Thursday, January 30, 2014


Matt Yglesias has a great reframing of a key political issue in modern America.  Zachery Goldfarb pointed out:

As they cast about for ideas, Republicans are struggling to find policies that match the simplicity and gut appeal of such Democratic proposals as raising the minimum wage without violating core conservative principles by increasing spending or interfering with market forces. Many lawmakers are turning to conservative think tanks, such as the American Enterprise Institute.

Matt then applied this thinking to another area of modern life:

Many of us in America are struggling to find weight loss strategies that don't require us to spend more time at the gym or eat less food. It turns out to be challenging.

I think this analogy is even more penetrating than pithy.  For example, I personally have never lost a lot of weight without exercise.  But exercise is unpleasant.  Still, it would be a mistake to have a personal policy that I will never, ever increase my amount of exercise.  That would be foolish.

It makes a lot more sense when you realize that an economy is a constructed object.  The rules seem so fundamental that we forget that there is a lot of social consensus that goes into it.  Other cultures have organized economic activity differently.  So it is an odd thinking that we just happened to get it all correct around the end of the twentieth century and there is no optimization left . . .


Monday, January 27, 2014


Apologies for the silence. I've got a big project wrapping up while, based on the word from Seattle (via a bad cell connection), Joseph is experiencing some of the more vivid aspects of business travel.

Draft posts are accumulating at an alarming rate. Here are some of the topics:

A marketing statistician's take on on these two articles on the rise of direct marketing in the conservative media bubble (the first is worth reading just for the quotes “I didn’t like Nixon until Watergate” and "An Oilfield in the Placenta");

The important but little discussed question of intellectual property in agriculture;


The ways that the social circles of elite journalism inhibit the profession from honest self-criticism;

More on how Katrina was the best thing to happen to the schools of New Orleans.

And much more soon.

Take care and thanks for the patience.


Wednesday, January 22, 2014

33 freaking degrees

[As you might guess, I wrote this post this summer and never got around to posting it.]

Today while driving from my home in North Hollywood to Santa Monica, I experienced either a 30 or 33° drop in temperatures. (There was a brief pocket of 110° temperature according to my car's thermometer but I have more confidence in the 107°).

A 30° change is admittedly very rare, however a 20° drop is not that unusual. Furthermore, you can get those 20° to 30° deltas without even leaving the Los Angeles city limits, let alone leaving the county.

All of this goes back, though admittedly in a roundabout way, to our long-standing thread about the difficulty of generalizing from city to city and the danger of having one region dominate the pool of journalists and pundits.

Not only are there sacrifices that are relatively minor in Los Angeles but which would be devastating in some other parts of the country (like making do with space heaters), there are sacrifices that would be devastating in one part of town but not that big a deal in another part of town (like doing with air conditioning).

[postscript: I was in Santa Monica a few weeks ago. It was 79° -- four degrees warmer than it was in North Hollywood.]

Monday, January 20, 2014

Are we becoming more tolerant of nepotism (and other perks of privilege)?

The New Republic has a very good profile by Julia Iofee of  Michael Needham of the Heritage Foundation. The whole thing is worth reading, but there's one paragraph I'd like to single out both because of its content and its placement deep in the article.
After [Michael] Needham graduated from Williams in 2004, Bill Simon Jr., a former California Republican gubernatorial candidate and fellow Williams alum, helped Needham secure the introductions that got him a job at the foundation. Ambitious and hard-working, he was promoted, in six months, to be Feulner’s chief of staff. According to a former veteran Heritage staffer, Needham is intelligent but “very aggressive”: “He is the bull in the china closet, and he feels very comfortable doing that.” (“I consider him a friend,” says the college classmate, “but he’s a huge asshole.”) In 2007, Needham, whose father has given generous donations to both Rudy Giuliani and the Heritage Foundation, went to work for Giuliani’s presidential campaign. When the campaign folded, Needham followed his father’s footsteps to Stanford Business School and then came back, at Feulner’s bequest, to run Heritage Action.
You'll notice Iofee goes out of her way to suggest that Needham got his first rapid promotion by being "ambitious and hard-working," and there is, no doubt, some truth in that, but pretty much everybody who goes to work for a big-time D.C. think tank is ambitious and hard-working. These are not traits that would have set Needham apart while being the socially well-connected son of a major donor very well might have.

My question is: would this angle have been handled differently a few years ago? Obviously nepotism and advancement through connection have always been with us, but until recently I get the impression that this career path was seen as somewhat suspect; people who obviously got their positions thanks to string-pulling were put on a kind of public probation until they had proven themselves.

Now, the public (or at least the press) seems to me much less likely to discount the accomplishments of the well-connected children of the rich and powerful. Along similar lines, though you can certainly still find jokes about the boss's son/nephew/brother-in-law, but they don't seem nearly as pervasive as they were through most of the 20th Century. Anyone else see a trend here?

Friday, January 17, 2014

Second order effects

There has been a lot of discussion about inequality lately, some of which could use some careful thinking about distributions and effect order.

I think the easiest way to describe what I am thinking about is an example.  Consider two groups, call them A and B.  At the beginning A and B have the same number of people and the same average share of some sort of measure of wealth.  So A has 50 people and 50 income units, as does B. 

