Escaping from ‘Awaiting Moderation’ Purgatory

April 21, 2010


(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Greg’s post on the UFT elicited a unintentionally humorous response from my Sith Apprentice, Darth Leo, about how “Democracy flows in the life blood” of the teacher union. I asked Leo whether his union would support school districts holding school board and bond elections on the uniform November date. After all, it wouldn’t do to have someone taking advantage of notoriously low turnout affairs and riding on a high horse about “democracy” at the same time.

Leo, like any good egocentric New Yorker began to instantly conflate the goings on in NYC with the interests of the known universe.  New Yorkers can be such hicks. Anyhoo, I wrote a response to Leo in this exchange, which he has left “awaiting moderation” for two days. Since Leo seems too distracted to moderate his blog, I’ll post the comment myself:


I have no dog in the mayoral control hunt. Whether or not I would support a move to mayoral control would depend upon the circumstances involved. Mayors are elected officials, even in NYC, so it seems obvious that there is a clear opportunity for the voters to express their displeasure at the ballot box if they wish.

You however are avoiding the broader question by obsessing over your parochial NYC concerns. Speaking only for yourself, shouldn’t someone who claims to have democracy flowing in the life blood of their organization be willing to state that maximizing voter turnout in school district elections is a good idea?

If you want to wrap yourself in the flag of democracy, shouldn’t you practice it? Instead, what I see is an organization supporting hundreds of school board candidates and bond elections every year in embarrassingly low turnout elections held on irregular election dates blowing hot air about “democracy.”

Your comment is awaiting moderation.

The Unions Doth Protest Too Much

April 19, 2010

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Wow, the graphic above seems to have struck a sensitive spot with our Sith apprentice, Leo Casey. Here’s his surprisingly defensive overreaction.

Leo thinks he has my motives all figured out. He thinks my post last week was trying to sow division within the union by pitting their internal constituencies against one another.

Er, no. I don’t think many UFT members read Jay P. Greene’s Blog, except the ones who are paid to.

Leo’s evidence about my motives consists entirely of a passage from a book written 20 years ago by people who have no connection to me. Oh, and he lists my affiliation as being with “the Milton Friedman Foundational Educational Choice.” Two words right out of five ain’t bad – at least by his standards.

You would think that a person who has been caught participating in eggregious political fraud and promoting scandalous calumny would be more careful. Or maybe you wouldn’t.

Sherman Dorn likewise misconstrues my purpose (although without the foot-shooting intellectual slapstick we’ve come to expect from Leo). Dorn writes of my post: “This is corruption! is the implication.”

Er, no. I not only didn’t say anything about corruption, I didn’t imply anything about it. There’s nothing corrupt about UFT representing more non-teachers than actual teachers.

Dorn invokes my status as a political scientist with hoity-toity academic credentials in order to sadly lament that I failed to provide an extensive discussion of the academic literature on different types of voting systems in my blog post. Well, let’s try to satisfy him by adopting some unnecessarily opaque academic jargon as we look back at the actual, clearly and explicitly expressed purpose of the post.

My post is what political scientists call “positive theory.” That is, I’m offering an explanatory model of the unions’ behavior. Why do unions invest so much of their effort in racking up a trillion dollars in mostly-unfunded pension obligations, rather than taking a more evenhanded (and thus presumably less noticeable) approach to what kinds of swag they grab? Why do they support policies that make working conditions worse for teachers?

Down here in the dark bowls of the earth where we “trolls” live, the prevailing explanation is that the union leadership has incentives to do things that fatten themselves at the expense of the union membership. Well, I’m not saying that’s not true! But there’s at least one other plausible theory, and my post offered it. Or both could be right!

But . . . I’ll admit that I did have a hidden agenda! Namely, I wanted to create some transparency about whether the UFT represents “teachers.” It’s not wrong for UFT to represent more non-teachers than it does teachers, but it’s wrong for UFT to puff itself up as The Voice of The Teacher in order to promote policies that serve another agenda. Not that I think a union should puff itself up as The Voice of the Teacher even if it does primarily represent teachers, any more than I think the National Organization for Women should puff itself up as The Voice of Women. But how much more shameless would it be if most voting members of NOW were men?

Coming Soon to a Theatre Near You: The Lottery

January 28, 2010


(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

We’ve discussed John Rawls and the veil of ignorance a few times here on JPGB. What if you lost the cosmic lottery and were born a poor inner city child? What would you want the school system to work? If you said “anything other than a zip code based system which pervasively matches the most disadvantaged students with the least effective teachers” give yourself a gold star.

In any case, the Rawls lottery is only a thought exercise, but back here in reality, there are real lotteries held every year with thousands of children attempting to escape the system described above by applying for a charter school. There are winners and losers, families who celebrate in joy and families who weep bitterly. 

