Covid Diary: Denial

I’ve been struck recently by how those who should know better seem to be in denial about our current situation.  I’m not talking about Trump.  He has become a non-entity at this point, like a child hopelessly wishing everything would just get better.  However many serious people seem to be talking about “starting up the economy” without any clear sense that the world we knew before has been lost to us.  Our way of living has been likely lost for years and we will likely never see the world we knew before. There is not likely to be a cure coming soon, or even a very successful treatment for that matter.  There might be a successful vaccine developed, but don’t expect widespread availability until the fall of 2021.  Of course, hundreds of thousands of Americans will die of this disease before then.  Most estimates of deaths from the disease provided by the administration only go up to the end of summer, but this will be with us for far longer.

We have lost our way of life, because we cannot accept an outcome in which millions of Americans die instead of thousands.  In fact, even if we chose the deaths we would still lose our way of life.  One does not simply go about one’s life while so many people die and the healthcare system collapses.  And so we choose to stay away from one another.  We internalize new norms that make the physical presence of strangers (or even our family and friends) mentally painful for us.  That changes us and our society.

I’ll give a somewhat trite example of this change, but one that I think is rather instructive.  Just down the street from my house there is a neighborhood bar, a jazz club, and a breakfast place.  They are all small — you might even say cramped.  I love these places, and they are the soul of the neighborhood.  But their profitability is incompatible with social distancing.  In fact most bars, restaurants, and entertainment venues around the country are not likely profitable in a wold of social distancing, even if we assume that people can once again go to these places.  There will almost certainly be new occupancy rules that require restaurants to cut seating at least in half.  Of course, fancy takeout will be more common but so far demand for this has not come near to replacing sit-down restaurants.  People aren’t willing to spend $50 per person on takeout, and they certainly will not buy alcohol as they do it (which is where many profits come from).

Any innovations to accommodate social distancing in restaurants does not address the basic incompatibility between bars and social distancing.  In bars people socialize with strangers; they have to get close.  In other words bars cannot succeed until Covid has been brought under control.  But this will take a long time.  Even antibody “certificates” would only allow a small portion of the population to go about their business, and only in places that have already been hit hard by the disease.  This means that we will probably lose all of these businesses, as their owners realize that they simply cannot make a living by owning a restaurant or bar.  This will also devastate the commercial real-estate market along with the service industry, and perpetuate the vicious cycle of recession.

That is just one example of how we will lose so much from our communities that make them worth living in.  I don’t think disaster is inevitable, but it will require dramatic changes in public expenditures and laws.  We will need widespread  randomized testing, even of people who are not showing symptoms.  It goes without saying that people who have flu-like symptoms should all be tested and tracked.  However, given how widespread the disease is this is probably not technically possible.  We have certainly shown no ability to do any large-scale well-organized testing.

Additionally, local governments must allow businesses to spread out.  Bars and restaurants should be allowed to spill out into the streets, so that they can maintain distance between patrons while also making a profit.  Open container laws should largely be eliminated.  There are numerous other examples of creative legislation that might help.  We must be willing to be flexible in abandoning some norms and ways of doing business in order to preserve those things that we value.

I don’t expect any of the solutions above to actually be implemented.  And even then they may not be effective.  Our situation is far worse than most of us imagine.


Public Schools in Wisconsin from a Quantitative Perspective

As part of his new budget proposal, Wisconsin Governor Walker has proposed the expansion of the school voucher program (Currently confined to Milwaukee and Racine) to a large number of districts, including Green Bay and Madison.  Such a voucher program allows students to spend a vouchers at charter or public voucher schools.  I generally don’t have strong feelings about school vouchers.  They clearly have a role to play in some hopelessly failing school districts, but in most districts that allow for vouchers many of the charter schools still are failing.  See  the 2010 documentary Waiting for Superman, for a good example of the lottery process that decides enrollment to the best charter schools in many such school districts.  In any case, I will not address the issue of school vouchers in detail here; rather, I will subject some claims about Wisconsin public schools to quantitative scrutiny.  Luckily The Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction (WDPI) has  released excellent school level demographic and achievement data that should give us some clue about what to think on this issue.  In this post I will systematically consider this data, first describing it and then testing a number of hypotheses that are important for the debate over school vouchers in Wisconsin.

