Category Archives: Uncategorized

More Money for What?

by John Butcher

The tug-of-war between the School Board and City Council over school funding enters a new era of speculation: Will the recent election results produce more funds for Richmond schools?

That overlooks the more fundamental question: What is the School Board doing with all the money it now is spending?

The most recent data from VDOE are from 2015-16. Here, from that year, are the per-student disbursements by division for Richmond, three peer divisions, and the state average for school divisions. I’ve left out the sums for facilities, debt service, and contingency reserve.

The largest single cost for schools is salaries, so it’s no surprise that Richmond’s excess of $3,051 per student mostly went to the instruction category.

Expressing the Richmond data as differences from the state number, we get:

Or, multiplying those differences by the Richmond enrollment of 21,826:

Multiplying the $3,051 Richmond total excess by the 21,826 enrollment gives the excess Richmond expenditure total: $66.6 million.

We can account for some of that.

The 2016 average salary in Richmond was $51,263 vs. the state average of 56,320. That is, Richmond saved $11.3 million vs. the state average by underpaying its teachers.

At the same time, Richmond has a lot more teachers than average:

At the average salary of $51,263, that comes to an extra cost of $18.5 million.

Combining those data leaves Richmond with an excess cost v. the division average of $59.4 million.

This overlooks the question of what those extra teachers are doing for the RPS students.  To judge from the SOL scores, it’s more a question of what they are doing to the students. Continue reading

The Research Crisis in Higher Ed

Mark Edwards

The modern American research university is in crisis. Perverse rewards and incentives create an unhealthy “hyper-competition” among research scientists and encourage unethical behavior that can lead to bad science. So say Mark A. Edwards, the Virginia Tech professor best known for exposing the high levels of lead in the water in Flint, Mich., and Siddhartha Roy, a Ph.D. candidate at Virginia Tech.

“If the practice of science should ever undermine the trust and symbiotic relationship with society that allowed both to flourish, our ability to solve critical problems facing humankind and civilization itself will be at risk,” they warn in a paper, “Science Is Broken,” in the digital publication Aeon. The Aeon article is abridged from a longer paper published in Environmental Engineering Science.

The pursuit of tenure influences almost the priorities and decisions of young faculty at research universities, write the authors. Recent changes in academia, including increased emphasis on quantitative performance metrics, “harsh competition” for federal funding, and implementation of “private business models” at public and private universities are producing undesirable outcomes and unintended consequences.

Some examples of unintended consequences:

Incentive: Researchers rewarded for increased number of publications.
Intended effect: Improve research productivity, provide a means of evaluating performance.
Actual effect: Avalanche of substandard, incremental papers, poor methods, and increase in false discovery rates.

Incentive: Researchers rewarded for increased number of citations.
Intended effect: Reward quality work that influences others.
Actual effect: Extended reference lists to inflate citations; reviewers’ request citation of their work via peer review.

Incentive: Researchers rewarded for increased grant funding.
Intended effect: Ensure that research programs are funded, promote growth, generate overhead.
Actual effect: Increased time writing proposals and less time gathering and thinking about data. Overselling positive results and downplay of negative results.

Incentive: Reduced teaching load for research-active faculty.
Intended effect: Necessary to pursue additional competitive grants.
Actual effect: Increased demand for untenured, adjunct faculty to teach classes.

The list goes on.

The traditional university culture relied more extensively upon the “old boy network” for hiring and advancing tenure-track professors. That system lent itself to criticism for bias against women and minorities. But Edwards and Roy say that the quantitative-metric approach has created a new set of abuses. “All these measures are subject to manipulation as per Goodhart’s law, which states, When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure. The quantitative metrics can therefore be misleading and ultimately counterproductive to assessing scientific research.”

Edwards and Roy also find fault with the way federal research grants are handed out. “The grant environment,” they write, “is hypercompetitive, susceptible to reviewer biases, skewed towards funding agencies’ research agendas, and strongly dependent on prior success as measured by quantitative metrics. … These broad changes take valuable time and resources away from scientific discovery and translation, compelling researchers to spend inordinate amounts of time constantly chasing grant proposals and filling out increasing paperwork for grant compliance.”

