Pass the Clicker: Cults of Various Kinds

May 20, 2020

Like many of you, we at Casa Verde have been watching our share of streaming entertainment.  We are watching the entire Star Wars canon, in chronological order within the Star Wars Universe.  We have our Israeli/Jewish shows, like Fauda and the Plot Against America.  But in case you are looking for something different to try, let me recommend a few series we’ve come across about cults of various kinds.

The first is a fictionalized limited series on the Waco stand-off and assault involving the ATF, FBI, and followers of David Koresh.  The series is remarkably sympathetic to Koresh’s followers and to the efforts of the FBI negotiator who attempted to avert bloodshed.  It raises interesting questions about what, if anything, distinguishes a cult from other religious movements, and about the dangers of getting on the wrong side of government force.

The second is a documentary about followers of Baghwan Shree Rajneesh who settled in a rural area of Oregon, coming into social and political conflict with the nearby town of Antelope and the broader political establishment of Oregon.  Things escalate rapidly and in unexpected ways.

The third is a documentary about a completely different kind of cult — the sunny optimism of post-war corporate America.  A writer for the Letterman show comes across records and footage of Broadway-style shows created and performed for industry conventions and corporate retreats.  They’re hilarious, but also endearing.  The musical is the American art form and musicals about how to improve corporate profits is the most American of that American art form.


What Have You Spun for Me Lately?

May 18, 2020

Who is Dance Dance Dance judge Tina Landon? What videos did she ...

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Look, I know Jeb did one important thing for school choice over twenty years ago, but at some point when you turn in stuff this dumb, it no longer cuts it to say, “hey, I did you a favor in 1999.”

Jeb is the nominal author of an article on NRO about how states should use funds from a new $3 billion federal education bailout. It’s adapted from a big policy report produced by his organization, which he links to.

Let’s leave aside for a moment that the article calls on states to use this cash to push really big, “transformational” changes, whereas $3 billion cut fifty ways doesn’t actually add up to much as a share of the public school budget (over $700 billion a year nationally). We spent $6 billion on Reading First and got nothing to show for it, and Jeb is now pushing early reading intervention and radical new use of digital learning and a big new “workforce preparedness” somethingorother and payouts to private schools for only $3 billion. Someone said something fifteen years ago about the uselessness of the “buckets into the sea” approach to education reform, but people who have the wrong goals just can’t see past the dollar signs in their eyes.

Where was I? Oh yeah, let’s leave all that aside.

In this article, Jeb once again drops school choice. Last time, at the height of his all-in, head-first dive into Common Core (Hey, remember Common Core? Good times!) Jeb dropped choice from his list of four must-have reforms. But he at least mentioned choice in the article, in a way that sort of suggested it might be a good idea, so long as it bent the knee to Common Core.

This time, Jeb drops choice from the list even when his own organization was trying to put it back on. And he doesn’t even mention it in the article.

The policy report, in one of its four recommended items, specifically recommends protecting, expanding and creating school choice programs. But somehow, between the report and Jeb’s article, this item on support for choice magically transmogrified into “stabilizing private schools.”

A government subsidy for private schools is not school choice, any more than a government subsidy for grocery stores would expand people’s food choices. On the contrary, it would narrow them. Just look at how government subsidies for higher education and medical care have fantastically empowered people with more and more access to more and more viable choices!

And what is Jeb’s argument that government should subsidize private K-12 schools in the same way it has so successfully subsidized universities?

Finally, governors could help to stabilize private schools, which are responsible for roughly 10 percent of America’s K–12 students. Private schools, especially faith-based schools, often operate on shoestring budgets, yet in many cases their students are more likely to graduate from high school and go to college. With the impacts of COVID-19, many of these schools are at a breaking point. Families may have less money to pay tuition, and financial aid will be stretched thin. It’s worth a reminder that these schools are part of our education system. They employ teachers, buy textbooks, and educate students who would otherwise fill desks in public schools. They provide alternatives to parents whose needs aren’t being met by the public schools. Helping cash-strapped parents who were paying out of their own pockets to send their child to a great school seems like a simple way to invest in education — and it would keep a vital and successful part of our education system going well into the future.

Why, they’re part of the status quo! How could we possibly not subsidize them?

He even specifically says that his goal is to support families who were already paying for private school – “parents who were paying out of their own pockets” – as opposed to creating new choices for parents who need them!

