Pay No Attention to the Research Consensus Behind the Curtain

April 6, 2017

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(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Noah Smith dresses up a few fussy methodological quibbles and one big, really dishonest bit of fakery in order to cast aspersions on my Win-Win report and distract you from the research consensus behind the curtain.

My report reviewed over 100 empirical findings on private school choice programs, showing that there is a very strong research consensus in favor of positive effects from such programs. Smith identifies two (2) cases where he thinks I ought to have used a different method to classify the findings. I disagree, but frankly, it’s not worth quibbling about. The research consensus in favor of school choice is still clear even if we were to accept Smith’s cavails.

His statement that “vouchers have generally disappointed” is totally unsupported by the evidence – and if he read my report, he knows it.

But his big, dramatic “gotcha!” is that I allegedly omit a well-known study with a null finding. That would indeed be a serious omission.

Unfortunately for Smith, the study he dramatically accuses me of omitting is not a study of private school choice. Here is the abstract with emphasis on Smith’s dishonesty added:

School choice has become an increasingly prominent strategy for enhancing academic achievement. To evaluate the impact on participants, we exploit randomized lotteries that determine high school admission in the Chicago Public Schools. Compared to those students who lose lotteries, students who win attend high schools that are better in a number of dimensions, including peer achievement and attainment levels. Nonetheless, we find little evidence that winning a lottery provides any systematic benefit across a wide variety of traditional academic measures. Lottery winners do, however, experience improvements on a subset of nontraditional outcome measures, such as self-reported disciplinary incidents and arrest rates.

From the very first sentence, Smith explicitly frames his whole article as an article about private school choice. For him to accuse me of omitting a study on private school choice because I omitted this study is dishonest.

Smith owes me an apology and a retraction. If he refuses, Bloomberg owes me a correction.

I’ll hold my breath waiting.


For a Lifetime Achievement Higgy: Joe Biden

April 4, 2017

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(Guest post by Greg Forster)

In this golden age when Higgyworthy candidates are so numerous that last year’s Higgy convention almost failed to nominate one because the delegate was paralyzed by choice, it takes something special to stand out among the crowd. But one sure way to find the heroes whose “arrogant delusions of shaping the world to meet their own will” truly tower over the rest is to look to your elders – to those special people whose decades-long commitment to diligent and sustained blowhardism has not only accumulated a distinguished track record of inane interference and pointless posturing, but has moved the all-important “Higgyton Window” so future generations of aspiring PLDDers can sink to new depths that their elders only dreamed of.

With that in mind, I’d like to nominate recently retired Vice President Joe Biden not only for 2017 William Higginbotham Inhumanitarian of the Year but also for a Lifetime Achievement Higgy Award.

With Biden recently talking about how he totally would have won the presidency if he had run, it seems like a perfect time to recognize him with The Higgy. I submit the following achievements for the judge’s consideration:

World-Class Dispropotion of Reputation to Achievement

As Mark Hemingway pointed out when the race for the 2016 nomination was getting underway, one reason Biden had a strong incentive to run against Clinton was also a reason he might have had trouble gaining traction against her: He, like she, wanted to win the presdiency in order to secure a legacy – because he, like she, had built a strong reputation as a Very Serious Political Leader based on a long and distinguished career of accomplishing nothing in public service: “Biden spent 36 years in the Senate beginning in 1972, and if you blinked, you’d miss the highlight reel.

His Vice Presidency did little to augment this record, as The Onion constantly reminded us.

Truly Epic Mouthrunning

Joe Biden’s mouth has been a running gag for so long, it’s hard to recapture an appreciation of just how unique his talent for blowhardism is. This, mind you, is a man in a line of work where the standards for blowhardism are very high. Don’t bring your complaints about listening to you boring uncle around here, kid – in DC, that stuff doesn’t even get past the bouncer.

But in a field of top-notch blowhards, Biden is literally a blowhard’s blowhard. A while back (can’t find it now) a Weekly Standard profile opened with the observation that Biden’s tendency to blowhardism is a running gag even to Biden himself; he arrives on the scene of a speech he is to give and when the host pleads with him not to run over, he smiles and blows her off, and proceeds to run something like double his allotted time.

He Totally Helped Invent Borking But Also Totally Didn’t!