Most concerning of all:

There is growing evidence that today’s research publications too frequently suffer from lack of replicability, rely on biased data-sets, apply low or sub-standard statistical methods, fail to guard against researcher biases, and overhype their findings.

Science is expected to be self-policing and self-correcting. But incentives induce stakeholders to “pretend misconduct does not happen.” There is no clear mechanism for reporting and investigating allegations of research misconduct.

The system “presents a real threat to the future of science,” they say. Academia is at risk of creating a “corrupt professional culture” akin to the doping scandal in professional cycling in which athletes felt they had to cheat to compete. “We can no longer afford to pretend that the problem of research misconduct does not exist.”

Bacon’s bottom line: The inability to replicate results from many scientific studies is widely acknowledged to be a real problem. Likewise, the risk is very real that the public could lose faith in science, especially when scientific research intersects with public policy. The idea that government agencies favor and fund research projects that bolster their policy agendas — admittedly, a minor point in the Edwards-Roy essay — is a phenomenon that should concern all Americans.

As research scientists, the authors are most concerned with how the system impacts upon the integrity of the scientific process and the advancement of tenure-track faculty. But their thoughts raise issues of interest to non-scientists who focus on cost and quality issues in higher education. The perverse incentives, along with the research university business model, have virtually severed top faculty from the task of teaching undergraduate students. Universities hire more subalterns — at extra cost –to handle the job of teaching. From the perspective of students and parents, superstar research faculty are superfluous overhead.

An important question left unanswered is the extent to which students and parents are funding this dysfunctional system through their tuition. How much tuition revenue goes to supporting this massively inefficient research edifice in which an increase share of faculty time is spent applying for grants? Perhaps none at all. But perhaps quite a lot. The public doesn’t know. It’s entirely possible that university administrations don’t either — higher-ed accounting could be more transparent. As students, parents and taxpayers, we should insist upon finding out.

(Hat tip: Reed Fawell)

Cville Ranks 3rd Nationally In Happiness. If Only We Knew Why.

Thanks to the intrusion of outsiders bent upon confrontation, Charlottesville has become synonymous in the public discourse with hate and discord. It’s a bum rap. In a recent survey of the happiest metros in the United States, C-ville ranked third, behind Boulder, Colo., and Santa Cruz, Calif.

The study by National Geographic and the Gallup organization established 15 metrics—from healthy eating and learning something new every day to civic engagement, financial security, vacation time, and even dental checkups—that signal happiness. The National Geographic Gallup Special/Blue Zones Index draws on nearly 250,000 interviews conducted with adults from 2014 to 2015 in 190 metropolitan areas across the U.S.

In happier places, locals smile and laugh more often, socialize several hours a day, have access to green spaces, and feel that they are making purposeful progress toward achieving life goals, writes the National Geographic’s George Stone. The happiness index tracked factors that are statistically associated with doing well and feeling well, including feeling secure, taking vacations, and having enough money to cover basic needs.

The National Geographic article is frustratingly short on specifics about what makes Charlottesville happy, noting no more than the following in its photo cutline: “Along the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, Charlottesville, Virginia, has ample opportunities for getting outdoors between visits to Monticello and the University of Virginia—both listed as World Heritage sites.”

I’d like to know what makes Charlottesville such a happy place, but the details aren’t available anywhere online that I could find. It also would be helpful to know if the data is drawn from just the city of Charlottesville, from Charlottesville and Albemarle County, or from the Charlottesville metropolitan area, which includes the outlying counties of Fluvanna, Greene and Nelson.

The photograph above, taken from the National Geographic article, shows Charlottesville’s downtown mall, which is an enjoyable place to spend time. And Cville is, of course, home to the University of Virginia, with all the assets that it has to offer. Those two iconic features, along with Monticello, are the first to come to mind when people think “Charlottesville” (well, when they aren’t thinking about white supremacist rallies). But Nelson County, which is part of the metro area, is the location of the Wintergreen resort community, which is a fabulous place in its own right.