The point is not parent empowerment that would incentivize better education. The point is to subsidize the status quo forever.

The real head-scratcher here is that school choice programs are a superior way to preserve private education, even if that’s really all you care about. That shouldn’t be what you care about; you should care about better education, which comes from real accountability, which comes from giving power to parents – and not from any other approach. But if what you care about really is just floating the status quo in private schools, why not argue for school choice programs? Why advocate direct subsidies to private schools that will only kill the one thing that private schools really have going for them to make them attractive and keep them vibrant – the fact that they answer to parents?

I can think of one possible reason.

PS Figuring out why “subsidize private schools to serve students already enrolled there!” would be a huge political loser, where “empower parents with new choices!” has been the only – the only – long-term political winner in the history of the education reform movement is left as a Political Science for Ed Reform Dummies exercise for the reader.

California’s Common Core Apologia

May 14, 2020

(Guest Post By Ze’ev Wurman & Williamson Evers)

His first point goes to the fidelity of NAEP as a measuring tool, since it is not perfectly aligned with Common Core. Indeed it is not—purposely! NAEP was not designed to be aligned with any particular state standards and that has been true for decades. This hasn’t blocked states from exhibiting improvements over time, sometimes smoothly, sometimes in spurts. But the results on NAEP almost never—never!—declined.

Under Common Core, in the 2015, 2017, and 2019 administration of NAEP scores broadly and significantly declined across most states, including California.

Then Dr. Kirst turns to argue that California has made significant improvement since Common Core.  His evidence? A 10% improvement in grades 3 and 4 over four years of SBAC administration. What was politely glossed over is the fact that half of this change occurred between the first administrations, when young students first confronted new ways to answer computer-based items with new formats and a new interface, and the second administration when they had an opportunity to practice and adjust to them. If we remove the first SBAC administration, the change from 2015 to 2019 are rather unimpressive 5-6% in early grades that declines to essentially zero or even slightly negative by grades 8 and 11.

Independent Institute
Source: Independent Institute

Yet this raises another question. Is SBAC test even valid, both facially (do its items sample actual subject matter content?) and psychometrically (does item format allows us to reliably interpret the results, give the new fancy and untested formats introduced by it?). The answer is nobody knows, as no external experts were given access to validate that test.

Here is the little we do know–since California abolished under Common Core almost any continuous measure of achievement.

During Common Core, California students taking Algebra I in grade 8 dropped from 54% in 2013 just before Common Core started, to 18% by 2019. A two thirds drop in six years!

And here are California NAEP scores for that period. With the exception of fourth grade reading, the results are flat or negative.

Independent Institute
Source: Independent Institute

Incidentally, we also know that successful Black AB Calculus takers dropped by almost half between 2014 and 2018, and successful Black BC Calculus dropped by one third. That is what we know about California achievement from objective sources since Common Core took over in 2014.

We don’t know how many students successfully took Algebra 1 in middle and high schools—that test was eliminated in Calfornia under Common Core. We don’t know how many students successfully took Geometry or Algebra 2—those tests were eliminated under Common Core. We don’t know how many students are truly ready for the California State University System—that customized test for CSU was replaced by some arbitrary passing score on SBAC.

So we don’t know a lot. The public can no longer track what is really occurring in California education. Clear test-based accountability has been replaced by meaningless colorful dashboards based on the single unvalidated test: the SBAC.

So this is California reality, rather than the tiny improvement sliver Dr. Kirst attempts to present as the whole picture. But what about the future? Kirst promises that things will just get better, instructional materials exist (well, they existed at least since 2014, many of them free), and the future is bright.

Is it?

In 2011, the authors of this article talked with Dr. Kirst to make sure he understood the problems with the Common Core validation by David Conley, and that the previous California standards were judged superior. Nothing was done.

In 2013 Kirst was informed by us in detail as to why the New Generation Science Standards were inferior to the then-current California science standards. This was at the time of a scathing report in June 2013 from the Fordham Institute showing the NGSS to be, effectively, content-empty. Kirst assured us that he was aware of these drawbacks and that California would not adopt NGSS.

In September 2013 Dr. Kirst presided over the adoption of NGSS for California.

