Forget “Who’s Fickle?” Who’s Paranoid?

July 26, 2010

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Earlier this year, Checker Finn went through a brief period where he was tying himself in knots, sounding a whole lot like he was both for national standards and against them. Mike Petrilli chose that moment to take potshots at Arne Duncan for being “Fickle on Federalism.” I had a little fun asking “Who’s Fickle?

Since then, Checker has finally decided where he stands (at least for now). He’s accused those of us who ask embarrassing questions about whether national standards will be hijacked by the blog blob of “paranoia.”

[Update: Hijacked by the “blob,” of course. This was totally not a Freudian slip. The blog doesn’t hijack anything – as far as you know. Nothing to see here, folks…]

Well, the game just changed. Neal McCluskey has dug up a 1997 Weekly Standard article in which Checker makes the same arguments against national standards we are now making. None of the relevant facts on the ground has changed. So today I get to ask, “Who’s Paranoid?”

The Hits Keep on Coming

April 14, 2009

Arne Duncan explains to Science magazine why school choice is so important (if you are wealthy and white and can move into the suburbs with good public schools).  If you are poor, Black, and live in D.C. you should wait until we get around to improving the public schools.  It should be any day now.

“As the second education secretary with school-aged kids, where does your daughter go to school, and how important was the school district in your decision about where to live?
A.D. [Arne Duncan] : She goes to Arlington [Virginia] public schools. That was why we chose where we live, it was the determining factor. That was the most important thing to me. My family has given up so much so that I could have the opportunity to serve; I didn’t want to try to save the country’s children and our educational system and jeopardize my own children’s education.”

Anthony Williams and Kevin Chavous explain in the Washington Post why “We want freedom by any means necessary.  Man, the Washington Post has been solid in support of D.C. vouchers.

Mary Katharine Ham has a piece on the Weekly Standard web site that explains why  “it’s clear that, when given a choice, Democrats are more petrified of unions than they are interested in doing something that works for some of the most underserved kids in the District.”

And my colleague Bob Maranto has a piece in Front Page Magazine that explains: “By voting to kill the DC OSP, the Democrats in Congress have placed themselves in opposition to the educational needs of low-income, minority, inner-city children. If they ignore, deny, or minimize the importance of this rigorous evaluation of the program’s effectiveness, they also would be pitting themselves against President Obama, who has repeatedly called for respecting the role of science and data rather than money and lobbyists in making public policy, including education policy.”

Vote Milton in 2008

October 14, 2008

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

In a recent issue, the Weekly Standard‘s Matthew Continetti vents his anger at the House Republicans who killed the first bailout bill. I was about to quit reading after the first paragraph or so – because, really, why bother? – when this line struck me: “It was the day when Lou Dobbs replaced Milton Friedman as the face of economic conservatism.”

Excuse me? Milton Friedman didn’t even approve of the existence of the Fed. Does Continetti think he would approve of having the government buy $700 billion in financial assets? Would Milton Friedman also support having government buy up people’s mortgages and “renegotiate” the terms, or any other gimmick the GOP happens to dream up in its quest for votes?

It is just barely possible that what Continetti meant, but failed to actually say, was that Friedman would have opposed the bailout in a responsible, intellectually defensible manner, while the House Republicans didn’t. But the whole tone and tenor of Continetti’s article suggest otherwise. I’m afraid it looks a lot like Continetti simply identifies respectable and responsible economic conservatism with support for the bailout, and of course Milton Friedman is the respectable and responsible economic conservative par excellence, and Continetti failed to think through the implications. I wish he were the only bailout defender who took this attitude.

The whole thing reminded me of a classic William F. Buckley column entitled “Quick! Get Milton Friedman on the Line!” and published on Oct. 22, 1987, right after the Black Monday market crash. The entire column consists of a transcript of Buckley’s phone call to Friedman after the crash. I’ve emphasized a few lines that might be of heightened interest in light of current events:

How are you, Milton?

We’re fine, how are you?

I was wondering whether you could do me a favor. I would like nine hundred words for National Review on the market breakdown. We would need it by Thursday, noon.


Why not?

I have never written an economic analysis tailored to the market, and I’m not going to start doing that now.


Because the behavior of the market doesn’t correlate in any significant way with the behavior of the economy. It’s a mistake to imply that it does, and that would be inferred if I wrote about it.

