.



More tellingly, these three books – David Riesman’s The Lonely Crowd, Philip Slater’s Pursuit of Loneliness, and Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone — are part of a small, select group — serious sociology books that sold well outside of academia. These books were bought and read even by people who weren’t going to be asked about them on the final. Apparently, Americans like reading about loneliness.

(Continued in the next post.)

Social Nostalgia and Myths of Decline, Part II: Turtles All the Way Down

December 12, 2018
Posted by Jay Livingston
(Continued from the previous post.)

II. A Myth of Decline for Everyone

Obviously, loneliness cannot have been increasing at epidemic levels every year since 1950. Nor could the sense of community have been similarly decreasing. If they had, we would be at 100% loneliness and 0% community. Yet each generation looks to the past as having been a time of greater community and less isolation. What makes this idea so irresistible?

My hunch is that the persistent appeal of this idea of a communitarian past has the same roots as another popular myth of decline — the authoritarian past. According to this myth, parental authority has all but disappeared, and kids today are far less obedient than their counterparts of a generation ago. But of course, a generation ago, adults were saying the same thing about their kids, as were the adults of the generation before that about theirs, and so on. Turtles all the way down.

Nearly twelve years ago, I suggested (here) that these myths resemble the 19th century idea in evolution that “ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny” but in reverse. They project the experience of the individual onto the entire society.  In that post, I imagined the man who says, “The things kids say and do today — I could never have gotten away with that with my old man.”

He pictures his own father as much more powerful than he, the speaker, is now. But that’s only because he is remembering his father from the perspective of a child. When he was a child, his father really was much more powerful than he was — so much bigger and stronger, it seemed the father could do whatever he wanted. But when that child grows up and thinks about himself today, he is not looking up from the viewpoint of his own small children. Instead, he sees himself from his own place in the larger world. He knows that he is certainly not the biggest or strongest person around, he knows that his actions are limited by all sorts of constraints that are largely invisible to children. He sees that he cannot control all aspects of his children’s lives.

This perception generalizes to the idea that adults a generation ago were more powerful vis-à-vis children than are adults today.

The same logic underlies the idea of the decline of community. The world of the child is warm, nurturing, and personal; dependence on others is taken for granted. Compared with the world of grown-ups, life is simple. (Of course the child does not make that comparison; grown-ups do.) Adults, by contrast, move among a complicated diversity of separate settings where feelings count for less, where dependence is less tolerated, and where interactions are based on people trying to accomplish their own goals. Childhood is Gemeinschaft, or as that word is usually translated, community.  Then, as we grow up, the Gemeinschaft share of our lives dwindles, leaving us with a nostalgia for those simpler times. Mentally transposing that personal experience to the society at large takes us from “my childhood” to “the good old days,” you know, the time when people knew one another and cared about one another, when life was simpler, and nobody was lonely — just like when we were kids. But of course, when they were kids, their parents were similarly mourning the loss of the good old days, as were their parents. Turtles all the way down. 

There’s an interesting difference between these two myths of decline. The myth of the authoritarian past appeals mostly to those who find authoritarianism appealing. But the decline-of-community finds adherents across the political and cultural spectrum.  It’s not just liberal sociologists who patrol the loneliness-community axis. The Brookses at the New York Times who write about it (Arthur and David) are politically conservative but culturally liberal. But go way over to the right, and you’ll hear Hannity, O’Brien, Glenn Beck, and others mourning the loss of a more Gemeinschaft-like world. From left to right, these observers disagree about just what has caused the crisis (smartphones and social media are the latest villains), but they are united in their assumptions, despite the shakiness of the evidence.

Space and Time

December 9, 2018
Posted by Jay Livingston

Thanks to a link in the Times review of the new season of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, my post about the show’s language anachronisms has become the most viewed page on this blog. I hadn’t intended to write another post along similar lines, but then I watched the first episode of the new season. We are still in the late 1950s. Midge (Mrs. Maisel for you non-fans) has separated from her husband Joel, but she still loves him. She calls him from Paris. But he is not so keen on getting back together.


I had just seen folksinger-songwriter Christine Lavin (along with several other old folkies) at a 50th birthday celebration for the radio show “Woody’s Children.” And I recalled the title of one of her songs: “If You Want Space, Go to Utah.” It appeared on her album “The Bellevue Years,” released in 2000.

But when had “space” become part of the psychobabble lexicon? It must have been long enough before to allow it to become familiar yet recent enough to still merit Lavin’s satirical take. My guess was that it came out of the EST training  that became popular in the late 1970s.

I checked Google nGrams using a phrase I thought would capture the idea of emotional space and exclude the more literal meaning — “need some space.”



The curve rises in the late 70s and shoots upward through the rest of the century. But in 1960, when Joel is talking on that rotary phone, the space people had was something that could be measured in square feet.

Someone on Twitter suggested that maybe Joel meant closet space. Could be. Nobody in New York has enough closet space – not now, and not in 1960.

Tom Waits

December 7, 2018
Posted by Jay Livingston

Tom Waits is 69 years old today.

I don’t remember how I found my way to Tom Waits, though it happened fairly late in my listening life,  or who showed me the way? Was it the jazz station DJ who played “Emotional Weather Report” early one morning as I was driving to New Jersey? Or my step-brother the huge Dylan fan? Or was it the friend who sent me a mix tape with the Tori Amos cover of “Time.”? (Waits’s songs do not lend themselves to covers. But Amos’s “Time” is an exception. And of course there’s Springsteen’s “Jersey Girl.”).

Waits’s lyrics, like Dylan’s, shine with novel imagery of the familiar world.

You’re east of East St. Louis
And the wind is making speeches
And the rain sounds
Like a round of applause.


But Waits, also like Dylan, often stays in his own room, inviting us in to look at the striking but puzzling pictures on the wall.



Oh and things are pretty lousy
For a calendar girl.
The boys just dive right off the cars
And splash into the street
And when they’re on a roll
She pulls a razor from her boot
And a thousand pigeons
Fall around her feet

Anyway, here’s the original, just Waits (voice and guitar) and an accordion sounding more like a concertina.