Saturday, August 30, 2014

Barry Ritholtz on Market Timing, Wolf Richter on rigging the IPO market

I don't have the time to do anything more than pass these along (and Joseph has even less), but these are worth your time.

First, Barry Ritholtz  looks at the upper and lower bounds for returns on market timing strategies and comes up with some interesting conclusions.

Second, Wolf Richter shows how a carefully placed (and even more carefully leaked) investment of $20 million has caused the valuation of a company with no revenue and virtually no business plan to go from an unjustifiable $2 billion to a surreal $10 billion (and, more importantly, caused a ripple effect through the entire IPO market).

Friday, August 29, 2014

One of the most important aspects of Common Core gets relatively little attention

“No one ever went out to lunch with Mushari. He took nourishment alone in cheap cafeterias, and plotted the violent overthrow of the Rosewater Foundation. He knew no Rosewaters. What engaged his emotions was the fact that the Rosewater fortune was the largest single money package represented by McAllister, Robjent, Reed and McGee. He recalled what his favorite professor, Leonard Leech, once told him about getting ahead in law. Leech said that, just as a good airplane pilot should always be looking for places to land, so should a lawyer be looking for situations where large amounts of money were about to change hands.

”In every big transaction,” said Leech, “there is a magic moment during which a man has surrendered a treasure, and during which the man who is due to receive it has not yet done so. An alert lawyer will make that moment his own, possessing the treasure for a magic microsecond, taking a little of it, passing it on. If the man who is to receive the treasure is unused to wealth, has an inferiority complex and shapeless feelings of guilt, as most people do, the lawyer can often take as much as half the bundle, and still receive the recipient’s blubbering thanks.”
— Kurt Vonnegut, God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater

Between textbooks and testing and training and all the other things that will need to be replaced or revamped, the introduction of Common Core is going to cause billions upon billions to change hands. That doesn't make it a bad idea, nor does it make the people behind corrupt, but it is not something that can be ignored.

The billion-dollar LA iPad plan was primarily intended as support for Common Core. It has become more of a cautionary tale. From Steve Lopez of the LA Times:

And the emails really make you want to hold your nose.

"I believe we would have to make sure that your bid is the lowest one," now-departed Deasy deputy Jaime Aquino wrote to Pearson in May 2012, two years before the contract was approved.

Aquino, if you have forgotten, had been an executive with a Pearson affiliate prior to heading up Deasy's tech implementation plan.

Deasy — who graciously appeared in a promotional video for iPads before the contracts were awarded — later jumped in on that same email conversation.

"Understand your points and we need to work together on this quickly," wrote Deasy, later adding he did not want to lose "an amazing opportunity."

Deasy maintains that the emails were not about the larger, $1-billion tech plan but about "a pilot program we did at several schools months before we decided to do a large-scale implementation."

[The 'pilot program' is, by the way, a time honored work around. It is an excellent way of easing a preferred vendor into a position -- MP]

Even if you believe that, along with Deasy's claim that "nothing was done in any inappropriate way whatsoever," his contact with Apple and Pearson raises countless questions about whether a legitimate bidding process was ever an objective.

"You should make every bidder think they have a slim chance of getting the job," said Stuart Magruder, the school bond oversight committee member who briefly lost his post for asking too many questions about all of this. Deasy "didn't do that. He created an environment where Apple and Pearson probably didn't have to be as creative as they could have been."

Or as thrifty. As Magruder noted, the district agreed to a far higher cost per device than what other districts were paying. Magruder also argued that he believes the main objective with digital devices has always been to facilitate more test-taking rather than better teaching and deeper, more meaningful learning experiences for students.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Accountability at the LAUSD

“If we transform human capital by ensuring there are effective employees at every level of the organization focused on improving student outcomes, give our students and parents a portfolio of high quality school choice, and hold ourselves accountable through strong performance management, then every student in our schools will graduate college-prepared and career-ready.”

Dr. John E. Deasy, superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District

There is a heated debate going on over the role of the 0.1% in education reform (you can see my take in this Monkey Cage piece). It is also a fairly new one. For years, the reform movement portrayed itself in grassroots terms despite being fundamentally a top-down movement. This was possible for a while because virtually all major media players were openly supportive of the movement and almost never questioned the narrative.

These days, many journalists such as  Valerie Strauss have become much more critical of the movement and are much less inclined to ignore ubiquitous billionaires such as Bill Gates, Eli Broad and Alice Walton. The response from movement supporters has been to ask what's the problem with successful people being generous?

This is another case of short question/long answer, but part of the answer is that when a very small group of people have this much influence over something like education, winning the approval of these people becomes more important than competence or being responsive to the remaining 99.9% of the population.

For all the talk of tenure, connections are the ultimate form of job security. John Deasy is extraordinarily good at winning over the support of the rich and powerful (add Antonio Villaraigosa to all of the names mentioned earlier). He is also extraordinarily bad at running the LAUSD. The iPad fiasco is the best known example (and it keeps getting better) but that same kind of mismanagement is more or less the norm under Deasy.
Hundreds of students walked out of class at Jefferson High School on Monday morning, holding a sit-in to protest a host of issues at the South Los Angeles campus -- among them a scheduling snafu that has extended into the third week of school.

Students gathered in the quad after first period, sitting in a grassy area in a silent protest of what they contend has been weeks of mismanagement by administrators that has wasted their time and severely interrupted their education.

For the first weeks of school, many students were left without class schedules, others were given courses they did not need and some were without those required for graduation, students and teachers said.

Several Advanced Placement courses were scheduled at the same time, leaving students unable to enroll in all the college-level courses they desired. Students still learning English were unable to enroll in courses at their level, as they were scheduled during the same periods.

Problems were apparently intensified by a new computer database, known as the My Integrated Student Information System, which caused a litany of scheduling problems around the district in the first weeks of school.

Teachers have described over-enrolled classes, missing or inaccurate rosters, students without schedules and an inability to take attendance in the system.

Last week, district officials overhauled Jefferson's master schedule and removed the principal. The district then installed another principal, Jack Foote, whom the district described as an "experienced administrator who brings to his role a track record of success."

But the issues have persisted, students say.

Foote did not return requests for comment. Students returned to class Monday afternoon.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Buying a reputation

It is almost always a mistake to make too much of the Emmys. All awards are overrated but Oscars and Tonys do still bring a critical and commercial boost. The Emmys are little more than an expensive pissing contest between network executives.

 It is, however, a very expensive pissing contest. Lots of money goes into ads and PR accounts so some executives can feel better about themselves on Monday (or in this case, Tuesday) morning. West of the 110, those "For Your Emmy Consideration" billboards are pretty much inescapable.

Many of those billboards, perhaps a plurality, were from Netflix. Which makes it telling (though not important) that the company was completely shut out of anything bigger than outstanding guest actress. The company has spent a lot of money trying to snag these awards of questionable value and so far their return on investment has not been good.

Yes, this is another one of those Netflix-bashing posts, but I want to be clear about which Netflix I'm bashing.

I don't have a big problem with the service. Having a Netflix subscription is a bit like having a Kmart on the road you take to work. The quality can be iffy and the selection is bad but it's convenient and you can't beat the price.

As a business, it strikes me as very shaky but it is possible to imagine someone making a go of this. It's not a Groupon-style Ponzi scheme.

What bothers me is Netflix the narrative. More than perhaps any other company, the public face of Netflix is a PR creation. All of the recognized attributes of the company are either puffed-up or invented out of whole cloth. Other than one good, crowd-sourced model,  the company appears to be running on some really crude algorithms and doing little with its admittedly massive data set. Rather than creating an HBO-style content library in-house, it is simply paying exorbitant sums for exclusive first airing, after which the producers can do whatever they please. Reports of various successes all fade on closer examination: Netflix is overtaking competitors (but only if you ignore international markets or compare Netflix's revenues to other industries' profits); Netflix is solidly in the black (but only if you use just the right kind of accounting); Those exclusive shows are huge hits (but only according to vague statements about numbers the company refuses to release*).

