Breakfast of Champions in the Texas Legislature Cafeteria!

March 27, 2015

Nerd Focus

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

The cafeteria in the Texas Legislature is the only source I know of for NERD FOCUS…the most powerful energy drink on the planet. It’s a good thing they have it, because I needed it during a two hour panel testimony in the Senate Education Committee. Bonus chart from the WSJ on the school choice action:

WSJ choice

UT Austin Admissions Scandal

March 26, 2015

The storm of a scandal at the University of Texas at Austin has reached gale force winds. Two internal investigations and reporting by Texas media have revealed that the leadership of the university regularly intervened in the admissions process to ensure the acceptance of unqualified applicants connected to politically powerful figures in the state.  University officials also attempted to mislead investigators to conceal or mis-describe their activities.  And Wallace Hall, a trustee who tried to bring these corrupt practices to light, was threatened for his efforts with criminal indictment by a grand jury and impeachment by state legislators, some of whom were the beneficiaries of preferential admissions.

Charles Miller, a former Chairman of the Board of Regents of the University of Texas Systsem, sent the following letter to the current Regents, Chancellor, and a Review Committee.  I re-print it here with his permission.


To: Committee to Review Admissions Practices at UT Austin

From: Charles Miller, Former Chairman, UT System Board of Regents

This memo is an attempt to offer an independent and informed opinion about the direction of admissions policy at the University of Texas at Austin.

It is patently clear that there should be a strong firewall in the admission function between the office of the president and the operation of the admissions office once broad policies are set in an open and publicly transparent process.

The firewall is not only a sound administrative structure but allows an admissions policy to be implemented with a minimal likelihood of improper influence and with a high degree of public confidence and trust.

There can be no ignoring the fact that the level of confidence and trust in admissions at UT Austin has not only been badly damaged by the recent admissions practices of the Powers administration but by the repeated efforts necessary to uncover what seems to have been going on in admissions. As the Dallas Morning News characterizes it: “Those questionable situations include the admissions scandal that led to Powers planned resignation”

What was going on? Specially tagged candidates based on interventions from ‘powerful’ people; special lists developed by the president outside of any of the official procedures; active and forceful intervention by the president and his staff in admissions decisions; destruction of admissions records; legal and public descriptions of the admissions process which were knowingly incomplete and inaccurate; and the admission of students —some severely unqualified— for purposes of gaining some sort of favor from a special class of privileged people.

The strong resistance from public policy makers and so-called supporters of UT Austin to uncovering what was happening protected an administration engaged in willful misconduct and can only have worsened the public’s perception of a great university.

Considering the practices uncovered [i]t’s difficult to understand why these officials and alums were so loud and derisive to the people trying to uncover the improprieties and why they were so vociferous in their demands for a narrow investigation. That implies it’s not yet clear that everything has surfaced that needs to become public.

Even now, as serious new legal issues are being raised in federal courts and new attempts are being made in the Texas Legislature to limit proper inquiry by regents doing their fiduciary duties, there has still been no one held accountable.

In the federal courts, these improper admissions activities will bring sustained attention, in a negative way, to UT Austin. And it will also bring continued attention to the U.T. System until there is personal accountability attached to these actions.

The leaders of the UT System seem to hope the fallout from these improper activities will go away if they just ignore what transpired. Surprisingly there has been no official response from the Board of Regents regarding the two highly negative reports resulting from investigations by Kroll Associates and the Texas Attorney General.  The UT System administration has not even taken a public position challenging the rationale for this improper admissions behavior which is tantamount to approving of it.

What was the rationale presented for this behavior? ‘Everybody does it.’ ‘There were only a small number of cases.’ ‘It was done only for the long term benefit of the university.’ ‘Only the president is able to make these judgments and these decisions.’

On the face, these are ludicrous arguments, so defensive in nature as to constitute an admission of bad practices.

However, these unanswered excuses create serious issues for designing an appropriate admissions structure and the committee must offer policy proposals which respond strongly to these defenses.

Most serious, the claim that ‘everybody does it’ besmirches the integrity and dedication to duty of the entire academic community. It’s simply a monumental falsehood and deserves the sharpest of reprimands from the committee, the broader academic community and the U.T. System.

The number of cases was not ‘small’. Otherwise, why did they go to so much trouble to engage in these activities and why try so vigorously to conceal them?

