Wednesday, September 17, 2014

At least we can all agree that ad hominem and overly general attacks are bad

I keep meaning to write something substantial about Conor P. Williams who is, among other things, the voice of Talking Points Memo in the field of education. Williams is a particularly good source of material for the emerging thread about the way the reform movement has recently started dealing with the emergence of prominent critics.

Here's a brief but representative example.
I’m far from convinced by everything that gets done today in the name of education reform. But [Michelle] Rhee’s and [Campbell] Brown’s examples are indicative of a troubling pattern for reform opponents: anti-reformers are prone to shooting any reform messenger. Anti-reform has an ad hominem problem. In part this is because the anti-reform crowd is obsessed with who has standing to participate in education debates. Non-teachers don't count (unless they're Diane Ravitch). Parents’ voices are only permitted so long as they avoid direct challenges to failing schools.
Williams doesn't address the exceptions to those awfully sweeping statements. Instead he follows with this:
I write about American education for a living, so I get a front row seat on this. Sometimes I write things like “Some charter schools, under some circumstances, are performing especially well.” When I write these sorts of things, my inbox, my Twitter mentions, and (occasionally) my phone spontaneously, simultaneously ignite. I get accused of hating teachers, teachers unions, and (a few times) white people. I get told that I’m a secret agent for Pearson, Bill Gates, the United Nations, and sometimes even the Muslim Brotherhood (really. No—REALLY). This isn’t occasional. It happens every time I write anything vaguely favorable about reform efforts, even when it’s mixed with criticism.
Just to sum things up, Williams complains that critics of the reform movement have "an ad hominem problem." He then goes on to describe their criticisms in terms of racism, paranoia and religious bigotry.

Further comment would be superfluous.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Yes, it's bear-in-the-pool hot

Recently, the hottest times of the year in LA are spring and fall.

The September Southern California heat wave has sent at least one bear into a backyard swimming pool. Sunday afternoon, some Sierra Madre homeowners spied a sizable black bear lounging on the steps of their in-ground pool. The bear swam and rested for about 15 minutes before leaving like an unwanted party guest. It's hard to blame the wildlife. Temperatures in Sierra Madre hit 103 on Sunday and 100 on Monday, according to AccuWeather.

Southern Californians are accustomed to bears in pools and hot tubs. (This reporter once watched a bobcat visit her pool.)

The state's black bear population has been on the rise in the last 25 years and is now at about 30,000.

Wondering where the numbers come from -- Rotten Tomatoes

A while back I was taking one of my random walks through Wikipedia and I came across the movie Postal. For some forgotten reason (possibly to see what the critics had to say about Dave Foley, J.K. Simmons or Zack Ward, all interesting actors), I clicked on the link for Rotten Tomatoes.

The movie had a perfect 0% among top critics, but I noticed Peter Hartlaub of the San Francisco Chronicle had a rather kind blurb.
If this movie had been made by an unknown young director, a lot of critics would still be panning the movie for its inconsistencies -- but many others would be praising his courage.
This got me curious so I took a look at the actual review:
Movie review: 'Postal' delivers funny madness
Peter Hartlaub, Chronicle Pop Culture Critic

So what to do with "Postal," which is not only less than horrible, but actually occasionally enjoyable? The much-delayed low-budget movie may be completely beyond the bounds of mainstream taste, but it's also funny, and criticizes our government's hypocrisy and political correctness in a way that's refreshingly pointed. If this movie had been made by an unknown young director, a lot of critics would still be panning the movie for its inconsistencies - but many others would be praising his courage.


It's an unfocused movie, with much lower production values than more generously budgeted Boll productions such as "BloodRayne." (For years, Boll movies had been augmented by healthy tax breaks provided by the German government, which no longer offers the perks.) Much of the humor is cliched, and Boll's seething anger at his real-life tormenters often gives his script a bitterness that is more awkward than funny.

But there's still a catharsis that comes from watching the madness unfold onscreen, making the film a potential future double-bill partner with "Team America World Police." Boll's greatest asset is the underrated [Zack] Ward, a longtime character actor who is best known for playing the red-haired bully Scut Farkus in "A Christmas Story," and tends to show up these days in small roles in big projects - including "The Transformers" and "Lost." Clearly grateful to be the leading man (and apparently unfazed by the more unsavory parts of the script), he throws himself into the role. Ward is likable and wry, but still looks right as an action hero when it comes time to start blowing stuff up.

And blow stuff up he does, but this time the low-budget look that Boll embraces seems to be on purpose.
It didn't sound like Hartlaub was going to list Postal in his top ten but overall the review sounded fairly positive. I also noticed this icon at the top of the review.