The vast majority of the press, up to and including David Carr of the New York Times, is willing to believe an appealing narrative even when it is improbable, unsubstantiated, even contradicted by the facts. That's the part that bothers me.

* There is some external evidence that Orange may be doing quite well.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

A joke but not a hoax

From Valerie Strauss

April 25, 2014

Dear Kindergarten Parents and Guardians,

We hope this letter serves to help you better understand how the demands of the 21st century are changing schools, and, more specifically, to clarify, misperceptions about the Kindergarten show. It is most important to keep in mind is [sic] that this issue is not unique to Elwood. Although the movement toward more rigorous learning standards has been in the national news for more than a decade, the changing face of education is beginning to feel unsettling for some people. What and how we teach is changing to meet the demands of a changing world.

The reason for eliminating the Kindergarten show is simple. We are responsible for preparing children for college and career with valuable lifelong skills and know that we can best do that by having them become strong readers, writers, coworkers and problem solvers. Please do not fault us for making professional decisions that we know will never be able to please everyone. But know that we are making these decisions with the interests of all children in mind.


Ellen Best-Laimit

Angela Casano

Keri Colmone

Stefanie Gallagher

Martha DeMartini
Your first thought on reading this might be Daily Currant, but no...

All but one of the people who signed the letter were unavailable for comment. One asked me to call back but then didn’t answer the phone. District Superintendent Peter Scordo declined to discuss it. Michael Conte, a spokesman for Scordo, said in an e-mail on Saturday:

Yes, the letter is authentic. As it states, the Harley Avenue Primary School educators believe that this decision is in the best interest of students.

I don’t have anything more to add for your consideration. Thank you for reaching out.

This didn’t come out of the blue. Kindergarten (and even preschool) has increasingly become academic — at the expense of things such as recess and the arts — in this era of standardized test-based school reform. In most states, educators are evaluated in large part on test scores of students (sometimes students they don’t have) and on showing that their students are “college and career ready,” the mantra of the Obama administration’s education initiatives. Earlier this year, Rob Saxton, Oregon’s deputy superintendent of public instruction, and Jada Rupley, the early learning system director in the state’s Education Department,  wrote an op-ed in the Oregonian that was published online with this headline: Kindergarten test results a ‘sobering snapshot’. What was it about? Kids hadn’t done well on a standardized reading-readiness test.


Karen Yi and Amy Shipley of the Sun Sentinel have a follow-up to their remarkable series on mismanagement in Florida charter schools.

At least seven groups of applicants with ties to failed or floundering charter schools are seeking second chances and public money to open 18 more.

Odds are, most will prevail.

School districts say that they can't deny applicants solely because of past problems running charter schools. State laws tell them to evaluate what they see on paper — academic plans, budget proposals, student services — not previous school collapses or controversial professional histories.

District officials are currently reviewing applications for next year.

Among those vying to open new charter schools, which are privately operated but publicly funded:

• A group that managed three new charter schools in Broward and Palm Beach counties that opened this year — and then shut down on the first day of school.

• The founder of two charter schools that failed in 2007 amid accusations of stolen money, shoddy record keeping and parent complaints, according to state and local records. A state investigation later chastised school directors for "virtually nonexistent" oversight, though prosecutors filed no criminal charges.

• An educator who was banned from New Jersey public schools, then consulted for two schools in Broward and Palm Beach counties that shuttered in 2013. The Palm Beach County school district closed one of the schools because of poor academics and financial difficulties; the Broward school chose to cease operations amid dwindling enrollment, according to school district reports.

The Sun Sentinel also found three applications from leaders at two charter schools that were ordered to close this year for poor academics. Another three proposals came from a director at an existing charter school chided for its deteriorating financial condition. An entrepreneur who has consulted for a handful of failed schools is also listed on an application.

"We're asking ourselves, 'How do we follow the law, yet make professional decisions in the best interests of students?'" said Jim Pegg, director of the charter school department for the Palm Beach County School district.

A Sun Sentinel investigation in June found state law allows virtually anyone who can fill out a lengthy application to open a charter school. If school districts veer too far outside the guidelines to reject applications, they risk having their decisions overturned by the state.

Broward Schools Superintendent Robert Runcie said he might be willing to take that risk given the range of applicants.

"If we have to, we'll deny some applications and bring them to the state and still fight," Runcie said. "We can't continue to go with the bad actors that are out there and have them to continue to operate."
Most of this is familiar territory for our regulars, but there is one aspect that I haven't discussed as much as I should. The education reform movement has gone to great lengths to play up its grassroots aspects but the significant components have always been top-down and technocratic. You often see this kind of local push back, particularly when the proposals coming from the state capital are as bad as this.

Here's one of the cases where a district tried to challenge one of these decisions. Note the result.

Eight hours before students were to report for classes at the new Broward County Charter High on the first day of school this year, Richard E. Durr emailed a Broward school district official saying the school would not open "due to circumstances beyond our control." Durr is a director at the school's management company, American Charter Schools, Inc.

By day's end, two more schools managed by that same company had shut down. One school in Riviera Beach failed to attract students; the other in Delray Beach enrolled only a few, a district official said. The applications for the two Palm Beach County schools were rejected by the school district in 2012, but those decisions were reversed by the state.


Yet Durr's company, American Charter Schools, Inc., is listed as the education service provider on applications for four proposed charter schools in Palm Beach County. An education service provider is often referred to as a school's management company.
As we've discussed before, these school closings can be extraordinarily tough on kids. This was a horrible way for the kids who had enrolled in these schools to start the year. It was perhaps even tougher on parents who had spent the weeks before getting their children excited about their new schools only to have to explain to them at the last minute that those schools simply aren't there anymore.

It is even worse when a school closes midyear. Unfortunately, Florida has seen plenty of that as well.

With the costs of failure largely ignored by the powers that be, it's easy to see how those trying to get into the charter school business can have such a nonchalant attitude.
"We are supposed to learn from our experiences," said [Ann-Marie] Manzano, who is applying for two new charter schools. She said that if applicants "haven't done anything intentional and if they have been a victim" they should be given another shot at opening a school.
Manzano has an interesting history -- the key phrase is arguably "declined to prosecute" -- but even if we assume the best of intentions, she was still not good at her job and the victims of her failures were the kids and families that trusted her.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Yes, people are now talking about flipping schools

I don't know that anyone saw this coming though, in retrospect, we should have. One of the recurring elements in a number of reports of the questionable management of many charter schools is the role of real estate, either as a way of turning a quick buck or of influencing local governments.

We've already discussed Florida and Michigan. Now investigative journalist Owen Davis has a remarkable account that add New Jersey to the list (via Edushyster)
Half a year after Newark Public Schools launched an "agenda to ensure all students are in excellent schools," the plan has come under a federal civil rights investigation to determine whether it "discriminates against black students."

The investigation centers on a cluster of school closings in Newark's predominantly black South Ward. Absent a consistent reason why the district targeted these schools - such as poor academics or declining enrollment - activists alleged discrimination. The "One Newark" reform plan, they wrote, would "continue a pattern of shuttering public schools in communities of color."


But an in-depth look into the district's ultimately unsuccessful attempt to close one South Ward school reveals how real estate concerns and facilities funding increasingly drive neighborhood school closings and the expansion of privately managed charter schools. By allocating millions of dollars in little-known bonds exclusively to charters while imposing austerity on public facilities, the state has quietly stacked the deck for charters, leaving neighborhood schools to molder in decline.


"The school went out of its way to accommodate DeVahna," their mother Jacqueline Choice says. Teachers visited the home to keep DeVahna abreast of material she'd missed. When she returned to school temporarily in a wheelchair, staff and students diligently volunteered to carry her books and bring her lunch.
At Hawthorne, DeVahna and Darius "were finally in a comfortable place," says Choice. "The teachers were very sympathetic to our situation."

A midday text message from DeVahna last December shattered that sense of comfort. "Mommy, they're closing the school!" Choice remembers reading. "I had to call her to find out what was going on. She was in tears."