All this is a long way of saying, yeah, it’s cool that Charlottesville is ranked No.3 in the National Geographic’s happiness index, but the published data doesn’t give us public policy wonks much to work with in teasing out what makes Cville residents happy and what lessons might be gleaned for other Virginians.

Is Dominion Eyeing a Big Move in South Carolina?

Hmmm… Santee Cooper, the state-owned electric utility in South Carolina that lost a bundle through nuclear power overruns, is thinking up putting itself up for sale. One of the four companies sniffing around, according to this report in The State, is Dominion Energy.

Dominion has been beefing up its presence in South Carolina. Since 2014, says The State, the company “has announced plans for a major solar farm in the Lowcountry, built a gas pipeline southeast of Columbia, established a regional headquarters in the Capital City, donated to nonprofit groups and hired State House lobbyists.” The company also has confirmed the possibility that it might extend the Atlantic Coast Pipeline to the Palmetto State, although any extension of the pipeline, which terminates in southern North Carolina, would require another lengthy Federal Energy Regulatory Commission approval process.

Dominion would be “a natural fit to expand its presence in South Carolina’’ because of the investments it already has made in the state, the newspaper quoted securities analyst Travis Miller as saying

(Read the article to see several quotes from a frequent Bacon’s Rebellion comment contributor.)

Building for the Ages

The high altar of the Washington Cathedral.

They don’t make buildings like they used to.

The United States and other modern countries are infinitely wealthier than the Medieval societies that raised the great cathedrals. But what has the contemporary world created that will endure as the cathedrals have?  The 14th-century sanctuaries still evoke a sense of awe and wonder. Which of the monstrosities of steel and glass constructed by 21st-century man will be remembered seven centuries from now?

The Washington Cathedral in Washington, D.C., isn’t as ancient as the cathedrals of Europe — construction began in 1907 — but the Episcopalian edifice has been generations in the making. Even as a lad attending St. Albans School, a stone’s throw from the magnificent edifice, I had an appreciation of its beauty. Returning this weekend, nearly fifty years later, I found myself held spellbound. I have yet to see the equal in stonework, woodwork, stained glass, and tapestry anywhere else in North America.

The photo above shows the high altar of the cathedral your humble servant experienced during his one serious flirtation with religion. Upon the recommendation of a beloved teacher, the Rev. Craig Eder, I served as an altar boy for 7:00 a.m. Sunday services. My main functions, as I recall, were lighting the candles, assisting with communion, and snuffing out the candles. I never felt the presence of the holy spirit — or the father, or the son, for that matter — but I was forever struck by the transcendent serenity and beauty of the place.

Here is the cathedral’s organ, which emits a rolling almost thunderous sound that seems entirely appropriate for worship of the Lord almighty.

And here is a view that shows the intricate complexity and delicacy of the Gothic architecture.

But nothing delights me like the stained glass windows that cast their glorious light upon the columns and walls — a veritable Medieval light show.

I feel truly blessed to have spent a part of my childhood in such a place. And even though the religion never took — I’m as atheist as they come — it comforts me to know that the cathedral will last the ages.

Austin, Texas, Here We Come!

It’s a perfect day in Austin, Texas — blue skies, low humidity, about 83°. The Bacon family is in town for a wedding, and we’re going to stick around a couple of extra days to get a feel for one of America’s great cities. We were really hungry when we arrived, so we headed to Sixth Street, Austin’s famous restaurant row, and picked a place more or less at random: the Tamale House. Turned out to be a great choice.

The restaurant had a wonderful outdoor patio, but we decided to stay inside so we could listen to what Austin is really famous for: live music. The three-man band included a guitarist, a bass player and… a trombonist. The musical selection was impossible to classify — sort of old-timey jazz — but it made enjoyable listening while….

…the four of us chowed down on some excellent beef and chicken tacos, and washed them down with margaritas.

So, our first taste of Austin was awesome. Laura says the city reminds her of Richmond. It’s just bigger and has more high-tech industry, more construction, and more billboards in Spanish. And not as many historical neighborhoods. But I get what she means. Austin is a state capital and a big foodie and arts town. Who knows, maybe in another 30 years we’ll be as hip. All we need is a Willie Nelson!

