And the Higgy Goes to… Paul G. Kirk, Jr.

April 18, 2014

We have had another excellent (that is, horrible) group of nominees for the William Higinbotham Inhumanitarian Award.  It is more than a bit disconcerting that both this year and last we have had a plethoria of compelling nominees.

My own nominee, Paul Ehrlich, was a strong candidate.  His modern Malthusian warnings about how humans were exhausting natural resources and needed to control pupilation to avoid an imminent catastrophe helped justify the oppressive and disastrous Chinese One-Child Policy.  Ehrlich would have won The Higgy were it not for the fact that folks are already recognizing the dangers of declining birth rates, especially when coerced by the government.  Even the Chinese are starting to back away from their policy.  The demographic problems of more retireees dependent on fewer workers is becoming a big topic of discussion throughout Europe, Japan, and America.  And even the developing world is producing dramatically lower birth rates.  The highly influential Higgy does not appear necessary to discredit Ehrlich’s ideas.

Barney Frank is also a very worthy nomination.  Frank not only personally contributed to the causes of the Great Recession by  championing policies that pushed and subsidized lenders to provide houses to everyone, regardless of the ability to pay, but also has the chutzpah to assert “The private sector got us into this mess. The government has to get us out of it.”  But Frank falls short of The Higgy because he was far from alone in the governmental recklessness that nearly destroyed private credit.  Politicians on both sides of the aisle favored a house in every pot (they had to up the ante from chickens).  Politicians will always be tempted to promise free money and we’re to blame if we take them up on their offer by electing them.

A reader in a comment suggested John Maynard Keynes, who is also a compelling candidate for The Higgy.  But the reader did not make a full case, so it is hard for me to fully judge the merits of this nomination.  In addition, I’m inclined to believe that governments did not need Keynes to believe that they should actively meddle in the economy.  They were doing it plenty  well before Keynes came along.

This year’s winner of The Higgy is Paul G. Kirk, Jr. for inventing the pernicious notion of a “free speech zone.”  Even with a constitutional guarantee, free speech is always under seige because the government and other powerful folks would rather not be undermined by it.  People often wrongly cite the decision in Schenck v. United States as proving that the government would only restrict speech if it posed a “clear and present danger.”  What those people forget is that even while articulating the clear and present danger standard, the Supreme Court upheld Schenck’s conviction for passing out leaflets in front of a draft office during the Great War.  If a guy on the street corner handing out leaflets can be interpreted as a clear and present danger, then clearly the government will be inclined to restrict speech whenever it can.

The essential check on government control over speech is the popular backlash that would occur if the government over-reaches.  The accountability of the government to people in elections (and if bad enough, in the form of revolution) is essential to making the words in the Constitution protecting free speech real.  In the face of popular protection of free speech, censoring authorities have to find sneakier ways to control speech.  They have to find indirect and less obvious ways, like creating free speech zones.

For contributing to this sneaky infringement on our liberty, Paul G. Kirk, Jr. is deserving of the dishonor of the William Higinbotham Inhumanitarian Award.

The Paradoxical Logic of Ed Reform Politics (Part 2)

April 17, 2014

In my last post I suggested that “In education, as in military and political strategy more generally, the most direct and definitive path to victory often lays the foundations for defeat.  Instead, the indirect and less definitive solution is almost always more effective.”

The paradoxical logic of military and political strategy is a result of the fact that in the strategic world one’s opponent is able to react to your efforts with counter-moves.  Technocrats seem to think that effective policy-making just consists of identifying the optimal solution and then imposing it on everybody.  Strategists understand that the other side of a policy battle has interests and values that lead them to different policy preferences. Even if the technocrat can identify the optimal solution and manage to get that solution adopted as policy (and this is a huge if), the other side doesn’t go away no matter how much the technocrats just want them to shut up and disappear.

Technocrats have an authoritarian streak that makes them expect the losing side to surrender permanently in deference to what “science” and “experts” have decided is best.  But in a diverse, decentralized democracy, people don’t have to accept what you claim based on your science and expertise (and they might be right in doing so).  They can subvert effective implementation of your policy and bide their time until they can re-open the debate and regain control over policy.

The more completely and directly you try to prevail in a policy dispute the more you mobilize the other side to oppose you — if not at the time of adoption, then later in implementation or when the debate is re-opened. Seeking total victory often lays the foundations for defeat.  In  Dred Scott v. Sandford Chief Justice Taney seemed to hand supporters of slavery a total victory, but it led to their ultimate defeat.  As Wikipedia summarizes it:

Although Taney believed that the decision represented a compromise that would settle the slavery question once and for all by transforming a contested political issue into a matter of settled law, it produced the opposite result. It strengthened Northern slavery opposition, divided the Democratic Party on sectional lines, encouraged secessionist elements among Southern supporters of slavery to make bolder demands, and strengthened the Republican Party.

