Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Why a predictably breakable rope is better than an unbreakable rope

Short answer: there is no such thing as an unbreakable rope.

There's an old story about an isolated monastery located high on the side of an unclimbable cliff. The only access to the monastery was by way of a basket that was hold up the side of the cliff on a single rope. One day a pilgrim who was climbing into the basket noticed that the rope looked old and parade. He asked the monk "when do you replace the rope?"

The monk replied "when it breaks."

If we generalize a bit, this becomes a useful analogy. We have a case where there is great cost associated with avoidable failure, but where there are also nontrivial costs associated with caution.

One common but probably misguided response to the situation is to buy a better rope i.e. come up with a system that is less likely to fail. If you have a shoddy system with lots of room for cheap and easy improvement, this approach makes a great deal of sense. If, on the other hand, you have already made all of the obvious and inexpensive upgrades, it probably makes more sense from a cost benefit perspective to start focusing on the question of when you replace the rope.

You frequently see this question coming up in connection to proxy variables. Particularly in the social sciences, researchers are constantly required to substitute an easily measured variable for the actual factor of interest. If we start with a "good rope" (a well-chosen proxy) then it will, under most circumstances, correlate strongly with the thing we are actually interested in.

There are plenty of "bad ropes" out there, proxies that have only weak relationships with the variables of interest even under the best circumstances, but that is a topic for another post. The disagreement here is with the otherwise responsible statisticians who make an effort to find the best possible proxy but who then do not spend enough time thinking about what happens when the rope breaks.

A few years ago, while I was doing risk models for a large bank, I found myself caught in a heated debate. We had a very good direct measure of how close people were to maxing out their line of credit. Unfortunately, this was also an expensive variable, so it was proposed that we substitute another, less direct measure. The argument for the substitution was that there was an extremely high correlation between the two variables. The counter argument put forward by most of the more experienced statisticians was that while this was true, that correlation tended to break down in extreme cases, particularly those where a person was about to go bad on all of their debts . Since the purpose of the model was to predict when people were about to default on their loans, this was a really unfortunate time for the relationship to fall apart.

Monday, September 29, 2014

The great buried lede of the Common Core debate

Lee Fang has another solid piece of investigative journalism at the Nation. It covers a lot of important ground (I'd recommend reading it for yourself), but I did want to single out a  couple of paragraphs that hit on a previously mentioned point.
The Department of Education under Obama has seen a flow of revolving door hires from the education investment community. In May of this year, the Senate confirmed Ted Mitchell, the chief executive of the NewSchools Venture Fund, as the Under Secretary for the US Department of Education. Prior to his government position, Mitchell, a personal investor in an array of education start-ups, forged a partnership last year with the creators of Facebook app FarmVille to create new education game products. James Shelton, the Deputy Secretary, is a longtime education investor and the former co-founder of LearnNow, a charter chain that was sold to Edison Learning, a for-profit charter management company.

In an interview with EdSurge, a trade outlet, Shelton explained that the Common Core standards will allow education companies to produce products that “can scale across many markets,” overcoming the “fragmented procurement market” that has plagued investors seeking to enter the K-12 sector. Moreover, Shelton and his team manage an education innovation budget, awarding grants to charter schools and research centers to advance the next breakthrough in education technology. Increased research and development in education innovation, Shelton wrote in testimony to Congress, will spark the next “equivalent of Google or Microsoft to lead the global learning technology market.” He added, “I want it to be a US company.”
For all the controversy, there are some details on the Common Core story that we should all be able to agree on: it has been produced and implemented with remarkable speed; some of the major stakeholders (particularly teachers) feel they were left out of much of the process; the initiative has become one of the most hotly debated aspects of education reform; a great deal of money is at stake here.

Intentionally or not, the speed of the implementation greatly increases the costs. In terms of both materials and training, a more gradual phase in would save a lot of money (it would also allow for field testing and fine tuning but that's a topic for another post). We should and will have a discussion about the pedagogical issues with the Common Core (you can get a head start on the debate here and here), but when we are talking about public policy proposals, proponents always need to show that their plans are cost effective.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

"Marvel, Jack Kirby Heirs Settle Dispute Over Superhero Rights"

From Variety
“Marvel and the family of Jack Kirby have amicably resolved their legal disputes, and are looking forward to advancing their shared goal of honoring Mr. Kirby’s significant role in Marvel’s history,” the litigants announced in a joint statement on Friday.
I suspect Disney pretty much had to settle this and hopefully the Kirby heirs negotiated with this in mind. As mentioned before (Do copyright extensions drive innovation? -- Hollywood blockbuster edition), the entertainment industry's current model is based on accumulating huge content libraries then lobbying for an endless series of copyright extensions. Even with a corporate-friendly court, I can't imagine the major players would want to risk disturbing the status quo.

You can find the rest of the thread here:

Intellectual property and Marvel

An IP post for the Fourth of July

A bit more background on the Jack Kirby IP case

More on the Jack Kirby copyright case

Friday, September 26, 2014

Lots of red flags on this one

This is another one of those education stories where it's difficult to figure out what's actually going on but easy to see that the standard narrative has some pretty big plot holes.

I came across this narrative in an article by Ben Wieder that opens with the following:
Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair and U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan were both on hand Monday morning to crown the school districts in Gwinnett County, Georgia, and Orange County, Florida, as the first dual winners of the Broad Prize for Urban Education. They will split the $1 million prize, which comes in the form of scholarships worth up to $20,000 for graduating seniors.

The prize, described variously as the Nobel or the Oscar or the Pulitzer of the education reform movement and sponsored by billionaire Eli Broad and his wife, Edythe, aims to “regain the American public’s confidence in public schools by spotlighting districts making significant gains in student achievement.” Both districts were cited for above-average academic performance for low-income and minority students relative to other districts in their states.
Lots of things here to make a fellow cautious -- impressive claims about a fuzzy target coming from a well-financed advocacy group -- and if there's a field that demands heightened caution, it's education reform. Perhaps even more than Bill Gates, Broad is the money man most associated with the Taylorist agenda in the education reform movement. Wieder does mention this concern, but he doesn't dig.
Skeptics question whether the foundation’s choice is influenced more by districts’ alignment with its policy goals than by student performance. “The Broad operation is so inherently ideological,” said Gary Orfield a professor in the graduate school of education at UCLA.

But Nancy Que, director of the prize, says a “purposeful wall” is maintained between the foundation’s “reform” agenda and the prize selection. Each year, a review board looks at academic markers for the 75 largest urban school districts, including performance on state tests, graduation rates, and participation and performance on the SAT, ACT and Advanced Placement exams to determine finalists. The winner is selected after site visits to all of the finalist districts, taking into account their leadership and governance policies.
That "purposeful wall" quote is really troubling, particularly when you follow the link Wieder provides. As best I can make the process out, while the finalists appear to be selected through fairly standard academic metrics, getting the big prize seems to depend on meeting a set of standards that very closely line up with the foundation's reform movement agenda.
A team of experienced researchers and practitioners led by RMC Research Corporation, an education consulting company, then conducts site visits to each finalist district to gather additional quantitative and qualitative data. District policies and practices affecting teaching and learning are qualitatively analyzed according to a rubric for evaluating the quality of district-wide policies and practices. The criteria are grounded in research-based school and district practices found to be effective in three key areas: teaching and learning, district leadership, and operations and support systems. 
The framework consists largely of reform dog-whistles like standards-based curriculum and rigorous evidence-based instruction (because we all know the importance of rigor). Other parts are arbitrary and raise some interesting questions.

