The Brown Shirt Left

September 29, 2014

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

I attended a debate last night between gubernatorial candidates Doug Ducey (R) and Fred Duval (D) on K-12 policy. Unfortunately what would have otherwise been a civil exchange of ideas between two candidates who pass the “would like to have a beer with” test was marred by protesters in the audience who attempted to hijack the event by screaming invective on entirely unrelated matters from the audience.

It seems almost unnecessary to say that the protesters were uniformly on the far left. I’m 47 years old, have seen this happen several times, and have yet to see a right of center group behave in such an anti-democratic fashion. I’m not saying it has never happened, just that I have never once seen it happen.

The person who should be most upset by this is Fred Duval. Duval is obviously a decent guy and I would put the odds that he had anything to do with this squarely at zero. Nevertheless, when a group of people shouting random hostility at his opponent act like a group of brown-shirt fascists, it’s nothing but bad. This was Duval’s best chance to make his points with the public on the subject that he has emphasized more than any other, and that chance was essentially lost. Ducey handled the situation well, receiving a thunderous round of applause in elegantly rebuking the protestors. Game, set match Ducey.

Attempting to shout down opponents is contemptible and against the most basic tenets of democracy. I would say exactly the same thing if a group of conservatives disrupted a debate by attempting to shout down the Mr. Duval.  Notice the muted reaction of the Arizona Republic. If a group of Russell Pearce supporters had shown up in force to scream at Fred Duval I hate to say that I strongly suspect that it would have been a top of the fold front page story rather than a buried note in page three. Seeing this unfold made me wonder if the era of public debates might not be drawing to a close. It is much easier to keep things under control in a studio. The only other alternative is to hire a ton of security, which raises the cost of public events considerably. Either way, we will have fewer civil and public exchanges so long as a vocal minority of Americans lack a basic commitment to civility.

If so, illiberal forces will have stolen something from us. I took my sons aged 14 and almost 13 to the debate last night, and I wonder how many more such events they will have the opportunity to attend. The soft bigotry of low expectations seems very much at work here. We’ve grown to expect some left-wing groups to behave like fascists. We should have much higher expectations.

The misguided people engaging in brown-shirt tactics should remember an old slogan of the left- the whole world is watching. You may have deluded yourself with some complex rationalization justifying attempting to shout down opponents, but don’t expect decent people of either the left or right to believe it.

Standards are Important… NOT!

September 23, 2014

My students, Charlie Belin and Brian Kisida, have a new article in the journal, Educational Policy, that examines the relationship between state science standards and science achievement according to NAEP.  As an indicator of the quality of state science standards they use Fordham’s ranking of those standards.  They find no relationship between Fordham’s ranking of standards and achievement.

Possible explanations for this result include:

1) Fordham is lousy at judging the quality of standards.

2) The quality of standards doesn’t matter.

I’m inclined toward the latter explanation, but either way, would it seem like a good idea to blow hundreds of millions, engage in endless and destructive in-fighting, and consume nearly all of the energy of the reform movement on something that makes virtually no difference?

I know, I know… the standards crowd readily admits that standards, by themselves, are not the issue.  It’s the way we link standards to teacher training, professional development, and assessments with consequences for teachers and students that really matters.  OK, so standards only matter if we also achieve a level of benevolent, top-down control over key aspects of the education system that has never been accomplished before.

Where have I heard this kind of argument before?  Oh yeah! That’s what the crazy guy in Harvard Square was yelling about when he said that the past failures of communism didn’t matter because it would finally work if we just did it correctly and completely.  And how much coercion and forced conformity would be required in the futile effort to achieve this level of top-down control?

Of course, it is also possible that Charlie and Brian’s analysis failed to capture the true causal relationship between standards and achievement given that is is only an observational study.  But if that is the case, the burden would still be on the advocates for national standards to demonstrate the causal connection between the reform they advocate and improved outcomes.  We shouldn’t remake all of American education on a hunch and a rationalization borrowed from the failure of communism.

When Will Public Schools Acquire Nukes?

September 16, 2014

The Wall Street Journal has an article that you might mistake for something in The Onion.  The federal government has a program that provides surplus military equipment to state and local governments at no cost other than the expense of shipping.  A number of public schools have taken advantage of this program to acquire military gear.  As the WSJ reported:

Some school districts, including the Los Angeles Unified School District, stocked up on grenade launchers, M-16 rifles and even a multi-ton armored vehicle…

And Matt will be pleased to know that:

In south Texas, near the Mexican border, the sprawling Edinburg Consolidated Independent School District has 34,700 students and operates its own SWAT team, thanks in part to military gear it was given in recent years.

