Pass the Popcorn: Living in Shadows

April 13, 2018


(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Chappaquiddick accomplishes something very few movies do: it explores why a man made an evil choice. That is very hard to do because (as James Q. Wilson put it in his brilliant little book Moral Judgement) any explaination for why someone made a decision naturally becomes an excuse for that decision. A man beats his children now because his father beat him twenty years ago; to the extent that the beatings twenty years ago really do explain the beatings now, the man’s choices seem less culpable, and to the extent that they don’t, the man’s choices are less comprehensible. Either the explanation of the evil act is not satisfactory as an explanation, in which case we are left unsatisfied, or the explanation of the evil act does satisfy as an explanation, in which case the act seems less evil.

Chappaquiddick does not compromise on the fact that Teddy Kennedy’s choices were evil. For that reason, it is getting a lot of attention from right-wingers who have long waited for some sort of justice to be done upon the Kennedy family’s crimes. Chappaquiddick shows, in ways that would be impossible for any fair-minded observer to deny, that Teddy Kennedy did evil things, and that is a sort of justice for which we have indeed waited long.

But if you walked out of this movie saying to yourself, “boy, Teddy Kennedy really did evil things in Chappaquiddick, didn’t he?” you missed the point of the movie.

The filmmakers have set out to explain, without excusing, what Kennedy did. And they succeed brilliantly.

I must reluctantly admit that part of the formula for success in this endeavor was for the film to steer completely clear of the sexual side of Kennedy’s depravity. This is unsatisfying to my sense of justice, in light of the fact that Kennedy spent his whole adult life – long after Chappaquiddick – leaving behind him a trail of harrassed and attacked women, not only in his own workplace and on his own payroll but in restraurants, airplanes, you name it. Full justice is not done to Kennedy’s depravity in this movie. But that is probably necessary, because such matters probably could not be depicted or even suggested without ruining the project of explaining rather than condemning.

The traditional story of the burden of growing up in the shadow of Jack and Bobby – and of Joe, Jr., who died a war hero – is of course an important theme. At the beginning of the movie, we see Teddy being interviewed for an upcoming television broadcast about Jack’s legacy. The occasion is the immanent landing of Neil Armstrong on the moon – Jack’s big challenge to the nation in 1961. Teddy displays the extraordinary Kennedy eloquence, which he possesses in equal measure to his brother, then suddenly cuts off the interview when the pain of contemplating his place in his brother’s shadow becomes too great. Then he lets a woman die on Chappaquiddick, and it’s all over the news. Then the moon landing comes and the interview airs, and the whole nation watches it with Chappaquiddick in mind.

But this movie places greater stress on the role of Teddy’s iron-fisted father, Joseph, Sr. Teddy, who is a vain and foolish man but has a real conscience, keeps wavering between doing right and protecting himself. He does not always make the evil choice, and when he does, he does not always stick to it. A cousin who was with him on the night of his disaster keeps urging him to do the right thing – to report the incident, to admit that he was the one driving, to resign his Senate seat rather than keep it at the cost of ghastly lies.

And every step of the way, Joseph, Sr. and his army of highly comptent schemers is there to demand more lies, more subversion of the law, more destruction of the innocent to protect the guilty.  And always, always reminding him that he has always been the family screwup, and will always be the family screwup.


Explanations of evil tend to function as excuses for it because they demand our human sympathy. What Kennedy did was evil. But let no one judge too harshly anyone who has had to grow up the son of that kind of man, and make moral choices while still professionally under his power. No, not even in a case of aggravated manslaughter – not even in the case of a man who escaped punishment for aggravated manslaughter, and got off with a slap on the wrist for leaving the scene of an accident, by a systematic campaign of lies and influence-peddling. Condemn, by all means, but spare also a charitable thought.

Reserve the venting of your spleen for the millions upon millions of Kennedy idolators, whose folly is given ample display at the end of the movie. They were not sons of Joseph Kennedy, Sr. They had no tyrant threatening to destroy them if they followed their conscience. And they chose cognitive dissonance and irresponsible moral relativism – anything rather than permit themselves to confront the monstrosity of the idol they had made in their own image.

And yet, and yet . . . I am left contemplating the contrast between Teddy Kennedy and another family screwup of a great American political dynasty. George W. Bush was the Teddy of the Bush clan for many years. Then he found Jesus, kicked the bottle, stayed home with his wife and became an honorable man. You may or may not join me in attributing the primary difference to the inscrutable mystery of divine providence, selecting one man and not another for the gifts of the Spirit. And I will grant that George H. W. Bush, tough as he undoubtedly was, was not the detestable tyrant Joseph Kennedy, Sr. was.

