Thursday, July 25, 2019

Why Not Up And Down Along With Left And Right?

When I was a graduate student at Northwestern I learned about a short book called Flatland, which served as a brief diversion for me from the intense study of economics.  I have a memory fragment of sitting outside of Norris Center on "the rocks" that were on the boundary of the landfill and Lake Michigan, reading the book on a reasonably sunny day. At one level the book is about math, what it is like living in an n-dimensional world and then being visited by an (n+1)-dimensional object.  In Flatland n = 2.  The story is told from the perspective of a Square who is visited by a Sphere, but who only sees one cross-section at a time.  Each cross-section appears as a circle.  To the Square, the Sphere seemingly has the ability to change its radius, but the Square is unable to comprehend that the Sphere resides in a higher dimensional space, which gives the complete explanation for this capability. By analogy, one might imagine that we who are 3-dimensional are visited by some 4-dimensional entity.  If the forth dimension were time, we would see the entity getting older or younger, seemingly at will. Thus, Flatland is a precursor for many other books that consider time travel.  (Flatland was first published in 1884.  The Time Machine was first published in 1895.)  Flatland is also a political satire about Victorian England and its closed mindedness about social class.  I will leave it to those of you who are interested enough to read Flatland to learn about the particulars of that critique.  Here it is enough to note that the math view of the story already has some closed mindedness built into it by the characters being unable to envision higher dimensions.

I am writing this piece in response to Thomas Edsall's column from yesterday, The Democratic Party Is Actually Three Parties.   The upshot from that piece is that because each of these sub parties has a different ideal point with regard to the policies that they'd like to see pursued, Edsall claims it will be difficult for the Democratic Party to find a winning platform that energizes all of these voters.  With all due respect to Anthony Downs, I believe the political scientists whom Edsall cites are trapped in a left-right (one-dimensional) universe, which while giving the lovely theoretical result about the median voter does make politics seem very much like a zero-sum game; if I win then you lose and vice versa.   In that universe, of course, that's the rational way to behave.  Then the entire debate becomes not about the policies themselves, but rather about the underlying distribution of voters along the left-right spectrum.  People justify pursuing their own preferred policy menu by arguing that is where there is a concentration of voters.

An alternative would be to envision a bargain between the various coalitions.  The thing is, for a bargain to take place there must be two or more dimensions; you get something but give up something else in return.  The dimensionality enables the bargaining.  Adding a second dimension, then, is needed.  Of course, there can be three or more dimensions, so we can have in and out along with up and down and left and right.  Sticking to two dimensions keeps it simple to explicate.  I teach this stuff in my economics class.  But in higher dimensions it is easier to find gains from trade.

Now a couple of more points and then I'll close.  I've written a post about a year ago that envisions just such a bargain.   The description of that starts in about the middle of the post.  We need language to talk about the thing you give up in the bargain and we need politicians who can speak to multiple constituencies with a straight face, who can describe the full bargain, not just the gains part.  In my way of thinking about this, the preferred language is to talk about responsibility and invoke JFK, ask what you can do for your country.  The part you give up in the bargain you then do for the good of the order. I don't hear rhetoric of that sort now.  I believe we need it, quite badly.

The other point, and it is related, is that the pollsters have made the game about appealing to voters who have fixed preferences.  I think in many cases that's wrong.  Voters need some education about what they want.  Regarding immigration, for example, the situation at the border is horrible and, of course, everyone wants that to end. But beyond that what is the right solution - I don't really know and I'm guessing most voters also don't know.  The proposal to end ICE, whether it is ultimately a good or bad idea, is based, I believe, on that those who become border agents now have a belligerence about them that is really undesirable.   These border agents take delight in treating brown-skin migrants with cruelty.  This is a real problem.  Our politics, unfortunately in my view, goes to solutions too quickly, and doesn't spend enough time talking about the problems themselves.  Perhaps there is fear that the problem won't be addressed at all if the current proposed solution doesn't win out.  I can understand that fear, but there might very well be alternative ways to address the problem that can work and are better overall.  The little I know about immigration issues comes mostly from the news, and then occasionally from some situation on campus, but I surely don't live and die with that issue. If the pollsters don't measure the intensity of the preference, along with the preference itself, they really don't have enough information to shape the bargain.  The politicians themselves should do some of this shaping, by educating the voters in the process.