Consider the section on Financial Resources.
INDICATOR FR-1. The district is financially sound, implements prudent financial planning processes, and displays strong fiscal accountability.
• The district is financially sound, having adequate fiscal reserves to meet current obligations and state-required minimums for reserves.
• The district budgeting process includes prudent financial planning and forecasting to anticipate fluctuations in funding sources and balance budgets without sacrificing educational quality.
• The district displays strong fiscal accountability, promoting cost effectiveness, employing effective internal controls over expenditures, and forecasting so there is little need to reconcile differences between anticipated and actual expenditures during the fiscal year.
The first obvious question, how exactly this relates to the stated goals of improving student performance and closing the achievement gap, pales next to the question of what the Broad Foundation considers "fiscal accountability." Looking at the rather short list of previous winners, a couple of familiar names pop out, names associated with spending most of us would consider extravagant and wasteful. Gwinnett County Public Schools (already an odd choice for the award given its relatively upscale demographics, particularly compared to nearby Fulton) compensates its superintendent at the rate of nearly 400K. Even worse,  Miami-Dade County Public Schools is in the midst of an ongoing scandal, as are most Florida  school districts, due to a state policy of handing large checks to any con artist with a charter school application.

This is hardly surprising. The Broad Foundation comes out of a culture that embraces both the power of privatization and the great-man theory of executive leadership. It is difficult to shock them with spending in areas they like (you can add technology to that list, John Deasy of the billion dollar iPad fiasco is another product of Broad). When the framework talks about financial soundness, the authors are more likely thinking about reductions in class sizes and pay raises for teachers who earn graduate degrees (Broad appears to be more comfortable with the idea of paying administrators for questionable degrees).

Both in what they look for and in what they overlook, it appears that the people at the Broad Foundation are using this prize to reward politicians and administrators who conform to their agenda. There is nothing wrong with this -- it is, after all, their money -- but journalists covering this story have a professional obligation to go beyond the press releases.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Checking back in on "Netflix and the big swinging check syndrome"

Whenever possible it's good to follow-up.

A few weeks ago, the news broke that:

Netflix Acquires ‘The Blacklist’ For $2 Million An Episode

Except, of course, they didn't. As I noted in a post (with a title I should be a little less proud of):

For starters, you will notice that the headline is somewhat misleading. Netflix did not "acquire" the Black List in the sense that, say ABC would have. The show will still be running on NBC next year. Nor did it acquire the rights to stream the episodes during the regular season; those will presumably stay with Hulu. What Netflix did acquire was the right to stream the previous year's episodes.
I was in the middle of a thread on how Netflix was yet another example of business journalists taking an appealing narrative -- visionary CEO using big data to transform his industry and make his company the next HBO -- and selectively ignoring the facts that contradicted it while more or less inventing others to support it.

But the "presumably stay with Hulu" part bothered me quite a bit. The point was left fairly vague in the news story I linked to and, if Netflix actually had managed to block Hulu from streaming the show, that would change the picture considerably.

So the day after the debut I checked the show's status.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

The Con(firmation) Artists of the New York Times

I was gathering notes for yet another post on the sad state of fact-checking at the New York Times, this time concerning Alessandra Stanley when I came across this from then executive editor Bill Keller:
Q: The NYT is taking considerable criticism for Ms. Stanley's piece, with many folks learning about the error via the Public Editor's column.

A: Just to be clear (and I'm sure you know this) we published a fulsome correction* on July 22. Many folks may have learned about this episode from Clark's column, but many (including Clark) learned about it because we published a correction, which is also appended in perpetuity to the archived article. The evidence for what I'm about to say is purely anecdotal, but I think a lot of readers check the Corrections column with the same avidity they apply to the obits. On a good day they will come across something like our March 11 correction of a 1906 article that inaccurately cited the text of an inscription inside Abraham Lincoln's pocket watch. On a REALLY good day they may come across something like this one, from October, 2000: "An article in The Times Magazine last Sunday about Ivana Trump and her spending habits misstated the number of bras she buys. It is two dozen black, two dozen beige and two dozen white, not two thousand of each."

But I digress.

While I'm telling you what you obviously already know: One thing that sets a serious newspaper apart from most other institutions in our society is that we own up to our mistakes with corrections, editor's notes and other accountability devices, including the public editor's column. We hate getting stuff wrong and we work hard to avoid mistakes. But when we make them, we try to set the record straight.

Q: Specifically, some people inside the paper believe that Alessandra has been allowed to continue as a critic, without sufficient punishment, because she is close with Jill Abramson. Your response?

A: We love a conspiracy theory, but the truth is simple: Alessandra has been allowed to continue as a critic because she is -- in my opinion, among others -- a brilliant critic.
It was an almost perfect example of why I have such problems with the New York Times, arrogant, dismissive of critics. Perhaps more importantly, it demonstrated the Keller's terrible journalistic taste and judgment. I went back and looked over the Shonda Rhimes piece again to confirm my first impression of Stanley's talents. It was, if anything, worse on second reading. It read like Stanley doing a bad job impersonating Maureen Dowd doing a bad job impersonating Pauline Kael. (I am a huge fan of Kael. However, as with Bob Dylan, there are things she can do brilliantly which you probably shouldn't try.)

I also read the Cronkite piece that prompted Keller to describe Stanley as brilliant. It too was awful, consisting almost entirely of threadbare cliches ("that his outsize tenure bracketed a bygone era when America was, if not a more confident nation, certainly a more trusting one").

Thinking about the Dowd analogy as I went through the tired and badly thought-out memes of Stanley's essays, it struck me that, like David Brooks, David Carr, and her friend Dowd, Stanley was yet another of the New York Times' con(firmation) artists.

What makes a con(firmation) artist? First and foremost, of course, is the desire to confirm the beliefs and narratives held by their colleagues. All of these journalists have poor track records when it comes to factual accuracy but they largely escape the consequences of these lapses because they are saying things that other journalist believe to be true (or perhaps more accurately want to be true).

Con(firmation) artists also rely on a veneer of "new journalism" to conceal the cracks in their work. When you read the flashy prose , the big analogies, the constant editorial sides, you can almost imagine them saying "it worked in the Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test."

There are at least two major problems with this use of new journalism. The first is that the original generation of new journalists were extraordinarily hard working and were held to demanding standards by editors like Clay Felker. The second, and more important, is the fact that the original new journalists and the con(firmation) artists had opposite objectives . The goal then was to be original and unexpected. When Tom Wolfe discussed the fashions of the radical left, he came to new and surprising conclusions. When David Brooks talks about Home Shopping Network or David Carr talks about Netflix, they get their facts wrong but they reach conclusions that agree with the conventional wisdom of their peers.

This combination of pretension and pandering has given these writers extraordinary standing in their communities. It has also allowed them to do considerable damage to their professions.

* With the caveat that Keller may not know what the word 'fulsome' means, here is the correction in all of its epic glory:
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

Correction: July 22, 2009
An appraisal on Saturday about Walter Cronkite’s career included a number of errors. In some copies, it misstated the date that the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was killed and referred incorrectly to Mr. Cronkite’s coverage of D-Day. Dr. King was killed on April 4, 1968, not April 30. Mr. Cronkite covered the D-Day landing from a warplane; he did not storm the beaches. In addition, Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon on July 20, 1969, not July 26. “The CBS Evening News” overtook “The Huntley-Brinkley Report” on NBC in the ratings during the 1967-68 television season, not after Chet Huntley retired in 1970. A communications satellite used to relay correspondents’ reports from around the world was Telstar, not Telestar. Howard K. Smith was not one of the CBS correspondents Mr. Cronkite would turn to for reports from the field after he became anchor of “The CBS Evening News” in 1962; he left CBS before Mr. Cronkite was the anchor. Because of an editing error, the appraisal also misstated the name of the news agency for which Mr. Cronkite was Moscow bureau chief after World War II. At that time it was United Press, not United Press International.

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

Correction: August 1, 2009
An appraisal on July 18 about Walter Cronkite’s career misstated the name of the ABC evening news broadcast. While the program was called “World News Tonight” when Charles Gibson became anchor in May 2006, it is now “World News With Charles Gibson,” not “World News Tonight With Charles Gibson.”
If that's not enough, Gawker and CJR have more.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

What's so bad about working together?

