What Would You Do Under Occupation?

February 5, 2017

We’ve all been fed such a steady diet of Nazi Resistance stories that we likely have no doubt that we’d be placing explosives next to the railroad tracks if we had lived under Nazi occupation.  In my personal variation of this fantasy, I imagine myself in Inglourious Basterds (probably my favorite movie), led by Lieutenant Aldo “The Apache” Raine in a team of Jewish commandos taking Nazi scalps.

But real life is more complicated and it isn’t always obvious what one would or should do under such circumstances.  You’d face competing practical and moral demands.  What concern should you have for your own safety or the safety of your friends and family?  What obligations do you have to resist the occupation of your country relative to minimizing the severity and harms of that occupation by cooperating?

These kinds of issues are explored more deeply than in other films in the new Norwegian series available on Netflix, called Occupied (or Okkupert).  The premise is that an environment-friendly government takes office in Norway and decides to halt all oil and gas production in favor of a new green (and fictional) energy source that is not fully ready.  This decision throws European economies into a crisis, which then spurs the Russians to seize oil and gas facilities to restart production.

You’ll have to just accept parts of this premise that seem implausible to get to the excellent exploration of what people might do if their country’s sovereignty were slipping away to a much stronger power without hope for assistance from the outside.  And given how Russian encroachment into The Ukraine was met with mostly symbolic objections from Europe and the US, this premise might not seem so ridiculous.

While watching I honestly wasn’t entirely sure who I was rooting for (other than pretty clearly against the Russians).  Everyone seems to have their reasons for behaving as they do so that it isn’t easy to judge what the right thing to do would be or to imagine what you would do if you were there. And as crowds gather across the country under the banner “Resist,” Occupied might have something to tell us about our current political crisis.

If you would like to consider another wonderfully complicated work on the competing moral obligations raised by resistance, read Jean Anouilh’s play Antigone, which is inspire by Sophocles’ play of the same name.  I far prefer Anouilh’s version because he allows each side to make its best argument, causing the audience pretty much to switch what it favors based on whoever spoke last. Anouilh’s version is especially amazing because it was first produced in 1944 in Nazi-occupied Paris, so it was speaking directly to the emergency facing its audience.

How Anouilh’s play got passed the German censors isn’t entirely clear.  They may have allowed it to be produced in part because of the strength of the arguments Anouilh gave to Creon about the need for the state to maintain order.  Unlike Sophocles’ Creon, who is clearly the villain to Antigone’s heroism, Anouilh’s Creon is an unwilling ruler who feels as trapped by his obligation to preserve the city as Antigone feels trapped by her obligation to obey the law of the gods.

Below is a taste in which Creon gets the upper hand in the argument before blowing it by urging Antigone to focus on happiness, something that she seems unable and unwilling to do.

Yesterday, I gave Eteocles a State funeral, with pomp and honors. Today, Eteocles is a saint and a hero in the eyes of all Thebes. The whole city turned out to bury him. I made a speech myself; and every temple priest was there with an appropriate show of sorrow and solemnity in his stupid face. And military honors were accorded the dead-hero. Well, what else could I have done? People had taken sides in the civil war. Both sides couldn’t be wrong: that would have been too much. I couldn’t have made them swallow the truth. Two gangsters was more of a luxury than I could afford. (He pauses for a moment) And yet — this is the whole point of my story. Eteocles, that virtuous brother, was just as rotten as Polynices. That great-hearted son had done his best, too, to procure the assassination of his father. That loyal prince had also offered to sell out Thebes to the highest bidder. Funny, isn’t it? Polynices lies rotting in the sun while Eteocles is given a hero’s funeral and will be housed in a marble vault. Yet I have absolute proof that everything that Polynices did, Eteocles had plotted to do. They were a pair of assassins — both intent in selling out Thebes, and both intent in selling out each other; and they died like the cheap gangsters they were, over a division of the spoils. Each had been spitted on the other’s sword, and the Argive cavalry had trampled them down. They were mashed to a pulp, Antigone. I had the prettier of the two carcasses brought in, and gave it a State funeral; and I left the other to rot. I don’t now which is which. And I assure you, I don’t care.
Why do you tell me all this?
You hold a treasure in your hands, Antigone — life, I mean. And you were about to throw it away. Would it have been better to let you die a victim to that obscene story? Antigone, go find Haemon and get married quickly. Be happy. Life is not what you think it is. Life is a child playing round your feet, a tool you hold firmly in your grip, a bench you sit down upon in the evening, in your garden. People will tell you that that’s not life, that life is something else. They will tell you that because they need your strength and your fire, and they will want to make use of you. Don’t listen to them. Believe me when I tell you —the only poor consolation that we have in our old age is to discover that what I have just said to you is true. Life is, perhaps, after all, nothing more than the happiness that you get out of it.