Let me close with this snippet from Paul Begala, which is in the Edsall piece.  I thought it was pretty funny, also quite revelatory.

Democratic Twitter is dominated by overeducated, over-caffeinated, over-opinionated pain-in-the-ass white liberals. Every candidate, and every staffer, checks Twitter and other social media scores of times a day.

Whatever virtues Twitter has, it is not a good medium for education.  That requires something slower, and more thoughtful.  One might not get the readership that way, but it's the place to start.  If the party is to come together, that will require some serious thinking, and quite a bit of negotiation. 

Monday, July 22, 2019

Changing The Narrative About What Happened In The 2016 Election....

....Or Pouring Spilled Milk Back Into The Bottle.

We tend to forget the recent past too easily and too quickly.  We need to keep it in mind, to get a better understanding of the present.

I wonder how many Democratic voters see the history as I do.  I continue to maintain that the Presidential election was stolen - not by votes being miscounted, but by illegal acts that preceded the voting. There were several of those.  Russian interference - fake news and trolling, continues to get some press.  The Republican attack machine going after Hillary Clinton about Benghazi and the emails; this has now been supplanted by attack on the Squad of Four.  But it is the same McCarthyite bs, pure vitriol aimed to enrage the base and to cast doubt among swing voters.  If there's smoke there must be fire, right?  In this case, it's entirely wrong.  Yet the attacks are made plausible by prior prejudice the voters have.  For Hillary Clinton, this was in good part fueled by antipathy to Bill Clinton, itself fueled by the Republican attack machine, but also by the Monica Lewinsky affair.  With the Squad of Four, the prior prejudice is obvious and requires no amplification here. 

Yet the biggest of these prior acts, now seemingly forgotten, was Mitch McConnell not taking up the nomination of Merrick Garland for the Supreme Court, a violation of his Constitutional imperative.  Logically, there is only one reason why McConnell did this.  Had Garland been considered through the normal Advise and Consent process, he would have gotten through, even with the Republicans in the majority, just as Clarence Thomas got through when the Democrats were in control.   Had that happened, as it should have, then there would have been no vacant seat to fill on the Supreme Court during the 2016 election.  In this case Evangelical voters would have stayed home, rather than hold their nose and vote for Trump, so they could get a Conservative on the Supreme Court.  Hillary Clinton would have won in the Electoral College, as well as in the popular vote.   That's how the election should have played out, if everyone played the game According to Hoyle.

While I don't read the news nearly as intensively as I used to, it's just too depressing to do otherwise, I believe that no Democratic candidate for President in 2020 has taken on this history at all.  Instead the campaigns are about economic issues, identity issues, and bringing the country together. Of these three, the first two are persistent Democratic themes.  I don't want to minimize them. They are very important. But on the third, we need a reality check.  If my premise is correct - the Republicans did steal the 2016 election - how can we possibly bring the country together until that crime has been punished?  As long as the Republicans act like they are fighting a war by other means, and especially if they feel they can keep getting away with it from here on out, there will be no reconciliation.

What follows is how I imagine a candidate who did take on this history, the policies this candidate would advocate for in taking on that history, and the tone that would be needed to make the message effective.

First, while history can't be completely undone, some of it can be reversed.  There would be repeated accusations that the election was stolen.  Given that the Republicans already had a majority in the Senate, this enabled a judicial appointments strategy that was pure tyranny. Sunshine would be placed on that consequence during the election season. While many voters at present may not care as much about judicial appointments as they care about the bread and butter issues, this would be an example of how an effective candidate cand educate the voters, rather than simply appeal to an already fixed voter preference.  Voters should care about this.  With enough education, they will.