In a diverse, decentralized democracy you can’t settle contentious issues once and for all.  In policy-making there is no total and final victory, only perpetual struggle.

Technocrats are inclined to seek total and final victory.  If science or the experts have shown something to be wrong, why should that wrong be allowed to continue anywhere?  This produces a tendency to over-reach.  Technocrats can’t tolerate the notion that a solution won’t cover everybody and improve things for everyone.  If things are bad in Mississippi it just ruins their whole day.

But trying to fix everything, everywhere usually leads to fixing nothing anywhere — or sometimes to making things much worse.  In the end the technocrat doesn’t seem as motivated by helping as many people as possible, as much as motivated by the unreasonable feeling of responsibility for “allowing” something bad to continue for someone.  But addressing your inner angst about someone still suffering somewhere at the expense of making progress toward helping more people is egotistical.  It isn’t about you.  You are not the Master of the Universe who “allows” bad things to happen.  You’re just a person trying to work with others to make progress.

People sometimes think that I’m a radical because of my preference for parental control over the education of their children.  But I think I’m really the moderate in education debates.  The extremists are the ones who are trying to devise fixes for everyone else’s problems.  They’re radical because they (falsely) believe they can identify optimal solutions and successfully impose them on everyone.  My approach is moderate because I accept that gradual progress toward better outcomes (even if some people  might make the “wrong” choices and not experience improvement) is more realistic and productive.

Even if you are a standards and test-based accountability person, you are better off not seeking total victory as the Common Core people have.  Yes, some states had lousy standards.  And yes, some tests were poorly designed or had low thresholds for passing.  But trying to fix all standards and tests, everywhere, all at once is the wrong approach.  Seeking this total victory has more fully mobilized the opponents of all standards and testing.  In response to a more heavy-handed and top-down national effort, more previously un-involved people have flocked to the anti-testing side.  Not only will these folks undermine effective implementation of Common Core, but in their counter-effort to roll back national standards, they will destroy much of what was good about state standards and tests.  The whole idea of standards and test-based accountability is being undermined by the imprudent over-reach of Common Core.

I apply the same cautiousness to my approach to parental choice in education.  I would never recommend adopting nationwide school choice programs.  The truth is we don’t know how best to design choice programs.  Is it best to have vouchers, tax-credit funded scholarships, individual tax credits, ESA’s, etc…?  What kind of regulatory framework should we have?  Should testing be required?  What test?  I have my guesses about what would be good, but I don’t have the technocrat’s confidence that I can identify the right solution and impose it everywhere.  Let’s let different localities try different kinds of programs and gradually learn about what seems to be working and what doesn’t.

Whether your preferred policy solution is based on standards and accountability, parental choice, instructional reform, or something else, the better approach to reform is gradual and decentralized so that everyone can learn and adapt.  Your reform strategy has to be consistent with the diverse, decentralized, and democratic country in which we live.  You won’t fix everything for everyone right away, but you should avoid Great Leaps Forward. Seek partial victories because with the paradoxical logic of ed reform politics total victory ultimately leads to total defeat.


Granting an Extension on The Higgy

April 14, 2014

April 15 is known nation-wide as the day when your taxes are due and when the winner of the William Higinbotham Inhumanitarian Award is announced.   But sometimes April 15 falls on a weekend or a holiday and the tax deadline is extended.  This year Passover starts tonight and observant Jews refrain from work through Wednesday.  While the US government does not care enough about Passover to delay the tax deadline, I will delay the announcement of The Higgy until the end of this week to allow some people to complete and submit their nominations while they observe the ultimate Freedom Holiday.  Chag Sameach.




The Paradoxical Logic of Ed Reform Politics

April 14, 2014

Ed reform has been going through a bad stretch lately.  Currently dominant reform theories are the result of technocratic thinking.  They seek to identify (and impose) “optimal” topics to be taught, ways to teach those subjects, methods for training teachers, strategies for evaluating and motivating teachers, etc…  An army of economists or economist-wannabes have seized the reins of reform organizations with the hope that their next regression will tell everyone what to do to solve the mystery of improving schools.  They pay little heed to history, which might alert them to the failure of past efforts similar to their brave new undertakings.  And they are unfamiliar with basic lessons from political science on the dangers and failures of technocratic central planning.

Let me offer one political science lesson for ed reformers that I learned from reading Edward Luttwak’s book, Strategy: The Logic of War and Peace.  Luttwak argues that there is a paradoxical logic to strategy.  In the realm of strategy what often seems good turns out to be bad and vice versa.  This is why strategists often say things like: “If you want peace, prepare for war;” “A buildup of offensive weapons can be purely defensive;” and “The worst road may be the best route to battle.”

