Category Archives: Poverty & income gap

Changing the Culture of Reading

carolyn_boone

Carolyn Boone reading with patient. Photo credit:

by James A. Bacon

Dr. Carolyn Boone is a pediatrician who serves a largely African-American patient base in Northside Richmond. In addition to providing check-ups and vaccinations, she participates in the Virginia “Reach Out and Read” program, the goal of which is to teach the joy of reading to young children — and maybe to their parents as well.

Participating doctors dispense books to children and advise parents on the importance of reading out loud. Even if babies just put the book in their mouth, that’s OK, says Boone in a Reach Out and Read video. Pretty soon, they notice the faces in the book. And then they want to be read to.

“You see the children come in. They run to the bookcase, and they want a book. And they want you to read the book, and they’re pulling their mothers to read a book,” says Boone. “In my office, I don’t hear the screaming anymore. It’s quiet.” Instead of yelling at the child to sit down, “momma may be sitting down with them and reading a book.”

Lower-income Virginians tend not to place a high value upon reading (although there are always exceptions). In many cases the parents may be barely literate themselves, and they rarely have the money, even if so inclined, to buy books for their children. The middle-class ritual of reading to children at bed-time is a foreign concept. Little wonder, then, that so many poor children are ill-prepared when they enter kindergarten.

A study just published by the National Bureau of Economic Research confirms what a mountain of previous studies have already concluded. Head Start pre-school enrichment programs can help poor children make dramatic cognitive gains, but the gains fade away in elementary school. Head Start can’t make up for an entire childhood raised in a cognitively poor environment. It can’t make up for parents who either don’t care, don’t know how, or don’t have the means to encourage their children to read.

There is nothing intrinsic to being poor that discourages reading. Raised in a log cabin, Abraham Lincoln famously read by firelight. Anyone, no matter how destitute, can check out books from the public library or school library. Reach Out and Read tries to change the culture of poverty not just by handing out books to children who can’t read them yet but by enlisting parents, usually mothers, to participate. For a young child, half the pleasure of reading is snuggling into a parent’s lap or cozying up in bed with mom or dad at night. The bonding experience reinforces the positive associations with reading.

Reach Out and Read, which distributes more than 215,000 books annually to more than 121,000 children across Virginia, claims that participating children enter kindergarten with better vocabularies, stronger language skills and a six-month developmental advantage over their peers.

School teachers can help teach a love of reading but they can’t do it by themselves. Reading has to take place at home. Parents have to get involved. If we, as a society, want poor children to acquire the reading skills needed to participate in a 21-century knowledge economy, we can’t expect the schools to do it all. We have to reach the parents, too. We have to change the culture of reading, which means changing the culture of poverty.

Values, Income and Academic Performance

Douglas Freeman High School

Douglas Freeman High School

by James A. Bacon

Last night my wife and I engaged in an annual ritual of the school calendar. We went to Douglas Freeman High School to meet our son’s teachers and learn about the classes he’s taking. This was not a social event. We know very few Freeman families. Our motives were pragmatic. We wanted to arm ourselves with the information we need to be good parents. What is expected of our child academically? How much homework will he have? How can we keep track of his grades? How can we communicate our concerns, if we have any? We want our son to succeed academically because we want him to get into a good college. We also want him to develop the habits of self discipline and iniative that will stand him in good stead as an adult.

Many other parents there last night undoubtedly were thinking the same things. Here’s what surprised me, though. I’d guess that parents of only half the students showed up. Assuming the average class has about 25 kids, one would expect twenty-five parents (or even more, if both father and mother attended, as my wife and I did) to come meet each teacher. But few of the classes we visited were more than half full. While a few parents might have been working late, or were traveling out of town on business, or didn’t have access to a car, or had some other practical reason for missing parent’s night, it’s also likely that some of them didn’t care enough to bother.

And that brings me back to one of the big themes I’ve been hammering on the past couple of weeks in my analysis of Virginia Standard of Learning scores: the role of culture and the role of socio-economic status in influencing the pass rates for SOL tests. I made a huge mistake in the beginning of the analysis. Correlating the performance of Virginia school divisions with the percentage of students classified as “disadvantaged,” I found that 57% of the variability in SOL scores from division to division could be attributed to socioeconomic status. I then proceeded to slice and dice the other 43% in an effort to determine how much of the variability could be attributed to “cultural” factors, as opposed to inequitable distribution of resources or even to the quality of local school leadership.