Second, this would be coupled with the assertion that every judicial nomination made since Trump took office is illegitimate. The argument is simple enough.  Given that the election was stolen, these appointments constitute ill gotten gains.  This point would be emphasized so as to set up the remedy.  The remedy needs to be drastic, yet be seen as balancing out these gains and not otherwise advancing a Democratic alternative.  The idea is to restore true fairness to the system, not to win a game that has been cooked ahead of time.

Third, the candidate would announce during the campaign (now or in the not too distant future) that as President the powers of Commander in Chief would be exercised to combat domestic threats.  This would entail the detaining of Senator McConnell, possibly other Senators as well who were involved with shelving the nomination of Merrick Garland, and detaining all the judicial appointments who attained their positions under Trump.  These people would either remain detained till the President left office or they would be released immediately if they resigned from their positions.

Fourth, so as not to make political capital out of this act of detaining appointments, the candidate would commit to serving only one four-year term in office. Let us have good and fair elections in 2024 and not have this history remain a burden for the indefinite future.  It seems many candidates now treat running for the President as a perq and likewise for serving in the job.  We need to return to the idea that serving as President is an obligation.  Here the greater obligation is in restoring some trust into the process.  Pre-announcing that the candidate will serve just one term will help to do that.

Fifth, if vacancies in judicial appointments do arise because detained members of the judiciary resigned, there needs to be a way for replacements to be selected that doesn't appear overly partisan.  I have no bulletproof suggestion about how to do this.  But in this context I am reminded of an episode from The West Wing TV series called The Supremes.  In that episode, the President ultimately nominated one very left candidate for the Supreme Court and one very right candidate for the Supreme Court, to restore the previous balance.  And the candidates were viewed as excellent jurists by each other, rather than as merely party hacks.  I don't know how much of this is possible in actuality, but something like this should be an aspiration for this step, and perhaps considering multiple nominations simultaneously is the way to achieve this.

The above constitutes the direct steps that the candidate would take.  There are also indirect steps that need to be taken.  For example, it seems obvious that the hyper partisan political environment that we now find ourselves in has been fueled by yellow journalism which, it is sad to say, does attract eyeballs, coupled with current technology that seemingly requires the news to be entertainment as well.  A more detached and objective presentation of events is desirable, but that's not what is happening. The market is failing here.  There needs to be a remedy to this market failure.  What that remedy looks like can be argued.  One possibility to be floated seems evident - re-instituting The Fairness Doctrine.   Another example, there is too much big money in our politics now.  This is true both with regard to campaign financing and to lobbying.  Presumably, Democrats might take these on without dealing with the history of the 2016 election.  Bringing that history front and center should help amplify the case for solutions.

Let me close with the following observation, in case it is not obvious from what's been said until now.  Talking about how the election was stolen, particularly emphasizing the Merrick Garland nomination, is a way to place the focus on the enablers within the Republican party and move it off of Trump. So, apart from it being the right thing to do in terms a remedying a wrong, it is the right thing to do regarding our politics now.  And it makes sense even among those who want to bring the country together, once it is acknowledged that this can't happen as long as the Republicans want to win regardless of whether it is a fair fight or not.  In particular, calling for an alternative to gerrymandering, that the election in 2016 was stolen should be brought to bear.  While in the one case we are talking about Congressional Districts while in the other we are talking about the Electoral College, the unifying theme should be that the process must be fair.  This rigging of the the political game needs to stop.

Now all we need is for one of the candidates to take up this strategy.

Friday, July 19, 2019

Free College and the Quality of College Education

As I've been at Illinois since 1980 (now as a retired faculty member and administrator) when I think of publicly provided education I tend to think of it as state provision, since with the examples I'm familiar with, mainly the other Big Ten schools (except for Northwestern) are all very large research universities with state provision, I'm unclear on what a national free college program would look like and how it would be administered.  Also, I should note here that the expression, state provision, is more than a bit of a euphemism.  We've always operated under a mixed model which includes, state tax dollars, tuition, gifts to the university, and grants.  The shares of these have not been stable over time, with the tuition share rising and the state tax dollars share declining. And with that the composition of the student body has changed as well. The fraction of out-of-state and international students has risen.   This has happened by growing the overall undergraduate student population.  The number of in-state enrollments has pretty much remained flat.

