Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Free Markets and Efficiency

There has been a lot of talk about how efficient private markets are.  So, when UPS and Target had pretty major problems, it become something of a clichĂ© to point out that they were not making the market look so great.  I look at this issue differently -- large organizations always have efficiency, transparency, and coordination issues.  Governments get a bad rap because, by and large, they are large organizations. 

Adam Smith talked about, in the Wealth of Nations, how the streets of London were better lit because it was the municipal government providing the service.  He also had serious issues with corporations, mostly because they have precisely the issues he saw in government

So the myth that I would like to slay is that government is inherently inefficient.  Large organizations are inherently inefficient.  However, there are returns to scale that are extremely important.  It is useful to have a large polity to have a robust army -- it's not typical for the outnumbered army to win due to quality unless the size gap is small (just ask Napoleon about Russia).  But nobody would think Russia in 1812 was a more modern or efficient society than France. 

So this doesn't mean that we shouldn't have corporations (or government for that matter) or that we shouldn't ask for better administration (we should).  But it does mean that we should think carefully about what things are best done by which kind of organization.  It's not shocking that Kentucky (smaller than the federal government) seems to have implemented health care exchanges more efficiently.  On the other hand, a uniform legal system is something that we want implemented as broadly as possible and for which we are already willing to accept some efficiency trade-offs.

So I think the real issue is that real life is a game of rock-paper-scissors-lizard-spock.  Picking the correct level at which to solve a problem is half of the battle.  Target, for example, is a fine retailer and I have had a lot of positive shopping experience there.  I use UPS and Amazon all of the time and I am delighted by the median level of service.  But I was caught in both the Target hack and had a present for my wife come the day after Christmas.  I recognize that everything is a compromise.

So I guess my wish for the new year is that we could reframe the debate into "better government" and "better business" -- just improving matters in general.  That might be a much more useful approach to the whole debate.

And, before I forget, Happy New Year from OE to our readers. 

Monday, December 30, 2013

“Because she wanted to.”

Over at Valerie Strauss's essential Washington Post column, principal Carol Burris of South Side High School in New York has a must read guest post on Common Core. The whole piece is excellent but given our renewed focus on the math curriculum, I wanted to highlight the following:

My music teacher, Doreen, brought me her second-grade daughter’s math homework.  She was already fuming over Education Secretary Arne Duncan’s remark about why “white suburban moms” oppose the Common Core, and the homework added fuel to the fire. The problem that disturbed her the most was the following:
3. Sally did some counting. Look at her work. Explain why you think Sally counted this way.

177, 178,179,180, 190,200, 210, 211,212,213,214.

It was on a homework sheet from the New York State Common Core Mathematics Curriculum for Grade 2, which you can find here.
Doreen’s daughter had no idea how to answer this odd question. The only response that made sense to her was, “Because she wanted to.” My assistant principal and math specialist, Don Chung, found the question to be indefensible.
The teachers in her daughter’s school are also concerned.  They are startled to find that the curriculum is often a script. Here is an excerpt to teach students to add using beads from the first-grade module.
T: How many tens do you see?
T: How many ones?
S: 6
T: Say the number the Say Ten way.
S: Ten 6
Scripts like this are commonplace throughout the curriculum.
Similar headaches exist at the secondary level as well. A relative, who is required to teach Common Core Algebra from the modules, shared her worries about the curriculum’s conceptual gaps, disjointed and illogical concept progressions, and insufficient time to complete lessons.
I'll be filling these points out in more detail later, but here are a few quick points:

These examples and complaints are representative of most of the reaction I've been hearing about Common Core Math. Here's another interesting example I'll probably be discussing more soon;

As mentioned before, scripted lessons tend to produce more convergent learning. This is good for standardized tests;

Scripts also have a Harrison Bergeron effect on teachers. Even in a lecture, teaching is as much conversation as presentation. You always need to listen to the students -- even if it's just to their expressions and body language -- and shape what you're saying accordingly. Scripts discourage these conversations. But while scripted lessons are very seldom optimal for any competent teacher, they are the most sub-optimal for the best teachers;

Kids have a natural tendency to go off script. It is possible to suppress this tendency but it is not always advisable;

Note the complaint about "insufficient time to complete lessons." In many ways, the CC approach appears to have been designed to favor KIPP-type schools, institutions with extended school hours and calendars, regimented class culture and disproportionately inexperienced teachers. That's not that wild of a supposition when you consider the popularity of the model, the influence of its adherents and the antipathy of the reform movement to firewalls and conflict of interest concerns;

Deeper in the weeds but arguably more important is the role of Taylorism here. The reform movement has long had a weakness for certain kinds of business theory involving management and compensation, theories that resonate with consultants but fare badly in the field. Stack ranking is probably the example that's gotten the most press recently but I'd argue Taylorism is the most influential.

Fredrick Taylor always had a rather questionable foundation (particularly involving data) and his methods have been associated with some rather notable failures. Nonetheless, he set the business model and the culture of modern management consulting, a mindset that is tremendously important in the reform movement. Given all that, it's not too surprising to learn that possibly the most important figure in the new curriculum movement, David Coleman, got into the education field without any teaching experience due to his work as a consultant with McKinsey & Company.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Weekend blogging -- In Memoriam

Peter O'Toole

Michael Ansara

Ray Harryhausen

Richard Matheson

Jean Stapleton

Jonathan Winters

(Ansara was also Mr. Eden)

Friday, December 27, 2013

A holiday message from the creative class to Richard Florida -- screw you

Last Saturday was the big party of the year for the LA hot jazz/country blues scene. Droves of musicians, actors, writers and directors converge on a small house in Venice Beach, along with a smattering of historians and engineers (sound and software). Every year, numerous people make an allusion to the stateroom scene in Night at the Opera (and with this crowd, everyone gets the reference). There weren't any famous faces (unless you're really into jazz or roots music), but it was an accomplished crowd with Grammys, Broadway credits, glowing NYT, WSJ and NPR reviews and numerous impressive collaborations.

A few hours in, it struck me that almost all of the people at this party fell squarely into Richard Florida's creative class. In fact, most of the people I associate with on a regular basis fall into Florida's rather broad definition. What I heard last night further reinforced some things I've been observing for years now about the disconnect between the picture painted by pundits and social commentators and what it actually means to make a living through creativity in today's economy. It's a complicated situation but I think I can boil the gist down into the following fairly brief statement:

Screw you, Florida.
The super- creative core of this new class includes scientists and engineers, university professors, poets and novelists, artists, entertainers, actors, designers, and architects, as well as the "thought leadership" of modern society: nonfiction writers, editors, cultural figures, think-tank researchers, analysts, and other opinion-makers.
From "The Rise of the Creative Class" by Richard Florida

Florida paints a bright picture of these people and their future, with rapidly increasing numbers, influence and wealth. He goes so far as to say "Places that succeed in attracting and retaining creative class people prosper; those that fail don't." It wass hard to read something by Florida and not envy that rising class, at least it was until it hit me that he was talking about me and people I knew and our lives weren't going nearly as well as he suggested. As Thomas Frank put it "The creative class has never been more screwed."

