Adam Ozimek points today to a study of KIPP charter schools that finds good outcomes for KIPP students and concludes that none of it is attributable to "skimming." That is, it's not the case that KIPP schools are getting good scores because poor students are prodded to leave at higher rates than good students.

This is obviously good news, though, as usual, there are reasons to be cautious. For one thing, the sample size of this study is extremely small: one school. For another, although the math results seem to be very good and very robust, the reading scores are much less certain. As the chart on the right shows, the 2005 cohort of kids actually shows a negative reading result at every grade level, and the more recent cohorts show positive but modest results with the exception of a single data point (the 2006 cohort's fourth year). Still, the results overall are generally positive and they confirm other studies that have also found good results from KIPP schools. What's more, KIPP's effectiveness, if anything, seems to be higher for low-income kids than for higher-income kids.

But something has been on my mind for a while about these studies, and this is a good chance to toss it out. This isn't related to my longstanding skepticism that the KIPP model can ever be scaled enough to be a broad-based solution, and it's not really meant to be a criticism of KIPP at all. In fact, all the evidence I've seen suggests that KIPP really does work well.

Rather, it's about the way these studies are done. Basically, you want to compare test results of charter kids to test results of public school kids, but first you want to make sure the kids themselves are similar. If charter kids, on average, are just smarter than public school kids, then good test results don't mean anything. One way of doing this is to control for the kinds of things that we think matter for success in school: income level, gender, race, English proficiency, etc. The problem is that no matter how many variables you control for, you never know for sure if you're really controlling for everything important.

Because of this, the gold standard for charter school research is to study schools that rely on lotteries to decide who gets in and who doesn't. Since selection is random, there's no difference between the kids who get in and the kids who don't. Nor are there systematic differences between the parents: all of them care enough about their children's education to apply to a charter school in the first place. So if the charter kids do better than the public school kids, it's almost certainly due to the schools themselves, not some inherent difference in either the children or their families.

But ever since seeing Waiting for Superman, I've had a nagging question about this. That documentary, if it's accurate, made it clear that parents who apply to charter schools are almost desperately anxious for their kids to get in. In fact, many of them view it as practically their only chance to escape their local schools and get their kids a real education. The ones who lose the lottery are profoundly deflated.

So here's my question: is it possible that the mere act of losing out in a charter school lottery changes some parents' behavior? With their hopes dashed, do they give up? Do they gradually stop taking an interest in their child's education? Do they become fatalistic about the prospect of success and stop prodding their kids to do their homework, behave in class, and get to school on time? And if some substantial fraction of them do, how much overall impact does this have on the aggregate test scores of the lottery-losing children?

I know this is a virtually unanswerable question, and I don't mean to use it as some kind of all-purpose, non-falsifiable objection to charter schools. I'm just curious. It never really occurred to me before I saw Superman, and I understand that the film may have overdramatized things for effect. Still, the losing parents sure did seem crushed. I have no idea how you could study this effectively, but I'd sure like to know whether the mere act of losing a charter school lottery has a negative effect on kids all by itself.

Quote of the Day: Playing With A-Bombs

From a "senior GOP lawmaker," explaining why Republicans are OK with touching off financial Armageddon by refusing to raise the debt ceiling:

Who has egg on their face if there is a sovereign debt crisis, House Republicans or the president?

I guess the optimistic take here is that Republicans are just playing the negotiation game really well. The pessimistic take is that they really believe this and think the political benefits outweigh the damage a debt crisis would do to the United States. I'm not really sure which it is anymore. I used to be an optimist, but that attitude is getting a lot harder to sustain these days.

Too Lazy to Write My Own Post About Laziness

Here's an email exchange with a friend in response to my post last night about zero-tolerance policies in schools:

Friend: “Zero tolerance” is right up there with “everything is on the table” in terms of laziness in terms of making policy.

Me: And "across the board cuts." Hey, this is fun! We should make a list of the top ten lazy policy slogans.

Friend: I’ve always liked “doing nothing is not an option.”

But that's only four, and a top ten list needs ten. Help us fill out our list in comments.

