NYT on Clint Bolick

December 26, 2011

 (Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

The New York Times has a very nice feature on Clint and the GI litigation team.  That scorpion may have to hunt and peck to type, but the sting packs a wallop!

MPS Takes “Standing in the Schoolhouse Door” to a Whole New Level

May 31, 2011

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Over the weekend, John Witte and Pat Wolf had a compelling article in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel summarizing the real (as opposed to media-reported) results of the Milwaukee voucher program research being conducted by the School Choice Demonstration Project.

And then they dropped a bomb:

Recently, our research team conducted site visits to high schools in Milwaukee to examine any innovative things they are doing to educate disadvantaged children. The private high schools of the choice program graciously opened their doors to us and allowed us full access to their schools. Although several MPS principals urged us to come see their schools as well, the central administration at MPS prohibited us having any further contact with those schools as they considered our request for visits. We have not heard from them in weeks.

Our report on the private schools we visited, which will offer a series of best practices regarding student dropout prevention, will be released this fall. Should MPS choose to open the doors of their high schools to us, we will be able to learn from their approaches as well. [ea]

MPS opposition to vouchers takes standing in the schoolhouse door to a whole new level.

Valerie Strauss is the Lou Dobbs of Education

May 23, 2011

I don’t know if any of you remember Lou Dobbs from the 1990s.  He was a pretty bland business reporter who hosted CNN’s Moneyline show.  It would have been virtually impossible to guess Dobbs’ political leanings during those years.  The show was relatively uncontroversial and Dobbs was its uncontroversial host.

But then Dobbs left CNN for a dot com venture that pretty soon went belly-up.  And CNN was losing viewers in droves to O’Reilly’s show on Fox News.  So CNN brought Dobbs back but he was completely transformed.  No longer the bland, uncontroversial business reporter, Dobbs became CNN’s version of a blue-collar blow-hard to compete with O’Reilly’s version on Fox.  His demeanor and language completely changed as he became very outspoken in his views.  He railed against illegal immigrants, international trade, and became the champion of trade-union views on protecting manufacturing jobs.

The creepy thing about Lou Dobbs’ transformation was that it was never clear who the real Lou Dobbs was.  Was he really the straight-laced business reporter circa 1998 or the raving nativist circa 2008?  Both could not have been genuine.  Either he was pretending to be the bland host of a business show in his earlier incarnation or he was pretending to be the blow-hard blue-collar champion in his later incarnation.  Maybe neither were real and Lou Dobbs was just a guy who played various roles for money as the situation required.

This all comes to mind when thinking about the transformation of the Washington Post’s Valerie Strauss from bland education reporter into the outspoken channeler of Diane Ravitch and Alfie Kohn.  Just a few years ago, Strauss was writing conventional education stories from which it would have been hard to detect her preferences.  To the extent that her views were present, they seemed to reflect common ideas about the importance of having effective teachers.  Take for example, this reporting from a 2007 article on how we need to improve teacher quality:

Educators say that teaching teachers how to teach well has never been more critical, a sentiment that persuaded Michelle Pierre-Farid to bring the center into Tyler Elementary School in Southeast Washington three years ago. That’s when she became principal at the school, which was then considered the lowest-performing in the city, with a badly demoralized staff.

“Most studies show that teachers are the ones that make change in schools,” she said. “Not parents, not administrators. It’s the teachers. They are on the front lines, and you have to put a lot of time and money into teachers.”

But the attention garnered by Eduwonkette and Daine Ravitch may have convinced Strauss and the Washington Post that they needed their own champion of the unionized teacher.  Just as CNN needed a reinvented Dobbs to capture some of the audience attracted to O’Reilly at Fox, maybe WaPo needed a reinvented Strauss to capture some of the readers attracted to Ravitch and Eduwonkette.

The new Strauss approaches the issue of improving teacher quality very differently than she used to.  Here is a taste of the new Valerie Strauss:

Authentic reform must include addressing the very real health and emotional and social issues that kids bring with them to school every day, often getting in the way of their ability to focus on geometry, read and analyze a novel or take a standardized test….

This is not an argument that teachers aren’t important. Of course they are. And of course bad teachers shouldn’t be in the classroom. Nobody knows this better than good teachers. But our obsession with teacher quality doesn’t leave room for other discussions…

I have no idea which one is the real Valerie Strauss, the conventional education reporter or the blow-hard blogger, but I do know that both cannot be genuine.  I also suspect that the Washington Post will tire of the blow-hard incarnation just as CNN tired of the new Lou Dobbs.  In the end, the Washington Post is a very respectable newspaper whose credibility will be hurt by Valerie Strauss playing the role (or truly being) the high-priestess in the Diane Ravitch Cult.