Except for a few special cases, this may be the worst time to make a living in the arts since the emergence of modern newspapers and general interest magazines and other mass media a hundred and twenty years ago (even in the depression you had the WPA -- “Artists have to eat too”). Though we now have tools that make creating and disseminating art easier than ever, no one has come up with a viable business model that supports creation in today's economy.

With the exception of a few select areas where you can find lots of wealthy patrons, it's just not a reasonable career path. At the party this weekend, out of dozens of nationally and internationally recognized musicians, perhaps three or four were making a middle-class or better living at their craft; most were either getting by on very modest means and/or had day jobs.   Artistic professions used to have teaching to fall back on but those jobs have been getting crappier and yet harder to find over the past thirty or so years.

The picture is somewhat brighter on the STEM side, but not that much brighter. The collapse of teaching has hit us too. In the private sector, it's hit-or-miss if you're not flavor of the month and even if you are among the lucky few:

Companies (including the hungry ones) have gotten surprisingly picky;

You'll probably need a graduate degree (and the debt that goes with it);

There's little security even while you're hot;

The specialists who get the most money are also the most vulnerable to changes in tech and taste.

In other words, it's a lottery ticket and, considering the odds, the pay-off isn't all that great.

Florida's framework has rather publicly come crashing down lately, but, even at its peak, it never stood up to serious scrutiny. Like most of the utopian urbanists, his collection of anecdotes, cherry-picked statistics and wildly unjustified causal inference was only convincing because people wanted to be convinced.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

MOOCs and analogies

Matt Yglesias has a very nice post pointing out the issues of over-hyping MOOCs as a way to transform education.  He points out that TV watching of sports hasn't reduced demand for live attendance of sporting events:
At any rate, it would be dumb to assume or assert that the ability to watch education videos online will have the exact same relationship to live instruction that television has to live sports. The analogy is instructive simply because it's difficult to summarize all the ways that TV broadcasts have changed sports. In some ways, access is broader and more egalitarian than ever. In other ways, access is narrower and more exclusionary than ever. In some ways you see substitution. In other ways you see complentarity. It's complicated.
 This isn't a unique insight (I heard Mark Palko talk at length about how VCRs did not disrupt classroom teaching in any important way).  But it is important to remember that the potential to disrupt is not the same as actual disruption.  Nor may the interplay between live and broadcast media be simple and straightforward. 

More on the complicated politics (racial and otherwise) of the education reform movement

Like NYC, Chicago has been in the forefront of the reform movement, particularly when it comes to replacing traditional schools with charters and, like most of the country, it has been the site of increased push back over the past couple of years from parents, teachers' groups and surprisingly aggressive journalists.

One target has been the United Neighborhood Organization and its executive director Juan Rangel. This piece by the Chicago Reader's Mick Dumke and Ben Joravsky from back in 2012 nicely illustrates some points made previously about the way many reformers use racial politics:
The United Neighborhood Organization is the former Alinsky-styled community group that's built an empire of 11 charters and counting through what executive director Juan Rangel describes as years of "hard work."

What he doesn't stress quite as much is the political clout and connections UNO has cultivated with mayors Richard Daley and Rahm Emanuel, as well as Governor Pat Quinn, to the tune of about $30 million a year in public funding. And counting.

As for the Reader, well, in our tongue-in-cheek political roundup to close out 2011, we honored Rangel, in a manner of speaking, with the Halliburton Award, given to the private contractor who quietly runs a wing of government.

To his credit Rangel hit us right back, posting a link to the piece on his Facebook page with his own snarky wisecrack: "I usually don't promote the rants of people who despise charter schools, who are knee-jerk UNO haters or who just plain loathe successful Hispanics, but this week's Chicago Reader made me LMAO.... Check it out! If you want a hard copy, you can find one in any gentrified neighborhood where Hispanics have been displaced."
To the credit of both Rangel and the journalists, they managed to arrange an interview and a tour of one of the chain's schools.
Another row of children—all wearing the UNO brand—obediently files down the hall.

"Look at these kids. There are people who say they can't stand in a straight line. We're here to say it's doable. [The accusation that critics of charter schools don't believe that minority kids can succeed is a common piece of movement rhetoric. The part about not being able to stand in a straight line is a new one on me. MP]

"White liberals, they think they know what's best for our community. This community has a lot of assets—it's family oriented, there's good housing here. But the schools are crappy."

And the schools are crappy, he says, because some people send the message that it's normal for Hispanic kids to fail. And most of those people are white liberals.

In fact, Rangel keeps bringing up white liberals until we ask who exactly he's talking about. What about his white liberal benefactors and supporters, such as Arne Duncan, school board member Penny Pritzker, state senator Heather Steans—and Rahm Emanuel?

Rangel doesn't say a word.

But Mayor Emanuel's a white liberal, isn't he?


Let's take it step by step. We all agree that he's white—right?

Nervous laughter.

OK, back to that tour . . .

As long as we're on the subject of Mayor Emanuel, we note that he seems to visit UNO schools a lot—using them as a backdrop when he holds a press conference to rip the regular public schools or the teachers union.

"I don't think that's a prop," says Rangel. "I don't have a problem when the mayor or others highlight us as example. We're very proud of that. People say we've sold out and all that, but we're still pushing the envelope. You can't say we're not out there. You can disagree with what we do, but you can't say we're not doing something."

In short, he's not apologizing for presenting UNO as the voice of Hispanics in Chicago. "When people say, 'How does UNO get a $98 million windfall in these tough budget times?' Well, that's for them to figure out."
I came across this interview because Rangel is back in the news due to another aspect of the reform debate, the way that the cozy relationships between the reform advocates in office and the advocates in business is raising concerns.

Dan Mihalopoulos off the Sun Times has generally taken lead on this part of the story:
Juan Rangel, longtime leader of the clout-heavy United Neighborhood Organization, is out as UNO’s $250,000-a-year chief executive in the wake of a scandal that cost the group millions in state funding and led to a federal investigation of its bond dealings. Rangel’s departure “by mutual agreement” with the board of the not-for-profit group that operates the largest charter school network in Illinois is effective immediately, UNO officials said Friday. Rangel had three family members on the UNO payroll. Sources said two of them quit recently, including Rangel’s nephew Carlos Jaramillo, UNO’s deputy chief of staff.

Rangel has close ties to politicians including Mayor Rahm Emanuel, whose 2011 campaign Rangel co-chaired, Ald. Edward M. Burke (14th) and Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan (D-Chicago), who sponsored a $98 million state school-construction grant to UNO in 2009. The state money — believed to be the largest government subsidy for charter schools in the country — fueled UNO’s rapid growth as a
charter operator. But the way UNO spent the money helped bring an end to Rangel’s rapid rise in Chicago politics.