Both military and political strategy have this paradoxical logic because they involve opponents who can observe your efforts and make counter-moves.  You can’t just run a regression to find the optimal solution and then expect everyone to thank you for discovering what you claim to be better methods.  Education is a political system that involves competing interests and values.  For the most part our problems are not caused by ignorance of optimal solutions, but by these clashing interests and values embedded in dysfunctional systems.

To fix these problems we need to address people’s competing interests and values and not just impose a technocratic solution from above.  In education, as in military and political strategy more generally, the most direct and definitive path to victory often lays the foundations for defeat.  Instead, the indirect and less definitive solution is almost always more effective.

Before turning to education, let’s consider the paradoxical logic of strategy with respect to another policy — gay marriage.  Opponents of gay marriage pursued the most direct and definitive approach to securing the victory of their policy view.  In 1996 they managed to get a bipartisan and veto-proof majority in Congress to pass the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which became law with the signature of President Bill Clinton.  DOMA “barred same-sex married couples from being recognized as ‘spouses’ for purposes of federal laws, effectively barring them from receiving federal marriage benefits.”  Opponents then managed to get 31 states to adopt constitutional amendments forbidding those states from recognizing same-sex unions.

By banning gay marriage at the federal level and in a majority of state constitutions one might have thought that opponents of gay marriage had scored a decisive victory.  But, by seeking to impose their policy view with a direct and definitive approach, the opponents of gay marriage planted the seeds of their own defeat.  Big losses for supporters of gay marriage motivated them to organize and develop inventive strategies for reversing those defeats.  They focused heavily on influencing popular culture and the media.  They went to the courts.

Meanwhile, opponents of gay marriage failed to continue efforts aimed at influencing mass opinion and neglected the debate.  They thought they had won, so why keep debating?  In a diverse, decentralized, and democratic country, there are no permanent political victories or defeats.  Winning a legislative battle or ballot initiative does not make the other side change its mind or go away.  They’re still there, devising ways to come back and win in future rounds.

Supporters of Common Core have made some of the same political mistakes that opponents of gay marriage did.  They figured if they could get the US Department of Education, DC-based organizations, and state school chiefs on board, they would have a direct and definitive victory.  And at first blush it looked like they had achieved it, with about 45 states committing to adopt the new set of standards and federally-sponsored standardized tests aligned to those standards.  Like opponents of gay marriage, the Common Core victory seemed so overwhelming that they hardly felt the need to engage in debates to defend it.

But in the rush to a clear and total victory, supporters of Common Core failed to consider how the more than 10,000 school districts, more than 3 million teachers, and the parents of almost 50 million students would react.  For standards to actually change practice, you need a lot of these folks on board.  Otherwise Common Core, like most past standards, will just be a bunch of empty words in a document.

These millions of local officials, educators, and parents often have reasons for holding educational preferences that are different than those dictated by Common Core.  Common Core may call for things like more focus on “informational texts”  and delaying Algebra until 9th grade, but there are reasons why that is not already universal practice.  It’s not as if local officials, educators, and parents are unaware of the existence of informational texts or just waiting to be told by national elites about when they should start teaching Algebra.  They have interests and values that drove them to the arrangements that were in place prior to Common Core.

Having the Secretary of Education, state boards, and a bunch of DC advocacy groups declare a particular approach to be best and cram it into place in the middle of a financial crisis with virtually no public debate or input from educators or parents did not convince local officials, educators, and parents to change their minds.  These are the folks who need to be on board to make the implementation of Common Core real.  And these are the folks who are organizing a political backlash that will undo or neuter Common Core.  A direct path to victory by Common Core supporters sowed the seeds of  its own defeat.

The unraveling of Common Core makes this flop the most obviously ill-conceived and doomed-to-fail reform effort since the Annenberg Foundation threw $500 million away in the 1990s.  I assure you that while the money was flowing from Annenberg that effort had plenty of defenders, just as Common Core does today.  After Common Core fails, everyone will say how they knew it was flawed, just as they currently do with Annenberg.  Victory has a thousand fathers while defeat is an orphan.

But some of us have been warning of the political naivite of the Common Core effort for some time now.  Rick Hess and Mike McShane at AEI have also done an admirable job of describing the political weakness of Common Core, regardless of what one thinks of the merits of the standards themselves.