This post by Tom Paulson is more than a year out of date but it raises some still relevant questions.
I wasn’t actually allowed behind the scenes at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s recent meeting in Seattle entitled “Strategic Media Partnerships.”

The Gates Foundation funds a lot of media – more than $25 million in media grants for 2012 (but still less than 1% of the budget).

I’m media but I wasn’t invited. I asked if I could come and report on it, but was told the meeting was off the record. Those attending included representatives from the New York Times, NPR, the Guardian, NBC, Seattle Times and a number of other news organizations, non-profit groups and foundations. Not all were grant recipients, or partners. Some just came to consult.


Outside of the Gates media confab last week, I talked to a number of participants – usually ‘off the record’ – to learn that it was mostly a discussion about the sorry state of the media and how to improve coverage of neglected issues that concern the philanthropy in areas like global health, foreign aid, development and education. Media folks presented case studies, ideas and mulled over measuring impact – because that’s what Bill and Melinda want, measurable impacts.


Dan Green, a highly respected journalist and now director of media partnerships for the Gates Foundation, has by all accounts built a sturdy firewall at the philanthropy between grants to news organizations and anything to do with the foundation’s advocacy projects.
Even if we're talking about something like polio where not only the objectives but the sub-objectives and the methods are relatively noncontroversial, this kind of collaborative relationship between journalists and the organizations they cover should make people uncomfortable. As admirable as these goals may be, supporting them is not the job of journalists.

The ethical problems grow by orders of magnitude when we wander into advocacy. Just to pin down our terms, advocacy (at least the kind we're concerned with here) is trying to convince governments to take certain actions. For example, rather than building a hospital, advocacy projects try to get taxpayers to build it.

By its very nature, advocacy groups try to influence journalists. That is not, in and of itself, a bad thing -- advocates can perform a vital role -- but advocates are essentially salesmen, and journalists should treat their information and proposals with the same skepticism that consumers should treat claims in TV commercials.

All this talk of firewalls sounds impressive, but it is problematic under even the best of circumstances and in certain areas is all but impossible. When it comes to education, for all intents and purposes the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation is an advocacy group. The stated purpose of pretty much all of their major initiatives is to promote a collection of policy positions. They provide lobbying and massive PR funding and resources to promote the policies they support. They fund and propagate favorable research. They find and back like-minded public officials such as John Deasy. We can argue about the wisdom of those proposals, the validity of that research and the confidence of those officials, but we cannot reasonably say that this does not constitute advocacy, nor can we argue that cozy relationships between advocates and and journalists are a good thing.

Monday, September 22, 2014

More shifting alliances -- TPM edition

As mentioned before, when it came to the politics of the education reform movement, the big story four or five years ago was liberal support for what would normally be seen as conservative principles like privatization, deregulation and the need to limit the power of unions (discussed at great length here). Today, the big political story is the increasing number of prominent liberals who are breaking with the reform movement. Given that context, this exchange at Talking Points Memo takes on special significance.

For a while now, Conor P. Williams has been the de facto education guy for TPM. His schtick is to attack critics of the movement, usually by misrepresenting their positions or just make broad attacks on their character. This is often followed by an extended lament over how negative the reform debate has gotten due to all those mean people on the other side. Williams represents a sizable chunk in my to-write pile but I keep putting it off because it's just so much work correcting one of his columns.

The picture that went with Williams' essay on Common Core critics.

As far as I could tell, Williams was the voice of TPM when it came to education, which is one of the things that made this recent piece by Sabrina Joy Stevens so surprising. The tone is polite but the effect is devastating. Not only does Stevens point out the essential hypocrisy of Williams' calls for a more elevated tone, she gets at perhaps his greatest journalist offense, his habit of omitting relevant but inconvenient facts and context (for example, check out how he covers the D.C. cheating scandal when discussing the fall of Michelle Rhee).
Yet, both the more strident vitriol aimed at Brown, as well as Williams’ critique of these attacks, miss the real issues that we should discuss when considering the dangerous movement Brown leads.

As someone who has been subjected to sexist and racist attacks from “both” sides of the education debate, I agree there’s no room for oppressive behavior in this conversation — regardless of the feeble denials and/or justifications the offenders and their protectors try to offer. But it’s also important not to overlook the many substantive reasons why people object to how figures like Rhee (now Johnson) and Brown choose to participate in this debate. The ignorance that animates any sexist or racist insults directed at both women doesn’t erase the rhetorical and material harm both have caused in the course of their advocacy.

Michelle Rhee Johnson was primarily disliked because of the actual things she did — some of which were overtly and personally cruel, such as the humiliating decision to fire someone on camera. We’re talking about a person who chose to launch her media career as D.C. schools chancellor with an direct attack on teachers, posing for the cover of Time Magazine with a broom — strongly insinuating that many of her employees were not people, but trash she intended to sweep away.

Similarly, Brown began her new incarnation as an education “reformer” two years ago by launching an emotionally-charged smear campaign against organized teachers. Since kicking off her latest effort, she has reportedly bullied and undermined the ability of a grassroots parents organization to carry out an independent legal effort on behalf of their own children — allegedly interfering with their ability to retain desired counsel in order to strengthen her own position at the forefront of the legal assault on teachers’ due process rights in New York state. (It’s worth noting that these attacks constitute a very serious, material abuse of her class and racial privilege that has real consequences for its targets. That should concern Williams and others at least as much as the sexist jibes aimed at Brown on Twitter and elsewhere.)
If TPM continues running voices like Stevens, Williams' approach will no longer be viable. His is not a style that stands up well to knowledgeable dissent.

More self-defeating comment spam

I understand that a great deal of spam is generated by bots and translation software. I can even believe that for some products the bad grammar and stilted language is not that much of an impediment. There are, however, products and services where this can't be a good approach.
AnonymousSeptember 21, 2014 at 6:06 AM
Your encounter throughout helping learners creates you a great respected firm while it come to giving learners on what to post powerful entry documents.____Essay.com alternative is able to provide us quality and on time writing services with guarantee best service from others any providers.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Mrs. Johnson's class is doing well. Let's call that a school

If you are following the data side of the ed reform story, you really need to check out Gary Rubinstein's account of

Frayser 9GA, the miracle school of the Achievement School District

And you have a problem with Joe Camel?

Mental Floss (one of the internet's best time killers) has a very cool article called 10 Lifehacks from 100 Years Ago.

In the late 1880s, cigarette manufacturers began inserting stiffening cards into their paper packs of cigarettes to strengthen the containers. It wasn't long before they got the idea to put artwork, trivia, famous people, and pretty girls onto those cards, grouped into collectible series. The cards, which continued into the 1940s, are highly valuable now, with the most expensive (bearing the face of stringent anti-smoking baseball player Honus Wagner) selling for $2.8 million in 2007.

In the 1910s, Gallaher Ltd of Belfast & London and Ogden's Branch of the Imperial Tobacco Co printed "How-To" series, with clever hints for both everyday and emergency situations. From steaming out a splinter to stopping a mad dog, these cigarette cards told you the smart way to handle many of life's problems.
It's a fun list but I noticed something strange. Perhaps it's just a coincidence, but the target audience for many of these cards seems to have been boy scouts. Even in 1910, that had to be a bit odd.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Artificial intelligence, natural stupidity

This started out as one of my standard ddulite rants, another round of complaints about how the press goes all gee-whiz over high tech and stops thinking critically, but I think this might be something more basic, something where the editors were being less ddulites and more dullards.

