Friday, August 1, 2014

Two quotes

[The businessman] is speaking a language that is familiar to him and dear to him. Its portentous nouns and verbs invest ordinary events with high adventure; the executive walks among ink erasers caparisoned like a knight. This we should be tolerant of--every man of spirit wants to ride a white horse.
E. B. White on Language 

Or be a ninja...
“Meditation used to have this reputation as a hippie thing for people who speak in a particularly soft tone of voice,” Michaelson says. Not so. “Samurai practiced meditation to become more effective killers,” he says. So too did kamikaze pilots. “It’s value neutral,” [Jay] Michaelson says.
A competitive edge, not enlightenment, seems to be driving [Ray] Dalio. “I feel like a ninja in a fight,” Dalio said of his professional equanimity, during a February panel discussion in New York on the benefits of meditation. “When it comes at you, it seems like slow motion.”

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Common Core is for the common folk*

If you spend much time following the education reform debate, particularly on the counter-reformation side, you soon notice that a lot of fairly major stories get a lot of play on the state and local level but are largely ignored on the national level, at least by publications like the New York Times.

One of the recurring themes in these stories is the idea of education reform for all but the elite, which, given the make-up of the movement, often comes down to reformers exempting themselves from their own reforms.

From Nashville Public Radio

Lipscomb Academy Chief Advocates For Common Core, But Not At Her School
On an almost weekly basis, Candice McQueen is called on by the state Department of Education to beat back criticism. Last week, it was an Associated Press panel. The week before that, she advocated for Common Core as SCORE released its annual report card. McQueen testified before the Senate Education Committee during a two day hearing on the standards.

She praises the rigor and the benefits to having Tennessee kids on the same page as students in 44 states. So when McQueen assumed a new role over Lipscomb’s private K-12 academy, parents were concerned Common Core would follow her to campus, according to an open letter sent to families.

“Because of my role as the dean of the university’s College of Education some of you have expressed concerns about my appointment and the direction Lipscomb Academy will take as it relates to the Common Core State Standards (CCSS).”

McQueen wrote that she Common Core has not been adopted and that she has “not been in any formal discussions” about changing standards at the school, though she has asked faculty to familiarize themselves with the math and English standards.

And McQueen doesn’t plan to stop advocating for Common Core, according to the letter.

“I will continue to be part of the ongoing CCSS conversation. However, this should not be extrapolated to indicate or predict the adoption of CCSS at Lipscomb Academy.”
Lipscomb would be unusual if it went to Common Core. Most of Nashville’s private schools blend state and national standards and don’t use the same standardized tests as public schools.
Lipscomb is, particularly for Nashville, a rather expensive and exclusive academy. Here's how much it costs to attend:
Tuition rates for the 2014-15 school year will be $5,000 for the 3 day-per-week Pre-kindergarten, $8,350 for the 5 day-per-week Pre-kindergarten.  In addition to the new tuition rates, Lipscomb Academy Pre-kindergarten students will receive a $1,000 discount off their kindergarten year tuition.  Elementary school tuition will be $10,440 while middle and high school tuition is set at $11,540. Multi-child discounts continue at $400 for the second child, $500 for the third and $600 for the fourth. 
To put that in context, here are some numbers from Wikipedia:
The median income for a household in the city was $46,141, and the median income for a family was $56,377. Males with a year-round, full-time job had a median income of $41,017 versus $36,292 for females. The per capita income for the city was $27,372. About 13.9% of families and 18.2% of the population were below the poverty line, including 29.5% of those under age 18 and 9.9% of those age 65 or over.

* I see that Diane Ravitch beat to the punch on this joke by a big margin.

Self-defeating comment spam of the day

This is probably not the best product to pitch if you have to rely on translation software. From the just possibly pseudonymous Lerry G Leone Leone:
This usefulness of our copy writers makes it possible for us to make available along with produce many products and services along with different types connected with forms. ________  features Tell us from in this article We have now chosen accomplished copy writers from just about all fields of study, and they are efficient at finishing any kind of instructional paper you'll need. Thank you.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

"Obviously, he's kept a very low profile"

From Bill Schackner and Mary Niederberger writing for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
When Ron Tomalis stepped aside as state education secretary 14 months ago, he landed what seemed like a full-time assignment in a state struggling to boost college access and curb ever-rising tuition prices.

As special adviser to Gov. Tom Corbett for higher education, Mr. Tomalis was tasked with "overseeing, implementing and reviewing" the recommendations made by the Governor's Advisory Commission on Postsecondary Education.

Despite the state's fiscal crisis, the former secretary was allowed to keep his Cabinet-level salary of $139,542 plus benefits and -- initially, at least -- work from home. At the time, state Department of Education spokesman Tim Eller explained that the newly created job did not require an office, and Mr. Tomalis "is a professional and doesn't need to 'check in' each day."
The records produced included a work calendar showing weeks with little or no activity [ click here] ...  [P]hone logs averaging barely over a phone call a day over 12 months and a total of five emails produced by Mr. Tomalis. The state was not able to provide any reimbursement records suggesting Mr. Tomalis traveled the state in support of his work.

