Wednesday, May 25, 2011

The Pursuit of Happiness

I never thought I’d be defending Rupert Murdoch and really I’m not.  I’m defending Wireless Generation sort of I guess.  Mostly I think I’m defending the idea that making money isn’t inherently evil.  Full disclosure: I haven’t made enough money in my life to know this for a fact. But I’m pretty sure that making a profit is an integral part of American society and power.  Of course there are villainous billionaires out there and Rupert Murdoch is a pretty good villain.  But there are villainous public sector workers too, and villainous Nigerian princes, and villainous writers too.

Valerie Strauss’ recent blog post paints a picture that makes for profit education companies evil because they are trying to make a profit.  She makes a couple observations that could be construed as a conflict of interest.  Basically Joel Klein left New York City Schools to work for Murdoch and now Murdoch’s company News Corp has purchased Wireless Generation, a company that does some big business with New York City Schools, and with other districts as well.  That is literally the extent of what I know so you can be the judge.  Doesn’t feel that iffy to me.  If anything it speaks to Klein thinking highly of Wireless Gen’s work.

Ms. Strauss actually acknowledges that “for-profit business can and do bring valuable products and services to public schools.”  Her major issue appears to be that for-profit companies care more about money and investors than they do about public schools and the kids.  Maybe that’s true although for-profit companies are also capable of believing in a mission.  Also self interest doesn’t exist exclusively in for-profit companies.  I can think of a few local DC watchdog groups whose interest seems to lie more in legitimizing their own existence than in actually creating real positive change for the kids. 

Teachers unions are great examples of institutions attached to education whose interest do not lie with students but with teachers.  That obviously doesn’t mean there is no place for unions in education. They serve their purposes and Ms Strauss, who is a champion of the union perspective, should be able to acknowledge that self interest can and often does intersect with the interest of the kids.

Obviously, not all business is great for students.  Just like not all activists are great for students, not all unions are great for students and so on and so forth.  There is always potential for exploitation.  But from what I’ve seen from Wireless Generation, and what I’ve heard smarter people than I am say, they by and large provide high quality service.  It is good that they are making money for providing a high quality service.  Too many of the vendors who cater to urban school districts only do so because they are bad enough at what they do and can overcharge by enough that it is worth navigating the nonsensical procurement processes that dominate government bureaucracies.

The bottom line for Ms. Strauss is that she believes big business is driving education policy.  Big business is savvy enough to enter emerging markets and with all this still relatively new focus on education and turning around low performing schools a new market has emerged.  It is education policy that is driving big business.  And by bringing a for-profit mentality into the market, new and innovative ideas are being introduced as well.  It has diversified perspectives, thought processes and personalities in a sector that has spent a long time not serving our most vulnerable communities.  This is a good thing on net.  There will definitely be slip ups, examples of profit corrupting a noble mission.  But impure motivations corrupting noble missions has always occurred and will always occur.  It is not a reason to hate all things profitable.  That is a viewpoint of a caricature from an Ayn Rand novel.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

More Mythical Myths

Another article was published in the Washington Post taking aim at the myths education reformers are using to dupe the American people, or the media, or something.  It wasn’t so long ago that I used another article using the same myth gimmick as a launching point to talk about some of the major education reform issues that are out there.  These myth articles don’t really do it for me if only because they do not accurately represent the positions they are attempting to debunk.  Thus they are of minimal use.  This one in particular seems to be arguing against…nobody at all.

We’ll do this quickly myth by myth:

Myth 1: Our schools are failing

It isn’t just the education reformers who think a lot of schools are failing.  It is pretty much everyone who has a child in an urban school district.  It is most people paying attention to the educational outcomes of minorities.  Yes, things seem to be trending in the right direction.  But citing rising high school graduation rates that are derived from different methodologies and are often pulled from historically questionable data is not going to change the fact that way too many of our schools don’t educate students.  

Of course not all schools are failing.  There are good ones and bad ones.  Enough are failing and enough are failing in a systemic way that it feels quite cold to argue that there isn’t a problem.  For a little more oomph on this topic, responding to the same article, check out eduwonk who beat me to the punch with his pitch perfect response.

Myth 2: Unions defend bad teachers

Unions do defend bad teachers.  That is part of their job description.  And due-process can easily be code for really long, arduous, complicated process that is easy to file a grievance against.  That being said, unions are not universally bad, nor do they have bad intentions, nor are they unwilling to engage in productive reform.  A lot of the conflict between the reform movement and the unions comes down to negotiating.  There are of course high profile disagreements but on the ground and behind the scenes the relationships are not as antagonistic as they appear in the papers.