Now consider a policy that added 20 wealth units to B and subtracted 10 wealth units from A.  Call it free trade.  Now the size of the wealth pool is 110 units (higher) but group B is 50% wealthier than group A.  This could happen if you opened up competition for factory workers but no lawyers (as a random example). 

The good outcome has group B giving between 10 and 20 units of wealth to group A (redistribution) so everyone is better off.  But imagine group B thinks they worked hard for their 60 units of wealth?  So they argue for letting people keep what they earn.  But they also think opposition to these policies by group A is an anti-growth stance.  Yet group A is worse off.  They also lose political power (less wealth) and so have less opportunity to fight for redistribution, making a "trust me, we'll share" argument less than convincing. 

Now any real example will not have these simple inference available.  But it does make a big difference when you think about why people might oppose a policy that increase aggregate wealth for the society as a whole. 

Now consider first versus second order effects.  Let us pretend that Group B grows wealth faster than group A.  Under the old system (even division), the pool would grow by 5 wealth units per decade.  In the new system, wealth grows by 6 units, but it is proportional to the pool of wealth that the group has.  This is the efficiency harvested by the new policy (it increased wealth and increased the growth rate). 

So under the old system, groups A and B grow at 5 wealth units and end up with 55 units.  In the new system, Group A has 42.4 units and group B has 63.6 units.  The gap between A and B is actually larger even if both groups grew by a faster rate.  For group A to reach 55 units, this fast growth rate would have to be sustained for many iterations (4 or 5, by my calculations).  So just speeding up the growth rate doesn't mean that everyone is better off, if the intervention has distributional effects.

So I think that this leads to two important policy conclusions.  In any ordered society, the rules will help some groups and hurt others groups (even a lack of rules will have a differential impact).  Just saying that a policy increases average wealth can be quite misleading.  The second is that second order, like higher growth, have to be really large to overcome first order effects.  Now, if you are completely neutral as to distribution (the size of the pool is all that matters) then okay -- but is anybody really neutral given they will be advantaged or disadvantaged by any actual policy?

Now, I re-emphasize that you can't actually get clean numbers in the real world.  Macroeconomics has measurement error, noise, confounding, and many groups with a vested interest in obscuring actual associations.  But it does mean that very simple narratives may not fully engage with the complexity involved in real world problems.  These are very simple thought experiments and they already make ideas like "target the maximum growth rate" seem to be less deadly obvious than you might expect them to be. 

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

The often dubious "not" in not-for-profit

I previously suggested that the education reform movement was unusually vulnerable to conflicts of interest. This would be an example:
The Pearson Foundation, the charitable arm of one of the nation’s largest educational publishers, will pay $7.7 million to settle accusations that it repeatedly broke New York State law by assisting in for-profit ventures. 
An inquiry by Eric T. Schneiderman, the New York State attorney general, found that the foundation had helped develop products for its corporate parent, including course materials and software. The investigation also showed that the foundation had helped woo clients to Pearson’s business side by paying their way to education conferences that were attended by its employees.
“The fact is that Pearson is a for-profit corporation, and they are prohibited by law from using charitable funds to promote and develop for-profit products,” Mr. Schneiderman said in a statement. “I’m pleased that this settlement will direct millions of dollars back to where they belong.”

The inquiry by the attorney general focused on Pearson’s attempts to develop a suite of products around the Common Core, a new and more rigorous set of academic standards that has been adopted by 45 states and the District of Columbia.

Around 2010, Pearson began financing an effort through its foundation to develop courses based on the Common Core. The attorney general’s report said Pearson had hoped to use its charity to win endorsements and donations from a “prominent foundation.” That group appears to be the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

“Pearson Inc. executives believed that branding their courses by association with the prominent foundation would enhance Pearson’s reputation with policy makers and the education community,” a release accompanying the attorney general’s report said.

Indeed, in April 2011, the Pearson Foundation and the Gates Foundation announced they would work together to create 24 new online reading and math courses aligned with the Common Core.

Pearson executives believed the courses could later be sold commercially, the report said, and predicted potential profits of tens of millions of dollars. After Mr. Schneiderman’s office began its investigation, the Pearson Foundation sold the courses to Pearson for $15.1 million.

The attorney general’s office also examined a series of education conferences sponsored by the Pearson Foundation, which paid for school officials to meet their foreign counterparts in places like Helsinki and Singapore.

The trips were made public after a series of columns in The New York Times, which detailed the expensive hotels and meetings with corporate executives that were staples of the experience.

Several school officials who went on the trips represented education departments that had contracts with Pearson. The investigation did not determine whether those officials had awarded any new contracts based on any improper influence. But the report found that executives from other companies were not invited to attend, giving Pearson’s corporate side a clear advantage.

The attorney general portrayed a culture at Pearson in which the lines between business and charity were often blurred. Pearson remains the largest donor to the Pearson Foundation, and the staff of the foundation included several Pearson employees. The board was made up entirely of Pearson executives until 2012.