If the numbers were so small, how can this be so important for the long term benefit of the university?

If these admissions were so important as to influence powerful parties for the long term benefit of the university, how can this not be improperly trading something of value for something else of value?

The most arrogant of the excuses is that the president is the only one who can make difficult admissions decisions. This is again patently false. For example, there are well defined processes under which the university can receive gifts, describing how those gifts can be used. These decisions are put through an onerous review process, transparent and focused on the mission of the university and maintaining its independence and integrity.

Presidents are neither omniscient nor infallible. Good structures start with those assumptions. A sound admissions process can include the president’s appointing personnel to implement policy developed by the president and the administration with the approval of the Board of Regents and with a firewall in implementation at the point at which prospective students are offered admission.

Under these challenging circumstances where there has been evidence of misconduct, it is imperative that UT Austin put in place a highly transparent system for admissions, visibly removing any possibility of the recent behavior being repeated.

Respect for this great university is continuing to be damaged. Trust can only be restored and maintained by utilizing a strong form admissions firewall and by regular, self critical oversight by the UT System.

Ed Reformers Fantasize They Are in House of Cards But Are Really in Veep

March 19, 2015

I was slow to warm up to House of Cards.  I’ve grown so tired of the anti-heroes presented in shows like Sopranos, Breaking Bad, and Dexter, that I couldn’t muster much enthusiasm for Frank Underwood.  Even worse, House of Cards is about politics and I study and follow politics for work, do I really need more politics in my entertainment?

But then I realized that House of Cards is not about politics at all.  It doesn’t portray how the political world really operates.  Instead, it indulges a fantasy of how some people wish the world works.  Despite the Machiavellian amorality of the main characters, House of Cards offers the fantasy that someone is actually pulling the levers of power and able to get things done.  People don’t want reporters pushed in front of trains or alcoholic Congressmen asphyxiated in their cars, but they do want to imagine that someone understands what is going on, is able to devise effective plans, and can control events.

During the first season when Frank was championing an education reform bill, I overheard several DC-EduBubble-types express admiration for how Frank Underwood managed to roll over the teachers unions and abolish tenure.  They don’t want to be Frank, but they want to imagine that’s it’s possible to accomplish what Frank can, perhaps without the icky stuff.  Since their centralized, technocratic solutions require the conviction that smart individuals can fully-grasp and control events, House of Cards shows them the world they hope exists.

The reality is that politics looks a lot more like Veep than like House of Cards.  The characters in Veep are smart, but their vanity, pettiness, and the inherent unpredictability of the world stymies their efforts to grasp or control events.  They’re silly little monkeys in power suits pretending to be in charge of the zoo.  And it’s hilarious.

Veep is far more entertaining than House of Cards, especially this 3rd season that was just released.  The 3rd season didn’t even continue to deliver on the fantasy of competence and control.  As Nick Gillespie wrote in a brilliant review in The Daily Beast:

House of Cards is going softer than President Frank Underwood’s gut…. Even more disappointing is the devolution of First Lady Claire Underwood (Robin Wright) from a ruthless operator who puts Agrippina the Younger to shame into a latter-day Lady Macbeth filled with doubts about her and her husband’s patently unredeemable actions. “We’re murderers, Francis,” she says at one point in the new season—as if that’s a bad thing.

But even at its peak, House of Cards is far less appealing than Veep.  House of Cards is to politics as porn is to romance.  There is a certain base appeal, but it is superficial and fleeting.  Veep, on the other hand, is remarkably truthful in its ridiculousness.  My belly hurts with laughter as I watch Veep — much like when I read the similarly ridiculous Twitter feeds of the EduPundits.

The Unbreakable Advance of Feminist Comedy

March 18, 2015

There’s an old joke that goes:

Q: Did you hear the one about the feminist?

A: [Pause, stare, and answer angrily] It isn’t funny.

Well, that’s no longer true.  Feminists are now funny.  Really funny.  And they aren’t just getting laughs, they are advancing the cause of feminism with the power of humor.

I argued for the progressive power of humor when I nominated Fasi Zaka for the Al Copeland Humanitarian Award for mocking the Taliban.  But the wonderful new Netflix comedy series, The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, goes far beyond mocking its antagonists a la The Daily Show and its groupthink smugness.  Unbreakable can preach beyond its choir by mocking its heroes as well as its villains.

