Tuesday, July 22, 2014

A bit of context for the Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 conspiracy theories

Over at the New Republic, Julia Ioffe has a fascinating piece on the Russian media's treatment of the downing of MH17:
Did you know Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 was full of corpses when it took off from Amsterdam? Did you know that, for some darkly inexplicable reason, on July 17, MH17 moved off the standard flight path that it had taken every time before, and moved north, toward rebel-held areas outside Donetsk? Or that the dispatchers summoned the plane lower just before the crash? Or that the plane had been recently reinsured? Or that the Ukrainian army has air defense systems in the area? Or that it was the result of the Ukrainian military mistaking MH17 for Putin’s presidential plane, which looks strangely similar?

Did you know that the crash of MH17 was all part of an American conspiracy to provoke a big war with Russia?

Well, it’s all true—at least if you live in Russia, because this is the Malaysia Airlines crash story that you’d be seeing.

As the crisis surrounding the plane crash deepens and as calls for Vladimir Putin to act grow louder, it’s worth noting that they’re not really getting through to Putin’s subjects. The picture of the catastrophe that the Russian people are seeing on their television screens is very different from that on screens in much of the rest of the world, and the discrepancy does not bode well for a sane resolution to this stand-off. 
This reminded me of a conspiracy theory I've considered blogging on partly because it uses such bad statistics to make much of its case, but mainly because it is so incredibly weird. Forget von Däniken and Velikovsky; this is the hard stuff. From Wikipedia:
The New Chronology also contains a reconstruction, an alternative chronology, radically shorter than the conventional chronology, because all ancient history is "folded" onto the Middle Ages. According to the revised chronology, the written history of humankind goes only as far back as AD 800, there is almost no information about events between AD 800–1000, and most known historical events took place in AD 1000–1500.
The main mover for this is Russian mathematician Anatoly Fomenko and he has put in an incredible amount of effort making sure everything fits his theory, including some things that are difficult to ignore:
The Great Pyramids naturally fit in the epoch of the monumental constructions, which blossomed in the XIV-XVI cc. all over the Empire. They are: 1) The Great Wall of China, 2) the magnificent cathedrals of Western Europe, 3) the indomitable Kremlins and fortifications in Russia-Horde, 4) the massive Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, aka (according to our reconstruction) – The Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem = Czar-Grad, 5) the Great Sphinx, [actually "a very familiar Christian Cherubim." Who knew? -- MP] 6) the Great Pyramids and temples of Egypt 7) the great pyramids and temples of Central America, in particular Mexico, 8) gigantic constructions of Baalbeck (Lebanon).
That part about the Russia-Horde is important. (All remaining quotes from Wikipedia):
Central to Fomenko's New Chronology is his claim of the existence of a vast Slav-Turk empire, which he called the "Russian Horde", that played the dominant role in Eurasian history before the 17th century. The various peoples identified in ancient and medieval history, from the Scythians, Huns, Goths and Bulgars, through the Polyane, Duleby, Drevliane, Pechenegs, to in more recent times, the Cossacks, Ukrainians, and Belarussians, are nothing but elements of the single Russian Horde. For the New Chronologists, peoples such as the Ukrainians, Belarussians, Mongols, and others who assert their national independence from Russia, are suffering from a historical delusion. 
That might explain this:
Despite criticism, Fomenko has published and sold over one million copies of his books in his native Russia. Many Internet forums have appeared which aim to supplement his work with additional amateur research. His critics have suggested that Fomenko's version of history appealed to the Russian reading public by keeping alive an imperial consciousness to replace their disillusionment with the failures of Communism and post-Communist corporate oligarchies.
I don't know enough about Russia to even start speculating about the larger question of conspiracy theories in today's Russia. That's a question for people who know what they're talking about. I will, however, note that, if nothing else, Fomenko's New Chronology shows why chess masters might not make such formidable Bond villains in real life.

Monday, July 21, 2014

As we were saying about 'that's where they keep the money' -- more from the League of Women Voters

Diane Ravitch's blog has an extraordinary article by Patricia W. Hall, chair of the League of Women Voters Education team in Hillsborough County, Florida. It draws heavily on the League's one-year study of charters across Florida. Good government advocates should read the whole thing but it was the deals of Ryan Construction that particularly caught my eye.
Although charter schools must, by Florida law, be overseen by a non -profit board of directors, there are many ways in which for-profit organizations have begun to highjack the charter school movement. For-profit management companies frequently provide everything from back office operations including payroll, contracting with vendors for food services, textbook, etc., to hiring principals and teachers and curriculum control; so what was sold to parents and children as a local public education innovation now looks more like national charter-chains, the “Waltmartization” of public education. According to education expert Diane Ravitch, “nearly half of all charter school students are enrolled in a charter chain school” in the United States. The top four charter operators in Florida for 2011-2012 were Academica (72), Charter Schools USA (37), Charter School Associates (20), and Imagine Schools (23). These are not the small, locally run experimental schools envisioned by the original legislation.