I was checking out the news stories on Yahoo when I came across this ominous headline linking to a Business Insider story:

By 2045 'The Top Species Will No Longer Be Humans,' And That Could Be A Problem

I say 'ominous' not because I was worried about the future of humanity but because I was steeling myself for some bad journalism. I was not, however, prepared for this:
"It won't be the 'Terminator' scenario, not a war," said [Louis] Del Monte. "In the early part of the post-singularity world, one scenario is that the machines will seek to turn humans into cyborgs. This is nearly happening now, replacing faulty limbs with artificial parts. We'll see the machines as a useful tool. Productivity in business based on automation will be increased dramatically in various countries. In China it doubled, just based on GDP per employee due to use of machines."

"By the end of this century," he continued, "most of the human race will have become cyborgs [part human, part tech or machine]. The allure will be immortality. Machines will make breakthroughs in medical technology, most of the human race will have more leisure time, and we'll think we've never had it better. The concern I'm raising is that the machines will view us as an unpredictable and dangerous species."

Del Monte believes machines will become self-conscious and have the capabilities to protect themselves. They "might view us the same way we view harmful insects." Humans are a species that "is unstable, creates wars, has weapons to wipe out the world twice over, and makes computer viruses." Hardly an appealing roommate.
If a stranger started saying this sort of thing to you on the street, you would probably start backing away while avoiding eye contact, but it's not like Business Insider and Yahoo Finance would put their names behind some flake. This guy (described in the article as  'physicist, entrepreneur, and author of "The Artificial Intelligence Revolution."') obviously had something in his resume that merited a little extra indulgence when his theories got a little out there.

Well, maybe not. As far as I can tell, Del Monte never worked as a physicist, at least not the theoretical kind. He has a master's in physics from Fordham and he appears to have had a very successful run as an engineer (particularly for Honeywell). Some time after that he started self-publishing general interest science books and making some fairly bold claims about new theories.

I don't want to dismiss someone for a lack of qualifications (Martin Gardner had a bachelor's in philosophy) or for self-publishing (I'm a blogger for crying out loud), but credentials do imply a certain level of vetting, which means that if someone uncredentialed is about to be published by a major media brand, the editors need to do their own vetting, perhaps by Googling that someone and checking out reactions to previous work. For example, the people at Business Insider might have taken a look at this review of an earlier Del Monte book.
“Unraveling the Universe’s Mysteries” is Louis A. Del Monte’s contribution to the world of science writing. If you haven’t heard of him, don’t be surprised. He’s not a prolific author or researcher, but worked in the development of microelectronics for the US companies IBM and Honeywell before forming a high-tech e-marketing agency.

The book lives up to its title and long subtitle: “Explore sciences’ most baffling mysteries, including the Big Bang’s origin, time travel, dark energy, humankind’s fate, and more.” It covers string theory, the Big Bang, dark matter, dark energy, time travel, the existence of God, and other mysterious aspects of our Universe. Del Monte also discusses artificial intelligence, the end of the Universe, and the mysterious nature of light. These subjects have all been covered in great detail by other authors in other books. How does Del Monte’s treatment of these subjects stand up in comparison?

Not great, in my opinion. The writing is somehow uninviting. The book reads more like a textbook or a lecture than it does a science book for an interested audience. It’s somewhat dry, and the writing is kind of heavy. After looking into Del Monte’s background, it becomes clear why. He’s an engineer, and his background is in writing technical papers.

This book is a bit of a puzzle, as is the author himself. I’ve mentioned the problems with the writing, but there are other issues. In one instance Del Monte references a study from the Journal of Cosmology. If you haven’t heard of that journal, it’s come under heavy criticism for its peer-review process, and isn’t highly regarded in science circles. The Journal of Cosmology seems to be a journal for people with an axe to grind around certain issues more than a healthy part of the science journal community. To be quoting studies from it is a bit of a black mark, in my opinion.

In another instance, he opens the chapter on Advanced Aliens with a quote from “Chariot of the Gods”, that old book/documentary from the 1970’s that just won’t seem to die, no matter how discredited it is. The main thrust of “Chariot of the Gods” is that human civilisation got a technological boost from visitations by advanced aliens. Readers can judge for themselves the wisdom of quoting “Chariot of the Gods” in a science book.
If anything, the reviewer goes a bit easy on the Journal of Cosmology -- Wikipedia has a very good rundown -- but it's the Chariot quote that really pushes things over the top.  This is the sort of information that a reader might have found useful when evaluating the threat of machines seeking to turn humans into cyborgs.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

At least we can all agree that ad hominem and overly general attacks are bad

I keep meaning to write something substantial about Conor P. Williams who is, among other things, the voice of Talking Points Memo in the field of education. Williams is a particularly good source of material for the emerging thread about the way the reform movement has recently started dealing with the emergence of prominent critics.

Here's a brief but representative example.
I’m far from convinced by everything that gets done today in the name of education reform. But [Michelle] Rhee’s and [Campbell] Brown’s examples are indicative of a troubling pattern for reform opponents: anti-reformers are prone to shooting any reform messenger. Anti-reform has an ad hominem problem. In part this is because the anti-reform crowd is obsessed with who has standing to participate in education debates. Non-teachers don't count (unless they're Diane Ravitch). Parents’ voices are only permitted so long as they avoid direct challenges to failing schools.
Williams doesn't address the exceptions to those awfully sweeping statements. Instead he follows with this:
I write about American education for a living, so I get a front row seat on this. Sometimes I write things like “Some charter schools, under some circumstances, are performing especially well.” When I write these sorts of things, my inbox, my Twitter mentions, and (occasionally) my phone spontaneously, simultaneously ignite. I get accused of hating teachers, teachers unions, and (a few times) white people. I get told that I’m a secret agent for Pearson, Bill Gates, the United Nations, and sometimes even the Muslim Brotherhood (really. No—REALLY). This isn’t occasional. It happens every time I write anything vaguely favorable about reform efforts, even when it’s mixed with criticism.
Just to sum things up, Williams complains that critics of the reform movement have "an ad hominem problem." He then goes on to describe their criticisms in terms of racism, paranoia and religious bigotry.

Further comment would be superfluous.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Yes, it's bear-in-the-pool hot

Recently, the hottest times of the year in LA are spring and fall.

The September Southern California heat wave has sent at least one bear into a backyard swimming pool. Sunday afternoon, some Sierra Madre homeowners spied a sizable black bear lounging on the steps of their in-ground pool. The bear swam and rested for about 15 minutes before leaving like an unwanted party guest. It's hard to blame the wildlife. Temperatures in Sierra Madre hit 103 on Sunday and 100 on Monday, according to AccuWeather.

Southern Californians are accustomed to bears in pools and hot tubs. (This reporter once watched a bobcat visit her pool.)

The state's black bear population has been on the rise in the last 25 years and is now at about 30,000.

Wondering where the numbers come from -- Rotten Tomatoes

A while back I was taking one of my random walks through Wikipedia and I came across the movie Postal. For some forgotten reason (possibly to see what the critics had to say about Dave Foley, J.K. Simmons or Zack Ward, all interesting actors), I clicked on the link for Rotten Tomatoes.

The movie had a perfect 0% among top critics, but I noticed Peter Hartlaub of the San Francisco Chronicle had a rather kind blurb.
If this movie had been made by an unknown young director, a lot of critics would still be panning the movie for its inconsistencies -- but many others would be praising his courage.
This got me curious so I took a look at the actual review:
Movie review: 'Postal' delivers funny madness
Peter Hartlaub, Chronicle Pop Culture Critic

So what to do with "Postal," which is not only less than horrible, but actually occasionally enjoyable? The much-delayed low-budget movie may be completely beyond the bounds of mainstream taste, but it's also funny, and criticizes our government's hypocrisy and political correctness in a way that's refreshingly pointed. If this movie had been made by an unknown young director, a lot of critics would still be panning the movie for its inconsistencies - but many others would be praising his courage.