 How are Wisconsin schools doing?

Let us first examine how Wisconsin schools did on the “Accountability Rating,” which is a composite measure of several factors that the WDPI deemed important for successful schools.  Note that this is predominantly a measure of school success, such as meeting certain goals, and not one of student success.  This means that two schools with the same accountability ratings may have students who are performing very differently (and vice versa).  WDPI also provides performance only data, but I will not address that in this post.  For now let us just assume that the “Accountability Rating” is a good measure of school success.

Freq Ratings

To the left is a frequency distribution of schools according to their accountability rating.  The scores range from 0 to 100, though contrary to what some in the media have done, we should not immediately apply standard letter grades to them in the “standard” fashion.  Remember, that these are composite scores, and thus have no natural relation to what we normally take to be letter grades.  This graph affirm this.  The distribution of scores is normal (it matches pretty closely the normal distribution function overlaid on the data), though its average is only about 70.  Typically letter grades are either applied by using some fixed set of standards or through the use of a curving procedure.  The curving procedure typically forces the set of scores to conform to a normal distribution, with the mean of the sample set to a B- or C+ (though sometimes as low as a C), and assigns each grade to some percentage of scores.  Using this method,  we would (roughly) assign As to the 80 – 100 interval, Bs to  72 – 79, Cs to 65-71, Ds to 59-64, and Fs to all under 59 (assuming 8% As, 30% Bs, 40% Cs, 14% Ds, and 8% Fs).


However, this would be the incorrect way to grade these scores, because WDPI has already fixed standards for grading the scores.  They provide us with five grades for the achievement scores, which correspond roughly to the standard letter grades.  Under this grading, 83-100 “significantly exceeds expectations”, 73-82.9 “exceeds expectations”, 63-72.9 “meets expectations”, 53-62.9 “meets few expectations,” and under 52.9 “fails to meet expectations.”  Although the distribution of these grades (seen in the figure to the left) is weighted more heavily toward “meets expectations” than the standard grading distribution is weighted toward C, it roughly corresponds to the normal distribution of grades that we expect from any standard grading system.

The Governor has suggested that districts with schools that either fail to meet or meet few expectations should be opened to the school voucher program.  Given that these schools are in roughly the bottom 15% of Wisconsin schools and have failed to meet a set of fixed standards, it seems reasonable to think of these schools as “failing” schools in an important sense.


I will address the efficacy of vouchers at helping students in such schools soon, but let us first get a sense of how many students are in such schools as well as some important features of those students. The figures above are frequency distributions of schools, not students.  Luckily WDPI provides us with enrollment figures, so we can also determine how many are in failing schools.  This shows that 16.7% of students are in failing schools; the discrepancy in this figure from the percentage of failing schools is not all that unexpected.  One might conclude from this that larger schools fair more poorly than smaller ones.  And indeed a test of significance reveals a statistically significant negative correlation between the enrollment size of a school and the overall accountability score, meaning that larger schools seem to obtain lower scores.  Some of this correlation is likely due to statistically significant lower scores in non-elementary schools, an effect which is especially strong for combined primary/secondary schools (for whatever reasons).  We may be able to disentangle these effects with a more complex analysis, though I will not do this here.