This figure indicates a "Good" rating. How does that translate to "Rotten"? Apparently it's because the Chronicle scores on a scale of zero to four with two being 'good.' I assume that Rotten Tomatoes is used to dealing with either one to four or one to five scales, both of which would designate two as below average. I don't have an opinion on Postal or on the director Uwe Boll having never seen any of his movies, but this does seem a bit unfair, both to this movie and to others the Chronicle  rated "Good."

What is interesting is the fact that this is pretty clearly a glitch and it's a glitch in the easy part of review aggregation. Rotten Tomatoes also attempts to assign binary ratings to reviews without specified ranking (Pauline Kael called John Huston's The Bible "A sprawling, flawed epic, but with some breathtaking conceptions and moments of beauty." -- is that a thumbs up or a thumbs down?). Metacritic takes things to the next level with a hundred point scale.

This brings up one of my problems with data-driven journalism. Reporters and bloggers are constantly barraging us with graphs and analyses and of course, narratives looking at things like Rotten Tomatoes rankings. All to often, though, their process starts with the data as given. They spend remarkably little time asking where the data came from or whether it's worth bothering with.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Shifting alliances

I'm not sure what the general lessons of the Zephyr Teachout campaign are. I'll leave it to the real political scientists to debate whether her performance should be judged in relative or absolute terms. One area I will weigh in on, however, (or at least point out) is how much the alignment of the education reform movement has changed recently.

2010 was something of an inflection point in the education reform movement (Here's a Kindle single of posts from that year -- Things I saw at the Counter-Reformation).  For the first decade of this century, The reform movement had remarkably broad bipartisan support. No major pundit or editorial board seriously opposed it. To the extent there was a debate, it was generally between those moderate in their support and those extreme in their support, and to the extent that the debate had a partisan tilt, it was often relative conservatives like Robert Samuelson, David Brooks and Jim Manzi taking the moderate positions and relative liberals like Jonathan Chait and Matt Yglesias taking the extreme ones.

Flash forward a few years. Zephyr Teachout is held up as the reform alternative to the second generation establishment candidate Andrew Cuomo, Simon Johnson called her "An Elizabeth Warren for New York." Charles Pierce made similar points. New York Magazine (home of Chait) took the same narrative tack.

There's a bit of irony in New York's touting Teachout as the liberal in the race since few pundits have been as aggressive as Chait in pushing the idea that the reform movement is one of today's preeminent liberal causes while few figures demonstrate better than Teachout the growing rift between the left and the reform movement.

This is how Teachout summarized her education platform:
One of the prime duties of the governor of New York is to safeguard our public schools from any private interest that threatens their public purpose. Yet Governor Cuomo, in his four years in office, has rarely even visited a public school. As Governor, I would dedicate myself every day to restoring New York’s public schools to their rightful place as the best in the nation. Specifically, I would pursue the following five strategies:

a. Full and Equal Funding for Public Education

New York spends $8,700 less per pupil in poor districts than we do in rich ones. That makes New York the sixth most unequal state in all America when it comes to school funding. This also means that New York is in violation of its own Constitution, which requires the government to provide a “sound, basic education” to every student, no matter his zip-code. I believe this constitutional obligation should be our floor, not our ceiling. New Yorkers have a right to demand the best public schools in the nation, with small class sizes, arts, and physical education for every child.

I would work to make funding more fair and equitable. Despite a promise to the contrary, Governor Cuomo has actually widened the funding gap between poor and wealthy districts.

b. End High-Stakes Testing

Under Governor Cuomo’s leadership, we’ve seen a culture of test-and-punish overthrow actual teaching and real learning. New York State entirely botched the implementation of Common Core, which has ushered in an unrelenting regimen of tests. Governor Cuomo’s system of basing teacher evaluations on student tests has corroded actual learning.

We should slam the brakes on the barrage of high-stakes testing. This means halting both the new Common Core tests and tests that are part of the teacher evaluation system. We need to undertake a thorough reevaluation of all high stakes tests, with full input from educators and parents.

c. Protect Against Privatization

Governor Cuomo has promoted a private takeover of public education policy, by opening state coffers up to charter schools, which serve only three percent of New York’s students. In New York City, meanwhile, he has mandated that city taxpayers pay rent for privately run charter schools to the tune of $11,000 per pupil, thus fueling their massive expansion at the expense of public schools.