WaPo is not like the New York Times, that makes its living by telling stories to reaffirm the world-views of its readers.  WaPo readers, unlike those at NYT, don’t pay to be lied to.  WaPo readers need the straight news because they have to run campaigns, write legislation, and have real business concerns that depend on an accurate description of reality even if it does not conform to their preferences. Columns with titles like “What is Joel Klein talking about?” may sooth the pitch-fork crowd at the UFT but don’t serve the practical political crowd that is the heart of WaPo’s readership.

If Strauss can’t fit with that role of her newspaper, perhaps she will find herself banished to the world of talk-radio, like Lou Dobbs, to confirm the fever-dreams of her followers.  Or perhaps she’ll join Diane Ravitch on the very lucrative school system/teacher union lecture circuit where she can tell teachers that she is being persecuted by  reformers, just like they are.  But I can’t imagine WaPo tarnishing itself like this for too much longer.

Journalist BS Detectors are Defective, Require Recall and Massive Class-Action Law Suit

February 8, 2011

As I wrote last year, anyone with a properly functioning BS detector would have suspected that Toyota cars were not automatically and uncontrollably accelerating due to faulty electronics:

There were hundreds of news reports that repeated these claims as if they were credible, promoting a mass hysteria about runaway cars.  Toyota sales plummeted, they became the target of SNL ridicule, etc… Anyone with half a brain and a reasonable amount of skepticism would have suspected that the driver was likely the least reliable part of a modern car and would have guessed that people were mistakenly pressing the gas.  But very, very few of the news reports on this issue emphasized this likely explanation.  Instead, most acted as if we lived in a John Grisham novel where evil corporations knowingly hide the defects of their products as they kill and maime their customers to maximize profits.  This does happen, but it is very, very rare.  To treat these claims as evidence of real safety issues with cars was simply mistaken reporting.

Now it’s official.  The U.S. Department of Transportation with assistance from NASA released a report today that “found that engine electronics played no role in incidents of sudden, unintended acceleration of [Toyota] cars

Of course, much of the damage to Toyota sales and reputation exacerbated by hysterical reporting done with faulty BS detectors has already been done.  Maybe we need a recall of those defective reporter BS detectors.  And I smell a massive class action law suit.  Actually, the more likely outcome is the continuing deterioration of traditional journalism.

Has the Washington Post lost their BS detector?

January 21, 2011

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Valerie Strauss over at the Answer Sheet put up a guest post from a fellow Arizonan, Michael Martin, who is a research analyst at the Arizona School Boards Association, about the “real” source of Florida’s education gains.

I’ve never met Martin, but was taken aback a few years ago when he authored a column in the Arizona Republic claiming that the state ought not to take over the Roosevelt School District, one of the worst in Arizona. Martin made this claim based on the assertion that there was a massive incidence of lead poisoning in the district.

I thought that this was an extraordinary claim to make that ought to be incredibly alarming to parents in the district. I spoke to local health officials, who assured me that there was zero evidence to support such an irresponsible claim. I called on Martin to provide evidence to support the notion that South Phoenix kids had been turned into uncontrollable lead poison zombies.

Strangely enough, I never heard back from him. But other than that, I’m sure he is a swell guy.

Now in the WaPo blog, Martin spins a yarn about Florida NAEP scores which is far beyond absurd. The first clue that something is wrong here comes in the fact that the Arizona School Boards Association disavowed the “analysis.”

Good move on their part.

So go read the thing for yourself. People in the comments section began to decimate the Martin analysis, but the comments section is now closed. When they were closed, no one had yet made the most obvious possible criticism.

I’ll give you a hint: according the the National Center for Education Statistics there are 4,491 district run schools in the state of Florida.

Fordham Fears the Daleks

December 17, 2010

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

The Fordham Institute’s Gadfly, in an item signed by Janie Scull, picks up and recirculates the Gates Foundation’s drillandkillaphobic error – but with a subtle twist (see if you can catch it – I didn’t when I first read it):

Second, teachers who, according to their students, “teach to the test” do not produce the highest value-added scores for said students; rather, instructors who help their students understand math concepts and reading comprehension yield the highest scores.

Gates was originally pushing the line that the study found a negative relationship between “teach to the test” or “drill and kill” and outcomes. Not only is there nothing in the study to support that, the study actually finds the opposite.

Fordham is now slightly changing the claim so that it appears to say test prep is bad for students, without actually saying that. Read that sentence very carefully. Now read it again, and this time bear the following in mind: the study found a positive correlation between test prep and outcomes. Now, does this look like an honest characterization of the study to you?

I’ll admit that they had me fooled. I originally put up a version of this blog post saying that they were recirculating Gates’s erorr. Then I reread it and pulled that down. They’re not just recirculating the error, they’re weaseling it up to see if they can circulate it in a way that will pass muster. I haven’t seen such word-twisting since I watched the president of the United States explain “it depends on what the meaning of ‘is’ is.”