Well, why don’t you write precisely on that theme? And it wouldn’t be cheating, would it, if you were to suggest what the investor might expect from the market, given the condition of the economy?

Yes, it would – I would be in the business of vetting the market, and I just told you, I’m not going to do that. I make my own decisions about the market, but not for public instruction. I sold all my stocks during the summer.

You did!

I did. And I’m going back into the market tomorrow.

Later, Buckley remarks that “the talk is of another 1929 depression,” to which Milton replies, “nonsense.”

Well, do you subscribe to the proposition that there are safeguards built into the system that would prevent a depression on a 1929 scale?

In 1954, I delivered a lecture in Sweden under the title, “Why the American Economy is Depression-Proof.” I have seen no reason since then, and see none now, to change that conclusion.

But your position all along has been that even the Great Depression was avoidable, correct? Even without the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., and the SEC, and Social Security, et cetera?

Yes. The economic downturn from August 1929 to the end of 1930 was more severe than during the first year of most recessions, but if an upturn had come shortly after, the episode would have been classified as a garden-variety recession. It was converted into the Great Depression by the collapse of the financial system in successive waves. In 1931, 1932 and 1933. The stock market played no significant role in this collapse. The argument that the 1929 market crash produced the 1931 to 1933 economic contraction is a prime example of post hoc, ergo procter hoc.

You’re saying that it could all have been avoided?

Yes. The financial collapse of 1931 to 1933 need not have occurred and would have been avoided if the Fed had never been established, or if it had behaved differently. The Fed’s inept performance led to changes in the financial system that make a similar financial collapse highly unlikely.

Well, that’s good news, isn’t it?

Yes, that’s good news.

I still don’t see why you won’t write nine hundred words on just what you’ve said for National Review.

You’ve got nine hundred words in what I’ve just said.

Good point. Thanks a lot, Milton, and good night.

Good night, Bill.

The column appears in Buckley’s Happy Days Were Here Again.

As the election approaches, the Friedman Foundation’s choice of “Vote Milton in 2008” as the theme for this year’s Friedman Day feels more and more appropriate.

Coming Tomorrow: Did Milton Friedman oppose financing school choice through tax credits? Archeologists have uncovered startling new evidence! Tune in for the text of a newly discovered letter in which Milton lays out his position.

Vouchers: Evidence and Ideology

May 8, 2008

(Guest post by Greg Forster)


Lately, Robert Enlow and I at the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice have had to spend a lot of time responding to the erroneous claims Sol Stern has been making about school choice. I honestly hate to be going up against Sol Stern right at the moment when he’s doing important work in other areas. America owes Stern a debt for doing the basic journalistic work on Bill Ayers that most journalists covering the presidential race didn’t seem interested in doing.


But what can we do? We didn’t choose this fight. If Stern is going to make a bunch of false claims about school choice, it’s our responsibility to make sure people have access to the facts and the evidence that show he’s wrong.


That’s why Enlow and I have focused primarily on using data and evidence to demonstrate that Stern’s claims are directly contrary to the known facts. It’s been interesting to see how Stern and his defenders are responding.


I’ve been saddened at how little effort Stern and his many defenders are devoting to seriously addressing the evidence we present. For example, all the studies of the effects of vouchers on public schools that were conducted outside the city of Milwaukee have been completely ignored both by Stern and by every one of his defenders I’ve seen so far. Does evidence outside Milwaukee not count for some reason? Since most of the studies on this subject have been outside Milwaukee, this arbitrary focus on Milwaukee is hard to swallow.


And what about the studies in Milwaukee? All of them had positive findings: vouchers improve public schools. Unfortunately, Stern and his critics fail to engage with these studies seriously.


Stern had argued in his original article that school choice doesn’t improve public schools, on grounds that the aggregate performance of schools in Milwaukee is still bad. His critics pointed out that a large body of high quality empirical research found that vouchers have a positive effect on public schools, both in Milwaukee and elsewhere. If Milwaukee schools are still bad, that doesn’t prove vouchers aren’t helping; and since a large body of high quality empirical research says they do help, the obvious conclusion to reach – if we are going to be guided by the data – is that other factors are dragging down Milwaukee school performance at the same time vouchers are pulling it upward.