Five Things I'm Tired Of

There are a few things I'm pretty tired of:

  • The press corps' embarrassing infatuation with Sarah Palin's bus trip. Can't they just leave this stuff up to Access Hollywood and Entertainment Tonight, which are already in the business of following people around no matter what they do and no matter whether they "want" to be followed?
  • Anthony Weiner's Twitter account. He probably did something slightly skeevy and he should own up to it, but really, who cares?
  • Republican hostage taking over the debt ceiling. What's next? Threatening to withdraw funding for the Fed's computers since that's where all the money comes from?
  • The almost extra-galactic chutzpah of Republicans, who spent an entire year screaming about death panels and vilifying actual Medicare cuts in the healthcare reform bill, now complaining that it's demagoguery when Democrats point out — both correctly and mildly — that making Medicare too expensive for many seniors to afford would "end Medicare as we know it." How much more milquetoasty could you possibly get and still be tolerably within the bounds of accuracy?
  • The insane idea that the federal deficit needs to be addressed now now now! Republicans didn't care about the deficit when Reagan was president, they didn't care when Bush Sr. was president, and they didn't care when Bush Jr. was president. They only get religion when a Democrat is president and they need an all-purpose reason to oppose everything Democrats want to do. Is this really too complicated to understand? It's a political tactic — and a good one! — not a genuine reaction to anything in the real world. In the real world, stimulus spending is winding down, Medicare was reformed a mere 14 months ago and is solvent for at least another decade, Social Security is solvent for two or three decades, and the deficit is very plainly not a domestic spending problem. It wasn't a problem at all until 2001, and after that it was caused by two gigantic tax cuts, two unfunded wars, and a finance-industry driven recession. If we just let the tax cuts expire, get out of Iraq and Afghanistan, and get the economy moving, the medium-term deficit will disappear. In the meantime, grinding unemployment in the United States is really a wee bit more important than continuing to humor Republican political posturing.

I guess there's more, but that'll do for now. Unfortunately, these five things, along with the odd tornado and sensational trial-of-the-century are pretty much the only things the media is bothering to report right now. From a blogging point of view, this leaves me high and dry until I think of yet another way to complain about our insane preoccupation with the federal deficit.

Did I mention that this is almost clinically insane? I did? Then I guess I'll have to use some other descriptive phrase next time.

Things That Make Me Go "Hmmm"

In a post about a spat between the United States and Europe over who's implementing financial reform faster, Felix Salmon says:

In the short term, the biggest winners in any fight between regulatory authorities are always going to be the banks, who will happily arbitrage differing regional regulatory regimes and take advantage of their parents’ squabbles to stay out drinking all night. In the long term, however, even the banks would ultimately prefer a single global regulatory regime with clear ground rules and a level playing field — something which lets them concentrate on their main job, of banking, rather than expending enormous effort on lobbying and loopholes.

Really? In the long term, I'd guess that clear rules and a level playing field are the last thing that big banks want. Lobbying costs are a drop in the bucket to them and produce returns that make Bernie Madoff look like a piker. What's more, over the past couple of decades big banks have made it crystal clear that they have very little interest in their "main job" and are instead intensely obsessed with bending rules and discovering clever innovations that will make them trillions of dollars in trading profits. "Banking" is for suckers.

This is why simple, blunt rules are best in the financial industry. Sure, they'll end up being inefficient in some ways and unfair in others. That's inevitable. But it pales compared to the inefficiency and unfairness of business as usual. Unfortunately, that's largely what we still have in the aftermath of Dodd-Frank and Basel III. They're better than the status quo, but they simply aren't blunt enough to rein in the rocket scientists of Wall Street for long. And that's just the way Wall Street likes it.

Does tort reform reduce healthcare costs by cutting down on frivolous medical malpractice lawsuits? Maybe. But how about the specific type of tort reform supported most strongly by the conservative movement, namely caps on non-economic damage awards? The evidence on that score is pretty strong: it has no effect at all. Today, Aaron Carroll presents the latest evidence about damage caps from a study of Medicare costs in Texas before and after they passed a damage cap law:

So what happened to costs of care after that law was put in place? Citizen Watch analyzed just that using data from the Dartmouth Atlas of Health Care....Texas is blue, the nation is red, and the law went into place at the dotted line. If anything, Texas’s Medicare spending seems to have gone up faster than the nation’s since 2003. Hardly a persuasive argument for tort reform = cost control.