We should protect our public schools from privatization schemes, including the diversion of state funds to private schools through vouchers or back-door tax credits. We should repeal provisions enacted in 2014 that hijack control of decision-making about charter school co-locations out of the hands of local governments and that mandate that New York City pay for charter school rent.

d. Empower Local Communities

I would eliminate the undemocratic provisions of the cap on local school budgets— falsely sold as a tax cap even though it caps nobody’s taxes. Specifically we should hand back to local voters the right to control their own school budgets, by eliminating the requirement of a 60 percent supermajority. We should return to the principle of one person, one vote in school budget elections.

e. Suspend the Suspension Pipeline

We must end the ‘school to prison pipeline’ where excessive use of school suspensions for minor infractions deprive students of education, leaving them behind. Suspensions actually increase behavior problems and decrease school safety. In many urban communities there is a school suspension crisis—with huge racial inequalities in suspension rates. Greater suspension rates lead to higher expulsion rates and to increases in school-based arrests. This cycle starts with high suspension rates for young students, even as young as pre-k and kindergarten. We need solutions, not suspensions. We need to transform the culture in school buildings to support teachers and students, foster collaboration, teach problem-solving, engender real responsibility and accountability and keep students in school. This approach, called “restorative justice,” has proven highly effective. Due to a local community organizing effort in Buffalo, the implementation of these reforms have already led to a 30 percent reduction in suspensions. Students cannot learn if they are not in school.

f. Halt Common Core

I am calling for an immediate halt on all four new teacher certification tests, and for them to be replaced by the three former ones. Only by stopping the exams, which were introduced this year and are aligned with Common Core, will 2014 and 2015 teacher candidate graduates have a fair opportunity to enter the teaching profession.

Common Core has been widely and justly recognized as a rushed and flawed initiative, as well as an undemocratic one. Criticism of the new educational standards has been fierce among both Democratic and Republican legislators. Governor Andrew Cuomo, too, has acknowledged that Common Core needs to be fixed before students and teachers can be judged by it. Speaking out in support of a two-year delay on the use of negative evaluations for current teachers, Governor Cuomo said, “We want a fair evaluation ... People's lives are being judged by this instrument, so you want the instrument in the evaluation to be correct."

Inexplicably, Governor Cuomo has not extended the same rights to teacher candidates. Even though their exams mirror those used to evaluate current teachers, teacher candidates were not offered the same delay. As a result, qualified candidates are being blocked from entering the teaching profession because of flawed and unfair tests. Under Governor Cuomo’s watch and with his full knowledge, the State Education Department is shamefully using teacher candidates as guinea pigs while the standards are still being corrected.

Thousands of teacher careers are being ruined. This must stop immediately. We must go beyond the two-year delay and indefinitely halt the standards proposed for evaluations of both current and candidate teachers.

g. Prioritizing Early Intervention

For more than two decades, the New York State Early Intervention Program has been a vital resource for infants and toddlers with disabilities, and their families. Available to children of up to three-years old, the program has traditionally been open to all eligible children, regardless of socioeconomic status and level of family resources.

Since Governor Andrew Cuomo entered office, the Early Intervention Program in NYS has faced significant budget cuts. In 2012-2013 its budget was reduced to $508 million, down from $650 million in 2010-2011. As a result, many families of young children with special needs have been left without the crucial services they need to protect their children's future. A record number of Early Intervention providers and provider agencies – including physical therapists, occupational therapists, speech-language pathologists, psychologists, social workers, vision therapists, and nutritionists – have closed their doors over the last 18 months, due to changes in policies that have both reduced what they can earn and created huge lags in payments for services already rendered.

Early Intervention was created to make sure we get involved when we have the greatest chance of making a difference. From birth to three years of age is when a child’s brain grows to 80 percent of its adult size and is hence most responsive to change. Research has found that early intervention can change brain architecture and improve outcomes for children.

What’s more, intervening early can save the state huge resources. Investing in Early Intervention programs has been found to reduce education costs, by minimizing the need for special education services later. Studies document how every dollar spent in Early Intervention saves the state up to $17 in education costs.

Of course statistics can’t quantify for the joy and relief that a well-managed Early Intervention Program can personally provide families. Reducing state expenditures on Early Intervention is neither smart social policy nor prudent fiscal policy. It will make life far more difficult for tens of thousands of struggling families. And in the guise of saving taxpayers money it will actually cost taxpayers far more. In slashing funding, Governor Cuomo has ignored experience and evidence.
You can see why Diane Ravitch was an enthusiastic supporter.

Perhaps just as telling are the anecdotes Teachout used to support her positions:
My first real job out of college was as a third-grade Special Education classroom assistant in a small rural public school outside the town my grandparents had lived. It was like a lot of small Vermont schools where the kids came from two different worlds, even if they made the same amount of money–the children of college educated hippies and the children of working class families that had lived there for a long time.

One of the kids I was working with was from neither of those worlds; he had been in a string of foster homes, and was new to the area. He was a wonderful kid who was testing two years behind and had some emotional challenges. Controlling anger wasn’t easy for him. I worked with him on writing and math and science.

For the first two months he just refused to write. He told me he was stupid and didn’t have an imagination so he couldn’t write anything. During writing hour, he’d sit in his desk and stab at pieces of paper and draw angry lines all over them. “That’s all I can say,” he’d shout at me, or refuse to speak. It was hard, but he was helped by having a patient classroom teacher who didn’t ruffle easily. She was warm but firm, and I learned from her.