As part of the agreement, the foundation said it would alter its governing structure by appointing three board members to review any financial transactions that might benefit the business side. The foundation also pledged to bar Pearson executives, in most instances, from attending its education conferences, and said it would not feature Pearson products at such meetings.
Mercedes Schneider does some more digging here.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

An optimistic take on Netflix

Megan McArdle:
That’s both good and bad for Netflix. On the one hand, all those warehouses are expensive to maintain and staff, compared with a website. On the other hand, they have a phenomenally high barrier to entry. You can imagine an upstart coming in and beating Netflix at streaming. But it’s hard to imagine another movie rental company building a parallel network of massive distribution centers on the off chance that it might be able to knock out the incumbent.
This is basically the "copyright issues are so bad they might strangle an emerging new industry that would otherwise greatly enhance consumer surplus making the outdated warehouses suddenly look valuable".  It seems implausible, but it is true that if streaming video falls apart then those DVD warehouses are going to look awful clever. 

It would also be a case where the success business strategy was the one that the owners completely ignored until success happened by mistake.  I wonder how often that has actually happened?

Monday, January 13, 2014

A slightly creepy letter from the CEO of Exxon Mobil

The education reform movement and Common Core in particular have never had a lack of corporate friends for a variety of reasons, but even in that crowded field, Exxon Mobil has always stood out. We'll spend more time later on why the company would line up so strongly behind standards which, according to their chief mathematical architect, aren't really designed to prepare kids for STEM (at least one possibility being that the CEO hasn't actually read the standards).

This post is concerned with just how far the company will go to promote this position. Here's a letter the CEO recently sent to the governor of Pennsylvania:
Dear Governor Corbett:

Exxon Mobil applauds and shares your commitment to ensuring that every child in Pennsylvania is prepared with the skills to compete in today’s workforce.  I also appreciate your strong support for the Common Core, including changes to reflect a “Pennsylvania Common Core,” and the potential it has to help your state’s students and teachers.  Your counterparts in New Jersey and Wisconsin, Governors Christie and Walker, and many other leading policymakers have been equally supportive.  However, I was disappointed to learn of the misinformation opponents of this critical effort are advancing, which subsequently led your administration to delay its implementation.  I urge you to make the necessary clarifications quickly and move forward with the Pennsylvania Common Core.

Like you, I believe the Common core will help ensure our students develop the skills and knowledge they need for success in college and careers.  This voluntary state-led effort developed by educators, parents and business leaders [actually, not so much -- MP] has the potential to turn around our underperforming public education system and produce the workforce that businesses need to remain competitive in the global marketplace.  The standards stipulate what all students should know, but leave it up to Pennsylvania to determine how it teaches its students.

Exxon Mobil has significant operations in Pennsylvania, and we are committed to enhancing the quality of life for all your citizens.  Last year, we contributed $3.3 million to Pennsylvania universities, hospitals, environmental research efforts and arts and civic organizations, but I believe there is nothing more important than improving the quality of education.  The Pennsylvania Common Core will go a long way to achieving that goal, and it gives Exxon Mobil the confidence that the educational standards we require for employment will be met by your state’s graduates.  Furthermore, it sets the groundwork for students to be prepared to compete globally for 21st century careers and help Pennsylvania prosper.


Rex Tillerson
Of course, businesses are constantly trying to pressure state governments, but there's something about that line about Exxon Mobil's contribution that sounds a bit like "Nice little charitable institutions you have here. Be a shame if anything happened to them."

Saturday, January 11, 2014

A belated fact check of an old Felix Salmon Netflix post

In the course of researching an upcoming post replying to this piece by Felix Salmon on Netflix, I followed this link to an earlier post and came across something that slipped past me the first time, probably because I was just starting to dig into the Netflix story.
But what Ball misses, I think, is that Netflix is playing a very, very long game here — not one measured in months or quarters, and certainly not one where original content pays for itself within a year. Netflix doesn’t particularly want or need the content it produces in-house to make a profit on a short-term basis. Instead, it wants “to become HBO faster than HBO can become Netflix,” in the words of its chief content officer Ted Sarandos.

Most importantly, the thing that Netflix aspires to, and which HBO already has, is an exclusive library of shows. If everything goes according to plan, then the Netflix of the future will be something people feel that they have to subscribe to, on the grounds that it’s the only place where they can find shows A, B, C, and D. That’s what it means to become HBO — and Netflix is fully cognizant that this is a process which takes many years and billions of dollars.

If Netflix gets there, then it becomes a license to print money, just as HBO is today. Shows like Arrested Development and House of Cards may or may not pay for themselves over the short term — in fact, they almost certainly won’t. But that doesn’t matter. In the long term, they will become part of a library which has massive value on two fronts: the shows can be licensed out in jurisdictions where Netflix doesn’t want to compete, and they will also help make Netflix a service that can guarantee you a great show that you want to watch, whenever you want to watch it.
The "Netflix is the new HBO" narrative has resonated powerfully with both investors and financial journalists, but it has always been shaky and the part you see here about Netflix building a content library around shows like House of Cards is simply, factually wrong. Despite the huge checks being paid to producers, Netflix doesn't own these shows.

 Rocco Pendola fills in the details:
First, Netflix guarantees 13 episodes right off the bat. Sometimes it will even give you a two-season commitment before the first season even airs. And, in terms of rights, it doesn't demand exclusivity. Outside of the first-run window, you are free to place your show anywhere you wish and, unless it cuts another deal with you, Netflix doesn't receive a cut of this action. Plus, there's very little, if any, creative development from Netflix.