Supporters of Common Core may draw the wrong lesson from this post and increase efforts to convince the public and train educators to love the Common Core.  Not only will these re-education efforts be too little, too late, but they fail to grasp the inherent flaw in reforms like Common Core.  Trying to change the content and practice of the entire nation’s school system requires a top-down, direct, and definitive victory to get adopted.  If input and deliberation are sought, or decisions are truly decentralized, then it is too easy to block standards reforms, like Common Core.  Supporters of CC learned this much from the numerous failed efforts to adopt national standards in the past.

But the brute force and directness required for adopting national standards makes its effective implementation in a diverse, decentralized, and democratic country impossible.  This can’t be solved by more professional development and a belated marketing campaign.  Even the Chinese re-education camps couldn’t make the Cultural Revolution reailty — and they invested a whole lot more energy and resources in trying to do so than the Common Core folks ever could.

There is a better, more indirect and less definitive approach to education reform.  In the next post I’ll discuss what that looks like.

Cost per Graduate

April 8, 2014

Dropout factories

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

The most recent edition of the OCPA Perspective ran an article by yours truly on measuring the “cost per graduate”:

Suppose you buy your daughter ten piano lessons at $20 apiece, but you forget to take her to the first two lessons. You have to pay for all 10 lessons, but she only gets eight of them. Being a conscientious parent, you then buy your daughter another two lessons at $20 apiece so she can complete the 10-lesson course of instruction. And this time you remember to take her!

How much did you spend per lesson? Not $20, but $24. It’s pretty simple math: you spent a total of $240, and your daughter got 10 lessons. Yes, the immediate cost of each lesson at the time you paid for it was $20, but the total cost per lesson ended up being 20 percent higher than that because you didn’t do your job with the first two lessons…

Oklahoma’s high school graduation rate is only 78.5 percent. According to calculations from the U.S. Department of Education, about 10,529 Oklahoma students who ought to have graduated from high school in 2010 dropped out instead. A state that spends so much has a right to expect a lot better than that from its schools.

The education of these dropouts is roughly analogous to the two missed piano lessons. The people of Oklahoma paid the schools to educate these students, but the students didn’t get the education Oklahoma paid for.


I calculate that if we look at spending per high school graduate instead of per student, at current spending levels the annual cost of Oklahoma public schools is not $8,630, but $10,483.

The most important question is not whether Oklahoma taxpayers can afford to go on spending $10,483 per graduate every year, although that question matters. The most important question is whether Oklahoma can afford to go on failing 10,529 students in every high school class, year after year. Schools, like students, need to learn to see a tough task through until it’s complete. And if they tell us they’re having too much trouble learning, reforms like school choice could help them get up to speed.


Paul Ehrlich for The Higgy

April 6, 2014

Paul Ehrlich is a Stanford University biologist most famous for his 1968 book, The Population Bomb, and subsequent dire predictions about how human population growth would exhaust food and other natural resource supplies, leading to cataclysmic destruction of the human race and all of earth’s creatures.  Ehrlich was not the first to predict that population growth would outstrip food production (the idea goes back at least to the 18th century’s Thomas Robert Malthus), and he certainly won’t be the last.  People love doomsday predictions no matter how often they turn out false.

And Ehrlich’s predictions have turned out to be remarkably false.  Wikipedia provides some examples:

On the first Earth Day in 1970, he warned that “[i]n ten years all important animal life in the sea will be extinct. Large areas of coastline will have to be evacuated because of the stench of dead fish.” In a 1971 speech, he predicted that: “By the year 2000 the United Kingdom will be simply a small group of impoverished islands, inhabited by some 70 million hungry people … If I were a gambler, I would take even money that England will not exist in the year 2000.”

The fact that nearly half a century after warning of  the imminent collapse of civilization and mass starvation Ehrlich’s predictions have not come to pass has done nothing to shake Ehrlich or his most ardent supporters’ confidence in his analysis.  Disaster has merely been deferred, in their view.  Like the members of the cult profiled in Leon Festinger‘s When Prophesy Fails, Ehrlich and his supporters have doubled-down with an increased conviction that human action is about to destroy the planet.

Of course, it is always possible that humans will eventually destroy themselves, but this does not appear to be imminent.  Ehrlich’s analysis has been and is likely to continue to be flawed because he grossly under-estimates the ability of human ingenuity to innovate and adapt, avoiding resource shortage catastrophes.

The economist, Julian Simon, articulated this argument in his 1981 book, The Ultimate Resource.  Simon explains that price is the most efficient mechanism for avoiding shortage catastrophes.  When rising demand begins to make a resource more scarce, the price rises.  Rising prices provide strong incentives for people to find substitutes for the scarce resource or to innovate and develop techniques for producing more of that resource.  Catastrophic shortages tend not to sneak up on us.  Prices anticipate future shortages and give us time to innovate or adapt.

