Author Archives: James A. Bacon

When the Gender Gap Meets the Racial Gap

gender_gapby James A. Bacon

When remarking upon disparities in educational outcomes, most pundits focus on the racial/ethnic gap between Asians and whites on the one hand and blacks and Hispanics on the other. That’s no surprise, given the distressing size of the gap and the dismal implications of that gap for the prospects for forging a society in which every child has an equal shot at succeeding in life. But there’s another gap, not quite as large, but equally pervasive — the gender gap. Girls out-perform boys academically across the board. Combine the gender gap with the ethnic/racial gap, and that spells very bad news for the upcoming generation of black males.

To examine the dimensions of this gap, I used Virginia’s awesome “SOL Assessment Build a Table” tool that allows users to take a deep dive into the data. I compared male vs female pass and fail rates on reading, writing, history, math and science SOLs across all schools and grades, then broke down the gender disparities by racial/ethnic group to see if the disparities were worse for some groups than others. The chart above shows the male-female gap — the difference between the percentage of females who passed the the percentage of males who passed. Here’s the detailed data.

The most striking pattern is that boys fail SOLs at a higher rate than girls in every subject area. The gap is greatest for writing and reading and smallest for history/social science and science. Some sub-groups of boys marginally out-perform girls in science but the difference is small. Generally speaking, the performance gap for “advanced,” as opposed to simple “proficiency” accentuates girls’ academic superiority, with science and history/social sciences the main exceptions.

Another broad conclusion is that the gender gap is narrowest among whites and Asians, and the most glaring among blacks and American-Indians. Statewide, more than 45% of all black males fail the writing SOLs; nearly 43% fail the math SOLs. Without question, the fact that so many blacks are economically disadvantaged plays a role here. But the under-performance of black males is so strong that other factors undoubtedly come into play.

The difference cannot be explained by the distribution of blacks in “bad” schools and other races in “good” schools. Larry Gross has compared the SOL pass rates for economically disadvantaged whites and blacks (not distinguishing between gender) in Henrico County elementary schools and the pattern remains depressingly the same in school after school. (See his data run here.)

I’m sure people can provide many different explanations for the academic plight of Virginia’s black males. Some will argue that institutional racism runs deeper than we ever imagined. I am more inclined to attribute the gap to different cultural attitudes and family structures among ethnic/racial groups, although I am open to the argument that both institutional and cultural factors may be at work. Whatever the explanation, we need to get to the bottom of it. In a technology-driven knowledge economy in which education is more critical than ever to attaining a middle-class lifestyle, it is frightening to think that half the black males going through school today are fated to live at the economic margins.

Plumbing the SOL Racial Gap

SOL_gapby James A. Bacon

Jim Weigand, also known on this blog as Hill City Jim, responded to my call yesterday for a crowd-sourcing of the Standards of Learning data to better understand the key drivers of educational performance. Why do some school systems show SOL pass rates that are so much higher than others? Clearly, the level of affluence and education in a school division plays a major role. But does that tell the whole story? Do some racial or regional groups put a higher or lesser premium on educational achievement than others? Do some school divisions simply do a better job?

One of the starkest demographic divisions in SOL performance is race. As Weigand crunched the numbers, white students statewide had an 84% pass rate on their SOLs while black students had a 63% pass rate — a racial gap of 21 percentage points. (Weigand did not run numbers for Asians, Hispanics or other ethnic/racial minorities.) Tragically, the low pass rate is an advance indicator that yet another generation of blacks will be relegated to the bottom of the educational and income hierarchy in the United States.

The big question is why. Does the SOL performance gap reflect inequalities in the distribution of resources in Virginia school systems? Does it reflect different cultural attitudes among blacks — an aversion to “acting white”? Or are other factors responsible — subtler forms of institutional racism, perhaps, or the distribution of races between wealthy and poor regions of the state? Liberals and conservatives will be tempted to revert to their default ideological positions (liberals skew to resources/racism explanations, conservatives tend to blame black cultural attitudes) but this is too important to leave to ideology. We need reality-based answers so we can address real problems, not philosophical figments.

I have refined Weigand’s numbers with an eye to identifying outliers: the 10 school divisions with the smallest racial performance gaps and the 10 divisions with the largest gaps. Interestingly enough, the tiny West Point school system is an extreme outlier. In yesterday’s analysis, the mill town showed the second highest SOL composite pass rate of any system in the state. In today’s data, it is the one school system in Virginia where black students marginally out-performed white students! Once again, I challenge an enterprising newspaper reporter to take a close look at the West Point school system to see what’s going on there.

Other observations from the outliers:

  • School divisions with small gaps in racial performance are smaller school systems. Are these divisions more thoroughly integrated by virtue of having fewer schools? If you’ve got only one high school in the jurisdiction, it has to be integrated. Or are there other ways in which smaller school systems could lead to more egalitarian results?
  • The smallest-gap school divisions also tend to come from poor regions of the state. If everyone is poor together, perhaps there are fewer racial disparities in household income and education.
  • The biggest-gap school divisions skew more urban. And what’s going on in Charlottesville and Albemarle County, both of which appear on the list of school divisions with the biggest racial gaps? That is not what we’d expect from school systems that serve children of University of Virginia faculty and administrators.

Looking at outliers is a useful exercise but it will take us only so far. We need to look at the distribution of SOL performance across all school systems, including those closer to the mean. It’s also worth exploring other performance gaps — how about the gap between Asians and everyone else, including whites? How about the gender gap? To what degree do girls out-perform boys statewide? And what about the gender gap within racial groups? Is that gap greater in some ethnic or regional cultures (inner-city black, white Appalachian) than others?

If you want to take this analysis to the next level, you can access Weigand’s numbers here. Or, please, bring fresh data to the discussion.

Identifying the Education X Factor

by James A. Bacon

The 2014 Standards of Learning (SOL) scores are in, and it appears that Virginia’s school divisions made decent improvements in mathematics over the past year while losing ground marginally in reading, writing, science and history. Bottom line: Virginia students tread water another year.

Here are the percentage pass rates across all grades and schools systems. (The cells highlighted in blue reflect old tests, which were changed in 2012-13 to make them more rigorous.)

SOLs
Another year running in place – that’s demoralizing. Can we find some seeds of succor? There are a few. I plowed through the data released by the Virginia Department of Education and compiled composite pass scores for every school district. The highest possible score — a 100% pass rate for all five subjects — is 500. I pulled out the school districts with an average pass rate of 80%, hardly a world-beating performance but at least sufficient to prosper in a knowledge-based economy.

top_SOLs

As one would expect, affluent Northern Virginia cities and counties, which have some of the highest median incomes and highest average levels of education in the country, stood out in this list of the top-24 performing school districts.

But there are some pleasant surprises, most notably West Point, a small mill town on the York River and one of only two towns in Virginia that maintains its own school district. The median household income in 2010 fell short of $50,000 — less than half that of Loudoun County, Virginia’s most prosperous locality. (Although incomes are not high, poverty is very low in the town — less than 3.0%.)

How do the school children of a small, southern mill town out-perform super-affluent localities such as Loudoun, Arlington and Fairfax Counties? It could be a fluke — the town’s population is only 3,300. Maybe the outstanding performance was the result of random variation, which create wider swings in smaller numbers. Or maybe West Point schools are doing something right that others could emulate. Some enterprising newspaper reporter should find out.

Other stand-outs are schools in the Roanoke Valley. Roanoke County, Salem and Botetourt County schools all scored in the top twelve. Those school districts are significantly larger than West Point’s, so it’s harder to attribute such consistently high scores to random fluctuations.

Even more surprising is the performance of school divisions in far Southwest Virginia. Wise County, which racked up scores equal to Fairfax County, sits in the heart of Virginia’s economically ravaged coalfields. This is deepest, darkest Appalachia. Scott County and Washington County, also in Southwest Virginia, performed in line with affluent exurban school districts in the Richmond and Hampton Roads regions.

Again, one must ask the question: How do these school systems beat the odds? They have fewer resources. Students’ parents have lower incomes and less education than in more affluent districts. The bromides about what determines school performance — spending per student, socio-economic status and education levels of the students’ parents — provide an incomplete explanation at best. What is that X factor? Can we capture it, bottle it and share it with other school districts?

I would love to crowd-source the analysis of these questions. For anyone who is interested in digging into the numbers, here they are:

What Price Happiness?

San Luis Obispo. Who wouldn't be happy living here... if you could afford it?

San Luis Obispo. Who wouldn’t be happy living here… if you could afford it?

by James A. Bacon

After learning that Virginia cities report some of the highest levels of personal satisfaction in the country (see “Happy“), I have been thinking a lot about what creates happy communities. In the hope of gaining a better understanding, I recently finished reading Dan Buettner’s 2010 book, “Thrive: Finding Happiness the Blue Zones Way,” that plumbed the social, economic and political wellsprings of happiness around the world.

The premise was intriguing: Buettner visited four “blue zones,” locations where research indicated inhabitants were world leaders in happiness. Visiting these zones — Denmark; Singapore; Monterey, Mexico; and San Luis Obispo, California — he interviewed politicians, academics, civic leaders and everyday people about why they thought their country/city measured off the charts.

The book is an easy and thought-provoking read. Buettner asks intriguing questions. Unfortunately, the answers to those questions are all across the board. While there are some universal constants — people are happier when they aren’t starving, dying from pestilence and in continual fear of their physical safety; people value family and friendships; people with a sense of purpose are happier than those without – different cultures define happiness in different ways. The things that make Danes happy often are very different from the things that make Mexicans happy. Transplant a Mexican family from Monterey to Copenhagen and the result will not be joy and contentment.

While the United States doesn’t set the standard for worldwide happiness, its inhabitants are happier than most. And of all the places in the country, it turns out that the residents of San Luis Obispo are, on average, the happiest in the United States. The picture that Buettner paints of San Luis Obispo, a city of 45,000 amid a county of 270,000, is an attractive one. Set in central California, the region has a great climate. There are lots of bike trails. The town is highly walkable. Local ordinances ban gaudy commercial signage. People are healthy and physically active. As home to California Polytechnic, the town has a lively cultural scene. People are tolerant of cultural minorities. Much wine is consumed. In sum, San Luis Obispo is the Charlottesville of California. Not coincidentally, Charlottesville was ranked happiest among all of America’s small metros in a 2010 Center for Disease Control survey cited in a July National Bureau of Economic Research paper, “Unhappy Cities.” (I do not know if the CDC used the same methodology for ascertaining happiness as the researchers cited by Buettner.)

There may be more to San Luis Obispo’s secret sauce than meets the eye, however. Outside the university, there are limited economic opportunities, Buettner writes. And the quality of life is so desirable that people drive up the price of the limited supply of housing to levels that are unaffordable to many.

In other words, San Luis Obispo has used strict zoning and growth controls to create a delightful environment… for those who can afford it. Judging by happiness surveys, the people who live there are extremely satisfied with the results. But think about what that means. There are thousands, maybe tens of thousands, of less affluent Californians who would like to share in that happiness but have been effectively priced out of the market. Who are those Californians? For the most part they are poor and minorities. San Luis Obispo is 85% white. Hispanics, some of whom are classified as white, constitute only 14.7% of the population. The number of Asians and native Indians is small, and the number of African-Americans is insignificant.

So, while San Luis Obispo celebrates diversity, it does not practice it. People — liberals and conservatives alike – like living around other people like them. The shared values stemming from such cultural homogeneity builds trust, and trust is a critical ingredient for happiness. The wider the radius of trust and cooperation in a community, the happier the people living there.

San Luis Obispo is hardly the only community to engage in exclusionary zoning. The practice is widespread around the country. But zoning out poor people, who tend to be less happy, is not in accord with America’s ideas of social justice. There is a rising tide of thought that nations should measure themselves not just by the size of their economies but by their Gross National Happiness. That sounds like a wonderful idea — until you ask whose happiness and how it is achieved.

Surprise — People Who Live in the Burbs Like Living There

Suburban living -- people seem to like it.

Suburban living — people seem to like it.

Americans living in the suburbs are more satisfied with their communities overall than their counterparts in urban or rural areas, finds the new Atlantic Media/Siemens State of the City Poll. Eighty-four percent of suburban residents rated their communities excellent or good, compared to 75% of urban dwellers and 78% of rural residents.

That finding seems all the more significant given the strong pro-urban bias of Atlantic Media, which publishes the Atlantic CityLab. A major theme of CityLab is how city centers and downtowns are undergoing a renaissance, reflecting a profound shift in American preferences for urban living over suburban living. It cannot have been easy for CityLab to conclude, “When it comes to overall community satisfaction, the suburbs are still king.”

But a closer examination of the data shows that conclusion to be almost meaningless — and that’s before considering the methodological issues related to divvying up the country into “urban,” “suburban” and “rural.” (CityLab acknowledges that some “suburban” areas are hard to distinguish from “urban” and others hard to distinguish from “rural.”) The poll results released yesterday don’t tell us what it is about “suburban” versus “urban” that people like or dislike.

Urbanism advocates generally argue that the preference for the urban way of life resides in its human settlement patterns — more compact development, walkable streets, transportation options and availability of amenities not found elsewhere. I would argue that those urban advantages were overwhelmed by unrelated issues such as inner-city poverty, crime, troubled schools and higher taxes, which drove whites and middle-class blacks into the suburbs. Any analysis needs to distinguish between the human environment and the built environment.

According to the Atlantic Media/Siemens data, white people, college-educated people, homeowners, older people, people with higher incomes — all categories with a high degree of overlap — tend to be happier with their communities than non-whites, less-than-college educated, younger, lower-income Americans. What a surprise. People with greater financial resources gravitate to the more desirable neighborhoods and are happier as a result. Who would have thunk it?

In coming weeks, CityLab will explore its findings relating to crime and policing, transportation, education, housing, energy and infrastructure. I expect those findings will be more revealing.

– JAB

Overruns, Subsidies and Pollution

Tide Light Rail in downtown Norfolk. Photo credit: Hamptonroads.com

Tide Light Rail in downtown Norfolk. Photo credit: Hamptonroads.com

by James A. Bacon

Randal O’Toole, the Cato Institute’s transportation scholar, has penned a devastating take-down of Norfolk’s light rail system, the Tide. The rail line, which opened in 2011 60% over budget and 16 months late, ran operating losses of $12.5 million in 2012, about double projections. Farebox revenues covered about 5% of operating costs. Hoped-for redevelopment around the Tide’s eleven stations has yet to materialize. (The post is supposed to appear on O’Toole’s blog, The Antiplanner, but I could not find it there. I am relying upon an email version.)

Now, says O’Toole, the editorial writers at the Virginian-Pilot want to compound the folly by slashing fares from $1.50 per trip (before discounts), among the lowest in the nation, to $.50 in a desperate bid to jolt ridership and stimulate economic development. The problem with that idea, he says, is that it cannot generate sufficient ridership to encourage developers to build around the train stops. The idea would expand the operating deficit while doing nothing to build the property tax base.

Ironically, light rail, much beloved by environmentalists for taking CO2-emitting cars off the road, is more energy-intensive at low levels of ridership than automobiles. Writes O’Toole: “Norfolk’s rail line uses far more energy than cars: 5,400 BTUs per passenger mile in 2012 compared with an average of less than 3,400 for cars and 4,100 for light trucks (and 3,7000 for Hampton Roads buses).”

O’Toole continues:

Rail transit is supposed to be about bringing large numbers of people into major job centers. But there are no major job centers in the region, or at least none served by the Tide rail line: Norfolk has only about 24,000 downtown jobs, less than 3 percent of the metropolitan area. Transit subsidies are also supposed to help low-income people who don’t have cars reach jobs, but the 2012 American Community Survey found that only 2.6 percent of workers in the Norfolk-Virginia Beach urban area lack cars, and half of them travel to work by car, while only 32 percent ride transit.

In fairness to the Tide, the rail line’s financial performance has improved since 2012. A mid-2014 review indicated that farebox recovery had increased to 17.7% and the operating cost had declined to $3.4 million (or $6.8 million annualized).

Still, even the updated numbers call into question the wisdom of extending the line to the Virginia Beach resort district, a project that could cost more than $1 billion. Does Virginia Beach really want to spend hundreds of millions of its own money (the state and feds would pick up much of the tab) for the privilege of creating a permanent subsidy and tax drain at a time when Americans are driving less and congestion is easing?