In other words, the folks who output the content -- in this case, Sony -- are simply robbing Netflix blind. It's the type of deal that's too good to pass up.

Put another way, Sony doesn't care how many subscribers watch these shows on Netflix. They're more than happy to collect a fat (likely way too big) check, which subsidizes their risk, as they retain rights to sell the programming in markets where Netflix doesn't operate and in all other markets -- geographic and delivery -- after whatever the relatively short first-run window happens to be.

That's not how HBO, for example, plays the game. Never has been. And HBO sees no reason to start, given the franchise it has built and the enormous success it continues to have.

HBO doesn't give the world to studios and creators because it's not so desperate that it has to. It maintains exclusive rights to the programming it licenses. Unlike Netflix, it routinely produces programming in-house. And it almost always involves itself in the creative process. From what I understand, producers and directors actually appreciate this input, as HBO has a track record of making stars and producing huge hits.
You can find me covering similar ground here and here. Particularly in the second post, I go into quite a bit of detail about the HBO2.0 narrative. The only point I'd like to add: when one of these narratives takes hold, things that should be true according to the narrative start being treated like facts and even the smartest and most clear-eyed observers (like Felix Salmon) may not be immune to the effects.

The irony is that, in principle, Salmon's analysis is entirely sound. There are points I might disagree with -- I'd be more likely to advise Netflix to license out its content more freely. Licensing not only brings in money but also keeps your product in the public eye and cultivates new fans (welcome to the strange world of non-rival goods). I think it's safe to say that syndicating Sex in the City didn't hurt its revenue stream -- but on the whole, Salmon pretty much nails it. If Netflix really wanted to become a major, stable, free-standing media company, it would probably have done pretty much of all of what Salmon suggests.*

The only trouble with the analysis is that the company isn't doing what Salmon thinks it's doing.

*  Of course, there is always the possibility of being acquired by a company that doesn't mind having subsidiaries that lose money.

Friday, January 10, 2014

Felix Salmon hits a home run

Thomas Lumley directs his readers to this piece by Felix Salmon.  I think he (Thomas) stops his quote a paragraph early:
After disruption, though, there comes at least some version of stage three: over­shoot. The most common problem is that all these new systems—metrics, algo­rithms, automated decision making processes—result in humans gaming the system in rational but often unpredictable ways. Sociologist Donald T. Campbell noted this dynamic back in the ’70s, when he articulated what’s come to be known as Campbell’s law: “The more any quantitative social indicator is used for social decision-making,” he wrote, “the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor.”

On a managerial level, once the quants come into an industry and disrupt it, they often don’t know when to stop. They tend not to have decades of institutional knowledge about the field in which they have found themselves. And once they’re empowered, quants tend to create systems that favor something pretty close to cheating. As soon as managers pick a numerical metric as a way to measure whether they’re achieving their desired outcome, everybody starts maximizing that metric rather than doing the rest of their job—just as Campbell’s law predicts.
This really explains two phenomenon that are tightly linked.  One, how quants can initially get really great results.  But, over time, when people understand how the derived numbers come from we get the second part: these system seem to crash rather badly.  After all, initially, a metric like number of arrests for police officers might be a proxy for diligence.  But, if it is all that one uses, it may end up being the reverse of what is intended (a shirker could focus on that metric, figuring if they are rated as a top performer then other performance issues won't matter).

The link between this phenomenon and high stakes teacher testing should be rather obvious. 

As an aside, I think the blogger team here continues to disagree with Felix on media issues.  But sometimes it is worth remembering that he is worth engaging because the median post is so good that the others stand out.  The price of good work? 

A challenge for the math historians in the audience

I came across this while working on a PĆ³lya project. The following is a standard collection of word problems but the first five share a notable attribute while the last has a different but similar one.

Any guesses?
A mule and an ass were carrying burdens amounting to some hundred weight. The ass complained of his, and said to the mule: “I need only one hundred weight of your load, to make mine twice as heavy as yours.” The mule answered: “Yes, but if you gave me a hundred weight of yours, I should be loaded three times as much as you would be.”
How many hundred weight did each carry ?

A father who has three sons leaves them 1600 crowns. The will precises, that the eldest shall have 200 crowns more than the second, and the second shall have 100 crowns more than the youngest. Required the share of each.

A father leaves four sons, who share his property in the following manner:
The first takes the half of the fortune, minus 3000 livres.
The second takes the third, minus 1000 livres.
The third takes exactly the fourth of the property.
The fourth takes 600 livres and the fifth part of the property.
What was the whole fortune, and how much did each son receive?

A father leaves at his death several children, who share his property in the following manner:
The first receives a hundred crowns and the tenth part of what remains.
The second receives two hundred crowns and the tenth part of what remains.
The third takes three hundred crowns and the tenth part of what remains.
The fourth takes four hundred crowns and the tenth part of what remains, and so on.
Now it is found at the end that the property has been divided among all the children. Required, how much it was, how many children. there were, and how much each received.

Three persons play together; in the first game, the first loses to each of the other two as much money as each of them has. In the next, the second person loses to each of the other two as much money as they have already. Lastly, in the third game, the first and second person gain each from the third as much money as they had before. They then. leave oil and find that they have all an equal sum, namely, 24 louis each. Required, with how much money each sat down to play.