This is a toxic combination of 1) school districts lining up for anything the feds are handing out, 2) the excessive militarization of local police (and apparently school security) forces, and 3) schools focusing on incredibly rare events, like school shootings, as opposed to incredibly common ones, like incarcerating millions of children in schools that fail to serve their needs.

But don’t worry, one school district official explained that “These officers are trained in tactics. Some are former military.”  And a Defense Department spokesperson assured that “each state is visited biannually for a program compliance review to further look at records, property and usage.”  Well… if these are trained school employees who are inspected by the federal government biannually, I’m sure it will be fine to have SWAT teams with grenade launchers in our schools.

My only question is when will public schools be able to get surplus nukes.  I mean, how else will they maintain Mutually Assured Destruction to deter the growing threat of private school choice?

Creating Cultural Consumers

September 16, 2014

Brian Kisida, Dan Bowen, and I have a new article in the journal, Sociology of Education, about how field trips to art museums help develop cultural consumers — people who want to visit cultural institutions in the future.  This piece is a more focused and technical follow-up on the summary of our art museum field trip study last year in Education Next.  Earlier we also published a more technical piece in Educational Researcher focused on the critical thinking results from our experiment.  There are more technical pieces on particular aspects of the study in the works.

Also keep you eyes out for a random-assignment study on what students learn from field trips to see live theater performances of Hamlet and A Christmas Carol.  It should be published by Education Next some time in October.

And if you are hiring, keep your eyes out for Dan Bowen and Brian Kisida, who are both now applying for academic jobs.  They each have at least 8 peer-reviewed articles.  Dan also has two grants that he earned while working as a post-doc at Rice University.  Another one of our graduate students, Anna Egalite, is currently in a post-doc at Harvard and is also on the academic job market for next year.  All thee would be great hires for any university smart enough to snap them up.

Repetition in Music

September 15, 2014

My colleague, Lisa Margulis, has a great Ted-Ed video summarizing her new book, On Repeat: How Music Plays the Mind.  Lisa, Brian Kisida, and I recently published an article together in the Psychology of Music on how student experience of a musical performance is altered by receiving information about the music.

Let’s see if this information alters your experience of music.  The question in Lisa’s book (and video) is why we like so much repetition in music.  Lisa provides the answers:

And in case you need an example, here are the Vulgar Boatmen playing Drive Somewhere, which I think captures repetitive pop perfection:

Random Pop Culture Apocalypse: Postmodern Jukebox

September 8, 2014

I came across a fantastic website called Postmodern Jukebox featuring wonderfully creative interpretations of pop songs, TV theme songs. and video game music.  Here’s their jazz interpretation of Meghan Trainor’s All About that Bass:

And here is Girls Just Want to Have Fun as a waltz:

And here is Blurred Lines as a bluegrass barn dance:

And here is Wake Me Up… mariachi style

And here is Livin’ on a Prayer as a jazz standard:

For those of you who are TV and videogame junkies, here is the Pokemon theme song:

And here is a Nintendo medley:



Brookings Study on Superintendents

September 3, 2014

Brookings has another excellent and useful study out this week.  This one examines how much superintendents, on average, contribute to student learning.  The authors, Matt Chingos, Russ Whitehurst, and Katharine Lindqiust, analyze student level data in Florida and North Carolina between 2001 and 2010 to see how much variance in achievement can be explained by changes in superintendents.  The answer is not very much — only .3%.  Other aspects of the school system, including the student, teacher, school, and district matter much more in explaining the variance in student achievement.

The authors are careful to explain that their research does not suggest that there are no dud or superstar superintendents.  It’s just that, on average, superintendents don’t make much of a difference.  They liken this to the effect of money managers who on average add no value, although it is possible that some of them are great and some awful.  Of course, much or all of that difference between great and awful could be random chance.  So when you pick a superintendent (or a money manager) you should rationally expect that they don’t make much of a difference.  It’s a shame that they still cost so much.

This report helps illustrate how Brookings is really the model of what think tanks should be.  It is solid empirical work on a policy relevant question that is written in a way that is accessible to policymakers and other non-experts.  Other think tanks would do well to consider how they could emulate Brookings rather than produce more agenda-driven hatchet  job research.  And more foundations should think about how they could fund this type of quality, policy-relevant work and stop paying for talking points masquerading as research.


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