Beyond the records, a number of key players in higher education said in interviews they had little or no contact with Mr. Tomalis in his advisory role, for which the state says there is no written job description.

Jennifer Branstetter, Mr. Corbett's director of policy, said she has spoken with the governor and believes he is satisfied with Mr. Tomalis' job performance. "I think the governor is pleased overall with the advice and oversight he has been giving."
A copy of Mr. Tomalis' work calendar from June 1, 2013 to June 1, 2014, released by the department, shows a number of weeks and months with little scheduled activity, including 20 weeks that appear to have no work-related appointments.

Phone logs showed 406 calls, of which 57 percent were two minutes or less. The last four digits for all but a handful of the phone calls were redacted.

Asked for his work-related correspondence as adviser, the department produced five emails written by Mr. Tomalis -- the first of which was dated Feb. 24, 2014, nine months after he landed the job.

Two of the five emails involved registering for a conference. Two others dealt with an invitation for a department representative to serve on the governing board of an education and business initiative in India; and a fifth email involved a clarification the former secretary sought about the number of higher education institutions in Pennsylvania.
A brief aside: sometimes the location of the line between professional development and career advancement is debatable. This is particularly true with conferences, which many attendees treat as combination paid vacation and exclusive job fair. Tomalis' sinecure was incredibly sweet but not all that stable. He did next-to-nothing for his six figure salary and a good portion of that next-to-nothing appears to have been finding ways to have the state pay for his job search.
A number of key players in the state's higher education arena said they have not been contacted by Mr. Tomalis since he was named special adviser, including Sen. Mike Folmer a Lebanon County Republican who chairs the Senate Education Committee, and Rep. James Roebuck of Philadelphia, the top-ranked Democrat on the House Education Committee.
Among the K-12 issues that Mr. Tomalis handled were charter school matters such as arranging testing sites for cyber charter students. [Acting Education Secretary Carol Dumaresq] said Mr. Tomalis was instrumental in reviving the governor's schools.
Schackner and Niederberger did an excellent job reporting on this story, but if I had been their editor, I definitely would have immediately followed Dumaresq's comments about the governor's schools with these paragraphs which can be found toward the end of the article.
In addition to a lack of activities on his calendar, it appears Mr. Tomalis did not participate in some listed activities, including the Governor's School for the Sciences at Carnegie Mellon University in July 2013.

Barry Luokkala, teaching professor of physics and the school's program director, said Mr. Tomalis was a big supporter of governor's schools but added that he had not heard from Mr. Tomalis since he stepped down as education secretary and could recall no such visit.
Luokkala wasn't alone in his "Ron who?" reaction.

"I am not able to find any information regarding Mr. Tomalis' interactions with anyone at the university in the capacity you describe," said Annemarie Mountz, a spokeswoman for Penn State University.

"There has been no contact between Tomalis and anyone here," said Ken Service, a University of Pittsburgh spokesman.
Elizabeth Bolden, president and CEO of the Pennsylvania Commission on Community Colleges, said she was not aware of any meetings held by Mr. Tomalis that involved the commission staff.

Keith New, spokesman for the Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Agency, said he too was unable to find any indication Mr. Tomalis had interacted with PHEAA since becoming the governor's higher education adviser.

Ms. Dumaresq said the governor's office directed that Mr. Tomalis delay discussions with Pitt and Penn State regarding performance funding until the new leadership of both schools was in place.

When told that Pitt and Penn State -- among other key institutions -- reported no dealings whatsoever with Mr. Tomalis, she replied: "I'm not sure how to respond. ... I don't know what is sufficient. I know that none is certainly not sufficient, but again, I can tell you that he has been talking with staff here and working on programs."
"Obviously, he's kept a very low profile," she added. "Maybe that should change."
While the state could provide no written examples of Mr. Tomalis' work product, Ms. Dumaresq said the initiatives advanced are evidence of Mr. Tomalis' work. 
"The important thing is whether in fact people are working and working hard and producing," she said. "And Ron is."
Lots of familiar elements here, starting with the last line. "The important thing" is one of the standard defenses when looting of the educational till is uncovered. The very fact that you're discussing mere money suggests that you care more about your pocketbook than you do about children. No mention is made of the worthwhile programs in the system that desperately need that money and the apologist never bothers to explain why the contribution of the looter is of any special value.

For some reason, this defense seems far more acceptable in the field of education (especially among movement reformers) than it does in fields like the military, infrastructure and law enforcement. We recently had the current Michigan governor and one of his predecessors tell us that voters shouldn't care about massive looting in their state's charter school industry because those schools are doing good work (despite evidence that Michigan's charters are, on average, doing worse than its public schools).