Three Workmen can do a Piece of Work in certain Times, viz. A once in 3 Weeks, B thrice in 8 Weeks, and C five Times in 12 Weeks. It is desired to know in what Time they can finish it jointly. 

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

The great pedagogical end run

For at least the past thirty years, the education reform movement has been a strange alliance of advocates for very different agendas coming from all points of what we over-simplistically call the political spectrum along with a small but non-trivial number of operators looking for a share of the astonishing amounts of money that education initiatives have put into play.

Most of the people who support the reform movement have no hidden agenda. They simply want to improve education and have become convinced that the tenets of the movement are the best way of achieving those aims. Their influence, however, does not match their numbers. If you look reform initiatives in depth you'll find a disproportionate number can be traced back to three groups, often working in concert.

(We're not talking about a grand conspiracy here. The agendas of these three are hidden only in the sense that they use aggressive PR techniques to associate themselves with popular causes and divert attention from their much less popular positions and goals. By this standard, most businesses, all successful politicians and quite a few charities would fall in this category. The ed reform case just happens to be more worrisome because the stakes are so high.)

We've done endless posts on the operators (just do a search on 'looting') and perhaps even more on people using reform to promote privatization and reduce the influence of unions (Michelle Rhee is probably the definitive example). Both these groups, often combining forces, have spent an extraordinary amount of money on PR and lobbying, generally to great effect, but it is a third group, the pedagogical reformers, though less well-funded than the first two, that in many ways wields the greatest influence.

Pedagogical reformers sincerely believe they have found a better way to teach and to teach teachers. They are sure that, given a chance, their methods would revolutionize education. Under normal circumstances, pushing these changes though the school system would be difficult for at least a couple of reasons;

First, because, pedagogically, the system has a reactionary bias, made worse by the fact that the most effective teachers, the ones you would want in your corner, are also the ones who are most reluctant to trade their methods in for something new and unproven;

And, second, because many of these new methods can come across to outsiders as either over-hyped or, to be hammer-blunt, flaky as your grandmother's best biscuits.

Consider the following example from Valerie Strauss (previously discussed here):
The unit — “A Close Reading of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address“ — is designed for students to do a “close reading” of the address “with text-dependent questions” — but without historical context. Teachers are given a detailed 29-page script of how to teach the unit, with the following explanation:

The idea here is to plunge students into an independent encounter with this short text. Refrain from giving background context or substantial instructional guidance at the outset. It may make sense to notify students that the short text is thought to be difficult and they are not expected to understand it fully on a first reading — that they can expect to struggle. Some students may be frustrated, but all students need practice in doing their best to stay with something they do not initially understand. This close reading approach forces students to rely exclusively on the text instead of privileging background knowledge, and levels the playing field for all students as they seek to comprehend Lincoln’s address.

The Gettysburg Address unit can be found on the Web site of Student Achievement Partners, a nonprofit organization founded by three people described as “lead authors of the Common Core State Standards.” They are David Coleman,  now president of the College Board who worked on the English Language Arts standards; Jason Zimba, who worked on the math standards; and Susan Pimental, who worked on the ELA standards. The organization’s Linked In biography also describes the three as the “lead writers of the Common Core State Standards.”
Make a quick note of the name David Coleman. We'll be coming back to him and to his background (management consulting) in future posts.

There are also plenty of examples of mathematics instruction that would strike most people and, in some cases, most math people, as strange. This is a marked change from the "new math" of the Sixties which was famous for bewildering parents helping kids with their homework but which generally covered familiar ground for mathematicians (especially set theory).

Check out veteran math teacher Gary Rubinstein's reaction to his daughter's kindergarten workbook. I think most people would find his concerns valid. If I have time, I'd add a few more of my own.

Along similar lines, check out this principal's reaction to her daughter's elementary school homework (with additional comments here).

I've been digging into the background of these lessons, trying to reverse engineer the processes and assumptions behind them. The search leads to some strange places (including, I kid you not, deconstructionist critical theory) that I'll be spelling out later, along with my problems with these approaches but that's not actually that pertinent for this post.

For the purposes of this discussion, it's not the weirdness or even the quality of the ideas that concerns me. It is entirely possible that, given fair chance, many if not most of these ideas might turn out to be significant improvements over what we do now.

It's the part about the fair chance that worries me. The pedagogical reformers have been extremely aggressive in using the reform movement to get around the normal process that proposed methods are supposed to go through. Those vetting processes may be overly difficult but they are still there for a reason. Under the current setup, certain pedagogical methods are winning not because they are better supported by research or because they have a better track record or because they make more sense to people, but because the people promoting them have the right connections and because they've been skillful at navigating the culture of the reform movement.

One of the primary strengths of the movement has been its ability to present a united front. Once a position makes it into the movement tenets, it can count on close to universal support. This is especially true when it comes to curricula, at least in part because the topic can get fairly technical and most members have not actually gone any deeper than the uplifting rhetoric of raising standards and teaching critical thinking. The result has been to give those who do care about about curricula a free hand.