The real profits, however, are not in the operation of the charter school, but in the real estate development. After receiving a variety of grants, loans and tax credits for building a charter school, the for- profit chain charges ever escalating rents and leases to the school district, paid by tax-payer education dollars. The for-profit then reaps the profits when the building is sold in a few years. Meanwhile the properties with high, non-taxable, values based on claimed “commercial” revenue streams from public tax-payer dollars are leveraged to borrow additional funds to build more school buildings.

Our shining local examples in Hillsborough County are owned by Charter Schools USA. My first glimpse of Winthrop Charter School in Riverview in November of 2011 was during a scheduled visit with then Rep. Rachel Burgin. When told the two story brick building was a charter school, I was mystified. The site on which it was built was purchased from John Sullivan by Ryan Construction Company, Minneapolis, MN. From research done by the League of Women Voters of Florida all school building purchases ultimately owned and managed by for-profit Charter Schools USA are initiated by Ryan Construction. The Winthrop site was sold to Ryan Co. in March, 2011 for $2,206,700. In September, 2011 the completed 50,000 square foot building was sold to Red Apple Development Company, LLC for $9,300,000 titled as are all schools managed by Charter Schools USA. Red Apple Development is the school development arm of Charter Schools USA. We, tax payers of Hillsborough County, have paid $969,000 and $988,380 for the last two years to Charter Schools USA in lease fees!

The big prize purchased by Ryan Co. at the same time, March of 2011, was the 58,000 square foot former Verizon call center on 56th Street in Temple Terrace for $3,750,000. Ryan Co. made no discernible exterior changes except removal of the front door, added a $7,000 canopy and sold the building as Woodmont Charter School to Red Apple Development for $9,700,000! Who would not love a $6 million dollar boost in 6 months? Lease fees for the last two years were $1,009,800 and $1,029,996! Are we outraged yet? Woodmont made headlines in the Tampa Bay Times this spring as an “F” rated (FCAT score) school advertising for new students and a fired teacher reporting that out-of-field teachers and uncertified teachers were on the faculty.

We discovered that Ryan Construction Company, in collaboration with Red Apple Development and the Florida Development Finance Corporation, secured a mortgage and loan agreement for multiple sites with Regions Bank in Tallahassee for $55,800,000 tax-exempt series (the “Series 2012A Bonds”) and $3,520,000 taxable series (the Series 2012B Bonds ). This transaction was November 1, 2012. Red Apple Development had secured a mortgage from Church Loans and Investments Trust dba CLI Capital in Texas for $9,841,000 for the Woodmont Property in late 2011; they paid off the nearly $10,000,000 mortgage in 16 months (January of 2013) by virtue of the $55,800,000 “windfall”.

From The Tampa Bay Times opinion editorial April 1st, 2014 “Another area where the distinction between public and private is blurred for the benefit of for-profits is the issuing of bonds. Although Florida law prohibits charter schools from issuing bonds, Charter Schools USA has found a way. When naming Jon Hage as Floridian of the Year, Florida Trend in December 2012 contended that Charter School USA is the largest seller of charter school debt in the country. “It will sell $100 million worth of bonds this year (2012-13), Hage says. . . The bonds come with tax-exempt status because they are technically held by the non-profit founding boards that oversee the schools.”

The League of Women Voters weighs in on Florida's charter school scandals

Diane Ravitch has the announcement. Make sure to check out the conflict of interest list at the end:

May 27, 2014
Deirdre Macnab
LWVF President
Email: floridaleague@earthlink.net
Phone: (407) 415-4559
League of Women Voters Releases
State-Wide Study on School Choice
Tallahassee, Fla — Twenty percent of the state’s charter schools close because of financial mismanagement or poor academic standards, according to the League of Women Voters of Florida after a year-long study of charter schools in 28 Florida counties.
“Charter schools could fill a niche in Florida’s educational spectrum, but for many, their biggest contribution may be to corporate bottom lines,” said Deirdre Macnab, President of the League of Women Voters of Florida.
With over 576 charter schools in the state, the League of Women Voters of Florida conducted a study in order to better understand the oversight, management, accountability and transparency of charter and private schools in Florida.
The study found that:
Approximately one-third of charters are run by for-profit management companies. Many screen students, then drop those who are not successful, which public schools are prohibited from doing. Charters also serve particular socio-economic groups, increasing segregation in schools.
Although charters tend to be smaller than traditional schools, there is no consistent difference in achievement for charter school and public school students.
Many charters blur the distinction between religious and non-secular schools. Some churches receive as much as a million dollars in lease payments annually for their facilities from charter schools.
In areas with declining enrollments, neither the charters nor regular public schools are large enough to adequately provide support for staff like nurses or counselors. Retaining teachers is also a problem; most charters offer lower salaries and benefits than public schools.
The League’s study produced several recommendations:
Charters should be limited to those that fill unmet needs in identified local school districts.
Stronger local management oversight and disclosure policies are needed.
Financial mismanagement issues must be addressed, as too often the privatization of schools leads to financial abuse.
For more information, including further findings and recommendations, please see the state-wide study, along with the individual studiesconducted by eighteen local Leagues across Florida.
The League of Women Voters of Florida, a nonpartisan political organization, encourages informed and active participation in government, works to increase understanding of major public policy issues, and influences public policy through education and advocacy. For more information, please visit the League’s website at:http://www.TheFloridaVoter.org.
Conflict of Interest Concerns
 Senator John Legg Chair of Senate Education Committee is co-founder and business administrator of Daysprings Academy in Port Richey.
 Senator Kelli Stargel from Orange County is on board of McKeel Academies. She is on the Education Committee and sponsored the Parent Trigger Bill.
 House Budget Chairman Seth McKeel is on the board of McKeel Academy Schools in Polk
 Anne Corcoran, wife of future House Speaker Richard Corcoran has a charter school in
Pasco County. http://www.tampabay.com/news/education/k12/pascos-classical-prep- charter-school-delays-opening-for-a-year/1276912. Richard Corcoran is Chair of the House Appropriations Committee.
 Senator Anitere Flores of Miami is president of an Academica managed charter school in Doral.
 Florida Representative Erik Fresen is Chair of the House Education subcommittee on appropriations. Representative Fresen’s sister is the Vice President of Academica and is married to the president.http://www.tampabay.com/blogs/the-buzz-florida- politics/content/ethics-commission-clears-miami-rep-erik-fresen-alleged-voting-conflict.
 George Levesque, Florida House lawyer cleared Erik Fresen of conflict of interest
concerns over charter schools. He is the husband of Patricia Levesque, former Jeb Bush Deputy Chief of Staff and currently Executive Director of the Foundation for Excellence in Education which promotes school choice. http://www.truthabouteducation.org/1/archives/01-2010/1.html.
 Representative Manny Diaz is Dean of Doral Academy, an Academica managed school. He is the leader for the new statewide contract bill in the Florida House. Doral College was cited by the Florida Auditor General for a $400,000 loan from Doral Charter High School. Conflict of Interest and procurement for Charters with federal grants:http://floridacharterschools.org/schools/taps/conflictinterest_att.pdf

Sunday, July 20, 2014

"We couldn't even afford one Mercedes Benz at Next Generation"

Bigger story coming up on charter school corruption. One of the major sources will be this stunning series from the Sun-Sentinel. Florida, like Michigan, has long been on the cutting edge of the charter school movement, not just in terms of funding but with freedom as well. Both states bet heavily on the idea that regulation of charters would hinder innovation while school choice would make close oversight unnecessary. 

One result has been a number of charters run by characters with rather interesting backgrounds. From the Sun-Sentinel, Karen Yi and Amy Shipley describe a notable example.
It’s unclear how Next Generation spent the nearly $1 million it received in tax money before closing down in April 2013. The charter school failed to file several required monthly financial reports and a mandatory end-of-the-year audit. Records show the school owed more than $2 million to creditors and $55,000 to the Broward school district.

Two management companies separately operated the school during its eight-month tenure.

Cory MacNeille founded Next Generation and created the first for-profit company to operate it. She then hired her mother, Judy Perlin, of Boca Raton, to join her in managing the school, records show.

In the previous decade, state investigators repeatedly had cited the two with misusing federal money under a program to provide meals for low-income children in South Florida, state public records and court documents show. The two ran Riverwood Youth Opportunities, Inc., a nonprofit.

In 2004, state officials found Perlin’s nonprofit improperly used federal dollars to lease two Mercedes Benz vehicles for her and her daughter; pay for lodging and meals at a Club Med; and purchase two airfares and lodging for travel to Garden City, N.Y. The organization was ordered to repay the state.

