Are We Allowed to Be Neither Naive Nor Cynical?

July 31, 2013

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

I have a question. Am I permitted to be neither naïve nor cynical about the Tony Bennett emails? Or is there some sort of law that dictates I must be one or the other? Indiana StateImpact places me with the Bennett supporters while Matt seems to think I’m attacking Bennett (I’m not sure how else to interpret “haters gonna hate”). I don’t intend to be either.

I find it difficult to buy the new house line, and I will continue to find it difficult until someone asks Bennett the obvious question: “If this was a glitch in the system, as we are now being told, why did you seek to change the grade only for this one school?” Rick Hess didn’t ask him that question. Matt seems uninterested in asking it, and seems to think I’m a “hater” for asking it. Until that question is answered, I don’t see why I’m a “hater” for pointing out uncomfortable realities.

Is it really so scandalous, does it really make me a “hater,” to acknowledge the obvious fact that politicians are responsive to their donors? When government sets educational standards and has to do what Bennett himself calls a “face validity” test, it is going to know which schools are run by major donors and it is going to be sensitive to that fact. Good grief, are we this naïve?

What we have now is not “the rest of the story” but a failure to seek the rest of the story. Or am I somehow missing something?

On the other hand, Ze’ev and others seem to think I’m saying all standards are arbitrary and there’s no such thing as a rational public consensus. I’m not; I’m just trying to be realistic about what I called “the sausage-making nature of the process” when those standards are being cooked up behind closed doors by a government bureaucracy and its political allies, as opposed to standards that emerge organically from the give and take of a thriving marketplace of options. Technology standards emerge in the context of a system dominated by consumer choice. Educational standards should emerge in the same way.

My Own Personal Narcissus Index

April 19, 2013


(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Picking back up on our discussion of narcissism, I’m sure you’re all dying to know that my new Win-Win report was featured on John Stossel last night! While you other losers here on JPGB have been wasting your time on Twitter, I’m finally getting the undivided attention of millions that I’ve always known I deserved.

Oh, wait, sorry – I didn’t mean to bash Twitter, because . . . Stossel also tweeted my study. Twitter’s totally cool now!

0035 rotated square
In case you forgot what I look like.

Seriously, I’m always grateful when people bring attention to my work. Stossel highlighted the numbers for impact on public schools: 23 empirical studies have looked at how school choice impacts academic outcomes in public schools, of which 22 found a positive effect and one found no visible difference; no empirical study has ever found a negative impact. He also mentioned the numbers for racial segregation: eight studies, seven positive, one neutral; none negative. (Stossel’s description may have left viewers thinking those public school academic effect studies were participant effect studies – I know it’s hard to do justice to the details in the short time TV allows, but at least I can note the difference here.)

Hope others are finding the report useful – that unbroken line of zeros in the “negative effects” column can’t be publicized too widely!

Gerson Cites Voltron

April 4, 2013

voltron team (original)

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

As long as we’re on the subject of narcissism here on JPGB, may I note that Michael Gerson quoted our Voltron op-ed in Monday’s Washington Post?

But even small, restricted choice programs have shown promising results — not revolutionary but promising. Last year a group of nine leading educational researchers summarized the evidence this way: “Among voucher programs, random-assignment studies generally find modest improvements in reading or math scores, or both. Achievement gains are typically small in each year, but cumulative over time. Graduation rates have been studied less often, but the available evidence indicates a substantial positive impact. . . . Other research questions regarding voucher program participants have included student safety, parent satisfaction, racial integration, services for students with disabilities, and outcomes related to civic participation and values. Results from these studies are consistently positive.”

I’d tweet about it, but I’m too cool for Twitter.

A Good Media Week

March 29, 2013

This week the work of two of my colleagues in the Department of Education Reform was mentioned in national newspapers.  Patrick Wolf’s research finding that the Milwaukee voucher program increased high school graduation rates from 75% to 94% was mentioned in the Wall Street Journal.  And Bob Maranto’s work on the decline in New York City’s murder rate as a result of more effective policing was mentioned in David Brooks’ column in the New York Times.