What parent’s night reminded me is that social-economic status and culture are entwined. Typically, embedded in the truism that academic success in K-12 school is highly correlated with socio-economic status is the assumption that greater household income is what makes the difference. I don’t deny that income is a factor. Affluent parents can buy their kids more books. They can send their kids to summer enrichment programs. They can hire tutors. They can seek help if their child has mental health issues. Without question, all those things make a difference. But they’re trivial compared to the day-in, day-out discipline of going to class, paying attention and doing the homework.

The correlation between academic success and socioeconomic status is complex. The fact is, some people value education more than others do. Some people are willing to make bigger financial sacrifices, spend more of their own personal time and undergo more stress and angst to ensure that their children maximize their educational opportunities.

Anyone who has been a parent to an adolescent male knows exactly what I’m talking about. Parenting takes a lot of effort. It’s easy to let your kid skate by with Cs. By contrast, it can be exhausting to bird-dog your kid every day to enforce rules about watching TV and playing on the computer — basically, banning them from doing the things that adolescent males like to do — and cracking the books instead. Kids argue. They throw tantrums. They sneak behind their parents’ backs. If moral suasion and positive reinforcement don’t work — and frankly, they’re pretty weak compared to the allure of Call of Duty or Halo, or the party culture of sex, alcohol and drugs -- the only recourse is running a household police state of constant surveillance.

In the liberal/progressive worldview, it’s the money, or lack of it, that explains a child’s socioeconomic success later in life. If a kid grows up in an affluent household, odds are he or she will be an affluent adult. If a kid grows up in a poor household, odds are that he or she will be poor. As I acknowledged before, access to money can ease stress and lack of it can increase stress. But it’s not the money they have growing up that makes upper middle-class kids successful in life. It’s the values they are raised with. It’s the time and effort their parents put into raising them. Indeed, spoiling a kid with too much material wealth — big allowances, a new car on their 16th birthday, trips to Europe — can breed a sense of entitlement and destroy their initiative. Conversely, a kid who grows up poor and hungry but with the right values, is far more likely to succeed financially.

Socio-economic status is associated with higher academic achievement in significant part because the values and character traits that contribute to successful careers and the accumulation of wealth also contribute to higher academic performance. The values come first, the money follows. That’s why some kids raised in poverty succeed in rising above their circumstances. That’s why some affluent kids become spoiled, find no sense of purpose and fall below their potential. Parenting is hard — that’s why kids from stable, two-parent households have an advantage over kids from broken homes, or kids whose fathers play no role in their life.

Economic determinism doesn’t get us very far in understanding why some kids excel in school and others fail. We have to dig deeper if we want to figure out what it takes to give every child a chance in life to succeed.

BRT to Nowhere?

West Broad Street: not exactly pedestrian friendly

West Broad Street: not exactly pedestrian friendly

by James A. Bacon

There’s a whole lot of fuzzy thinking going on. People in the Richmond area are so enamored with the prospect of building a Bus Rapid Transit route through the city that they are saying the most astonishing things.

Bus Rapid Transit can be a great idea if done correctly. But it must be done correctly, or it will create a long-term drain on public resources in the City of Richmond and, to a lesser extent, in Henrico County that neither locality can afford.

In the company of Governor Terry McAuliffe, Mayor Dwight Jones and other local luminaries, U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx announced Saturday that Uncle Sam will provide a $24.9 million grant toward the cost of the $54 million project, which would run along Broad Street from Rocketts Landing to Willow Lawn. (See the Times-Dispatch story here.) Virginia, flush with transportation tax revenue from former Governor Bob McDonnell’s tax increase, will kick in $16.8 million toward the project, while Richmond and Henrico will contribute a total of $8 million. (If that adds up to $49.7 million on your calculator like it does on mine, that leaves more than $4 million unaccounted for.)