In 2005, the state health department said Perlin, the nonprofit’s CEO, let her daughter use federal dollars to advertise a personal business. The state temporarily barred both from the meal program.

In 2010, Perlin pleaded guilty to bribery charges related to the meals program and admitted taking $40,000 in kickbacks. She was ordered to pay a $3,000 fine and placed on two years’ probation.

Once Perlin and her daughter departed, the board hired a new management company, headed by Trayvon Mitchell.

Teachers said the school continued to decline, failing to prepare students for required state tests and neglecting students with special needs.

The school shut its doors weeks before the last day of school.

Mitchell could not be reached for comment. MacNeille and Perlin did not respond to specific questions about the state’s findings against them or the school’s finances.

“I think charter schools are very difficult, and I think they are underfunded,” MacNeille said.

Two Michigan stories

Perhaps there's a connection somewhere.

First there's this previously mentioned story from the Detroit Free Press:

A yearlong Free Press investigation of Michigan's charter schools found wasteful spending, conflicts of interest, poor performing schools and a failure to close the worst of the worst. Among the findings:

 Charter schools spend $1billion per year in state taxpayer money, often with little transparency.

 Some charter schools are innovative and have excellent academic outcomes — but those that don't are allowed to stay open year after year.

 A majority of the worst-ranked charter schools in Michigan have been open 10 years or more.

 Charter schools as a whole fare no better than traditional schools in educating students in poverty.

 Michigan has substantially more for-profit companies running schools than any other state.

 Some charter school board members were forced out after demanding financial details from management companies.

 State law does not prevent insider dealing and self-enrichment by those who operate schools.
And now this:
Detroit Public Schools EM shifts funds from classroom
By Dr. Thomas C. Pedroni

Many of us are shocked to learn that DPS plans to cut costs in the coming year by further increasing class sizes. Already at an unmanageable target of 38 per classroom in grades 6 through 12, Emergency Manager Jack Martin’s fiscal year 2015 budget allows class sizes in those grades to expand to 43. 

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Rural hospitals

“You can't let rural hospitals close across the country. People die,”
Adam O'Neal, mayor of Belhaven, N.C

You may have heard about O'Neal's walk to D.C. to protest closings of rural hospitals. It's an important story in itself but it also hits on a major thread on class bigotry I've been meaning to start focusing on. One of the major components of that thread will be the tension between rural, urban and suburban.

I don't quote Charles P. Pierce often because we generally try to keep things nonpartisan here and that's very difficult with Pierce. That said, he has some solid insights on the question:
These hospitals do staggeringly good work coping with unique problems despite staggeringly limited resources. The rural poor exist largely off-stage in our politics because, for decades, people have found it convenient to put an "urban" face on American poverty, in large part because the people who found that convenient don't believe in any help for the poor except for imaginary Jesus bootstraps and they knew that the foundational racism in the country would help them sell their arguments better than they could. (That was why when LBJ, the old scoundrel, was trying to sell the country on Medicaid and the rest of the Great Society, most of the visuals were with him in Appalachia and in other places where the poor people were mainly white. He was smarter than the professional bigots. Always was. If he'd only known he was smarter than the generals, too. Oh, well...)

However, the rural poor, black and white, suffer all the health consequences of endemic poverty as do poor people everywhere. And, because so many of the rural poor live in states where taking the FREE MONEY! from the Kenyan Usurper is one step above selling the Statue of Liberty to Somali pirates, the problems are going to get worse, and not better, and Mayor O'Neal knows it.

Rural health advocates believe closures such as Pungo are likely to continue as the year drags on. "It's tragic obviously for the patients and the community," said Maggie Elehwany, vice president of government affairs and policy for NRHA. "And it's not the only story we're going to hear like this. That's the sad part."  By the end of Tuesday, O'Neal plans to be in Ahoskie, N.C., a town with another Vidant facility: Vidant Roanoke-Chowan Hospital. He is optimistic his town's hospital will eventually reopen, but he wants a quick turnaround. "When people start dying, I'm going to feel somewhat responsible in some way," O'Neal said. "And I can't let that happen."

Friday, July 18, 2014

Thinking about incentives at You Do the Math

Over at my teaching blog, You Do the Math, I'm in the middle of a thread on motivating students. Most of it is focused on education, but this post on incentives does overlap with some of the topics we've been discussing here.
Take performance-based incentives. Let's say I'm going to offer to pay you a certain sum if you accomplish a task but nothing if you fail. In order for you to agree, your time and effort will have to be valued less than the product of my offer times the likelihood of success. Once again at the risk of stating the obvious, as that likelihood approaches zero, your idea of a reasonable offer will have to approach infinity. Of course, in real life, there are always bounds on the amount of money I can offer but your estimate of the likelihood of success can always get closer to zero.

