$1,000 can raise a class’s test scores by as much as cutting class size by a third.
An emergency situation that turned out to be mostly a false alarm led a lot of schools in Los Angeles to install air filters, and something strange happened: Test scores went up. By a lot. And the gains were sustained in the subsequent year rather than fading away.
If Gilraine’s result holds up to further scrutiny, he will have identified what’s probably the single most cost-effective education policy intervention — one that should have particularly large benefits for low-income children.
And while it’s too hasty to draw sweeping conclusions on the basis of one study, it would be incredibly cheap to have a few cities experiment with installing air filters in some of their schools to get more data and draw clearer conclusions about exactly how much of a difference this makes.
The Aliso Canyon gas leak, explained
Back on October 23, 2015, employees of the Southern California Gas Company discovered a massive leak in the Aliso Canyon natural gas storage facility near Porter Ranch in the San Fernando Valley. Significant for the larger purposes of the study, the Porter Ranch area is known for having “some of the cleanest air in the Valley year-round.”
The gas leak was a huge catastrophe from the standpoint of greenhouse gas emissions, but also naturally raised concerns in the local community about the immediate impact on public health.
Facing political pressure from concerned parents and teachers, Gilraine writes, “the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) and the owner of the gas well, the Southern California Gas Company, placed air filters in every classroom, office and common area in all schools within five miles of the gas leak at the end of January 2016.”
Strikingly, however, air testing conducted around the time of the installation of the filters shows that the schools didn’t actually have abnormally high levels of the kinds of pollution that are normally associated with natural gas. Methane is lighter than air, and by the time the filters were installed — nearly three months after the leak — the extra pollution caused was all the way up in the sky and not affecting school buildings.
Consequently, the installation of the filters served not to remove extra contamination caused by the leak, but simply to clean up the normal amount of background indoor air pollution present in the Valley. That lets Gilraine estimate the difference in student performance for schools just inside the boundary compared to those just outside.
He finds that math scores went up by 0.20 standard deviations and English scores by 0.18 standard deviations, and the results hold up even when you control for “detailed student demographics, including residential ZIP Code fixed effects that help control for a student’s exposure to pollution at home.”
For context, this is comparable in scale to some of the most optimistic studies on the potential benefits of smaller class sizes, with Alan Krueger finding that cutting class size by a third leads to a 0.22 standard deviation improvement in academic performance. Other studies find smaller or even negative effects (because adding teachers means bringing in less experienced or less effective ones), but even accepting the positive findings it obviously costs much more than $700 per classroom to achieve class size reductions of that scale.
This is a big, but not implausible, number
The effect Gilraine finds is strikingly large given that it’s a seemingly trivial intervention.
But Sefi Roth of the London School of Economics studied university students’ test performance relative to air pollution levels on the day of the test alone. He found that taking a test in a filtered rather than unfiltered room would raise test scores by 0.09 standard deviations. That’s about half the impact Gilraine found, just based on day-of-test air quality. In Gilraine’s natural experiment, students benefited from cleaner air for about four months. Given that context, it’s not incredibly surprising that you could see an impact that’s about twice as large.
What’s natural to ask — though unknowable from the study before us — is how much more change we could see if students benefited from an entire school year of clean air. Or perhaps an entire school career, from pre-K through high school graduation, of clean air.
One striking thing about this is the government has long been aware that indoor air pollution is a potential problem. But according to currently prevailing Indoor Air Quality standards, there was nothing wrong with the air in the schools. Filters were installed because of an essentially unwarranted panic about natural gas.
And while Los Angeles is a fairly high-pollution part of the country, outdoor particulate levels are higher in many areas — including New York, Chicago, and Houston — than they were in the impacted neighborhood. In other words, there’s no reason to think the impacted schools were unusually deficient in their air quality. They just happen to be the ones that installed filters.
Those are big gains, and they help explain why there is so much enthusiasm about KIPP in some quarters, even as charter schools remain politically controversial and charters in general seem to produce roughly average results.
This is bigger than the impact of letting kids benefit from clean air for four months. But installing the full suite of air filters costs about $1,000 per classroom, and continuing to operate them beyond the first year is cheaper than that. And best of all, unlike totally reworking school operations, it could be scaled up very quickly.
It would be almost trivially easy to get a variety of school districts all around the country to randomly select schools for the installation of air filters. That would rapidly generate a ton of additional data, and if the results continued to be promising, the initiative could be made universal very quickly.