But that image of W. as the road Teddy didn’t take must heighten the imperative that we remember, not without some sympathy, what a monster Teddy really was.


I Say the Future is Ours if You Can Count

April 13, 2018

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Yesterday we went over how states have done very little to improve in 8th grade math since 2009, but how many state charter sectors rocked it. Let’s see about reading, starting with the states:

There are more declines in scores than statistically significant gains in that first chart-some states more lost than others, but a lost decade nationally. Next let’s look at statewide charter sectors-these are the states with charter sectors large enough to make the sample in both 2009 and 2017 in 8th grade reading:

Once again, just as with math, Excel had to move the growth axis scale for several state charter sectors. You will appreciate this better when the following chart combines statewide averages and state charter sector averages:

So in this chart ideally you would like to see high scores and high gains, but there is no shame in just very high scores.

Can you dig it?

Can you dig it?!?

CAN YOU DIG IT?!?!?!?!

A Modest Counter-Proposal: Eliminate Think Tanks, Not College Sports

April 12, 2018

Image result for a modest proposal

The Urban Institute has a piece that explores how many low-income students could be offered college scholarships if college athletics were eliminated.  As it turns out, most college sports programs spend more than they receive in revenue (although this excludes other possible sources of revenue, such as donations and additional enrollment that may be related to support for the sports program).  Erica Blom, who is a research fellow at the Urban Institute, calculates that if you remove the amount of money devoted to athletic scholarships, sports programs at the top 230 institutions lose about $798 million per year.  At $4,000 per scholarship, she estimates that eliminating college sports could add another 199,400 scholarships that universities could offer to low income students.  Blom acknowledges that sports may produce some benefits, but she concludes that “many of these benefits, however, can arguably be gained through participation in intramural sports.”

Let’s leave aside whether she is accurately calculating the net cost of these sports programs.  And let’s leave aside her general conclusion that these programs produce little or no benefit in exchange for their cost.  And let’s further leave aside her implicit assumption that there is a superior benefit to be realized from spending the money instead on nearly 200,000 partial scholarships for students who may have a low probability of completing degrees for which they would be induced to take on substantial debt even with their partial scholarships.  What Blom’s argument boils down to is that she doesn’t like college sports and would rather that the money be spent on something else.  She’s not alone in this view.  Many education analysts have a distaste for college sports and would prefer those resources be diverted to other activities.

Of course, we could all pick different aspects of higher education that we think are of dubious value, and, without having to prove it, argue that money devoted to those functions should be spent on something that we think is better (without having to prove that it is really better).  I might say that there are entire degree programs, often ending in the word “studies,” that confer little or no benefit (and maybe even harm) on students and yet in aggregate cost hundreds of millions of dollars.  Why don’t we do away with those to pay for more scholarships?  The only reason people can so easily suggest abolishing college sports, as opposed to some other university effort, is that there is — quite literally — a prejudice against college athletics among education expert-types.

Most people outside of the edu-policy sphere, however, place a very high value on college sports.  This doesn’t just include the millions of fans who spend billions of dollars on watching sporting events and buying merchandise, but also the thousand upon thousands of college students who participate in college athletics each year.  They clearly think these activities have value, so why should we substitute Blom’s preference for theirs?  It’s not as if the handful of largely ambiguous social science studies to which Blom links prove that these millions of people are suffering from false consciousness in finding benefits in college sports.

To illustrate how specious it is to favor abolishing college sports to pay for scholarships, let me offer a counter-proposal: let’s abolish think tanks.  According to a 2013 report, a group of 21 think tanks generated $1.076 billion in annual revenue.  That’s just 21 of them.  There are scores more.  The social benefit of the funds devoted to these think tanks is of highly dubious value.  Like college sports, think tanks have been marred with corruption and sex scandals. And think tanks facilitate a large amount of PLDD where people sit in their offices imagining how they would run the world better, doing things like taxing snacks, building light rail, or abolishing college athletics.  Wouldn’t the world be better off if we eliminated think tanks and used those funds to pay for college scholarships instead?

See?  Isn’t this fun?  Let’s all imagine things we don’t like and fantasize how things would be so much better if only those resources were devoted to things we did like.  We could get jobs in think tanks to do it.

John Rawls Rolls in his Grave Upon Viewing NAEP Trends for IEP Students

April 12, 2018

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

…at least for most states.

