Thursday, September 9, 2010

Strange Bedfellows

(where your intrepid blogger sides with Robert Samuelson, gives Ray Fisman a break and wonders what in the hell happened to Jonathan Chait)

You really have to read this Jonathan Chait column on Robert Samuelson, and I don't mean that in a good way. You have to read this to see for yourself how low the educational reform movement can drag even a writer as gifted as Chait.

There's too much here to cover in one post (I could do a page just on Chait's weird reaction to Samuelson's looks, a topic that I had never given any thought to up until now). I may take another pass at another section later but for now I'm going to limit myself to this particularly egregious bit:
How does Samuelson explain the existence of new charter schools that produce dramatically higher results among these lazy, no-good teenagers? He insists, "no one has yet discovered transformative changes in curriculum or pedagogy, especially for inner-city schools, that are (in business lingo) 'scalable.'" This is utterly false. The most prominent example is the Kipp schools, which have shown revolutionary improvements among poor, inner-city students and have rapidly expanded.
It is strange to see Chait take the pro-privatization side of the debate, stranger still to see him accuse critics of charter schools of having an anti-government bias*, but what pushes this into Rod Serling territory is the spectacle of having Chait, one of the most gifted bullshit detectors of the Twenty-first Century, rolling out the same sort of flawed argument that he has made a career out of dismantling.

In order to be viable, a reform has to improve on the existing system by a large enough margin to justify its implementation costs, but if you accept the metrics used by the reform movement, then you will have to conclude that charter schools do worse than public schools more often than they do better.**

So we have a major push to privatize government services which, after about two decades of testing have been shown to under-perform their traditional government-run alternatives. Rather than show why this statistic is misleading, Chait pulls out vague, anecdotal evidence of a single out-lier. Now, given the variability of the data, we would expect the top schools (or even chains) to do pretty well. That alone rebuts Chait's point, but it gets worse. Self-selection, peer effects and selective attrition*** all artificially inflate KIPP's results. When you take these factors into account, it's hard to make a compelling statistical case that even the best charter schools are outperforming public schools (though the second footnote still applies).

At the risk of over-emphasizing, this is Jonathan -- freaking -- Chait we're talking about, a writer known for his truly exceptional gift for constructing logical arguments and, more importantly, spotting the fallacies in the arguments of others. Under normal conditions, Chait would never fall for a badly presented argument-by-anomally, let alone make one, just as, under normal circumstances, a confrontation between Samuelson and Chait would result in little pieces of the former being scraped off of the walls of the Washington Post.

But Chait loses this confrontation decisively. From his ad hominem opening to his factually challenged close he fails to score a single point. And this is far from the only example of this odd reform-specific impairment affecting otherwise accomplished writers. OE has spilled endless pixels on the reform-related lapses, both statistical and rhetorical, of smart, serious, dedicated people like Chait, Seyward Darby and, of course, Ray Fisman (just do a keyword search). None of these people would normally produce the kind of work we've cataloged here. None of them would normally ignore the defection of one of the founding members of the reform movement. None of these people would normally feel comfortable dismissing without comment contradictory findings from EPI, Donald Rubin and the Rand Institute.

David Warsh has aptly made the following comparison:
Remember the recipe for a policy disaster? Start with a handful of policy intellectuals confronting a stubborn problem, in love with a Big Idea. Fold in a bunch of ambitious Ivy League kids who don’t speak the local language. Churn up enthusiasm for the program in the gullible national press – and get ready for a decade of really bad news. Take a look at David Halberstam’s Vietnam classic The Best and the Brightest, if you need to refresh your memory. Or just think back on the run-up to the war in Iraq.
but along with Halberstam, it might be time to brush off our copies of Cialdini's Influence.

From a data standpoint, the past few years have been rough on the reform movement. Charter schools have been shown to be more likely to under-perform than to outperform. Joel Klein's spectacular record turned out to be the product of creative accounting (New York City schools have actually done much worse than the rest of the state). Findings contradicting the fundamental tenets of the movement accumulated. Major figures in research (Rubin) and education (Ravitch) have publicly questioned the viability of proposed reforms.

As Cialdini lays out in great detail, when you challenge people's deeply held beliefs with convincing evidence, you usually get one of two responses. Sometimes you will actually manage to win them over. More often, though, they will dig in, embrace their beliefs more firmly and find new ways to justify them.

I think it's safe to say we don't have response number one.

* Almost all of the major tenets of the modern reform can be traced back to the Reagan era and were closely associated with the initiatives described in Franks' The Wrecking Crew.

** Ironically, if you consider the intellectual framework of the reform movement to be flawed and overly simplistic, you can actually make a much better case for charter schools.

*** From Wikipedia: "In addition, some KIPP schools show high attrition, especially for those students entering the schools with the lowest test scores. A 2008 study by SRI International found that although KIPP fifth-grade students who enter with below-average scores significantly outperform peers in public schools by the end of year one, "... 60 percent of students who entered fifth grade at four Bay Area KIPP schools in 2003-04 left before completing eighth grade."[7] The report also discusses student mobility due to changing economic situations for student's families, but does not directly link this factor into student attrition. Six of California's nine KIPP schools, researched in 2007, showed similar attrition patterns.[citation needed] Figures for schools in other states are not always as readily available."

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