To prove his point, Simon actually made a wager with Ehrlich about how innovation and adaptation would make shortages less severe over time, causing resource prices to tend to decline in real terms.  Here’s how Wikipedia describes the wager:

In 1968, Ehrlich published The Population Bomb, which argued that mankind was facing a demographic catastrophe with the rate of population growth quickly outstripping growth in the supply of food and resources. Simon was highly skeptical of such claims, so proposed a wager, telling Ehrlich to select any raw material he wanted and select “any date more than a year away,” and Simon would bet that the commodity’s price on that date would be lower than what it was at the time of the wager.

Ehrlich and his colleagues (including John Holdren, later an advisor to President Barack Obama for Science and Technology) picked five metals that they thought would undergo big price increases: chromium, copper, nickel, tin, and tungsten. Then, on paper, they bought $200 worth of each, for a total bet of $1,000, using the prices on September 29, 1980, as an index. They designated September 29, 1990, 10 years hence, as the payoff date. If the inflation-adjusted prices of the various metals rose in the interim, Simon would pay Ehrlich the combined difference. If the prices fell, Ehrlich et al. would pay Simon.

Between 1980 and 1990, the world’s population grew by more than 800 million, the largest increase in one decade in all of history. But by September 1990, the price of each of Ehrlich’s selected metals had fallen…. As a result, in October 1990, Paul Ehrlich mailed Julian Simon a check for $576.07 to settle the wager in Simon’s favor.

I am not nominating Paul Ehrlich for The Higgy because he’s been wrong.  A lot of scientists have been wrong about a lot of things and there is no harm in advancing an argument that turns out to be mistaken.  Nor am I nominating Ehrlich because he has stubbornly adhered to his theories despite considerable evidence to contradict them.  This is a remarkably common flaw among scientists when they are proved wrong and also does relatively little harm.

Instead, I am nominating Ehrlich because his arguments have provided intellectual support for oppressive government policies to reduce population growth.  As Ehrlich wrote in The Population Bomb:

“We must have population control at home, hopefully through a system of incentives and penalties, but by compulsion if voluntary methods fail. We must use our political power to push other countries into programs which combine agricultural development and population control.”

As it turned out, resource shortages have not produced the catastrophes Ehrlich expected, but government-orchestrated population control efforts have almost certainly been far more destructive, let alone oppressive.

China’s One Child Policy is the most glaring example of the devastation produced by this mistaken, authoritarian approach.  Since 1979 China has imposed fines on families that have what the government considers to be too many children.  This “system of incentives and penalties,” as Ehrlich suggested, was effective at reducing population growth in China… but at what cost and for what benefit?

Because families are pushed to have only one child and because there is a strong preference for boys, girls have become an endangered species in China.  Between 2000 and 2013 there were 117 male babies born for every 100 girl babies, likely the result of selective-sex abortions.  In addition, neglect, abandonment, and outright infanticide are skewing China even more towards boys after birth.  According to a Chinese government commission, there will be 30 million more men than women in 2020.  In short, there has been a female genocide in China with hardly a peep from American feminists pre-occupied with what they consider more important matters, like whether they need to Lean In to avoid being called “bossy.”

The gender imbalance produced by China’s One Child Policy is also far more likely to lead to social instability and war than the imaginary resource crisis it was meant to prevent.  Having tens of millions of young men unable to find wives is likely to create a violent mob whose untamed aggression Chinese leaders may wish to divert toward conquest and war rather than against their own rule.

The severe decline in birth rates is also creating a demographic disaster of enormous proportions.  Elderly Chinese are dependent on a shrinking number of younger Chinese to support them in old age.  If young Chinese men are not driven toward violence by an inability to find marriageable women, they may well be by the crushing burden of having to work harder and longer to support a much larger number of older Chinese.

And of course, it is hard to imagine a more severe intrusion on personal liberty, including women’s reproductive rights, than to have the government coerce people to have only one child.  Again, where are the developed world’s feminists on this issue?

The Chinese government has begun to notice the disaster they’ve created and are starting to relax the One Child Policy in a variety of ways.  Unfortunately, government technocracy is not nearly as efficient at anticipating and adjusting to the future as price mechanisms are.  There is a government-induced shortage of young people, particularly young women, that cannot be as quickly corrected by tinkering with China’s family policy as other resource constraints could be handled by allowing price to encourage adaptation and innovation.

Ehrlich is worthy of The Higgy because he advanced the catastrophically wrong notion that central planning could more efficiently manage resources than could price mechanisms.  And he is further worthy because his views rationalize the enormous infringements on human liberty that central planning produces.

