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 students 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.

Baltimore is quite similar to many other cities in the US.  It has a city core that has seen some successful development, where any yuppy can walk around feeling safe and content, there are some bastions of blue collar urbanity, and some areas where no one with other options would live (or even visit). The last aspect of the city was featured in the HBO crime drama

Even benches speak the truth in Baltimore.

The Wire (which is pretty amazing). But I won’t talk about the last group of places, because I typically try to stay away from them (and anyway, they usually have disappointing espresso offerings). However, on a recent trip to Baltimore, Taryn and I checked out a few parts of Baltimore, and I learned a few things about the place. The most important being, that communists make pretty bad coffee (but I’ll get to that part soon).

In DC most of the large “classic” markets are dominated by yuppies and other upper-middle/upper class types. This is not the case in Baltimore. So if you are in Baltimore, go to Lexington Market (Open since 1782! – as their sign proclaims) to see what a non-yuppified market looks like. It is especially worth going to Faidleys fish market inside of Lexington. Their crab cakes are quite good, and if you order a fish sandwich they give you an entire fish on two pieces Wonder bread – good stuff.

But that all sounded like a plug for a tourist trap. We first checked out a communist coffee

Red Emma's

shop located in the Mt. Vernon area. Red Emma’s features all of your favorite leftist books and pamphlets, including a rather impressive section of books extolling the virtues of Fidel Castro, Mao, Lenin and other communist revolutionaries. Strangely, Stalin was less well

represented; given that he was at least as good at executing capitalists and other enemies of the state as Mao, I think he deserved some more attention. Maybe I should send them a note. Anyway, I suppose history can be rather cruel to perfectly effective leaders. Oh well.

Although Red Emma’s certainly has an interesting book selection (and I’m being honest here), this socialist experiment fails in the way that matters…their coffee isn’t good at all. Being a socialist (or so I’m told), this fact frightens me a bit. I guess I had always assumed that the alienation of a barista from what she produced was behind the terrible coffee at capitalist coffee shops like Starbucks, and that the elimination of this alienation would bring about a superior drink. My experience at Red Emma’s seems to disconfirm this. Perhaps Red Emma’s needs a bit of the fascism that other socialist states have used for “quality control” purposes. Who knows; well at least they are nice enough to have several computers that just about anyone case use, whether customer or not. So, as with any socialist state, it is probably best if you don’t contribute anything but use the goods the state provides.

We then hopped on the trolly to check out the Hampden neighborhood, which is adjacent to John’s Hopkins University. The neighborhood is well known for people saying “hon” to each other (as well as the certain type of people who are called “hons” – they have really tall blue hair apparently), and they even have a Honfest every June. But hipsters have also invaded. As you walk from the trolly stop, you will walk past modest homes with (at this time of year)

So you know where the money is at.

awesome Christmas decorations out front. It has a definite blue-collar feel that is terribly lacking in many cities. But as you walk east, you eventually reach a decidedly hipper part of town. The stores sell expensive home-goods and clothing, and cafes sell $3 coffee. However, we had heard about a coffee shop here that many think serves the best coffee in Baltimore, and we eventually stumbled upon the little pretentious coffee house that we were seeking.

Spro coffee boasts the most impressive selection of coffee types and brew methods that I have ever seen. You can have your cup made by Aeropress, Chemex, Clever, Eva solo, french press, pour over, Vac Pot, or espresso. However, it is quite expensive; a cup of one o f the more exotic roasts can range anywhere from $3-$7. We passed on the fancy brews this time; I ordered a cappuccino and Taryn ordered a spiced chai latte. The place is tiny, but we luckily were able to get a table.

The cappuccino at Spro

Our drinks took a while, and the baristas seemed rather disorganized, without an efficient system for making drinks. I found this rather odd, given that people seemed to be mostly ordering espresso and pour over, and there were three people working behind the counter. My cappuccino came eventually and looked beautiful, but Taryn was given a normal latte instead of a chai latte. Although the latte was good, for a latte, she told them about the mix-up and they seemed quite confused.

Eventually Taryn’s chai latte came out, and it was quite good, with an interesting spice combination. The cappuccino had excellent art, and the foam consistency was very good. This foam added a good body and sweetness to the drink that any good foam should. However, the espresso itself seemed a bit flat, without any interesting characteristics of its own. It simply had some basic chocolate elements, but even those were not very vibrant. So the cappuccino was ok, but I expected more from a place as pretentious as Spro. However, because I didn’t try a non-espresso drink (which seems to be their specialty), I’ll not pass judgment for now. I’ll certainly be back next time I’m in Baltimore. And I will be back; this is a cool town.

Peregrine Espresso

1718 14th St NW
Washington DC 20009


660 Pennsylvania Ave SE
Washington DC 20003


Read about my planned cappuccino tour around the DC area.

