• Lots of Poor School Districts Do Pretty Well, But We Don’t Know Why

    As we all know, some schools are better than others, and some neighborhoods have smarter kids than others. Here’s a chart that puts these two things together in a way that’s pretty dramatic once you stare at it for a while:

    Take a look at the two school districts I highlighted. On the left, third-grade students are performing at a kindergarten level. On the right, third-graders are performing at a sixth grade level. That’s an enormous difference, but not necessarily one that you can blame on schools.

    But that’s not all. The vertical axis shows progress from third through eighth grade. In the school district on the left, kids gain only about 0.8 years of achievement for each year of schooling. In other words, they fall even further behind. On the right, kids gain 1.2 years of achievement per year of school. By the time they’re both in eighth grade, one group of kids is performing at a fourth grade level while the other is performing like high school seniors.

    Alternatively, take a look at the schools that I’ve circled. Third-graders are performing at third-grade level, so that’s fine. But then they fall off a cliff. Over the next five years they gain only about 0.4 years of achievement per year of school. By eighth grade they’re performing at the level of fifth graders. They’ve made barely any progress at all.

    Obviously not all of this is the fault of the school districts. But surely some of it is, and it’s a national disgrace that the differences are so stark. However, what’s really striking about this chart is how random it is: third-grade performance is almost completely unconnected to growth between third and eighth grades. And it’s only weakly correlated with the income level of a school district.

    So which school districts do the best at taking third-graders and turning them into eighth graders? Here’s a map:

    A few things jump out at you:

    • The South does really badly.
    • Florida is an almost insane basket case.
    • Tennessee is a green oasis in the middle of a desert of purple. Someone should figure out what they’re doing right.
    • There are plenty of big-city school districts that also perform strongly. Chicago is bright green. Seattle does well. New Orleans does well. Conversely, Baltimore, Los Angeles, and Atlanta all start off poorly and continue to do poorly between third and eighth grades.

    This all comes from Stanford’s Center for Education Policy Analysis. Sean Reardon has a paper discussing these results here, and he concludes with this:

    What may be surprising, however, is…the fact that these growth opportunities are at best weakly correlated with early opportunities and with socioeconomic status.

    In other words, third-grade scores are probably strongly influenced by poverty and home life, while growth from third to eighth grade is probably more influenced by the quality of schooling. They have little to do with each other:

    Growth rates better isolate the contribution to learning due to experiences during the schooling years. Grade 3 average scores are likely much more strongly influenced by early childhood experiences than the growth rates….Some caution is warranted in interpreting the average growth rates as pure measures of school effectiveness. Nonetheless, relative to average test scores (at grade 3 or any grade), the growth rates are closer to a measure of school effectiveness.

    If we take the growth rates, then, as rough measures of school effectiveness, then neither socioeconomic conditions nor average test scores are very informative about school district effectiveness. Many districts with high average test scores have low growth rates, and vice versa. And many low-income districts have above average growth rates. This finding calls into question the use of average test scores as an accountability tool or a way of evaluating schools.

    And finally, this:

    The findings also suggest that we could learn a great deal about reducing educational inequality from the low-SES communities with high growth rates. They provide, at a minimum, an existence proof of the possibility that even schools in high-poverty communities can be effective. Now the challenge is to learn what conditions make that possible and how we can foster the same conditions everywhere.

    More research, please.

  • Another McGahn Pal Bites the Dust in Senate Hearing

    Another pal of White House counsel Don McGahn has been recommended for a lifetime position as a federal judge—by Don McGahn—and John Kennedy, one of the most conservative members of the Senate, is unamused. This video is almost painful to watch:

    Conservatives are generally thrilled by the circuit court judges that Trump has nominated, but it sure looks like McGahn is using his influence to make district court judgeships into a sort of affirmative action program for unqualified friends of Don McGahn. Even Republicans are on to the scam now.

  • Republicans Cave to Marco Rubio

    Tom Williams/Congressional Quarterly/Newscom via ZUMA

    It looks like Marco Rubio is getting his wish. Thanks to his threat to vote against the tax bill, negotiators are increasing the refundability of the child tax credit:

    Taxpayers without income-tax liability will be able to get $1,400 of the $2,000 per-child credit, said Rep. Kristi Noem (R., S.D.), one of the members of the House-Senate negotiating committee. That’s up from $1,100 in the version that passed the Senate.

    Of course, now they have to pay for it, perhaps by having the individual tax cuts expire in 2024 instead of 2025. If that’s what happens, then Rubio will have gotten an extra $300 for six years ($1,800) at the cost of losing the whole thing a year earlier ($1,100). That’s a net gain of $700, or $100 per year. Yippee.

  • The Justice Department Owes Us Answers About Those Texts They Released

    Richard Ellis via ZUMA

    We all know that FBI agent Peter Strzok and FBI lawyer Lisa Page don’t think much of Donald Trump. This is because the Justice Department, for reasons they still haven’t explained, decided to release a whole bunch of private texts they sent to each other during the 2016 campaign season. Republicans have been making endless hay of this to argue that it contaminates the entire Mueller investigation.