Local officials touted BRT as a jobs project. “We’re going to make jobs available to people,” said Jones. The bus would shave a quarter hour travel time along the 7.6-mile route, said Foxx. For a person in poverty or without a car, that could mean “the difference between getting a job or not.” Then came this from Rep. Bobby Scott, D-3rd: “BRT will allow thousands of people in the East End of Richmond to apply for jobs in the West End they wouldn’t even think about applying for before.”

Really? At the eastern terminus, the BRT system will be anchored in Rocketts Landing, an upscale, New Urbanist development along the James River — across the railroad tracks from Fulton Hill, home to thousands of poor and working-class African-Americans. Is this some kind of cruel joke? The lawyers, investment bankers and advertising executives living in Rocketts Landing are not the ones who need access to minimum-wage retail jobs in the Broad Street corridor west of town. For the people who need the jobs, it will be a long, long walk to the BRT station.

Moving west along the proposed route, there aren’t many poor people living in Shockoe Bottom, a commercial area lined by the upscale Tobacco Row condos and apartments on the one side and yuppified apartments for the creative class on the other. As the bus route proceeds through downtown, it does pass through the traditional African-American Jackson Ward neighborhood, but that is rapidly gentrifying as more affluent Richmonders seek proximity to the jobs and amenities of downtown. Further west, the route passes through VCU, but college students hardly constitute a downtrodden class (until they have to start paying back their student loans).

West of downtown, the BRT route skirts past the Carver neighborhood with a couple thousand African-Americans. BRT could provide them better access. But the route then passes Scott’s Addition, an old industrial park that traditionally has had little residential, although it is gentrifying now with the addition of apartments and condos designed for middle-class tastes. Near the western terminus at Willow Lawn, the neighborhoods are middle-class.

For the most part, the only working poor of Richmond’s East End whom the BRT will benefit are those who take a local bus downtown and then change routes. That shaving 15 minutes off their travel time makes the difference between those people having jobs and not having jobs, however, is not a proposition that BRT backers have proved.

The other question that no one seems willing to address — at least not in public speeches — is what happens when the poor East Enders get off the bus on the West side of town. On the plus side, they can walk to their destination on sidewalks — yes, there are sidewalks on this part of Broad Street, unlike farther west. On the downside, the sidewalks are not the kind that actually invite people to walk on them, as can be see in the Google Street View atop this post. The Broad Street stroad is designed for cars, not walking. The sidewalks abut right up to streets with cars traveling 35 miles per hour or faster. Crossing the street can be challenging. Visually, the landscape is barren and inhospitable.

Even more grievous is the fact that Richmond and Henrico need to zone for higher-density, mixed-use, pedestrian-friendly development along the corridor. Zoning for greater density is the easy part. The hard part is coaxing property owners not to build a new generation of the same old low-rise schlock that aligns the corridor. Another issue that neither jurisdiction has answered — not in public statements, at least — how much it will cost to build “complete street” streetscapes that accommodate people and bicycles as well as cars and BRT buses.

I hope I’m wrong, but I can’t escape the feeling that the state, the feds and the localities have gotten ahead of themselves. They’ve got the money, so they’re going to build the project, regardless of whether they have put other elements of a corridor-revitalization plan in place. Current estimates say the BRT will cost $2.7 million a year in ongoing subsidies to operate. That could be a modest price to pay if the project stimulates a transformation of the Broad Street Corridor along the lines of Cleveland’s Healthline Bus Rapid Transit system, which has been cited as an example of what Richmond can accomplish. But that transformation will not occur in a vacuum. The job does not end with construction of the BRT line. It will take decades of follow-up to the community that arises along it.

Now VSU Is in Trouble

VSUby James A. Bacon

Enrollment at Virginia State University in Petersburg is down by 550 students this year, and the historically black university is facing a $5.3 million shortfall, including a $2.4 million reduction in state support. “I think Virginia State is in trouble,” Terone B. Green, who serves on the board of visitors told the Times-Dispatch yesterday.

Norfolk State University, Virginia’s other public, historically black university , is facing difficulties as well, while St. Paul’s College, a private college, closed last year.

Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HCBUs), created to educate blacks in an era when they were denied admittance to white institutions, are struggling to redefine themselves in an era of multi-culturalism. Few have significant endowments to fall back on. And they face the same challenges as higher education generally: soaring tuitions that are pricing more and more students out of the market. As an institution that serves blacks, whose incomes have been especially hard hit in recent years, VSU is in an perilous predicament.

The enrollment loss this year will cost VSU $1.6 million in revenue. The loss of enrollment is all the more alarming, given the significant debt burden the university took on to build new residence halls. The university has pinched pennies by closing two old dorms, cutting back on furniture replacement and non-essential maintenance, pruning the full-service dining options on campus, and requiring students to live on-campus. But those changes could boomerang by diminishing the residential experience and depriving students of lower-cost options off campus.

Virginia’s HBCUs are the canary in the coal mine for higher ed. The combination of declining enrollments and heavy debt loads will create problems for other non-elite universities, whatever the ethnic mix of their student body. Washington and Lee University, whose students rank fourth highest in the country for mid-career earnings (see previous post) and which has a large endowment, shouldn’t have much trouble weathering the storm. But VSU doesn’t have a rich alumni base — average midcareer earnings, $71,800 — to tap. And its less affluent student body is especially sensitive to tuition price increases.

The situation likely will get uglier before it gets better.

Race, Culture and SOLs

by James A. Bacon

Here we go one more time… Does cultural background influence the likelihood of Virginia students passing the Standards of Learning tests, or do disparities in results between racial/ethnic groups reflect only the disparity in resources allocated to different schools?

Over the past week, I have been arguing that cultural background is one critical differentiator, not the dominant differentiator — poverty (or economic disadvantage) accounts for roughly 57% of the variation — but it is nonetheless an important one. I allow for the possibility that some schools are better run than others, some teachers better than others, and that differences in resources may account for some variation. But culture is a significant factor, as can plainly be seen in the superior academic performance of Asians, both economically advantaged and disadvantaged, across the board.

But some readers doggedly refuse to acknowledge that culture plays any meaningful role. Among the most tenacious is our old friend Larry Gross, who asks a valid question that needs to be addressed. Pick the same school division, say Fairfax County. Then pick different schools within that division. The SOL pass rate for black children varies substantially. As he commented in my last post, “The SOL Debate: Bringing Asians into the Equation,” pass rates for blacks for 3rd grade reading in some of the Fairfax Elementary schools are all over the map:

Annadale Terrace 36%
Bren Mar Park 62%
Bull Run 71%
Brush Hill 47%
Rolling Valley 50%
Saratoga 46%

“How,” he asks, “is this explained by culture?”

Let’s take a closer look. Here are the average SOL pass rates for all subjects at all six schools — hand picked by Larry to illustrate his point — broken down by race/ethnicity and by economic disadvantage, with the same information presented in chart form below. (Note: the DOE data did not include some scores for certain subjects for certain racial/ethnic groups. I have made the necessary adjustments.)

fairfax_elementary_SOLs

fairfax_pass_chartAs expected, economic disadvantage plays a major role. For every ethnic/racial group, economically disadvantaged students showed a lower SOL pass rate than those not disadvantaged.

However, differences remain. Same school division, same schools, same economic classification…. We see the same pattern repeated over and over. Asians score highest, whites not quite as high, Hispanics lower, and blacks lower. As discussed in other blog posts, the difference between whites and Hispanics largely disappears when adjusted for English proficiency. But Asians consistently score higher than other races, and blacks usually, although not always, score lower.

Does that settle the issue? Probably not. Here’s what we don’t know. Are some of the selected six schools better run, do they have more experienced teachers, or do they have more resources, any of which my skew results between schools? Those factors undoubtedly come into play — we just can’t isolate those variables from this data.

Am I saying that culture accounts for all the variation between racial/ethnic performance in those six schools? Of course not. Clearly, even after adjusting for economic disadvantage and ethnic background, some variability remains. Equally clearly, there is a lot of variability within ethnic/racial groups. Some Asian kids just can’t get their act together. Some African-American kids are academic superstars.