The real argument here is about reform minded administrators wanting more power over who their employees are.  This is really a myth about teacher evaluation, tenure and last in, first out policies.  Montgomery County is an interesting example.  I don’t know much about the program but according to the article it did result in 245 teachers exiting the schools over a five year period.  This is an interesting example and an interesting number to cite because 245 teachers over a five year period in a school system with 11,000 teachers seems shockingly low.  That comes out to less than half a percent of teachers per year.  I’ve never seen an organization whose human capital was so good that less than half a percent of its employees were better than replacement level.

Of course, there has been progress and unions have been a part of that progress.  More powerful and fairer evaluations are being developed.  They are still young, they are expensive but they are also essential.

Myth 3: Billionaires know best

There are some notable billionaires putting their money where their mouths are and forking over the dollars to some of the most difficult school districts in the country.  They are attaching those dollars to some pretty specific reform oriented programs that would not be possible without private dollars.  I didn’t realize this was a bad thing.  I’d rather risk Bill Gates’ money on new merit pay programs than tax payer dollars.  He was wrong about small schools, admitted his mistake and has moved on to a new idea that will hopefully be a part of a longer term solution to some of our country’s education woes.

This myth is really an attack on merit pay which I’ve already weighed in on.  But the final sentence really kills me:  “There’s no doubt that these schools can use every dime that rich guys give.  But attaching strings for pet projects is elitist and wasteful.” 

First of all I wouldn’t call merit pay for teachers the pet project of billionaires.  Secondly, wasteful would be pouring a billion dollars into a failing school district with no clear idea of what the money would be used for.  Failing school districts aren’t known for fiscal responsibility or effectively leveraging resources to create systemic success.  That is why they are failing. 

Friday, May 20, 2011

Cheaters Cheaters...Everywhere?

When there is a reason to cheat someone will cheat.  Not everyone will cheat.  But someone will.  It doesn’t make it right to cheat, it doesn’t make it justifiable or acceptable.  It does make it expected.  Athletes cheat in sports, people cheat on their taxes, people in relationships cheat on each other, students cheat on tests.  I attended what many consider to be the best public high school in the country, full of the brightest students, home of incredibly high standardized test scores and people cheated there.  I went to a university known for its strong academics and stronger honor code and people cheated there.  People breaking the rules is a fact of life.  That’s why we have a judicial system, drug testing and numerous oversight and regulatory bodies.
Bill Turque’s article from a few days ago announced that three DC Public Schools classrooms’ test scores will be invalidated due to cheating.  The article itself provides a good rundown of the facts but the response will inevitably consider a small group of cheaters to be a referendum on policies put in place to turn DC schools into something other than the worst in the country.  This is not what the takeaway should be.

The USA Today story about erasure analysis in DC brought the story to the national level.  Please note that Turque’s most recent article is about last year’s test scores, whereas USA Today was in fact rehashing findings that were reported previously.  USA Today brought up good points about the statistical improbability of some of the findings at some DC schools.  These improbabilities indicated that further investigation should take place, although they are not considered proof of cheating.  And investigations did take place.  Apparently a few people got fired because of these investigations.

Where the USA Today story steps over the line with paragraphs like the following:
Noyes is one of 103 public schools here that have had erasure rates that surpassed D.C. averages at least once since 2008. That's more than half of D.C. schools.
These two sentences, at first glance, seem pretty bad.  Half of schools have irregular erasure rates that could be indicative of cheating?  Well, yeah.  More than half the schools had higher than average erasure rates.  A little less than half had lower than average erasure rates.  Unless I'm missing something that sounds pretty close to the definition of the word average.  It is statements like these, which are essentially meaningless, that push the message that there is an epidemic of cheating that undermines all test scores, all assessment measures, all efforts to increase accountability. 

I’m insulted by the idea that increasing pressure forces people to cheat.  Somehow creating a system of accountability, a system of transparency, where people can see the results of your work, turns people into cheaters.  An adult cheating in an institution of learning is one of the worst kinds of cheating possible, and those who cheat should be punished.  People have free will, they can make their own decisions and blaming a standardized test for morally questionable behavior infantilizes the people we entrust our kids to every day.

But the true witch hunt is not in pursuit of the people making the decisions to cheat but the higher ups who believe standardized tests do have a role, serious accountability and evaluation is important.  On the one hand there is probably a valid argument to be made about creating a culture in which widespread cheating takes place.  But it could also be said that introducing change to a bad culture would lead to some desperate behavior no matter what.   And there is no indication of how widespread any cheating is or how the scope of cheating compares to other districts, urban and suburban, high achieving and low achieving.