Then one day we figured out a solution. I started reading his angry scribbles out loud, as if he’d written a story. He was on to me though.  He said, “I didn’t write that, you wrote that!” but I kept doing it and he laughed a little. Then I made a bunch of angry scribbles on my page and asked him to read what I’d written out loud. He thought it was funny to see a teacher like that and started reading a story about trolls. After a few weeks, we got into a pattern, where he’d “read” in my scribbles a long story about trolls, and getting shipwrecked with his brother.  It was a really beautiful adventure story.  Then he wrote down what he’d read into his own book, as if transcribing. He still insisted that I had written it, but he started to glow a little.

After that, he did better in math too—the confidence seemed to flow from the writing. According to him, he didn’t understand math but trolls who lived in his knuckles would tell him the answer. When he cracked his knuckles the trolls would wake up and run up to his ear to tell him the answers.

That student never ended up at the top of the class, and he’d still have tantrums, but he was really proud of one of the troll stories that we stapled into a book, and he started doing better on the loose tests the school used. The book—which I still have a copy of—is one of my proudest creative moments, too.

I think of him all the time when I think about high stakes testing, or the cuts to special education, or the cuts to the arts. He’d have failed, repeatedly, if he was following some lockstep program. He would have been an angry kindergartner instead of a frustrated 3rd grader. If his teacher thought that his failure would lead to her failure, that awareness might have put more pressure on him than he was capable of managing. He was so sensitive to anxiety in other people, I don’t think he could have handled the stress of knowing—intuitively—that his success or failure on a math test would have an impact on his teacher’s evaluations. I think he would have kicked more, and kept scrawling. I don’t know that the trolls could have found their way into his knuckles, or into my heart.

In the break room at the small elementary school the teachers didn’t talk about testing. They talked about the kids. They followed them as they grew up. They knew how to be patient with his tantrums because they knew him.
The education reform movement has never lent itself to the standard left/right axis. Not only was its support bipartisan; it was often the supporters on the left who were quickest to embrace privatization, deregulation and market-based solutions. Zephyr Teachout may be a sign that anomaly is ending.

Friday, September 12, 2014

I'm sure it's not an original observation but

Have you ever thought about the fact that the names of two of the best known cartoon characters to come out of WWII (Snafu and Sad Sack) were euphemisms for a couple of decidedly colorful phrases?

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Driverless Cars and Uneasy Riders

I had forgotten we've been having this discussion for over three years.
Tyler Cowen has a piece in the New York Times on how regulation inhibits innovation in transportation using the example of driverless cars. I'm not sure he's made his general case (that's the subject for an upcoming post), but his specific case is particularly problematic.

In case you haven't been following this story, Google has been getting a lot of press for its experiments with self-driving cars, especially after statements like this from Stanford professor Sebastian Thrun:
"Think about the car as a medium of mass transit: So, what if our highway-train of the future meant you go on the highway, and there's a train of very close-driving cars with very low wind drag, fantastic capacity, is twice as efficient as possible as today, and so there is no congestion anymore?"
Cowen is clearly thinking along the same lines:
Furthermore, computer-driven cars could allow for tighter packing of vehicles on the road, which would speed traffic times and allow a given road or city to handle more cars. Trips to transport goods might dispense with drivers altogether, and rental cars could routinely pick up customers. And if you worry about the environmental consequences of packing our roads with cars, since we can’t do without them entirely, we still can make those we use as efficient — and as green — as possible.
Putting aside the question of the magnitude of these savings in time, road capacity and fuel effeiciency (which, given the level of technology we're talking about here, aren't that great), where exactly are these savings coming from?

Some can certainly be attributed to more optimal decision-making and near instantaneous reaction time, but that's not where the real pay-off is. To get the big savings, you need communication and cooperation. Your ideal driving strategy needs to take into account the destination, capabilities and strategies of all the vehicles around you. Every car on the road has got be talking with every other car on the road, all using the same language and rules of the road, to get anything near optimal results.

Throw just one vehicle that's not communicating (either because it has a human driver or because its communication system is down or is incompatible) into the mix and suddenly every other vehicle nearby will have to allow for unexpected acceleration and lane changes. Will driverless cars be able to deal with the challenge? Sure, but they will not be able to able to do it while achieving the results Thrun describes.

A large number of driverless cars might improve speed and congestion slightly, but getting to the packed, efficient roads that Cowen mentions would mean draconian regulations requiring highly specific attributes for all vehicles driving on a major freeway. The manufacture and modification of vehicles would have to be tightly controlled. Motorcycles would almost certainly have to be banned from major roads. Severe limits would have to be put on when a car or truck could be driven manually.
Based on the conversation that followed that post (check out the comment section), I should probably add that much of the benefit described by Thrun and Cowen could achieved by making special lanes and sections of road driverless-only. One the whole though, I stand by the point that much of what we've been promised (speed, fuel efficiency, road capacity) require an all driverless group of cars working together.