Unfortunately, caring and having the right connections does not necessarily translate to having the best ideas.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Catching up on the education beat

More Duncan charm, reported here by WP's Valerie Strauss
U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan and at least one other Education Department official urged New York Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio and his team not to choose Montgomery County Schools Superintendent Joshua P. Starr as the city’s next schools chancellor, according to several people knowledgable about the selection process. It was an unusual move by the nation’s top education official and came in the wake of Starr’s vocal criticism of some of the Obama administration’s school reform policies.

Teach for America appears to be growing more controversial in the Ivy League (see here, here and here for starters).

Are a professor's emails part of the public record?

Another (apparent) billionaire enters the fray:
Financier Rex Sinquefield, Missouri’s largest political donor, has given $750,000 to jumpstart the initiative petition drive for a ballot measure to end teacher tenure.

According to the Missouri Ethics Commission, the money was donated on Christmas Eve to “,” the campaign committee set up to oversee the effort.

Some passages from a must-read Texas Observer piece on superstar superintendents:
And when you hire someone promising miracles, you pay them the miracle-worker rate. Klein earned $250,000 a year as New York Schools chancellor—just a fraction of the $2 million he makes as a “senior advisor” at News Corp. today. Barbara Byrd-Bennett was known in Cleveland as the “$300,000 wonder” by the end of her tenure running a 70,000-student district. In Texas, a handful of superintendents make more than $300,000 a year, including Spring Branch ISD’s Duncan Klussman, whose board bumped his pay to $305,000 earlier this year to run the fast-growing district of 35,000 students.
Rod Paige, Houston’s superintendent in the mid-1990s, was one of the first to sell the public on his ability to raise test scores even without more money. The former college football coach trumpeted huge test-score gains and better graduation rates thanks to his leadership and the pressure of high-stakes tests. On the strength of those results, Houston won the prestigious Broad Prize for Urban Education in 2002, the award’s first year.

Paige’s “Houston Miracle” became George W. Bush’s “Texas Miracle” on the presidential campaign trail, and Paige parlayed his apparent success into an appointment as Bush’s education secretary. But after Paige left for D.C., academics picked apart his record, showing Houston had undercounted its dropouts and exempted low-scoring kids from taking the test, and even underreported crime and fighting in the schools. By then Paige was long gone, guiding national school policy.
Mayor Mike Rawlings, who promised in his campaign to support bold improvement in the schools, told the Morning News, “You already have some momentum for change and have a school board taking reform-minded actions, and the city and business community is supportive of this, and whoever comes in will have a lot of support. For that reason, and if it succeeds, you’re going to be a hero.” 
Rawlings, a former Pizza Hut CEO, said he was looking for a new superintendent who could be a “real change agent.  It’s less important to me if they’re a mathematician or a businessperson or a military type. Their background is less important than their leadership ability.” 
The business world’s interest in remaking public education is nothing new—calling school leaders “superintendents” became popular a century ago, when factory efficiency experts took a first pass at redesigning public schools.

America is enjoying another such moment today. Popular business literature is suffused with the idea that strong leadership has the power to improve even the most massive bureaucracy, and the education world has fallen in line. The George W. Bush Institute, the think tank tied to the presidential library at Southern Methodist University, is home to an “Alliance to Reform Education Leadership.” The Broad Superintendents Academy in Los Angeles is one of the most polarizing institutions of the current school-reform movement, grooming “exceptional leaders and managers to help transform America’s education systems, raise student achievement and create a brighter future,” according to its website.

“I think there’s been something of an infatuation with business management in education,” says Young, the University of Virginia scholar. “Schools are not businesses. We don’t necessarily have the same moral obligations to the community and to kids that you have to stakeholders that are investing their money.”

“The reason it works in business is you do have a bottom line,” Brewer says. “In order to do that in education, they had to find one indicator of success. That’s not necessarily compatible with the complexity of education.”

New superintendents who focused on “quick wins” in the “first 90 days”—that’s all straight out of popular business literature. So is the focus on transformational change, the faith that we’re capable of rapid improvement in society if only we’ll shake off the old ways and dismantle the status quo. No business concept has been more contentious in schools than the tech-inspired enthusiasm for “disruption.”

On a related note, Diane Ravitch recently had an interesting post about an executive turned educator.
Beth Goldberg is a Middle School Mathematics Teacher at Linden Avenue Middle School in Red Hook, NY in the Mid-Hudson Valley.  Beth has been teaching for eight years since obtaining her Masters of Arts in Teaching at Bard College.  Prior to earning her MAT, Beth was a senior executive at JP Morgan Chase where she had global responsibility for a suite a payment services products.  Beth holds an MS in business from the MIT Sloan School of Management and a BA in Mathematics from Wellesley College.
Not surprisingly, Goldberg has some interesting things to say about the problems with the reform movement's attempt to apply management consulting approaches to education:
After a twenty year career in business, I decided to become a mathematics teacher. I returned to school to obtain another master’s degree in adolescent education. I was convinced that my management expertise would be readily transferable to teaching. I had managed an international staff, how hard would it be to manage a classroom of thirty or less students? Needless to say, I quickly learned that teaching students was far more complicated than managing adults. Why, you may ask? There are three simple reasons that I would like to share with the business intelligentsia.

1. Your employees are paid to listen to you, your students are not.

2. In business, employees are selected based upon a search and interview process. Teachers do not select their students.

3. In business, an insubordinate employee is fired. An insubordinate student is merely one more challenge for a classroom teacher.