It's an unfocused movie, with much lower production values than more generously budgeted Boll productions such as "BloodRayne." (For years, Boll movies had been augmented by healthy tax breaks provided by the German government, which no longer offers the perks.) Much of the humor is cliched, and Boll's seething anger at his real-life tormenters often gives his script a bitterness that is more awkward than funny.

But there's still a catharsis that comes from watching the madness unfold onscreen, making the film a potential future double-bill partner with "Team America World Police." Boll's greatest asset is the underrated [Zack] Ward, a longtime character actor who is best known for playing the red-haired bully Scut Farkus in "A Christmas Story," and tends to show up these days in small roles in big projects - including "The Transformers" and "Lost." Clearly grateful to be the leading man (and apparently unfazed by the more unsavory parts of the script), he throws himself into the role. Ward is likable and wry, but still looks right as an action hero when it comes time to start blowing stuff up.

And blow stuff up he does, but this time the low-budget look that Boll embraces seems to be on purpose.
It didn't sound like Hartlaub was going to list Postal in his top ten but overall the review sounded fairly positive. I also noticed this icon at the top of the review.

This figure indicates a "Good" rating. How does that translate to "Rotten"? Apparently it's because the Chronicle scores on a scale of zero to four with two being 'good.' I assume that Rotten Tomatoes is used to dealing with either one to four or one to five scales, both of which would designate two as below average. I don't have an opinion on Postal or on the director Uwe Boll having never seen any of his movies, but this does seem a bit unfair, both to this movie and to others the Chronicle  rated "Good."

What is interesting is the fact that this is pretty clearly a glitch and it's a glitch in the easy part of review aggregation. Rotten Tomatoes also attempts to assign binary ratings to reviews without specified ranking (Pauline Kael called John Huston's The Bible "A sprawling, flawed epic, but with some breathtaking conceptions and moments of beauty." -- is that a thumbs up or a thumbs down?). Metacritic takes things to the next level with a hundred point scale.

This brings up one of my problems with data-driven journalism. Reporters and bloggers are constantly barraging us with graphs and analyses and of course, narratives looking at things like Rotten Tomatoes rankings. All to often, though, their process starts with the data as given. They spend remarkably little time asking where the data came from or whether it's worth bothering with.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Shifting alliances

I'm not sure what the general lessons of the Zephyr Teachout campaign are. I'll leave it to the real political scientists to debate whether her performance should be judged in relative or absolute terms. One area I will weigh in on, however, (or at least point out) is how much the alignment of the education reform movement has changed recently.

2010 was something of an inflection point in the education reform movement (Here's a Kindle single of posts from that year -- Things I saw at the Counter-Reformation).  For the first decade of this century, The reform movement had remarkably broad bipartisan support. No major pundit or editorial board seriously opposed it. To the extent there was a debate, it was generally between those moderate in their support and those extreme in their support, and to the extent that the debate had a partisan tilt, it was often relative conservatives like Robert Samuelson, David Brooks and Jim Manzi taking the moderate positions and relative liberals like Jonathan Chait and Matt Yglesias taking the extreme ones.

Flash forward a few years. Zephyr Teachout is held up as the reform alternative to the second generation establishment candidate Andrew Cuomo, Simon Johnson called her "An Elizabeth Warren for New York." Charles Pierce made similar points. New York Magazine (home of Chait) took the same narrative tack.

There's a bit of irony in New York's touting Teachout as the liberal in the race since few pundits have been as aggressive as Chait in pushing the idea that the reform movement is one of today's preeminent liberal causes while few figures demonstrate better than Teachout the growing rift between the left and the reform movement.

This is how Teachout summarized her education platform:
One of the prime duties of the governor of New York is to safeguard our public schools from any private interest that threatens their public purpose. Yet Governor Cuomo, in his four years in office, has rarely even visited a public school. As Governor, I would dedicate myself every day to restoring New York’s public schools to their rightful place as the best in the nation. Specifically, I would pursue the following five strategies:

a. Full and Equal Funding for Public Education

New York spends $8,700 less per pupil in poor districts than we do in rich ones. That makes New York the sixth most unequal state in all America when it comes to school funding. This also means that New York is in violation of its own Constitution, which requires the government to provide a “sound, basic education” to every student, no matter his zip-code. I believe this constitutional obligation should be our floor, not our ceiling. New Yorkers have a right to demand the best public schools in the nation, with small class sizes, arts, and physical education for every child.

I would work to make funding more fair and equitable. Despite a promise to the contrary, Governor Cuomo has actually widened the funding gap between poor and wealthy districts.

b. End High-Stakes Testing

Under Governor Cuomo’s leadership, we’ve seen a culture of test-and-punish overthrow actual teaching and real learning. New York State entirely botched the implementation of Common Core, which has ushered in an unrelenting regimen of tests. Governor Cuomo’s system of basing teacher evaluations on student tests has corroded actual learning.

We should slam the brakes on the barrage of high-stakes testing. This means halting both the new Common Core tests and tests that are part of the teacher evaluation system. We need to undertake a thorough reevaluation of all high stakes tests, with full input from educators and parents.

c. Protect Against Privatization

Governor Cuomo has promoted a private takeover of public education policy, by opening state coffers up to charter schools, which serve only three percent of New York’s students. In New York City, meanwhile, he has mandated that city taxpayers pay rent for privately run charter schools to the tune of $11,000 per pupil, thus fueling their massive expansion at the expense of public schools.

We should protect our public schools from privatization schemes, including the diversion of state funds to private schools through vouchers or back-door tax credits. We should repeal provisions enacted in 2014 that hijack control of decision-making about charter school co-locations out of the hands of local governments and that mandate that New York City pay for charter school rent.

d. Empower Local Communities

I would eliminate the undemocratic provisions of the cap on local school budgets— falsely sold as a tax cap even though it caps nobody’s taxes. Specifically we should hand back to local voters the right to control their own school budgets, by eliminating the requirement of a 60 percent supermajority. We should return to the principle of one person, one vote in school budget elections.

e. Suspend the Suspension Pipeline

We must end the ‘school to prison pipeline’ where excessive use of school suspensions for minor infractions deprive students of education, leaving them behind. Suspensions actually increase behavior problems and decrease school safety. In many urban communities there is a school suspension crisis—with huge racial inequalities in suspension rates. Greater suspension rates lead to higher expulsion rates and to increases in school-based arrests. This cycle starts with high suspension rates for young students, even as young as pre-k and kindergarten. We need solutions, not suspensions. We need to transform the culture in school buildings to support teachers and students, foster collaboration, teach problem-solving, engender real responsibility and accountability and keep students in school. This approach, called “restorative justice,” has proven highly effective. Due to a local community organizing effort in Buffalo, the implementation of these reforms have already led to a 30 percent reduction in suspensions. Students cannot learn if they are not in school.

f. Halt Common Core

I am calling for an immediate halt on all four new teacher certification tests, and for them to be replaced by the three former ones. Only by stopping the exams, which were introduced this year and are aligned with Common Core, will 2014 and 2015 teacher candidate graduates have a fair opportunity to enter the teaching profession.

Common Core has been widely and justly recognized as a rushed and flawed initiative, as well as an undemocratic one. Criticism of the new educational standards has been fierce among both Democratic and Republican legislators. Governor Andrew Cuomo, too, has acknowledged that Common Core needs to be fixed before students and teachers can be judged by it. Speaking out in support of a two-year delay on the use of negative evaluations for current teachers, Governor Cuomo said, “We want a fair evaluation ... People's lives are being judged by this instrument, so you want the instrument in the evaluation to be correct."

Inexplicably, Governor Cuomo has not extended the same rights to teacher candidates. Even though their exams mirror those used to evaluate current teachers, teacher candidates were not offered the same delay. As a result, qualified candidates are being blocked from entering the teaching profession because of flawed and unfair tests. Under Governor Cuomo’s watch and with his full knowledge, the State Education Department is shamefully using teacher candidates as guinea pigs while the standards are still being corrected.