Of course, you barely even need a study to understand the extreme unlikelihood of this working. The goal is to reduce the rate of unnecessary testing that doctors perform merely due to fear of frivolous lawsuits, but frivolous lawsuits, almost by definition, are small and aren't affected by damage caps. The only cases affected by caps are big, serious cases of malpractice, and those are both rare and complicated. They usually turn on some kind of gross negligence, and they're demonstrably non-frivolous. Capping damages in these cases simply has no effect at all on behavior meant to deter nuisance suits and therefore no effect on the practice of defensive medicine.

Of course, this is so obvious that even the Texas legislature surely understands it. However, they also understand something else: trial lawyers make their money on the big, serious cases, and if you cap damages in the big cases then you also limit the income of trial lawyers. And trial lawyers are big contributors to the Democratic Party. So capping damages in serious cases of malpractice does nothing to harm the storefront purveyors of frivolous lawsuits, but it does harm two other groups: victims of serious malpractice and the Democratic Party. That's a shame about the victims, but hey — you can't make an omelette without breaking a few eggs. It's all for the greater good, my friends.

Return to Kurdistan - Part 2

This is the second part of a three-part series of dispatches from Jonathan Dworkin, an infectious diseases fellow at Brown who spent several months in Iraqi Kurdistan in 2006 and returned for a followup visit in May. Part 1 is here. The final installment will appear tomorrow.


In 2006, during my first week in Sulaimania, a physician colleague made an off-hand comment. He told me that speech here is free, but “not as free.” It struck me as a revealing phrase, but I did not realize how soon the issue would become paramount. In the Kurdish provinces there has been a steady growth of independent media since 2003. During my 2006 visit this consisted mostly of newspapers, including one called Hawlati, or “the people.” This was a cautious beginning, and most criticism of the ruling parties was measured. In the last five years, however, there has been a rapid growth in the independent media, which now consists of satellite television channels, magazines, and websites, as well as newspapers. As is typical with television, and particularly with web media, the change has led to more vitriolic criticism of the government. The government’s response has been one of the defining disasters of the Kurdistan region.

In May of 2010 a Kurdish student named Sardasht Osman was abducted outside his college in Erbil, the capital of the Kurdistan region. Two days later his body was found in Mosul. It was a gruesome murder, and it was highly unusual. Erbil, like the rest of the Kurdish region, has experienced almost no terrorism-related violence in the Iraq War. The unofficial boundary between Kurdish and Arab Iraq is patrolled by the peshmerga, Kurdish soldiers who man checkpoints along all the major roads. Furthermore, Osman was a well-known critic of Massoud Barzani, the Kurdish region’s president, and he had written several inflammatory articles for Kurdish websites. In an article written five months before his death, he wrote metaphorically that he wished he could marry one of Barzani’s daughters, so that he could benefit from the family’s famous nepotism.

For months before his death Osman had received anonymous threatening calls. These increased in intensity after the article dealing with Barzani’s daughter. His friends and family say that he was terrified, particularly around government security vehicles. He went to the police in Erbil, but he received no help. After the murder, Barzani’s government promised an investigation. The conclusion of an anonymous committee was that Osman was connected to a terrorist group, and his death was due to his refusal to participate in terrorism. This report — notably clumsy considering Osman was a well-known secularist — was immediately rejected by everyone who knew the victim. Even the terrorist group, Ansar al Islam, took the unusual step of denying the killing. Human Rights Watch, in a report on journalistic freedom in Iraq, concluded that the investigation was bogus.

If the incident were isolated, the Kurdish government might have some leeway. Unfortunately the murder is part of a broader context of ugly attacks on journalists and opposition members. A Times story on the murder referenced the Kurdistan Journalists Syndicate, which reported 357 cases of intimidation, assault, or arrest in 2009. Libel suits and threats to shut down “unlicensed” media outlets are the most common forms of harassment. As Michael Rubin has pointed out, Kurdish authorities have not investigated the murder of an opposition journalist for Lvin magazine in 2008, nor did they investigate the murder of an opposition politician in Dohuk in 2005. Human Rights Watch, in its report on the Osman murder, documented several threats made against Osman’s friends and family after they refused to accept the findings of Barzani’s anonymous commission. Most importantly, the media crackdown has not ended with the cessation of the recent protests. Intimidation is ongoing, as evidenced by the arrest of the editor of Lvin during my current visit.