Mississippi House Kills Special Ed ESA at Last Minute

April 3, 2014


Yesterday the Mississippi House killed a very promising special ed ESA bill that was extremely close to adoption.  Were it not for a few Republican legislators switching their votes at the last minute, the ESA would be law.  The Clarion Ledger has the blow by blow, including reaction from incredibly disappointed parents. For me, this quote from the story takes the cake:

Rep. Tom Weathersby, R-Florence, was one of the Republicans voting against the measure despite the support of the GOP House leadership.

“I want to do everything I can to help students with special needs,” Weathersby said. “But I feel like in our school districts we are capable of handling most of those needs. Some of our people in the public school system saw it more as a voucher bill than a special needs bill. Maybe at some point in the future that bill can be amended in a way that we can get some positive effects out of it.”

I live in Arkansas, so I speak a bit of southern and can attempt a translation. In southern-ese when someone begins a statement with “I am not saying X, Y and Z…” whatever comes out after the statement in fact reveals their true attitude.  Similar to understanding the vagaries of the Japanese use of the word “hi” this is a very important source of cultural confusion for those not fortunate enough to have lived in the south.  A similar phenomenon may be at play with this quote.

I want to do everything I can to help students with special needs translates to “I don’t want to be seen as throwing special needs kids under the bus but sometimes ‘everything I can’ has a variable rather than an absolute meaning.  In this case it means ‘everything but this.’”

But I feel like in our school districts we are capable of handling most of those needs translates to “I am going to ignore the 23% graduation rate for special needs children that the Clarion Ledger identified as an unaddressed problem for decades.  Maybe it will get better on its own. Look- squirrel!!!!”

Some of our people in the public school system saw it more as a voucher bill than a special needs bill translates to “I allow public school interests to frame K-12 issues for me. They were afraid of this and I am afraid of them.”

Maybe at some point in the future that bill can be amended in a way that we can get some positive effects out of it.  This one is tricky because it mixes in some legislator-ese with southern-ese. A decent translation might be “perhaps we can pass some watered down something next session that the public school interests don’t feel threatened by so we can sing kumbaya and at least pretend that we have addressed a sickening problem.”

Teacher Tenure on Trial

April 1, 2014

(Guest post by James Shuls)

What would it look like if Hollywood put teacher tenure on trial on the silver screen? I imagine the closing arguments would look something like this, although probably condensed to 3 minutes. This is video of the closing argument of Marcellus McRae, lead co-counsel for the plaintiffs in Vergara v. California. It is just shy of an hour, but is well worth a watch.

I’ve taken the liberty to pull out some of my favorite quotes.

McRae notes that the teacher credentialing period can actually be longer than the period provided to determine tenure decisions. He says:

“Teachers can actually receive notice that they are being reelected for a tenure teaching position and then subsequently fail to successfully complete the induction program necessary to obtain a clear credential. That’s like telling somebody, we’re going to go ahead and let you get out on the highway and endanger everybody else’ lives for two months and then we’re going to tell you that you failed your driver’s test.”

He goes on to refute the idea that principals can gather enough information in the 16 month period allowed to make tenure decisions.

“There’s not enough time. There’s not enough data. There’s not enough processing time to get an informed view about who can achieve learning gains. So, that you’re deluding yourself if you think you actually have visibility into whether or not this is an informed decision. What you’re doing with your drive by observations in the classroom, what you’re doing in this 16 month, unduly compressed period is making tenure decisions based on impressionism rather than realism. And that is not good enough for the children in the state of California.

How long does it take to remove a tenured teacher who is grossly ineffective? Too long.

“LAUSD has never completed a performance based teacher dismissal hearing in less than two years. Your honor, think about that. We have litigated this case, and we have brought it from the filing of the complaint trough demurs, through discovery, through summary judgment in less time than it takes to dismiss a teacher for unsatisfactory performance in California. That is insane.

But there are ways of getting around tenure laws, there is a ‘workaround.’

“How many times does someone devise a workaround for something that isn’t broken? You can’t make sense out of nonsense.”

He points out the insanity of the “Last In, First Out” (LIFO) layoff policies, which resulted in a teacher of the year being laid off.

“What kind of system do we have, where your prize, your reward, for being teacher of the year is to receive a layoff notice?”

The defendants argued that LIFO was good because it was objective. He points out how the absurdity of this claim.

“…touting something as objective as if that’s virtuous, well height is objective. I mean, alphabetical order is objective. You could have a layoff system based on who can dunk a basketball. I don’t think we want that either, just because its objective doesn’t mean that it has any merit to it and it points out that it is an absurd untenable argument.”

But, but, tenure just gives teachers due process.

“This is not an effort to attack due process. What the teachers under the dismissal code have is not due process. They have excessive, bloated, unnecessary statutory protections. What California state employees have, including teachers, like classified employees, that’s due process.”