In a business context, we normally deal with the small perceived likelihood problem by finding someone else or opting for a different compensation plan or simply walking away from the deal. This is yet another reason why it's dangerous to have people who don't thoroughly understand both business and education try to transplant ideas from one field to another (it also reminds us of Pólyas warning that "it is foolish to answer a question you do not understand").

In education, where we should try to reach every student, low perceived likelihoods of success can be deadly. Any reward you offer for an apparently unattainable success will seem worthless; any penalty for apparently inevitable failure will seem brutally unfair. If you want to motivate these students, you will have to convince them that, with reasonable time and effort, the odds of success are pretty good (this happens to be true for the vast majority of students but that's a topic for another post).

More on the Jack Kirby copyright case

From DEADLINE [Emphasis added]:
EXCLUSIVE: No big surprise that today Marvel and Disney asked the Supreme Court to deny a petition from the heirs of Captain America, The Avengers and X-Men co-creator Jack Kirby. “This case presents a factbound application of a test uniformly adopted by the lower courts under a statute that does not apply to works created after 1978,” said a response filed today (read it here). “It implicates no circuit split, no judicial taking, no due process violation, and no grave matter of separation of powers. It does not remotely merit this Court’s review,” added the media giant’s main attorney in the matter, R. Bruce Rich. ... “In likely recognition of the fact that the statutory question does not satisfy the requirements for this Court’s review, petitioners turn to a series of bizarre constitutional arguments raised for the first time in this Court,” says Marvel. “Those arguments only underscore that none of the questions presented merits this Court’s plenary consideration.”

... Lisa Kirby, Neal Kirby, Susan Kirby and Barbara Kirby petitioned the SCOTUS this spring to hear their much-denied case. The heirs contended they had the right in 2009 to issue 45 termination notices to Marvel and others including Fox, Sony, Universal and Paramount Pictures on the artist’s characters under the provisions of the 1976 Copyright Act. While Kirby was publicly identified with much of the comic company’s prolific period along with Stan Lee, Marvel has won before in the courts under the understanding that the 262 works in question in this case the comic legend helped create between 1958 and 1963 — including many of the brightest stars in the Marvel Universe — were done under a work-for-hire deal and hence he nor his heirs have any rights of termination. With that in mind, Marvel initially waived any response to the SCOTUS petition. However, then the High Court itself requested they respond as the justices took the matter into conference. That initial scheduled May 15 conference was postponed as the Court awaited Marvel’s response.

“Petitioners alleged that their father, Jack Kirby — a freelancer who contributed to Marvel works in the form of commissioned drawings and under Marvel’s continuous supervision — held copyright interests in those works,” said Marvel today summing up the other side’s case. Now the response from Marvel is in, the Justices could take the matter under consideration. If they agree to hear the petition, it will be scheduled most likely for their next term which begins in October.
The case is starting to attract some superfriends now that it is in the big court leagues. Last month, SAG-AFTRA, the WGA and the DGA submitted an amicus brief to the Supreme Court in favor of having the petition granted. “The Second Circuit’s holding in this case reaffirms a test that created an onerous, nearly insurmountable presumption that copyright ownership vests in a commissioning party as a work made for hire, rather than in the work’s creator,” said the 32-page filing of June 13 (read it here). “In doing so, it jeopardizes the statutory termination rights that many Guild members may possess in works they created. Accordingly, the Guilds and their members have a significant interest in the outcome of this critically important case.”
The Kirbys are in a tough position here but I have to wonder if Marvel may yet regret pushing that "continuous supervision" line. Here's why [from the very good write-up by Michael Dean in the Comics Journal]:

The case did not go to trial, but during the discovery phase, testimonies on both sides were collected in deposition. Testifying on behalf of Kirby were Silver Age Marvel artists Jim Steranko, Joe Sinnott and Dick Ayers and comics experts Mark Evanier and John Morrow. Lined up on Marvel/Disney’s side were Roy Thomas, John Romita Sr. and Larry Lieber, but the key testimony that seemed to carry the greatest weight with Judge McMahon came from Kirby’s erstwhile creative partner Stan Lee. The 87-year-old Lee gave a two-day deposition in support of Marvel. Based on the depositions, McMahon formed the following picture of Lee and Kirby’s working relationship: Lee gave Kirby a premise in outline and then “created the plot and dialogue for the characters after the pencil drawing was complete, [and] often times ignored any ‘margin notes’ submitted by the artist with suggestions as to the plot or dialogue in the story.”