Rangel’s top aide, Miguel d’Escoto, resigned in February, days after the Chicago Sun-Times reported UNO had given $8.5 million of business — paid for with the state grant — to companies owned by two of d’Escoto’s brothers. The revelation prompted Gov. Pat Quinn to suspend grant payments to UNO in April, which temporarily halted construction of a new UNO high school on the Southwest Side.

Rangel offered a public apology, saying he had “failed to exercise proper oversight.”

Quinn lifted the suspension, and work on the UNO Soccer Academy Charter High School resumed. But Quinn disclosed recently that he has suspended payments from the remaining $15 million after the federal Securities and Exchange Commission began investigating UNO over its bond dealings.

In September, the SEC’s enforcement division in Chicago told UNO the agency “is conducting an investigation . . . to determine if violations of the federal securities laws have occurred.” The SEC asked for documents related to $37.5 million the group borrowed from private investors, as well as records involving the state grant.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Monday, December 23, 2013

Christmas from the Archive

The Internet Archive to be specific. Lots of fascinating stuff here. A music historian I know has an ongoing project digging through the radio collection and he's constantly coming up with something of artistic or historical interest. (If any pop culture historian would care to join the fray, take a look at "Singles and Doubles," a collection of shows with only one or two known episodes. )

Here are some Christmas-themed videos I dug up from the Archive. No new finds, but plenty of off-beat clips. We've got:

Two shorts from Edison studios;

Two non-jolly Christmas episodes from the original Dragnet;

An influential animated feature from the Soviet Union, with some very American added footage;

An early effort by Jean Renoir;

The debut production of the Hallmark Hall of Fame;

A CBS News special report from the mid-Sixties, interesting both for its subject matter and its reminder of how much TV news has changed over the years.

A Christmas Carol (1910)

The Night Before Christmas

A Gun For Christmas

The Big Little Jesus (1953)

The Snow Queen (Animation) (1959)

The Little Match Girl

C (Dec. 24, 1951)

Christmas In Appalachia, 1965

Saturday, December 21, 2013

More evidence that the NYT feels strongly enough about education to take a stand, not strongly enough to follow the debate

As previously mentioned, this NYT editorial managed to get the Shanghai PISA story so wrong that they praised China for following pretty much the opposite of its actual policy. The questions about Shanghai's test scores have been widely covered in publications like the Washington Post so, barring the possibility of an incredibly clumsy bluff, it appears that the NYT editorial board made no attempt to follow the story beyond skimming O.E.C.D. press releases.

This isn't an isolated case; it's a trend in the NYT editorial page coverage of education reform. In just this one op-ed, in addition to the up-is-down Shanghai claim, we have:

National Council on Teacher Quality's report on teacher prep programs being treated as authoritative despite having been largely discredited by Rutgers' Bruce Baker and numerous others (among other problems, the NCTQ study's methodology mainly consisted of looking at course names in school catalogs);

Canada cited as a model without mentioning that the country's education policy consists largely of taking the NYT-endorsed tenets of the reform movement (more charters, choice, and accountability, less teacher autonomy and tenure) and doing the opposite;

Completely omitting Sweden, the country that, by some standards, most fully embraced American style reform and which then saw its PISA scores drop like a stone;

Ignoring the historical context that shows that the U.S. has always been in the middle of the pack on international math tests, even when we were in the process of putting a man on the moon.

I might give them a partial pass on Sweden -- the topic was, after all, countries that were doing better than us -- but still...

Friday, December 20, 2013

401(k) plans: a never-ending story

I have worried about this issue before, but it is never bad to keep up with the reminders:
 If you have a 401(k) plan through your employer or an IRA or other investment account through your bank, the financial institution may try to set you up with a "financial adviser" to help steer your investment decision-making. This person will claim to be giving you advice in your own interest but in fact is under no legal or professional obligation to advance your interests. His real job is to steer you into high fee products that are lucrative for his employer. This is not criminal fraud that the FBI will investigate. It's not a civil offense that the SEC will investigate. It's not illegal. The Labor Department tried to change the rule and impose a fiduciary standard at least for employer-sponsored plans but congress stepped in to tell them no. You're never going to have a world without some sociopaths breaking the rules (read Josh Levin's amazing reporting for a spectacular example) but what we have is a world where congress steps in to make sure that deliberately peddling bad advice to middle-class savers isn't against the rules.
The part of this that I find the most painful is that these problems are occurring in parallel with a quest to reduce the level of social security.  People seem to get a reputation for being "tough-talking realists" for saying that entitlement spending (especially retirement funding) is unsustainable.  But there is no essential need for companies to try and hide the costs of these funds and the realistic impact that has on the rate of return.  In fact, doing so would be a positive social good in that people could save at more realistic levels.

On the other hand, 401(k) have a captive audience (you can't change your 401(k) provider without changing your job).  So they have a vested interest in extracting as much value as possible from the investors as the person who decided to contract with them is the employer.  So long as the people invested in the plan don't realize (while they are employees) that the plan gave bad advice, there is little impact to the employer.  So a classic principal agent problem. 

But there is no fiscal reason to do this to retirees.  After all, high profits for private firms should not be a political goal that trumps everything else.  And reputation won't matter as firms can always re-incorporate or change their name. 

So this suggests a different agenda -- not to improve retirement conditions for older adults but to support the finance industry.  Industry support is fine, but it really should be transparent. 

Thursday, December 19, 2013

The Shanghai Surprise -- something that people who followed the PISA story closely were already talking about

In the wake of the release of the PISA scores, one of the big topics was Tom Loveless's Brookings research which seemed to show that not only was Shanghai unrepresentative of China but the city's PISA scores weren't actually representative of the city.
Theoretically, at least, the ban against Shanghai’s migrant children attending primary and middle schools (up to age 14) was lifted in 2008.  For high schools (and the potential PISA population), Shanghai adopted a point system allowing some migrant children with highly educated parents or other high status characteristics to attend.  That system went into effect July 1, 2013 so it is too early to gauge the impact of this very modest reform.  And it obviously would have had no effect on Shanghai’s school population for PISA 2012.

The barriers to migrants attending Shanghai’s high schools remain almost insurmountable.   High schools in Shanghai charge fees. Sometimes the fees are legal, but often in China, they are no more than bribes, as the Washington Post has reported.  Students must take the national exam for college (gaokao) in the province that issued their hukou.  An annual mass exodus of adolescents from city to countryside takes place, back to impoverished rural schools.  At least there, migrant kids might have a shot at college admission.  This phenomenon is unheard of anywhere else in the world; it’s as if a sorcerer snaps his fingers, and millions of urban teens suddenly disappear.
The story was widely covered. The Washington Post's Valerie Strauss did an excellent summary. Joshua Keating also had a good write-up at Slate. And not surprisingly, Diane Ravitch has been all over it.