One point I made in passing could probably use more elaboration. Motorcycles are small, accident prone vehicles. They can accelerate very quickly, they often behave erratically, and they tend to function under a somewhat looser set of traffic laws. Their small size and low cost make them more difficult to regulate. And finally, as far as I can tell, there is no serious plan to introduce fully autonomous versions. If you want to get close to the level of performance Thrun promises, you do not want motorcycles on the road.

It's hard to see this not becoming a typical convenience-of-the-many argument for regulation. As autonomous vehicles become more common, it is pretty much inevitable that, while overall accidents and traffic jams will go down, those that still occur will be disproportionately caused by vehicles that don't lend themselves to autonomous control or those which routinely have to do things that are difficult to explain to a computer. The first group would include motorcycles and classic/antique cars. The second would include real pick-ups* or SUVs that actually leave the pavement. I would hate to see those vehicles forced off most major roads but that would seem to be the likely outcome.

* Those that do real work. Us country boys take this seriously.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Useful, fun and affordable -- one out of three ain't bad

I saw a fellow riding one of these near Pershing Square in downtown LA. It looked very cool.

Weighing 25 pounds (11 kg), sporting folding leg platforms on each side and a carry handle on top, the 17 x 19 x 5-inch (43 x 48 x 13 cm) Solowheel from Inventist is sure to turn some heads as you trundle along at up to 12mph. The durable external housing hides a Li-ion battery that's said to be good for two hours of use between charges and a 1000-Watt electric motor, and a self-balancing gyro system. Its battery is reported to take 45 minutes to charge but a regenerative system returns energy to the battery when the rider slows down or the unit goes downhill, which could help extend the range.

The electric unicycle's creators say that it's easy to use and quick to learn, the feet are quite close to the ground and the legs rest against each side of the housing which help with balance and steering. With both feet on the vehicle, you just lean forward to start going. When you want to slow down or stop, you lean back. You use the legs to steer, much as you would on the Magic Wheel.

Jinalyn Liljedahl from Inventist told Gizmag that he expects the Solowheel to be available from April at a cost of US$1495. Each unit will be shipped with an instructional DVD and charger.

I can see the Solowheel being a useful, fun and quite affordable way to trundle from the railway station into work and back again.
25 lbs is amazingly light for a vehicle but it will get heavy quickly when you're carrying around the train station, particularly if you're paying fifteen hundred for the privilege.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Another story that needs to be on our radar -- ECOT

I've been meaning to get the blog up to speed on Ohio, a state with a pro-privatization, anti-regulation philosophy, that seems determined to catch up with Florida and Michigan. I've also been meaning to write more on the various scandals associated with online charters.

Now Ohio blogger Plunderbund gives me a chance to a two-fer:
The Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow (ECOT) is the largest charter school in the state of Ohio.  The online school is easily the largest charter school in Ohio, is larger than the vast majority of Ohio’s traditional school districts, and received nearly $100 million in state taxpayer dollars last school year.
On the latest report cards released by the Ohio Department of Education, ECOT continues to rank below all of the 8 large urban schools that are often-criticized by legislators and in the media for their “sub-par” performance.
[Founder William] Lager is also the owner of two privately-held companies that provide both the management services (Altair Learning Management) and curriculum (IQ Innovations) to the online school.  According to audits released by the Ohio Auditor of State, here’s a summary of the funds that have gone from taxpayers through ECOT and directly to Lager’s companies:

Lager’s personally-owned private companies have now received over $130 million in tax dollars – money that has been taken directly away from other, higher-performing public schools and for which Lager does not have to account for publicly.
These astounding dollar figures explain help explain how Lager is able to donate an inconceivable amount of money to political campaigns.  We’ve dug even deeper into Lager’s campaign contributions and discovered that he not only donates under his own name to Republican campaigns in other states, he has also made donations directly from his two companies over the past decade totaling over $184,000.  Here’s an updated list of Lager’s political donations (under his name and from his two companies)since he entered the charter school business in 2000:

Over the last eight years, Lager’s average annual donation amount is $$199,826.85.  For some perspective, the Toledo Public School District recently hired a new superintendent to a five-year contract.  Toledo has better performance numbers than ECOT, serves nearly twice as many students, and the new superintendent will make an annual salary of $175,000 – $25,000 LESS than Lager donates on an annual basis!!!