At the next board meeting, Superintendent Cami Anderson announced publicly what DeVahna had learned from her math teacher: Hawthorne would be handed over to a charter school, TEAM Academy, in a so-called "charter launch." The staff would be replaced. All told, the district's plan would impact a third of Newark's schools.

In 2011, came the Booker-Zuckerberg philanthropic blitz and Gov. Chris Christie's appointment of Superintendent Anderson, all aiming to transform the state-run district into an educational free market. That means replacing "failing" district schools with charter schools, which are privately managed, publicly funded and freed from certain regulations.


Hawthorne hoped to ride out these reforms unscathed. Since Principal H. Grady James arrived in 2011, the low-income school has seen "an amazing transformation," says a Hawthorne teacher (who asked to remain anonymous). Though it falls short of state averages, Hawthorne posted test scores last year that put it in the 94th percentile statewide in terms of student growth, outstripping all its Newark peers.

"Hawthorne did everything required by the state to stay open," says Choice, including what she describes wearily as "a whole year prepping for testing." That concentration on test scores, though grueling and arguably not an ideal educational focus, bore fruit, in terms of external evaluation of the district. "But once that was done," says Choice, the district "came in and said: 'Well, we're closing the school anyway.'"

The district justifies the move in part by pointing to the roughly 40 percent of South Ward families who sit on the waiting lists for charter schools they've chosen. But on the whole, Hawthorne's parents chose Hawthorne. Families boycotted school applications, held weekly protests and fired off countless letters to state officials. Choice began speaking out at board meetings, eventually joining the civil rights complaint that spurred the federal investigation.


Though Newark Public Schools (NPS) claims to use seven criteria for school turnover decisions, "No one question pulled the lever" for Hawthorne, says Gabrielle Wyatt, NPS executive director of strategy. 
But it's clear that one factor played an outsized role: money. Given the state funding landscape, NPS saw moving a charter in as a way to secure pressing building repairs.

Hawthorne's spacious brick schoolhouse is crumbling. Thick layers of paint slough off in the stairwells. A browning hole in the third floor ceiling oozes over a water fountain.

Charters' access to bonds allows them to "improve these community assets" - that is, school houses - "and allows the district to continue to operate. And keeps the district viable." This saves the state, which controls Newark schools, from paying to fix the very schools it let fall into disrepair.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Defining "bad teachers"

One of the many bizarre elements of the wave of anti-tenure litigation is the apparent inability of the litigants to find teachers whom most of us would consider bad. That's not to say there aren't bad teachers out there -- we can all agree that there are -- but there is clearly something else going on here.

When you actually start digging into the details of these law suits, it soon becomes obvious that there is a serious disconnect between the way the people in these organizations think about teachers and the way most of us do. Not only do they hold up what most of us would consider reasonably good teachers as grossly ineffective; they do the same with teachers we would consider extraordinary.

[You'll notice I said 'organizations' and not parents. These initiatives start with well-funded organizations (usually affiliated with one or more billionaires) deciding on the lawsuit they want to file then seeking out parents to serve as litigants and, in some cases, spokespersons.]

We have already discussed Christine McLaughlin, “Rotary’s Pasadena 2013 Teacher of the Year,” Pasadena NAACP’s “2008 Star of Education.” McLaughlin is the kind of teacher that most peers respect and most kids and parents love. She is also, according to the Vergara suit, grossly ineffective.

And consider the standard being used in Wright vs. New York, as discussed here by Valerie Strauss.

Keoni Wright is the lead plaintiff  in a lawsuit organized by Campbell Brown’s education advocacy group that is seeking to overturn New York laws that provide tenure and other job  protections to K-12 teachers. Brown has appeared on a number of television shows explaining her new endeavor, which will involve filing lawsuits in other states, as well, in an attempt to have national impact on tenure laws...

Brown has said repeatedly that she is leading this effort because she  believes it is too hard for school systems to get rid of “bad” teachers and that it is union-negotiated teacher job protections that lead to poor quality education for many underprivileged students. Critics say this is nonsense and that giving teachers due process when they are accused of wrongdoing protects against patronage and other forms of administrative whim. They also note that many students get inadequate educations in non-union states where teachers have no job protections and that tenured teachers can be and are fired, despite conventional wisdom to the contrary.

Whatever you think of job protections for teachers, Wright inadvertently raised a separate issue during an interview he did with Campbell on NY1′s “Inside City Hall with Errol Louis”: What exactly is a “bad” teacher? Some answers are obvious, others less so.

During the interview with Louis, Wright discussed the education his young twin daughters are receiving at a New York public school, saying that one of them had a really good teacher and the other wasn’t so lucky. How did the lead plaintiff in the lawsuit explain this dichotomy? Well, it turns out, he said, that one daughter received homework packets from her teacher while the other daughter didn’t. Why? After talking to the offending teacher, he said he discovered the following:

... She didn’t have the supply, you know they were waiting for stuff to come. Meanwhile this other teacher was using her own money to buy these books to have supplies for her regular kids and an extra set for me.

Translation: The good teacher was spending her own money to buy supplies the school system should have provided to teachers in a timely fashion. The bad teacher didn’t.

Translation: The good teacher was giving homework to young kids. The bad teacher wasn’t.

Wright has said that he began to notice the homework discrepancy as soon as his daughters entered kindergarten a few years ago. One daughter had homework and the other didn’t. The one with homework was doing better academically than the one who wasn’t, he said, the suggestion being that a teacher who assigns kindergartners homework routinely is better than one who doesn’t.

It may well be that the teacher of one of his twins was superior to the teacher of his other twin. Yes, some teachers are better than others (as in any other profession), and, yes, some working teachers should be removed from the classroom because they are inadequate, and yes, teacher education should be continually improved to elevate the quality of America’s teaching force. I don’t know a teacher who doesn’t agree.

But in this interview Wright rested his claims about the value of his children’s teachers on the fact that one was spending personal money for supplies and that the same teacher assigned homework routinely. That’s hardly what you would call dispositive. It doesn’t even make sense.

Teachers shouldn’t have to spend their own money to buy supplies. Schools should have supplies ready for teachers at all times. Inadequate supplies is just one of the reasons that teachers in many schools have a hard time doing their jobs, which isn’t something that gets factored into many blame-the-teacher arguments. Teachers who care so much about their students that they buy student supplies with their own money are certainly dedicated, but no more so than those teachers who care greatly about their students but don’t spend their own money to buy what a school system should be providing.

As for homework in kindergarten, the research isn’t there to show that it helps academically. In fact, most of the research on homework in elementary school suggests that less is more and that reading is the best kind. Kids derive no real benefit from doing homework in kindergarten or, for that matter, up until fourth grade, some homework  researchers say, while others go further and say there is no benefit to homework in elementary school at all.
Strauss goes on to say that Wright sounds well-intentioned. I'm not so sure. He very much reminds me of a type of parent I ran into occasionally, first to complain, last to help.   For most parents, it's the other way around.

Back to the main question. One of the supposedly self-evident truths of education is that we all want better teachers in the classroom, but if we can't agree on what constitutes good and bad, the statement goes from self-evident to meaningless.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Terrestrial Superstation Watch

Yet another thread we've been on a long time. In case you are new to the party, there's a long running debate about the audience size of over the air television and its long term viability. Rajiv Sethi and I took the pro side; almost everyone else took the con.

One of the major points of contention came from the fact that the two major publicly available data sources had wildly different estimates of viewership. Nielsen had 9% and shrinking. GfK had 18% and growing. Back in April of 2013, we had a big debate with Felix Salmon over these numbers. I pointed to Fox's and NBC's then recent decisions to launch terrestrial superstations (the superb Movies! and the inept COZI respectively).
Let's assume Salmon's right and put ourselves in the position of a Fox or NBC executive who has to decide whether or not to create a new broadcast network. We can be reasonably confident that the executives have access to reliable data (particularly the Fox executive if the deal with Weigel included a look at some numbers from ThisTV and METV).