Among the many ups and downs of the American republic, there have been only a handful of really disastrous, unambiguously bad and wrong changes in our constitutional structure – like direct election of senators (bye bye, federalism). One of the worst of these was the decision to import the politics of dishonest personal destruction into judicial nominations. Now, it is important not to romanticize the political past. But the reasonably fair treatment of judicial nominees really was a bipartisan tradition that we relied on to make American democracy work. There is now no realistic path to restore it and no serious substitute.

If we were talking about Ted Kennedy’s role in the original Bork hearings, I would say there’s a case that he was more BSDD than PLDD. Kennedy destroyed the career of an innocent man by abusing power – like that notorious asterisk in the Higgy record books, David Sarnoff.

Biden’s role was Higgyworthy because he did his best to eat his cake and have it too. He tried to appease his party’s irresponsible Left while also trying, as chairman of the hearings, to look fair and respectable. He thus positioned himself for his long career run as a Very Serious Man who is not to be taken seriously.

Eww.

Just eww.

Plagarism and Lies

I’m actually inclined to give Biden a break for the infamous Kinnock incident. Biden had used the Kinnock line with attribution on multiple previous occasions; it seems clear to me that he just didn’t remember to include the attribution this one time. A mistake, but it shouldn’t be a hanging offense. This strikes me as akin to the famous Howard Dean Howl – something that wouldn’t have been a big deal except that it could be interpreted in light of a larger public predisposition toward the candidate, fair or unfair (Dean was seen as ideologically nutty, Biden as a phony).

But let’s not forget that Biden also committed plagarism in law school! And told a series of lies about his law school accomplishments:

A few days later [after the Kinnock kerfuffle], Biden’s plagiarism incident in law school came to public light. Video was also released showing that when earlier questioned by a New Hampshire resident about his grades in law school, he had stated that he had graduated in the “top half” of his class, that he had attended law school on a full scholarship, and that he had received three degrees in college, each of which was untrue or exaggerations of his actual record.

What could be more Higgyworthy, more an expression of “arrogant delusions of shaping the world to meet their own will,” than plagarism and lying about your academic accomplishments?

Medal of Freedom

No, seriously, Joe Biden totally got the Medal of Freedom:

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Tell me that alone is not Higgyworthy.

Remember, The Al got its glorious start largely as a response to Obama winning the Nobel Peace Prize. Let’s keep the tradition alive!


Setting the Ostrich Straight on Choice and Segregation

March 31, 2017

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Anna Egalite sets the record straight on her study that was misrepresented by the ostriches at the Century Foundation:

Potter cannot refute our findings, so she seeks to obfuscate them by carefully merging categories so as to define a “tie” as a loss.

Even to call the finding a “tie” is going too far. On net, which is all that counts, it was a win, not a tie. Big gains in public schools far outweighed the trivial negative effect in private schools. As I wrote:

When you’ve been in the education research business long enough, your eyes automatically roll by reflex whenever they read the words “mixed effect.” A mixed effect is a positive effect produced by a policy that the researcher doesn’t like.


Justice, Equal Opportunity, Diversity and School Choice

March 21, 2017

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(Guest post by Greg Forster)

This weekend I was delighted to participate in an hour-long school choice debate on Moody radio’s coast to coast network. The experience left me all the more convinced that choice advocates must continue to de-emphasize the rhetoric of markets and competition, and emphasize instead justice, equal opportunity, diversity and freedom. In that order.

The proponent of the other side had come armed with empty, superficial anti-market talking points. Her argument against choice was basically “we want justice, equal opportunity and diversity, not markets and competition.” So when I opened my case with “we want justice, equal opportunity, diversity and freedom, and here’s how school choice delivers them,” and didn’t use the words market or competition, she was flummoxed.

Her superficial talking points would have been highly effective if I had said “we want justice, equal opportunity, diversity and freedom so we ought to embrace competition and markets.” That is, sadly, because reason and logic are not the only forces in public debate. Her strategy (consciously or unconsciously) seems to have been to use certain trigger words and phrases to prompt emotional responses in the audience – responses unrelated to logic. This is, as JPGB readers know, the nearly universal strategy of choice opponents.

If we stop using the words that allow them to do this to us, we take their toy away.

Of course the quesiton of why choice improves public schools did come up, and here it was necessary to make the point that choice prevents schools from taking students for granted. The body of empirical studies on choice and what they find also came up a number of times. One can make these points without 1) making them the be-all and end-all, or 2) using the specific trigger words that allow the other side to work their emotional trickery.