When we look at the actions taken by the decision makers it doesn’t look like the leadership in DC have taken this issue lightly.  A huge amount of effort goes into training about and monitoring testing compliance.  And within Turque’s article it is clear that there is substantial self reporting of any violations, intentional or not.  The only reason there was a USA Today article is because DC Public Schools hired a third party firm to investigate, likely at great expense.  Kaya Henderson should be applauded for taking it a step further and asking the DC Inspector General to investigate further.

You see, for people who are invested in making education improvements based at least in part on rising test scores, the credibility of those scores is incredibly important.  In terms of incentives it is the very people who will be accused of covering up something sinister, or even worse setting up something sinister, who have the biggest incentive to have clean, credible tests.  The chances of getting caught systematically cheating is so high that it would be a terrible decision to make even if the decision was based solely on selfish reasoning.  And based on what everyone thinks of the education reform radicals, both positive and negative, I don’t think anyone believes the front runners of the movement are desperate or dumb.  Some say cold and calculating but not many say desperate and dumb.

The fact is most people are playing by the rules.  And in at least three instances where people weren’t playing by the rules action was taken.  Proving cheating is very difficult and making loose accusations is not something any school district would do.  There will always be some uncertainty involved with erasure analyses, cheating accusations, disciplinary action related to test security infractions.  It doesn’t undermine the entire system unless we let it.  It is just a fact of life that districts must acknowledge and work to minimize.  From my viewpoint it looks like that is exactly what DC is doing.  In a system in which so much has been broken for so long it is naïve to expect perfection but a good faith effort to clean things up is a strong start.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Optimally Crazy in Education

Last week I wrote about the potential benefits of signaling crazy outcomes during a negotiation.  If a credible signal is sent it can shift the power of the negotiation in favor of the side willing to do crazy things, like walk away from a lucrative deal or blow up the world.  Negotiating in this manner may be effective but it creates an adversarial environment where compromise is difficult to achieve, both sides cannot truly trust each other and brinksmanship pushes each side to extreme positions they would not necessarily adopt in more flexible situations. Think about the Cold War or the current right-left political climate where extreme positions are regularly adopted and celebrated.
This type of negotiation also exists in the education arena.  Negotiation is an enormous part of education policy and contributes a great deal to the rancor that exists in much of the debate. 

There are many issues in education that many people don’t agree on.  I’m going to oversimplify things to a huge degree here so bear with me.  What much of the conflict boils down to is a labor vs management relationship…with a whole bunch of other stuff added on.  And it defines the debates we have.  It pushes people to extremes they don’t normally occupy.  Think about the major issues in play in education reform today.  There are concerns that charter schools and school vouchers will lead to the privatization of public schools.  There are concerns about pay scales, last in first out, pay for performance, teacher evaluation, standardized tests; all are at their heart labor issues, negotiated in contracts and legislated with serious backing from both union lobbies and anti-union lobbies. 

This conflict played out on a micro level around the DC teacher contract.  A negotiation famous for its length, stage and personality.  A microcosm for the bigger battle occurring, as evidenced by the national union taking over negotiations from the local union.  That act alone was an extreme move, sending a clear signal that regardless of local context the union could not compromise.  The DC Public Schools administration originally pushed for a contract in which teachers would be able to choose tenure or performance bonuses (the poorly named red and green tracks). This seems…reasonable.  Giving grown-ups a choice.  But in negotiation rarely is it a good idea to start with your compromise.  The union shut it down because it did weaken tenure and therefore collective bargaining and the union in general.  The plan never went to a vote.  The union staked out a fairly extreme position that actually gave less freedom to their own members because the union’s job is to protect what they have and ask for more.  The administration responded by essentially saying they were going to do what they wanted with or without the union.  This was a very strong message, a credible signal, that if the union didn’t give a little they would be crushed.  Stalemate ensued, with both parties moving further apart, adopting more extreme positions, where early on it seemed they would reach agreement. 

On the vast majority of issues both sides agreed.  They both wanted more money for teachers, more resources, better professional development, some form of collaboration on the school level, interventions for students falling behind.  All those things are written into the contract.  Yet it took multiple years to work out the contract, to negotiate every line, to even let the teachers vote.  Because on the issues where they disagreed neither could compromise and instead of coming together they moved apart, both adopting tactics to ensure they’d get more of what they wanted.  Both sides needed to prove that they were crazy enough to not give in so they could get what they were actually after. 