But it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that culture explains some of the overall superior academic performance of Asian kids. Such a conclusion is not terribly controversial. We see the high performance of Asians back in the home countries of China, Korea and Japan. We’ve all heard of “Tiger moms.” We observe that Asians are not nearly as prominent on athletic teams but way over-represented when academic awards are handed out. We can admit the obvious because it does not upset deeply held political views on race and race relations. But as soon as we begin talking about the differences between whites and blacks, talk of culture becomes incredibly touchy. Indeed, a lot of people, suspecting racist motives, find it offensive when conservative white people bring the subject up.

But the idea that cultural attitudes affect educational outcomes is not terribly controversial in the black community. Bill Cosby famously highlighted the issue. Just yesterday Michelle Obama stressed the importance of education to an inner-city Atlanta school: Continue reading

The SOL Debate: Bringing Asians into the Equation

by James A. Bacon

And the debate goes on…Yesterday, in “Yes, Virginia, Culture Does Matter in School Performance,” I argued based on the statewide pass rate for the Standards of Learning that disadvantaged Hispanic school children who had proficiency in English actually out-performed disadvantaged white school children (and black as well). I hypothesized that the difference could be attributed to culture, perhaps the work ethic of poor immigrant families.

The blogger Life On the Fall Line countered by suggesting that the superior statewide performance of disadvantaged, English-proficient Hispanics could be attributed to the fact that nearly three-fifths of Virginia’s Hispanic population resides in Northern Virginia, which spends more money per pupil on schools, while most whites and blacks live downstate. “So,” he concluded, “yes, Virginia, schools with superior financial resources matter.”

That sounded like a potentially valid point, so I decided to drill deeper into the Virginia Department of Education “Virginia SOL Assessment Build-A-Table,” to see if that was the case. The chart below compares disadvantaged, English-proficient whites and Hispanics in Fairfax County, Northern Virginia’s largest school division. And for yucks, I threw in disadvantaged, English-proficient Asians and blacks.

Fairfax_SOLs

It turns out that Life on the Fall Line had a point. While poor, English-proficient Hispanics still out-performed their white counterparts, it was by such a narrow margin — less than one percentage point — that it could well fall into the margin of error.

But another stark finding jumps out from this table. Poor Asian kids kicked every other group’s academic ass by a wide margin. These are poor kids, mind you, not the sons and daughters of Indian software engineers and PhDs, whom you’d expect to excel. And, sadly, poor blacks under-performed by an equally large margin.

The response of the structuralists (those who believe that institutional structures discriminate against blacks) will be to say, “Drill down deeper! Look at the allocation of resources school by school.” That would be a worthwhile exercise for anyone who has the energy to do it. I welcome any contributions. But if differences in performance are mainly structural, not cultural, someone needs to explain the exceptional performance of Asian students. Do poor Asian kids attend the best schools with greater resources? If so, how do they pull it off? If they’re disadvantaged, they have no greater resources than their poor white, Hispanic or black peers to move into the top school districts.

While we’re at it, if school resources were the decisive factor, how do we explain that poor Hispanics outperform poor blacks? Do Hispanics not face as much discrimination and institutional racism as blacks?

From my reading of the data, it looks like once Hispanic students master English, they pass the SOLs at the same rate as white students. As I said before, that’s great news. It suggests that Hispanics are rapidly assimilating into mainstream Virginia culture. However, that still leaves the matter of Asians and blacks. How do we explain the persistent superior performance of one group and the under-performance of the other, if not in part by culture?

Yes, Virginia, Culture Does Matter in School Performance

by James A. Bacon

I was planning to give readers a break today from graphs and scatter charts relating to Virginia’s 2014 Standards of Learning tests. Then I read a quote in the Times-Dispatch this morning by Michel Zajur, CEO of the Virginia Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. Zajur was lamenting the high Hispanic drop-out rate from schools which, at 11.7%, exceeds the rate for blacks (8.7%), whites (4%) and Asian (3%).

“Zajur and others attribute the high dropout rate to the cultural pressures felt by Hispanic students, the article states. “While other cultures focus on education, Hispanic youths are more often pushed to enter the workforce as early as possible to help support their families.”

Hmmm… Here is a clear example of how culture affects educational achievement, a fact that some readers are determined to deny. Hispanic civic leaders, not right-wing conservatives, believe that their culture pressures young people to drop out of school early, and they’re trying to do something to change it. The article profiles the Passport to Education program in three Richmond-area schools that matches students with mentors and provides a bilingual Website to help families navigate the school system.