The benefits, on their face, would be extremely large at a relatively low cost. And since air pollution is generally worse in lower-income communities, you would not only raise test scores nationally, but make progress on the big socioeconomic gaps in student achievement that have proven very difficult to remedy.
Prior to my black belt test, my instructor Seth Shamp asked me to write something that expressed what jiu-jitsu — the art itself, as well as the journey I’ve been on — means to me. This is what I wrote. At the end of the post, you can see a video of my black belt speech and listen to a podcast we did about the journey. — Jeff
My life is jiu-jitsu, and jiu-jitsu is my life. I mean that both literally (I train and teach and learn jiu-jitsu constantly), but also metaphorically. For me, jiu-jitsu is a philosophy, a way to approach the world.
Jiu-jitsu trains us to find the best, most efficient and effective ways to do things. Everybody has different goals in life. Your goals might be to defend yourself better, to compete in high-level events, or just to get in better shape while having fun and learning. All of these are great goals, and jiu-jitsu can help you reach every one of them.
Your goals also might include being a more patient person, a more productive person, or a person who is more mentally strong. Jiu-jitsu can help you with all of those things, too, by teaching you to be comfortable in uncomfortable situations, to look for the most correct answer when your options seem limited, and to have faith in yourself that you can endure, persevere and conquer.
As for what training at Triangle Jiu-Jitsu has meant to me, I’m very proud to have trained with Seth at TJJ Durham from day one. This is the place where I learned to love jiu-jitsu.
The fact that TJJ has always focused on the three points of the symbolic triangle — self defense, sport jiu-jitsu, and mixed martial arts — has given me a broad perspective on what martial arts are for. Everyone has different goals, but good, solid fundamentals — the kind we believe in at TJJ — will bring you success in all of those arenas.
TJJ is also the place where I first began teaching — and first began learning how to share the art I love with others. Those 6 a.m. classes and, later on, evening classes, were instrumental to my development as an instructor.
We believe that jiujitsu is for everyone. Not everyone has the same goals or the same ceiling, but everyone can improve their life by training.
We believe in constant improvement. Everyone in your life knows something that you don’t. Every person on the mat can help you get better at something.
We believe in being good training partners. Your training partner is the most important person in the gym. Train so both people get something out of the class.
We believe in training hard and training smart. If we never spar hard, we don’t get all the benefits jiujitsu offers as an “alive” martial art. If we treat every sparring round like the finals at the world championships, we sacrifice technical understanding and risk injury. Train hard. Train smart.
We believe in jiujitsu for self defense, jiujitsu for sport, and jiujitsu for life. This art will help you reach your goals — and if you pay attention to the fundamentals, you can succeed in all the areas of jiujitsu.
We believe that jiujitsu is for everyone. This is important, so we’re saying it again. Everyone is welcome here.”
Early on, Seth instilled in me the attitude that we should train with everyone — that we should cross-train at other schools, with other teams, with other instructors and practitioners. I think that has been absolutely essential for my journey. This is true both in terms of the things I’ve learned along the way, and for the open-minded attitude it instills. I still feel like I’m learning and growing constantly.
Jiu-jitsu has given me so much, and added so much to my life, that it’s natural for me to see jiu-jitsu as a tool to help others. That might mean helping others reach their BJJ competition goals, but it’s just as likely to mean helping others through hard times in their lives, via training, or via organizing fundraising events, or deepening the sense of community we share with each other.
Whenever I have given someone a stripe or recommended someone for a belt promotion, that has been about that person’s achievements. It’s a way of recognizing their hard work, their progress, their diligence, their success — and my pride in them.
When I have been promoted, my attitude has been a little different. For me, when I accept a promotion, I am also accepting a responsibility, a duty. I am very conscious that what I do, both on and off the mats, reflects upon my instructor, Seth, and my friends and training partners in my lineage.
This is why I have always tried to be the best possible representative for jiu-jitsu generally, and for TJJ specifically, both on and off the mats. When I’m competing, I train hard and with discipline so that everyone sees what a TJJ brown belt is like. When I’m teaching, I constantly try to learn more and be more effective, because I know that reflects on my lineage. When I’m in the community, I try to be kind, to be helpful, and to grow jiu-jitsu in a way that is positive.
That duty is never far from my mind, even now as a brown belt. The darker the belt color, in my view, the greater the obligation to represent yourself — and your instructor, and your training partners, and the friends who helped you get there — in a way that conveys excellence, humility, decency and respect.