The university does have its own free college program called Illinois Promise.  It is pretty stern in its income requirements of the student's family.  In a nutshell, the student must come from a family with income below the Poverty Line. And the student must otherwise meet the ordinary requirements for admission to the university.  The program, which started in 2005, has been growing, according to data from the most recent I-Promise Newsletter.  Based on that information and information from the Campus Profile, Illinois promise students comprise between 3.5% and 4% of the undergraduate population at Illinois.  As median family income of all students at Illinois is $109,000, roughly four times larger than the Poverty Line, I-Promise students are different income-wise from typical students and many I-Promise students find the adjustment to campus life a challenge.  For this reason there is a mentoring program targeted at Illinois Promise students (the mentoring is opt in) and students who do choose to have mentors graduate at a somewhat higher rate (though be wary about the difference between causality and correlation).  I have mentored a handful of such students.  My main conclusions from the experience are:  (1) it would be easier if first the student took a class from me so we were more intellectually on the same page, (2) the mentoring training teaches that the mentees tend to value the experience more than the mentors, but in my latest experience with the mentoring the mentee did it only because he thought he had to, and (3) such mentoring should be available far more broadly, because many students find the campus alienating in some way and/or need some coaching about how to best proceed in their classes. Further, especially first generation students, need a friend who has been through it all before and can dispense lessons from the experience.

More or less at the same time as the Illinois Promise program, though I believe there is no causality between the two, the campus has come to increasingly rely on "Specialized Faculty" who are not on the tenure track and are hired only to teach, with no expectation that they will do any research in their field.  The data on this depicted in the table below come from the Campus Profile.  It is not immediately evident what the effect is on quality of instruction when shifting from Regular Faculty to Specialized Faculty.  I've seen arguments both ways. But it is something to keep in mind regarding quality of the college experience for students.  I believe in this respect Illinois is typical of many public universities (and possibly private universities as well).  When comparing teaching loads across the types of faculty, regular faculty have much lower teaching loads and a substantial research obligation.  So the move to Specialized Faculty can bee seen as a way to deliver undergraduate education in a cost effective manner.


The impact of the Illinois Promise program stems from the access to college the program provides. Clearly, one aspect of making college free is giving access to those students who otherwise couldn't afford it.  Even with access, however, there are different ways to understand it.  As many of the I-Promise students are from the Chicagoland area, there are other public education alternatives available to them where they could live at home and attend college at the same time.  Indeed, a couple of my mentees in I-Promise were transfer students who had previously attended community college. This is a different dimension of the quality issue - which college to attend.  While there is a tendency to think of quality along a vertical axis, with selectivity of the institution an index of quality, sometimes it is better to consider what makes for a good fit between the student and the institution. Students may learn more by starting off at a community college, because they feel comfortable in that environment and being relaxed facilitates learning.  While keeping that thought in mind, to the extent that free college is about access, I believe that those who advocate for free college want to see more low-income students at elite universities.  Indeed, a reasonable case can be made that at present the elite colleges promote income inequality rather than upward mobility.  I can't but feel looking at that page, that the presentation of the data is meant to guilt out those who attend elite colleges, as well as those who have some responsibility for admissions there.  This follows from two bits of information, in particular.  One is that many very qualified low income students don't attend elite colleges.  The other is that the income gaps of the parents are largely made up in the children who do attend elite colleges.

Free college is not just about access, however.  Consider the Excelsior Scholarship Program in New York.  The language on that Website refers to middle class students rather than low income students, and the eligibility requirements include family income below $125,000.  This would put the upper end of those students eligible in the top 20% of the household income distribution nationally.  Many such students would attend college, with or without the scholarship, quite possibly at the same institution of learning.   To the extent that free college is about relieving such students of a large debt burden post graduation, that is a different focus than access.  In some sense, the Excelsior Scholarship Program is about shifting debt burden from recent alumni of the public colleges in New York to taxpayers in New York.   Before considering the merits of such wealth redistribution, let's note that possibility of a different effect.  Some of those who would have gone to private colleges or to public universities out of state and paid high tuition in either case, may now find it attractive to get an Excelsior Scholarship instead and go to one of the research universities in New York - Albany, Binghamton, Buffalo, or Stony Brook, with the tuition reduction making those alternatives increasingly attractive.   I haven't seen reporting on this, but surely I would be interested to learn how it is actually playing out.