So, I began wondering, how are Hispanic students performing in their SOL tests? And could Hispanic culture influence the outcome? While acknowledging the hazards of generalizing about “Hispanic culture” when Virginia Hispanics originate from divers countries across Latin America, I think the answer is a resounding yes — but not in a way that people will expect.

Percentage of students passing 2014 SOLs, contrasting Hispanic students proficient in English, Hispanics not proficient in English, and whites.

Percentage of students passing 2014 SOLs, contrasting Hispanic students proficient in English, Hispanics not proficient in English, and whites.

Overall, Hispanics score significantly lower pass rates than whites. But that generality is deceptive. Utilizing the Virginia Department of Education SOL Assessment Build-a-Table tool, I found a huge gulf between Hispanic students who are proficient in English and those who are not. But, as seen in the chart above, when you compare English-proficient students, nine-tenths of the gap between Hispanics and whites disappears .

That would seem to confirm the idea that culture doesn’t matter. But let’s dig a little deeper. We also know that educational achievement is correlated with socio-economic status. What would happen, I wondered, if we compared apples with apples — disadvantaged but English-proficient Hispanics with disadvantaged white and black students? The results, I suspect, will startle many readers.

english_proficient

Disadvantaged Hispanic kids whose families have lived in the U.S. long enough to acquire English proficiency pass SOLs at a higher rate than disadvantaged whites by non-trivial margins, and blow the socks off the pass rates of black students.  To what factor do we attribute this superior performance? Do Hispanic kids attend schools with superior financial resources? Do they get the more experienced teachers? Does institutional racism favor poor Hispanic kids over poor white and black kids? That’s going to be a hard case to make.

Conversely, could there be a cultural difference? Is it possible that, as first- and second-generation immigrants, Hispanic students have a stronger work ethic than their disadvantaged peers in white and black communities? It is possible that they feel less entitled and more impelled to work hard?

Whatever the answer, it is very encouraging. The SOL data gives us every reason to believe that Hispanic kids in Virginia are assimilating very well once they master the English language.

Update on the Debate over SOL Performance

top_school_divisionsby James A. Bacon

There has been a lively discussion in the comments section of previous blog posts regarding the interpretation of the 2014 Standards of Learning (SOL) data. The debate has largely focused on explaining the gap in the average SOL pass rate between white students and black students.

Broadly speaking, there are two schools of thought reflected in the comments. The first school blames the lower black SOL pass rates on unequal access to resources, most notably access to experienced teachers. For simplicity’s sake, I call this the “structural” school of thought. The second school attributes black under-performance to cultural factors, such as peer pressure to avoid “acting white” by pursuing academic achievement. For simplicity’s sake, I call this the “cultural” school of thought.

I have presented evidence in previous posts suggesting that cultural factors play a big role in explaining the SOL performance gap. But the case is hardly a slam-dunk (at least not as I have presented it.) The Blogger who goes by “Life on the Fall Line” makes an interesting argument. Schools with the smallest gaps between white and black performance happen to be among the smaller school systems in the state. When there’s only one elementary school, one middle school and one high school in a jurisdiction, he says, all the white kids and all the black kids in a jurisdiction get thrown in together.

When white parents don’t have a choice but to send their children to schools with black children the racial gap looks like it shrinks. … Broadly speaking, when the chance to discriminate does not present itself as an option, the racial gap closes. Or at least that’s how it appears.

The correlation between small school systems and higher black SOL performance is far from perfect, he concedes, but he thinks the relationship is strong. (It should not be difficult to test his hypothesis. We’ve got data on black SOL performance, and we’ve got data on the number of schools per school district.)

Larry Gross advances a different argument. He points to large variations in the black pass rate from school to school.

There are 45 elementary schools in Henrico with only 10 showing significant percentages of blacks – and the reading scores of the 10 schools vary from 40% pass to 75% pass. Now if “culture” is the cause of the state-level black scores, please explain why “culture” is not being reflecting pretty much the same across different elementary school districts. Why is there a 35% disparity in black pass rates depending on school?

One reason for the variation may be that the percentage of “economically disadvantaged” black students is higher in some school districts than others. The data exists to take that variable into account. My hunch is that the variability would shrink but still persist, and Larry’s question still would need to be answered.

Larry and Life on the Fall Line both make interesting points. Anyone who embraces the “cultural” school of thought needs to address their arguments.

There is a third basket of explanations, which I call the “institutional” school of thought, that remains to be explored here. That line of thinking would attribute some of the gap in student performance to varying quality of administration at different schools and school systems. Arguably, some schools and entire school divisions are just better managed or have more inspired teachers.

Along those lines, instead of chastising failing school systems, perhaps we should be rewarding — or at least recognizing — exceptional school systems. Hill City Jim has ranked Virginia’s school divisions by the average SOL pass rate for black students. The top-performing school systems — all divisions with a pass rate of 70% or higher — appear at the top of this post. Are administrators of those school divisions doing something right, or does superior black student performance reflect lower poverty rates or other factors over which schools have no control?

I’m not sure we’ll find any definitive answers, but we’ll keep asking the questions.

A Better Route

Yeah, GRTC buses have bicycle racks now. But bus companies aren't pursuing disruptive innovation.

Yeah, GRTC buses have bicycle racks now. But bus companies aren’t pursuing disruptive innovation.

by James A. Bacon

The GRTC Transit System, like most municipal bus systems, provides a one-size-fits-all transportation service. Whatever the route, time of day and level of demand, GRTC runs a standard city bus capable of carrying nearly 60 seated and standing passengers along fixed routes. Everyone pays the same fare ($1.50 on local routes), regardless of time or distance traveled. We’ve all seen the big GRTC buses driving around with two or three passengers. We all know that, given the cost of paying a driver and operating a vehicle, many if not most bus routes operate at a loss. It would surprise few to hear that GRTC costs U.S., state and local taxpayers $33 million in subsidies to operate in fiscal year 2014.

Many people justify this significant subsidy on the grounds that buses provide a way for car-less poor people to get to their jobs. What the Richmond metropolitan region needs, they say, is more bus service so poor people can reach a broader range of job opportunities. Environmentalists also favor buses on the ground that they generate less pollution and carbon dioxide emissions than automobiles do. Local government officials in Henrico and Chesterfield counties tend to oppose the expansion of bus routes not on grounds of principle but on grounds of economy. Their argument: We just can’t afford it.

If we count on fiscally strapped local governments to loosen up the purse strings to pay GRTC to open new routes, we’ll be waiting a very long time. Maybe it’s time to start thinking differently: how to expand mass transit without GRTC. A free market in transportation services, I contend, would provide superior service to poor people. It would increase shared ridership and reduce pollution emissions. As a bonus, it would save taxpayers millions of dollars in subsidies.

Yes, mass transit in the United States is that bad. GRTC is reasonably well run by the standards of other government-owned monopoly transit systems. Government-owned monopolies worked adequately for decades when innovation in cars and buses was incremental in nature – installing seatbelts or switching from diesel to natural gas. But the traditional model is hopelessly inadequate when the transportation industry stands on the edge of the most momentous transformation since Henry Ford’s invention of the assembly line.

The information technology-communications revolution is sweeping through transportation, just as it is through consumer electronics, building automation, health care, manufacturing and every other sector of the economy. Thanks to smartphones, it is easier than ever for drivers and passengers to locate one another. Thanks to Big Data analytics, it is easier for transportation-service companies to predict where and when transportation demand will occur and to mobilize assets accordingly. New technology is inspiring new business models that literally no one was thinking about 10 years ago.

The heralds of this new wave are Uber and Lyft, Silicon Valley-funded companies that have started competing with taxicab services in many metropolitan regions across the country. These companies are targeting the high end of the transportation services market, charging premium rates for customers willing to pay for a limousine-like ride at a moment’s notice. Predictably, they are getting pushback here in Virginia from taxicab companies. The regulatory future is uncertain. But whatever happens to Uber and Lyft, the new technology is here to stay. Taxi companies are already adopting it themselves.