Someone made a movie about it. Check out the preview– I’m looking forward to it.

Question for Leo: have you figured out why you lost Barack Obama on charter schools yet? Buy a ticket and some popcorn and you may figure it out.

Civic Knowledge Polling Controversy

November 12, 2009

 (Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Last summer, I wrote a study for the Goldwater Institute reporting the results of a survey in which we gave 10 questions from the United States citizenship exam to Arizona high school students. The results were terrible, with only about 3.5% of the district students scoring 6 or better correct (passing). A few months later, I replicated the study for the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs (OCPA) with Oklahoma students, and the results were even worse.

Since then the survey firm I used, Strategic Vision, has come under attack from a group of critics. I believe that it started over a poll from the New Hampshire primary last year. I am in no position to judge the merits of the case involved. Over the past few weeks, the critics have turned their fire on the civics surveys. Strategic Vision’s most aggressive critic claims that someone has replicated the Oklahoma survey and found them far more cognizant of civics than the Strategic Vision reported, concluding that SV simply fabricated the data. Smelling blood, my old friend Leo Casey is waving the bloody shirt. Some are wondering how anyone ever bought into the results in the first place or are feeling buyer’s remorse.

A few comments seem in order.

First, both myself and OCPA are investigating the validity of the survey. We have asked for and received call logs for the surveys, and we are awaiting receipts for the marketing lists employed in the survey. If, it stands to reason, a polling firm were simply fabricating data it seems terribly unlikely that they would pay thousands of dollars for marketing lists. If there has been a fraud, myself, the Goldwater Institute and OCPA were all victims of it.

Regarding the question of “how could anyone have ever believed these results” people should keep an open mind and examine the available evidence.

For the Arizona study, we purchased a poll of both public and private school students. The public results were terrible, but so too were the private school results. If memory serves, 3.5% of the public school students scored six or better and 13.8% of private school students scored six or better. We reported the private results in the study, and essentially characterized them as simultaneously better than the public results and still catastrophic.

If SV were simply manufacturing data, it seems at a minimum odd to make the private school results so terrible.

Second, results from other exams of civic knowledge should be considered. The Intercollegiate Studies Institute has run a series of tests on the civic knowledge of university students. You can look the results of the 2006 study here for both Freshmen and Seniors.

The average score for a freshman at Yale: 69.8%.

Harvard: 67.8%

Princeton: 66%

University of Texas at Austin: 53.8%

University of Michigan: 52.1%

These are all highly to uber selective universities, but strangely enough their students are arriving (and leaving btw-check out the Senior results) profoundly ignorant of American civics. In fact, the Ivy League kids, even the Seniors, score significantly worse than the alleged replication scores (no details provided btw)  in Oklahoma, where the kids supposedly got almost 80 percent correct.

Oklahoma high schools > Ivy League. Things that make you go hmmmmmm…

Next, it is worth considering the differences in testing method. The ISI results were given as multiple choice exams. If they ask you to name the first President of the United States, George Washington is jumping up and down right behind the letter “B.” You’ve really had to have been living on another planet not to get that one right.

The Arizona and Oklahoma surveys, however, emulated the methodology of the United States citizenship exams, directly lifting the questions from INS item bank, and employing their open-answer format. When you are asked “who wrote the Declaration of Independence” it is necessary to answer “Jefferson” without the benefit of four names, one of which is “Thomas Jefferson” literally staring you in the face.

In short, we have no reason to believe that the average high school student to be anywhere near as well-informed as the average student at highly selective universities. As it turns out, students at even highly selective universities know embarrassingly little about civics. Moreover the open answer format of the United States Citizenship Exam represents a higher hurdle of knowledge than a multiple choice exam. You are either carrying around the knowledge of how many Supreme Court Justices there are around in your head, or you aren’t. With a multiple choice exam, you’ve got a shot, but with an open answer format…good luck.

So my request to everyone is to stay calm and give us time to run the traps on this. If I got snookered, I’ll own up to it, but the jury is still out.


No News — NEA Lies

June 20, 2009

You read it here on JPGB first.  The NEA sent a letter to members of Congress containing bald-faced lies about the DC voucher program.  Now the WSJ has picked up the story.  The WSJ wrote:

Public school teachers are supposed to teach kids to read, so it would be nice if their unions could master the same skill. In a recent letter to Senators, the National Education Association claims Washington, D.C.’s Opportunity Scholarships aren’t working, ignoring a recent evaluation showing the opposite.

“The DC voucher pilot program, which is set to expire this year, has been a failure,” the NEA’s letter fibs. “Over its five year span, the pilot program has yielded no evidence of positive impact on student achievement.”

That must be news to the voucher students who are reading almost a half-grade level ahead of their peers. Or to the study’s earliest participants, who are 19 months ahead after three years. Parents were also more satisfied with their children’s schools and more confident about their safety. Those were among the findings of the Department of Education’s own Institute of Education Sciences, which used rigorous standards to measure statistically significant improvement.

It should be no news that the NEA lies.  They do not have a commitment to the truth; their only commitment is to the interests of their members and leadership.  If that requires lying, they show no restraint.

The only news is that people, including the news media, public intellectuals, and policymakers, continue to treat the teacher unions as if they were credible actors in education policy discussions.  It is a mystery to me why they are ever contacted for comment by reporters or invited to serve on panels.  People who feel obliged to lie should be shunned and their opinions should never be solicited because their opinion can never be trusted as serving the truth.

I understand that the teacher unions have a right to exist, to represent their members in negotiations, and to attempt to influence policy.  But I don’t know why anyone should help them influence policy since they have shown such a callous disregard for truth and obsessive concern with self-interest.

Now I know that Leo Casey or one of his sock puppets might accuse me of being untrustworthy.  Here’s the difference:  While I might be mistaken, I am unlike the union folks in that my continued employment is not dependent on my holding particular opinions.  If I woke up tomorrow and decided that vouchers made no sense, I would be perfectly free to do so without penalty.  My position as a tenured professor does not depend at all on my believing that something  is true.

The same cannot be said for Leo Casey or other unions flacks.  If they woke up one morning and decided that vouchers were the key to improving the education system, they could not say so and expect to continue to be employed.  If they cannot change their mind without severe penalty, why would we believe that they are telling us their honest opinion now?  And if we can’t be sure that they are telling us their honest opinions, why would we ever ask them for their opinions?

I also know that some might accuse Matt or Greg of lacking the freedom to change their minds since they don’t have tenure like I do.  Actually, there is a remarkable amount of latitude at think tanks for people to say what they really think.  If you don’t believe that, think about Sol Stern or Diane Ravtich.  Besides, if Matt or Greg suddenly changed their minds they could pretty easily find work at another think tank that held a different view.  Where would all of the union people work if they changed their minds?

I say what I say because I believe it is the truth.  The teacher unions say what they say because they want something.

The Last Word on Unions and Reform

May 26, 2009


(Guest post by Greg Forster)

In the great Flypaper debate over whether unions are an obstacle to reform, Robert Costrell has what can only be considered the last word on the subject. Little Ramona started the argument by asserting that Massachusetts has strong unions and yet it accomplished some reforms, therefore unions are not an obstacle to reform, QED. (I paraphrase, but not by much.)

Costrell offers a very striking post on his real-world experience in Massachusetts. Excerpt:

It is indisputable that the Massachusetts Teachers Association (MTA) was the largest obstacle to implementing key elements of the reforms, most notably the MCAS exit exams, which were the main driver of Massachusetts’ success. Diane seems to minimize “the current effort to show that teachers’ unions were no help to education reform in Massachusetts,” as if this were some sort of recent revisionist history. But the “current” effort simply reiterates the well-documented history that was established at the time.  The fight against MCAS featured lawsuits, boycotts, demonstrations, and, most famously, the MTA’s $600,000 fear-mongering ad campaign (the ads showed a ticking clock with nervous students, despite the fact that the exams were untimed).

Here’s the game changer:

My own contribution to this history was solicited by Diane for her last annual Brookings conference….At the time, Diane thought my piece was “great.” So I was surprised to read that the lesson Diane now draws from Massachusetts is that “unions do not block academic improvement.” Well, it was certainly not for lack of trying.

Back in the early 1990s, we videogamers used to call that a “finishing move.”

In other news, sock puppet and Sith apprentice Leo Casey continues to offer his insights. Question for Leo: How deep do you intend to let the hole get before you stop digging?

Indiana Teacher Union Implodes like a Freddie

May 21, 2009

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

AIG, Bear Stearns, Freddie, Fannie, and now….the Indiana State Teachers Association!

The National Education Association has taken over the operations of the ISTA, its’ Indiana affiliate, due to “financial distress.”  ISTA’s medical and long-term disability insurance fund is projecting a $67 million deficit and is on the brink of bankruptcy due to very questionable investment management.  For instance, in a nine month timeframe, over 4,000 investment trades were made, many of which were in high-risk equities.

Question for Leo: when do we start that LLC? The fire-sale has begun! A mere $67m to buy a controlling interest in the political overlords of Indiana K-12 policy is cheeeeeeap!!

This is the Song That Never Ends

May 20, 2009

The AFT’s Leo Casey of union cue-card check and sock-puppet fame has written a blog post for his “steakholders” once again accusing me of cherry-picking.  The last time Leo accused me of cherry-picking voucher studies I produced what I believe are comprehensive lists of random-assignment voucher participant and high-quality voucher competitive effect studies.  Given his inability to substantiate that cherry-picking charge, I’m a bit surprised to see that he is a glutton for punishment and wants to make the charge again.  I guess Leo has joined with Shari Lewis, Lambchop, and all his sock-puppet friends to make this cherry-picking charge another song that never ends.

This time the issue is whether teacher unions tend to raise costs and lower student achievenement.  Leo noticed my guest posts over at Flypaper on this and asserts: “if you think that the scholarly literature on the subject is a guide, it clearly comes down in a place quite different from that suggested by Greene.”

Leo’s claim hinges entirely on what “scholarly literature” means and whether all “studies” should be treated equally.  For example, I could claim that the scholarly literature shows that candy improves student achievement, citing as scholarly literature papers written by my 5th grade son and friends whose research design involved describing how smart they felt after eating candy.

Leo doesn’t go quite that far but he does cite a study by the AFT’s very own Howard Nelson that makes a cross-sectional comparison of test scores controlling for a handful of observed demographics.  He also cites literature reviews that consist mostly of these cross-sectional analyses controlling for observed demographics. 

The problem is that there is a serious design flaw with these studies — unobserved factors that are associated with unionization may also be associated with student achievement.  For example, wealthier communities may be more likely to produce unionization because those communities have the wealth to bear the higher costs associated with unionized teachers.  Wealth may be associated with higher student achievement, but our controls for wealth (free lunch status) may not fully or accurately capture the differences in wealth.  So, unobserved and uncontrolled factors would bias the results from these cross-sectional studies.

Caroline Hoxby’s study, upon which I base my claims, employs a vastly superior research design that addresses this problem.  I’ll let her describe the problem and how she solves it:

“The … most serious obstacle is the identification problem caused by the difficulty of differentiating between the effects of a union on a school and the characteristics of a school  that make a union more likely to exist.  Even after controlling for observable characteristics of a school district such as demographics, there are presumably unobservable school characteristics associated with unionization.  The unobservable school characteristics that promote unionization may themselves affect the education production function….  My third, and probably best, attempt to solve the identification problem combines differences-in-differences and instrumental variables estimation.”

Her instrumental variable strategy involves using changes in state laws regarding unionization to derive unbiased estimates of when schools would unionize.  The change in the state law would help predict whether a school unionizes without being associated with the academic achievement in that school.  This is a far better way to estimate the effect of unionization than simply looking at whether unionized schools have higher or lower scores, since the scores and other factors associated with school quality could themselves be causing the unionization.

I’d put much more confidence in this rigorously designed study than a dozen weakly designed cross-sectional analyses.

But even if Leo insisted upon relying on the literature reviews he cites rather than the higher quality research, he would have to accept some results that aren’t very flattering to teacher unions.  Those lit reviews find that unionization raises the cost of education by about 8% to 15%.  In addition, they find that unionization tends to hurt the academic achievement of high-achieving and low-achieving students while benefiting more typical students found in the middle of the ability distribution. 

As Leo’s authority, Eberts, Hollenbeck and Stone, put it: “While on average students fare at least as well, if not better, in unionized schools, atypical students – students well below or above average ability – do appear to fare less well because instructional settings are more standardized, less individualized in unionized schools.”

So, if Leo wants to say that unions exacerbate the achievement gap for disadvantaged minority students while driving up costs, I guess he can rely on that literature review.  I prefer to rely on Caroline Hoxby’s rigorously designed study in a top economics journal.

More Teacher Union Sock Puppetry

April 29, 2009

Henson and Kermit.jpg

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Recently we had a lot of fun with the Leo Casey/UFT “cue card check” story. But one fact that I don’t think got a lot of attention (here or elsewhere) is that this is far from the first instance of teacher union sock puppetry.

In this week’s Communique, ALELR highlights another one – the NEA’s longtime practice of setting up dummy organizations that are entirely controlled by the union, but conceal this fact and present themselves as independent voices. This week he highlights ROVE (Republicans Opposing Voucher Efforts), which, from the evidence ALELR presents, sure looks a whole lot like it has the NEA’s arm sticking out the bottom.

Apparently their strategy is to pay a whole chorus of voices to sing out of the union songbook, while hiding the singers’ union connections.

Say, I think I feel a song coming on myself…

Why are there so many songs about unions?
And choruses on their side?

The singers are honest and independent
And they have nothing to hide

So we’ve been told and some choose to believe it
I know they’re wrong, wait and see
Someday we’ll find it – the union connection
The reformers, the reporters, and me!

Questions for Leo-The Final Chapter

April 23, 2009

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

In my final question for Leo, I ask: Leo, do your puppets have Taco Flavored Kisses?

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