Perhaps I'm missing some obvious recent counter-examples but I have trouble imagining a similar responses from top government officials if a military contractor or construction company was caught engaging in this level of self-dealing, overcharging, graft and fraud. In the rest of the public sector, the standard responses to scandal seem to be

"Reports are exaggerated."

"We're going to investigate this thoroughly."

"A few bad players..."

"We're really sorry and we'll see that this never happens again."

We can question their sincerity, but in most parts of the public sector, officials recognize the need to at least humor us; "You shouldn't care that you're being robbed blind." is not considered acceptable.

This story also illustrates the bizarre inconsistency of attitudes toward accountability in education. Movement reformers are pushing to deny teachers even the most basic of job security while holding them responsible for things they have almost no control over, but this accountability is inversely proportional to position. When it looked like LAUSD's John Deasy was about to lose his job (after nearly bankrupting the district but before powerful friends came to his rescue), Deasy actually suggested a consulting deal similar to the one Tomalis got.  Keep in mind, Deasy has spent most of his time in office complaining about the hardship of having to reassign certain teachers to clerical duties rather than firing them.

Accountability is for little people.

Management salary apologists need to work up some new material -- college edition

Raymond D. Cotton (a partner in the Mintz Levin law firm [who] represents higher education and other nonprofit boards of trustee and executives) assures us that college presidents deserve every penny of their generous salaries. I particularly enjoyed the third paragraph.
By and large, college presidents are not overpaid in relationship to their responsibilities and the compensation market place.

College presidents today act as chief executive officers of the institutions that they lead and serve. On a day-to-day basis, they often make decisions that affect every aspect of their organizations.

It is also important to keep in mind that presidents do not set their own compensation. Instead, their compensation packages are decided by the board of trustees, which is the highest legal authority in the institution. Such boards currently comprise many members from the corporate world, and they have brought certain business concepts with them, including performance bonuses.
I was tempted to go full snark here, but my better angels won out. I won't sarcastically point out that executive compensation in the corporate world at the very least borders on scandalous. Using this as a defense is laughably tone-deaf.

To put all of this in context, Paul Campos looks at academic salary trends.

Average salary for different categories of employees at the University of Michigan in 1979 and 2013:
1979: $34,017
2013: $32,214

Director of Athletics
1979: $173,274
2013: $850,000 base salary (Does not include $100,000 in deferred compensation, and a possible $200,000 bonus).

Full Professor
1979: $107,493
2013: $167,260

Associate Professor
1979: $77,153
2013: $114,071

Assistant Professor
1979: $61,119
2013: $100,048

Dean of the Law School:
1979: $169,075
2013: $420,000

Administrative Assistant/Secretary
1979: $45,985
2013: $43,078

1979: $216,000 salary (other compensation, if any, unknown, although it’s safe to assume use of the president’s house was included.)
2013: $603,357 base salary; $100,000 bonus in lieu of a raise; $100,000 additional annual retention bonus; $175,000 annual deferred compensation, $50,000 annual retirement pay, free use of residence and car.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

This is simply remarkable

This is Joseph, the rare co-blogger.  I wanted to pass this on (h/t: Mike).  I don't think anybody will be surprised to see this type of customer service occurring:
Today one of our employees on the business side of TPM got a bill from Verizon for $3,019.95. Now, TPM's phone bill is bigger than your home phone bill because we two offices and about two dozen employees. But it's not three thousand dollars a month. But there's a bigger problem. We're not a Verizon customer.

Right, we use a different company entirely.

. . .

So after a little internal due diligence, someone on staff contacted Verizon basically to ask WTF was going on. Only they couldn't tell us because for security reasons we need to confirm our identity with a number on a recent phone bill? But we can't do that because ... right we're not a Verizon customer.

But can't they infer that we're us because we're getting billing emails to a TPM email address? No comment.

Can Verizon at least tell us whether this service was a service for a company called TPM Media LLC, incorporated in New York State? No, security reasons.

After another hour or so of a TPM staffer being on hold, Verizon comes up with seeming proof. The service was contracted by a person named "Gregory E." (I've left out the last name because Gregory E. may actually exist and he does deserve some privacy.) Only problem: no one named "Gregory E." has ever worked for TPM.

This apparently happened in early 2012. And like most utilities and service providers they totally let you not pay for a service for over two years without cutting it off.
Part of the problem here is one of "efficiency".  By creating distant call centers, you save on costs but you make issues like this one difficult to resolve.  You see the same problem with auto-dialing debt collection calls -- a robot calls a long stale phone number at minimal cost.  You might get some real leads that way that enable debts to be collected.  On the other hand, you annoy a large number of people who are completely unrelated to the debt (as telephone numbers often get reassigned to new people moving into an area).  It also makes issues like "billing the wrong customer" fantastically annoying for the person being billed. 

But it is also a question of competition and asymmetry of power/resources.  Without a regulatory framework to handle these issues, there is no cost to pushing frustration and time loss on to the "customer".  It's not like the company would be billed for the time to access customer service if the bill were proven to be incorrect. 