When “Helping the Poor” Means “Keep Out”

February 3, 2017


(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!

Good reads

February 3, 2017

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

The WSJ detects the Stockholm Syndrome of the six-inch Dark Lord of Nightmares MA Charter School Association and Eli Broad.

Derrell Bradford earns a BOOOOOOM! by explaining to the charter school bear that the hunter has plenty of bullets left for them.

So does Max Eden by exposing the NYT phony “analysis” of Detroit charter data.

Mike McShane joins the fun by explaining how our notions of accountability need an update.

Rick Hess cautions choiceniks to be careful what we wish for from the feds.

Don’t Be Fooled: The Vast Majority of Parents Support Public School Choice

January 31, 2017

(Guest Post by By Kevin Hesla)

“Charter schools are public schools that have flexibility to meet students’ unique needs, while being held accountable for advancing student achievement.” As a charter school researcher, I have copied and pasted this sentence more times then I care to admit over the past five years. But in times like these, I think it is necessary to stop and reflect on what is truly important and unique about this movement.

As Jay P. Greene from the University of Arkansas points out in a recent podcast, the concept of public school choice has reached “escape velocity.” A movement that first gained popularity among low-income parents who were searching for a high-quality educational option is now a concept that the vast majority of parents, from all walks of life, embrace and support. And in 2017, parents don’t just want a single high-quality public school option—they want multiple high-quality public school options.

For parents in neighborhoods with failing district public schools, the concept of school choice is nothing less than a life changing opportunity for their children to receive a high-quality public education, prepare themselves for the demands of a rapidly changing economy, and pursue their dreams. For parents in neighborhoods with high-quality district public schools, school choice is an acknowledgement that district public schools (despite all of their tremendous benefits) do not work for every student. It is an acknowledgement that students are different, that they learn differently and are motivated by different things—and that district public schools are not able to meet the needs and passions of every student.

The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools recently commissioned a survey of parents from across the country and asked them if they favored or opposed the ability of parents and students to choose which public school they attend—regardless of where they live. The results demonstrate that the vast majority of parents (regardless of background) support public school choice:

  • Race/ethnicity: 84 percent of Hispanic parents, 82 percent of Black parents, and 76 percent of White parents support public school choice.
  • Income: 86 percent of low-income parents, 79 percent of middle-income parents, and 72 percent of high-income parents support public school choice.
  • Party Affiliation: 81 percent of Democratic parents, 77 percent of Republican parents, and 76 percent of Independent parents support public school choice.
  • Geography: 84 percent of urban parents, 77 percent of suburban parents, and 74 percent of rural parents support public school choice.

Despite all the current rhetoric, it is important to remember that parents across the county are overwhelmingly supportive of public school choice. This false dichotomy between district public schools and charter public schools is in no way helpful to the tremendously important discourse and debate on public education. And education (just like knowledge and economic growth) is not a zero sum game. A new high-quality public school option does not have to come at the expense of another public school option. The vast majority of parents support public school choice because public school choice provides benefits to all students. And all children should be given the opportunity to attend a high-quality public school that meets their needs and inspires them to dream big.

Kevin Hesla is the  Director of Research at the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools

Lies, Damned Lies, and NYT Statistics

January 31, 2017


(Guest Post by Jason Bedrick)

Earlier this month, Max Eden and I showed how three separate data sets employing three different methodologies all reached the same conclusion: Detroit’s charter schools are significantly outperforming Detroit’s district schools.

So how did the New York Times come to paint such a different narrative?

That’s the question Eden tackles at The Seventy-Four this week, and it isn’t pretty.