Read about my first visit to the 14th street Peregrine just after its opening.

Peregrine along 14th st. NW (from a previous post)

I discovered Peregrine Espresso shortly after moving to DC, and I have been going there pretty frequently since.  As I wondered around the DC espresso scene, I soon realized that they likely have the best cappuccino in the district, but I haven’t had a chance to do a review.  But last week, I took my camera with me to 14th street location to drink a cappuccino and get some work done.  It was as good as always.

Peregrine has two locations; one in the lovely Eastern Market neighborhood of SE DC, and one on 14th St NW in the Midcity neighborhood.  It was started by an ex-barista of Murky Coffee, which was at the Eastern Market location before its owner Nick Cho was banished from DC. The Eastern Market shop is Peregrine’s original location, and is a little larger than the 14th street location (though they are both small), but both have the same sunny interior.

This time I checked out the 14th  St. location, because it is on the green line of the Metro (and I wanted to head to College Park afterward), but I usually prefer the Eastern Market location because its neighborhood is one of the nicest in DC.  The large market there is open every day and carries many meats, fishes, and vegetables; there is also farmers market and flea market on Saturdays and Sundays.  It is all worth checking out.  That said, 14th street is a pretty interesting area as well, close to the U st corridor, featuring several music venues, bars, restaurants, galleries, and furniture stores (actually, a ton of furniture for some reason).

Ok, now to the consumables.  Peregrine has really good muffins and other baked goods, but the real show is the espresso.  They serve Counter Culture Coffee, which is phenomenal stuff.  I almost always order the cappuccino, though their espresso and

Sometimes the latte art is even better.

pour-over coffee are also great.  I’ll give my tasting notes from this week’s visit, but it was entirely consistent with my other visits there.  The latte art was exceptional, and the microfoam was perfect.  The underlying espresso was a bit nutty and sweet, with the microfoam and milk mixing in to yield some nice milk chocolate notes.  Exceptional all around.  Ok, the numbers (all out of 5):

Smoothness: 4.8

Presentation: 5

Strength: 5

Complexity: 4.2

Foam: 5

Mean: 4.8

SD: .35

If you are in DC, you should head to one of Peregrine’s locations; it will be worth the trip.  I’m going to predict that this will be the best cappuccino that I find in DC, though there are several others that might come close.  In the next few weeks, I’m going to try to hit some of the places that I think are top contenders to match Peregrine’s cappuccino.  So we shall see.

Pound Coffee now on Capitol Hill

Today I checked out Pound Coffee (621 Pennsylvania Ave SE, Washington, DC 20003), which recently moved to Capitol Hill from NOMA.  I hadn’t yet tried Pound at its previous location, but my interest perked once I heard that they are now serving Kickapoo Coffee from Viroqua, WI.  My favorite cafe in Madison, WI (and by extension, the world…) serves coffee from this roaster, so I had high hopes for a shop that serves it.  It was also apparently the best microroaster in 2010 (by Roast Magazine), so I’m not the only one who loves this stuff.

So Taryn and I stopped by Pound coffee to give it a try.  Luckily, I overheard a conversation between some of the baristas and a manager about the introduction of new size tomorrow….the classic cappuccino, which is 6ozs.  Their normal

Espresso and cappuccino

cappuccino has apparently been 12 oz.  So I inquired as to whether I could obtain one of these new fangled cappuccinos, and the manager seemed pretty excited that I was interested (he was complaining how Starbucks has made many customers expect every espresso drink to be at least 12 oz).  So I might have gotten the first “proper” cappuccino produced by Pound Coffee (that’s going to be my last snobbish sentence in this post, I promise).  It was pretty good.  The foam was near perfect, and the taste was quite nice.  I didn’t take a picture until it was half gone, but the cappuccino had some decent latte art when it was first made.  It didn’t quite match Peregrine, which is just down the street, but it gave me some faith that they will be making excellent cappuccinos in short order.  I also had an espresso, which was ok, but a bit awkward.  I imagine that any failings in their cappuccinos are coming from the underlying espresso.  It is possible that they haven’t quite adjusted for the change in coffees.

But can they seriously compete with Peregrine?  Well, if you really just want the best espresso in the city, then head on over to Peregrine; but Pound also has a full food menu (which looked pretty tasty), and Peregrine only has baked goods.  So if you want very good coffee and are a bit hungry then Pound should prob

Occupy DC tent city in McPherson Square

ably be your destination.

I also headed over to the White House area today for the first time since the “occupation” started.  I have to say, McPherson Square

is a mess.

I think I’m going to try to do some more dc cappuccino reviews this week; I have a lot of grading to do….

Big Bear Cafe – Hip but Relaxed

Big Bear Cafe

1700 1st Street, NW

Washington, DC 20001


Read about my planned cappuccino tour around the DC area.