Thousands of teacher careers are being ruined. This must stop immediately. We must go beyond the two-year delay and indefinitely halt the standards proposed for evaluations of both current and candidate teachers.

g. Prioritizing Early Intervention

For more than two decades, the New York State Early Intervention Program has been a vital resource for infants and toddlers with disabilities, and their families. Available to children of up to three-years old, the program has traditionally been open to all eligible children, regardless of socioeconomic status and level of family resources.

Since Governor Andrew Cuomo entered office, the Early Intervention Program in NYS has faced significant budget cuts. In 2012-2013 its budget was reduced to $508 million, down from $650 million in 2010-2011. As a result, many families of young children with special needs have been left without the crucial services they need to protect their children's future. A record number of Early Intervention providers and provider agencies – including physical therapists, occupational therapists, speech-language pathologists, psychologists, social workers, vision therapists, and nutritionists – have closed their doors over the last 18 months, due to changes in policies that have both reduced what they can earn and created huge lags in payments for services already rendered.

Early Intervention was created to make sure we get involved when we have the greatest chance of making a difference. From birth to three years of age is when a child’s brain grows to 80 percent of its adult size and is hence most responsive to change. Research has found that early intervention can change brain architecture and improve outcomes for children.

What’s more, intervening early can save the state huge resources. Investing in Early Intervention programs has been found to reduce education costs, by minimizing the need for special education services later. Studies document how every dollar spent in Early Intervention saves the state up to $17 in education costs.

Of course statistics can’t quantify for the joy and relief that a well-managed Early Intervention Program can personally provide families. Reducing state expenditures on Early Intervention is neither smart social policy nor prudent fiscal policy. It will make life far more difficult for tens of thousands of struggling families. And in the guise of saving taxpayers money it will actually cost taxpayers far more. In slashing funding, Governor Cuomo has ignored experience and evidence.
You can see why Diane Ravitch was an enthusiastic supporter.

Perhaps just as telling are the anecdotes Teachout used to support her positions:
My first real job out of college was as a third-grade Special Education classroom assistant in a small rural public school outside the town my grandparents had lived. It was like a lot of small Vermont schools where the kids came from two different worlds, even if they made the same amount of money–the children of college educated hippies and the children of working class families that had lived there for a long time.

One of the kids I was working with was from neither of those worlds; he had been in a string of foster homes, and was new to the area. He was a wonderful kid who was testing two years behind and had some emotional challenges. Controlling anger wasn’t easy for him. I worked with him on writing and math and science.

For the first two months he just refused to write. He told me he was stupid and didn’t have an imagination so he couldn’t write anything. During writing hour, he’d sit in his desk and stab at pieces of paper and draw angry lines all over them. “That’s all I can say,” he’d shout at me, or refuse to speak. It was hard, but he was helped by having a patient classroom teacher who didn’t ruffle easily. She was warm but firm, and I learned from her.

Then one day we figured out a solution. I started reading his angry scribbles out loud, as if he’d written a story. He was on to me though.  He said, “I didn’t write that, you wrote that!” but I kept doing it and he laughed a little. Then I made a bunch of angry scribbles on my page and asked him to read what I’d written out loud. He thought it was funny to see a teacher like that and started reading a story about trolls. After a few weeks, we got into a pattern, where he’d “read” in my scribbles a long story about trolls, and getting shipwrecked with his brother.  It was a really beautiful adventure story.  Then he wrote down what he’d read into his own book, as if transcribing. He still insisted that I had written it, but he started to glow a little.

After that, he did better in math too—the confidence seemed to flow from the writing. According to him, he didn’t understand math but trolls who lived in his knuckles would tell him the answer. When he cracked his knuckles the trolls would wake up and run up to his ear to tell him the answers.

That student never ended up at the top of the class, and he’d still have tantrums, but he was really proud of one of the troll stories that we stapled into a book, and he started doing better on the loose tests the school used. The book—which I still have a copy of—is one of my proudest creative moments, too.

I think of him all the time when I think about high stakes testing, or the cuts to special education, or the cuts to the arts. He’d have failed, repeatedly, if he was following some lockstep program. He would have been an angry kindergartner instead of a frustrated 3rd grader. If his teacher thought that his failure would lead to her failure, that awareness might have put more pressure on him than he was capable of managing. He was so sensitive to anxiety in other people, I don’t think he could have handled the stress of knowing—intuitively—that his success or failure on a math test would have an impact on his teacher’s evaluations. I think he would have kicked more, and kept scrawling. I don’t know that the trolls could have found their way into his knuckles, or into my heart.

In the break room at the small elementary school the teachers didn’t talk about testing. They talked about the kids. They followed them as they grew up. They knew how to be patient with his tantrums because they knew him.
The education reform movement has never lent itself to the standard left/right axis. Not only was its support bipartisan; it was often the supporters on the left who were quickest to embrace privatization, deregulation and market-based solutions. Zephyr Teachout may be a sign that anomaly is ending.

Friday, September 12, 2014

I'm sure it's not an original observation but

Have you ever thought about the fact that the names of two of the best known cartoon characters to come out of WWII (Snafu and Sad Sack) were euphemisms for a couple of decidedly colorful phrases?

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Driverless Cars and Uneasy Riders

I had forgotten we've been having this discussion for over three years.
Tyler Cowen has a piece in the New York Times on how regulation inhibits innovation in transportation using the example of driverless cars. I'm not sure he's made his general case (that's the subject for an upcoming post), but his specific case is particularly problematic.

In case you haven't been following this story, Google has been getting a lot of press for its experiments with self-driving cars, especially after statements like this from Stanford professor Sebastian Thrun:
"Think about the car as a medium of mass transit: So, what if our highway-train of the future meant you go on the highway, and there's a train of very close-driving cars with very low wind drag, fantastic capacity, is twice as efficient as possible as today, and so there is no congestion anymore?"
Cowen is clearly thinking along the same lines:
Furthermore, computer-driven cars could allow for tighter packing of vehicles on the road, which would speed traffic times and allow a given road or city to handle more cars. Trips to transport goods might dispense with drivers altogether, and rental cars could routinely pick up customers. And if you worry about the environmental consequences of packing our roads with cars, since we can’t do without them entirely, we still can make those we use as efficient — and as green — as possible.
Putting aside the question of the magnitude of these savings in time, road capacity and fuel effeiciency (which, given the level of technology we're talking about here, aren't that great), where exactly are these savings coming from?

Some can certainly be attributed to more optimal decision-making and near instantaneous reaction time, but that's not where the real pay-off is. To get the big savings, you need communication and cooperation. Your ideal driving strategy needs to take into account the destination, capabilities and strategies of all the vehicles around you. Every car on the road has got be talking with every other car on the road, all using the same language and rules of the road, to get anything near optimal results.

Throw just one vehicle that's not communicating (either because it has a human driver or because its communication system is down or is incompatible) into the mix and suddenly every other vehicle nearby will have to allow for unexpected acceleration and lane changes. Will driverless cars be able to deal with the challenge? Sure, but they will not be able to able to do it while achieving the results Thrun describes.

A large number of driverless cars might improve speed and congestion slightly, but getting to the packed, efficient roads that Cowen mentions would mean draconian regulations requiring highly specific attributes for all vehicles driving on a major freeway. The manufacture and modification of vehicles would have to be tightly controlled. Motorcycles would almost certainly have to be banned from major roads. Severe limits would have to be put on when a car or truck could be driven manually.
Based on the conversation that followed that post (check out the comment section), I should probably add that much of the benefit described by Thrun and Cowen could achieved by making special lanes and sections of road driverless-only. One the whole though, I stand by the point that much of what we've been promised (speed, fuel efficiency, road capacity) require an all driverless group of cars working together.