The standard solution to this is regulation.  This matters even for parts of the market that function well.  The need to regulate food production and sales dates back to the middle ages and remains with us today via functions like health inspectors.  Ironically, despite the potential for regulation to strangle companies with red tape, it can also be a precondition for an effective market.  It's also possible for it to be too lax in one area and too extensive in another (possibility affecting the same transaction).

So I am becoming indifferent to scale as I age, and think that all of the action should be in the efficiency of government and/or corporations.  But this conversation seem to be rarely heard these days. 


Brad DeLong has been on a bit of a run recently. I particularly liked this:

I think that modern neoclassical economics is in fine shape as long as it is understood as the ideological and substantive legitimating doctrine of the political theory of possessive individualism. As long as we have relatively-self-interested liberal individuals who have relatively-strong beliefs that things are theirs, the competitive market in equilibrium is an absolutely wonderful mechanism for achieving truly extraordinary degree of societal coordination and productivity. We need to understand that. We need to value that. And that is what neoclassical economics does, and does well.

Of course, there are all the caveats to Arrow-Debreu-Mackenzie:

The market must be in equilibrium.
The market must be competitive.
The goods traded must be excludable.
The goods traded must be non-rival.
The quality of goods traded and of effort delivered must be known, or at least bonded, for adverse selection and moral hazard are poison.
Externalities must be corrected by successful Pigovian taxes or successful Coaseian carving of property rights at the joints.
People must be able to accurately calculate their own interests.
People must not be sadistic--the market does not work well if participating agents are either the envious or the spiteful.
The distribution of wealth must correspond to the societal consensus of need and desert.
The structure of debt and credit must be sound, or if it is not sound we need a central bank or a social-credit agency to make it sound and so make Say's Law true in practice even though we have no reason to believe Say's Law is true in theory.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Delving into the pros and cons of positive thinking over at You Do the Math

I've been working on a thread (and possibly an e-book for general audiences) on George Pólya's teaching philosophy. Recently, I've been focusing on the emotional and psychological component. Pólya was emphatic on the importance of self-reliance, and an explicit part of building that self-reliance was building a student's confidence.

The following quote from How to Solve It is indicative:

"If the student is not able to do much, the teacher should leave him at least some illusion of independent work. In order to do so, the teacher should help the student discreetly, unobtrusively." [emphasis in the original text.]

Pólya didn't elaborate that much on the emotional component here. The value of confidence and approaching material with a positive attitude probably seemed to require on defense in 1945. Self-help had not become a major industry (How to Win Friends and Influence People was less than a decade old) so positive thinking didn't trigger the smirks it does today. On the other hand, the field of education hadn't been swarmed by faux tough charlatans dismissing the importance of self-esteem.

These days, any argument for positive thinking needs to spelled out in detail. In the following three posts I work through some of the implications.

Rational students, incentives and expected returns

What role does expected likelihood of success play in the designing of incentives?

The first wall you expect is the last one you hit

Based on my experience and conversations with other teachers, I compare the real and perceived challenges faced by students struggling with math.

The Power and Peril of Positive Thinking

A few common-sense rules for deciding when to go positive (and when to proceed with caution).

More Michigan corruption and an LA-based observation

As mentioned before, the Detroit Free Press recently ran an extraordinary series on on the growing number of scandals surrounding Michigan's two decades of aggressive school privatization. I've got something bigger coming up on this and I don't want to spend too much more time nickel-and-diming the subject by posting various outrages, but I do want to take a moment and share this pattern I've come to recognize.

First devastating cuts are made to essential parts of kids' education with the rationale that things are tough all over. Then people in the same system (often the same people -- see Deasy, John) will spend extravagantly on their pet projects (see iPads, John Deasy's billion dollar), often enriching themselves, associates, friends and/or relatives. When someone criticizes the profligacy, the inevitable reply is to insist they only want kids to have the best.

Remember this story from an earlier post?
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.
With that in mind, check out this article from Jennifer Dixon, part of the Free Press series.
Glenn Clark, president of Detroit Merit Charter Academy and a founding member of the board, said he didn’t know the amount “off the top of my head.” But he said it was justified as a “made-in-heaven arrangement in that corner of the city.”

Detroit Merit subleases its building from NHA. The building is clean and orderly, but it lacks a cafeteria or gym, so students eat in their classrooms. With more than 730 students, the school is packed. Clark said “every seat is taken” and there isn’t enough classroom space for specialty areas of instruction.

On a Free Press visit to the K-8 school last year, a writing coach worked with her students at desks tucked under a school stairwell, a handful of students played their drums in another stairwell, and saxophonists practiced in a hallway.

The band room had been carved in half to make room for art classes, with filing cabinets separating the musicians from the painters. A third of the kitchen had been converted into a small math classroom, with refrigerators and other appliances dividing up the area.