Way to go!

Putting the Shoe on the Other Foot

June 18, 2012

I’m struck by how regularly I come across reporting in the media that contains obvious and unquestioned prejudice.  My mental test to detect this kind of prejudice is to switch the named group to see if we would find the same phrasing acceptable if it were applied to another group.  Since the truth of the claim is usually irrelevant to the prohibition of certain phrasings as offensive, the test is not whether the claim is true for another group but whether it would be unacceptable regardless of its truth.

I thought of this recently when the CBS Sunday Morning show had a segment on how boys were doing significantly worse in school.  Kenyon College’s Dean Jennifer Delahunty was asked to help explain this phenomenon and here is what she said: “There’s a kind of anti-intellectualism of young men that really bothers me, that it’s not cool to be smart. That it’s not cool to be engaged. That it’s not cool to do your homework. That bothers me.”

Sociologist Michael Kimmel offered this: “Boys think that academic disengagement is a sign of masculinity. The less you can do in school, the less connected you are, the less interested you are, the more manly you are.”

For all I know these are true explanations and boys really are suffering academically because of a cultural mindset that associates masculinity with anti-intellectualism and opposition to academic effort or engagement.

But let’s apply my little test to see if we might find this phrasing acceptable if it were applied to explaining why girls do worse on some academic outcome.  Let’s just switch the words so that the experts said: “There’s a kind of anti-intellectualism of young women that really bothers me that it’s not cool to be smart. That it’s not cool to be engaged. That it’s not cool to do your homework. That bothers me.” or “Girls think that academic disengagement is a sign of femininity. The less you can do in school, the less connected you are, the less interested you are, the more feminine you are.”

A CBS reporter would never quote experts saying this as a plausible explanation for why girls were doing worse academically.  That would have to be explained by discrimination — factors outside of the control of girls.  But for boys saying that the problem is their masculinity is perfectly fine.

Obviously, there are acceptable prejudices in our society.  The problem is not the existence of those prejudices, since some may in fact be supported by evidence, but that there is a wide-spread dogma about which prejudices are acceptable based on nothing having to do with evidence.  I guess I would say that there is a kind of anti-intellectualism among reporters that really bothers me, that it’s not cool to think critically about their prejudices.

Jay Mathews Comes Back for More

May 29, 2012

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

True story: At the house of some friends from church, the elder son (about six years old) was explaining the big bandage he was wearing. He told us he had climbed up on the stove in order to reach the cookies that were on top of the refrigerator, accidentally turned on the range with his foot, fell over, and was badly burned.

The following exchange occurred:

ME: Did you learn a lesson from what happened?

HIM: Uh . . . no.

Apparently Jay Mathews didn’t learn anything either after getting badly burned on the stove of my wrath last year.

He’s once again up to his typical stove-climbing antics, still trying to reach the cookies of bipartisan acceptability on top of the refrigerator of political ambiguity. Over the weekend, he wrote:

Instead, the two parties pound each other with an education issue that makes them look tough to their most partisan supporters. That convenient weapon is vouchers, tax-supported scholarships for students who want to attend private schools. Obama has cut funds for a voucher program in the District, so Romney embraces it. “It will be a model for parental choice programs across the nation,” he said in the speech.

The split doesn’t affect the bipartisan approach to schools much because vouchers have no chance of ever expanding very far. There aren’t nearly enough available spaces in good private schools to meet the demand. Any significant growth in vouchers would lead to heavy government interference in private schools and kill any allegiance conservative Republicans had to it.

Let’s take these claims one by one:

vouchers have no chance of ever expanding very far

Uh, yeah, let me just go ahead and link this again. Thanks. If Mathews wants to lose another bet on vouchers’ legislative prospects, he’s welcome to as much pain as he wants.

He links that statement to an older article of his on the DC voucher program, which serves under 2,000 kids. Compare that to the gargantuan sizes of the new Indiana and Louisiana programs (400,000 kids eligible in Louisiana!).