Those familiar with how a comics story is produced under the Marvel method, may have difficulty imagining how the pencil drawing for an entire story could be complete and still be in need of a plot to be added afterward by the writer, and Evanier and Morrow argued that Kirby’s creative contributions went well beyond the instructions he received from Lee. McMahon, however, acceded to Marvel’s motion to strike Evanier and Morrow’s testimony. She seemed skeptical of their status as comics “experts,” always placing the word in quotes, and expressed the view that they would not be able to add anything to the proceedings that lay persons, or non-comics-experts, couldn’t determine on their own. Also mitigating against the relevance of Evanier’s and Morrow’s testimony was the fact that they didn’t have firsthand knowledge of industry practices before 1963.
My knowledge of the law here is limited to about three minutes on Wikipedia but if the judge improperly excluded testimony, that would seem to fall under the heading of reversible error. Evanier and Morrow are arguably the two most recognized authorities on this subject and their version of the Marvel method where certain artists (particularly Kirby and Steve Ditko) would often add major story elements seems to be the expert consensus. Note Dean's line "may have difficulty imagining" (and for the record, The Comics Journal has a well respected source for a long time).

One of the experts who has often supported this version is Stanley Lieber, a.k.a. Stan Lee.

On Steve Ditko:
 "I'd dream up odd fantasy tales with an O. Henry type twist ending. All I had to do was give Steve a one-line description of the plot and he'd be off and running. He'd take those skeleton outlines I had given him and turn them into classic little works of art that ended up being far cooler than I had any right to expect."
And on the creation of the Silver Surfer:
"There, in the middle of the story we had so carefully worked out, was a nut on some sort of flying surfboard". He later expanded on this, recalling, "I thought, 'Jack, this time you've gone too far'"

Like I said. I doubt the Kirbys will win this. I'm not even sure they should. Jack Kirby made a massive contribution to the medium, but he was not a good businessman and he made some bad deals. Disney/Marvel have mistreated creators for decades but as long as they did it within the law, I'm not sure if the courts should get involved.

What I am fairly sure of is that we've seen absurd and destructive regulatory capture in the area of copyrights. The current system is unfair to actual creators. It erects barriers to entry and encourages media consolidation. It even allowed companies to snatch films out of the public domain. I hope the Kirbys win their case but the real fix for this problem needs to come from Congress, not the courts.

Vergara transcripts

I probably won't be getting back to to the Vergara Case for a while -- I pretty much had my say in this Monkey Cage piece -- but I just came across the transcripts for the trial. The section linked to here includes testimony from Raj Chetty.

Chetty has gotten in the habit of making very bold causal and predictive statements based on interesting but not conclusive studies. Before reading through all of his testimony (which I haven't done myself -- it's not that relevant to the threads I'm pursuing), I would advise checking out what Bruce Baker of Rutgers had to say about the original research.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Sometimes when you blow a something up, you just get rubble...

I know we've been over this before, but most of the fundamental ideas in the education reform movement (the magic of the markets, scientific management, etc.) are unsurprisingly popular with CEOs, ex-CEOs and other thought leaders of the business class. One of the most popular is disruptive innovation, so much so that the satiric counter-reform site Edushyster makes the overuse of the word 'disruption' a running joke.

Like many of these MBA-friendly concepts, there is some substance to the idea, but not much. While it is true that new approaches and technologies often make old ones obsolete (and cause corporate fortunes to rise and fall as a consequence), attempts to derive useful business rules to deal with this phenomena have produced little but jargon-filled platitudes supported by case studies that go beyond cherry-picked.

Jill Lepore eviscerated most of the standard examples (and pissed off quite a few Silicon Valley types) in this recent New Yorker piece. She also delved into the appeal of the idea.
Most big ideas have loud critics. Not disruption. Disruptive innovation as the explanation for how change happens has been subject to little serious criticism, partly because it’s headlong, while critical inquiry is unhurried; partly because disrupters ridicule doubters by charging them with fogyism, as if to criticize a theory of change were identical to decrying change; and partly because, in its modern usage, innovation is the idea of progress jammed into a criticism-proof jack-in-the-box.