To judge the effectiveness of teachers based upon an annual high stakes test would be comparable to judging the effectiveness of a business leader based upon one meeting or one memo. A business leader may have an ineffective meeting because of a variety of reasons. Similarly, students’ test scores on a particulate day are influenced by a host factors including their home life and social interactions.

Today’s education policy appears to missing the mark. Vilifying all teachers will not rectify the problems which plague a subset of this country’s education system. The current ineffective policies have been developed by individuals who lack experience teaching and are removed from students.

Nonetheless I do recognize that there are certainly lessons from business which are applicable to education. Here are a few for the NYS Education Commissioner and his colleagues to consider:

1. Those who are closest to the customer should provide the necessary feedback and market information so that sound strategies can be formed. Using business terminology, teachers with years of experience working with students are your best source of market intelligence.

2. Any large scale implementation requires a detailed project plan. It must be effectively managed as demonstrated by adhering to published deadlines and commitments. Releasing thousands of pages of curriculum materials for teachers days before teachers need to use the information is unacceptable.

3. Communicate clearly and effectively to all your customers,  colleagues and staff. Listen to their concerns.

When I left the business arena to become a teacher, I naively had no  idea of the complexities and challenges faced by teachers each day. Teaching is one of the most rewarding and challenging endeavors I have undertaken. Even though the career is much more demanding and complicated than I anticipated, the satisfaction I receive from a job well done more than compensates me for the effort I invest in teaching my students. I hope that the numerous problems accompanying the education reforms now underway in New York and across the country will be acknowledged and appropriately addressed before the education system is bankrupt.

And any post on management consultants in the education reform movement has got to be followed by a David Coleman link.

Monday, January 6, 2014

The strange bedfellows of the education reform movement

Mercedes Schneider has a post that beautifully illustrates some of the complexities and contradictions of the reform movement using the example of this big-budget campaign:
On December 10, 2013, the Center for Union Facts (CUF) (don’t believe the name) sponsored a full-page ad in the New York Times attributing the “high school slip in global rankings” to a single issue: The failure of American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten to promote merit pay for teachers.

The ad reads,

We have fallen behind Latvia, Estonia, and Vietnam in science and math. The teachers union continues to protect incompetent teachers and refuses to reward outstanding teachers with merit-based pay. Randi Weingarten, head of the American Federation of Teachers, fights against reforms that would help fix our failing schools.
Later in the post, Schneider provides some background on CUF:
The Center for Union Facts is one of five nonprofit “front groups” run by lobbyist Rick Berman of Berman and Company:

American Beverage Institute

Center for Consumer Freedom

Center for Union Facts

Employment Policies Institute Foundation

Enterprise Freedom Action Committee

These “front groups” offer mission statements that disguise the agenda of hidden supporters. CUF is Berman’s front for union bashing.
(Schneider's follow-up is also worth checking out.)

For more on Berman, here are the first few lines of his Wikipedia page:
Richard B. Berman (born 1942) is a Washington, D.C.-based lawyer, public relations executive, and lobbyist. Through his public affairs firm Berman and Company, Berman runs several industry-funded non-profit organizations such as the Center for Consumer Freedom[1] and the Center for Union Facts.[2] Berman's organizations have run numerous media campaigns on the issues of obesity, smoking, mad cow disease, taxes, the national debt, drinking and driving, as well as the minimum wage.[3][4][5] 60 Minutes has called him "the booze and food industries' weapon of mass destruction,"[4] labor union activist Richard Bensinger gave him the nickname "Dr. Evil,"[3][4] and Michael Kranish of the Boston Globe has dubbed him a “pioneer” in the “realm of opinion molding.”[6]

In September 2013, the Huffington Post included Berman on its “list of the 20 most influential members of the power elite.[7]

Just to be clear, most people in the reform movement are motivated by a sincere desire to improve education, particularly among the disadvantaged, but that doesn't mean we can dismiss the influence of groups with other agendas. There is no part of the movement that has not gotten significant support from some group hostile to unions (such as the Walton family) and, because of the highly interconnected social structure of the movement and the lack of firewalls, almost every major player in the movement is at best one or two degrees of separation from an anti-union activist (for example, David Coleman, the father of the Common Core initiative, was a founding member on the board of Michelle Rhee's StudentsFirst, which is pretty ground zero for the anti-labor wing of the movement).

This doesn't mean that we should look at most movement initiatives as covert attempts at union busting; that's not how influence works. Very seldom do you buy people outright. Instead you generally plant a bias that's subtle enough to go unnoticed by those affected. People like Jonathan Chait are not anti-labor but they've been nudged into some extremely anti-labor positions and have generally remained unaware of the process.

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Weekend blogging -- Starring the writer...

Except for someone like Keaton or Chaplin (who else could they cast?), I've always found the notion of actor/director rather odd. It seems like a cumbersome way of making a movie, particularly in the pre-video era.

So why do we see so many actors directing themselves? Perhaps there's something about the craft of screen acting that naturally develops a director's eye, bu it's far more likely that movie stars have lots of power and directing has a high glamour to work ratio.