My own reaction to the Excelsior Scholarship program is to redesign it.  In my Shangri-La, college should be free for households at or below the median income, which in New York is about $65,000.  Above that, but below a higher threshold, say $100,000, there should be tuition discounts, with the discounts declining with household income, so that at the upper threshold the student pays full tuition. So my intuition is to be less generous than that actual program is.  But let's face it, this program is partly a political animal.  Governor Cuomo embraced it after Bernie Sanders championed free college in the 2016 election. The program is meant to appeal to voters.  Voter participation tends to rise with income.  Given that, a less generous program wasn't in the cards, even if it were more fiscally responsible.  The real fiscal issue with the Excelsior Scholarship program is that it represents wealth redistribution from taxpayers in general to households with college age kids, but after the kids have graduated college and the parents are ready to retire, the parents are prone to move south, to a no-income-tax state, and thus grab the benefit without reciprocating later with further tax payments. The kids have to stay in state for a while under the program, but the parents do not.   Given those stipulations, one advantage I can see for a national program is to eliminate this sort of tax avoidance. (The parents could change their citizenship, but that seems less likely to me for the time being.)

Still a different model of free college existed when I was in high school (I graduated from Benjamin Cardozo HS in Queens in 1972) when CUNY didn't charge any tuition at all. And, at least a few decades earlier, CUNY had a reputation for providing a high caliber education.  David Leonhardt refers to City College as the Harvard of the proletariat. This was at a time when there was antisemitism in admissions at Ivy League colleges.  A notable example, the winner of the Nobel Prize in Economics, Kenneth Arrow, attended City College.  I believe the entire CUNY system retained a good reputation when I was in high school.  But I want to point out that the private universities were much more accessible (financially) than they are today.  My dad's family was very poor, yet he was able to attend NYU (class of 1933) and then Columbia Law School (class of 1936).  My mother, who was an immigrant from Palestine after World War II, got an undergraduate degree from Columbia's School of General Studies.   Much later, in the mid 1960s, my mother got a Masters from Queens College, to buttress her formal teaching credentials.

Things changed with CUNY starting when I was in high school and then more so after I graduated.  Open admissions began in 1970.  But it was cut short by the fiscal crisis that New York City faced in the middle of the decade. There were no funds to supplant tuition, so tuition charges were imposed.  And at the senior colleges in the system, admission standards were notably increased.   Fast forward 40+ years and today CUNY has a far more mixed reputation.  Leonhardt writes:

More recently, these universities have seemed to struggle, with unprepared students, squeezed budgets and high dropout rates. To some New Yorkers, “City College” is now mostly a byword for nostalgia.

He goes on to say that there is actually good news, that about three quarters of the students who enroll at City College (and at institutions like City College around the country) experience upward mobility gains in income that are significant.  I wish he had unpacked that information more.  Do students who drop out still experience those income gains?  If so, how does that happen?  Alas, there isn't enough in the Leonhardt piece to answer those questions.

Here I want to make a few other points. If students are under prepared for college one might assign responsibility either to the students themselves or to the schools they attended in K-12.  It seems plausible that in most cases the real culprit is under funding of the K-12 education.  If so, does it make sense to argue that free college is the solution?  Wouldn't it be better to redirect some of the funds aimed at free college and instead allocate them to K-12 education for this particular population?  Here is a place where I'm confused about jurisdiction, state (or local) or federal.  I know that Head Start is a federal program, but I'm under the impression that most funding for public schools comes from the municipality or the state.  One would hope that the entire system, K-16 and beyond, would work well for students and that the jurisdictional issues would be incidental only.

Next, let me note that, for better or worse, graduation rates are used as a measure of how well the particular university is performing.  Yet graduation rates are largely determined by demographic factors pertaining to the students - parental income, standardized test scores, prior family members who have attended college, and other related variables.  If in considering graduation rates there isn't control for these demographic variables, and frequently it's just the raw graduation rates that seem to matter, then schools will bias their admissions to those students who are high predictors to graduate. Doing so indicates nothing about the quality of education the university provides these students. My own casual empiricism, mainly based on the one class a year I've been teaching since I've retired, is that many students get the sheepskin but are largely unchanged as thinkers while in college.  My indictment on this score can be found in this very long blog post, Why does memorization persist as the primary way college students study to prepare for exams?

Third, this one is again about politics.  And the reality is that middle class voters are rather insular.  This means they will look at free college through the lens of how they and their families benefit (or not).  A voter with no children might be against free college, assuming it implies a higher tax burden on the voter's family.  Voters with kids, who are likely to attend public universities in any event, will love it. Younger voters who are paying their own way through college obviously will love it as well.  So politically, it might very well be a winner.  But it also means there will be a bias, as in the Excelsior Scholarship program, toward debt relief for the families of those students who would have attended with or without the program, and away from the access issue for those students who wouldn't be able to afford college otherwise.  Put a different way, community college quality will be lower than the four-year college quality and that will be a feature of the system, not a bug.  The evident reason is politics.

I want to make one other point and then close.  This is about the dynamics of educational quality at free colleges.  I fear that quality will trend downwards.  There are two different ways to think about this.  The cost of college education has been hyper inflationary for the past 40 years, maybe longer.  This is certainly true at the elite universities and it is easy to understand why.  There is chronic excess demand for admission into such universities.  Indeed, a different way to look at why elite institutions focus so much on the 1% in admissions is that such students won't be liquidity constrained, regardless of the tuition that is charged, which gives the universities complete flexibility to set tuition rates for their own benefit, even though this has the effect of making an elite college education very pricey for the merely well off.  This then gets translated into faculty salaries and other perqs that enhance the faculty as researchers.  And that casts a huge shadow on universities that are the next rung down, which have some high performers among their faculty who might enter the elite ranks in the future.  Indeed the hyper inflationary costs of education will impact the free colleges as well.  Will their budgets be hyper inflationary to match these costs increases?  If not, how will they make ends meet?  One should anticipate various cost savings measures, done in the name of enhancing efficiency, but which will lower the quality of the education provided.

Advocates of free college should think these things through.  Maybe I'm wrong in my analysis.  But if I'm not, there is a reason to express concern here.  And I'm afraid there won't be much rethinking this idea, as the case for free college seems self-evident to the advocates.

Saturday, July 06, 2019

Do Good Schools Make Good Students?

Ever since Senator Kamala Harris did that take down of Vice President Joe Biden in the Debate - I was that little girl who rode the bus - I have been trying to unpack the implied argument in that remark and then see where it might take us, regarding attitudes about busing to achieve integration in the schools, and policy-wise, about where the Democrats might end up on the issue.  Let me first say that a holistic approach would take on housing and other social services, notably childcare, in addition to schooling.  This opinion piece from six weeks ago makes it seem first, there will be class warfare within the Democratic Party, especially in major metropolitan areas, and second, as a consequence no holistic approach will be forthcoming, at least not yet.  But maybe there are other things that Democrats can agree upon and do so without much of a to-do.  I believe the (normative) proposition - every child is entitled to a decent education, regardless of race or parental income - would get universal assent.

No doubt operationalizing the previous proposition is harder, but maybe we can also get agreement on the (empirical) proposition - spending per pupil at a public school, and hence public school quality, tends to mirror the wealth of the community where the school is located.  Then busing might seem at least a partial answer to how children from low to moderate income families get a decent education, and it may seem all the more attractive as a solution when integrating housing is not in the cards.

My prior, however, is that there are substantial limits to what busing might achieve because of the "school within a school" phenomenon that I've written about several times, most recently in the post America in Its Addled Essence.  For both the junior high school/middle school and senior high school that I attended there was busing of African-American students to the schools.  Yet the SP classes in junior high had only one African-American student among a total of about 200 students in SP in my graduating class (determined by eyeballing photos from the yearbook).  Likewise, there was only one African-American student in Arista for my graduating class in high school.  (I'm guessing there were about 250 kids in Arista in my grade, though I've got no way to count that now.)  Incidentally, I'm about nine and a half years older than Kamala Harris and I believe I started tenth grade the same year she started kindergarten.  Of course, geographical differences may matter here.  While I lived in Bayside, the schools I attended were NYC public schools.  I'm guessing now, but I believe Berkeley has its own self-contained public school system, connected neither to the San Francisco public schools, nor to the public school systems of other communities in the Bay Area.  The year I started high school (ninth grade) was also the year of the big NYC teachers' strike.   While I saw no evidence of this in junior high school, racial tensions were obvious in high school.  And when I was in 10th grade, we were on the late session, starting school around 11:30 AM and not leaving school till about 5:40 PM. This was necessary because the school was so crowded.  There weren't enough classrooms to have all the students there simultaneously.  Both of these factors created their own sense of disorientation.

From doing some background reading on tracking in the schools, I've come to realize that my experience may not be definitive on the matter, as the system changed quite a bit after I graduated from high school.  SP classes are no more.   If there is tracking at all in middle school now, it is on a subject by subject basis.  This may have been how it was when I was in high school, for those students within the academic curriculum.  But then there was a commercial diploma and a general diploma, in addition to an academic diploma.  I seem to recall that they got rid of the other diplomas soon after I graduated.  My experience, which may not have been typical of students in Arista, of this I'm not sure, is that the only time I didn't take an academic class with an honors designation is because there was only one version of the class (e.g., earth science in 9th grade and economics in 12th grade).   Now, at least in principle, some students make take an honors class in one subject, a regular class in another subject, and a remedial class in a third subject.   And many schools have embraced having students of heterogeneous abilities within the same class, meaning no tracking whatsoever.

But it is a mistake to assume the playing field has been completely leveled now and all students have equal opportunity to excel in school. Indeed the research seems to suggest a movement back to clustering students by ability  and that much of this reinforces current socioeconomic status.  When I was a kid school was said to be an engine for upward social mobility.  But now it seems to mainly reinforce the status quo.  In this regard, the most heartbreaking thing to read is about students in the middle track who perform well there and should be boosted to the top track when they enter the next grade level, only to find that there is a slot constraint for the top track, so that if no other kid gets demoted from the top track, the high performing middle track kid stays put, which is incredibly discouraging.  I found this book review of Tracking Inequality: Stratification and Mobility in American High Schools, by Samuel Roundfield Lucas, helpful in understanding the new reality.  In the concluding paragraph the reviewer writes:

Notwithstanding the above contingencies, I find Lucas’s work to make an important contribution to the sociology of education. Its strength is its combination of thoughtful statistical analyses and grounded sociological theory. Overall, Tracking Inequality provides convincing evidence of the persisting disparities in our educational system and shows us that inequities remain, but have simply taken on a different form.

Likewise, I found the Executive Summary in this paper by Loveless useful, particularly on the efficacy issues, where much less is known than we'd like:

Heterogeneous grouping has not been adopted by enough middle and high schools to conclude whether detracking produces achievement gains—for poor, minority, and low achieving students or anyone else. In sum, research comparing tracking and heterogeneous grouping cannot conclusively declare one or the other as the better way of organizing students.

We should consider the underlying causes that support these findings.  On the persistence of tracking, it is understood that many parents game the system on behalf of their child, presumably with the goal of getting the kid into an elite college. These parents treat the top track as a gateway toward this goal so want to assure their child's membership in the top track, putting school administrators and teachers under a lot of pressure. To an economist, an obvious partial remedy to this situation is to expand the slots at elite colleges, thereby lowering the selectivity and making the competition for the slots less fierce.  I've not seen such a solution being discussed as a policy option, but maybe it should be given some consideration.  Indeed, supply of such slots has increased, by some universities that had been perceived as moderately good, e.g. NYU, now part of the elite. But the Ivy League schools and the Stanfords of the world haven't expanded their capacity, to my knowledge. Doing so would be resisted by those who already get in, as it would diminish the "economic rent" they get from the degree. But socially, I believe that would be desirable. In other words, if you want to improve the opportunities for people closer to the middle of the pack, lower the rewards for people who reach the top.  In the absence of doing that, this will simply repeat, over and over again.

On the perhaps mixed results of grouping students with heterogeneous ability, let's consider inter-student effects, which really can go both ways.  A shy student, who may lack confidence about his ability, might find it off putting to endure the the obnoxious nerd student (think of the Sheldon character in the Big Bang Theory) and those sort of interactions could be stigmatizing to the shy student.  There has been much written about the tracking causing stigma for those students in the lower tracks.  While this is likely correct, we should not assume there will be no stigma in a heterogeneous group, when some students feel uncomfortable there. Alternatively, if the nerd proves to be friendly rather than obnoxious, then the nerd might become something of a teacher and help other students in the group learn.  In my time at school, where I played the role of the nerd, while I was no Sheldon I've experienced the reaction of other students as if I were, while at other times I've experienced other students expressing gratitude for what I taught them.  So, it should also be noted that the learning is bi-directional.  The nerd stereotype is high on cognitive ability, but low on emotional intelligence.  Such interactions give the students feedback on how they are perceived by others whom they don't already know well.  The students may come to understand themselves better as a result.

One might then want to consider how to encourage the teacher effect while discouraging the off putting obnoxious alternative.  As apart from my own kids being in school I've had very little experience with K-12 since I graduated high school, I will merely speculate about this here, based on my considering the analogous questions, but in the college setting, where I feel more on terra firma.   During the first year of this blog I wrote a series of posts on Inward Looking Service Learning, where students a year or two further along would serve as peer mentors for younger students.  Some of the mentoring would be purely academic, but other parts might be more emotional and attitudinal.  It seems to me that if schools valued such peer mentoring in ways that are evident to the students, it would encourage the nerd to reconsider the value in being obnoxious and maybe soften the kid that way, and likewise it might encourage the shy student to be more outgoing and seek learning opportunities from other students. Wishing for this is definitely not the same as making it happen and surely there will be some bumps in implementing any program of this sort.  But as teachers are overburdened already, utilizing the students as a resource for helping more junior students, which in turn will encourage their own growth, should be something to try, and not just by dipping a toe in the water.

Let me close this bit with one more point and then return to busing as a near term solution for promoting equality of opportunity in education.  This is about heterogeneous grouping holding back the highest ability students regarding their measured performance.  We are now suffering through a time where many very good students learn how to please others by their performance, but never learn how to direct their own learn purely for their own satisfaction.  Documenting this phenomenon we have books like Excellent Sheep and Op-Eds like What Straight-A Students Get Wrong. Regarding my own education when I was in high school, in a recent post called Should School Be Hard Work For The Good Student? I explained that I had free time to do with as I chose, which is necessary if the kid is to learn to be self-directed.  If you talk with college educators today, many will complain that the kids are over programmed.  Boosting the resume ends up driving the activity, not the kids intrinsic interest in the matter.  We need to break this pattern, as it is inherently unhealthy for the kids and produces misery rather than satisfaction.  Yet the parents who push the teachers and school administrators into keeping their child in the top track almost surely push the child as well to care mainly, if not exclusively, about measured academic performance.  Expecting these parents to lighten up on their own seems an exercise in wishful thinking, at best.  This, then, offers another reason for expanding the number of slots for admission at elite universities.  Everyone will chill out, at least somewhat, if the competition is less fierce.

Let's now return to busing.  Brown v. Board of Education is the law of the land.  That decision was 65 years ago. If you were an optimist then, you might have hoped the issue would no longer be relevant by now.  Obviously, it still is.  Busing remains a necessary tool to avoid separate schools that are inherently unequal. The point of this essay, however, is that busing is not sufficient and the school within a school issue also needs to be addressed fully, for otherwise busing will mainly be a charade, not a real remedy. Since Kamala Harris took on the issue about busing in the debate, perhaps she can embrace this fuller view of what effective remedies should look like.   And with that let's hope that 65 years hence we are further along than we are now.