“I did not have a statistically significant relationship with that variable.”

Despite her efforts to remain technically correct, Scull does make an erroneous claim. She directly attributes the phrase “teach to the test,” in quotes, to students. In fact, as Jay pointed out, the phrase “teach to the test” and similar phobic phrases such as “drill and kill” do not appear in the study. The study found a positive relationship between “test prep” and outcomes.

This is worse than the New York Times and Los Angeles Times reporting the original error. Those papers simply picked up what Gates told them and reported that Gates said it. Sure, in a perfect world reporters would always check these things with independent researchers – but it’s not a hanging offense. (However comically hysterical some of them might get when they get called on it.)

The Fordham Institute is, or at least claims to be, an independent voice. And the Gadfly item did not attribute its claim to Gates, as the newspapers did. The Gadfly item states its partly erroneous, partly weaseled-up claim simply as a fact. That lends the intellectual prestige of the Fordham Institute to both the error and the Clintonian weaseling.

Jay has said before, and I agree, that Fordham can take huge piles of money from Gates without losing its integrity.

That’s why I have full confidence Scull and Fordham will be running a correction of this erroneous item.

As I wrote earlier this week, human beings are not daleks, so test prep and similar activities can’t be the be-all and end-all, but the fear of test prep has so far been much more destructive than its overemphasis. If we don’t get past drillandkillaphobia, we’ll never fix education.

[This post has been edited since it was first published, as indicated in the text.]

False Claim on Drill & Kill

December 13, 2010

The Gates Foundation is funding a $45 million project to improve measures of teacher effectiveness.  As part of that project, researchers are collecting information from two standardized tests as well as surveys administered to students and classroom observations captured by video cameras in the classrooms.  It’s a big project.

The initial round of results were reported last week with information from the student survey and standardized tests.  In particular, the report described the relationship between classroom practices, as observed by students, and value-added on the standardized tests.

The New York Times reported on these findings Friday and repeated the following strong claim:

But now some 20 states are overhauling their evaluation systems, and many policymakers involved in those efforts have been asking the Gates Foundation for suggestions on what measures of teacher effectiveness to use, said Vicki L. Phillips, a director of education at the foundation.

One notable early finding, Ms. Phillips said, is that teachers who incessantly drill their students to prepare for standardized tests tend to have lower value-added learning gains than those who simply work their way methodically through the key concepts of literacy and mathematics. (emphasis added)

I looked through the report for evidence that supported this claim and could not find it.  Instead, the report actually shows a positive correlation between student reports of “test prep” and value added on standardized tests, not a negative correlation as the statement above suggests.  (See for example Appendix 1 on p. 34.)

The statement “We spend a lot of time in this class practicing for [the state test]” has a correlation of  0.195 with the value added math results.  That is about the same relationship as “My teacher asks questions to be sure we are following along when s/he is teaching,” which is 0.198.  And both are positive.

It’s true that the correlation for “Getting ready for [the state test] takes a lot of time in our class” is weaker (0.103) than other items, but it is still positive.  That just means that test prep may contribute less to value added than other practices, but it does not support the claim that  “teachers who incessantly drill their students to prepare for standardized tests tend to have lower value-added learning gains…”

In fact, on page 24, the report clearly says that the relationship between test prep and value-added on standardized tests is weaker than other observed practices, but does not claim that the relationship is negative:

The five questions with the strongest pair-wise correlation with teacher value-added were: “Students in this class treat the teacher with respect.” (ρ=0.317), “My classmates behave the way my teacher wants them to.”(ρ=0.286), “Our class stays busy and doesn’t waste time.” (ρ=0.284), “In this class, we learn a lot almost every day.”(ρ=0.273), “In this class, we learn to correct our mistakes.” (ρ=0.264) These questions were part of the “control” and “challenge” indices. We also asked students about the amount of test preparation they did in the class. Ironically, reported test preparation was among the weakest predictors of gains on the state tests: “We spend a lot of time in this class practicing for the state test.” (ρ=0.195), “I have learned a lot this year about the state test.” (ρ=0.143), “Getting ready for the state test takes a lot of time in our class.” ( ρ=0.103)

I don’t know whether something got lost in the translation between the researchers and Gates education chief, Vicki Phillips, or between her and Sam Dillon at the New York Times, but the article contains a false claim that needs to be corrected before it is used to push changes in education policy and practice.


The LA Times coverage of the report contains a similar misinterpretation: “But the study found that teachers whose students said they “taught to the test” were, on average, lower performers on value-added measures than their peers, not higher.”

Try this thought experiment with another observed practice to illustrate my point about how the results are being mis-reported…  The correlation between student observations that “My teacher seems to know if something is bothering me” and value added was .153, which was less than the .195 correlation for “We spend a lot of time in this class practicing for [the state test].”  According to the interpretation in the NYT and LA Times, it would be correct to say “teachers who care about student problems tend to have lower value-added learning gains than those who spend a lot of time on test prep.”