Today in California, after 8 years of Dr. Kirst’s state board presidency, we have a system that has no external accountability, where everything is being based on an internal secret test. We have inferior science standards and a system that has seemingly declined in performance. Denigrating NAEP, the only external measure left, is not a very good argument.

Ze’ev Wurman is a former senior adviser at the U.S. Dept. of Education.  Williamson Evers is a senior fellow at Independent Institute and director of its Center on Educational Excellence.

How Many Employees Does a DOE Need?

May 9, 2020

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

My latest for OCPA asks why Oklahoma needs one state DOE employee for every four schools:

What do Oklahoma schools get in exchange for all this? Not funding. The state legislature appropriates funds for public schools according to formulas written into the law. Indeed, state funding for education is one of the very few places left in American governance where legislatures still make their own decisions instead of delegating all the hard choices to the administrative state. Oklahoma could fund its public schools with no more than a handful of state employees involved, to gather data and program the check-writing machines.

And before you ask, no, they didn’t make life easier for schools during Coronavirus. They made it harder.

My favorite bit:

It’s not 100% clear to me that schools ought to expend any portion of their scarce labor and budget bandwidth on the vital task of monitoring how many calories are in the diet soda their students drink. But it is clear to me that if there is any question—any question whatsoever—that ought to be settled at the local level in our constitutional order, this is it. If states can control this, we should give up on pretending we still have a constitutional division of powers; it’s diet soda all the way down.

Let me know what you think!

Coming This Fall with an All-Star Cast: It’s the New Gates Foundation Follies!

May 6, 2020

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

File this under big-budget franchise reboots nobody was asking for. Reuters:

New York will work with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to “reimagine” the state’s school system as part of broader reforms in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, Governor Andrew Cuomo told a daily briefing on Tuesday…

While he did not provide specifics, Cuomo suggested a fundamental rethink of the classroom was on the table.

“The old model of everybody goes and sits in a classroom and the teacher is in front of that classroom, and teaches that class, and you do that all across the city, all across the state, all these buildings, all these physical classrooms – why with all the technology you have?” Cuomo asked.


There must be somebody whose word Bill Gates would trust, who could sit him down and explain what’s being done to him.


If not for his sake, for the sake of all the rest of us who have to watch this crap when there’s nothing else on.

If some good Samaritan does decide to take Gates to class, here’s the reading list.

We Interrupt This Communist-Caused Pandemic to Bring You an Important Bulletin

April 29, 2020


(Guest post by Greg Forster)

The Chinese Communist Party’s national computer system for managing surveillance is actually called Skynet.

We now return you to your regularly scheduled communist-caused pandemic.

Coronavirus Isn’t Ushering in the Cool-Kids Future or the Homeschooling Past

April 17, 2020


(Guest post by Greg Forster)

My latest for OCPA considers whether digital learning or homeschooling will see big boosts from the current public health emergency, when millions of parents suddenly found themselves thrust into both these alternative modes of education. Admittedly, it’s a unique moment:

Oklahoma’s largest virtual charter-school organization, EPIC Charter Schools, even offered free training to teachers and schools in traditional school districts. Despite their rhetoric about how “everyone in public education must come together,” it’s a little like watching Nixon sell grain to the Soviets.

But having to do this under emergency conditions is not necessarily giving people a representative experience of what digital learning and homeschooling are normally like.

With a callback to a classic Matt Ladner meme, I argue that while digital learning has long-term promise, techno-futurist hopes for a quick digital-learning revolution remain as overblown as they were ten years ago:

Today, we can see that the edu-futurists—Matt Ladner dubbed them The Cool Kids—were right about the direction, but wrong about the scope. Or, if you prefer, you can say they were wrong about the timing; perhaps technology really will revolutionize the whole education landscape, but if so, it didn’t do it on the timetable The Cool Kids predicted…Models that explain how people behave when they buy copper wire—“the market is a huge bubble right now, it’s about to burst”—turn out not to explain how people behave when it comes to the rearing of their children.

Homeschooling has more to gain from the current crisis, because it will no longer feel weird and abnormal in the same way – people will have looked in the closet and found out there was no Boogeyman in there. But don’t get your hopes up for radical change here, either:

Institutional schooling was not imposed upon American society by some kind of totalitarian regime. Homeschooling is the right choice for some, and perhaps the right choice for more than choose it now. But radicals who view institutional schooling as a false consciousness that everyone will suddenly wake up and realize they never really believed in are a little like the “heteronormativity” theorists who think people are only attracted to the opposite sex because society programs them that way.