Bacon’s bottom line: Mass transit is a great idea… when it works. But the fact that heavy rail has done wonders in New York City and the core Washington metropolitan area does not mean that light rail will have a similarly transformative effect in a sprawling, low-density metro like Norfolk-Virginia Beach. You can’t force-feed mass transit. Commuter rail requires high-density, mixed-use pedestrian friendly development around rail stations. That land use pattern does not exist in Norfolk/Virginia Beach right now. It will take appropriate zoning, years of re-development and public investment in creating walkable streets before there is any chance of generating sufficient ridership to justify the investment.

There is a logical progression for mass transit: Serve a transportation corridor with scheduled bus service and support it with higher-density, mixed-use rezoning. If and when sufficient redevelopment occurs along the corridor to support it, upgrade the service to Bus Rapid Transit. If and when sufficient redevelopment occurs to support another phase transition, upgrade the route to rail. That process could well take decades, too long a time to satisfy impatient environmentalists who want to save the world now. But it would be fiscally sustainable in an era in which Virginia local governments are increasingly hard-pressed to meet their obligations.

Meanwhile, the Uber-Lyft revolution continues to roil the transportation industry. Using smart phones to connect drivers with riders and writing algorithms that optimize the distribution of fleet vehicles serving different price points and demographics (Cadillacs for rich riders, vans for poor riders) could render much of our transportation infrastructure obsolete. I’m still waiting for a politician who says it’s time to prioritize ride-sharing over mega-road and transit projects. Surely, there’s someone out there!

A Surprising Source of Resilience in SW, Southside Virginia

start-upsBack on the subject of entrepreneurship and business start-ups in Virginia… The Virginia Performs website provides a useful overview of data that describes the climate for business growth in the state. With the caveat that the data is subject to reporting lags, hence a little of out date, the picture is a modestly favorable one. The Old Dominion excels in the percentage of technology firms and the percentage of fast-growth firms, and fares in line with national averages for patents per capita, venture capital, business start-ups and university spin-offs.

Perhaps the most surprising finding emerges from the regional breakdown of business start-ups per 10,000 population broken down by region, as seen in the chart above. After years of lagging statewide averages, Southside Virginia has come on strong in recent years, surpassing even Northern Virginia in 2012. Southwest Virginia has out-performed the state average in several recent years, although it dipped in 2012.

With the perception of “Virginiagal2,” who has been touting the entrepreneurial potential for areas outside Virginia’s urban crescent in the comments section of this blog, not many observers would have predicted this trend. Of course, one must be careful with the data. We don’t know, for instance, what proportion of these new businesses are comprised of home-based businesses and micro-businesses with limited growth prospects, and what number might have fast-growth potential. Regardless, the rate of business formation suggests a hidden resilience in the Southside and Southwest Virginia economies that may keep those regions economically afloat in the face of labor-market economies that favor the major metros.

– JAB

Bringing out the Knives

An Afghan pesh-kabz

An Afghan pesh-kabz

by James A. Bacon

There is a rising tide in the op-ed pages, TV commentary and blog commentary that former Governor Bob McDonnell is a brutish, swinish cad for portraying his wife Maureen as the heavy in the corruption trial. You’ve got to love liberals. They’re so very compassionate…  until they’re talking about their wounded enemies. Then, like the Afghan women in the Rudyard Kipling poem, “The Young British Soldier,” they scour the battlefield to “cut up what remains.”

If Maureen and Bob McDonnell had been Democrats instead of Republicans, we would be treated to a litany of perspectives on the heavy toll of political life upon the marriages of elected officials, the unambiguous signs that Maureen was suffering from depression, and speculation from mental health experts to provide subtlety, nuance and context to the story.

No such compassion is accorded McDonnell, who now is being depicted as a man who “betrayed” his wife and was willing to “flay” her character in order to save himself, just to cite the observations of Petula Dvorak and her headline writer in the Washington Post. (Bacon’s Rebellion‘s very own Peter Galuszka is no kinder.)

Here’s the question I would pose to them. If you were in McDonnell’s shoes, and if the marriage were the shambles he says it was, and if Maureen was indeed the one who solicited the gifts and loans from former Star Scientific CEO Jonnie Williams, Sr., and if you truly believed yourself to be innocent of any illegality, what would you have done? Would you have, in Dvorak’s words, “manned up” and taken the plea agreement offered by prosecutors before the trial? How many people would admit to a crime they believed they did not commit?

