High school sports support academics

Schools with strong athletic programs have higher test scores and lower drop-out rates, write Daniel H. Bowen & Collin Hitt in The Atlantic. Amanda Ripley’s cover story, The Case Against High-School Sports, is a lot of hooey, they argue.

Success in sports programs creates “social capital” — or reflects the fact that it’s already there, they theorize.

The success of schools is highly dependent on social capital, “the norms, the social networks, and the relationships between adults and children that are of value for the child’s growing up,” wrote sociologist James Coleman.

The need to build trust and social capital is even more essential when schools are serving disadvantaged and at-risk students. Perhaps the most promising empirical evidence on this point comes from a Chicago program called Becoming A Man–Sports Edition.

In this program, at-risk male students are assigned for a year to counselors and athletic coaches who double as male role models. In this partnership between Chicago Public Schools, Youth Guidance, and World Sport Chicago, sports are used to form bonds between the boys and their mentors and to teach self-control. The usual ball and basket sports are sometimes played, but participants are also trained in violent sports like boxing at school.

Applicants were chosen by lottery.  According to a 2013 evaluation, the sports program “creates lasting improvements in the boys’ study habits and grade point averages. During the first year of the program, students were found to be less likely to transfer schools or be engaged in violent crime. A year after the program, participants were less likely to have had an encounter with the juvenile justice system.”

If schools dropped sports teams, middle-class kids would have opportunities to play sports out of school, Bowen and Hitt conclude. Affordable access would be limited for low-income students.

Special ed is a mess

Special education is “a litigious mess,” writes lawyer Chris Borreca in The Atlantic. When IDEA, the disability rights law, is reauthorized, Congress should adopt a dispute resolution system using specialist courts, he suggests.

A threshold requirement of mandatory mediation before a lawsuit may be filed could be added. A reasonable cap on attorney fees should be explored. Clarity of the very legal rights described should be added to the statute itself.

In other words, a degree of common sense added to the entire system — with an emphasis on services received rather than an unending amount of due process provided for every alleged wrongdoing — would go a long way toward serving the original intent of the law.

Miriam K. Freedman, also a lawyer, tackles reforming special ed in the University of Chicago Law Review.

The current system favors wealthy parents, writes Dr. Manhattan, who likes Romney’s plan to make federal disability dollars follow the student.

Desegregation is dead…

so says Professor David Kirp (Public Policy, Berkeley) in this morning’s New York Times.  It’s a piece that begs, I think, of a firm response.  And because it’s about desegregating schools, I think it’s appropriate material for this blog.  Here’s how his piece gets under way, though you should read the whole thing.

AMID the  ceaseless and cacophonous debates about how to close the achievement gap, we’ve turned away from one tool that has been shown to work: school desegregation. That strategy, ushered in by the landmark 1954 Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education, has been unceremoniously ushered out, an artifact in the museum of failed social experiments…. But as the anniversary was observed this past week on May 17, it was hard not to notice that desegregation is effectively dead. In fact, we have been giving up on desegregation for a long time. In 1974, the Supreme Court rejected a metropolitan integration plan, leaving the increasingly black cities to fend for themselves.

A generation later, public schools that had been ordered to integrate in the 1960s and 1970s became segregated once again, this time with the blessing of a new generation of justices.

The balance of Professor Kirp’s essay, which laments the fading of court-ordered desegregation orders, can be summed up as follows:

(1) Desegregation/integration produces empirical academic benefits for Black students.

(2) Desegregation/integration produces no empirical injuries or drawbacks for White students.

(3) Therefore Desegregation/integration is a good thing.

(4) The courts should support good things.

(5) Therefore the courts should support Desegregation/integration.

To be fair, this is my summary of his work.  I could be misrepresenting it, though I obviously don’t think I am.

Now I’m willing to grant him (1) and (2); he’s a public policy expert and presumably he’d know better than I would whether the evidence supports these things.  I’ll even grant him (3), so long as we keep it at “a good thing” and not “an unqualifiedly good thing, all-in.”  If something gives relevant benefits, and doesn’t have the most obvious sorts of drawbacks one might suspect, odds are that it’s a good thing.