Bottom line, education policy is still political, and politics is still the same as it was.

Franchise movies in summer 2021 and street signs in St. Petersburg on Dec. 26, 1991 are also part of the story. Let me know what you think!

And the Higgy Goes to… Mark DiRocco

April 15, 2020

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It is time once again to (dis)honor the recipient of the William Higinbotham Inhumanitarian Award.  This year we had an exceptionally strong set of nominees, perhaps because difficult times reveal the worst (as well as the best) in us.

We had four nominees to consider: Bruce Aylward, nominated by Greg, Charles Lieber, nominated by me, Nancy Gibbs, nominated by Matt, and Mark DiRocco, nominated by Jason.  While they are all very (un)worthy nominees, our (dis)honoree this year is Mark DiRocco.

While Nancy Gibbs surely did a dis-service to journalism by awarding lousy reporting at the Arizona Republic, journalism is already so beaten down and discredited that it hardly needs our tap dancing on its grave. Will the last reader of the Arizona Republic please turn off the lights on their way out?

Aylward and Lieber were particularly strong contenders given their sycophancy for a murderous, oppressive regime.  But that’s precisely why I decided not to choose them.  While both Aylward and Lieber were excellent examples of PLDDs, their service to a BSDD made their actions too menacing for a our little award.

Especially in these troubling times I thought we needed a Higgy winner who was more familiar and less menacing.  Mark DiRocco’s callous treatment of students as mere revenue units for the schools he represents by seeking to deny Pennsylvania’s children access to existing online services offered by charter schools is just the sort of edu-blob activity we are accustomed to seeing.  It is like the comfort food of PLDD behavior that is exactly the kind of Higgy we need this year.

If you’ve been carbo-loading a bit too much to appreciate the comfort food metaphor, I’d suggest that DiRocco is the Goldilocks of Higgy nominees.  He is neither so weak and irrelevant as a journalism professor, like Gibbs, nor so scary as servants of an authoritarian regime, like Aylward and Lieber.  This year DiRocco is just right.

Anyhoo, DiRocco joins past winners, Kosoko Jackson, John Wiley BryantPlatoChris ChristieJonathan Gruber, Paul G. Kirk, and the inaugural winner, Pascal Monnet.

The Overreach of Economics

April 13, 2020

Today’s Wall Street Journal has a review of a new book that looks like a must-read.  The central argument of the book is that economists have wandered into offering solutions on every type of policy problem.  Economists have become the new priests of our secular age and we are inclined to consult them as the ancients might have consulted the Oracle of Delphi.  They read their entrails and give us answers, but as the reviews says, we should be wary of seeking the wisdom of economists:

The main advice to emerge from this book is: Don’t ask an economist. Economics has claimed for itself the right to address health policy and many other issues outside its usual orbits. “Radical Uncertainty” reminds us how inappropriate that is. Chemists, plumbers and doctors identify problems within their subject areas, then develop tools with which to solve them. Economists appear unbidden on any doorstep they please with a box of mostly useless tools in search of problems….

There’s a place for those tools, but economics habitually overreaches. Modern economists assume that whatever outcome their models predict must be axiomatically rational. When human beings fail to act according to these predictions, it is taken as a failure of the people, not the model.

This insulting assumption, Messrs. Kay and King point out, is at the heart of microeconomics’ behavioral turn and the proliferation of “nudge” quackery in policy-making circles.

The problem is that almost every policy decision has to be made in the midst of “fundamental uncertainties” about the basic facts that the economists’ models require.  The tools of economists were derived from probability theory that was developed to gain an edge in gambling.  As the review says:

Card games are “small worlds,” in a phrase from the mid-20th-century economist Jimmie Savage that the authors use throughout. The rules are well-defined, all possible outcomes known, the inputs fully quantifiable and the games run repeatedly.

None of that is true for a “large-world” event such as a pandemic or a financial crisis. Decisions must be made before basic facts, such as a disease’s rate of transmission or what proportion of the infected develop symptoms, are understood. Meanwhile politicians no longer seem to know what questions they want answered. Probability can tell you how likely you are to win a hand of blackjack because you know what “winning” means. But should we define winning against Covid-19 as the minimization of infection? Or merely slowing the flow of new cases into our hospitals—and if so, to what rate?

Unlike with blackjack, we’re dealt only one hand. The terrible truth is that every time a politician makes a decision, families might lose a parent or child, or be cast into an economic tailspin from which they may never recover. Faced with such radical uncertainty, “real households, real businesses and real governments do not optimize; they cope.”

These fundamental uncertainties aren’t unique to a pandemic, although the stakes are unusually high. Writing before the new coronavirus, Messrs. Kay and King find plenty of other examples. Corporate-strategy documents, they note, are designed to lend a false air of probabilistic precision to what is at best a guess about the market. Economists measure the economic impact of public-works projects by feeding invented numbers into faulty models, deriving outputs that enter the public realm with an undeserved aura of certainty.

There is an alternative and historically common way to solving policy problems — politics.  In Failure Up Close, Mike McShane and I argue that the kinds of solutions economists offer to education problems fail so often because these approaches typically refuse to consider politics.  The review makes the same point:

The authors argue instead for a return to a narrative form of decision-making that pretends to less precision and offers more scope for human intuition. Lloyd’s of London operated in such a way for centuries, we are told, setting premiums to insure against unquantifiable risks—such as the likelihood that a rare art collection might be stolen—through the hunches of individual human underwriters.

Politicians appear to be taking this approach to Covid-19. Britain’s early, relatively laissez-faire approach didn’t respond adequately to the intuition of voters worried about a fatally overstretched health service; a lockdown ensued, justified by only one of several available models. President Trump’s tug-of-war with himself over reopening the U.S. economy by Easter can be read charitably as an attempt to take the narrative temperature of the American public.

This approach makes use of a powerful tool economists despise—politics—to settle on a decision the public finds tolerable.

The review also notes that one of the other harmful effects of the overreach of economists is a bossy inclination to design optimal solutions for everything.  He could have included nudging students into college as another example:

Alas, another fruitful solution to decision-making is largely absent from the book: not making policy at all.

This may not be possible or desirable in special circumstances such as a global pandemic, but most things our governments do aren’t that special. Must they really nudge us toward optimal soda consumption via taxation, or manage the economy’s growth and contraction through the manipulation of interest rates, when they don’t really know what constitutes “optimal” in either case?

If you’re radically uncertain about what to do, doing nothing is often the best option.

The good news is that I think many people, including elite decision-makers, have been learning through hard experience just how useless many economists are in effectively addressing policy problems.  If economists are the priests of our secular age, their cult is fading.

For the Higgy: Mark DiRocco

April 8, 2020

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(Guest Post by Jason Bedrick)

The COVID-19 crisis has brought out the best and the worst in humanity, from heroic health care workers risking their lives to save others to horrible hoarders who think of no one but themselves.

The same is true in K-12 education, which is facing an unprecedented nationwide shutdown. Some teachers are going above and beyond in trying times to provide their students with a quality education despite trying circumstances. Some are even driving by their students’ homes to offer encouragement.

And then there’s Mark DiRocco.

DiRocco is the executive director of the Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators. His main concern? Making sure that families DON’T have educational options outside of what his system provides.

As Mike McShane and I detailed in the Washington Examiner today, DiRocco is just one of a number of educrats who have forgotten that our education system is intended to serve students, not the other way around. Policymakers in three states have blocked or restricted access to online charter schools out of a fear that parents might avail themselves of such options while their kids are cooped up at home. DiRocco just made the mistake of saying the quiet part out loud:

“You have got to give the school districts time to make some decisions, make plans, and put alternative learning delivery systems together,” DiRocco told Pennsylvania public radio, arguing that it is not fair to “allow the [online] charter schools to say, ‘Well we are open for business now.’”

When DiRocco talks about what’s “fair,” he’s not talking about what’s fair for or in the best interests of children. Rather than allowing students to access an already-existing schooling option, the forces of the educational status quo want to hoard them as if they were the last roll of Charmin at Walmart.

Hoarding toilet paper is bad enough. Hoarding kids is grotesque.

Ever since 2012,” The Higgy” has highlighted ” individuals whose arrogant delusions of shaping the world to meet their own will outweigh the positive qualities they possess.” By actively blocking families from meeting their children’s educational needs during a global pandemic and treating kids as mere funding units for district schools, DiRocco has proven himself deserving of The Higgy.