If an asthma patient starts using medicine, and at the same time takes up smoking, his overall health may not improve. But that doesn’t mean the medicine is no good. I also think that there may be a “neighborhood effect” in Milwaukee, since eligibility for the program isn’t spread evenly over the whole city.


There’s new research forthcoming in Milwaukee that I hope will shed more light on the particular reasons the city’s aggregate performance hasn’t improved while vouchers have exerted a positive influence on it. The important point is that all the science on this subject (with one exception, in D.C., which I’ve been careful to take note of when discussing the evidence) finds in favor of vouchers.


In Stern’s follow-up defense of his original article, his “response,” if you can call it that, is to repeat his original point – that the aggregate performance of schools in Milwaukee citywide are still generally bad.


He disguises his failure to respond to his critics’ argument by making a big deal out of dates. He says that all the studies in Milwaukee are at least six years old (which is actually not very old by the standards of education research), and then provides some more recent data on the citywide aggregate performance of Milwaukee schools. But this obviously has nothing to do with the question; Stern’s critics agree that the aggregate data show Milwaukee schools are still bad. The question is whether vouchers exert a positive or negative effect. Aggregate data are irrelevant; only causal studies can address the question.


Of course it’s easy to produce more up-to-date data if you’re not going to use scientific methods to distinguish the influence of different factors and ensure the accuracy of your analysis. If you don’t care about all that science stuff, there’s no need to wait for studies to be conducted; last year’s raw data will do fine.


Weak as this is, at least it talks about the evidence. The response to our use of facts and evidence has overwhelmingly been to accuse school choice supporters of ideological closed-mindedness. Although we are appealing to facts and evidence, we are accused of being unwilling to confront the facts and evidence – accused by people who themselves do not engage with the facts and evidence to which we appeal.


Stern, for example, complains at length that “school choice had become a secular faith, requiring enforced discipline” and “unity through an enforced code of silence.” Apparently when we demonstrate that his assertions are factually false, we are enforcing silence upon him. (We’ve been so successful in silencing Stern that he is now a darling of the New York Times. If he thinks this is silence, he should get his hearing checked.)


Similarly, when Stern’s claims received uncritical coverage from Daniel Casse in the Weekly Standard, Enlow and Neal McCluskey wrote in to correct the record. Casse responded by claiming, erroneously, that Stern had already addressed their arguments in his rebuttal.


Casse also repeated, in an abbreviated form, Stern’s non-response on the subject of the empirical studies in Milwaukee – and in so doing he changed it from a non-response to an error. He erroneously claims that Stern responded to our studies by citing the “most recent studies.” But Stern cites no studies; he just cites raw data. It’s not a study until you conduct a statistical analysis to distinguish the influence of particular factors (like vouchers) from the raw aggregate results – kind of like the analyses conducted in the studies that we cite and that Stern and Casse dismiss without serious discussion.


Casse then praised Stern’s article because “it dealt with the facts on the ground” and accused school choice supporters of “reciting the school choice catechism.”


Greg Anrig, in this Washington Monthly article, actually manages to broach the subject of the scientific quality of one of the Milwaukee studies. Unfortunately, he doesn’t cite any of the other research, in Milwaukee or elsewhere, examining the effect of vouchers on public schools. So if you read his article without knowing the facts, you’ll think that one Milwaukee study is the only study that ever found that vouchers improve public schools, when in fact there’s a large body of consistently positive research on the question.


Moreover, Anrig’s analysis of the one Milwaukee study he does cite is superficial. He points out that the results in that study may be attributable to the worst students leaving the public schools. Leave aside that this is unlikely to be the case, much less that it would account for the entire positive effect the study found. The more important point is that there have been numerous other studies of this question that use methods that allow researchers to examine whether this is driving the results. Guess what they find.


Though he ignores all but one of the studies cited by school choice supporters, shuffling all the rest offstage lest his audience become aware of the large body of research with positive findings on vouchers, Anrig cites other studies that he depicts as refuting the case for vouchers. Like Stern’s citation of the raw data in Milwaukee, these other studies in fact are methodologically unable to examine the only question that counts – what was the specific impact of vouchers, as distinct from the raw aggregate results? (I’m currently putting together a full-length response to Anrig’s article that will go over the specifics on these studies, but if you follow education research you already know about them – the notoriously tarnished HLM study of NAEP scores, the even more notoriously bogus WPRI fiasco, etc.)