One point I made in passing could probably use more elaboration. Motorcycles are small, accident prone vehicles. They can accelerate very quickly, they often behave erratically, and they tend to function under a somewhat looser set of traffic laws. Their small size and low cost make them more difficult to regulate. And finally, as far as I can tell, there is no serious plan to introduce fully autonomous versions. If you want to get close to the level of performance Thrun promises, you do not want motorcycles on the road.

It's hard to see this not becoming a typical convenience-of-the-many argument for regulation. As autonomous vehicles become more common, it is pretty much inevitable that, while overall accidents and traffic jams will go down, those that still occur will be disproportionately caused by vehicles that don't lend themselves to autonomous control or those which routinely have to do things that are difficult to explain to a computer. The first group would include motorcycles and classic/antique cars. The second would include real pick-ups* or SUVs that actually leave the pavement. I would hate to see those vehicles forced off most major roads but that would seem to be the likely outcome.

* Those that do real work. Us country boys take this seriously.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Useful, fun and affordable -- one out of three ain't bad

I saw a fellow riding one of these near Pershing Square in downtown LA. It looked very cool.

Weighing 25 pounds (11 kg), sporting folding leg platforms on each side and a carry handle on top, the 17 x 19 x 5-inch (43 x 48 x 13 cm) Solowheel from Inventist is sure to turn some heads as you trundle along at up to 12mph. The durable external housing hides a Li-ion battery that's said to be good for two hours of use between charges and a 1000-Watt electric motor, and a self-balancing gyro system. Its battery is reported to take 45 minutes to charge but a regenerative system returns energy to the battery when the rider slows down or the unit goes downhill, which could help extend the range.

The electric unicycle's creators say that it's easy to use and quick to learn, the feet are quite close to the ground and the legs rest against each side of the housing which help with balance and steering. With both feet on the vehicle, you just lean forward to start going. When you want to slow down or stop, you lean back. You use the legs to steer, much as you would on the Magic Wheel.

Jinalyn Liljedahl from Inventist told Gizmag that he expects the Solowheel to be available from April at a cost of US$1495. Each unit will be shipped with an instructional DVD and charger.

I can see the Solowheel being a useful, fun and quite affordable way to trundle from the railway station into work and back again.
25 lbs is amazingly light for a vehicle but it will get heavy quickly when you're carrying around the train station, particularly if you're paying fifteen hundred for the privilege.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Another story that needs to be on our radar -- ECOT

I've been meaning to get the blog up to speed on Ohio, a state with a pro-privatization, anti-regulation philosophy, that seems determined to catch up with Florida and Michigan. I've also been meaning to write more on the various scandals associated with online charters.

Now Ohio blogger Plunderbund gives me a chance to a two-fer:
The Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow (ECOT) is the largest charter school in the state of Ohio.  The online school is easily the largest charter school in Ohio, is larger than the vast majority of Ohio’s traditional school districts, and received nearly $100 million in state taxpayer dollars last school year.
On the latest report cards released by the Ohio Department of Education, ECOT continues to rank below all of the 8 large urban schools that are often-criticized by legislators and in the media for their “sub-par” performance.
[Founder William] Lager is also the owner of two privately-held companies that provide both the management services (Altair Learning Management) and curriculum (IQ Innovations) to the online school.  According to audits released by the Ohio Auditor of State, here’s a summary of the funds that have gone from taxpayers through ECOT and directly to Lager’s companies:

Lager’s personally-owned private companies have now received over $130 million in tax dollars – money that has been taken directly away from other, higher-performing public schools and for which Lager does not have to account for publicly.
These astounding dollar figures explain help explain how Lager is able to donate an inconceivable amount of money to political campaigns.  We’ve dug even deeper into Lager’s campaign contributions and discovered that he not only donates under his own name to Republican campaigns in other states, he has also made donations directly from his two companies over the past decade totaling over $184,000.  Here’s an updated list of Lager’s political donations (under his name and from his two companies)since he entered the charter school business in 2000:

Over the last eight years, Lager’s average annual donation amount is $$199,826.85.  For some perspective, the Toledo Public School District recently hired a new superintendent to a five-year contract.  Toledo has better performance numbers than ECOT, serves nearly twice as many students, and the new superintendent will make an annual salary of $175,000 – $25,000 LESS than Lager donates on an annual basis!!!

Jon Chait at his absolute best

Jon Chait has an excellent article on small government.  One excellent excerpt:
Cutting down excessive licensing rules, not to mention other incarnations of Big Small Government, would require overruling the prerogatives of state and local governments—governments with absolutely no interest in reducing their power voluntarily. The paradoxical reality is that ending the most abusive practices of American government requires moving responsibility up the local-state-federal chain, which is the opposite of ingrained conservative impulses. And when national right-wing organizations do plunge into local politics, they generally attempt to replicate Washington-style conservatism. Rather than attack nefarious exercises of state power, they attack the most benign ones. A recent Center for American Progress report sums up incursions by the Koch network into state and local controversies: It is hard at work blocking tiny tax increases, preventing infrastructure maintenance, and shuttering zoos and community centers. Big Small Government is spared its ideological assault.
I think it is well know that Jon Chait and I are on the opposite side of the education reform debate.  But he is at his best when talking about the functions of government.  I think this issue is a lot of why I distrust education reform -- moving away from big government may well result in less accountability (e.g via small charters).

But having said that, it is an amazing piece where he correctly diagnoses how problems at the small government level are often left to fester.  A very important piece, and one I recommend reading. 

Monday, September 8, 2014

When your business model requires minimal competition

There is a point we've made in passing in a couple of threads: the telecom industry relies heavily on models and strategies that only work in markets with limited competition. These include high fees, opaque and complicated pricing schemes, bundling, bad customer service and explicit policies that makes closing accounts as inconvenient as possible.

There's a quote that Joseph and I tried to credit each other with for years before deciding it came from a business analyst we both knew: "sometimes, it's bad for a company not to be able to lose money." In a competitive market, idiots tend to be culled out. It's not a perfect process but it's a healthy one and it helps maintain the competence level of a business.

The corollary to that quote is "Eventually, all companies can lose money." There will come a point where a company will have to perform competently. I think we may be reaching that point with the telecoms and I don't know that they're up to it. Faced with an increasingly unstable business model, they have dug themselves into a brand and PR nightmare. Worse still, they have managed to hand major victories to the very competitors that threaten  that model. Over-the-air television has a much higher profile and is much more viable since TWC's disastrous showdown with CBS. TWC also managed to give a major boost to the municipal internet movement by so mishandling customers in places like Wilson, North Carolina.

From Dominic Rushe writing for the Guardian
USTelecom, which represents telecoms giants Verizon, AT&T and others, wants the FCC to block expansion of two popular municipally owned high-speed internet networks, one in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and the other in Wilson, North Carolina.

“The success of public broadband is a mixed record, with numerous examples of failures,” USTelecom said in a blogpost. “With state taxpayers on the financial hook when a municipal broadband network goes under, it is entirely reasonable for state legislatures to be cautious in limiting or even prohibiting that activity.”

Chattanooga has the largest high-speed internet service in the US, offering customers access to speeds of 1 gigabit per second – about 50 times faster than the US average. The service, provided by municipally owned EPB, has sparked a tech boom in the city and attracted international attention. EPB is now petitioning the FCC to expand its territory. Comcast and other companies have previously sued unsuccessfully to stop EPB’s fibre optic roll out.

Wilson, a town of a little more than 49,000 people, launched Greenlight, its own service offering high-speed internet, after complaints about the cost and quality of Time Warner cable’s service. Time Warner lobbied the North Carolina senate to outlaw the service and similar municipal efforts.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

I know I go on about ignoring Canada's education system

But normally I'm talking about pro-reform journalists not covering the country or pro-reform pundits not addressing the counter-example to their proposals.

This is different. This study, which is getting a lot of play among reform advocates, seems to skip the country entirely and give no reason for the omission.

Am I missing something?

