Pass the Popcorn: Powers that Cannot Be Harnessed

January 19, 2018

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

I know, I owe you a review of Darkest Hour – which is so great on the big screen, you should go out and see it before it leaves theaters. I’m working on that review! (At least I don’t have to worry about spoilers.)

You know what else you should see before it leaves theaters? Mary and the Witch’s Flower, a worthy successor to the Studio Ghibli legacy producd by the fledgling Studio Ponoc, and helmed by Hiromasa Yonebayashi, director of the outstanding Secret World of Arietty.

So, yes, this movie has credentials. And it lives up to them.

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Some have unfortunately attempted to describe it as “Harry Potter meets Spirited Away.” That is accurate as to subject matter. It’s about an ordinary kid who gets swept away to a magical alternate world, and spends most of her time in a magical school. But the magic in this movie is the weird and dangerous magic of pagan animism, not the rational and orderly – the essentially Christian – magic of Harry Potter. So that description is technically correct.

Actually, you could have made a pretty interesting movie out of “What if Hogwarts were pagan?” But that movie is not Mary and the Witch’s Flower.

This movie has a point, and a good one. It’s not actually about magic – ancient or medieval. It’s about the corruption of good causes and ambitions into bad ones. In particular, it illustrates the tendency of well-meaning people to seek to harness and control the whole universe in the name of their high ideals and aspiration to progress. What disappears in this mental world of total control is any kind of standard – nature – that is outside our control and to which our efforts at progress and reform are supposed to conform. We set out to produce order and beauty, we take control of the world to produce order and beauty, and by taking everything under our own control, we lose any standard outside ourselves for what counts as order and beauty. And so we destroy even the imperfect order and beauty that was already in the world before we took control of it, and we produce only monsters.

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Those who remain morally awake, who don’t lose their heads under the influence of grand ideologies, are those who combine a love of adventure and a love of ordinary life. Paradoxical as it seems, this is actually a very normal and logical combination. The dream of total control kills both the awe of an uncontrollable world that is the essence of adventure, and the unselfconscious, purely natural domestic affections. Adventure and comfort must both be spontaneous and unplanned. And of course it is the contrast with being at home that makes the road romantic. As G.K. Chesterton puts it, the boy at the center of the fairy tale must be ordinary for the tale to be extraordinary; Jack must be small for the giant to be gigantic.

As a wise person says to Mary, “there are powers in this world that cannot be harnessed.”

I can’t get much more specific than that without spoiling things. Like Kubo, this is a movie you want to discover as you experience it.

Just go!

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Organizations Can’t Disrupt Themselves

January 17, 2018

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

I’ve been hearing through the grapevine for a long time that Denver’s much ballyhooed portfolio strategy was in deep trouble. Robin Lake calls it out today in Denver’s Storied Portfolio District is Starting to Act Like Just Another City School System.

It might be more useful to think of this as: the Denver district has acted like just another city school system for almost its entire history, flirted with the idea of being something different, but then yielded to political gravity in an entirely predictable fashion.

Clayton Christensen explained years ago that organizations don’t disrupt themselves. Mainframe computer manufacturers did not deftly transition to making personal computers rather than die- they just died. Every other brand in General Motors took every opportunity to slip their knives into Saturn’s back- sure enough GM eventually squandered an enormous amount of public goodwill for Saturn before it eventually died. School districts don’t willingly hand over empty buildings to outside operators. All of this falls somewhere on the water is wet, objects fall to the ground, you don’t fight a land war in Asia spectrum of the self-evident.

Jay noted years ago that you can call your district Superintendent a “harbor master” but in the end it is a tomatO tomAto exercise, especially if they are still hired and fired by boards elected in single digit turnout elections dominated by incumbent interests. Building new rather than attempting to reform the old remains the best strategy.

 

 

 


New Faculty in the Department of Education Reform

January 16, 2018

I am pleased to announce that the Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas will have two new faculty members.  Both Jonathan Wai and Albert Cheng will be joining us in August 2018 as Assistant Professors in Education Policy.  Jonathan Wai will also hold the title of Endowed Chair in Education Policy.  The current holder of that endowed chair, Gary Ritter, will be leaving in August to become the Dean of the School of Education at St. Louis University.