All of these pieces came out before December 17, 2013, which was when the New York Times Editorial Board published this:
Shanghai: Fighting Elitism
China’s educational system was largely destroyed during Mao Zedong’s “cultural revolution,” which devalued intellectual pursuits and demonized academics. Since shortly after Mao’s death in 1976, the country has been rebuilding its education system at lightning speed, led by Shanghai, the nation’s largest and most internationalized city. Shanghai, of course, has powerful tools at its disposal, including the might of the authoritarian state and the nation’s centuries-old reverence for scholarship and education. It has had little difficulty advancing a potent succession of reforms that allowed it to achieve universal enrollment rapidly. The real proof is that its students were first in the world in math, science and literacy on last year’s international exams.

One of its strengths is that the city has mainly moved away from an elitist system in which greater resources and elite instructors were given to favored schools, and toward a more egalitarian, neighborhood attendance system in which students of diverse backgrounds and abilities are educated under the same roof. The city has focused on bringing the once-shunned children of migrant workers into the school system. In the words of the O.E.C.D, Shanghai has embraced the notion that migrant children are also “our children” — meaning that city’s future depends in part on them and that they, too, should be included in the educational process. Shanghai has taken several approaches to repairing the disparity between strong schools and weak ones, as measured by infrastructure and educational quality. Some poor schools were closed, reorganized, or merged with higher-level schools. Money was transferred to poor, rural schools to construct new buildings or update old ones. Teachers were transferred from cities to rural areas and vice versa. Stronger urban schools were paired with rural schools with the aim of improving teaching methods. And under a more recent strategy, strong schools took over the administration of weak ones. The Chinese are betting that the ethos, management style and teaching used in the strong schools will be transferable.
If you're curious, you can click here to see Tom Loveless's head exploding.on Twitter.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Our annual Toys-for-Tots post

[update: A reluctant plug for Toys 'R Us. They still carry metal Tonkas and at least here in LA they're having a sale on musical instruments with guitars and keyboards going for $20.]

A good Christmas can do a lot to take the edge off of a bad year both for children and their parents (and a lot of families are having a bad year). It's the season to pick up a few toys, drop them by the fire station and make some people feel good about themselves during what can be one of the toughest times of the year.

If you're new to the Toys-for-Tots concept, here are the rules I normally use when shopping:

The gifts should be nice enough to sit alone under a tree. The child who gets nothing else should still feel that he or she had a special Christmas. A large stuffed animal, a big metal truck, a large can of Legos with enough pieces to keep up with an active imagination. You can get any of these for around twenty or thirty bucks at Wal-Mart or Costco;*

Shop smart. The better the deals the more toys can go in your cart;

No batteries. (I'm a strong believer in kid power);**

Speaking of kid power, it's impossible to be sedentary while playing with a basketball;

No toys that need lots of accessories;

For games, you're generally better off going with a classic;

No movie or TV show tie-ins. (This one's kind of a personal quirk and I will make some exceptions like Sesame Street);

Look for something durable. These will have to last;

For smaller children, you really can't beat Fisher Price and PlaySkool. Both companies have mastered the art of coming up with cleverly designed toys that children love and that will stand up to generations of energetic and creative play.

*I previously used Target here, but their selection has been dropping over the past few years and it's gotten more difficult to find toys that meet my criteria.

** I'd like to soften this position just bit. It's okay for a toy to use batteries, just not to need them. Fisher Price and PlaySkool have both gotten into the habit of adding lights and sounds to classic toys, but when the batteries die, the toys live on, still powered by the energy of children at play.

Divergent and convergent educational outcomes -- the sour grapes effect

This is another topic that we've kicked around for a while that's recently become more relevant (from a previous post):
As much as I complained about them at the time, the education classes I had to take to get certified did have some highly useful concepts. One of those was the distinction between convergent learning (where you want all students to reach the same final answer) and divergent learning (where you want each student to come up with a unique answer). Before you made a lesson plan or write a test, you were supposed to ask yourself where you want to see convergence and where you want to see divergence.
There is an common but fatally naive misconception that convergent learning goes with math and science while divergent learning goes with arts and humanities. Almost all subjects start with a large convergent learning component including the arts (try picking up an instrument and see how much divergence your teacher tolerates in the first few lessons). More importantly, ALL subjects are fundamentally divergent at a high enough level. Writing a novel, composing a symphony, proving a conjecture or designing an aircraft are all creative exercises in constrained problem solving. We demand that certain conditions be met but we expect that each solution (or at least the method behind it) will be unique.
Pretty much by definition, divergent outcomes are problematic when it comes to metrics. This can lead to what we might call the sour grapes effect, convincing ourselves that a certain attribute isn't important because it's difficult to measure or to work with. "Looking where the light is good" is always a questionable strategy, but it becomes particularly worrisome when the results of the analysis are used to assign resources.

We are, of course, talking about huge amounts of money and there has been no real effort to insulate the parts of the reform movement coming up with radical changes in what we teach and how we teach it from the parties who stand to make billions of dollars from these changes. 

One of the "benefits" of highly standardized teaching methods (taken to its logical extreme in the large number of scripted presentations found in Common Core-based lessons) is that they tend to produce more convergent outcomes. Pedagogically, this convergence may actually be a bad thing, and indication that these students have not actually thought through the questions on their own. It does, however, make the outcomes much easier to measure.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Paradigm shift on trade and inequality

Life has been busy so posting is light. But this point by Matt Yglesias cannot be missed:
But of course this isn't something that just happened. A lot of research has come out in recent years indicating that contrary to the blithe assurances of economists expanded trade with China has in fact reduced the earnings of American workers substantially. At the same time, these developments have made America richer overall. Which is to say that the resources exist, in principle, to make investments in Social Security, education, universal health care, wage subsidies, etc. that leave everyone better off. We just haven't actually done those things. And that, at the end of the day, is my bottom line. The broad shape of the economy is always shifting. What matters for big distributional outcomes isn't really those shifts, it's what the political process does with them. Our process has done a little of what we should be doing (Obamacare, for example) but also a fair amount of the reverse—as seen in the relentless drive for Social Security cuts.
This insight is really the heart of the inequality discussion.  People try to frame it as a form of social justice (let people keep what they earn).  But access to markets is, and always has been, regulated by governments.  Even in the state of nature, customs arise to facilitate trade and barter. 

But the failure to redistribute really makes trade policy look stupid.  Why should workers sacrifice earning power so other people can become richer?  Sure, there is an "on average" issue.  But that is only interesting if the wealth is broadly shared.  The relentless attack on taxes and social security seems to break the implicit social contract of "if we are richer then we will all be better off".