Speech in Iraqi Kurdistan is not free, but it is valued. Sardasht Osman’s murder led to large protests, which foreshadowed the even larger protests this spring. Despite the violence, opposition media continue to proliferate. Nalia, the television station recently burned down in German Village, is again up and running. The secular opposition Goran (“Change”) Party has an immensely popular channel, which each night features stories of government abuse and corruption. Hawlati and the other independent papers are now the most respected, and the internet is proving as difficult to control here as it has in other countries. Given the personal risks people take to speak their mind in Kurdistan, it is immensely reassuring to see such a growth in activity. The press here is bruised, but it is kicking harder than ever.

The damage done to the Kurdish government’s credibility, though, may be irreversible. Rather than establishing normal party politics, accepting criticism, and ultimately allowing for a healthy ebb and flow of power, they are digging in. They are, as many here have pointed out, imitating the Arab despotisms that they have long claimed to despise. This explains the growing pessimism in Sulaimania. Though people have not given up on the project of building a democratic society, most no longer have faith in their ability to shape their government. Violence is the new reality, and opposition is the only path left open to them.

Zero Tolerance Losing Its Appeal?

The Washington Post reports that we're having a sudden outbreak of common sense:

Nearly two decades after a zero-tolerance culture took hold in American schools, a growing number of educators and elected leaders are scaling back discipline policies that led to lengthy suspensions and ousters for such mistakes as carrying toy guns or Advil.

....The shift is a quiet counterpoint to a long string of high-profile cases about severe punishments for childhood misjudgments. In recent months, a high school lacrosse player was suspended in Easton, Md., and led away in handcuffs for having a pocketknife in his gear bag that he said was for fixing lacrosse sticks. Earlier, a teenager in the Virginia community of Spotsylvania was expelled for blowing plastic pellets through a tube at classmates.

....In Delaware, for example, zero-tolerance cases were a repeated issue in the Christina School District, where a 6-year-old with a camping utensil that included a knife was suspended in 2009. Discipline procedures were revamped last year, giving administrators the discretion to consider a student’s intent and grade, as well as the risk of harm. Out-of-school suspensions in the state’s largest school system fell by one-third in a year.

How on earth did we ever stampede ourselves into adopting en masse a policy aimed at children that didn't consider age, intent, and risk of harm? It was like we were suffering from a bout of collective insanity. I understand the problems that teachers and principals have these days, both with legal liability and with parents who scream about discrimination whenever their little darlings are alleged to have misbehaved. But there's just no way that zero tolerance was ever the best answer to these problems. Hopefully we're all finally figuring that out.

Down the Rabbit Hole

Jon Chait points us to this remarkable imaginary conversation between Barack Obama and Paul Ryan as transcribed by the Washington Post's Ruth Marcus:

Barack: The current system can’t go on. I wouldn’t say this publicly, but my party’s wrong to pretend it can. Still, your approach goes way too far. Seniors would get help to buy private insurance but would pay a lot more than they do now.... You’re forced to make deep cuts in Medicare because you won’t agree to raise taxes and that’s the only other way to get to balance.

Paul: Look, I could maybe support higher taxes as part of an overall deal. I just can’t admit that. On costs, my plan gives extra subsidies to the poorest, sickest and oldest seniors. If those aren’t big enough, we could talk. But it makes sense for wealthier seniors to pay more. And what about the general concept? Could you accept the idea if the subsidy grew at a rate higher than regular inflation?

This is just mind boggling. Like Ross Douthat's response to me a few weeks ago about Republicans and taxes, I hardly know how to respond. I feel like one of us is living in that Spock-with-a-beard alternate universe, and I'm beginning to wonder which one of us it is.