And last, but not least:

We have Serrano which acknowledges that funding is an essential component to educational equality. We have the Buck case that acknowledges that time in school is an essential component to educational equality. Let’s place Vergara in that same vain and acknowledge the obvious, that teachers are an essential component to educational equality.


James Shuls is the Director of Education Policy at the Show-Me Institute. Follow on Twitter @shulsie

Return On Narcissus

March 28, 2014

The Edu-Pundit Industry loves faux-business-like measures of their effectiveness, so here’s one for you — the Return on Tweets.

In my first “Narcissus” post about Twitter I suggested that Twitter encourages some people to talk much more than people actually want to listen.  So I developed my first faux measure of the ratio of Tweets to Followers to capture that.

In my second “Narcissus” post I suggested that there is perhaps an unhealthy compulsive nature to high-frequency Tweeting.  So I developed another faux measure of the number of minutes on average during people’s waking lives between each tweet.  I identified “The Lost Threshold” to highlight folks who Tweet more often, on average, than once every 108 minutes of their waking lives.  As with the characters in Lost who believe they must enter The Numbers into a computer every 108 minutes, it is ambiguous whether they are engaged in an incredibly important activity (like saving the world) that is worthy of this compulsive behavior or maybe suffering from a manic delusion.

In this third post I calculate how many tweets people have sent between April 2, 2013 and March 27, 2014 as well as the change in “Followers” each person has experienced during that period.  Dividing the number of new tweets by the change in followers, I get the Return on Tweets.  If tweeting is influencing the world, rather than just enjoying listening to oneself talk, then more people should be attracted to listen, or follow, as people talk, or tweet.  People who have to issue more tweets for each new follower have a lower Return on Tweets.

I’m constrained to use the same list of people as I used in my initial post because they are the only ones for whom I have historical information on the number of tweets and followers.  The list for the initial post was identified from Mike Petrilli’s ranking of the most influential education policy Tweeters.  In addition, recent tweet and follower counts have sometimes become less precise when they are large numbers because Twitter has rounded that information to the closest hundred or thousand.  But this is good enough for a faux measure in a dumb blog post about a dumb activity.

Name Handle Tweets Since 4/2/13 Change in Followers Tweets / New Follower
Sherman Dorn   @shermandorn 5,642 338 16.69
Morgan Polikoff  @mpolikoff 9,024 710 12.71
RiShawn Biddle  @dropoutnation 10,486 984 10.66
Sara Goldrick-Rab  @saragoldrickrab 18,784 2,058 9.13
Neal McCluskey  @NealMcCluskey 4,634 651 7.12
Matt Williams  @mattawilliams 1,125 176 6.39
Marc Porter Magee  @marcportermagee 3,968 677 5.86
Deborah M. McGriff  @dmmcgriff 3,571 647 5.52
Ashley Inman @ashleyemilia 1,098 225 4.88
Jenna Schuette Talbot  @jennastalbot 1,935 437 4.43
Laura Bornfreund  @laurabornfreund 1,372 328 4.18
Mike Klonsky @mikeklonsky 4,625 1,126 4.11
Nancy Flanagan @nancyflanagan 5,746 1,449 3.97
Eric Lerum  @ericlerum 2,452 649 3.78
Kathleen Porter Magee  @kportermagee 3,327 881 3.78
The Frustrated Teacher @tfteacher 1,958 527 3.72
Matthew K. Tabor  @matthewktabor 119 34 3.50
Allie Kimmel  @allie_kimmel 3,694 1,106 3.34
Matthew Ladner  @matthewladner 1,004 308 3.26
Sam Chaltain @samchaltain 2,658 829 3.21
David DeSchryver  @ddeschryver 570 179 3.18
Ben Boychuk  @benboychuk 116 39 2.97
Andy Smarick  @smarick 9,160 3,257 2.81
Rachel Young  @msrachelyoung 266 99 2.69
John Bailey  @john_bailey 3,155 1,226 2.57
Andrew P. Kelly  @andrewpkelly 2,560 995 2.57
Roxanna Elden  @roxannaElden 407 166 2.45
Joanne Jacobs  @joanneleejacobs 1,160 477 2.43
Gary Rubinstein  @garyrubinstein 1,791 739 2.42
Larry Ferlazzo  @larryferlazzo 23,185 9,984 2.32
Ben Wildavsky  @wildavsky 828 364 2.27
Robert Pondiscio  @rpondiscio 1,559 801 1.95
Ulrich Boser  @ulrichboser 613 328 1.87
John Nash  @jnash 800 446 1.79
Mickey Kaus  @kausmickey 6,087 3,438 1.77
Bruce Baker  @schlFinance101 2,314 1,311 1.77
Adam Emerson  @adamjemerson 370 218 1.70
Doug Levin  @douglevin 1,687 1,040 1.62
Linda Perlstein  @lindaperlstein 215 135 1.59
Neerav Kingsland  @neeravkingsland 1,500 972 1.54
Terry Stoops  @terrystoops 384 264 1.45
Kevin P. Chavous  @kevinpchavous 831 575 1.45
Anthony Cody @anthonycody 5,441 3,836 1.42
Patrick Riccards @Eduflack 3,344 2,429 1.38
Randi Weingarten @rweingarten 18,247 13,329 1.37
Heather Higgins  @TheHRH 482 355 1.36
Lindsey Burke  @lindseymburke 441 327 1.35
Alexander Russo @alexanderrusso 6,246 4,635 1.35
Michael Petrilli @michaelpetrilli 6,333 5,204 1.22
Justin Cohen  @juscohen 611 506 1.21
Irvin Scott  @iscott4 947 821 1.15
Mike McShane  @MQ_McShane 605 562 1.08
Matt Chingos  @chingos 772 734 1.05
Howard Fuller  @howardlfuller 1,721 1,697 1.01
Charles Barone  @charlesbarone 675 781 0.86
Kevin Carey  @kevincarey1 1,275 1,660 0.77
Jeanne Allen  @jeanneallen 672 945 0.71
Andrew Rotherham  @arotherham 2,546 3,975 0.64
Richard Lee Colvin  @R_Colvin 231 361 0.64
Greg Richmond  @GregRichmond 200 332 0.60
Dana Goldstein @DanaGoldstein 1,018 1,880 0.54
Matt Kramer  @kramer_matt 710 1,525 0.47
Vicki Davis  @coolcatteacher 10,491 23,600 0.44
Michael Barber  @michaelbarber9 1,532 3,583 0.43
Tom Vander Ark @tvanderark 3,956 9,495 0.42
Jay P. Greene  @jaypgreene 220 586 0.38
Lisa Duty  @lisaduty1 896 2,585 0.35
Diane Ravitch @DianeRavitch 11,102 32,944 0.34
Sara Mead   @saramead 404 1,851 0.22
Wendy Kopp  @wendykopp 725 6,885 0.11
Vicki Phillips  @drvickip 292 5,209 0.06
Michelle Rhee @m_rhee 620 14,855 0.04
Alfie Kohn @alfiekohn 283 12,011 0.02