Poverty is highly correlated with low school achievment

We can also characterize some of the possible causes of lower test scores.  Luckily we have information for each school about the percentage of students who are economically disadvantaged as well as those not proficient in English; these are both commonly thought to negatively affect student performance.  It is often thought, at least in Wisconsin, that one major problem facing schools is the rapid influx of new Spanish speaking immigrants.  Thus it is thought that one way to improve schools is the adoption of an “English First” strategy, in which we ensure that all students understand English before teaching anything else.  Another view holds that poverty is one of the major causes of poor school performance.FREQENG0

Although we cannot test these hypotheses directly with our present data, we can test whether there exist correlations in the data that are consistent with them, as well as whether either a lack of English proficiency and/or poverty are a prevalent within Wisconsin schools.  Indeed, as expected, both the percentage of economically disadvantaged students and the percentage of students with limited English proficiency are negatively correlated with school overall accountability score, though the magnitude of the correlation for economic disadvantage is about twice that of limited English proficiency (-0.677 vs. -0.229).  Additionally, as expected, these two factors are positively correlated with one another as well (0.411).  However, these two features display very different frequency distributions , as can be seen in the plots I give here.  Many schools have a relatively large percentage of economically disadvantaged students.  In fact, more than half of schools have a percentage of economically disadvantaged students greater than 39%, and more than 30% of schools have more than half economically disadvantaged students.



However, very few Wisconsin schools have a significant population of students who are not proficient in English; only 5% of schools have a non-proficient population that is greater than 23% of their total student population.  It is very likely that schools with large proportions of students who are not proficient in English will tend to score worse, if only because language skills are important for all types of learning, but the data don’t seem to indicate that this is a major impediment to learning for most students in Wisconsin or for the success of most schools.  Rather, poverty seems to be a far more widespread problem for Wisconsin schools.  This seems to suggest that social programs which combat economic problems within the student population may also improve school performance. Of course, the data as it is does not support any more definitive statement about the role of poverty in school failure, but it does give us good reason to pursue that possibility further (and much has already been written on this subject already).

No support for the superiority of charter schools in the Wisconsin data

The final question I will consider is also the most interesting.   Do students in charter schools perform better than similar students in normal public schools?  The claim by many supporters of charter schools is that there is something wrong with poor performing public schools over and above the deficits of the students, and that charter schools generally perform better.  In order to investigate this question we must find some set of charter and public schools that are well matched in other respects.  This is made more difficult by the fact that just over half of all charter schools did not report accountability scores at all.  Obviously this is a serious deficit for any investigation of the efficacy of charter schools, and hopefully is corrected in the future.  However, we do have data from 102 charter schools, which is a pretty good sample, and so I will continue with the analysis by only considering these schools.

WICHARTER0A further difficulty arises when attempting to find a comparison class of public schools which are similar to the set of charter schools in most respects.  If we compare all charter schools with all public schools, we find that the public schools have significantly higher scores than the charters, but they also have significantly fewer students in poverty as well.

Because we showed previously that lower numbers of students in poverty is negatively correlated with higher scores, this is an unfair comparison.  We can, however, trim down our sample of schools such that both the charter school sample and the public school sample are similar with respect to economic disadvantage (as well as English proficiency for good measure).  This is not easy and requires us to limit our consideration to only those schools within what the WDPI calls “cities” (this includes large cities like Milwaukee, medium-sized cities such as Madison and Green Bay, as well as small cities such as Eau Claire and Appleton).  This is significant choice in my analysis, but it is the most straightforward way to match the two samples for economic disadvantage; all larger comparison sets I tested had significantly lower rates of economically disadvantaged students and higher accountability scores than the charter school set.

Comparing charter schools to regular public schools in Wisconsin cities, we find no significant difference in the percentage of economically disadvantaged children between charter and public schools, but also no significant differences in overall accountability score (using a simple t-test hypothesis test).  We obtain similar results if we just consider those schools in Milwaukee.  This result was very non-significant (significance level = 0.618), with the mean accountability score of non-charter schools being higher than that of charter schools.  A scatter plot of these results, with charter and non-charter schools marked in green and blue respectively, is shown above; the plotted regression lines are consistent with there being no significant difference in accountability score between charter and non-charter schools.  Therefore there doesn’t seem to be any evidence from the accountability data that charter schools perform better than normal public schools.  We could continue analyzing these data (perhaps with more complex methods) in an attempt to find some benefit to charter schools, though I don’t think this will provide much benefit.  The proponent of charter schools would seem to have the burden of proof to demonstrate their efficacy, and this has unfortunately not been addressed in the current policy debate in Wisconsin.