Now add in this new stuff on Canadian exceptionalism  (more Canadians work more than Americans and the gap widened when the US cut tax rates) and it all looks like a "bill of goods".  After all, taxes might well be the mechanism by which the gains from improved trade wealth are shared.  And yes, there may be some deadweight loss, but one presumes that the increase in trade wealth is large or they wouldn't be worth capturing.

[EDIT: Frances Woolley has some smart things to say about Noah Smith's argument.  But we don't need the strong form he proposes to spot a problem.  The tax effect has to be massive to overcome the wealth distribution argument.  Some of the arguments, like the different marginal tax rate on the second earner, suggest tax policy reform and not necessarily lower taxes]

It's killing me that I am too busy to properly develop these points but they are really, really important. 

Treatments and payback curves

[Epidemiology examples used by marketing statistician -- proceed with caution.]

In one sense, education research is like much of the research done by epidemiologists: the outcomes researchers are most interested in are complex and take years, even decades to fully express themselves. In both cases, we are generally forced to rely on relatively simple, short-term indirect metrics.

Treatments (at least treatments with significant effects) are likely to have some effect on the relationship between the outcome and the indirect metrics. For certain questions, you're OK as long as the relationship maintains the same direction; for other questions, though, these changes have a way of unexpectedly causing serious problems.

One of the issues that comes up at this point is how short-term your metric can be. You might be able to get a read on the cardiovascular impact of a blood pressure drug in a couple of weeks.  The analogous impact of a diet and exercise program might take a year to show up. Health researchers are well aware of these concerns; education researchers, particularly those influential with the reform movement, tend to be more nonchalant about the robustness of short-term indirect metrics. Given the trend toward deferring pedagogical and policy decisions to these metrics, that's a big concern.

I pointed out a case earlier where learning a different approach to multiplication put a student at a disadvantage in elementary school but had a significant pay-off in more advanced grades. On the other end of the spectrum, there are methods of covering material that improve test scores for a short period but which don't necessarily lead to retention.

Ideally, the benefits of an education are spread out over decades. It may not be practical to measure those benefits directly, but we can keep in mind the limitations of our proxies. This point will be coming up again in this thread.

Monday, December 16, 2013

PISA and the original Sputnik moment

Found both at the Wall Street Journal and the Fordham Institute website:

A Sputnik moment for U.S. education

Chester E. Finn, Jr.

December 08, 2010

Fifty-three years after Sputnik caused an earthquake in American education by giving us reason to believe that the Soviet Union had surpassed us, China has delivered another shock. On math, reading, and science tests given to 15-year-olds in sixty-five countries last year, Shanghai’s teenagers topped every other jurisdiction in all three subjects—by a sweeping margin. What’s more, Hong Kong ranked in the top four on all three assessments.
I see lots of movement reformers (including the president) making a connection between the way we're reacting to our PISA scores and the way we reacted to Sputnik. This is odd, not because the comparison isn't apt, but because this seems to be a case of alluding to the joke and forgetting the punchline.

The most notable thing about the reaction to the original Sputnik Moment was how completely misguided it was. The Soviets weren't surging ahead of us in aerospace, let alone in science in general. American education wasn't failing to produce first-rate scientists and engineers; if anything, we were seeing a tremendous run of talent and innovation. The most notable pedagogical response (new math) not only didn't dramatically improve math and science education; it was widely seen as a failure and was largely abandoned a few years later.

Sputnik did help to increase the amount of money we were spending on space exploration (and gave then-Senator Johnson a wonderful propaganda tool for his pet cause). It also freed up generous funding for other research initiatives like DARPA. All that cash certainly had a strong positive (though generally indirect) impact on science education, but in terms of education reform, the Sputnik crisis was basically a misconception leading to a fiasco.

With that in mind, when people talk about this being "our Sputnik Moment," my biggest fear is that they might be right.

A very nonstandard pedagogical example

Not sure about how this post over at You Do the Math came out, but it does fit in closely with the Common Core/math curriculum thread that will be spooling out here at West Coast Stat Views over the next few weeks. The post talks about my, in retrospect, rather odd refusal to learn my multiplication tables in elementary school and it illustrates some of the points that will come front and center when George Polya comes into the discussion.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Weekend blogging -- all auteur, all the time

As mentioned before, I have mixed feelings about auteurism as a theory, but I generally enjoy the corpus.

Hulu's "Criterion Picks" theme this week is "Starring the Director" and they've made some interesting films available for free viewing. They include a hard-to-find picture by Orson Welles (which I haven't seen) and The Rules of the Game by Jean Renoir (which I have seen and which lives up to the hype).

As Joe Bob used to say, check it out.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Passions and Procrustes

Many of the problems with education reform come from starting with overly simplified models and assumptions, then compensating with overly complicated implementations schemes. This is true with the areas we talk about a lot -- teacher and school quality, incentives, accountability -- but it's probably even more true with pedagogical questions.

Though virtually every proposed educational innovation comes with language about treating students like individuals and recognizing different learning styles (until the phrases start to sound like the conditioned aphorisms of Brave, New World), it is simply the nature of general, top-down reforms to tend toward the Procrustean. Most start with good intentions, but the pressure to come up with something easily implemented and widely applicable (not to mention, pitchable), invariably undercuts those intentions and generally produces an overly simplistic, one-size-fits-all solution.

All of this tends to lead to those weird disconnects you often see in education reform debates where a group of people approvingly discuss proposals that are completely at odds with their owns experiences as students. This is never more true than when you look into the origins of the passions that drive the best work.

Good teachers try to cultivate and where possible leverage and concatenate enthusiasms. They understand that...

R.L. Stine can lead to Stephen King.

Stephen King can lead to H.P. Lovecraft.

Lovecraft can lead to Arthur Machen

Machen can lead to Ovid and Grimm and any number of wonderful  books on myth and folklore.

And, of course, myth and folklore can lead to pretty much any area of art or culture.

The trouble is, you really don't want to put R.L Stine in your standards. It's not an approach that would work for everybody and besides, he's not that good.

You do, however, want all of the students to have an RL Stine of their own. It could be JK Rowling (who is good). It could be comic books that lead to folklore through stories about Thor and Hercules. A collection of Star Trek books that lead to a career in physics or engineering (which has happened surprisingly often). A fascination with sports that leads to a career in statistics.

When you ask successful people how they got interested in their fields, most will tell stories that are variations on this theme. Paul Krugman, for example, first became intrigued with the underlying principles of economics when he read Isaac Asimov's Foundation trilogy.

The trouble is that this is what they call in ed schools divergent learning, every student is expected to a different outcome. Worse yet, it's doubly divergent. Not only are students reaching different destinations; they're getting there via different paths. Movement reformers favor standardization, test-driven metrics and top-down initiatives, and despite endless protests to the contrary, it is horribly difficult to foster the kind of learning I've just described using these approaches.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

And national experiments

I strongly believe in being careful when generalizing the results from one country to another, particularly when those countries are as different as the US and Sweden. On the other hand, when considering radical shifts in national policy, you have to at least consider how well those policies have worked in other countries.