You find, given our premise, that the total over-the-air audience is, say, forty million, the technology is obsolete and entire medium will probably be gone in a few years. At this point, it's hard to imagine you'd proceed with an expensive, time-consuming project that is likely to be an embarrassing failure but the situation actually gets worse.

You are looking at launching an advertiser-driven, English-language station but the OTA market is disproportionately poor and immigrant (I get programming in over a half dozen languages); the maxim relevant audience for your station now drops to maybe thirty million and there's more bad news. You're going to have to share that thirty million with a crowded field of competitors. A major market will have dozens of OTA channels including multiple PBS channels, This, ME, Antenna, Bounce, RTV, three ION channels and various independents.

Given Salmon's assumptions about the size and trajectory of this market, there is simply no way NBC or Fox would have gone ahead with these channels. They couldn't possibly recoup their start-up costs before OTA is phased out. Put bluntly, both NBC and Fox are betting against Salmon's position.

Obviously this is not conclusive, but it's a strong piece of evidence and it's consistent with what we've seen elsewhere. It's also consistent with GfK's numbers. 
What's happened since then?

All of the terrestrial superstations mentioned above appear to be going strong.

Sony launched its own virtual clone of Movies!, GetTV.

And now

Exclusive: MGM Launches Digi-Net The Works

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

The Big Uneasy

“The best thing that happened to the education system in New Orleans was Hurricane Katrina”

Arne Duncan

As mentioned before, a lot of people in New Orleans -- parents, educators and students -- are very unhappy with the direction of the city's schools. They complain of draconian policies, firing of popular teachers and discipline policies that border on brutal.
The case that still breaks my heart involved a 14-year-old who kept getting demerits because his uniform shirt was too small and came untucked basically every time he moved. His mother was a veteran, well-educated, and had sold real estate but got divorced and ended up losing her job, and became homeless. They were living with friends and really struggling. The school expelled the child because he’d had three suspensions—the last one for selling candy to try to raise enough money to buy a new shoes and a new uniform shirt. I felt that if the mother went and told her story that the school would understand and wouldn’t hold up the expulsion. She didn’t want the school to know how impoverished she was but I convinced her to do it, so she came and told all of these people what she was going through—about her struggles. I thought for sure the board would overturn the expulsion, not just because her story was so compelling, but because there wasn’t actually anything in the school’s discipline book about selling candy. But they upheld it and it broke my heart that this kid was being put out of school because he was poor.
On the other of the debate, supporters (including the highly respected John Merrow) argue that New Orleans is a model of reform that gets results. They acknowledge that the programs are tough but they point to improving metrics and argue the pain is worth the gain. If we stop here, this would appear to be a classic good-of-the-many argument. Some kids suffer under the new system but if most are better, the system is certainly defensible.

But what if the rest aren't better off, at least not due to the reforms in the system? For years, we've been discussing the ways excessive discipline can distort the results from educational research and Bruce Baker has long questioned just how impressive the test results were. Now Jason France, a well-respected blogger and former analyst with the Louisiana State Department of Education, has made a pretty good case that some of those impressive statistics were the result of large scale fraud.

You see, under Paul Pastorek, Louisiana’s first Reformer de jour of a few years back, Louisiana stopped investigating and auditing data . . . especially data coming from charter schools and RSD [the New Orleans Recovery School District -- MP]. At the department we knew full well that the data was both crappy in quality and dreadful in composition. Incidentally Paul Pastorek is back in Louisiana to start a new education endeavor. At the Department we knew him as Little PP (he’s like 5 feet tall) to Paul Vallas’s Big P (Vallas is 6’5″) or sometimes as LDOE’s Napoleon due to his small stature and imperious nature.
When Bobby Jindal met John White I’m told Jindal thought he would have a more pliable and less volatile and willful minion than Paul Pastorek and almost immediately gave PP his walking papers. Fortunately PP went to school with Sean O’Keefe who is the current CEO of Airbus (they went to school together) and Paul was able to land on his feet as a useless random lawyer at EADS, a subsidiary of a European aerospace company.

So what does all this have to with dropouts you might ask? Well Paul had stopped auditing data during his tenure and he left under less than friendly terms. It’s quite likely he did not reveal all the skeletons shoved into LDOE closets. It appears that John White and his staff unwittingly stumbled across a walk-in closet loaded with them.
Recently LDOE did a partial audit of exit codes. In particular they were looking at some of the codes often used to hide “dropouts.” In practical terms, a student that does not graduate and stops going to school is a dropout. However, if the student, let’s say, transfers out of state, to a non-public school, goes the homeschool route, or dies. . .well we can’t really hold that school or any school we collect data on responsible for that, can we?

Exit codes were designed for schools to tell the state one of these situations has taken place. When this happens legitimately and is reported to the state in the form of an exit code, the state would no longer keep that student in the numerator or denominator. They are not a dropout. They are also not a graduate. They are a “legitimate leaver” in education parlance. When these legitimate leaver situations take place, records and documentation should take place. When a student transfers to a non-public school or homeschool the parents should fill out some withdrawal papers and the non-public school should make a “request for records.” Homeschooled students and parents also generate subsequent records, and students are required to take tests and provide updates about students’ progress. When a student transfers out of state the “receiving school” should have a record of the student, and that receiving school should make a request for records. These items go in students’ permanent files . . . if those documents are indeed generated, and really exist.

What often happens is this does not take place. What often happens is schools will “fix” their dropouts by simply coding all their dropouts as transferring out of state. They don’t graduate, although some districts simply code students with a graduate code too which really helps them out, but they don’t count against schools. Schools wanting to improve their images or escape accountability sanctions can freely “up code” their students from dropout to even graduates if they really want too, although the most common practice is to simply code them as “transferring out of state.” Historically this wasn’t a major issue, but as accountability has become more important, and as graduate cohort and dropout rates have become factored into as much as 25% of a school’s SPS score the incentive for up coding is enormous, the risk of getting caught or sanctioned very low, and this solution is easy breezy to do with plenty of people along the way able to claim ignorance and protected by plausible deniability if they ever do get caught.

What has happened to Louisiana and especially in RSD and probably charter schools and probably some traditional schools is that more and more schools have discovered the up coding secret and have used it to their advantage more and more every year. John White and LDOE made the mistake of actually doing a preliminary audit of these numbers and publishing them. Their “Reforms” are failures and their success is built upon lies. One of the metrics used to annually evaluate John White is the graduation cohort rate. Once LDOE realized just how bad this audit was his folks knew better than to turn over any more stones. But enough teasing, just how bad was it do you ask?

Try a 100% failure rate for RSD on for size.
I’m not kidding.

I think LDOE really felt all they needed to do was make the point that all direct run RSD schools will be closed this school year so it would finally be okay to release this type of info. Like, “hey, we know this is bad but we’ve released this report after closing them so there’s really nothing anyone can do and you should not waste your time worrying about them anymore.”

Believe me, this is not a one off, this is what all RSD info and stats look like when not masked or filtered. You might think hiding 14 dropout students is not a big deal, and you’re right in a sense. Of course LDOE should consider all students important, but RSD served thousands of students a year. . .what’s 14 out of 1400? The problem is this is just a very small sample that encountered 100% error rate. This is a small fraction of how many student RSD coded as transferring out of state without any documentation from this cohort. What’s more, this was done to make themselves look better than they were for many years, every year they were in existence, and they were always just about the worst in the state even with this help and the numerous instances of cheating I’ve gotten reports of and written about. Feel free to search my blog for examples.