Jon Chait at his absolute best

Jon Chait has an excellent article on small government.  One excellent excerpt:
Cutting down excessive licensing rules, not to mention other incarnations of Big Small Government, would require overruling the prerogatives of state and local governments—governments with absolutely no interest in reducing their power voluntarily. The paradoxical reality is that ending the most abusive practices of American government requires moving responsibility up the local-state-federal chain, which is the opposite of ingrained conservative impulses. And when national right-wing organizations do plunge into local politics, they generally attempt to replicate Washington-style conservatism. Rather than attack nefarious exercises of state power, they attack the most benign ones. A recent Center for American Progress report sums up incursions by the Koch network into state and local controversies: It is hard at work blocking tiny tax increases, preventing infrastructure maintenance, and shuttering zoos and community centers. Big Small Government is spared its ideological assault.
I think it is well know that Jon Chait and I are on the opposite side of the education reform debate.  But he is at his best when talking about the functions of government.  I think this issue is a lot of why I distrust education reform -- moving away from big government may well result in less accountability (e.g via small charters).

But having said that, it is an amazing piece where he correctly diagnoses how problems at the small government level are often left to fester.  A very important piece, and one I recommend reading. 

Monday, September 8, 2014

When your business model requires minimal competition

There is a point we've made in passing in a couple of threads: the telecom industry relies heavily on models and strategies that only work in markets with limited competition. These include high fees, opaque and complicated pricing schemes, bundling, bad customer service and explicit policies that makes closing accounts as inconvenient as possible.

There's a quote that Joseph and I tried to credit each other with for years before deciding it came from a business analyst we both knew: "sometimes, it's bad for a company not to be able to lose money." In a competitive market, idiots tend to be culled out. It's not a perfect process but it's a healthy one and it helps maintain the competence level of a business.

The corollary to that quote is "Eventually, all companies can lose money." There will come a point where a company will have to perform competently. I think we may be reaching that point with the telecoms and I don't know that they're up to it. Faced with an increasingly unstable business model, they have dug themselves into a brand and PR nightmare. Worse still, they have managed to hand major victories to the very competitors that threaten  that model. Over-the-air television has a much higher profile and is much more viable since TWC's disastrous showdown with CBS. TWC also managed to give a major boost to the municipal internet movement by so mishandling customers in places like Wilson, North Carolina.

From Dominic Rushe writing for the Guardian
USTelecom, which represents telecoms giants Verizon, AT&T and others, wants the FCC to block expansion of two popular municipally owned high-speed internet networks, one in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and the other in Wilson, North Carolina.

“The success of public broadband is a mixed record, with numerous examples of failures,” USTelecom said in a blogpost. “With state taxpayers on the financial hook when a municipal broadband network goes under, it is entirely reasonable for state legislatures to be cautious in limiting or even prohibiting that activity.”

Chattanooga has the largest high-speed internet service in the US, offering customers access to speeds of 1 gigabit per second – about 50 times faster than the US average. The service, provided by municipally owned EPB, has sparked a tech boom in the city and attracted international attention. EPB is now petitioning the FCC to expand its territory. Comcast and other companies have previously sued unsuccessfully to stop EPB’s fibre optic roll out.

Wilson, a town of a little more than 49,000 people, launched Greenlight, its own service offering high-speed internet, after complaints about the cost and quality of Time Warner cable’s service. Time Warner lobbied the North Carolina senate to outlaw the service and similar municipal efforts.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

I know I go on about ignoring Canada's education system

But normally I'm talking about pro-reform journalists not covering the country or pro-reform pundits not addressing the counter-example to their proposals.

This is different. This study, which is getting a lot of play among reform advocates, seems to skip the country entirely and give no reason for the omission.

Am I missing something?

Friday, September 5, 2014

Selection effects on steroids

I'm about to have a lot more to say about the various ways high attrition can pump up a school's performance metrics, some directly through removing low performers, some indirectly through peer effects, treatment interactions and accounting tricks. At the risk of spoiling the punchline of those future posts, it is next to impossible to perform meaningful analyses of the academic quality of high-attrition schools. About the only safe conclusion is that those schools are worse than they look.

If charter schools are going to have a future (and I hope that they will, though my reasons will have to wait for another post), they will have to overcome two existential threats, both of which originated not with their critics but with their supporters. It was supporters who pushed a radical deregulation agenda that led to massive looting of the system and it was supporters who advocated for a flawed system where success was defined solely by metrics and those metrics were easily cooked by methods which took a brutal toll on kids.