Jonathan received his B.A. in Psychology and Mathematics from Claremont McKenna College followed by an M.A. in Psychology and Evaluation from Claremont Graduate University.  He then earned his Ph.D. in Psychology from Vanderbilt University.  Following that, Jonathan was a post-doc at Duke University and remained there as a Research Scientist affiliated with Duke’s Talent Identification Program (TIP), which strives to identify and offer enriching opportunities to gifted students, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds.  Jonathan’s research covers a variety of topics, such as gifted programs and the role of intelligence in educational success, and has been widely cited.

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Albert received his B.A. in Mathematics from the University of California at Berkeley followed by an M.A. in Education from Biola University.  He taught math in a school in California before enrolling in and completing his Ph.D. in Education Policy from the University of Arkansas.  Following that, Albert was a post-doc at Harvard University in the Program on Education Policy and Governance.  Albert’s research covers a variety of topics, including path-breaking ways of measuring non-cognitive or character skills and the role of mission in school success.

We are sad to bid farewell to Gary Ritter but extremely excited about these new additions to our faculty.


The Houston Almond Dome?

January 16, 2018

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

California’s drought riddled Central Valley produces 80% of the world’s almonds, but each nut takes a gallon of water to produce. Hmmm.

By spraying mineralized water on plant roots, vertical farming techniques have succeeded in reducing agricultural water use by 91% in some crops. You need enclosed climate controlled space, and the price of real estate is a key consideration.

Now comes word that scientists have succeeded in increasing crop yields by keeping plants under lights 24/7.

Which leads us to…the Astrodome.

The so-called “8th Wonder of the World” when it was built became antiquated. The Houston Oilers moved away to become the Tennessee Titans in search of a modern stadium, and the Astros eventually moved to their own space as well. When the NFL put an expansion team in Houston, a new stadium was the price of poker. The Houston Texans modern stadium sits right next to the Astrodome.

There was a city referendum on turning the old dome into some sort of park. It failed. It was said that they would tear the thing down if it didn’t pass, but perhaps because of the expense of hauling away the rubble it is still sitting there.

So…anyone see where I am going with this? Houston would be better off selling the dome for a dollar than spending millions to demolish it and haul away the remains. Especially if you could, you know, steal another California industry in the process. The Astrodome is dead, long live the Almond Dome!


But conscience asks the question,  ‘Is it right?’ 

January 15, 2018

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

JPGP reader Charles Miller, a great Texas education reformer that we lost in 2017, authored one of my favorite guest posts back in 2010, reprinted below. Miller rose to the defense of the DC Opportunity Scholarship program during the days in which the Obama administration was attempting to kill it. Miller quoted the great Martin Luther King Jr. in defense of the program, making it an opportunity to remember both men. Happy trails Charles, and thank you for taking time to share your wisdom to the next generation:

Early in the Obama administration I was surprised and deeply disappointed by their decision to kill the “DC Voucher” Program.  I wrote most of the piece below at that time and the decision brought me back into the public K-12 debate.  The U.S. Senate recently voted 55-42 to confirm that decision, essentially on a party line vote, so I am sending this to go on record about something I think is horrendously wrong. –Charles Miller
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April 4, 2010

What Martin Luther King Said About Speaking Out

“Our Lives Begin to End the Day We Become Silent About Things That Matter”
(Martin Luther King)

The Obama administration, through stimulus funding, the Race to the Top program, its presentation of budgets and proposals for reauthorization of NCLB/ESEA , has moved fast and furiously in the public education policy arena.  It seems very unlikely to me that high aspirations—and hasty action— equate to effective public policy.  In fact, these efforts seem to amount quite clearly to an overreach–strategically, systemically, politically, and culturally

However, what bothers me the most personally is what I consider the most unprincipled action in public education policy since the existence of segregated schools:  The willful decision by the Obama administration, supported by the Democrats in Congress, to kill the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, also called “D.C. Vouchers”

The Obama administration has tied its education policy declarations to a mantra of being non-political and non-partisan, choosing instead a policy focus only on “what works”.  This principle has been repeated incessantly.

However, the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program (OSP) is a successful program.

The Department of Education’s official evaluation using rigorous “gold standard” experimental evaluations determined that the OSP has produced significant achievement gains.

The OSP is serving those families and children most in need in one of the worst school districts in America.  Average income of participating families  is less than $24,000 annually and more than 85% of participating students would otherwise be attending a failing school under NCLB guidelines.

D.C. residents polled by three unaffiliated firms in ’07, ’08, and ’09 showed between 66 and 75% support for the OSP.  The D.C. superintendent and the Mayor support the program.