A final point: personal experience, unfortunately, trumps data. I talked about having visited several private schools in Milwaukee whose existence depends on the voucher program, and the amazing things these particular schools are doing. Then I mentioned the studies finding that choice is impoving education in Milwaukee. I played this card again when a caller raised the inevitable racist talking point “parents in the suburbs are involved with their children’s education but people in those neighborhoods aren’t.” Instead of saying “the data show urban parents make good choices for their kids; that’s a stereotype we shouldn’t be spreading” I said “my experience in urban neighborhoods leads me to believe they care about their children as much as other parents; that’s a stereotype we shouldn’t be spreading.” And then I tried to squeeze in a mention of the data.

Of course if there were a clash between my experience and the data, I’d have to go with the data. But we have to limit our appeals to data when speaking in public. In general, we should present opinions based on experience and then briefly validate them with appeals to data.


Illiberal Education Is Not a Public Good

March 10, 2017

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

University education isn’t a public good deserving taxpayer subsidies if it’s going to actively undermine our democratic and republican form of government, I write in OCPA’s Perspective in light of recent events at OU. Among other examples, this one stands out:

Recently, OU expelled students for using racial epithets, in flagrant violation of long-established First Amendment law. Six months later, the university paid $40,000 for a performance by a hip-hop artist who uses the same derogatory epithets. He also insults homosexuals, brags about physically abusing women in their genitals (hello, Donald Trump supporters!), and calls for the murder of police officers. Respect and toleration for others apparently go only one way at OU.

The question here is not whether the people targeted by OU in these cases are right or wrong. The question is whether OU believes that wrong ideas are best corrected and right ideas are best vindicated through open discussion and debate in a social atmosphere of free inquiry for all sides. The particular merits of the speech acts at issue in these controversies are, here as always, irrelevant to the question of whether everyone ought to have free speech.

Today, there is no longer a unique need for universities because they produce technical knowledge. Two hundred years ago, that may have been a key argument for institutions of higher learning; today, it is the universities who are constantly striving to catch up to Google and other leading technical innovators.

If universities are a public good, it can only be because there is an inseparable connection between truly liberal education and political freedom – because liberal education inculcates a respect for the integrity of the human mind that is the only possible justification for political freedom.

A hundred years ago, educator J. Gresham Machen summed up the connection between liberal education and political freedom: “Reasonable persuasion can thrive only in an atmosphere of liberty. It is quite useless to approach a man with both a club and an argument. He will very naturally be in no mood to appreciate our argument until we lay aside our club.” Machen even testified to the U.S. Congress against a scheme for federal control of education on grounds that it would remove freedom for diverse ideas in education. (The more things change, the more they stay the same!)

Because I’m not a university administrator, I welcome your free thoughts in reply!


When “Helping the Poor” Means “Keep Out”

February 3, 2017

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(Guest post by Greg Forster)

OCPA’s Perspective carries my latest on the unwisdom of means-testing school choice programs:

Sometimes the worst thing you can do for the poor is “help the poor.” What we want to do is tear down the walls that prevent poor people from making themselves into non-poor people. That’s what “helping the poor” ought to mean. But all too often, it really means building walls between poor and non-poor people, reinforcing the divide rather than tearing it down.

Throwing middle- and upper-income people out of school choice programs is a classic example of hurting the poor by “helping” them. It creates a sharp, government-enforced division between two separate and very unequal populations. On one side of the wall are poor people, who receive school choice; on the other are non-poor people, whose tax dollars provide them with school choice.

This division shuts down educational innovation, greatly weakens the political coalition in favor of choice (and of protecting private schools from government interference, which is clearly going to become a threat whether there are school choice programs or not) and in the long run creates an us-versus-them power competition between the poor and the non-poor that the poor are going to lose.

As always, your thoughts are welcome!


Jason and EdChoice Hit the Big Time

January 28, 2017

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Jason and EdChoice have both hit the Big Time bigger than Blank Reg – Jason is joining the EdChoice team as national policy director.

Not sure whom this is a bigger win for! Jason hits the big time by joining EdChoice and EdChoice hits the big time by hiring Jason.

What I do know is that thanks to his work here at JPGB, an image search for Jason’s name turns up Dawn of the Dragon Slayer, Emperor Palpatine and “Who Watches the Watchmen?” Let’s make sure we keep Jason in the think tank business and well away from the Imperial Senate!

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In time, you will call ME National Policy Director!