Screenwriting, by comparison, has a notoriously low glamour to work ratio. Nonetheless there are examples. W.C. Fields wrote most of his own films. So did Mae West. (For their one collaboration, My Little Chickadee, West wrote the screenplay while Fields contributed one scene. Notably, though the film made a ton of money, the two stars never made another movie together.) Mel Gibson co-wrote his semi-comeback, Get the Gringo (Yeah, I know... but if you can get past off-screen Gibson and you enjoyed Payback you'll probably like this one better).

All of which is an excuse to link to another freebie from the Criterion Collection, The Horse's Mouth, written by and starring Alec Guinness.

Friday, January 3, 2014

Before Michael Lewis, there was George Goodman and "The Money Game"

George "Jerry" Goodman (a.k.a. the other Adam Smith) just passed away. Goodman is best remembered today for the long running show Adam Smith’s Money World, which is a shame because as good and as influential as that show was, Goodman's biggest impact was on the business and economics beat of the New Journalism of the Sixties and Seventies.

Paul Krugman, a friend of Goodman, has this to say:
First, about how innovative Jerry was: when he began writing urbane, witty accounts of Wall Street’s doings, he was blazing new trails. The Money Game was published in 1967 — the same year as the release of the movie The Graduate, which famously portrayed the world of business — plastics! — as a nightmare from which anyone free-spirited had to flee. Yet the Age of Acquarius was also the age of the first great postwar bull market. Jerry rescued business journalism — part of it, anyway — from boring men talking earnings reports; this stuff, he realized, was every bit as interesting as the counterculture, and he conveyed that interest to his readers.
Today's long-form business journalism pretty much all comes out of Goodman's overcoat. Goodman was a successful novelist and screenwriter before trying his hand at Wall Street. Very much in keeping with the New Journalism school, he brought these literary skills to previously dry and stuffy topics, combining powerful insights with Dickensian character sketches and resonant imagery. Here's a passage from the Money Game that has stuck with me over the years describing investor mentality in the final days of a bubble:
“We are at a wonderful ball where the champagne sparkles in every glass and soft laughter falls upon the summer air. We know at some moment the black horsemen will come shattering through the terrace doors wreaking vengeance and scattering the survivors. Those who leave early are saved, but the ball is so splendid no one wants to leave while there is still time. So everybody keeps asking – what time is it? But, none of the clocks have hands.”
With the exception of Michael Lewis, I can't think of another writer in the field with comparable literary gifts, and it's very much an open question if Lewis could have been Lewis if Goodman hadn't become Smith more than two decades earlier.

Identity politics

This is the introduction to a nice article on the perils of Social Darwinism:
That’s a satisfying worldview for someone who is successful and considers himself unusually bright. But a quick look at the data shows the limitations of raw smarts and stick-to-itiveness as an explanation for inequality. The income distribution in the United States provides a good example. In 2012 the top 0.01 percent of households earned an average of $10.25 million, while the mean household income for the country overall was $51,000. Are top earners 200 times as smart as the rest of the field? Doubtful. Do they have the capacity to work 200 times more hours in the week? Even more doubtful. Many forces out of their control, including sheer luck, are at play.

But say you’re in that top 0.01 percent—or even the top 50 percent. Would you want to admit happenstance as a benefactor? Wouldn’t you rather believe that you earned your wealth, that you truly deserve it? Wouldn’t you like to think that any resources you inherited are rightfully yours, as the descendant of fundamentally exceptional people? Of course you would. New research indicates that in order to justify your lifestyle, you might even adjust your ideas about the power of genes. The lower classes are not merely unfortunate, according to the upper classes; they are genetically inferior.
It's rather a complex problem.  I look at it as being the case that luck, hard work, and ability are each likely to be necessary conditions for being in a top income bracket (conditional on not being there entirely due to wealth alone), but that none of them (alone or together) are sufficient. 

Under these circumstances it can be hard to really ask hard questions like "what is fair".  It even attacks approaches like the "veil of ignorance", because hard work is seen as a decision that you can make.  But coal miners also work hard and rarely become exceedingly well off.  It can be hard to realize that some people work hard and succeed while other work hard and do not. 

But I think it is a needed realization to moving forward on really handling inequality. 

When Common Core is not Common Core (and more importantly, vice versa)

One commenter said in response to this video:
Go to the standards and see if you see the requirement for this kind of deadening scripted teaching strategy. I’ll save you the trouble: you won’t find it.

Many other states have not found this necessary. And, as someone else pointed out, this is a strategy used in many charter schools much before CCSS.

A state like NY is reduced to this kind of scripting when it is running the good teachers out with punitive testing and privatization and replacing them with TFA and other inexperienced teachers who don’t know any better.
This brings up a serious point. Lots of us, myself included, have discussed Common Core in fairly broad terms. Others, like this fellow, would argue that CC is just the list bare-bones topics listed in the actual curriculum. Who's right? We both are, or, put another way, some questions work better with the first definition; others work better with the second.

When is "not Common Core" Common Core?

Though the dividing lines aren't always clear, what we refer to as "Common Core" is generally a relatively coherent set of proposed changes to the topics we teach, the way we teach them and the standardized test we use to measure them. These changes tend to have common origins, objectives and underlying assumptions. More importantly, the topics, methods and metrics were designed to compliment each other and there is considerable pressure to adopt the lot.