Melvin Rusher, president of the board of Fortis Academy in Ypsilanti, declined to say how much the school was paying in rent — just over $1 million — until checking with the rest of his board. He did not return subsequent phone calls. Board presidents at Regent Park Scholars, Flagship Academy and Legacy Charter Academy, all in Detroit, also did not return calls.

Rent increases pushed schools into the million-dollar club in the 2013-14 school year: South Arbor in Ypsilanti, Ridge Park and River City Scholars, both in Grand Rapids. The Free Press could not reach board presidents.

Plymouth Scholars is another school in the NHA million-dollar club, but neighbors in Plymouth Township say it doesn’t look like a million.

Built in 2012, it is two stories and rectangular. Residents of the neighborhood, where some houses are on the market for upwards of $500,000, say it looks like a warehouse.
Charter Development Co., an affiliated company that is based in the same offices as NHA, paid $700,000 for the land, according to township assessor records. NHA declined to say how much it spent on construction costs, but told its authorizer that it would invest approximately $7 million.

The school’s annual rent is $1.16 million.

Based on those numbers, local developer Jim Jabara said NHA is getting a 16% rate of return on its investment, which he likened to the goose that lays the golden egg.

“It’s a hell of a return for the people who own it, and the school pays a premium for it,” said Jabara, who owns commercial and industrial property in the area.

William Watch, president of First Commercial Realty & Development Co., in Southfield, which owns, leases, manages, develops and builds commercial and retail projects, said the rate of return for free-standing drugstores like Walgreens and Rite Aid, with long-term leases, is typically 7%-9%.


Carl Berry, a member of the Plymouth Scholars board until late January, called it “an ugly building” but said, “What goes on inside is the most important.” The school is too new to be ranked by the Michigan Department of Education.

Friday, July 25, 2014

How does one evaluate evidence in complex circumstances

So this is Joseph, the rarely appearing co-blogger and I wanted to comment on an evidence question.

There has been a lot of discussion about a recent DC court of appeals case (Halbig).  The essence of the argument is that there is a sentence in the law that could be read as only allowing state exchanges to offer federal subsidies.  I think it is pretty clear everyone agree that this isn't the pinnacle of clear and artful writing.  Either it failed to make a major piece of the law obvious (people buying policies on Federal exchanges would want to know if this was intended, as would states like Oregon considering switching from a state to a federal exchange) or it was a sloppy sentence.  If that was the end of it then it probably would not be bloggable.

What was interesting is what people are holding as the standard of evidence.  Scott Lemieux argues that, due to previous federal law giving deference to how federal agencies interpret law, that the standard is:
The challengers don’t just have to show that their interpretation is plausible; they have to show that it’s the only possible reasonable interpretation.
We still have essentially everyone responsible for drafting, voting on and/or implementing the legislation at the federal and state levels (not to mention the Sebelius conservative joint opinion) assuming that the federally established exchanges were intended to work, and a consultant making a bare assertion with no explanation that the federally established exchanges weren’t intended to work. It’s pretty obvious which is more significant, particularly since the next decent explanation for why Congress would bother to create a federal backstop that couldn’t actually function would be the first.

Megan McArdle, whom I think it is well know is not a fan of the affordable care act, proposes a different standard.  She argues:
The thrust of this outrage is that obviously no one ever intended to restrict subsidies only to state exchanges, because that is now endangering the whole program, and obviously, the law’s architects did not mean to endanger the whole program.
But unless this is some sort of elaborate hoax, I think this definitively puts to rest the notion that none of the bill’s architects could possibly have thought or intended that the law would have this effect. Gruber thought the law would have this effect -- and if anyone would know, he would. 
Now I am not a lawyer, but I like talking about standards of evidence.  The first is a standard that you need to show that the law cannot be interpreted in the proposed flexible manner that an agency wants.  The second is to focus really tightly on the exact text of the bill and come up with the most literal interpretation.

Now these are very different ways to thinking about evidence.  McArdle's approach is very frequentist.  Here we create a specific standard of evidence based on one piece of the whole family of possible errors (e.g. random variation for the statistician, text only for the lawyer) and use that as the main decision making element (with some soft text about possible bias).  Lemieix's approach seems more Bayesian -- the analogy to priors is looking at the totality of the evidence, including but not limited to the law's text.

Ironically, I am like Noah Smith in science and kind of like frequentist approaches.  I certainly use them in 95% of my scientific papers.  But this is really highlighting, in an area (law) where the frequentist approach isn't like a second skin for me, that these differences can matter a lot.  I'm also not going to say which side I think is correct here, merely that I am seeing appeals to two very different kinds of evidence.  In real life I have a paper where I called an estimate with a p-value of 0.0504 non-significant (yes, those of us who take the rules seriously see these things happen).  But in the context of a family of associations where everything else was significant and known bias cutting against the association, I wonder if I could have been more sophisticated.  Or would that be less principled.

So now I think I have something to ponder.  But it does highlight that this type of debate about standards of evidence, like all entrenched debates, is complicated.