I’m not saying we’ve reached the promised land, but the political trend is very obviously up and not down.

There aren’t nearly enough available spaces in good private schools to meet the demand.

William F. Buckley once asked, speaking about a person whose name escapes me: “What do you think he would do if the devil removed the blinders from his eyes and showed him the world of economics? I say the devil, because God would never be so cruel.”

What do you think Jay Mathews would do if the devil removed the blinders from his eyes and showed him that quantity supplied can change in response to demand?

Any significant growth in vouchers would lead to heavy government interference in private schools and kill any allegiance conservative Republicans had to it.

Yeah, except for the part where there are now 34 school choice programs serving 212,000 students, and this story Mathews is telling hasn’t happened anywhere.

Keep reaching for those cookies, Jay. You’ll get them someday.

(Edit: In the first version of this post, the devil made me write the wrong name in the WFB quote above.)

NYT on Clint Bolick

December 26, 2011

 (Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

The New York Times has a very nice feature on Clint and the GI litigation team.  That scorpion may have to hunt and peck to type, but the sting packs a wallop!

MPS Takes “Standing in the Schoolhouse Door” to a Whole New Level

May 31, 2011

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Over the weekend, John Witte and Pat Wolf had a compelling article in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel summarizing the real (as opposed to media-reported) results of the Milwaukee voucher program research being conducted by the School Choice Demonstration Project.

And then they dropped a bomb:

Recently, our research team conducted site visits to high schools in Milwaukee to examine any innovative things they are doing to educate disadvantaged children. The private high schools of the choice program graciously opened their doors to us and allowed us full access to their schools. Although several MPS principals urged us to come see their schools as well, the central administration at MPS prohibited us having any further contact with those schools as they considered our request for visits. We have not heard from them in weeks.

Our report on the private schools we visited, which will offer a series of best practices regarding student dropout prevention, will be released this fall. Should MPS choose to open the doors of their high schools to us, we will be able to learn from their approaches as well. [ea]

MPS opposition to vouchers takes standing in the schoolhouse door to a whole new level.

Valerie Strauss is the Lou Dobbs of Education

May 23, 2011

I don’t know if any of you remember Lou Dobbs from the 1990s.  He was a pretty bland business reporter who hosted CNN’s Moneyline show.  It would have been virtually impossible to guess Dobbs’ political leanings during those years.  The show was relatively uncontroversial and Dobbs was its uncontroversial host.

But then Dobbs left CNN for a dot com venture that pretty soon went belly-up.  And CNN was losing viewers in droves to O’Reilly’s show on Fox News.  So CNN brought Dobbs back but he was completely transformed.  No longer the bland, uncontroversial business reporter, Dobbs became CNN’s version of a blue-collar blow-hard to compete with O’Reilly’s version on Fox.  His demeanor and language completely changed as he became very outspoken in his views.  He railed against illegal immigrants, international trade, and became the champion of trade-union views on protecting manufacturing jobs.

The creepy thing about Lou Dobbs’ transformation was that it was never clear who the real Lou Dobbs was.  Was he really the straight-laced business reporter circa 1998 or the raving nativist circa 2008?  Both could not have been genuine.  Either he was pretending to be the bland host of a business show in his earlier incarnation or he was pretending to be the blow-hard blue-collar champion in his later incarnation.  Maybe neither were real and Lou Dobbs was just a guy who played various roles for money as the situation required.

This all comes to mind when thinking about the transformation of the Washington Post’s Valerie Strauss from bland education reporter into the outspoken channeler of Diane Ravitch and Alfie Kohn.  Just a few years ago, Strauss was writing conventional education stories from which it would have been hard to detect her preferences.  To the extent that her views were present, they seemed to reflect common ideas about the importance of having effective teachers.  Take for example, this reporting from a 2007 article on how we need to improve teacher quality:

Educators say that teaching teachers how to teach well has never been more critical, a sentiment that persuaded Michelle Pierre-Farid to bring the center into Tyler Elementary School in Southeast Washington three years ago. That’s when she became principal at the school, which was then considered the lowest-performing in the city, with a badly demoralized staff.