Although much of the recent development in DC has occurred along the green line of the Metro in NW, these are not the only areas that have been changing.  One of these neighborhoods is Bloomingdale, and is composed mostly of rowhouses and some small commercial areas (especially along North Capitol St.); consequently,

Big Bear's corner is a happy place.

the area is quieter than the more densely populated neighborhoods to its east and west.  In fact, many consider Bloomingdale to be one of the best areas to find a deal on a home in an otherwise overpriced DC housing market.

Big Bear Cafe opened up in a building that was previously a liquor store on a pretty crappy corner, and has managed to make the area a pleasant reflection of the best elements of the neighborhood that surrounds it.  It is a very relaxed place compared to other coffee shops in DC, and that adds to its charm.  They have an often-changing menu with normal cafe fare, and they often use local ingredients.  I didn’t have anything fancy while I was there (they had a number of sandwiches and breakfast items made with ingredients from local farmers), though I did have a bagel topped with apple butter, which was delicious.  The cafe inside has quite pleasant, with high ceilings  and a decent amount of seating (for DC at least).  There was also ample seating outside.

It was prettier before I shook it trying to open a door...

I ordered the cappuccino, and I was pleasantly surprised by the decent art; this is usually a good sign, as good art is only possible with well prepared foam.  Big Bear uses Counter Culture Coffee and Trickling Springs Creamery milk (from PA), both of which are popular among top coffee shops in the DC area, so I expected a good showing.  The foam was excellent, with the sweetness of the milk adding quite a bit to the overall taste of the drink.  The espresso was somewhat nutty, which was interesting, though the flavor overall was a bit “hazy,” with a slight bitter element.  This made me wonder whether the milk to espresso ratio was a bit too high.    Ok, here are the scores, all out of 5:

Smoothness: 4.7

Presentation: 4.8

Strength: 4.4

Complexity: 4.0

Foam: 4.9

Mean Score: 4.6

SD = .36

Overall I was impressed, and I’ll certainly be back to try more of their food.  Going here is certainly a good excuse to see the Bloomingdale neighborhood, one of the (pleasantly) quieter corners of DC.

I knew there would be good coffee the moment I spied the fixies out front.

Taryn and I take a yearly trip back to Wisconsin from DC, and this year we decided to spend a few hours in Chicago before heading up to Milwaukee.  Neither of us have spent any significant time in the city, so we thought this would be a good chance to do some exploring.  The original idea was to visit one of Chicago’s northern neighborhoods (Lakeview), where Intelligentsia Coffee has its original coffee shop (at 3123 N. Broadway St.), via the L.  Intelligentsia is one of the best coffee roasters in the country, and some of the best coffee shops all around the country use their beans, so their shop seemed like a good excuse to travel out of the Loop.  So that was the plan.  Plans don’t always work out, and we found ourselves at the downtown location instead (apparently L stations require exact change…my fault!  Though I have to say that my short experience with the L made me long for the New York Subway, or even DC Metro).

But everything turned out ok, because Intelligentsia’s coffee shop at 53 E. Randolph St.is beautiful and spacious.  It is really quite shocking, for someone used to the cramped coffee shops of DC, to see what reasonable rents can allow.  So there was no trouble finding a seat.  We both ordered cappuccinos, and the

Impressive latte art

latte art was beautiful (and unique) on both of them.  The foam texture itself was nearly perfect.  The espresso was quite complex, with hints of both berries and cocoa, though there was a slight bitterness that was slightly off-putting.  We both speculated that a sweeter milk  may have helped this a bit.  I won’t give a rating but I think this cappuccino fell just short of some of the best coffee shops in DC (Peregrine) and Madison (Bradbury’s), though daily variability likely places Intelligentsia in the same league as those other places.  However, from what I tasted, I certainly don’t think that Intelligentsia is significantly better than these other places (many claim that they serve some of the best espresso in the country), and it doesn’t match the phenomenal cappuccino that I had at 9th Street Espresso in New York last summer (although the latte art was exceptional, I don’t give this a great deal of weight – cappuccinos are primarily for drinking, not looking).  But if you are in Chicago, go to one of Intelligentsia’s locations; you won’t be disappointed.

Peregrine along 14th st. NW

A cappuccino from the new Peregrine; it was good.

I finally got a chance to check out the new second location of Peregrine Espresso, which opened up a few weeks ago at 1718 14th st. NW (a few blocks south of the U st. metro stop).  The shop is a little smaller and a bit more urban industrial (exposed brick abounds) than the Capitol Hill location, but the coffee and baked goods are just as good.  I have yet to formally review Peregrine (I’ll get back to some more reviews next week), but in my opinion they serve some of the best cappuccinos DC.  Some of the baristas who have created such wonderful espresso drinks on Capitol Hill have moved to this location, so you can expect the same artful deliciousness.  Outdoor seating should be set up in the next few months.   Happy (coffee) drinking!