If you have a chance, check out the full post.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

The Mulford Act

Charles P. Pierce provides an interesting and timely look at how the politics of gun control have changed.
Once upon a time in California, the police were knocking off black folks with an alarming regularity. In 1967, a black man named Denzil Dowell was blown away by a shotgun wielded by the police in North Richmond, an impoverished, largely black suburban community outside Oakland. According to the official police account, Dowell had been caught while breaking into a liquor store. He had then refused a command to stop and, therefore, was riddled by police who considered themselves threatened by him. Members of the community believed, with some justification, that Dowell had been killed while raising his hands to surrender. At the same time, the Black Panther Party in Oakland had been operating what it called Black Panther Police Patrols. The members of the patrol would listen to police scanners and then hustle to the scene of an arrest, where they would remind the suspect of his legal rights. They also showed up armed, because California then was an open-carry state because, of course, freedom.

This scared the bejesus out of white people, and the cops weren't too enthusiastic about it, either. So along came a Republican state assemblyman named Don Mulford, and he proposed a bill that would ban the carrying of loaded weapons in public throughout California. The Panthers enlivened the debate by showing up at the state capitol in Sacramento while exercising their god-given right to bear arms, which again scared the bejesus out of people. (I think it was the shades and the berets myself.) Speaking in language that today would make Wayne LaPierre cry like a child -- the NRA of the time was curiously supportive of the Act in question -- Don Mulford said he was proposing his law to keep us safe from "nuts with guns," especially the ones who lived in "urban environments." (No, you don't need the Enigma machine to decode that one.) The law passed. Governor Reagan signed it, and that's how history was made.

Well, I'm glad it's not a dispute

A bit more background on the Michigan charter school scandals. As mentioned before both here and in the Monkey Cage, for-profit charter school operators have been caught gouging the state's taxpayers in pretty much every way imaginable. The response from the governor's office has basically been that people shouldn't care about graft and overcharging as long as they are getting quality schools (They aren't -- Check out the Monkey Cage link -- but that's a topic for another day).

It's hard to imagine the "So there's graft. Get over it." political slogan being effective in any context, it seems particularly tone deaf in Michigan these days, in a period of brutal budget cuts on the state and local level. Class sizes in traditional public schools are nearing the breaking point. Even a relatively small unpaid water bill in Detroit can result in a shutoff (an especially heartless policy given the city's unemployment rate).

There are, however, certain clients with very large unpaid bills who have been allowed to skate for quite a while.

From the Detroit Free Press:
So we called DWSD spokesperson Gregory Eno, who tried explaining the discrepancy.

“First of all, the commercial accounts that we’re talking about here are in dispute with … what they believe they should be paying for stormwater runoff,” Eno says. “It’s not about traditional water usage like you and I would use, water in our home.”

Come again?

Eno says: “We have a number of commercial accounts that are in dispute — well, not a dispute — we say they owe such [an amount], they say” they owe a different figure.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Off by just a quarter century

I realize this is a trivial thing, but this paragraph from an article by Thomas Mentel bothers me for a couple of not-so-trivial reasons.
One of Showtime’s very first forays into original programming, it’s hard to believe that Californication only just concluded after a run of seven years and seven seasons. First premiering in 2007, Californication tells the story of troubled New York writer Hank Moody who moves to California and suffers from severe writer’s block. Additionally, his issues with hedonism push his relationship with longtime lover Karen and their daughter to the brink while he attempts change his self-destructive ways.
Even with the wiggle room that comes with "one of," this is still dead wrong. Showtime got into original programming early in the game, starting with Faerie Tale Theatre in 1982. The channel ran literally dozens of dramas and comedies before debuting Californication in 2007 (see for yourself), including some fairly notable titles like Queer as Folk and Gary Shandling's first sitcom.

This is a small mistake in possibly the least important journalistic genre imaginable, but even by that standard, shouldn't we expect at least a little research? It took me all of three minutes to find a list of Showtime's original programs. How can anyone put his name on an article for the whole world to see and not bother to spend five minutes checking his facts.

The other thing that bothers me about this is that it's another reminder of how PR creates reality in the 21st Century. In 2005, there was a major restructuring at Viacom that resulted in, among other things, Showtime becoming to CBS what HBO is to Time Warner. Shortly after that there was a massive publicity push behind the network's shows. When Mentel calls Californication "[o]ne of Showtime’s very first forays into original programming," he means one of the first that a PR department told him about.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Another excerpt from the upcoming ebook

Another education thread that started in March of 2010 and is still going strong is the magic-of-the-markets/power-of-MBA-thinking line. This is one of those issues where I got the direction right but the magnitude wrong (I knew it was bad but I didn’t realize how bad).

The problem was two-fold: for starters, many perfectly sound business methods don’t work well when moved to an educational setting. The conditions, the culture, the objectives and the consequences are simply too different; to make matters even worse, Ben Wildavsky and many of the other reform advocates pushing the markets/MBAs line had a stunningly weak grasp of how business and economic incentives worked. The result was ‘business-based’ approaches that no well-run business would ever try. For example, if you follow the link you’ll find Wildavsky mocking Ravitch’s concerns that unscrupulous operators might use charters to extract “vast riches” from taxpayers.  For the record, competent business people constantly worry about being taken advantage of by contractors. Those who share Wildavsky’s attitude don’t stay in business very long.

To see what happens to Wildavsky’s ideas in the actual marketplace, take a look at my last Monkey Cage post.

Ben Wildavsky writing for the New Republic in 2010.

As for  claim that entrepreneurs see charter schools “as a gateway to the vast riches of the education industry,” that hardly jibes with reality at the most admired charter organizations. As far as I know, nobody at Achievement First, Uncommon Schools, or KIPP, all non-profits, is getting rich from those organizations’ notably successful efforts to help low-income kids learn. But if--if--for-profit charter operators are able to operate good schools, why shouldn’t those educational entrepreneurs get rich? Isn’t the point to make sure kids learn? It is not as if profit is an alien notion in the world of public schools. As Ravitch knows well, a vast industry of contractors, curriculum specialists, and the like was getting rich off public schools long before charters came along. (Ravitch also missed important aspects of the charter movement: its relentless self-examination, eagerness to weed out poor performers, and desire to take to scale those approaches that are really helping kids.)

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Addressing Pólya's list

When I first started really digging into the education reform movement a few years ago, it quickly became obvious that, with remarkably few exceptions, my educational philosophy (which was heavily influenced the eminent 20th Century mathematician George Pólya) was sharply different from the prevailing ideas of the movement. I  initially assumed this was just me being out of the loop. After all, it's been a long time since I've taken an education class and even back then Pólya's pedagogical work had been around for decades. I thought that those on the other side of the debate either weren't familiar with Pólya's work on teaching or had examined and rejected the ideas.

The truth seems to be more complicated. As I spend more time in the reform world, I keep seeing ideas and techniques that either seemed to be or explicitly were derived from Pólya's How to Solve It. Normally, I would be pleased to see this but almost invariably there's something off about these examples, as if they had lost something important in translation.  Perhaps even worse, the Pólya-derived ideas never really meshed with the other concepts being presented and often directly contradicted them (try reconciling the methods of How to Solve It with deliberate practice).

After a while, I realized part of the problem: virtually all of these lessons were derived from a tiny sliver of the man's writing, not just a single one of his books but from the inside cover of that one book.

"The list" is one of the best and best-known features of How to Solve It. It is also one of the most problematic. On the plus side, it provides in concise form both Pólya's four phases of problem-solving and a useful collection of "questions and suggestions" that instructors may use either as comments while solving a problem for a class or as hints while helping students individually. Pólya's approach relied heavily on Socratic dialogues. These could be teacher/student, teacher/self (as a running commentary when doing a problem for a class) or student/self (because the end goal is an internalized process). This list can be enormously helpful for teachers when first learning these techniques.

On the minus side, for those who didn't go past the inside cover, the list looked like something it very much wasn't: an algorithm, a series of instructions to be followed in a well-defined manner which would reliably lead to the desired outcome.

Pólya explained explicitly and repeatedly that these were questions and suggestions that could be helpful if used in situations where they fit well and arose naturally.

He made these points frequently and emphatically enough that anyone who actually read How to Solve It (and it is neither a long nor difficult read) could hardly miss them..