Charters CeleNAEP Good Times During “Lost Decade”

April 11, 2018

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

The news overall is grim. You want to be in the top right quadrant of this chart. Some states thankfully did land there-including the state with the largest student population- but many only barely due to small reading gains. If you need the dot size to push you in, it doesn’t count-better luck next NAEP.

You don’t want to land in the top left or in the bottom right, and you most of all don’t want to see your state in the bottom left quadrant (declines in both subjects). Mike Petrilli used the phrase “lost decade” to describe the results. Some states seem far more lost than others, but it is hard to find fault with that assessment overall.

The two main reform strategies employed since the 1990s have involved test-based accountability and increased parental choice. During the era covered by the top chart, the test-based folks swung for the fences by creating a federal incentive for states to adopt a preferred set of academic standards and to pass statewide teacher evaluation systems based upon the scores on those tests. Gigantic investments of political and financial capital supported these policy changes, but it is hard to characterize the results as much more than disappointing.

Now some of you will be thinking around about now “oh yeah but we’ve expanded choice during this period as well!” That is true, and while we have numerous studies establishing positive competitive effects on district schools from choice programs, few states have choice programs going at a scale to place a large amount of pressure on district enrolments. NAEP does however allow us to track state charter sector gains over time. Sixteen state charter sectors had scores for 8th grade math and reading in both 2009 and 2017, allowing the following calculation:

Excel had to change the scale of the axis for the above chart. You may not have noticed. Putting state averages and state charter sector averages into the same chart will help:

Suddenly those statewide gains in Arizona, California and Mississippi (i.e. the good ones) from the first chart don’t seem so impressive eh? I’m thinking out loud here and inviting you along for the ride. Gains aren’t everything, so the next iteration will include achievement and gains by subject area, but for the huge gainer sectors (spoiler alert) they didn’t get that way with low 2017 scores. I could go on about standard errors being bigger for charter sectors and whatnot, but who are you going to believe a boring statistics lecture or your own lying eyes? If someone can explain why random error would systematically dramatically favor charter sectors, I’m all ears and the comment section eagerly awaits your thoughtful challenge.

In fact there is a white lie in the above chart-some of the sectors and states that look meh in this chart immediately above had very high scores in both 2009 and 2017, and while not ideal there is no crime in holding your mud with high scores. Last year my friend Robert Pondiscio convinced me that combining achievement and gains to provide a clearer picture, so here goes for 8th grade math:

In this chart you either want to have large gains, or high scores, or preferably both of these things. I’m for instance not inclined to criticize Idaho charter schools for modest gains given that they outscore Massachusetts and all despite spending about half the amount per pupil.

Well…yup it is officially time:


The Line to Apologize to Michigan Charters Forms to the Left Part Deux in 2017 NAEPoVision

April 10, 2018

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

The effort by others to discredit Michigan charter schools during the DeVos confirmation struck me as a travesty, but living well is the best revenge. If you want to oppose someone’s nomination, fine go ahead but don’t stoop to smearing the efforts of thousands of people investing their lives in providing opportunities for kids in the process. They never deserved it.

The venn diagram between those who chose to bash Michigan charters and those who have been confidently asserting that RSD is the way, the truth and the ed reform light don’t entirely overlap, but they circles do partially imbricate.

Just you are feeling skeptical, here is the same chart for 8th grade reading:

I’m content to let RSD live in peace (at least from me) but can I get the same deal for MI and other “Wild West” charter sectors?



Arizona Charters Crushed the Ball Again But They Have Competition Out West

April 10, 2018

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Arizona charter schools continued to display impressive scores and gains on the 2017 NAEP. Note as always that only a random assignment study properly conducted could hope to isolate the role of school quality in all of this, and that such studies are not only unavailable but also are impractical for a statewide system of schools- not all of which are oversubscribed (a precondition for a random assignment study). Thus the role of average school quality in driving the above results remains a holy mystery- likely to be hotly debated, impossible to be resolved in this world. I and others will be digging into Arizona charter subgroup scores in the days ahead.

Now, behold the nothing burger that has been net American academic progress since 2009 (first set of columns). On the math and reading tests 10 points approximately equals a grade level worth of average academic progress (the science exams have a different scaling). Net American progress equals nothing, nothing, next to nothing a tiny bit of something in 8th grade reading.

The middle blue columns are the statewide numbers for Arizona. As you can see they consistently surpass the American nothing-burger. The final set of gains are the gains for Arizona charter school students.

Some of Arizona’s neighbors also have charter sectors that crushed the ball- starting again with Colorado. I’m happy to say that Nevada’s sector made the minimum reporting requirements for NAEP this year, and the results look good. Give me some time to dig, but a monster story may be California charters: