Thursday, November 21, 2013

"Similar Schools" And CSU.

I've been spending some time working with Google's Public Data Explorer and the CSU data for California's high schools.  As I was tweaking the XML, a question popped into my head -- I wonder how the kids at the highest ranked "Similar Schools"  to Sonoma Valley do at CSU?
Infogram available at

By way of explanation, back when the Similar Schools rankings came out in May, I did a bit of digging into the California Department of Education's database to find out which schools are considered most "similar" to Sonoma Valley High, that also happened to receive high rankings.

Two schools within 20 places of Sonoma on the School Characteristic Index had 10's on the Similar Schools ranking, but both have less than 200 students.  So, I instead turned to those that were ranked a 9, that had a demographic profile roughly similar to Sonoma. There were three -- Etiwanda High, Eleanor Roosevelt High, and Paloma Valley High. All three are located in Southern California.  They all have ~2,000 students.  And they all do well on the Statewide ranking as well as the Similar Schools ranking -- they're 8's on the first, and 9's on the second.

At this point, I shouldn't have been surprised by the data, and I suspect my regular readers won't be, either.  Sonoma Valley's kids were the lowest ranked in the group in 1995.  But by 2004, Sonoma Valley's performance surpassed all of the highest ranked "Similar Schools." (Sonoma Valley would go on to pass all the nearby private high schools the following year.)

Since 2005, Sonoma Valley's graduates aren't just outcompeting the students from the neighboring private high schools. They're also outcompeting the students from the highest ranked "similar" public high schools.

Image available at
The more I look at the data, the more I wonder about the applicability of James Scott's concept of legibility to our community's understanding of its school system. It can be hard to appreciate all the subtleties of the social dynamics of a diverse district like Sonoma Valley. The understandable inclination may be to come up with an idealized blank-slate vision of what the schools ought to be.  But our public schools seem to produce students that are gritty and resilient --  that have the vitality of a natural forest.  It may be that there are benefits to be had from the walled gardens of "elite" private high schools, and the orderly monocultures of shiny big-box megaschools in exurban Riverside or San Bernardino County can be superficially appealing. But the "scientific forests" James Scott studied eventually underwent ecological collapse, while the complex and confusing reality of the "illegible," natural forests produced pretty good results -- worth remembering when considering the performances being turned out by the graduates of Sonoma's school district ...

Thursday, November 7, 2013

One Year Anniversary.

(The background image for this blog...)
Image available at
The first blog post here was one year ago today, talking about Manchester United. For those of you just joining us (for example, the readers who have visited us this week from Hyderabad, Guwahati, Ho Chi Minh City, Seoul, Melbourne, Tallinn, Delmenhorst, Stockholm, and last but certainly not least Nairobi), I'd thought I point out some noteworthy posts from the last twelve months.  However, if you just want to jump right to the data on private school performance, it's here.

There have been 70 posts in the last year; there are another 23 drafts that haven't yet seen the light of dayBy far, the most visited posts have been those concerning education in Sonoma Valley.  The ones that someone would probably want to read who's coming into the story a bit late are as follows:

Jan. 4: Sonoma Valley's Elementary Schools Are Better Than Ever?  ("Sonoma's elementary schools are doing OK.")
Jan. 7: Coronagraphs and SVUSD ("The demographics of the elementary schools have changed.")
Jan. 25: The Streets Should Fit the Trees. ("Careful economic development's a great way to help increase school funding.")
Feb. 5: So How Are Things At Sonoma Valley High? ("Sonoma High's doing pretty well by its students.")
Feb. 13: The Philosophy of Data and Sonoma's SAT Scores. ("Sonoma High has cause to be proud of its SAT scores.")
June 11: Similar Schools, eh?  ("So, California's Similar Schools ranking is completely broken.")
Sept. 9: It's the Economy ("The Sonoma I-T's reporter kinda doesn't get how API scores work.")
Sept. 10: Hanlon's Razor ("No, really, I meant it, the reporter doesn't get it, it's even worse than it seems.")
Nov. 5: Private School Performance ("Wow, Sonoma High's kids get better grades in college than private high schoolers.")

There are a series of posts that relate generally to the issues that come up in the foregoing, but they're not exclusively about education.  One post concerns safety in schools ("Big Data," regarding Newtown), and another concerns how California, and Sonoma's schools are funded ("34 cents" ...).  The other popular posts concern transportation in Sonoma County, California's prison system, and Santa Rosa's local newspaper.

Nov. 18: So what was the Press Democrat's sale price? ("The Press Democrat's value fell by over 90%.")
Nov. 27: Sonoma County vs. Welwyn Garden City. ("When given two bad choices, Sonoma County picks both.")
Dec. 18 Obama: It's Time To Use Big Data To Protect Our Children. ("Newtown's Target knew about Adam Lanza.")
Jan. 20: A Society Can Be Judged By Entering Its Prisons. ("California's prisons are a disgrace.")
July 22: 34 Cents of Your Property Tax Dollar Goes To Our Schools. ("Development or higher taxes, pick ...")

Malala Yousafzai
Image available at
The hardest set of posts to write was the group I did this summer concerning California's future. They grew out of a set of very fruitful conversations with the members of a family summering in the Sonoma Valley, a group of dedicated public school teachers, one rather remarkable philanthropist, a particularly dynamic public official, a few fellow lawyers, and a set of very organized soccer parents. Those posts are:

Aug. 28: Nordic Success. ("It's all about public trust.")
Sept. 7: Beikoku and Eikoku. ("You need to empower women.")
Sept. 9: Glass Ceiling, Iron Lady. ("Consensus matters.")
Oct. 15: California, where Malala Yousafzai becomes Janet Yellen. ("Education, equal rights, & public trust.")

In the coming weeks, because of the very significant amounts of data I've managed to collect from the California State University system, I will probably upload and complete a Google Public Data Explorer site for all of the high schools in California illustrating their students' performance at CSU over the last 18 years.  If possible, I'll probably also cross-reference that with the historical API data and SAT score data on the same schools.  It will be interesting to see if the trends hold up statewide that are apparent in Marin, Napa and Sonoma Counties.  

Plus, a group of public officials in Redding have confirmed they are the test site for Anne Fernald's study discussed here, and I'm putting together a piece on that too.  

And there will certainly be further posts concerning data on local schools -- the overwhelmingly positive response (and thanks) from so many people has been particularly gratifying because, of course, this blog is a labor of love, and I always enjoy talking about it with readers and commenters (even when, yes, people sometimes disagree). 

And finally, I want to give a shout out to my wife, who is incredibly supportive, and whose fantastic food blog can be visited here. She's doing a series on Thanksgiving, and the dishes look awesome! 

Monday, November 4, 2013

Private School Performance?

Infographic available at
In speaking with friends recently, we started puzzling over a question we all share: how do we know what the benefits are of a private school over public school? Clearly, many families see the benefit of substantial expenditures on private education, and surely there must be some return on that investment?  In essence, the consensus amongst the group was that the marketing of such schools leads parents to believe that the students that attend those schools would be expected, test scores and grades in high school being equal, to outperform public school students when the public and private school students arrive together at college.

In general, I have always thought that there is no way to determine the truth of that proposition -- that there is no useful data concerning performance in the first year of college.  Grades issued by different institutions are generally not comparable, even if they were available.  We tend to instead retask predictive measures of college success, such as the SAT, as a proxy for that data -- but such measures are always second best to the grades themselves.

But it looks like there's a way to answer the question after all.  The California State University system accepts students from virtually every high school in California (1,590 different ones in the last 18 years). While CSU is not the most elite part of California's Education Master Plan (that would be the UC, which accepts only the top 12.5% of high school students), CSU generally accepts the top third of California's students. While these students are not typically those who have accumulated many advanced placement units, and while these students tend to have test scores within one standard deviation of the norm, the students that attend CSU from private and public schools, at least as a matter of general consensus, are believed to have similar if not the same test scores and grades.  Thus, the performance of such students is perhaps the best example of head-to-head, apples-to-apples performance of public and private school students, after arriving at college, in California (if not in America).

I was surprised to discover last week that CSU makes those grades available on the web, sorted by high school and by year.  It was a relatively straightforward task to script cURL to pull CSU's data for 31 high schools in Marin, Napa, and Sonoma County from 1996-2012 (527 requests, which took the bash script less than 60 seconds), and I have zipped those files and made them available here, for anyone interested in examining the raw data. 

At the top of this post is a graph of the average freshman year college GPAs of students who have graduated from Sonoma Valley High School, Justin Siena, Sonoma Academy, Cardinal Newman, St. Vincent's, and Marin Catholic in that time period. While in 1996 every private school's college freshmen performed better than those from Sonoma Valley, the reverse has been true since 2005.  Sonoma Valley's students outperform every one of the private schools, and by a significant amount.

I've excluded Marin Academy, because they don't have enough data to graph.  Marin Academy sent six students to CSU in 2012, but before that Marin Academy fell below the threshold for reporting (5 students) every year -- so there's only one year's worth of data.  It's a good result for them, though -- in 2012, Marin Academy posted a 3.22, but their difference from Sonoma Valley (.17 of a grade point, 3.05 versus 3.22) is significantly smaller than the difference between Sonoma Valley and the next private school on the list (a .27 difference, between Sonoma Valley at 3.05 and Cardinal Newman, at 2.78).

Elizabeth Warren
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This strongly suggests that those pursuing private education, with the exception of the very expensive Marin Academy (tuition $37,430 yearly), are perhaps subject to the phenomenon uncovered by Elizabeth Warren in her early research.  In "The Two Income Trap," Warren and her co-author (and daughter!) Amelia Tyagi pointed out that middle class families drive themselves into bankruptcy to buy homes they cannot afford in order to live in a neighborhood with better schools. As Warren and Tyagi argued, the actual "benefits" such parents obtained for their children were slim at best, and were more likely than not illusory in truth.

Yet the problem in Sonoma may be even worse.  Many parents are sending their children to private schools in the belief that they are obtaining an academic advantage.  This is not to discount other reasons for sending children, for instance, to religious schools -- educating one's children regarding deep religious convictions, shared by an organized group, and intimately related to daily living is a right protected by the First AmendmentHowever, to the extent that parents are financially straining themselves to obtain a perceived academic advantage, they should know that the evidence shows no increase in the children's later academic success, and instead shows that the opposite may in fact be true ...