First, NYT reporter Kate Zernike rejected the findings from a credible center-right think tank purely for political reasons. In an email conversation with Eden, she argued that the Mackinac Center is “a partisan group that is pro–school choice and anti-[Detroit Public Schools],” as though that had a bearing on whether its data were accurate.

Second, she demonstrated little familiarity with either the data source she rejected or the one upon which she relied. She claimed Mackinac “only” used graduation rates as its basis of comparison, but that’s completely false. She also thought that Excellent Schools Detroit (ESD) — her preferred data source — adjusted their data for demographics, but they didn’t. Mackinac did.

Far more egregious is how she portrayed the ESD data. Eden painstakingly takes readers through her calculations, but the short story is this: in calculating the average performance of Detroit’s district schools, she inappropriately excluded the district schools that were so low performing that the state intervened and took over. She also inappropriately included selective-admission magnet schools that require students to maintain a certain GPA and pass a test to gain entrance — something charters and traditional district schools cannot do. She also compared a weighted average for the supposed “district” school performance against the median charter performance. Eden concludes:

If that sounds silly, it’s because comparing an average to a median is statistical nonsense. The “apples to oranges” metaphor is apt but insufficient here. Essentially, Zernike took a basket of apples, pulled out the rotten ones, kept the genetically modified ones, made statistically weighted applesauce, and plopped that applesauce in the middle of a row of organic oranges. Then she drew a false conclusion that’s become central to the case against Betsy DeVos’s nomination for secretary of education.

Eden also took Zernike to task for digging in her heels over her demonstrably false claim that “Ms. DeVos pushed back on any regulation as too much regulation.” As Eden details — and several others have detailed previously — DeVos has supported all sorts of regulations on choice programs. Indeed, I wish DeVos were as libertarian as Zernike portrays her, but the record indicates otherwise. As Eden notes, Zernike should have known better:

In a Detroit News op-ed, to which [Zernike’s] article later links, DeVos called for two additional regulations: A–F school accountability grades and default closure for failing schools, both charter and district. She certainly pushed back on some regulations as too much. But the bill that passed included the additional accountability regulations for which she advocated. In fact, the final legislation boosted Michigan’s accountability score on the National Alliance of Charter School Authorizers index.

Zernike, sadly, still refuses to acknowledge these glaring errors. Instead, in response to criticism, she has tried moving the goalposts and hoping no one would notice. Indeed, she’s even repeating the claim that Detroit’s charter sector “is no one’s model” even though I have repeatedly pointed out to her that the 2015 CREDO study called Detroit’s charter sector — wait for it — a “model to other communities.” As I’ve noted before, I think that’s overstated, but you can’t seriously claim that “no one” thinks Detroit is a model when, in fact, the most wide-ranging study of charter schools conducted by a research center at one of the most respected university’s in the world used that very word to describe Detroit’s charters.

Zernike has her narrative and she’s sticking to it, facts be damned. Moreover, this isn’t the first time Zernike has let her narrative get ahead of her reporting (for example, see pages 33-37 here for a long list of “errors of omission and commission” in her highly flawed reporting on a voucher study by Harvard’s Paul Peterson).

What’s particularly frustrating is that she claims to be an objective, bias-free journalist (“[I] don’t really have an opinion“) when it is obvious from her reporting (or her Twitter feed) that she’s a dyed-in-the-wool liberal. Now, there’s nothing wrong with that. Pretty much everyone has a worldview, especially those who spend a good deal of their time thinking about issues related to public policy. The problem isn’t having a worldview, it’s not admitting it, and therefore not taking steps to make sure that it doesn’t cloud your judgment (or your reporting). As Jonah Goldberg wrote recently:

Reporters routinely call experts they already agree with knowing that their “takes” will line up with what the reporter believes. Sometimes this is lazy or deadline-driven hackery. But more often, it’s not. And that shouldn’t surprise us. Smart liberal reporters are probably inclined to think that smart liberal experts are right when they say things the smart liberal reporters already agree with.

For these and similar reasons, liberal ideas and interpretations of the facts sail through while inconvenient facts and conservative interpretations send up ideological red flags. Think of editors like security guards at a military base. They tend to wave through the people they know and the folks with right ID badges. But when a stranger shows up, or if someone lacks the right credential, then the guards feel like they have to do their job. This is the basic modus operandi for places like Vox, which seek to explain not the facts or the news, but why liberals are right about the facts and the news. […]

And you know what, the same thing is true for conservative journalists, because it’s true of people… The distinction is that there aren’t a great number of conservative journalists, certainly not in print, who don’t openly admit their biases to the reader. There are literally thousands of mainstream journalists, editors, and producers who insist that they are objective — and who actually believe it. And that leaves out the fact that liberalism is besotted with the idea that liberals aren’t ideological at all in the first place, which makes it even harder for them to recognize their ideological biases.

All journalists have is their credibility. Keeping it requires admitting errors when necessary. It should be clear to everyone that Zernike botched her reporting of the data on Detroit’s charter schools and misrepresented DeVos’s views on regulations — significant errors that have had a real impact on the narrative surrounding a cabinet pick shortly before her confirmation hearings and vote.

A responsible and credible news organization would correct the record.

What Advice Might Kahneman and Tversky Offer Foundations?

January 31, 2017

I’d like to continue my review of Michael Lewis’ new book,  The Undoing Project, on the collaboration between Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky by speculating about what advice Kahneman and Tversky might offer education foundations.

Foundations have particular challenge in detecting and correcting errors in their own thinking.  Because many people want things from foundations, especially their money, foundations frequently are organized as to limit communication with them.  They generally don’t open their doors, phone lines, and emails to whoever might want to suggest something or ask something of them for fear that they will be overwhelmed.  So they typically hide behind a series of locked doors, don’t make their phone or emails readily available, and insist that all applications follow a specific format, be submitted at a particular time, and be designed to address pre-determined issues.

Insulating themselves from external influence is understandable, but it creates real problems if they ever hope to detect when they are mistaken and need to make changes.  The limited communication that does make it through to foundations tends to re-affirm whatever they are already doing.  Prospective grantees don’t like to tell foundations that they are mistaken and need to change course because that makes getting funded unlikely.  Instead, foundations tend to hear that their farts smell like roses.  To make matters worse, many foundations are run in very top-down ways, which discourage questioning and self-criticism.

The Undoing Project presents a very similar situation having to do with airline pilot errors.  Lewis describes a case in which a commercial airline was experiencing too many accidents caused by pilot error.  The accidents were not fatal, but they were costly and dangerous — things like planes landing at the wrong airport.  So the airline approached Amos Tvsersky and asked for help in improving their training so as to minimize these pilot errors.  They wanted Tversky to design a pilot training method that would make sure pilots had the information and skills to avoid errors.

Tversky told the airline that they were pursuing the wrong goal.  Pilots are going to make errors and no amount of information or training would stop them from committing those mistakes.  We often assume that our errors are always caused by ignorance, but Tversky told them this was not true.  The deeper problem is that once we have a mental model of the world, we tend to downplay or ignore information that is inconsistent with that model and bolster facts that support our model.  If a pilot thinks he is landing at the right airport, he distorts available information to confirm that he is landing in Fort Lauderdale rather than nearby Palm Beach even if that is incorrect.  The problem is not a lack of information, but our tendency to fit information into our pre-conceived beliefs.

Tversky’s advice was to change the cockpit culture to facilitate questioning and self-criticism.  At the time cockpits were very hierarchical based on the belief that co-pilots needed to implement pilot orders quickly and without question lest the delay and doubt promote indecision and disorder.  So the airline implemented Tversky’s suggestions and changed their training to encourage co-pilots to doubt and question and pilots to be more receptive to that criticism.  The results was a marked deline in accidents caused by pilot error.  Apparently we aren’t very good at detecting our own errors, but we are more likely to do so if others are encouraged to point them out.

So what might Tversky suggest to education foundations?  I think he’d recognize that they have exceptional difficulty in detecting their own errors and need intentional, institutional arrangements to address that problem.  In particular, he might suggest that they divide their staff into a Team A and Team B.  Each team would work on a different theory of change — theories that are not necessarily at odds with each other but are also not identical.  For example, one team might focus on promoting school choice and another on promoting test-based accountability.  Or one team may promote tax credits and the other ESAs.  The idea of dividing staff into somewhat competing teams is that they then have incentives to point out shortcomings in the other team’s approach.  Dividing into Team A and Team B could be a useful check on the all-too-common problem of groupthink.

Another potential solution is to hire two or three internal devil’s advocates whose job it is to question the assumptions and evidence believed by foundation staff.  To protect those devil’s advocates, it is probably best to have them report directly to the board rather than the people they are questioning.

Whatever the particular arrangements, the point is that education foundations should strive to promote an internal culture of doubt and self-criticism if they wish to catch and correct their own errors and avoid groupthink.  One foundation that I think has taken steps in this direction is the Arnold Foundation.  They actually hold internal seminars in which they invite outside speakers to come and potentially offer critiques of their work.  Neerav Kingsland, who heads education efforts at Arnold, is also especially available on blogs and twitter for critical discussion.  I don’t always agree with Neerav but I am impressed by his openness to dissent.

The collaboration between Kahneman and Tversky was itself an example of the importance of engaging in tough criticism within an effort.  Like the airline pilots, they developed habits of challenging each other, which made their work together better than it ever could have been individually.

Review of The Undoing Project

January 30, 2017

When I was in graduate school I read a lot of what was then new research by Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky.  I found their documentation of the systematic ways in which people deviate from rational decision-making fascinating and I was searching for a way to apply that to political science questions.  In the end, I couldn’t figure out how to build a new theory based on systematic irrationality.

Reading Michael Lewis’ excellent new book, The Undoing Project, about the amazing and eventually problematic collaboration between Kahneman and Tversky brought back a flood of nostalgia but also reminded me of some problems with trying to extend their work.  In particular, I was reminded of two things.  First, while Kahneman and Tversky are remarkably persuasive in demonstrating how people regularly deviate from rationality, neither I nor others have had much success in building new theories based on systematic irrationality.  As it turns out, assuming rationality is clearly an inaccurate description of how people think, but it remains quite useful for building theories that yield accurate predictions.  That is, Kahneman and Tversky may have revolutionized social science much less than Lewis suggests.

Second, much of the work that has tried to build on Kahneman and Tversky seems to violate their basic finding that expert judgement is unreliable.  The development of behavioral economics and its application to a variety of fields, including education, mostly seems to consist of trying to devise ways to correct the systematic irrationality of others.  If low-income students are accepted to college but do not enroll after failing to complete the FAFSA financial aid form, we assume they are behaving counter to their long-term interests and propose interventions to induce them to complete the form and enroll.

As I’ve written elsewhere, this approach has a variety of problems, but the chief of which is that it assumes too much rationality on the part of the social scientist devising the solutions.  How do we know that people would be better off if we could nudge them into doing something other than what they had originally decided to do?  Just as other people may be systematically irrational, so may the social scientists devising plans for improving other people’s lives.  I’m not saying that no interventions are helpful.  I’m just saying that we should be extremely cautious and humble when developing plans for how other people should live their lives.

The need for humility among experts and social scientists was a central theme in Kahneman and Tversky’s work.  Their approach was not, as one critic accused them, a psychology of stupid people; it was a psychology of all people, including experts and social scientists.  In fact, one of their first experiments was to give statisticians problems to see if they would update their priors as if they were Bayesians.  As it turns out, even statisticians who you might think would be particularly familiar with Bayes’ Theorem, do not actually think like Bayesians.  In subsequent experiments they found that even warning subjects of the systematic irrationality to which they might be prone does not prevent them from being systematically irrational.  Greater knowledge and expertise do not prevent us from falling into the same intellectual potholes over and over again.

So Kahneman and Tversky’s research demonstrates that there is no priestly class immune to the shortcomings of others and even foreknowledge and confession of one’s sins of irrationality provide little protection against repeating common errors.  And yet, much of behavioral economics seems to pay little heed to this central finding as they move full steam ahead devising solutions for other people’s irrationality.  They seem to forget that devising solutions, building models, and testing them all require human judgements which are also prone to systematic error.

In his seminal volume, Thinking, Fast and SlowKahneman admits there is no real solution to our tendency to deviate from rationality.  Instead, he suggests some habits to check the errors, mostly involving slowing down, being more cautious and self-critical, as well as inviting the criticism of others.  Let’s not correct for popular mistakes by installing a technocratic elite because that elite are also prone to common errors.