Instead of providing a step-by-step approach, the primary purpose of these questions was to shift the focus of mathematics instruction less toward what and more toward why. Pólya wanted the steps we showed students to be not only right but reasonable.

I'll come back to this topic later with some examples of just how completely the reasonable part has been lost in translation.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Checking in with two thousand and ten

As part of a bigger project, I've been going through the first year's worth of posts at the blog (at least the first year after it became a joint venture). I was unhappy with the writing on quite a few but I was reasonably satisfied with analyses and a few actually seem more topical now than they did in 2010.

For example, this was my reaction to a paragraph defending charter schools from the threat of regulation. The passage, not surprisingly, occurs in a Michelle Rhee hagiography that appeared in the New Republic.
This post by Joseph got me thinking. Charter schools are private contractors providing services that were previously provided by the government. Any statement that's true about charter schools should still be true if you substitute in the phrase "some private contractors."

But if you actually make the substitution, you often end up with statements the author would never think of making. Statements like this:
But Mead says ... she’s seen Gray hint that he’d like to more tightly regulate [private contractors]. “We have a law that gives a tremendous amount of autonomy to the [private contractors] but enables them to implement programs that can be effective. If you try to put more regulation on that, if can dissuade people from [privatizing],” Mead says.
Would Seyward Darby normally describe a push for tighter regulation of private contractors as "disappointing"? Would the New Republic normally endorse a candidate because he was against stricter regulation of private contractors? Would everyone take a moment and see if Rod Serling is taking a smoke break in the vicinity?

I strongly believe that there is a place for charter schools in our system, but those schools have to meet exactly the same criteria as other contractors. Two of those criteria are transparency and openness to regulation, and given recent history, it's safe to say that some charter schools are failing these tests.
As noted in this Monkey Cage post, the charter school systems in the states that most pushed deregulation (Michigan and Florida) have devolved a writhing mass of scandals, particularly involving for-profit schools. Things are arguably worse in Sweden where the entire country fully embraced the charter and market forces model.

In 2010, reformers loved Sweden:
Matthew Yglesias again steps up to defend the honor of charter schools with a post on Anders Böhlmark and Mikael Lindahl's paper “Does School Privatization Improve Educational Achievement? Evidence from Sweden’s Voucher Reform” (PDF) from which he concludes:
In effect, Swedish practice is like what exists in American states (Arizona, for example) with lots of charter schools and it’s quite similar to what the Obama administration (and I) are pushing. The big difference is that for-profit operators are allowed to run schools in Sweden, which I’d be for allowing.
There is, however, an asterisk next to the name of the paper. The footnote is easy to miss (you have to click on the 'More>>' button to find it), but it's worth the effort. It reads:
* Their answer? It does in the short-term, but the gains fade. All else being equal I favor more choice, so I’d regard the reform as a good thing but I assume the architects of the reform were hoping for something more.
To see just how badly this turned out, take a look at Ray Fisman's excellent piece in Slate.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Sometimes you have to remind yourself that you're winning

One of the advantages and disadvantages of being an independent blogger is that you can take the quixotic side in as many debates as you want. The good side of this is that, if you find a rich vein of conventional stupidity, it's relatively easy to make valid yet original points and you will never go wanting for a flawed argument to dismantle. The bad side is that this kind of fight can wear you down. Every day you going looking for something stupid to write about and every day you find it. After a while a sense of futility will start to creep up on you.

Under those circumstances, it's easy to miss signs of progress. For example, if you were following the free TV story five years ago, you couldn't help noticing what almost amounted to a press blackout on the subject. Even in stories advising consumers on options to pay-TV, over-the-air television somehow went unmentioned. This was true in the stories themselves. The comment sections invariably had readers pointing out they got their TV through an antenna and were getting more channels in higher definition than they would have gotten from basic cable. The result was a strange situation where the comments were more informative than the articles.

There is still a lot of misinformation about over-the-air television out there, but it is now more or less standard for stories about consumer TV options to have a paragraph like this:
For sports, news and syndicated shows, an indoor HD antenna is a great choice. It will bring you high-definition over-the-air broadcasts from local networks for less than the cost of one month of cable. And you can keep it for years.
What explains the shift? No doubt the showdown between Viacom and Time Warner played a role but cracks were appearing even before then. It could have been word of mouth or information seeping up from the comment section or even journalistic curiosity. Whatever the cause, it's still a sign of progress.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Can ConnCan con Conn?

I apologize for the title -- I just couldn't help myself.

In this Monkey Cage piece (Vergara vs. California: Are the top 0.1% buying their version of education reform?), I talked about how a few CEOs and ex-CEOs influenced that highly publicized trial through subsidized research, cozy relationships with officials and high-priced PR and legal teams. The case provided an interesting and very topical look into the relationship between big money and the education reform movement but it was a small part of the picture.

ConnCAN (Connecticut Coalition for Achievement Now) is a powerful movement advocacy group. Their priorities closely follow the big three: privatization; scientific management; and elimination of pretty much all job protections for teachers. After Vergara, they pushed for similar moves in Connecticut despite the fact that, unlike California, Connecticut already has a  tough tenure granting process and dismissal procedures that both teachers and administrators seem to be happy with.
Danbury's Deputy Superintendent of Schools William Glass also said the California ruling won't have an effect on the educational community in Connecticut.

"We have a very effective process for dismissing a teacher with cause," Glass said.

"It takes time and we provide support for a teacher to see if they can improve. But if they can't, we are now down to a 10-month process for dismissal," he said, referring to the new reduction in due process.

Glass also said most teachers who are not a good fit will voluntarily resign.

No one wants an ineffective teacher because the principal, the school and the district all are held responsible for that teacher's ineffectiveness in teaching students, Glass said.

"Accountability has never been as clear as it is now," Glass said. "The days of hiding are gone. It's all very visible."

In California, tenure can be earned after only two years in front of a classroom. In Connecticut, it takes four years to earn employment protection.

Connecticut also recently added language to its tenure laws that allow ineffectiveness -- as determined by new teacher evaluation procedures -- to be a cause for dismissal.
Just to be clear, California's tenure system was, by almost universal agreement, deeply flawed. One of the most pervasive defenses of the Vergara decision was that something needed to be done. Connecticut is, by almost every measure, on the other end of the spectrum. When an organization makes reducing teachers job protections in Connecticut a priority, you have to suspect it's not really about the students.

To get a better fix on ConnCAN's priorities, it helps to look at where the organization came from. Jonathan Pelto, guest blogging for Diane Ravitch, fills in the details:
Connecticut Coalition for Achievement Now, Inc. (ConnCAN) was formed in 2004 by Jonathan Sackler, who served as the founding chair. However, the role of ConnCAN’s Board Chairman was then transferred to Brian Olson, the co-founder of Viking Global Investors. Viking Global Investors is a hedge fund which currently manages over $10 billion. In addition to being a long-time member of ConnCAN, Olsen presently serves on the Leadership Council of the Newschools Venture Fund.

Following Olson’s tenure as the Chairman of ConnCAN, the position was given to Will Heins, the former Senior Vice President of Greenwich Capital Markets.

Of the twelve present members of ConnCAN’s Board of Directors, at least nine are or were “hedge fund managers,” including Art Reimers, a former partner and managing director of Goldman Sachs.

Three months after Sackler and his allies formed ConnCAN, they also incorporated Connecticut Coalition for Achievement Advocacy, Inc. (ConnAD), which was originally designed to be the lobbying and public relations arm of ConnCAN. The number two spot at ConnAD went to Alexander Troy, who lists his occupation as “private investor.” Troy worked for the hedge fund, Perry Partners during the 1990s and eventually created his own hedge fund company called Troy Capital in 2003.
There's a particularly rich vein of chutzpah in having a group of hedge fund managers calling for more accountability and performance-based pay. Here's Barry Ritholtz spelling out the context:
The numbers cited above are eye-popping: The average hedge fund is underperforming the S&P 500 by more than 2000 basis points this year alone. That is an astonishingly poor showing. As Saijel Kishan & Kelly Bit point out in the Bloomberg News article, hedge funds have “underperformed the S&P 500 by 97 percentage points since the end of 2008.” The last time the fund industry outperformed U.S. stocks was in 2008. That year, they lost (depending on what industry data you use) somewhere between 19 and 29 percent; the S&P 500 declined 37 percent. Prior to 2008, you need to go back to 1993 to find similar outperformance, when they were up 31 percent versus a 10 percent increase for the S&P.
And how much accountability have we seen? Catherine Mulbrandon of Visualizing Economics (also via Ritholtz) has a handy chart.