This not an outlier; this is a business model

You may have this recording a customer made while trying to cancel his Comcast service. Here's a sample:

Block: We’d like to disconnect please.

Comcast rep: Why is it that you don’t want the faster speed? Help me understand why you don’t want faster internet.

Block: Help me understand why you can’t disconnect us.

Comcast rep: Because my job is to have a conversation with you about keeping your service, about finding out why it is that you’re looking to cancel the service.

Block: I don’t understand …

Comcast rep: If you don’t want to talk to me, you can definitely go into the Comcast store and disconnect your service there. 
And it goes on and on and on.

Comcast has since issued an apology that's more telling for what it doesn't say:
“We are very embarrassed by the way our employee spoke with Mr. Block and are contacting him to personally apologize. The way in which our representative communicated with him is unacceptable and not consistent with how we train our customer service representatives. We are investigating this situation and will take quick action. While the overwhelming majority of our employees work very hard to do the right thing every day, we are using this very unfortunate experience to reinforce how important it is to always treat our customers with the utmost respect.”
You'll notice that, for all that talk of doing the right thing and showing respect, the statement doesn't say anything about the representative refusing to cancel the account.That was what made the customer angry but Comcast can't apologize for that because it plans to continue making cancellation inconvenient and unpleasant. That, along with pumping up rates, is their business model.

P.S. I'm running ahead on my posts so I scheduled this to run a few days after I wrote it. In the meantime, more horror stories have been popping up including one that's fairly similar to my experience with Verizon (make a mistake on the bill then sell the account to a third party), along with this very good story by the Verge that confirms beyond a doubt that bullying customers to stay is a fundamental part of the industry's business model.

Here are a couple of the more outrageous examples:

“I called to cancel my Comcast service. It turned out to be in my deceased husband’s name. I told them he was recently deceased. I was told I could not cancel the service; only my husband could! I reiterated that he was no longer living; the person again said it could only be closed by my husband. This went on for about five minutes till I gave up. I tried again the next day and got the same response — finally, a supervisor told me I could take his death certificate into the office in Foster City. I took it into the office, and the person there was horrified that I had been asked to do that and to hear of my past phone conversations. I never used Comcast again.”
“They did the same thing to me [as they did to Block]. At one point the guy says, ‘$50 isn’t going to take food off your table.’ I was a single mother receiving no child support, living in the Bay Area, living paycheck to paycheck, and spending an average of $150 a month on food. YES, it was taking food off our table! I didn’t think it was any of their business why I couldn’t afford cable. After telling him I was canceling because I couldn’t afford it, he said, ‘Well how do you think WE pay for all these upgrades?’ 

Thursday, July 24, 2014

I started to go with "arsonists decry fires, call for more kerosene" but that didn't capture the full disconnect

Perhaps I just haven't spent enough time in the trenches, but I don't think I've ever seen a response to a corruption scandal quite this. As the Detroit Free Press lays out in painful detail, over the past few years, the cash-strapped state of Michigan appears to have lost hundreds of millions to overcharging, mismanagement and plain old graft in the charter school sector.

This is largely the result of initiatives pushed through by Gov. Rick Snyder and former Gov. John Engler, two Republicans with a bent toward privatization. A Democratic governor, Jennifer Granholm, served between Snyder and Engler and took a sharply different approach.

The following quotes are from Detroit Free Press Education Writer David Jesse:
Engler signed the law creating charter schools in 1994.In 2002, in Engler’s last year and just before Granholm took office, Michigan’s auditor general found repeated conflicts of interest among those running charter schools. A legislative committee recommended tightening laws and oversight, but no action was taken.

Granholm was the governor when 2009 legislation laying out transparency requirements for all schools — including charters — was passed. She signed the act into law. However, many companies and organizations running charter schools say many of those requirements don’t apply to them.

She also signed a law allowing limited expansion of charter schools in Michigan.

In 2011, Snyder signed a law abolishing the limit on charters.
2011 was, by the way, Snyder's first year in office.

The result (as shown in this Free Press graphic) has been striking:

 Combine this with lax oversight and it's not surprising that companies are cashing in on a massive scale. For example, one company, National Heritage Academies, appears to have overcharged the state tens (possibly even hundreds) of millions of dollars on rent alone.

How do Gov. Rick Snyder and former Gov. John Engler respond to the apparent problems with their initiatives?
Both Republican governors told the Free Press that other questions are secondary, including how transparent charter schools are with taxpayer dollars, how much money management companies make, whether the state’s oversight of charter schools is sufficient. What matters, they said, is academic growth.

“The real issue is not for-profit companies — it’s (are) there good outcomes?” Snyder said. “Are the students college ready? That’s the long-term goal and how we should judge not only charter schools, but also traditional schools.”