Disaster + Fiscal Insolvency = Puerto Rico

Lights out in San Juan. Photo credit: Los Angeles Times.

I can watch only so much CNN and MSNBC before I get nauseated, but I have seen enough the past day or two to be appalled at how the media are spinning the post-hurricane disaster of Puerto Rico: It’s another Katrina. The Trump administration hasn’t responded fast enough or aggressively enough to help the battered territory, where two hurricanes shut down electric service, cell phones, the transportation system and government services. Others can engage in the blame game if they want to, but I want to point out the obvious: Puerto Rico illustrates the incapacity of a bankrupt government to carry out basic functions under highly stressful circumstances.

And let that be a warning to everyone. Puerto Rico is the future of many U.S. states unless we get our acts together. Garnering less attention than the human tragedy in Puerto Rico, the states of Pennsylvania and Connecticut have made headlines, too, in the past week. After Pennsylvania passed a budget without enough revenue to pay for its spending, S&P Global Ratings downgraded the state’s debt to A+, down two notches from the coveted AAA rating. Meanwhile, despite having the highest median household income in the country and the second highest tax burden (taxes as percentage of income), Connecticut faces a $3.5 billion biennial deficit. The state, notes the Wall Street Journal, is groaning under heavy debt load, large unfunded pension liabilities, and a shrinking population. S&P has placed nine Connecticut localities on negative credit watch.

Those two states have a long way to go before they achieve Puerto Rico-levels of insolvency, but they indicate the direction the U.S. is heading. On a national level, Republicans have abandoned any pretense at crafting a tax reform plan that will shrink the deficit (something that can be pinned on the Trump administration). The national debt is $20 trillion and growing, even in the absence of a recession, at a rate of more than $600 billion a year. It’s not a question of if we will share Puerto Rico’s fiscal fate, but when.

So, what happens when governments approach fiscal insolvency? One thing they do is starve infrastructure maintenance. Puerto Rican roads were in worse physical condition than roads in any U.S. state. Of the island’s 2,280 bridges, 55.8% were considered structurally deficient or functionally obsolete before the hurricanes struck. The territory has chronically under-invested in its water systems, which also failed during the hurricanes, and the government-owned electric system, the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA), has been a disaster-in-waiting for years now.

Reports the Los Angeles Times:

As of 2014 the government-owned company was $9 billion in debt, and in July, it filed for bankruptcy under the provisions set by the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management, and Economic Stability Act, a law signed by President Obama in 2016.

Problems accumulated. Cutbacks in tree pruning left the 16,000 miles of primary power lines spread across the island vulnerable. Inspections, maintenance and repairs were scaled back. Up to 30% of the utility’s employees retired or migrated to the U.S. mainland, analysts said, and the utility had trouble hiring experienced employees to replace them.

The neglect led to massive and chronic failures at the Aguirre and Palo Seco power plants. The three-day blackout in September 2016 underscored how fragile the system was, and that the company was “unable to cope with this first contingency,” the Synapse Energy report said.

No wonder the island’s electric grid collapsed. No wonder officials say it will take four to six months to restore electric power.

If you want your city, county or state to show resilience in the face of natural disasters, you need to have governments and utilities that are fiscally resilient. Entities hobbled by excessive debt scrimp on maintenance and upgrades, leaving roads and utilities more vulnerable to disruption and depriving authorities of resources with which to respond to emergencies.

Puerto Rico would be in terrible shape no matter what. Hurricane Maria wrought devastating destruction, and recovery is impeded by the fact that the island, unlike Houston and Florida, is inaccessible to help by land. But the incapacity of bankrupt government and utilities have made the challenges immeasurably worse.

Do Remedial College Classes Need Reform? In Virginia, Probably Not

Percentage of students enrolled in remedial classes at Virginia community colleges, 2016-17 academic year.

How do you handle a situation when a student is admitted to a college but isn’t academically prepared to do the work? Traditionally, colleges and community colleges have required students who fail basic readiness tests to take remedial courses. Nationally, students spend an estimated $7 billion a year on such courses, according to the Wall Street Journal.