Whatever belt I earn — and I would never want any rank that my instructor did not believe I had earned beyond any doubt — I will always try to live these values, and represent the people who helped me get here in the best way.
Every day, millions of people rely on independent websites that are mostly created by regular people, weren't designed as mobile apps, connect deeply to culture, and aren't run by the giant tech companies. These are a vision of not just what the web once was, but what it can be again.
Think of every time you've sent someone a Snopes link to debunk a spurious story that's been shared online. The casual way we might look up the credits for an album on Discogs, or for a movie on IMDB. The absurd details of popular culture captured on TV Tropes and Fandom, linguistic oddities documented on Urban Dictionary, technical questions answered on Stack Overflow, lyrics we quote from Genius, memes on Know Your Meme — all of these are a powerful and valuable record of the world around us, created and captured by millions of ordinary people. And there is, of course, Wikipedia standing astride them all, as perhaps the pinnacle of people-created web references.
Now, these kinds of sites are far from perfect. Each ecosystem of information has too many barriers to creation. Their communities of moderators and contributors are often exclusionary, echoing the gatekeeping of the media and institutions that preceded them. Some of the information on the sites is inaccurate, or skewed.
But even with all their flaws, the existence of dozens of massive, collectively-maintained, curated and organized libraries of communal culture are still something like a miracle of the web. Tellingly, these kinds of sites rarely get launched these days, and the ones that have survived all follow a fairly common set of patterns. They often start as a labor of love from one person, or one small, tightly-knit community. The knowledge or information set that they record is considered obscure or even worthless to outsiders, until it becomes so comprehensive that its collective worth is undeniable.
Their business models have evolved as the internet has evolved, and they tend to start as pretty pure web experiences, that have then had to iterate, often with limited resources, to accommodate the dominance of search engines, the rise of the mobile web, the pervasiveness of social networks, and the societal challenges of organized harassment and targeted misinformation. Through it all, they've grown and adapted, and handled the inevitable community challenges. Many have diversified their business models with everything from memberships and subscriptions to merchandise and events.
But here's the thing: Taken together, these sites are as valuable as any of the giant platforms run by the tech titans.
For as much video as we see on YouTube, as many photos as we browse on Instagram, there is just as much time, attention and energy spent every day on exploring and referencing these deep databases. They don't have fancy filters or complex recommendation algorithms, but they meet a variety of deep human needs around creation and expression and often, they also help people simply do their jobs.
A Web At Risk
At Glitch, we find a tremendous amount of inspiration in the open-ended creativity of these communities, but I think everyone who loves the web finds joy from the seemingly-endless ideas captured on these sites. We just don't think of them as a cohesive whole like we do with the big apps that live behind a button on our phones. We urgently need to pay attention to this cohort of sites, though, because their position is precarious. Just as we've seen with Google introducing its algorithms and devastating the first generation of the social web, with the rise of native mobile apps and social networks like Facebook and Instagram limiting our links and locking us into their walled gardens, these people-made web communities are deeply vulnerable to the whims of the big players. We have to recognize their collective value before they're facing an existential threat.
If we're going to build a new web, and a new internet, that respects our privacy and security, that doesn't amplify abuse and harassment and misinformation, we're going to need to imagine models of experiences and communities that could provide a better alternative. There's not going to be a "Facebook killer". But there could simply be lots of other sites, that focus on a different, more constructive and generative, set of goals.
The good news is, we don't have to imagine what that more human, more expressive, more valuable web could look like. We just have to pay attention to the fact that we visit it every day.
Oliver Taza is already one of the best no-gi grapplers in the world just 7 years after starting jiujitsu. He talks with us about how great instruction contributes to his success, about the mental and physical challenge of recovering from ACL surgery, about the similarities and differences between Firas Zahabi and John Danaher, and much more. We also talk about the new podcast he’s launched with Pierre-Olivier LeClerc, the Off Balance podcast, which you can check out wherever you get your podcasts.
Thanks as always to our sponsors! US Grappling comes to Raleigh, North Carolina, on Jan. 4. Support the tournament that’s by grapplers, for grapplers, and has the best competitor experience around. Remember, black belts compete for free — and register early for the Richmond, Virginia event in April! Tell them we sent you. We’re also sponsored by Intellitonic. Rooted right here in Bellingham, Washington, Intellitonic is a Bellingham SEO and digital marketing agency with national reach. If you’re interested in Search Engine Optimization or Pay Per Click marketing, Intellitonic is a great choice.