The Reverend Richard Wayne Gary Wayne who imprisoned a group of women in his bunker is ripe for ridicule as are the women who preferred the simplicity of remaining there or who exploited their status as “mole women” to get money and attention.  You can’t advance the cause of women without at least acknowledging and joking about the common mistakes women make in addition to mocking the troglodytes who oppress them.

But Kimmy is determined to move beyond her mole woman past and make it on her own in New York City.  She really is unbreakable.  Unlike 1970s songs about women’s power, like “I Will Survive” or “I am Woman,” the assertion that Kimmy is unbreakable is not a wish that stands at odds with current experience.  She continues to suffer, make mistakes, and face obstacles, but she moves forward 10 seconds at a time.   She is a fully realized feminist heroine.

And because she and by extension other women have finally made it, they are strong enough to be the butt of jokes.  The humorlessness of the earlier feminist movement was a sign of its weakness.  If you’re too insecure and weak, you can’t afford to be made fun of.  I’m glad to report that the women’s movement has matured and strengthened to the point where it can dish it as well as take it.

You’ve come a long way, baby.

Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis

March 10, 2015

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Good write up in the WaPo wonkblog on Robert Putnam’s new book.  Obvious resonance with Charles Murray’s book Coming Apart. In fact Murray had some “scissor graphs” of his own:

This bit from the WaPo article was especially poignant:

Lola and Sofia, as Putnam names them (all of the ethnography subjects in the book are anonymous), have navigated life without coaches, pastors, tutors, friends’ parents, counselors, neighbors, community groups, parents’ co-workers and family friends. They feel abandoned even by the one group of adults we like to think poor kids can always count on — their teachers.

“In junior high,” Lola, the older sister, explains to Putnam’s team, “the teachers actually cared.”

“In high school, teachers don’t care,” Sofia says.

“The teachers would even say out loud that they get paid to be there,” Lola says.

“Just to be there,” Sofia says. “Just to babysit.”

“Yeah,” Lola adds, “that they’re there just to babysit, that they don’t care if we learn or not.”

They believe the honors classes at their high school got all the good teachers, but they don’t understand how students were chosen for those classes. Only the smart kids, they say, were told about the SATs. They tried to join after-school activities — the very venue where they might find structure and mentors — but Lola was told her reading wasn’t good enough for a reading club, and Sofia that her grades weren’t high enough to play volleyball.

Through their eyes, coaches and teachers were gatekeepers who extended opportunity only to chosen students.

Their view of the world around them is a deeply lonely one. And it exposes an inverse reality among the privileged that Putnam admits he did not previously see even in the lives of his own children: Take away the parents who drive you to soccer, the peers you know who went off to college, the neighbor who happens to need a summer intern — and childhood is bewildering. A task as simple as picking the right math class becomes another trapdoor to failure.

The privileged kids don’t just have a wider set of options. They have adults who tailor for them a set of options that excludes all of the bad ones.

Meanwhile, for a child like Sofia, “she’s just completely directionless, because life happens to her,” Putnam says. “What she’s learned her whole life is that life is not something you do, it’s something you endure.”

Before you rush off to use poverty as a blanket excuse for the failings of the public school system, let me note the following: many of today’s poor children had multiple generations of ancestors who had the opportunity to attend public schools that were funded generously compared to schools around the world. Ideally public education serves as an agent of class mobility, but obviously we have been getting far less of this than desired. The costs of the failures of our social institutions-including but certainly not limited to our educational institutions-seem to be compounding over time.



OECD video on the Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC)

March 9, 2015

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

So this OECD study find that older Americans are average in math, but younger Americans are at the bottom. The NAEP Long Term Trend data for 12th graders shows very little change for 17 year olds between 1978 and 2013, and that small change is in a positive direction. Feel free to speculate in the comments.


What makes you think you are better than everyone else?

February 24, 2015

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

This article by Caity Chronkhite about her experience attending a rural Indiana school district in the recent past is an absolutely must read. This is without a doubt the most heartbreaking education story I have read in a long while. Spoiler alert but let’s just say that her success in life came in spite of the school system. The incredibly sickening cultural norms discussed are not limited to rural areas.


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