But educational officials are souring on the practice, saying that remedial classes are typically taught by the least-experienced teachers with little training in remedial teaching methods, that student motivation is low in classes that yield no college credit, and that remedial students graduate with six years at a lower rate than their peers. Colleges in California, Colorado, Indiana, Tennessee and West Virginia are experimenting with an alternative approach, teaching supplementary classes targeting specific skills needed to pass specific classes. Thus, a student taking a sociology class who needs help with statistics would learn only the math applicable for that class.

It will be interesting to see where this experiment goes. I’ve long expressed concern that many colleges, desperate to pump up enrollment and tuition revenue, are too lax with the admittance standards. Under the guise of ethnic and socioeconomic diversity, they accept students who aren’t academically prepared for college. These students are disproportionately likely to fail to graduate and rack up large student debts that hobble them financially for years. Thus, for many, higher ed has become a source of social injustice rather than liberation.

Virginia colleges and universities are often accused of being excessively picky about who they admit, with the consequence that they provide less “social mobility” for poor and minority students. The flip side of that accusation is that the Virginia higher-ed system has the second highest six-year graduation rate in the country, meaning that fewer poor and minority students wind up saddled with debt they cannot repay because they failed to win the workforce credential needed to get a higher-paying job.

Perhaps the idea of teaching targeted skills required for specific courses has merit. Let’s face it, we all learned a lot of stuff in college that we never needed later in life. Speaking for myself, I barely passed a course in calculus, and, beyond retaining the fact that there is such a thing as “differential” calculus and such as thing as “integral” calculus, I remember nothing of what I supposedly learned. Maybe remedial classes teach a lot of stuff that students will never need.

On the other hand, I worry that replacing remedial classes with “basic skills” represents one more step in the watering down of college curricula, and one more step in the degradation of the value of a college degree. Businesses already complain that many college graduates are incapable of thinking critically and communicating clearly as it is. Will scrapping remedial courses make things better? I’m not holding my breath.

According to Virginia Council of Higher Education for Virginia (SCHEV) data, only one of Virginia’s four-year institutions, Virginia Commonwealth University, provides remedial education, and VCU enrolled only 68 undergraduate students in remedial classes in the 2016-17 school year. By contrast, the community colleges enrolled 36,000. That strikes me as entirely sensible. If students need remedial work, they should get it in a community-college setting where they will incur far less cost than in a four-year college.

For what it’s worth, the number of remedial students in Virginia community colleges is down from 44,400 ten years ago. Either Virginia high schools are graduating fewer students who are academically unprepared or the community colleges are relaxing their standards. I pass no judgment as to which is the case. Either way, remedial education does not appear to be a burning issue in Virginia’s higher education establishment at the moment.

Maybe Hampton Roads Isn’t the Second Most Vulnerable Metro After All

Norfolk flooding this past August. Photo credit: Virginian-Pilot.

Dave Mayfield, a reporter with the Virginian-Pilot, has frequently repeated the claim that Hampton Roads, after New Orleans, was the most vulnerable to sea level of rise major U.S. metropolitan areas. I’ve repeated that factoid on this blog — perhaps I picked it up from his writing, I can’t remember. Anyway, Mayfield began wondering about the scientific basis for that judgment. After digging into the matter, he discovered that Galveston, Texas, which is part of the Houston metropolitan area, is probably  more vulnerable…. depending on which metric you use to define vulnerability, which is another issue in itself.

Mayfield’s bottom line:

Sea level rise is too complicated a problem and each coastal area too unique to make truly reliable comparisons. So I’m going to resist calling Hampton Roads the third-most-vulnerable major metro area in the country, even with my new understanding.

I’m hoping that, by now, we all can accept that we’ve got a big problem, one that won’t easily be solved.

I respect anyone who questions his own assumptions, appreciates complexity, and is willing to revise his thinking. Good work, Mayfield!

Eclipse Wash Out

Here was the view of the 86% eclipse from my house. Woo hoo! This big flippin’ cloud sailed in from nowhere just in time to block out everything. I’ll take another whack at it in 2024.

I wonder how Bill Tracey fared.