But I seriously question what I’ve presented as his implicit premise (4).  Kirp seems to lack a certain understanding of how the law works, as demonstrated by the fact that he has linked to Milliken v. Bradley (418 U.S. 717 (1974)), but doesn’t seem to actually understand what the case is about.  That’s a serious charge to level at an academic, so let me explain.  Along the way, I think it will become clear both why I think (4) is wrong, and that Kirp does indeed hold it as a view.

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Lawsuits on the western front

It seems like it’s a tougher time today than in days past to be a teachers’ union.   They are on the defensive all over the country.  From the public union battle royale in Wisconsin, to New York’s release of value-added data over union howls of rage (with the accompanying spectre of an implemented evaluation process), to the revolt of the urban mayors… teachers’ unions are under various sorts of legal, political, and institutional attack all over the country.

Out here in California, Students Matter has launched a lawsuit to strip away many of the institutional protections that teachers possess.  Howard Blume tells us all about it:

A Bay Area nonprofit backed partly by groups known for battling teachers unions has filed a lawsuit seeking to overturn five California laws that, they say, make it too difficult to dismiss ineffective teachers.

The suit, filed on behalf of eight students, takes aim at California laws that govern teacher tenure rules, seniority protections and the teacher dismissal process.

* * * *

The group behind the legal action is the newly formed Students Matter. The founder is Silicon Valley entrepreneur David F. Welch and the group’s funders include the foundation of L.A. philanthropist Eli Broad.

The suit contends that teachers can earn tenure protections too quickly — in two years — well before their fitness for long-term employment can be determined. The suit also seeks to invalidate the practice of first laying off less experienced teachers during a budget crisis, rather than keeping the best teachers. And it takes aim at a dismissal process that, it alleges, is too costly, too lengthy and typically results in ineffective teachers holding on to jobs.

I’m uneasy about litigating what are essentially public policy questions in courts.  It’s not really what they’re designed to do, and they generally don’t do a good job of it.  (See, e.g., the consent decree for San Francisco public schools.)  But at the same time, sometimes it’s the only option left to people.  It’s difficult, if not impossible, to push too heavily against public employee union interests here in California.

Blume does an able job in his article tying this lawsuit to the overarching issue of teacher quality, and implying (correctly, I think) that this is part of a larger pushback against unions in general.

It’s not clear to me that these sorts of protections are going to help with teacher quality, though.  Procedural changes will only get you marginal improvements here and there.  If teacher quality is a serious concern (and I’m not 100% sure it’s a problem, though it seems plausible) then what you should really do is address the substantive issue: get a different sort of teacher ex ante.  To use an analogy: if the cars you build are not loved by the consumer, you have two options: increase your quality control, or design a better product.  And the unions wouldn’t have as much political leverage if you tried to tighten up teacher qualifications — indeed, they might support it so long as you grandfathered in all the existing teachers.  I’ve never met a union that didn’t like barriers to entry.

A hazy shade of pledging

Michael Winerip had a fairly long article in the NY Times yesterday about collegiate fraternity hazing.  The article is structured as if it were written by committee, but it’s worth reading anyway.  It centers on the death of a Cornell student, George Desdunes, and uses a detailed discussion of that tragedy as an indirect way of raising larger questions about fraternity hazing and collegiate alcohol policy generally.

There was one vexing sentence (vexing for me, anyway) in his article, though, which I think needs to be flagged, if for no other reason that it makes for interesting discussion:

ALCOHOL is often the not-so-secret ingredient that turns pledging into hazing.

Does alcohol really turn pledging into hazing?  Or does it turn hazing into something dangerous?  Does Winerip mean to say that when pledging is dangerous, as it might be when alcohol is involved, it then becomes hazing?  That would be a fairly narrow view of hazing, something more akin to the legal definitions that are commonly used which rely on concepts such as “substantial risk of physical injury”.  Many anti-hazing advocates and several universities, however, use much broader definitions that include as hazing things like risks of “emotional harm”, “humiliation”, or “degradation”.  That’s a very, very different set of behaviors.