A trip to Middleton Hills – An example of new urbanism

Last weekend, Taryn and I went on a little bike ride in the country; it was quite nice.  Rural Wisconsin is full of lovely….



Winding Roads





Ok, maybe that isn’t entirely fair; the cows really weren’t anywhere near the subdivision.  But, you should still get the point.  On the way back from our bike trip, we stopped by a subdivision in Middleton (a suburb of Madison) called Middleton Hills.  The neighborhood has been lauded as the first example of new urbanism in Wisconsin.  The concept of new urbanism isn’t exactly clear, but I take it to mean that it was constructed with a slightly higher density in order to facilitate a walking culture.  This is supposed to not only decrease traffic, but also facilitate community development by bringing people into common spaces.  I’m a fan of new urbanism, at least as it is theoretically laid out; however, I was curious whether that theory could be an effective guide to a real development in a very car oriented place like the Madison metro area.

Middleton Hills was designed by DPZ, headed by Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk in 1993 and has since then slowly developed.  There are two main aspects of the neighborhood to keep in mind.  First, the design of the neighborhood is in a new urbanist style; this means that houses have small yards, relatively high density (for the suburbs) and a distinct community center (with stores).  However, it is also a very regulated community; the dwellings are all designed in a certain style and every aspect of home and yard design is strictly regulated by a covenant (I recommend looking at the full covenant available at this site – its specificity is a bit startling).  For instance, every home design must be approved by a board to guarantee that it will fit cohesively within the community.  They prefer prairie style homes, so you will see an abundance of these in Middleton Hills.  If you don’t know anything about new urbanism, I recommend looking at the wikipedia article.  For now, I’m just going to start our journey through Middleton Hills…..

outsideshot1As one emerges from the nature preserve adjacent to Middlton Hills, you are treated to an interesting sight.  This part of the Middleton Hills (the north-east side) is full of new and large prairie homes.  That was what impressed me the most; these are very expensive homes, and that lends a certain air to the experience.  It is yuppie, ordered, and clean (to the point of almost being sterile); how you respond to those three adjectives will likely determine how you will feel about Middleton Hills.

low_density1All of the lawns are perfectly manicured (more so than I have every really seen) and every house looks to be in perfect condition.  The little trees and bushes seem to be carefully placed in a very deliberate way; and in fact, their placement is defined in the building plans.  All of this has been approved by the community design board; I didn’t like it; neighborhoods with a great deal of complexity and nature make me feel like there is something alive there.  Large, rich suburbs make me feel a bit uneasy;if I actually lived in such a place, I might start drinking a lot more.  However, we should remember that this is far newer than many of the neighborhoods that might seem more friendly or natural.  The complexity of old neighborhoods takes time, so perhaps Middleton Hills will become less sterile as it ages.  However, I wonder if the extensive controls of buildings and landscaping would allow for this development.  Only time will tell, I suppose.

boulevardAbove is the boulevard; perhaps when the trees grow up it will create a nice place to be but right now it just makes for a large expanse that is void of any life.  It does function as an indication of the main road; it made it easy for us to find the path to the community center but didn’t do much else.  One thing that started to bother me was the lack of people out and about; we had ridden through a good portion of the place without seeing a soul outside of their cars.  This entire construction (higher density, with front porches very close to the sidewalk) is supposed to make more people walk around the community but on such a beautiful Sunday afternoon, the streets were vacant.  That makes it seem like something is very wrong with the neighborhood.