Friday, September 5, 2014

Selection effects on steroids

UPDATE: I just put out a collection of our early posts on education (Things I Saw at the Counter-Reformation).  The impact of attrition is one of the big running themes in the book.


I'm about to have a lot more to say about the various ways high attrition can pump up a school's performance metrics, some directly through removing low performers, some indirectly through peer effects, treatment interactions and accounting tricks. At the risk of spoiling the punchline of those future posts, it is next to impossible to perform meaningful analyses of the academic quality of high-attrition schools. About the only safe conclusion is that those schools are worse than they look.

If charter schools are going to have a future (and I hope that they will, though my reasons will have to wait for another post), they will have to overcome two existential threats, both of which originated not with their critics but with their supporters. It was supporters who pushed a radical deregulation agenda that led to massive looting of the system and it was supporters who advocated for a flawed system where success was defined solely by metrics and those metrics were easily cooked by methods which took a brutal toll on kids.

In a devastating post, Diane Ravitch spells out just how bad the problem has gotten.
Reformers tend to make two very different arguments about charter schools. Argument #1 is that charter schools serve the same students as public schools and manage to put public schools to shame by producing amazingly better results on standardized exams. Therefore, reformers claim, if only public schools did what charter schools do (or better yet, if all public schools were closed and charter schools took over), student learning would dramatically increase and America might even beat South Korea or Finland on international standardized tests. When it is pointed out that, as a whole, charters do no better than public schools on standardized tests [2], reformers will quickly turn their attention to specific charter chains that, they claim, do indeed produce much better standardized test results. So what’s the deal with these chains? Well, in every case that has been subjected to scrutiny their results are extremely suspicious. Here is a short list of examples:

1. Achievement First in New Haven had a freshman class of 64 students (2 students enrolled later), and only 25 graduated- a 38% graduation rate- yet the school claimed a 100% graduation rate by ignoring the 62% attrition rate. [3]

2. Denver School of Science and Technology (DSST) had a freshman class of 144 students and only 89 12th graders- a 62% graduation rate- yet the school (and Arne Duncan) claimed a 100% graduation rate by ignoring the 38% attrition rate. [4] As a 6-12 charter chain, DSST also manages to attrite vast numbers of their middle school students before they even enter the high school.

3. Uncommon Schools in Newark disappears 38% of its general test takers from 6th to 8th grade.[5] Another analysis found that through high school the attrition rate was, alarmingly, much higher “Uncommon loses 62 to 69% of all males and up to 74% of Black males.”[6]

4. BASIS in Arizona- “At…BASIS charter school in Tucson, the class of 2012 had 97 students when they were 6th graders. By the time those students were seniors, their numbers had dwindled to 33, a drop of 66%. At BASIS Scottsdale…its class of 2012 fell from 53 in the 6th grade to 19 in its senior year, a drop of 64%.” [7]

5. The Noble Network in Chicago- “Every year, the graduating class of Noble Charter schools matriculates with around 30 percent fewer students than they started with in their freshman year.” [8]

6. Harmony Charters in Texas- “Strikingly, Harmony lost more than 40% of 6th grade students over a two-year time.” [9]

7. KIPP in San Francisco- “A 2008 study of the (then-existing) Bay Area KIPP schools by SRI International showed a 60% attrition rate…the students who left were overwhelmingly the lower achievers.” [10]

8. KIPP in Tennessee had 18% attrition in a single year! “In fact, the only schools that have net losses of 10 to 33 percent are charter schools.” [11]

In every case these charter chains accepted students that were significantly more advantaged than the typical student in the district, and then the charters attrited a significant chunk of those students.

Success Academy in New York City plays the same game. It accepts many fewer high needs special education students, English Language Learners, and poor students. [12] It attrites up to 1/3 of its students before they even get to testing grades and then loses students at an even faster pace. It selectively attrites those students most likely to get low scores on standardized tests. [13] It is legally permitted to mark its own exams (as are all New York City charter schools) while public schools cannot. It loses 74% of its teachers in a single year at some of its schools. [14] The author of the Daily News editorial that sparked the initial blog commented “even in the aggregate that wouldn’t seem to account for” the results. It is entirely unclear what he means by “in the aggregate.” But it is clear that he has his arithmetic wrong. A charter chain that starts with an entering class that is likely to score well on standardized tests, then selectively prunes 50% or more of the students who don’t score well on standardized tests and refuses to replace the disappeared students with others, can easily show good standardized test results with the remaining students. Any school could do this. It’s really not rocket science.

And here are the footnotes

[1] https://dianeravitch.net/2014/08/22/is-eva-moskowitz-the-lance-armstrong-of-education/
[2] http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/answer-sheet/wp/2013/09/24/the-bottom-line-on-charter-school-studies/
[3] http://jonathanpelto.com/2013/05/30/another-big-lie-from-achievement-first-100-percent-college-acceptance-rate/
[4] http://garyrubinstein.wordpress.com/2014/04/16/arne-debunkin/
[5] http://schoolfinance101.wordpress.com/2010/12/02/truly-uncommon-in-newark /
[6] http://danley.rutgers.edu/2014/08/11/guest-post-where-will-all-the-boys-go/
[7] http://blogforarizona.net/basis-charters-education-model-success-by-attrition/
[8] http://jerseyjazzman.blogspot.com/2012/04/no-bull-in-chicago.html
[9] http://fullerlook.wordpress.com/2012/08/23/tx_ms_charter_study/
[10] http://parentsacrossamerica.org/high-kipp-attrition-must-be-part-of-san-francisco-discussion/
[11] http://www.wsmv.com/story/22277105/charter-schools-losing-struggling-students-to-zoned-schools
[12] https://dianeravitch.net/2014/03/12/fact-checking-evas-claims-on-national-television/
[13] https://dianeravitch.net/2014/02/28/a-note-about-success-academys-data/. The high attrition rate before testing in 3rd grade may explain the data pattern noted in this http://shankerblog.org/?p=10346#more-10346 analysis.
[14] http://www.citylimits.org/news/articles/5156/why-charter-schools-have-high-teacher-turnover#.U_gqR__wtMv
[15] http://edexcellence.net/commentary/education-gadfly-daily/flypaper/2013/the-charter-expulsion-flap-who-speaks-for-the-strivers.html
[16] http://schoolfinance101.wordpress.com/2012/12/03/when-dummy-variables-arent-smart-enough-more-comments-on-the-nj-credo-study/

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Support your local journalists

As part of a sharp and funny take down of Chris Christie and Rick Perry, Charles P. Pierce makes a point I've been meaning to hit for a while:
There are a couple of lessons to be drawn by looking at this continuing investigation into traffic-related ratfking and at the continuing investigation into the activities of Rick Perry down in Texas. The first, and most obvious one, is that, if you really want to understand these kind of scandals, it is imperative to ignore everything the elite national political press says about them, and get with the local media on the ground in the states. This means the Bergen Record on the bridge thing, and it means Jeff Cohen in Houston, as well as Wayne Slater and Keven Willis in Dallas, on Goodhair's shenanigans. What seems to have baffled Jonathan Chait and a number of other liberal outlanders seems pretty clear to the Dallas Morning News, which is rarely confused with In These Times.
There is a lot of good local journalism coming out of the local papers, and yes, TV stations of places like Dallas and New Orleans, particularly if you're a fan of the check the facts them shape the narrative to fit what actually happened school of reporting. I think you can even make the case that while the national outlets are getting worse, local is getting better, particularly in those areas where the standard narrative can no longer be reconciled with the facts on the ground.

Education reform is especially rich in stories where the national press is months or even years behnd their local competition.

Two more charter schools close abruptly, sending parents and students scrambling

Opting Out Of Testing Would Come At A Cost For Florida School Districts

And from Chicago

Drop CPS’ reform strategy: CPS neighborhood school growth outpaces charters