The decision to kill the program is contradictory to anything the administration claims to be its guiding principle.   The cost of the successful OSP is financially very small by comparison to any K-12 standard while at the same time there has been a gigantic increase in education spending nationally— to support status quo systems which are widely considered failures. Strong evidence of success, academically and financially, clearly makes the decision to kill OSP unprincipled.

The reason for killing OSP is the intense opposition of national teachers unions to a voucher program of any kind, anywhere, anytime—even if it is academically successful, financially responsible and so popular with the community served that there are long waiting lists.

If this successful program had been able to be replicated—a fear obviously driving the decision to kill OSP—the number of students from the most disadvantaged families whose life prospects could have been enhanced could be quite large.  This consideration makes the decision to kill OSP even more egregious, although even helping a small set of students is the principled thing to do.

Notably, from the Washington Post, “Duncan had the temerity to admit that OSP students ‘were safe and learning and doing well…but we can’t be satisfied with saving 1 or 2 percent of children and letting 98 or 99 percent down’.”

The effect of the decision to kill OSP on the lives of the students who could have benefited from its continuation is extremely negative.  There is no way to avoid this conclusion. If a social scientist extrapolated the trends of two sets of students, one in OSP and one in a typical DC school, the loss of life opportunities would be stark for the typical set of students.

The inescapable conclusion I reach is that killing OSP is a despicable and unconscionable decision made for political purposes and with cynical disregard for the lives of the children affected.  “Obama could have stood up for these children, who only want the same opportunities that he had and that his daughters now have.  Instead his education secretary, Arne Duncan, proffered an argument that would be funny if it weren’t so sad:  Scholarships for poor students aren’t worth supporting because not enough of them are given out” (Washington Post, 3/8/10)

This when joblessness for 16-to-24-year-old black men has reached Great Depression proportions — 34.5 % last October and estimated to having exceeded 50% by last year end.

The other conclusion I reach is that policy advocates or officials who turn their face away or avoid taking a strong stand against the decision to kill OSP because it is not pleasant or not convenient to their own activities have a hand in the ignoble results of the decision.  “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends” (Martin Luther King)

So, for me personally, I can’t justify supporting such an administration or its policy makers even if some of their other policy choices are more productive, nor can I see believing anything they say or trusting anything they do.  It can no longer be acceptable to be principled just some of the time.   No Mas.

“Cowardice asks the question, ‘Is it safe?’  Expediency asks the question, ‘Is it politic?’  Vanity asks the question, ‘Is it popular?’  But conscience asks the question,  ‘Is it right?’  And there comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular, but one must take it because one’s conscience tells one that it is right.”  (Martin Luther King)

Charles Miller


Metric Fixation

January 14, 2018

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Jerry Muller has a piece in the Wall Street Journal that should be required reading for foundation staff and ed reformers who are obsessed with metrics.  Here is a snippet:

Metric fixation consists of a set of interconnected beliefs. The first is that it is possible and desirable to replace judgment with numerical indicators of comparative performance based on standardized data. The second is that making such metrics public (transparency) assures that institutions are actually carrying out their purposes (accountability). Finally, there is the belief that people are best motivated by attaching rewards and penalties to their measured performance, rewards that are either monetary (pay for performance) or reputational (rankings).

But not everything that is important is measurable, and much that is measurable is unimportant. Most organizations have multiple purposes, and that which is measured and rewarded tends to become the focus of attention, at the expense of other essential goals. Similarly, many jobs have multiple facets, and measuring only a few of them creates incentives to neglect the rest. Almost inevitably, people become adept at manipulating performance indicators. They fudge the data. They deal only with cases that will improve performance indicators. In extreme cases, they fabricate the evidence.

It’s not that measurement is useless or intrinsically pernicious. The challenge is to specify when performance metrics are genuinely useful—that is, how to have metrics without the malady of metric fixation….

Tools of measurement are most useful for internal analysis by practitioners rather than for external evaluation by the public, which may fail to understand their limits. Such measurement can be used to inform practitioners of their performance relative to their peers, offering recognition to those who have excelled and offering assistance to those who have fallen behind. To the extent that they are used to determine continuing employment and pay, they will be subject to gaming the statistics or outright fraud….

Just because performance measures often have some negative outcomes doesn’t mean that they should be abandoned. They may still be worth using, despite their anticipatable problems. It’s a matter of trade-offs, and that too is a matter of judgment.