Somewhat surprisingly, Sweden is perhaps the best test we've had of the kind of privatization advocated by many in the education reform movement. As a result, the country's reforms were embraced by such unlikely supporters as the Heritage Foundation.

Here's a 2010 Foundation interview with Thomas Idergard, Program Director of Welfare and Reform Strategy Studies at Timbro, a "free-market think tank" based in Stockholm:
The Swedish school voucher program was introduced in 1992 by the then Center-Right government. First, the Social Democrats opposed the reform, but after having returned to power in 1994 they not only accepted it but also expanded the legislated compensation level of the voucher. Today there is almost a total national political consensus—with the one and only exception from the small Left (i.e., former Communist) Party—on the foundations of school choice in Sweden.

Since the 1970s, the Swedish school system had declined regarding quality and student attainment. One reason for this was the lack of choice. Only the very rich, who could afford private schools with private tuition fees on top of our very high taxes, had a right to choose. For all the rest, the school was one monolithic organization in which all students were considered to have the same needs and to learn the same way. The lack of choice created a lack of innovation regarding pedagogical concept and ways of learning adapted to different students’ needs. Public schools, run by politicians in the local branch of government (cities and municipalities), were all there was for 99 percent of all students.

The school voucher program was designed to create a market—with competition, entrepreneurship, and innovation—based on the Swedish and Scandinavian tradition of social justice and equality: All families should be able to choose between public and private schools regardless of their economic status or wealth. This equal opportunity philosophy, taken into its full potential, created an education market!
Since the calls for American reform are often based on low PISA scores and since a new round of scores have just been announced, it would be reasonable to check what has happened to Sweden's scores:
No other country has fallen so abruptly as Sweden in maths over a ten-year span. Overall, not one of the other 32 countries included in the OECD's Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) survey has seen its students take such a beating in their studies.

"The bleak picture has become bleaker with the Pisa review that was presented today," Anna Ekström, head of Sweden's National Education Agency (Skolverket), said after she became privy to the results. She had hoped for Sweden to finally buck the trend and stop declining in the ranking.

Sweden's schools now rank below both the United States and the UK according to the Pisa rankings.
I've never been a fan of using international test scores (even less so after this history lesson from Diane Ravitch), but if you are going to use such arguments they need to be what my business analyst friends call "directionally accurate." Recently we've seen a lot of arguments that don't clear that bar.

Natural Experiments

This was fascinating:
Their answer is yes: when urban life revived in the medieval period, French towns tended to be near old Roman centers, while British towns didn’t. And the British had the better of this deal, because optimal town locations in the Roman era — with good roads — weren’t the same as in the Middle Ages, when roads remained terrible but the technology of water transport had improved.
 Which says all sorts of things about how it might actually be possible to improve things in a rather dramatic way by asking some tough questions. 

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

How did we miss this?

It's terrifying when Brad DeLong is more on top of interesting stories on education than we are!  But this is from James Kwak

I have no problem with the premise: better teachers improve student outcomes, which is worth a lot of money. But do you see what’s going on? To get better teachers, the authors say, requires ”attracting more qualified people” and then “identifying and retaining” the most effective ones.

That just doesn’t follow. And anyone who’s worked in an actual company should realize that. Yes, it’s always better to have better workers. One way to get better workers is to hire more effective people and to fire less effective people. But the other way—which, in most industries, is by far more important—is to make your current workforce more effective. You do that in part by figuring out what attributes or processes make people more effective, and in part by training people and implementing processes in ways that improve productivity.

The idea that the only way to improve teacher effectiveness (remember, they said “requires”) is to increase quality at the front end and link retention to quality on the back end is the kind of illogical, impractical inference you draw if you have a certain type of attitude toward workers: the attitude that there’s only one abstract attribute that matters (quality) and that it’s intrinsic and unchanging. What’s surprising is that this is a non-obvious kind of fallacy: again, anyone who has run a business realizes that what matters more is what you do with the workforce you have.
I think that the whole idea of organizations like Teach for America falls into the trap above.  Focusing entirely on the recruitment and retention piece and not at all on the teacher development piece.  In some ways this seems to be a malaise of our age -- the want to have plug and play human resources instead of developing the work force with patience and practice. 

The conclusion is interesting as well:

But I also suspect that there’s a feeling, maybe not among these authors, but among the billionaires who like investing in education, of “if only more people like us became teachers”—that there are highly productive people and less productive people, and all we need is to adjust the incentives so more of the former go into teaching. I don’t think the world is that simple.
 That would also be a big issue with the whole inter-state competition piece.  If you think ability is an intrinsic quality (and a scalar) that is invariant between positions then this type of approach is very sensible.  Alternatively, if you want job insecurity to be high, using fear to motivate employees is actually surprisingly effective.

That would put reform into an awkward place, wouldn't it?

TFA Context -- one interesting table

On the heels of Gary Rubinstein's recent post on his first year in Teach for America (reviewed here) and this piece by Jennifer Berkshire on the generous contributions the organization gets from numerous corporate donors like FedEx and Subaru, and given TFA's way of popping up in various ed reform discussions, this seems like a good time to review some basic and uncontroversial facts about this very controversial subject.

Let's start with Wikipedia's introduction:
Teach For America (TFA) is an American non-profit organization whose mission is to "eliminate educational inequity by enlisting high-achieving recent college graduates and professionals to teach" for at least two years in low-income communities throughout the United States.
Of course, TFA does other things, but this is very much the persona-mission of the organization, so it's useful to evaluate the performance of TFA as a teacher recruiting organization. There is a great deal of disagreement over how to interpret the data on TFA members' effectiveness and retention, but some other aspects are much more clear-cut.

TFA is a small, expensive program.

More precisely, this was a very small and expensive program; it's become a merely small but very expensive one.

Year# of Applicants# of Incoming Corps Members# of RegionsOperating Budget

The cost per recruit has increased dramatically

In order for the TFA model to be scalable, the cost per recruit needs to drop sharply at some point. No sign of that yet.

There is reason to be concerned about selection effects

Actually, double selection effects. First there's self-selection. TFA is known for a daunting and highly selective application process that tends to attract high-achievers with solid resumes. Second, there's the process itself:
In 2010, 46,366 candidates applied and 5,827 were initially admitted, making the acceptance rate 12.6%. However, that number does not include those who earned eventual acceptance into the program from the waitlist of 932 candidates. If all on the waitlist were given acceptance, the acceptance rate would be 14.6%. Since some but not all were accepted from the waitlist, the exact 2010 acceptance rate is unknown, but it ranges from 12.6-14.6%. The acceptance rate for 2011 corps members was less than 11%
The result of all this is a tremendously unrepresentative sample of the pool of potential teachers. As a result, it's difficult to apply anything we learn from TFA data to general policy questions in education.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Equal enforcement of contracts?