As you can see, Alfie Kohn, Michelle Rhee, Vicki Phillips, Wendy Kopp, Sara Mead, and Diane Ravitch have a very high Return on Tweets.  Kohn gets almost 50 new followers for every tweet.  Diane Ravitch may tweet on a near-constant basis, but she attracts new followers even faster — almost three new followers for every one of her 11,102 tweets over the last 359 days.

On the other end of the spectrum are some folks with a very low Return on Tweets.  They send many tweets for each new follower. Sherman Dorn issues almost 17 tweets for each new follower; Morgan Polikoff almost 13; RiShawn Biddle almost 11; Sara Goldrick-Rab more than 9; and Neal McClusky more than 7.  I actually enjoy “following” many of these folks, but that may be an acquired taste.

It is no accident that “powerful people” with money to dispense or popular programs to trumpet show better Returns on Tweets than do scholars.  Maybe Twitter just isn’t the right place for scholarly exchange.  It’s fine for telling a joke, sharing a link, or following breaking news, but as a place for serious policy discussion Twitter seems to have a very low return on investment.

Wolf Takes on the Big Lubienskis

March 26, 2014

Dude.  You should check out Pat Wolf’s review of Chris and Sarah Lubienki’s new book claiming that public schools academically outperform private schools.  Despite decades of research, including rigorous experiments showing the opposite, the Lubienksis discover a public school advantage by 1) restricting their analysis to standardized math scores (reading, graduation rates, college attendance, incomes, etc…don’t fit their story so they ignore those measures),  2) controlling for participation in government programs, like free lunch and special ed, which are not comparable across public and private schools because privates participate and identify students for those programs at much lower rates, even when dealing with the same exact students, 3) arbitrarily excluding from their longitudinal analysis students who switch sectors.

The net effect of these three methodological choices, plus the fact that standardized math results are more closely aligned with how the subject is taught in public than private schools, strongly skew the results in favor of public schools.  The beauty of randomized experiments is that their results are not so easily manipulated by bizarre choices of what is controlled.  But the Lubienski’s don’t like randomized experiments.  Advocates for quack medicine also tend not to like randomized experiments.  They don’t let you selectively control for things until you get the answer you want.

Dude, let’s go bowling.


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