Add to that the myriad tricks that these managers use to cook their books, tricks that, not coincidentally, have been showing up in the charter school sector.

Friday, August 8, 2014

Pearl on Pólya

Recently, I've been discussing George Pólya from a pedagogical standpoint. For a philosophical take, check out this paper by Judea Pearl. It's not all that relevant to the the education debate we've been having but it's definitely worth reading just to put things in their historical context.

A How to Solve It primer

I've been mentioning George Pólya a bit recently -- he fits naturally in the education debate and he's a regular fixture of my teaching blog -- so I thought I should provide some background, starting with Pólya's best known book.

How to Solve It is the key work in the two initiatives that, so for as I can tell, occupied the second half of Pólya's remarkable career. The first was to create a practical guide for teaching reasoning and problem-solving, focusing on mathematics. The second was to reintroduce the field of heuristics. From the glossary:

Pólya's intention was to build on the work of Pappus, Descartes, Leibnitz and Bolzano while, in some cases, scaling back their ambition (Descartes and Leibnitz both tended to think big). He was attempting to lay out a framework for a discussion that could be productive but was unlikely to be resolved.

The primary focus was something Pólya called plausible reasoning (a term he used in the title of his first two follow-up volumes). The idea was that while the final product in mathematics is based on rigorously proven statements, the process of getting there is usually a messy combination of induction, analogy and intuition, propped up with informal and incomplete proofs until something rigorous can be erected. In order to be good at their profession, mathematicians need to be (or become) skilled at coming up plausible conjectures.

Pólya's prose is plain-spoken and direct, which has sometimes caused trouble for less careful readers because, though the style may be simple, the ideas are not. Pólya often makes fine distinctions and his assertions often are only valid in their carefully laid out context.

With its heavy reliance on Socratic dialogues and its extensive discussions of philosophy and the history of mathematics (all of which are directly relevant to the main points), How to Solve It does not lend itself to bullet points and executive summaries. Unfortunately those have become very much the language of education today. I have seen a lot of education proposals -- particularly those promising to teach critical thinking and problem solving -- that appear to come from people who saw the bullet points but never read the book. That leads to bad things.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

This is what a "danger to the staff" looks like

Though I will admit that those scary turtle faces are intimidating.

Tunette Powell's two young sons kept getting suspended from preschool. She couldn't figure out what she was doing wrong until she started comparing notes with other parents.

My son has been suspended five times. He’s 3.

Just like before, I tried to find excuses. I looked at myself. What was I doing wrong? My children are living a comfortable life. My husband is an amazing father to JJ and Joah. At home, they have given us very few problems; the same goes for time with babysitters.

I blamed myself, my past. And I would have continued to blame myself had I not taken the boys to a birthday party for one of JJ’s classmates. At the party, the mothers congregated to talk about everyday parenting things, including preschool. As we talked, I admitted that JJ had been suspended three times. All of the mothers were shocked at the news.

“JJ?” one mother asked.

“My son threw something at a kid on purpose and the kid had to be rushed to the hospital,” another parent said. “All I got was a phone call.”

One after another, white mothers confessed the trouble their children had gotten into. Some of the behavior was similar to JJ’s; some was much worse.

Most startling: None of their children had been suspended.

After that party, I read a study reflecting everything I was living.

Black children represent 18 percent of preschool enrollment but make up 48 percent of preschool children receiving more than one out-of-school suspension, according to the study released by the  Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights in March.

The one on the right is the dangerous one.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

'Rigor' is the new 'wholesome.'

Anyone who has dealt extensively with major corporations knows that corporate culture does strange things to language. I've got a half-finished post sitting on my hard-drive which argues that this process is Orwellian in the sense that if you go through "Politics and the English Language" and the relevant portions of 1984, you will find them remarkably applicable to the way language is used in the business class.

As mentioned before, the education reform movement is the product of business leaders and management consultants and free-market theorists and in most areas it hasn't yet developed a distinct culture of its own. This is particularly true with language. Even the reformers who aren't former management consultants, tend to talk as if they were.

One of the defining traits of this kind of corporate language is the constant repetition of certain words and phrases that are vague but which have strong emotional connotations, especially connotations of quality and/or toughness. Excellent/excellence is the obvious example, but in many ways, rigor/rigorous is an even better one.

'Excellence' is a fairly general term; 'rigor' has a much more specific meaning. Here's what Google says:

the quality of being extremely thorough, exhaustive, or accurate.
"his analysis is lacking in rigor"

severity or strictness.
"the full rigor of the law"

demanding, difficult, or extreme conditions.
"the rigors of a harsh winter"
All three of these could reasonably be used in a number of educational contexts (though it should be noted that the third is generally something we want to reduce). They make little sense, however in places we normally see them.
At the same time, we need a frank discussion about the shortcomings of the current system. At the heart of the matter is that CTE [career and technical education] programs need to strengthen their rigor and relevance – and deliver better outcomes for students.
Arne Duncan

For the last four years, the Obama administration has provided funding and incentives for states to help build a teaching profession that is both respected and rigorous.
Duncan again.

What exactly does it mean for a program to have stronger rigor or for a profession to be more rigorous? I'm not sure and I don't think Duncan is either. I don't even think he's trying to make meaningful statements in the conventional sense. 'Rigor' and 'rigorous' are used so frequently (satirized here by Edushyster), because the speakers are trying to build an association between their proposals and the qualities associated with the words (hard work, competence, discipline).

An explicitly Orwellian part of this process is the way words with strong connotations are made increasingly vague so they can be applied to more and more situations.

From the Glossary of Education Reform.
While dictionaries define the term as rigid, inflexible, or unyielding, educators frequently apply rigor or rigorous to assignments that encourage students to think critically, creatively, and more flexibly. Likewise, they may use the term rigorous to describe learning environments that are not intended to be harsh, rigid, or overly prescriptive, but that are stimulating, engaging, and supportive.
And a bit later
One common way in which educators do use rigor to mean unyielding or rigid is when they are referring to “rigorous” learning standards and high expectations—i.e., when they are calling for all students to be held to the same challenging academic standards and expectations. In this sense, rigor may be applied to educational situations in which students are not allowed to “coast” or “slide by” because standards, requirements, or expectations are low.
To strictly adhere to a rule is one of the definitions of rigorous, so 'rigorous standards' are meaningful in the traditional sense, but even here the treatment is somewhat vague. Note the way that the more specific 'thorough, exhaustive, or accurate' are replaced with the more general 'high' and 'challenging.' More to the point, any definition that covers both paragraphs (not to mentions Duncan's usage) would be stretched to the point of nonexistence.

Most of the time, 'rigor' in an education proposal is like 'wholesome' in an ad for a snack cake. The word means almost nothing and the very fact that you're seeing it means someone is trying to sell you something.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Affinity Khan

Back in the late 90s, I produced a series to accompany a college algebra textbook. It was the most god-awful thing you've ever seen but the publisher wanted it fast and cheap and since I was able to deliver on those two metrics, so everyone but me seemed to be happy with the final product.

I was reminded of those videos recently when I reviewed a series of online lectures from the Khan Academy. Though the approaches were in many ways very different (on our tapes the author explained and worked through the problems and I then added the graphics postproduction), the content and format and style were remarkably similar. I would love to claim some kind of influence here but I can tell you with certainty that just did not happen. For starters, very few people saw our video. It was featured in a handful of schools that used this textbook and had learning labs with video equipment. More to the point, it was itself absolutely nothing new.