Dean Baker is strident:

If the connection with AIG isn't immediately apparent, then you have to look a bit deeper. Folks may recall that AIG paid out $170m in bonuses to its employees in March 2009 with its top executives receiving bonuses in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.

These were people who not only shared responsibility for driving the company into bankruptcy; they also had been at the center of the financial web that propelled the housing bubble into ever more dangerous territory. In other words, the bonus beneficiaries were among the leading villains in the economic disaster that is still inflicting pain across the country.

The prospect of executives of a bailed out company drawing huge bonuses at a time when the economy was shedding 600,000 jobs a month provoked outrage across the country. President Obama spoke on the issue and said that unfortunately no one in his administration was smart enough to find a way that could keep the bonuses from being paid. The problem according to Larry Summers, then the head of President Obama's National Economic Council, was that the bonuses were contractual obligations and they had to be honored.

This provides a striking contrast to what might happen to current and former city employees in Chicago and may happen to current and former employers of the state of Illinois and Detroit. In these cases, it seems that the contracts workers had with their employers may not be honored. Employees who worked decades for these governments, with part of their pay taking the form of pensions in retirement, are now being told that these governments will not follow through on their end of the contract.

The differing treatment of contracts in these situations is striking for several reasons. First, the AIG executives stood to gain much more money with their bonuses on a per person basis. In contrast to the six-figure bonuses going to top executives, pensions for Detroit's workers average just $18,500 a year. Pensions for Chicago's workers average over $33,000 a year, but almost none of these workers will get Social Security, so this will be their whole retirement income.
I am not as upset at the difference in size of the individual compensation, the difference in liability for global economic problems, or the asymmetry in harm -- these points are decent but they are secondary to the key argument.  The real issue is whether the need to honor contracts is being applied equally.  And, it is true that bailing out pensioners has a serious element of moral hazard.  But it would be intriguing to see the argument for bank bailouts NOT having at least some element of moral hazard.   

The real question is what is the status of contracts as being fundamental; the ability to amend a long term agreement when the terms work out in somebody else's favor would really change the dynamics of our ability to run a modern economy.  Remember, it is a small walk from this to deciding not to pay for materials that have been purchased because your business plan did not work . . .

Non-linear relation of the day

There is a modern ethic that more and harder work is always an unbounded good.  But this perspective piece argues that too much pressure can actually reduce outcomes:
When knowledge workers are pressed too hard, the intimate connection between workers and their work is compromised and many things go wrong. Stress and anxiety harm mental health and, hence, performance. Competition rises and team cohesion—a major source of productivity gains—declines. Animosity may develop among staff, or between staff (who feel exploited) and management. Overworked workers take on extra tasks and pay a task-switching productivity penalty that DeMarco estimates at 15%, minimum. And it isn't just average productivity that declines; it is also peak productivity, those rare moments of transcendence when important breakthroughs are made.
Simply assuming a linear relation between effort and output seems like a dangerous assumption, and one that leads to bad policy.  It's also worth noting that we'd prefer to be on the other side of the productivity/pressure curve if we wanted to accept this lower productivity -- happy, unstressed workers tend to be easily retained by an employer.  But unhappy/stressed workers and low productivity seems like a bad trade. 

h/t: Mike

Monday, December 9, 2013

Good reporting alert

From the Seattle Times:

But what’s remarkable is the degree Boeing also wants the public to pay its basic costs. Including, it said, “acquiring site, constructing facility, building infrastructure and procuring equipment/tooling.”
That’s right — we are to buy the land, the factories and the machines that go inside, or at least a share of them. And give it all to Boeing, or let them use it rent-free.
“Company preference is toward a location that will share in the cost of all capital expenditures,” Boeing wrote.
Now that’s socialism. It’s the corporate variety, and it isn’t all bad, what with the good-paying jobs and boost to the local economy. But having the public buy the means of production — socializing the capitalists’ risks (though definitely not their profits) — is a far cry from free enterprise. Almost as far, in a different direction, as what the socialist was going on about.
I think that this point is right on.  It is one thing to ask for tax relief or talk about infrastructure, but when the company is asking the state to build the means of production then it really is socialism.  Whether these profits go to a corrupt apparatchik or to the management of a publicly traded corporation is irrelevant.  What is important is that nobody can realistically compete with the state.  So this type of behavior gives a subsidy to some folks, and prevent entry into the market by competitors with fewer political connections.  

Food for thought, really.  

An extraordinary post by Gary Rubinstein on his first year of teaching

If you're just joining us, Gary Rubinstein is a distinguished math teacher and education writer. He's also, as you'll see, both an alumni and a sharp critic of Teach for America. In this post, he takes a remarkably hard and honest look back at his first year of teaching.

This kind of walk down memory  is not something I'd like to do. My first year appears to have gone a little smoother than his did (at least none of the students hit me), but it was still highly stressful and I still have to live with the knowledge that a lot of kids learned less than they should have because their teacher was just beginning to figure out what he was doing.

The whole piece rings exceptionally true and I recommend reading it in its entirety  but there are a few secondary points I'd like to highlight because they fit in with some of the ongoing threads on our blog.

1. Under the circumstances,  a $5,000 recruitment fee seems high. It's been a few years since I was in the field, but back then applicants were expected to shoulder all of their own expenses (the best I ever got out of the deal was the very occasional  free lunch) and it's a lot easier for schools to find qualified applicants than it was twenty years ago.  It should also noted that some of the schools that pay significant fees to schools in areas that have a large surplus of qualified and experienced teachers, perhaps the most egregious example being Huntville, a major aeronautics research center (hence the nickname 'Rocket City') that gets dozens of qualified applicants for every teaching position. (For a bit of context, the organization had a 2012 operating budget of $244M and put out 5,800 new corps members.);

2. You have to have a thick skin to teach junior high and high school. Kids can be cruel, but more to the point, they are going through an incredibly intense, confusing and stressful period and, as a characteristic of their age, they have a natural proclivity for misplaced emotions. Combine that with an instinctive need to test boundaries and you are left with a room filled with people who will make your life miserable if you let them. With time, you learn how respond without letting them feel they've pushed your buttons and, ironically, in the long run they'll be happier having failed. When you're just starting out, though, you might as well be prepared.

3. I realize I've been spending a lot of time on the culture of the ed reform movement lately, but I don't think you can fully understand what's been going on in the education debate without understanding that culture. TFA is a big part of that picture. Reading accounts of TFA alumni, I'm always struck by what an intense bonding experience the training and first two years would have been. Even though Rubinstein may not have been the best fit with TFA, he still says half the people he invited to his wedding were fellow core members.
Add to that official rhetoric that creates distance between TFA members and established traditional teachers, and you can see why compromise and self-policing might be difficult for the movement they largely define and why the movement is so quick to converge on certain sometimes unusual positions like pedagogical theories that seem to owe more to Derrida than to Piaget.