The idea of progress—the notion that human history is the history of human betterment—dominated the world view of the West between the Enlightenment and the First World War. It had critics from the start, and, in the last century, even people who cherish the idea of progress, and point to improvements like the eradication of contagious diseases and the education of girls, have been hard-pressed to hold on to it while reckoning with two World Wars, the Holocaust and Hiroshima, genocide and global warming. Replacing “progress” with “innovation” skirts the question of whether a novelty is an improvement: the world may not be getting better and better but our devices are getting newer and newer.
As is often the case, movement reformers have not only adopted this flawed business fad; they have embraced its most cartoonish form.

I've already discussed the class and race components of Arne Duncan's quote: “I think the best thing that happened to the education system in New Orleans was Hurricane Katrina,” but he was also expressing the fetishized attitude toward creative destruction that is common in reform circles.

Michigan provides another example:
Keith Johnson, president of the Detroit Federation of Teachers, said he had expected [Detroit Public Schools Emergency Manager Roy] Roberts to discuss Monday’s upcoming visit by U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.

“When he said, ‘I’m stepping down,’ all of our mouths just dropped,” Johnson said. “I can’t say it’s a bad day. I can’t say it’s a good day, because we don’t know who’s coming next.”

Roberts also told those gathered more shocking news: His initial instructions when he arrived in Detroit were to “blow up the district and dismantle it,” Johnson said.

“He’s got nothing to lose by saying it now,” Johnson added.

Roberts said he spent the first several months of his tenure convincing state officials the district was worth saving, according to board members.

“Blow it up – those were his exact words,” Detroit School Board member Tawana Simpson confirmed.
Roberts has been trying to back away from that comment ever since he said it, but both the sentiment and the language are absolutely in line with the movement. You hear this sort of thing all the time if you follow education reform, often coming directly from the leading lights of the creative disruption cottage industry and it is exactly how you would expect Gov. Rick Snyder to frame the problem.

Of course, the disruption of New Orleans and Michigan has not proven all that creative...

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Ray Fisman on Swedish school vouchers

Ray Fisman reports on the Swedish experience with vouchers and how it hasn't quire worked out as well as one might hope.  Ray Fisman isn't a naïve opponent of school reform -- he has been willing to discuss some rather strong findings arguing for improvements in how we handle teachers.  But he is pretty rough on Sweden, which apparently has more students going to for profit schools than anywhere else in the developed world. 

He rather clearly points out the basic problem:
None of this is terribly surprising—in econ 101 we learn that markets work their magic when buyers and sellers are well-informed about what’s getting bought and sold, and can therefore transact with one another without fear of getting conned. The apparent failure of the Swedish schooling experiment is a lesson in the inability of markets to solve problems where it’s hard to compare the educational “product” that’s offered, and the outcomes you can observe are subject to manipulation. It’s also a reminder that the cold, hard calculations of markets aren’t necessarily suited to the realm of education. Governments don’t shut schools because they fail to turn a profit. Private equity firms do. The parents of more than 10,000 students learned this difference the hard way last year, when the Danish private equity group Axcel abruptly announced its exit from the Swedish school market, stating that it could no longer cover the continued losses.
If we had really good, real time information on educational quality then this would be a less difficult problem.  After all, if informed decisions can be made then it makes sense that a liberal country like Sweden would want to empower parents to make the best decisions for their children.  Now, it is possible to argue that tweaking some feature of the Swedish approach could result in better outcomes -- much is possible.  But these sort of ecological examples certainly raise the bar for evidence of this approach working when it is fully scaled up (unlike something like KIPP which isn't necessarily intended to scale to all children in the US). 

Formalizing Next-Big-Thingism

Various time in various posts, I've complained about Next-Big-Thingism, often in conjunction with ddulites and the growth fetish, but while I've defined the latter two, I don't remember ever laying out the fundamentals of NBTism.

It's basically an "End of Days" belief system found widely among investors, journalists, policy makers and other 'thought leaders.' (I'm sorry, but I can't bring myself to type that term without the scare quotes.). It goes something like this:

The new order is about to emerge. All will change;

The bringer of creative destruction is already among us;

Only those who embrace the bringer will save themselves and their portfolios.

Over the past few years, personal computing, the internet, social media, mobile, the sharing economy, and the internet of things have all been, at least briefly, the new messiah. All have had or will have a major impact, but none, including the internet, have been what their adherents hoped (anyone who says the internet surpassed the hype doesn't remember the hype).

My main main complaint with Next-Big-Thingism, other than the annoying part, is that it leads to bad thinking and worse investments and that means that a great deal of money and man-hours get diverted to obviously bad ideas just because they might be part of the new order (yes, I'm looking at you, Groupon).