In a devastating post, Diane Ravitch spells out just how bad the problem has gotten.
Reformers tend to make two very different arguments about charter schools. Argument #1 is that charter schools serve the same students as public schools and manage to put public schools to shame by producing amazingly better results on standardized exams. Therefore, reformers claim, if only public schools did what charter schools do (or better yet, if all public schools were closed and charter schools took over), student learning would dramatically increase and America might even beat South Korea or Finland on international standardized tests. When it is pointed out that, as a whole, charters do no better than public schools on standardized tests [2], reformers will quickly turn their attention to specific charter chains that, they claim, do indeed produce much better standardized test results. So what’s the deal with these chains? Well, in every case that has been subjected to scrutiny their results are extremely suspicious. Here is a short list of examples:

1. Achievement First in New Haven had a freshman class of 64 students (2 students enrolled later), and only 25 graduated- a 38% graduation rate- yet the school claimed a 100% graduation rate by ignoring the 62% attrition rate. [3]

2. Denver School of Science and Technology (DSST) had a freshman class of 144 students and only 89 12th graders- a 62% graduation rate- yet the school (and Arne Duncan) claimed a 100% graduation rate by ignoring the 38% attrition rate. [4] As a 6-12 charter chain, DSST also manages to attrite vast numbers of their middle school students before they even enter the high school.

3. Uncommon Schools in Newark disappears 38% of its general test takers from 6th to 8th grade.[5] Another analysis found that through high school the attrition rate was, alarmingly, much higher “Uncommon loses 62 to 69% of all males and up to 74% of Black males.”[6]

4. BASIS in Arizona- “At…BASIS charter school in Tucson, the class of 2012 had 97 students when they were 6th graders. By the time those students were seniors, their numbers had dwindled to 33, a drop of 66%. At BASIS Scottsdale…its class of 2012 fell from 53 in the 6th grade to 19 in its senior year, a drop of 64%.” [7]

5. The Noble Network in Chicago- “Every year, the graduating class of Noble Charter schools matriculates with around 30 percent fewer students than they started with in their freshman year.” [8]

6. Harmony Charters in Texas- “Strikingly, Harmony lost more than 40% of 6th grade students over a two-year time.” [9]

7. KIPP in San Francisco- “A 2008 study of the (then-existing) Bay Area KIPP schools by SRI International showed a 60% attrition rate…the students who left were overwhelmingly the lower achievers.” [10]

8. KIPP in Tennessee had 18% attrition in a single year! “In fact, the only schools that have net losses of 10 to 33 percent are charter schools.” [11]

In every case these charter chains accepted students that were significantly more advantaged than the typical student in the district, and then the charters attrited a significant chunk of those students.

Success Academy in New York City plays the same game. It accepts many fewer high needs special education students, English Language Learners, and poor students. [12] It attrites up to 1/3 of its students before they even get to testing grades and then loses students at an even faster pace. It selectively attrites those students most likely to get low scores on standardized tests. [13] It is legally permitted to mark its own exams (as are all New York City charter schools) while public schools cannot. It loses 74% of its teachers in a single year at some of its schools. [14] The author of the Daily News editorial that sparked the initial blog commented “even in the aggregate that wouldn’t seem to account for” the results. It is entirely unclear what he means by “in the aggregate.” But it is clear that he has his arithmetic wrong. A charter chain that starts with an entering class that is likely to score well on standardized tests, then selectively prunes 50% or more of the students who don’t score well on standardized tests and refuses to replace the disappeared students with others, can easily show good standardized test results with the remaining students. Any school could do this. It’s really not rocket science.

And here are the footnotes

[5] /
[13] The high attrition rate before testing in 3rd grade may explain the data pattern noted in this analysis.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Support your local journalists

As part of a sharp and funny take down of Chris Christie and Rick Perry, Charles P. Pierce makes a point I've been meaning to hit for a while:
There are a couple of lessons to be drawn by looking at this continuing investigation into traffic-related ratfking and at the continuing investigation into the activities of Rick Perry down in Texas. The first, and most obvious one, is that, if you really want to understand these kind of scandals, it is imperative to ignore everything the elite national political press says about them, and get with the local media on the ground in the states. This means the Bergen Record on the bridge thing, and it means Jeff Cohen in Houston, as well as Wayne Slater and Keven Willis in Dallas, on Goodhair's shenanigans. What seems to have baffled Jonathan Chait and a number of other liberal outlanders seems pretty clear to the Dallas Morning News, which is rarely confused with In These Times.
There is a lot of good local journalism coming out of the local papers, and yes, TV stations of places like Dallas and New Orleans, particularly if you're a fan of the check the facts them shape the narrative to fit what actually happened school of reporting. I think you can even make the case that while the national outlets are getting worse, local is getting better, particularly in those areas where the standard narrative can no longer be reconciled with the facts on the ground.

Education reform is especially rich in stories where the national press is months or even years behnd their local competition.

Two more charter schools close abruptly, sending parents and students scrambling

Opting Out Of Testing Would Come At A Cost For Florida School Districts

And from Chicago

Drop CPS’ reform strategy: CPS neighborhood school growth outpaces charters

I know I pick on Netflix a lot

But the coverage of the company keeps providing such good examples of the way flacks and hacks force real stories into standard narratives.