“The focus should be on what happens in the classroom,” Engler said. “Who provides it matters less than the education they are providing. ... The bottom line is, how are children doing? Are they learning?”
There are at least two layers of weird here. The first is the assertion that taxpayers in the middle of a fiscal crisis shouldn't care about being robbed blind as long as they were happy with the service provided. The second is the implication that the taxpayers should be happy with this service.
Of the charter schools ranked by the state during the 2012-13 school year, 38% fell below the 25th percentile, meaning at least 75% of all state public schools performed better, according to a Free Press review of data published by the state. This includes charters operated by for-profit and nonprofit companies, as well as self-managed schools. That compares with 23% of traditional schools below the 25th percentile.
This indicates an extraordinary level of denial. To understand where that comes from it helps to dig deeper into the interview:
Engler and Snyder both said charter schools need improvement but are educating students well.

Engler: “I talk to Doug Ross (founder of University Preparatory system of charter schools) and I know they are. ... As a result of the competition, more kids are learning. Are they improving enough? There’s still work to be done. There’s no question you could answer the question the same with traditional public schools.”

Snyder: “They are educating students. That’s one area we could use more work on, not just the charter schools, but also the (traditional) schools. That led to the creation of EAA” — the Education Achievement Authority that has assumed responsibility for many poor-performing traditional Detroit schools.
“The oversight is ultimately the parent, just like it has always been,” Engler said. “The parent moved if (the traditional school) wasn’t working, but that was limited economically. It’s a question that misses the broader point: What goes on in schools should be the focus. The whole focus should be on education. ... The structural questions, frankly, are missing the point.”
Gov. Engler sees choice and markets as the solution to all of education's problems, while Snyder, when confronted with corruption and scandals in the charter school sector, calls for greater scrutiny of traditional schools. You have here the two primary articles of faith that made this crisis possible – – market magic and the evils of the public sector. These are deeply held and like all true articles of faith, they do not yield to experience and reason.

My notes on Khan Academy's SAT prep at You Do the Math

This is a work in progress so we should cut the Khan Academy some slack. Even with that in mind, though, I'm seriously underwhelmed by the SAT prep materials up so far. I know their heart is in the right place, but from the skimpy selection to the low wattage instruction, there's just not that much here.

I address the subject in more detail at the teaching site, You Do the Math, but I don't hit the bigger concern that I keep running into with these online learning ventures. As far as I can tell, no one has thought through this problem in terms of this medium. What we're seeing now is usually the pedagogical equivalent of a filmed play. If you simply set up a camera to cover the stage, you invariably end up with something unwatchable no matter how strong the original presentation was. The same basic principle applies to instruction.

You don't just film a play; you adapt it, making something new and distinct from the original. Hitchcock's Dial M for Murder and Rope come to mind. So far, I don't think that most of the people doing online instruction have thought deeply about the problem of adaptation. I'm afraid many haven't even realized that it's a problem at all.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

One quote that tells you everything you need to about Florida's culture of charter school oversight

From the Sun-Sentinel's previously mentioned profile of Steve Gallon III [emphasis added].
The schools’ financial team began to caution the boards against overspending, flag certain payments, and raise concerns about Gallon’s seemingly unchecked authority.

“I started warning board members,” said [Katrina] Lunsford, the financial manager.

She also said: “He, from an overall standpoint, just started taking charge and taking over.”

Records show the boards at times responded with indifference or hostility to issues raised by Lunsford and the accountant she hired to help her with the schools, Jim D. Lee.

When Lunsford requested documentation for a $625 bank transaction on Sept. 25 from Dorothy Gay, the board president for the Palm Beach County school, Gay provided it — along with an indignant email:

“Let the record reflect the following, which I will make perfectly clear this one time only and never again question me about any ‘funds’ or state to me, ‘show documentation’...”

Florida charters and the not-so-hidden costs of creative distruction

We've been spending a lot of time on the shady characters who were uncovered by what had damned well better be an award winning series by the Sun Sentinel. We haven't spent enough on the damage they do.

As we've discussed before, the underlying assumption behind Florida's approach to charter schools is that the combination of lots of ideas, minimal regulation and unchecked creative destruction will produce transformative innovation. [All quotes from the Sun Sentinel story by Karen Yi and Amy Shipley]
State law requires local school districts to approve or deny new charters based solely on applications that outline their plans in areas including instruction, mission and budget. The statutes don’t address background checks on charter applicants. Because of the lack of guidelines, school officials in South Florida say, they do not conduct criminal screenings or examine candidates’ financial or educational pasts.

That means individuals with a history of failed schools, shaky personal finances or no experience running schools can open or operate charters.