Who really bears the moral onus here? McDonnell, for defending himself, or the prosecutors, who (a) proceeded with a case that’s looking flimsier by the day, and (b) called the witnesses whose testimony trashed Maureen’s reputation before McDonnell breathed a word?

McDonnell bears his share of blame for the failing marriage, as he seemed willing to concede on the witness stand yesterday. Maureen was happy living in Virginia Beach before he rose to statewide political prominence. He asked her to sacrifice a lot for his political career, giving up her cozy network of friends and her part-time job selling vitamin supplements. When he first moved to Richmond, the family lived apart while the kids finished high school. As attorney general and especially as governor, he traveled constantly and spent half his nights away from his wife and family. He insisted she use a small inheritance to pay down credit card bills. When Maureen expressed her increasing unhappiness by nagging and throwing tantrums, he withdrew from her, often spending extra time at the office. Emotionally exhausted from the confrontations, he did not question some of Maureen’s activities that he should have questioned — it was easier just to look the other way.

But McDonnells’ critics don’t mention any of these all-to-human failings that probably could describe thousands, even millions, of American men at some point in their marriages. Liberals bring out the long knives. They move in for the kill, portraying their weakened foes as morally reprehensible, as less than human.

In his poem, Kipling advised the wounded English soldier, “Jest roll to your rifle and blow out your brains.” McDonnell did not roll over. Perhaps that was his worst affront of all.

Virginia’s Entrepreneurial Vitality

inc5000

How does Virginia reinvigorate a lagging economy dragged down by sequestration-driven cuts to defense spending? Foster a business environment conducive to new business formation.

There’s a good-news, bad-news story coming out of publication of the 2014 Inc. 5000 compilation of the nation’s fastest-growing companies. As Virginia Business reports, the 284 Virginia companies on the list ranked Virginia 5th in the country, lagging only California, Texas, New York and Florida, states with far larger populations and business communities. That’s a positive indicator of Virginia’s business vitality.

It’s a mixed-news story, however, because three-quarters of the fast-growing companies are located in Northern Virginia. While NoVa is an incredibly fertile ground for entrepreneurship, RoVa (the rest of Virginia) is not. Take away Northern Virginia, and what you get is… middle America.

Many (including me) have questioned the ability of the NoVa business community, which is heavily skewed to defense contracting work, to restructure itself to thrive in an era of federal budget cuts. I’m less worried now than iI once was. Ironically, budget cuts may benefit the region in the long run. With one of the best educated, highly skilled populations anywhere in the country, NoVa residents have no lack of ideas for new enterprises. The contraction of the government-contractor sector releases employees, office space and other resources  to start-up companies. While NoVa is suffering now, the number of fast-growth firms suggests that the region will recover and within a few years resume its position as Virginia’s economic growth leader.

Charlottesville looks like a mini growth story but the metropolitan region is too small to have much spillover effect for the statewide economy. Hampton Roads and Richmond appear to host small, fast-growth companies roughly in line with national averages — a lukewarm performance.  Virginia’s smaller metros and rural areas are laggards, as are small metros and rural areas are across the country. (I’m on vacation and haven’t had time to calculate the number of fast growth companies per capita, so these impressions are rough and subject to revision.)

– JAB

McDonnell on the Stand

mcdonnellFormer Governor Bob McDonnell took the stand yesterday, defending his conduct in connection with Jonnie Williams Sr. and Star Scientific in precisely the way one would expect: Other than providing access to government, something that every governor does, he said, he did Williams no favors. As the Times-Dispatch summarized his testimony, “He never used discretionary funds at his disposal to give Star Scientific a grant, never paid a site visit to the company, and never held a news conference or issued a news release for the company.”

The fact that people are disgusted with the influence of money in politics is not an argument for convicting McDonnell. If McDonnell can be sent to jail for arranging meetings between Williams and state officials, then every living governor in Virginia had better start taking measurements for their orange prison jump suits. As for failing to disclose the real estate loans from Williams in loan applications to a bank and a credit union, the defense has made the case that he wasn’t required to — and the prosecution hasn’t presented a shred of evidence to suggest otherwise.

The only thing that can change the course of this trial is an aggressive cross-examination by the prosecution. If McDonnell comes across as contradictory or evasive, he could raise doubts that don’t exist now. But at this point, it does not appear that federal prosecutors have a case.

– JAB