For a while there (and perhaps to this day is far as I know), every math textbook was expected to have a video supplement. You can find literally thousands of hours of textbook authors, many of whom were not dynamic screen presences, diligently working through problem after problem for the camera. Add to that tens of thousands of hours of taped and filmed math lessons from other sources dating back at least to the 50s and the advent of educational television. Of these, Annenberg probably did the best that I've seen and a few others stood out due to exceptionally strong instruction and clever lessons. On the whole, though, they were pretty much interchangeable and the lessons produced by the Khan Academy definitely fall right along the median.

Of course, there is more to the Khan Academy than just the few videos I've checked out but when you look at the massive amount of similar work that had been done and you consider what was already available on on YouTube and Vimeo and from MIT before Khan started the academy, it is difficult to see where the big innovation is. To be blunt, it appears that Salman Khan's main talents lie not in innovation and execution but in self-promotion and fundraising.

Khan is not a conman but he is very much a salesman. and I wonder if part of his success has to do with affinity. Khan is an MIT grad and a Harvard MBA and a former hedge fund analyst. He's at home with CEOs like Bill Gates and management consultants like David Coleman. He's smart but it's the TED-talk kind of smart that journalists find inviting rather than threatening. In other words, both the people who present the narratives and the people who sign the checks see him as one of them.

I don't want to be too harsh -- for some students, watching the Khan videos is helpful just as, for a lot of college students, watching those supplemental video tapes at home was helpful* -- but there are some bigger issues about the way we debate the issue and make policy. If we don't remember what went before and, perhaps more importantly, what failed, if we focus on the style of press releases rather than the substance of products, if we don't think seriously and clearly about these questions, we are not going to make progress.

For some more thoughts on instructional video, check out my 2012 post, the Eugen Weber Paradox over at the teaching blog and for some sharp criticisms of the Khan Academy, take a look at this article, also from 2012, which ran in the Chronicle of Higher Education.

* The university I taught at in the Nineties had a tutoring center with a set of video carrels for watching these textbook videos. They were a complete failure and the tapes went almost completely unused until we started letting students check out the tapes and watch them at home. The response and feedback were much better.

Monday, August 4, 2014

New Math: revisionist narrative watch

I've been doing some posts for the Monkey Cage. The first was a historical perspective piece on our last big educational reform initiative, the now anachronistically named 'New Math,' a post-Sputnik push for axiomatic rigor in primary and secondary mathematics education. Much of the feedback I got on the post indicated that I had gotten too deep in the weeds and spent too much time on the history lesson and not enough making my points. I'm inclined to agree.

One point I wish in retrospect I would have hammered harder was the way supporters of Common Core are pushing a convenient but false narrative about the initiative, namely that it was a noble effort that failed because most teachers lacked the training and mathematical sophistication to handle the new material. Recently, Elizabeth Green,* the chief executive of Chalkbeat (an organization that receives funding from both Bill Gates and the Walton Family), published a long piece in the New York Times that contains a perfect example.
The trouble always starts when teachers are told to put innovative ideas into practice without much guidance on how to do it. In the hands of unprepared teachers, the reforms turn to nonsense, perplexing students more than helping them. One 1965 Peanuts cartoon depicts the young blond-haired Sally struggling to understand her new-math assignment: “Sets . . . one to one matching . . . equivalent sets . . . sets of one . . . sets of two . . . renaming two. . . .” After persisting for three valiant frames, she throws back her head and bursts into tears: “All I want to know is, how much is two and two?”
Before we go on, you'll notice that the actual cartoon has nothing to do with how the material was taught. Schulz was satirizing bringing in arcane and needlessly complex methods to do simple tasks. In other words, his point was pretty much the opposite of Green's.

It is easy to see the appeal of the "unprepared teacher" narrative for many movement reformers. The reformers were the heroes here, visionary innovators who came up with great ideas but were stymied by the incompetence of the rank and file. As mentioned before, the tension between teachers and reformers is longstanding and can be traced to, among other things, a strong pro-privatization/anti-union faction in the movement and to teachers' understandable reluctance to try unproven approaches like 29-page scripted close readings of the Gettysburg Address.

Of course, the whole narrative falls apart if those 'innovative ideas' of New Math weren't actually that good or well executed to begin with (from the Monkey Cage post):
[George] Pólya was only one of many mathematicians and scientists who publicly criticized the new curriculum. Despite the common perception that “new math” failed because it was too advanced for general consumption, it was often those who understood the mathematics best who had the harshest comments.

Most notable of these may have been the physicist Richard Feynman, who eviscerated reform-era math and science texts in his essay “Judging Books by Their Covers.” Feynman mocked the confusing and overly technical language and complained about the emphasis on obscure mathematical topics, such as doing basic arithmetic in base five or seven (it is worth noting that songwriter and mathematician Tom Lehrer satirized the same topic in his song “New Math”).

Perhaps Feynman’s most cutting criticism was that, after dragging students through painfully rigorous presentations, the textbooks did not get the rigor correct:
The reason was that the books were so lousy. They were false. They were hurried. They would try to be rigorous, but they would use examples (like automobiles in the street for ‘sets’) which were almost OK, but in which there were always some subtleties. The definitions weren’t accurate. Everything was a little bit ambiguous — they weren’t smart enough to understand what was meant by ‘rigor.’ They were faking it. They were teaching something they didn’t understand, and which was, in fact, useless, at that time, for the child.
One of the best summaries of these criticisms came from Pólya, who alluded to the famous, though probably apocryphal, story of Isadora Duncan suggesting to George Bernard Shaw that they should have a child because it would have her beauty and his brains, to which Shaw is supposed to have replied that it could well have her brains and his beauty.

Pólya suggested that new math was somewhat analogous to Duncan’s proposal. The intention had been to bring mathematical researchers and high school teachers together so that the new curriculum would combine the mathematical understanding of the former and the teaching skills of the latter, but the final product got it the other way around.
We could could go back and forth on the place of axiomatic rigor in mathematics education (my position is a firm "it depends"), but in the case of New Math, it is difficult to argue that the initiative was not seriously flawed before it ever got to the teachers, and the last thing reformers like David Coleman want people thinking about is a narrative that includes that inconvenient fact.

* I contacted Ms. Green shortly after the piece ran. I have yet to hear back.

Friday, August 1, 2014

Campbell's law revisited

Toby Lowe writing for the Guardian:
Payment by results is a simple idea: people and organisations should only get paid for what they deliver. Who could argue with that? If your job is to get people back to work, then find them a job dammit.

Plenty of people working in local government and public services are already starting to realise this is nonsense, and a pernicious, damaging nonsense at that. The evidence is very clear: if you pay (or otherwise manage performance) based on a set of pre-defined results, it creates poorer services for those most in need. It is the vulnerable, the marginalised, the disadvantaged who suffer most from payment by results.

Here's why: payment by results does not reward organisations for supporting people to achieve what they need; it rewards organisations for producing data about targets; it rewards organisations for the fictions their staff are able to invent about what they have achieved; it pays people for porkies.

We know that common things happen when people use payment by results, and other outcomes-based performance management systems. There have been numerous studies that show that such systems distort organisational priorities and make organisations focus on doing the wrong things – and they make people lie.

This lying takes all sorts of different forms. Some of them are subtle forms of deception: teachers who teach to the test or who only enter pupils for exams they know they are going to pass; employment support that helps only those likely to get a job and ignores those most in need; or hospitals that reclassify trolleys as beds, and keep people waiting in ambulances on the hospital doorstep until they know they can be seen within a target time. In the literature, this is known as gaming the system.

Some of the lying is less subtle. People just make up results. Last year's scandal with A4e provision of employment programmes is just one in a long line of haphazard outcome measurement.

Gwyn Bevan and Christopher Hood, professors of management at theLondon School of Economics and the University of Oxford respectively,looked at the impact of results targets on the NHS. They concluded that "target based performance management always creates 'gaming' ". Not sometimes. Not frequently. Always.