With measurement as with everything else, recognizing limits is often the beginning of wisdom. Not all problems are soluble, and even fewer are soluble by metrics. It’s not true, as too many people now believe, that everything can be improved by measurement, or that everything that can be measured can be improved.

 


The Lives of Others

January 12, 2018

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In education reform, like other policy areas, analysts are busy trying to identify how to channel people’s behavior in directions that we believe will improve their lives.  If we think people should eat less, we devise interventions to encourage them to cut back.  If we think too few students go to college, we nudge them to enroll.  If we think people save too little, we arrange systems to increase retirement contributions.  In what is imagined to be a kinder, gentler approach to these problems, we “nudge” people toward desired outcomes rather than mandating them.  Mandating can seem too harsh and produce backlash, but nudges allow social scientists to influence behavior without feeling like they are infringing on the autonomy and liberty of the people whose behavior they are shaping.  Most people behave irrationally and lack impulse control, but the priestly class of social scientists can detect and correct these problems for other people.

A central problem with this approach is that we know too little about the lives of others to know with confidence what is good for them or how our nudges will affect their entire lives.  We may think we are helping people, but absent the same contextual information that individuals possess about themselves we are liable to push (excuse me, nudge) people in ways that actually harm them.

A recent NBER study on a plan to increase retirement savings helps illustrate the challenges associated with managing other people’s lives.  That study examined a natural experiment in which civilian employees of the military were automatically enrolled in contributing 3% of their income toward a retirement plan that would be matched by employer contributions.  Previously, employees had to opt-into this retirement plan, but the policy changed so that employees would have to opt-out if they did not wish to contribute.  Already employed workers were exempted from the change, so researchers could compare those hired just before the policy was implemented to those hired just after to identify the causal effect of the switch toward automatic contributions.

As intended, the plan increases retirement savings: “At 43-48 months of tenure, automatic enrollment increases cumulative employer plus employee contributions since hire by 5.8% of first-year annualized salary.”  While the plan succeeded in increasing retirement savings, employees did not appear to decrease their consumption.  Instead, they increased their borrowing, particularly for cars and homes, by an amount that exceeded the amount by which their retirement savings increased.  Even if we exclude the mortgage borrowing, which has a more ambiguous affect on long-term wealth given that house prices may appreciate by more than interest and depreciation, even just the auto loan increases exceeded the amount by which employees increased their savings.  If we include the employer match, increased retirement wealth was close to the increase in auto loan amount.  Overall, it is unclear if the policy increases the total wealth of the employees.  Excluding the employer match, employee wealth is likely decreased. So the only clear effect of the automatic savings policy is a transfer of wealth from whoever pays for the employer match to employees, but no overall benefit to society.

As this study reveals, shaping other people’s behavior is complicated.  People may not contribute to retirement plans because they want to consume things now.  Pushing (er, I mean, nudging) them to save anyway may just cause them to increase their borrowing in a way that has no net benefit or even a net harm.  We don’t know enough about other people’s lives to manage them optimally.

But retirement savings is usually considered one of the clear success stories for nudges.  I suspect that is because people typically judge those interventions by the extent to which they change the narrow behavior on which we are focused rather than overall well-being. That is, we nudge people to contribute more to retirement savings and sure enough they do.  Mission accomplished.  But we really need to look at their total consumption and borrowing behavior to see how this policy affects folks.  When we step back to see the bigger picture, the benefits disappear or even become harms.

The same is true for educational nudges.  We have a number of studies that look at short-term and narrow effects of nudges to get students into college.  Sure enough, if we push (I mean, nudge) people to enroll in college, they tend to do that.  All that shows is that people believe we are experts and are willing to substitute our expert advice for them (even though we know almost nothing about them) for their own, better informed judgement about what they should do.  The real proof of college-going nudges is not whether people listen to us, but whether that helps them long-term.  Those long-term results have not yet been published, but those results exist and I believe based on leaked drafts that the short-term benefits go away or even turn into harms after a few more years.   That is, students who didn’t think they were ready for college but were pushed into attending may have difficulty finishing and other students who enroll later may be better prepared at that point to succeed, causing the overall effect of these nudges to be null or even negative.  One has to wonder about the ethics of researchers touting short -term positive results if they know that longer-term effects tend to go away or turn negative.  Are they nudging us to accept the idea of nudge interventions, so it is really for our own good to only hear about positive short-term results?

(H/T Bob Costrell for alerting me to the retirement study.)