Of course, that’s not true.  Teachers caring about what is bothering students is positively associated with value added just as test prep is.  It is just that teachers caring is a little less strongly related than test prep.  Caring does not have a negative effect just because the correlation is lower than other observed behaviors.

(edited for typos)

Who’s to Blame for College Dropouts?

December 10, 2010

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Education Week has some survey results that most people probably won’t find surprising or controversial, but that actually raise some tough ethical questions:

The public pins most of the blame for poor college graduation rates on students and their parents and gives a pass to colleges, government officials and others, a new Associated Press-Stanford University poll shows…

When asked where the blame lies for graduation rates at public four-year colleges, 7 in 10 said students shouldered either a great deal or a lot of it, and 45 percent felt that way about parents.

Others got off relatively easy: Anywhere between 25 percent and 32 percent of those polled blamed college administrators, professors, teachers, unions, state education officials and federal education officials.

Plausible enough! If you go to college and don’t graduate, whose fault is it but yours?

Yet Education Week thinks this is bad news for folks like us:

The belief that students are most at fault for graduation rates is a troubling sign for reformers who have elevated college completion to the forefront of higher education policy debates and pushed colleges to fix the problem, said Michael Kirst, professor emeritus of education and business administration at Stanford.

“The message is, ‘Students, you had your shot at college and failed and it’s your fault, not the college,'” Kirst said.

You know what? I think they’re right. This is bad news for us on a certain level. Gathering political capital for reforms that will do something about our collegiate dropout factories requires us to convince people that the colleges, not just the students, need to change.

And yet I don’t think the popular view is quite wrong. Check out this quote:

“We’re all responsible for our own education, and by the time you get to college you are definitely responsible and mature,” said Deanna Ginn, a mother of 12 from Fairbanks, Alaska.

Ginn is right. We don’t want to undermine the personal responsibility of each individual student who drops out.

Yet that can easily become an excuse to take colleges off the hook for their legitimate responsibilities, and these survey results show that happening.

Matt has spent a lot of time documenting the disaster in Arizona, where (to pick just a couple of many shocking numbers he’s posted here) ASU graduates only 28% of students in four years, and the University of Arizona 33%. But those are not really unusual numbers – this is not just an Arizona problem.

No doubt, as thousands of kids come in, spend money and then drop out, year after year, the college administrators and their hired protectors in state legislatures tell themselves exactly what Ginn says – if you drop out, it’s your own fault.

Well, yes. If you drop out, it is your own fault. But let’s think about this. Year after year, you see these dismal dropout rates. Is that really no business of yours? Is it really OK to say that sure, something like two-thirds of the new students we’re accepting this year are making a bad decision by coming here, but hey, as long as their tuition checks clear, that’s their headache, not ours?

I say if you run a college that has a two-thirds dropout rate, it’s your responsibility to do something about that. Taking people’s money to help them make bad choices is both morally wrong and, even from a merely selfish standpoint, imprudent in the long term. You should be asking how you can help ensure that kids who have a low likelihood of graduating are steered onto some alternate path – perhaps you can develop an alternate path for them at your own institution, which would allow you to cash their tuition checks and also look yourself in the mirror with respect. I don’t think that’s inconsistent with saying that each and every dropout is personally responsible for dropping out.

If I know you have an allergy to a vaccine that’s so bad you’ll die if I inject you with it, I have a responsibility not to inject you with it no matter how much money you offer me or how completely convinced you might be that it’ll do you good. After we say that, the principle also implies repsonsibilities at a little lower level than life and death.

Oprah Strikes Again

September 26, 2010

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Oprah went back to the Waiting for Superman theme on Friday.

Geoffrey Canada is on fire, Cory Booker is too: “We cannot have a superior democracy with an inferior education system.”

Gov. Christie is giving control over the Newark school system to Cory, and Zuckerberg made a $100 million donation to help make it work.

You Heard It Here First!

September 22, 2010

“Why Hitler Lost the War”

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Reviewing Oprah’s segment on Waiting for SupermanJay Matt [oops] just announced that the war of ideas is over and the unions have lost.

Hmm, where have I heard that before? Oh, yeah, that’s right – I’ve been saying it for a year and a half.

Permission to come aboard, granted!

The unions are primed for a major defeat. If you listen carefully, you can actually hear the voice-over from Mortal Kombat crying out “FINISH HIM!”

What the movement needs now is a fearless, dynamic organizational leader with a smart plan to get a truly universal voucher program (no more watering it down) enacted in a state in the next, say, three years, and who’s determined to spend the next three years doing nothing but putting that plan into action. There are states where that can happen. But it won’t happen unless somebody picks up the ball.

Or am I just waiting for Superman?