mediumdensityThe closer one gets to the community center, the higher the density becomes.  Here you see duplexes (I think); I actually think these are pretty attractive and I like the idea of increasing density in this way.  However, these are extremely expensive.  I recently found an ad for one of these condos on the Middleton Hills neighborhood association web site and it was posted for $374k.  The problem is the type of condo this is; I’ll post the details below:

6874 Frank Lloyd Wright Ave
3 Bedrooms
2 Bath
2700 Sq.Ft.

Impeccably maintained Middleton Hills condo overlooking pond. Beautiful sunsets right outside the front door! Built 7 years ago, it still looks brand new! Gourmet kitchen w/cherry cabinets, stainless appliances, solid surface counters. Open floor plan w/2 sided fireplace, maple floors, trim & doors, & attached screen porch. Spacious master w/whirlpool & ample closets throughout. Tons of additional storage. 3rd bedroom needs stairs for legal egress. Square footage taken from Middleton Assessor. Owner is licensed realtor. Open Sundays 1-3.

So, the homes and condos being sold in Middleton Hills are for the rich.  This is strange to me because this land should be cheap; one should be able to get a very affordable home all the way out in Middleton. However the prices for condos in this neighborhood rival those in downtown Madison, simply because they are constructed in a luxurious way.  One should remember that a central tenant of new urbanism is the need to build complete communities; you need to have places to live for both the person who owns the community store and the person who works behind the counter.


This was the highest density area that I could find in the Middleton Hills development; they look to be more condos, and I am sure they are beautiful and expensive.  I think this absence of modest housing is a huge problem for the community; in a sense it means that this subdivision is not a community at all.  I will get to the “community center” in a moment, but I can preemt this by observing that most of those living here must drive to work every day.  The same goes for those working in the businesses nearby; the prices keep those who work at the nearby grocery store or coffee shop from actully living near their workplace.  The location is also poorly integrated with the mass transit system of the Madison metro area; this means that Middleton Hills is just as car centric as any other suburban area.  And this reliance on the car is one of the things new urbanism is meant to remedy.

starbucks1Here is the “community center”; the supermarket is off to the left (outside of the picture); it is a prairie style strip mall, I suppose.  The idea of having a shopping center close to ones home is that you might walk there.  I got the impression that most people took their car, even if they were just going to get a cup of coffee (and remember this was a near perfect day to be outside).

So, that is the end of the little tour.  I think Middlton Hills fails pretty miserably at being a good example of a well functioning community.  I suppose the architecture is more interesting than most subdivisions, but it lacks the same life that true urbanism provides.  I would be very intersted to see these principles developed in a part of town closer to where people work (and with better mass transit connections); but the current example, located so far from the necesities of life, is almost destined to fail.  In the end Middleton Hills felt almost like a caricature of new urbanism, rather than the real deal.  I’ll certainly return to this visit in some later posts; right now I have to go do something useful for a change.

What makes a good bike lane?

I came across this website called Streetsblog today that shows  examples of good bike lanes.  If you go to the link you will notice that they are all separated from traffic by some sort of divider.  This is often ignored in America; here a bike lane is just an extra small lane that is set aside for cyclists.  The idea is that a bicycle belongs in the street just like any other vehicle, and that extra accommodations (beyond a slower lane) for bicycles are simply unnecessary.  Madison is a perfect example of this; most bike lanes here are either in the parking lane or between the normal lanes of traffic and the bus lane.  This makes one feel extremely vulnerable most of the time; either you are dodging parked cars (and their doors) or have cars and buses motoring past you on either side.

There is a feeling among many cyclists that even though there may be bike lanes on some main streets, the unsepereated traffic makes it far too dangerous to actually use the lanes.  And this is considered to be an adequate bicycle accomodation by those who design streets.  It seems to me that if we actually want to make cycling a practical method of transportation we need to build infastructure that makes it safe.  Simply drawing lines doesn’t do that.  The lines only accomodate the cars by getting the slower bicycles out of the way.