    But was it only Trump the pair disdained? Not at all. The Wall Street Journal’s Del Quentin Wilber has done us all the favor of reading through the texts and highlighting the ones that refer to politicians. It turns out that Strzok and Page, like many of us, pretty much hate them all. Here they are in alphabetical order:

    Congress: “i LOATHE congress.”
    John Kasich: “He’s the only sensible man up there.”
    Mitch McConnell: “always reminds me of a turtle.”
    Martin O’Malley: “is a freakshow.”
    The Republican convention: “Duck Dynasty now Scott Baio? Ridiculous.” “Charles in Charge?! That’s the best they can do?! Lmfao.”
    Bernie Sanders: “Made me want to key the car.” “He’s an idiot like Trump.”
    Jeff Sessions: “My god.” “Which is the f-ed uppedness of it.”
    Roger Stone: “is horrible.”
    Donald Trump: “OMG he’s an idiot.” “Trump is a fucking idiot.”

    In other words, they’d watch the debates and dump on everyone, a scene repeated in millions of households all over the country. The only difference is that most of us get to keep our cynical remarks to ourselves.

    I’m sure glad I don’t work for someone who can decide to release all my texts to the public just for the hell of it. The Justice Department really owes us all an explanation of who decided to release these texts and why it was done in this case.

    UPDATE: It was someone in the Justice Department who released the text messages, not the FBI. I’ve corrected the text.

  • Doug Jones Will Be the Most Liberal Senator From Alabama in Recent History

    I guess you can file this under “too much free time on my hands.” But I was curious: will Doug Jones be not just the first Democratic Senator from Alabama since 1992, but the most liberal Alabama senator in recent history? Based on scores from DW-NOMINATE, the answer is almost certainly yes:

    Negative numbers are liberal, so Elizabeth Warren and Jeff Merkley give an idea of the current far-left pole of the Democratic Party, while Mike Lee and James Risch are at the far-right pole of the Republican Party. Doug Jones will clearly be the most culturally liberal senator from Alabama since the New Deal, and depending on how he compares to Hugo Black, the most economically liberal too.

    By the way, if DW-NOMINATE scores are to be believed, Jeff Sessions (the lower black diamond) was the previous record-holder for most culturally liberal senator from Alabama in recent history. Interesting, no?

  • Lunchtime Photo

    Today is the 45th anniversary of the last time a human being set foot on the moon.

  • Middle-Class Tax Cuts Keep Getting Paltrier in Republican Bill

    Remember how the Senate version of the tax bill didn’t quite pencil out, so they decided to make the individual tax cuts temporary? In 2025, they go bye bye. But it looks like maybe that still didn’t quite do the job:

    Congressional Republicans are looking at shortening the duration of tax cuts that their plan would give to families and individuals, a leading lawmaker said Thursday….Republicans are now considering having those tax cuts expire in 2024.

    Let’s see…divide by pi, carry the one…and it looks like the individual tax cuts will last for only six years. Then they expire so that the corporate tax cuts can be permanent. The pretense that middle-class families will see much benefit from this tax bill is getting thinner every day.

  • Health Care Companies Are Huge Winners From Tax Bill

    Bob Herman passes along an estimate from Credit Suisse of the 15 biggest corporate winners from the Republican tax bill:

    The list is dominated by health care companies, which might explain why they’ve been so quiet about Republican efforts to destroy Obamacare. The Obamacare stuff is a pain, but the losses due to Republican meddling and sabotage probably pale compared to the gains from the tax bill. I wonder how much of this tradeoff was made explicit in back rooms and private telephone calls?

  • WaPo: Putin Personally Directed Election Interference

    Aleksey Nikolskyi/Planet Pix via ZUMA

    This is from a Washington Post story about President Trump’s skepticism toward intelligence showing that Russia had interfered with the 2016 election:

    On Jan. 6, two weeks before Trump was sworn in as president, the nation’s top intelligence officials boarded an aircraft at Joint Base Andrews on the outskirts of Washington to travel to New York for one of the most delicate briefings they would deliver in their decades-long careers.

    ….Trump took a seat at one end of a large table, with Vice President-elect Mike Pence at the other. Among the others present were Priebus, Pompeo and designated national security adviser Michael Flynn. Following a rehearsed plan, Clapper functioned as moderator, yielding to Brennan and others on key points in the briefing, which covered the most highly classified information U.S. spy agencies had assembled, including an extraordinary CIA stream of intelligence that had captured Putin’s specific instructions on the operation.

    Is this something we’ve heard before? It’s dropped casually into the story in the 41st paragraph, which suggests the authors didn’t think it was especially important. Maybe I just missed it when it was first reported. But do we really have solid intelligence that shows Vladimir Putin personally directing the various hacks of Democratic email servers?

  • November Retail Sales Were Very Strong

    The Census Bureau announced this morning that retail sales were up strongly in November. However, their numbers don’t account for inflation and don’t provide any context for previous years. So how did we really do?

    Answer: pretty good. Accounting for inflation, November sales were up 4.1 percent over last year. That’s the best showing this century with the exception of 2010, the first expansion year after the Great Recession. And it’s considerably better than the past two years.

    If this is being done out of current income, rather than running up the credit cards, it suggests that the economy is heating up. Considering my fear of a recession in the next year or so, I don’t consider this unalloyed good news, but for everyone else it is.