In Marcus's case, she imagines that Paul Ryan — Paul Ryan! — is secretly willing to support higher taxes. That's crazy. There's absolutely nothing in his past history to suggest that he's anything but an unalterable, true-believing hardliner on taxes. In Douthat's case, he wrote that I was underestimating how many Republican lawmakers might accept a modestly tax-increasing budget compromise and suggested that Republican opposition to tax increases was roughly similar to Democratic opposition to spending cuts. Seriously? Of course Dems don't want to cut spending as much as Republicans do, and of course there are some Democrats who won't support domestic spending cuts of any kind. Still, there are loads of centrist Democratic senators who are quite plainly willing to talk seriously about reining in spending, but at a guess, no more than three or four Republican senators who would be willing to support a tax hike of even a dime. The situation in he House is similar. Is this really even a debatable point? Hell, virtually the entire Democratic caucus voted for $500 billion in Medicare cuts in 2009 even though they knew they'd get shellacked for it by Republicans in 2010. And they did.

I just don't get it. The Republican jihad against taxes is hardly a secret, and Republican obduracy against even the slightest tax increase is perhaps the firmest, longest held, and most widely known economic policy held by either party. Nothing else even comes close. So how can smart, experienced journalists and commentators continue to somehow believe that it's all a big show and Democrats just need to demonstrate a bit of flexibility in order to win Republican votes for a tax increase? How can they be seduced by Paul Ryan's mild tone into believing that he's just modestly opposed to tax increases and could be easily reasoned with if only President Obama would invite him over for a beer?

What's going on here? Is Spock clean shaven in my universe or theirs?

Europe's Slow-Motion Financial Collapse

There's a small boomlet today in blog posts trying to explain what Martin Wolf is saying in his Financial Times column today. If you just want the conclusion, it's easy: Europe is screwed and no one knows what to do about it. But the details are a little trickier.

Roughly speaking, Europe's problem is easy to understand. Countries like Greece and Ireland are borrowing huge amounts of money to stay afloat. This money is coming from healthy economies like Germany and France, which aren't willing to continue loaning vast sums forever. So unless the debtor countries get their finances in order quickly — which seems unlikely — they might eventually be forced to default on their sovereign debt. The problem is that this debt is largely held by banks in healthy countries like Germany and France, and if the weak countries default, those banks are in big trouble. The German and French governments would have to undertake a bank rescue using taxpayer money, so in the end German and French taxpayers will be the ones paying the piper no matter what happens. What's more, the aftermath of such a default and rescue operation would likely be catastrophic.

Drilling down a bit further and using Greece as an example, what's happening at an operational level is that the German central bank is withdrawing credit from German commercial banks and loaning that money to Greece. But Wolf, relying on the testimony of Hans-Werner Sinn, president of the Ifo Institute for Economic Research, says that this can't go on much longer even if we wanted it to:

Prof Sinn makes three [] points. First, this backdoor way of financing debtor countries cannot continue for very long. By shifting so much of the eurozone’s money creation towards indirect finance of deficit countries, the system has had to withdraw credit from commercial banks in creditor countries. Within two years, he states, the latter will have negative credit positions with their national central banks – in other words, be owed money by them. For this reason, these operations will then have to cease.

If I understand this correctly, the basic mechanism is that commercial banks create money, central banks are borrowing it and loaning it to other central banks in weak countries, and once there it ends up being loaned to commercial banks that are losing deposits because no one trusts them to stay solvent. But soon commercial banks in strong countries will no longer owe money to their central banks and this mechanism for fiscal transfers will have to stop.

Paul Krugman describes this as a "slow-motion bank run," and it doesn't end well. But restructuring debt in Greece and elsewhere would provoke a bank crisis in Germany, and that in turn would likely produce another financial collapse like 2008. Felix Salmon quotes a Merrill Lynch report:

While volatility is low, correlations are still very high. And that’s a combination which tends to presage nasty price crashes across many asset classes. In other words, markets are exhibiting a lot of fragility right now, and something drastic like a Greek restructuring could easily send them into a Lehman-style downward spiral.

So there's no answer. As Wolf says:

The eurozone confronts a choice between two intolerable options: either default and partial dissolution or open-ended official support. The existence of this choice proves that an enduring union will at the very least need deeper financial integration and greater fiscal support than was originally envisaged. How will the politics of these choices now play out? I truly have no idea. I wonder whether anybody does.

I don't wonder at all. I think everyone understands the basic state of play and knows perfectly well that there's simply no decent solution. Every possible path is catastrophic in one way or another, and it's human nature to try to avoid a certain doom as long as possible. The fact that waiting just makes it worse hardly matters.