But Anrig, like his predecessors, is primarily interested not in the quality of the evidence but in the motives of school choice supporters. He spends most of his time tracing the sinister influence of the Bradley Foundation and painting voucher supporters as right-wing ideologues.


And these are the more respectable versions of the argument. In the comment sections here on Jay P. Greene’s Blog, Pajamas Media, and Joanne Jacobs’s site, much the same argument is put in a cruder form: you can’t trust studies that find school choice works, because after all, they’re conducted by researchers who think that school choice works.


(Some of these commenters also seem to be confused about the provenance and data sources of these studies. I linked to copies of the studies stored in the Friedman Foundation’s research database, but that doesn’t make them Friedman Foundation studies. As I stated, they were conducted at Harvard, Princeton, etc. And at one point I linked to an ELS study I did last year that also contained an extensive review of the existing research on school choice, but that doesn’t mean all the previous studies on school choice were ELS studies.)


What is one to make of all this? The more facts and evidence we provide, the more we’re accused of ignoring the facts and evidence – by people who themselves fail to address the facts and evidence we provide.


I’m tempted to say that there’s a word for that sort of behavior. And there may be some merit in that explanation, though of course I have no way of knowing. But I also think there’s something else going on as well.


One prominent blogger put it succinctly to me over e-mail. The gist of his challenge was something like: “Why don’t you just admit that all this evidence and data is just for show, and you really support school choice for ideological reasons?”


I think this expresses an idea that many people have – that there is “evidence” over here and then there is “ideology” over there, and the two exist in hermetically sealed containers and can never have any contact with one another. (Perhaps this tendency is part of the long-term damage wrought by Max Weber’s misuse of the fact/value distinction, but that’s a question for another time.)


On this view, if you know that somebody has a strong ideology, you have him “pegged” and can dismiss any evidence he brings in support of his position as a mere epiphenomenon. The evidence is a distraction from your real task, which is to identify and reveal the pernicious influence of his ideology on his thinking. Hence the widespread assumption that when a school choice supporter brings facts and evidence, there is no need to trouble yourself addressing all that stuff. Why bother? The point is that he’s an ideologue; the facts are irrelevant.


But, as I explained to the blogger who issued that challenge, evidence and ideology are not hermetically sealed. Ideology includes policy preferences, but those policy preferences are always grounded in a set of expectations about the way the world works. In fact, I would say that an “ideology” is better defined as a set of expectations about how the world works than as a set of policy preferences. (That would help explain, for example, why we still speak of differences between “liberal” and “conservative” viewpoints even on issues like immigration where there are a lot of liberals and conservatives on both sides.) And our expectations about how the world works are subject to verification or falsification by evidence.


So, for example, I hold an ideology that says (broadly speaking) that freedom makes social institutions work better. That’s one of the more important reasons I support school choice – because I want schools (all schools, public and private) to get better, and I have an expectation that when educational freedom is increased, schools will improve. My ideology is subject to empirical verification. If school choice programs do in fact make public schools better – as the empirical studies consistently show they do – then that is evidence that supports my ideology.


Even the one study that has ever shown that vouchers didn’t improve public schools, the one in D.C., also confirms my ideology. The D.C. program gives cash bribes to the public school system to compensate for lost students, thus undermining the competitive incentives that would otherwise improve public schools – so the absence of a positive voucher impact is just what my ideology would predict.


Other evidence may also be relevant to the truth or falsehood of my ideology, of course. The point is that evidence is relevant, and truth or falsehood is the issue that matters.


Now, as I’ve already sort of obliquely indicated, my view that freedom makes things work better is not the only reason I support school choice. But it is one of the more important reasons. So, if you somehow proved to me that freedom doesn’t make social institutions work better, I wouldn’t immediately disavow school choice, since there are other reasons besides that to support it. However, I would have significantly less reason to support it than I did before.


If we really think that evidence has nothing to do with ideology, I don’t see how we avoid the conclusion that people’s beliefs have nothing to do with truth or falsehood – ultimately, that all human thought is irrational. Bottom line, you aren’t entitled to ignore your opponent’s evidence, or dismiss it as tainted because it is cited by your opponent.


UPDATE: See this list of complete lists of all the empirical research on vouchers.


Edited for typos

%d bloggers like this: