Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Bridging the achievement gap

Los Angeles Times opinion editorial "Bridging the achievement gap" (September 22nd, 2010) discusses the achievement gap between black males and all other students (black females and white males being the primary groups of comparison). It speaks only of educational means to fix the graduation gap, while discussing crime. Corrections would like to entertain a different possibility that might help solve both. The Times also confuses correlation and causation.
These disparities aren't new — the Schott report could have been published a generation ago. What is new and noteworthy is solid evidence that this gap can be bridged, with well-tested approaches that don't require massive changes in public education and don't depend on superhero teachers and administrators.
An economic idea might be that individuals, both black and white, make decisions about education today based on what they believe their income differentials will be tomorrow. One way to encourage education is to ensure higher wages for the educated. Another is to ensure lower wages for the uneducated.

The Times suggests that some of these students might be on the "prison track." "All too often they're on what educators privately dub 'the prison track.'"

If the Times is concerned that black males (or, for that matter, individuals of any race or gender) are opting out of educations and into lives of crime, one way of reducing their involvement in crime and increasing their graduation rates might be to lower their future wages as criminals.

We do a quick back-of-the-envelope calculation to test this hypothesis. We should see a correlation between an increase in law enforcement officers tomorrow and an increase in graduation rates. For the 50 states from 1998-2003, we plot the two, and offer a fitted least squares line. This is displayed graphically below (click to enlarge).
The relationship is indeed positive, which is itself phenomenal. If high schoolers were myopic and unresponsive to future police presence, we would have expected a drop in graduation rates to result in an increase in police next period--an increase in bad high school students should make more police next period a necessity. The fact that we see this indicates that the difference between our two effects is rather large. At a first glance, while the relationship is only near significant, it would appear tantalizing. For those concerned about the outliers, the relationship remains positive dropping them from a fixed effects panel data regression.

The Times discusses young black males, their graduation rates, and crime. Following our above analysis, we might think that a way to increase the graduation rates of young black males (who head into crime at higher rates than young white men or young black women) might be to decrease their wage differential between crime and legitimate employment through the hiring of more law enforcement officials over the course of several years. This would have the added effect of decreasing crime. Indeed, if individuals are forward looking and we have a believable commitment mechanism, we needn't wait to see the effects.

Clearly the analysis Corrections provides is both preliminary and inconclusive--it is merely suggestive. Nevertheless, it offers an interesting avenue to improve education by rational forward-looking individuals of all races and genders.

Beyond this discussion of heterogeneous impacts by race of an increase in future police presence on future crime and graduation rates, we might also add a particularly offensive quote by the Times:
A large-scale study in Chicago found that 74% of the boys who attended preschool graduated from high school, compared with 57% of those who didn't.
This is a correlation. It is not clearly causal.

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