Bridj, a Boston-area company, charges $6 per ride in comfortable, Wi-Fi- equipped coaches to travel from suburban locations to downtown Cambridge and Boston. Thousands of riders, it appears, are willing to pay a premium price for a premium service that municipal bus companies can’t match with their one-size-fits-all mind-set. As this new industry continues to innovate, it’s just a matter of time before entrepreneurs use the same technologies to serve lower price points. In a free market, there are few barriers to entry; someone will figure out how to serve poor people and do it cheaper than the transit companies can.

Eventually, someone will devise a smartphone driver-rider matching service open to all comers. Anyone with decent credit and a good driving record will be able to fork out $32,000 for a 12-seat van and start his own jitney service. In developing countries around the world – even in countries where $32,000 is a lot of money – jitney service is affordable to poor city dwellers. Surely in America, where we have some of the richest poor people in the world, someone will figure out how to convey them to major employment centers.

The transportation revolution doesn’t end there. Automobile companies are rethinking the idea that everyone needs to own his or her own car. Some think that the future is transportation-as-a-service. Outside San Diego, Calif., real estate developer Rancho Mission Viejo is partnering with Daimler AG, owner of Mercedes Benz, to roll out a service that provides subscribers access to cars, scooters, buses, shuttle vans and car-pooling, primarily for use in its Ladera and Sendero communities. The aim isn’t to persuade residents to go totally car-free, just to go car-lite. The goal is to cut the cost of mobility – $9,000 yearly to own and operate the average car – in half.

Environmentalists and anti-poverty warriors will continue to pressure Henrico and Chesterfield officials to subsidize the expansion of GRTC into the two counties. Given the paucity of walkable, higher-density neighborhoods in suburban Richmond and the lack of congestion – it’s the least congested of America’s 51 largest metros – the economics for mass transit will always be difficult. Rather than throwing money at an antiquated business model, government officials should encourage the emerging free-market alternatives. Roll out the welcome mat to Uber and Lyft. Ask Bridj to check out our market. Sweep away barriers that prevent jitneys from going into business. Beg Daimler AG to bring its transportation-as-a-service to the Richmond region.

We have a choice: Embrace the transportation past or the transportation future. I’ll take the future.

This column was published originally in Henrico Monthly and Chesterfield Monthly this month.

What Can We Learn from Virginia’s Educational Outliers?

economically_disadvantaged

Chart credits: John Butcher

by James A. Bacon

One last set of graphics shedding light on the SOLs… Occasional contributor John Butcher graphed the correlation between 9th-grade reading pass rates and the percentage of economically disadvantaged (ED) children in Virginia’s school divisions. The big-picture conclusion: The percentage of economically disadvantaged children is the dominant variable accounting for a division’s SOL performance, explaining about 57% of the variation between divisions.

But that still leaves 43% left to be explained. Presumably, much of that 43% consists of variables within the school system. Such variables might include spending per pupil, student-teacher ratios, or the quality of teachers and principals.

In the search for clues, it might be worthwhile looking at outlier school divisions that beat and fall short of expectations by wide margins. The gold box indicates the City of Richmond school system, which has nearly 80% disadvantaged students. The City of Richmond school division starts with a big handicap… and goes downhill from there.

Then there’s Lancaster County, standing by itself in the lower, left-hand corner — the worst under-performer in the state. Lancaster has one of the lowest English SOL pass rates despite the fact that only one fifth of its students are disadvantaged. If there are no unique circumstance to explain that difference, the school board and parents need to start asking tough questions.

On the positive side, there are four outliers along the top of the chart. Perhaps we should be asking what those school systems are doing right.

ed_math

This chart shows the correlation between the math SOL pass rate and the percentage of economically disadvantaged students. Math performance is less closely tied to socio-economic status. The percentage of disadvantaged students in the school division accounts for 42% of the variability, far less than for reading.

Butcher has identified the under-performing outliers in red: Lancaster County (left) and Buena Vista.  The green diamonds represent (from left) West Point, Wise and Bristol. As he concludes:

We might wonder why we’re not hearing from [the Virginia Department of Education] about what the outperformers are doing right (or whether they are cheating to get these numbers).  VDOE does have a massive (and massively manipulated) accreditation process; I’ve not seen any analysis that would show that it’s doing anything for the underperformers.