“Most studies show that teachers are the ones that make change in schools,” she said. “Not parents, not administrators. It’s the teachers. They are on the front lines, and you have to put a lot of time and money into teachers.”

But the attention garnered by Eduwonkette and Daine Ravitch may have convinced Strauss and the Washington Post that they needed their own champion of the unionized teacher.  Just as CNN needed a reinvented Dobbs to capture some of the audience attracted to O’Reilly at Fox, maybe WaPo needed a reinvented Strauss to capture some of the readers attracted to Ravitch and Eduwonkette.

The new Strauss approaches the issue of improving teacher quality very differently than she used to.  Here is a taste of the new Valerie Strauss:

Authentic reform must include addressing the very real health and emotional and social issues that kids bring with them to school every day, often getting in the way of their ability to focus on geometry, read and analyze a novel or take a standardized test….

This is not an argument that teachers aren’t important. Of course they are. And of course bad teachers shouldn’t be in the classroom. Nobody knows this better than good teachers. But our obsession with teacher quality doesn’t leave room for other discussions…

I have no idea which one is the real Valerie Strauss, the conventional education reporter or the blow-hard blogger, but I do know that both cannot be genuine.  I also suspect that the Washington Post will tire of the blow-hard incarnation just as CNN tired of the new Lou Dobbs.  In the end, the Washington Post is a very respectable newspaper whose credibility will be hurt by Valerie Strauss playing the role (or truly being) the high-priestess in the Diane Ravitch Cult.

WaPo is not like the New York Times, that makes its living by telling stories to reaffirm the world-views of its readers.  WaPo readers, unlike those at NYT, don’t pay to be lied to.  WaPo readers need the straight news because they have to run campaigns, write legislation, and have real business concerns that depend on an accurate description of reality even if it does not conform to their preferences. Columns with titles like “What is Joel Klein talking about?” may sooth the pitch-fork crowd at the UFT but don’t serve the practical political crowd that is the heart of WaPo’s readership.

If Strauss can’t fit with that role of her newspaper, perhaps she will find herself banished to the world of talk-radio, like Lou Dobbs, to confirm the fever-dreams of her followers.  Or perhaps she’ll join Diane Ravitch on the very lucrative school system/teacher union lecture circuit where she can tell teachers that she is being persecuted by  reformers, just like they are.  But I can’t imagine WaPo tarnishing itself like this for too much longer.

Journalist BS Detectors are Defective, Require Recall and Massive Class-Action Law Suit

February 8, 2011

As I wrote last year, anyone with a properly functioning BS detector would have suspected that Toyota cars were not automatically and uncontrollably accelerating due to faulty electronics:

There were hundreds of news reports that repeated these claims as if they were credible, promoting a mass hysteria about runaway cars.  Toyota sales plummeted, they became the target of SNL ridicule, etc… Anyone with half a brain and a reasonable amount of skepticism would have suspected that the driver was likely the least reliable part of a modern car and would have guessed that people were mistakenly pressing the gas.  But very, very few of the news reports on this issue emphasized this likely explanation.  Instead, most acted as if we lived in a John Grisham novel where evil corporations knowingly hide the defects of their products as they kill and maime their customers to maximize profits.  This does happen, but it is very, very rare.  To treat these claims as evidence of real safety issues with cars was simply mistaken reporting.

Now it’s official.  The U.S. Department of Transportation with assistance from NASA released a report today that “found that engine electronics played no role in incidents of sudden, unintended acceleration of [Toyota] cars

Of course, much of the damage to Toyota sales and reputation exacerbated by hysterical reporting done with faulty BS detectors has already been done.  Maybe we need a recall of those defective reporter BS detectors.  And I smell a massive class action law suit.  Actually, the more likely outcome is the continuing deterioration of traditional journalism.


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