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

A lesson about Twitter, TV cameras and life in the public eye

I heard this on TPM, but surprisingly Josh Marshall left out the context and that context adds greatly to the story.

At least based on his Wikipedia page, Adam Kwasman has an impressive resume and appears to be a young up-and-comer in the Arizona GOP, but even with the assumption he was having a bad day, he also appears to be not quite ready for prime time.

Here's a more complete clip than the one on TPM.

Lots of teachable moments here.

Kwasman was embellishing when he talked about the fear on the children's faces. When he mistook the YMCA, he was innocently getting his facts wrong. If he would have done just one of these he could have come out unscathed.

The speed of social media sometimes creates a false sense of urgency. Many tweets would be just as effective a little while later and that fact-checking time can come in handy. The schedule function can be your friend.

On a related note, you should always remember the fundamental asymmetry of Twitter. There's a practical limit on how intelligent you can be in 140 characters, but the potential for looking stupid is virtually unbounded.

A similar principle holds with TV cameras, and since the advent of embed code, bad video can follow you anywhere.

Finally, one of the dangers of coming up through partisan media ('A frequent guest of the James T Harris radio show in Tucson, Kwasman has been dubbed "Captain Arizona" by the host for his consistent defense of Arizona against an overreaching federal government' -- from Wikipedia) is that if you have the proper positions, the producers and on-air talent will go to great lengths to keep you safe. It is easy for someone like Kwasman to develop great confidence in his ability to handle the media. Sometimes too great.

Helsinki's 'mobility on demand' system and the travel-time landscape

I've got a lot on my plate so I'm just going to take a very quick pass at this. I may try to get back to it later.

There are a lot of good things in the proposal outlined in this Guardian article (via Marginal Revolution), but, as with most transportation articles, there is a bit that troubles me, both because these plans have a way of bringing out the inner ddulite in people and because generalizing from Helsinki is a tricky proposition.

I don't have time to dig into these questions in any depth but I did want to mention a way of thinking about the problems I find useful. For any geographic location and set of transportation options, you can overlay on the map something that looks a bit like a fitness landscape where instead of fitness the variable corresponding to each point on the map is the expected time to travel to that point from the origin.

For pedestrians, the landscape is more or less conical with irregularities caused by obstructions (highways, mountains, bodies of water). The sides of the cone slope up quite rapidly making all but relatively short trips prohibitive.

With automobiles, the slope becomes much more gradual but the landscape becomes much more rugged. A destination five miles away (actual, not driving, distance) can take longer to reach than one thirty miles away if the first has to be reached via surface streets and the second lies along a major highway. (I found numerous examples of this in LA using Google Maps.) Furthermore, the shape of this landscape changes dramatically with traffic levels.

The really rugged landscape comes with mass transit, particularly when you leave some of the more geographically compact cities in the Northeast. (According to Wikipedia "About one in every three users of mass transit in the United States and two-thirds of the nation's rail riders live in New York City and its suburbs." That level of use combined with a highly compact population makes for a unique transportation environment.) This is true for buses, trains and airplanes, but since most people who fly can also get access to cars and taxis, the effect is somewhat mitigated for high end travelers. For those who have to depend on buses and metro lines and who can't walk long distances, the differences can become startling.

I'm sure other people have been using this landscape approach but it doesn't seem to show up in many discussions of the topic. Personally, I find it a remarkably useful way to think about these problems, particularly when talking about food deserts and other areas where transportation and questions of inequality overlap.

Monday, July 14, 2014


From an econoblog:
You might wonder how the cross-country evidence shows a positive correlation whereas the cross-workplace evidence generally doesn't. Here's a theory. People will always want better pay and conditions. This is simply because they are human. If they can't achieve these through unions they will try to get them through the ballot box, in the form of legislation.
This is actually an odd finding, as I would normally prefer to ascribe the ecological data to the ecological fallacy and stop there.  But the discussion of mechanism is interesting, plausible, and might actually explain some odd paradoxes -- but it also explains other oddities like German productivity.

So why are unions so hated:

Which poses the question: if unions are good for productivity, why have bosses traditionally been opposed to them? The answer, I suspect, lies in this paper, which finds that unionization "is significantly associated with lower levels of total CEO compensation."
If this explanation is true, we have a classic principal agent problem.  If the pay of a CEO is related to breaking unions, one can imagine that they will try to do so even if it hurts the overall profitability of the company.  Classic misaligned incentives, really.

It's not that I see an immediate return to a pro-union environment, but it does point out that we might actually have a case where markets aren't necessarily going to maximize efficiency.  And that is worth keeping in mind during these discussions.