Some of this can be fairly subtle. For example, using definitions that aren't standard but aren't quite wrong. For example, Check out this statement from Chief Financial Officer David Wells:
"Our intent is to continue to expand the content library," Wells told the investors in attendance. "If we're going to meaningfully address the 60 million to 90 million [potential U.S. subscribers], we'll need to do that by adding more originals, we need to do that by adding more breadth of content. And part of that is making our content more exclusive, so moving it from nonexclusive to exclusive, and offering more curated offerings" 
Check out the phrase "content library." The standard definition of the phrase is a collection of rights to artistic intellectual property. These days, a handful of very big entertainment companies* like AOL Time Warner or Disney own virtually every property created over the past century that could be shown on TV in either new or original form. If you have a retro-channel and you want to show I Dream of Jeannie, you have to get permission from (and send a check to) Sony. If you wanted to make a new Woody Woodpecker movie, you'd have to deal with NBC Universal.

Under the standard definition, Netflix simply does not have a content library.
HBO owns and produces about 95% of the original programming carried on its channels. Netflix has said it doesn’t want to adopt the studio model, preferring to be a licensee of content. The studio model lets HBO recoup the investment in original programming through its 114 million subscribers in 65 countries worldwide, as well as via DVD sales. For example, HBO earns $2.6 million in license fees for a single episode of “Game of Thrones” in international territories, according to HBO.

By contrast, Netflix calls itself a “programmer” not a producer. It licensed streaming rights to “House of Cards” from producer Media Rights Capital. MRC, which owns the content, cut a deal with Sony Pictures Television to sell DVD and international TV rights covering non-Netflix countries.
To put things in perspective, Sex in the City and its sequels probably brought in more than a billion dollars in revenue after the show ended. As far as I can tell, Netflix has no post-run rights of any kind for House of Cards or Orange is the New Black.

When Wells says "content library," he  means "shows that are currently being licensed."  That's one of those statements doesn't tend to strike the knowledgeable as a lie but which is highly misleading to many if not most of the journalists covering the story.

Netflix has done a masterful job framing its own narrative. Most of the press has embraced and internalized

Netflix = HBO 2.0

HBO is known for its content library. When a Netflix executive says "Our intent is to continue to expand the content library," it is remarkably easy for those journalists to miss the fact that 'content library' means something completely different in those two sentences.

* The exception being Dreamworks which is only worth around a couple billion, but that studio occupies a strange spot in the ecosystem.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Job security

Mark posted about a piece by Barry Ritholtz that had some smart things to say about market timing.  However, I think I want to quibble with the end of his piece:

One last thought on this: The demographic group with the longest investing time horizon are the millennials now in their 20s. According to Patrick O’Shaughnessy, author of “Millennial Money: How Young Investors Can Build a Fortune,” despite their long timeline, members of that generation seems to be missing out. They are significantly underinvested relative to how much time they have until retirement.

Given the dramatic financial crisis of 2007-2009, O’Shaughnessy says it is no surprise that millennials as a group “don’t trust Wall Street.” They also rank “all four major banks among most hated brands.”

“The most basic (and important) decision you make as an investor is your allocation between major asset classes — primarily stocks, bonds and cash.” O’Shaughnessy observes that this cohort is wildly underweighted in equities at 28 percent and overweighted in cash at an astounding 52 percent.

Perhaps it is ironic: The group that has the longest potential runway for absorbing market volatility also seems to be the least interested in investing in stocks.

When it’s time to retire, these folks might be surprised that they cannot go back to live in their parents’ basements again.
So I have a couple of basic questions to ask here.  One, people who are honestly at risk of moving back into their parent's basement should have cash investments.  Nothing is worse than having an unexpected cash crisis (car towed, water leak) where you need money fast to prevent a greater disaster.  Isn't this just prudent?

Second, the leading edge of this group is 35 years old.  So they have to presume that the stock market will do well for another 30 years or so, if retirement is the goal.  That might not be a bad gamble, but we are in the era where the baby boomers may switch from net buyers of stock to net sellers.  That could be a long period of sub-optimal returns. 

But really, the first piece is the most important.  We have moved into a era of decreasing employment security: "at will" employment, attacks on tenure, reduction in unions, and so forth.  In aggregate, these factors make it impossible to plan over long time horizons.  And the lesson of 2007 is that major employment dislocations are often paired with stocks plummeting.  Why wouldn't you keep a lot of money in cash?  After all, ending up as a homeless person because you tried to invest for yield seems like a bad outcome. 

I am not sure that I have a solution, except to note that we are in precisely the sort of employment market where a 401(k) or IRA is least likely to make sense.  After all, they are an asset that can be claimed to handle an unexpected disaster. 

So I am not sure that I would make the snarky last comment.  People growing up in economically depressed periods often have a very different view of the world than those who have always had resources.