“The law doesn’t limit who can open a charter school. If they can write a good application … it’s supposed to stand alone,” said Jim Pegg, director of the charter schools department for the Palm Beach County school district. “You’re approving an idea.”
Charter-school advocates say the complexity of the application, which can run more than 400 pages, weeds out frivolous candidates. But school officials in Broward and Palm Beach counties told the Sun Sentinel some applicants simply cut and paste from previously approved applications available online.
There are a number of issues with this approach. There's the problem of adverse selection -- the lack of a background check makes the process more attractive to people who couldn't pass a background check and those people tend to crowd out better applicants. There's the misalignment of incentives --  even a failed school can produce a decent pay-off. And there's the high cost of failure borne almost entirely by taxpayers, teachers, parents and children.
Every time a charter school closes, dozens of children are displaced — in some instances, mid-month. Many return to their neighborhood schools where some struggle to catch up because their charters did not provide required testing, instruction in basic subjects or adequate services for those with special needs.

“This isn’t just a regular business. This isn’t a restaurant that you just open up, you serve your food, people don’t like it, you close it and move on,” said Krystal Castellano, a former teacher at the now-closed Next Generation charter school. “This is education; this is students getting left in the middle of the year without a school to go to.”

Next Generation, an elementary school in Lauderdale Lakes, sometimes had no toilet paper, soap or paper towels in the student bathrooms during the 2012-13 school year, teachers said. Students sometimes ate hours after their designated lunchtimes, often from fast-food restaurants. A parent complained of a revolving door of teachers.

“Things were horrible,” said Cynthia Hazlewood, who helped build the school’s curriculum and has worked at other charter schools. “One day FPL came in and shut the lights off.”

The school shuttered weeks before the last day of school.
To be hammer blunt here, this reveals a hugely hypocritical contradiction that runs through the reform movement. The justification for eliminating even the most basic job protections for teacher is that keeping an incompetent teacher harms a student. There are real questions about whether eliminating tenure improves overall teacher quality, but putting those aside, the damage done by having a bottom-of-the-pool teacher is a fraction of that done by this kind of creative destruction. From the lost instruction time to the emotional and social toll of having their lives disrupted to the disillusionment of learning the truth about that wonderful new school, this is a horrible price for kids to pay. No doubt, it was made worse by by the Florida state government's incompetence and endemic corruption in the education sector, but a large part of this suffering is intrinsic to the try-fail-try approach. Even when it works as intended, some kids have to pay a high price so that the system can be healthy.

Of course, the Florida system didn't work as intended; it was a train wreck and here are a few of the casualties.
As students showed up for class, parts of the building remained under construction. Classrooms had not undergone required fire inspections and sometimes lacked air conditioning, district documents show. The iGeneration charters bused their high schoolers on unauthorized daily field trips because they didn’t have enough seats at the school, records show.

On one trip, they lost a student. Though she was found four hours later, district officials immediately shut down the schools.

Because of the quick shut-down, the iGeneration charter schools were overpaid nearly $200,000, according to the Palm Beach County school district. The schools have not returned the money.

The company that founded the iGeneration charter schools, InterVisual Education, blamed the schools’ demise on the management company it hired to operate the schools months before they closed.

“What was supposed to get done, never got done,” said Stephanie Velez, manager of operations for InterVisual Technology, the parent company of InterVisual Education. “There was nothing we could do at that point.”

InterVisual founded and managed another school in Immokalee. That school also was shut down by the Collier County school district last December. District officials cited the school for employing uncertified teachers and failing to submit required financial reports, documents show.

InterVisual will open another school this fall in Davie, but company officials have no plans to manage it.

“We’ve had our taste, and we didn’t like it,” Velez said.
A former teacher at the Ivy Academies stored her classroom supplies in the trunk of her car. Every morning, she’d wait for a phone call to find out where classes would be held that day.

“I would never know where we [were] going,” said teacher and former middle school dean Kimberly Kyle-Jones. “It was chaotic.”

The two Ivy Academies lasted only seven weeks.

The schools, managed by Trayvon Mitchell of Oakland Park, opened in 2013 at the Signature Grand reception hall in Davie.

Evicted over a bounced check, the schools relocated to a Fort Lauderdale church that did not have enough classrooms.

That’s when the daily field trips began.

On some days, students went to the Miami Seaquarium or local museums. Other days were spent at Holiday Park in Fort Lauderdale.

The schools then moved to a second church a few miles away.
A handful of South Florida charter schools that failed in the past five years owe a total of at least $1 million in public education money to local school districts, records show. The actual amount may be much higher. Districts struggle to track spending at troubled schools.

Charter schools, which receive public money in monthly installments based on student enrollment, can be overpaid if they overestimate their expected attendance or shut down abruptly.

State law requires that furniture, computers and unspent money be returned to the districts, but when officials attempt to collect, charter operators sometimes cannot be found.

“We do know there have been a few [charter schools] … where hundreds of thousands of dollars were never spent on kids, and we don’t know where that money went,” said Pegg, who oversees charters in Palm Beach County. “As soon as we close the door on those schools, those people scatter … We can’t find them.”

When a Broward school district auditor and school detective went searching for Mitchell at the Ivy Academies in September 2013, he left through a back door, records show. District officials said they have yet to find him, or to collect the $240,000 in public money the schools received for students they never had.