4. Putting aside those occasional unusual positions, whenever I read accounts of the training material, there's generally an odd disconnect. Most of what I hear is relatively familiar, pretty much in line with what you'd hear in a typical education class, but it's usually described as something special, perhaps even unique to TFA (apparently trainees sometimes also pick up on these discrepancies -- check out what this writer had to say about these “uncommon techniques”). Apparently, assertive discipline* is another one of those overlaps between TFA and lots of traditional educators. I used the technique for a year when I first started teaching twenty-plus years ago (then dropped it like a fresh horseshoe). It was a hot trend and its proponents assured all the new teachers that it was almost completely effective if done according to the instructions. In practice, most new teachers seemed to get results closer to Rubinstein's.

Here are some excerpts:
Nowadays, districts pay a $5,000 recruitment fee to TFA for the opportunity to hire the new TFA trainees.  I don’t know if back then TFA got any money for me.  I hope they didn’t.  At my school that year there were about 150 teachers.  Three of us were new, me, Jon, and Mitzi, all TFA.  I don’t know who the school would have hired if not for us, so it is hard to say whether or not we were a positive or negative influence on the school compared to what it would be without us.  Though that year did nearly break me, and wasn’t so kind to Mitzi or Jon either, I’ve always felt that, in the scheme of things, we didn’t do ‘damage’ to our students.  One reason for this was that we taught middle school so I was just one out of seven teachers my students had each day.  The other six teachers knew what they were doing so in some ways my class became an opportunity for students to try to learn self-control since the teacher wasn’t doing a very good job at creating a controlled learning environment.
But having lived through the TFA experience and having many TFA alumni who are close friends of mine — I think half of the friends I invited to my wedding were people I met through TFA — I do know that there is a big difference between ‘the organization’ which is a greedy and power hungry one that will lie about their statistics when it benefits themselves to do so and ‘the corps,’ the mostly twenty-two year olds who just graduated college and who try to use whatever skills they have along with their very limited training to get through that first year and try to still make some kind of difference.  And while I am sure that TFA, the organization, at least in its current incarnation, harms children, teachers, and communities, overall, I do think that most of the individual teachers don’t.
Mr. Popcorn Pinnochio Afro Rubinstein is one of the meaner nicknames I’ve been called as a teacher.  (The Pinnochio is because of the size of my nose, and not, I think, because they thought I was a liar).  Better nicknames have been Mr. Frankenstein and even Mr. Robitussin.  As can be seen in the picture, till the end I had faith in the TFA endorsed ‘Assertive Discipline’ method of writing names on the board and putting checks next to them.  Still, you either have to hate a guy a lot to make a picture like this, or maybe like them a little.
* I later learned that assertive discipline was recent variant of the far older Rumplesnitz Method of crisis management.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Weekend blogging -- auteur edition

I've always wondered why, despite Orson Welles reputation, his films were so difficult to find. Here's one of the few exceptions.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Comment on last post

Blogger ate another comment so I am going to put it out as a post.

Mark wonders why a movement with smart people and admirable goals can have issues with corruption.  I think that the key piece to understand here is that, in a real organization, the goals will be a mix of real goals and marketing. 

You only have to look at the rhetoric of he top 1% of earners being job creators (remember trickle down economics) to see how this can happen.  After all, the goal of making everyone wealthier and more prosperous is noble.  But it is a "heads I win, tails you lose" scenario.  If trickle down happens the elite get more money.  If it doesn't happen the elite get more money.  It's worth noting that the elite do pretty well regardless of what the truth is.

Similarly, if charter schools improve outcomes for all children than the people who run charter schools will get rich and help kids.  If they fail, these same people will simply get rich (as we won't be able to see failure fast enough to prevent vast profits.  Now I am positive that 100% of these people want the first scenario.  Everybody would like to be wealthy and to be a moral hero at the same time. 

It gets tricky when these goals conflict.  These things range from the subtle (that one study is concerning but maybe it was a fluke) to the less so (this stuff is great marketing and provides cover for all sorts of actions).  It isn't helped by our media preference for news about problems and not news about "another senior class graduates from a public school with a solid education provided by hard working union members" -- which is anodyne and unremarkable news.

So I think that option #5 (it is all marketing) should show up.  It's a variation of #3, except it does not necessarily require the people saying this stuff to necessarily believe it. 

"Carerruption" -- the biggest threat to the education reform movement

The following is the beginning of a blistering piece of satire over at EduShyster:
How can something so wrong feel so righteous? 
For far too long, three little words have been holding back the adult interests that long to put students first. What are they you ask? The teachers union conflict of interest laws. Thankfully these outdated and antiquated restrictions are now out of sight and out of mind where they belong. And while haters like you are already mumbling about ethics, may I take this opportunity to remind you that it isn’t corruption if you do it for the right reasons? I believe the word is *carerruption*
From there the blogger, Jennifer Berkshire, proceeds to list a few select examples of questionable education reform initiatives (totaling in the billions) pushed or brokered by officials who personally stood to profit from the enterprises. It's a great read but it leaves what might be the most important question unasked: why is a movement dedicated to such admirable goals and run by such smart people so vulnerable to blatant scams and rampant corruption?

I'll be filling out more details, but these are the bare bones of my attempt at an explanation.

1. Group dynamics -- given the scope, size and influence of the movement, we are talking about a surprisingly tight-knit, highly interconnected group. Add to that a relatively high level of homogeneity in terms of background, education, class, teaching experience and pedagogical philosophy. Under these conditions we would expect a tendency toward group-think, excessive social norming, powerful group identity, and us vs. them attitudes. We would also expect affinity cons.

2. Culture -- those us/them tendencies are greatly heightened by a dogma that implicitly and sometimes explicitly blames the failures of schools on "some combination of apathy or incompetence" on the part of non-movement educators. You can find many more examples on Gary Rubinstein's blog.

3. Spin feedback -- the reform movement has been extraordinarily aggressive in its well-financed lobbying and PR efforts. For a while, it was quite successful at selling the twin narrative of impending disaster and shining hope. We've since seen growing popular skepticism about this narrative but very little of that skepticism seems to have made it into the movement itself. Unfortunately, if perhaps inevitably, the rhetoric intended to convince the rest of the world is most resonant within the group.

4. Lack of immediate external checks -- the press has tended to be sympathetic and has generally held off from criticizing until there was overwhelming evidence that something was wrong (Michelle Rhee, the LA IPad fiasco).

The result of all of this is a movement that has no natural defenses against internal abuses, and, given the amount of money we're talking about, abuse is pretty much inevitable.

Update: If you're coming in via link, make sure to check out Joseph's reply.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

"But the Pension Fund Was Just Sitting There"

For some reason I started thinking about the title of this old Doonesbury book. Funny how the mind works.

On a completely unrelated note, David Sirota has a fascinating article on Detroit's financial troubles. As our favorite auteurist used to say, check it out.