Winerip never actually tells us exactly what he means by hazing, but his discussion seems to indicate that he’s primarily concerned with the narrower, more dangerous phenomenon.  That’s probably a good thing, though I think that there are probably some further lines that can and should be drawn across that particular territory — rugby, for instance, creates a “substantial risk of physical injury” by most actuarial definitions, but no one seems to think that the Chi Psi pledges shouldn’t have to play the brothers in a few games as part of their initiation.

In any case, I think we always should be careful to be very specific about what we’re talking about when we discuss things like hazing, harassment, bullying, or other behaviors that we want to inhibit, prohibit, or punish in our schools and colleges (or anywhere else, for that matter).

Sex-based bullying: Utopia or fraud?

Apropos of Joanne’s earlier post, we now learn that 14 large, urban school districts reported absolutely zero incidents of sex-based harassment or bullying. The American Association of University Women doesn’t believe them:

“These reports of no sexual harassment and bullying happening in a school district are impossible to believe,” AAUW Executive Director Linda D. Hallman said. “It just does not sync with what we know to be the unfortunate reality for many school children in this nation.”

Two quick thoughts:

First, every now and then I’m struck by the credulous, make-believe character that bureaucrats and activists sometimes demonstrate.  Linda D. Hallman is treating these reports as if these school districts had said, sincerely and with a straight face, “Why, we don’t have any sexual harassment here.”  But of course that’s not at all what is going on, and no one really thinks it is.  The reports, to the extent that they were technically reports of zero harassment,  weren’t meant to be believed, and nobody’s really fooled — including Hallman.  Yet here she is acting like the whole thing is a serious assertion of fact.  There’s a surreal quality to the whole performance.

Second, the reports might be true, because what the schools were asked about were allegations, disciplinary actions, and no students reporting being harassed/bullied on the basis of sex.  They weren’t asked to produce some Platonically true statistic about the state of sexual harassment/bullying in their district, but rather to produce concrete proxies for that sort of datum.  And depending on how a school handles bullying, how a school defines the things being investigated, those proxies could be woefully inadequate or just inartfully defined.  Just imagine a school district in which all this sort of stuff is handled at the classroom level unless it reaches the criminal level, in which case it gets reclassified out of the bullying category and into some legal definition relating to the statutory offense.  The district looks at its figures, and says (honestly) “Sorry, no sex harassment here.  We have a few hundred felony sexual assaults, but nothing else.”

We also learn, from looking at the list of the 20 largest districts, that Florida has really big school districts.

His lips are moving

Secretary Duncan has expressly disavowed a national curriculum:

At a forum hosted by the National Center on Education and the Economy, Duncan was discussing lessons that can be learned from higher-performing countries, and he mentioned national standards and curriculum. But he said: “We have not and will not prescribe a national curriculum. I want to repeat that.” This remark prompted laughter from the audience, my colleague Stephen Sawchuk, who attended the forum, reports.

I confess that I suspect that the veracity of his statement is entirely tied up in the meaning of the word “prescribe.”

Duncan also said it would be against the law to prescribe national curriculum.

Yes, illegal to prescribe.  But there are ways around that.

Illegal? I do not think it means what you think it means

Jay Greene has an interesting argument up over at EducationNext, in which he argues that the Federal Department of Education is breaking the law, that is, exceeding its statutory mandate.  (And whatever mandates it has would have to be statutory; I think it’s pretty clear that the DoE has no Constitutional portfolio whatsoever.)  Here’s the juicy bit:

The 1979 law by which the U.S. Department of Education is authorized in its current form clearly prohibits these activities.  It states (in section 103b): “No provision of a program administered by the Secretary or by any other officer of the Department shall be construed to authorize the Secretary or any such officer to exercise any direction, supervision, or control over the curriculum, program of instruction, administration, or personnel of any educational institution, school, or school system, over any accrediting agency or association, or over the selection or content of library resources, textbooks, or other instructional materials by any educational institution or school system, except to the extent authorized by law.” (emphasis added)

So, the spokesperson for the U.S. Department of Education says that they are funding development of curriculum, but the Department is expressly not authorized to direct, supervise, or control curriculum.

First let me caveat this by saying that this is my initial reaction, and does not represent any sort of studied legal opinion.  What I’m about to say is based solely on the quoted statute and my background knowledge of the law. [Read more...]