On a more macro level we can see some of the results.  Optimal strategy, after all, is not just about taking an extreme position to negotiate from a position of power.  When two sides are taking extreme positions it can change where the middle ground is.  This is why extremists can be useful.  The fringe can move the center.  In DC we see a battle without compromise, an education reform movement pushing the envelope harder than anywhere else, pushing the edge of the debate further in one direction than it has in the past.  The perfect tool for Arne Duncan to use to work a middle ground that just a couple years earlier was hopelessly radical.  Arne Duncan praised the New Haven contract, a much more palatable agreement for the majority to swallow, not the DC contract.  Arne Duncan championed Race to the Top, a truly radical approach in the world of education, an approach that is quite threatening to many traditional viewpoints on education but he did with the credibility of someone who compromises.  He didn’t have to stake out an extreme position to get to the compromise he wanted because someone else already had.

But it is important to remember that as we progress through this debate we need to get beyond the negotiation.  It is limiting, it prevents the type of flexible thinking that can lead to innovative solutions.  It places more value on ideology than depth of thought.  Ultimately it is Arne Duncan’s approach that will likely net the most long term gains, taking advantage of both extremes and a shifting center to push his vision.  Look what he did with Race to the Top.  Just by proposing it he seriously altered the behavior of most states.  Of course, to do that he needs someone else to do some of his dirty work.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

The Headline Says School Vouchers Are Evil

There was a quite the hubbub when Michelle Rhee came out in favor of school vouchers.  The twitterati were up in arms.  It hit close to home in DC, a well known battleground for school vouchers thanks to never ending meddling by federal legislators.  Hers was a big stance to take by the former leader of a failing public school system.  It fed the narrative of a conspiracy that the recent wave of education reformers were trying to “privatize public education”.  And it was Michelle Rhee, the lightning rod herself, newsmaker, unpolitical politician.

But as is often the case, the headline drew the crowd and the crowd neglected to actually read what she said.  This isn’t a defense of Michelle Rhee or an apology for her take on an issue.  This is a question for everyone who has an opinion.  A challenge for those who want to create a better world more than they want to win or be right or make a name for themselves.  I am taking the moral high ground here because I actually read her Huffington Post opinion.  I actually understood what she was saying.  I actually disagree with her.  And I can tell you why.  It has nothing to do with politics or the name Michelle Rhee or taking up my allotted position in the education reform spectrum.

Michelle Rhee believes in school choice and allowing parents to make the best possible decision for their students.  But in many places there aren’t enough high quality schools. Many students face long odds lotteries or a multitude of weak choices.  We have a serious supply problem.

In the world of school turnaround, education reform, urban reform we speak in terms of years because that’s how long it takes to create an education system that is at least morally defensible as opposed to criminal.  If you are a parent, you can’t wait years for a system to be ready to serve your child.  Your child needs an education now.  Preaching patience and trust may be well intentioned but when you actually do it to real people, real parents, real students, you quickly realize that no matter the intentions it is a joke of a plea to make.

I’ve walked through the some of the same schools as Michelle Rhee and I’ve talked to some of the same students and parents.  I’ve heard some of the same stories and seen some of the same injustices.  Whatever you want to believe from a policy perspective, from the long view, from the district level, from the state level, from the federal level, from the suburbs, standing on the ground in some of the worst schools changes you.  So when someone says they believe in school vouchers because they couldn’t ever force a parent to send their children to schools that nobody would choose you shouldn’t scoff, you should listen.  When someone says they believe school vouchers provide more choices which forces failing districts to focus, improve, recruit, fight for their lives, you should listen.  These are realities that were co-opted by politics.  It doesn’t make them irrelevant or cheap arguments.  If they feel like desperate arguments for a desperate solution, maybe they are, but that is because the situation is desperate.

I don’t think school vouchers are the answer because they don’t solve the supply problem.  There still won’t be enough high quality schools to seriously impact urban education.  If school vouchers were ever scaled up enough to make a difference for more than a handful of kids it wouldn’t do much other than create a demand for more private schools that cater to the budget of the scholarship student.  Private schools, like charter schools, like public schools, can be good or bad.  The quality of education is not defined by type of school.  For me the school voucher debate, the mayhem that surrounds it, is a misallocation of resources because as far as silver bullets go, school vouchers are more of a prehistoric spear.

Philosophically I’m opposed to public funding for private schools like many people are.  But if I thought that school vouchers would create the type of change that would lead to a massive increase in the quality of education for our kids I’d set aside those philosophical misgivings.  But I don’t think school vouchers would create that change so I defer to my philosophy or my political leanings or whatever they are.

I can read some of the stances on school vouchers and agree with every fact and still come to a different conclusion.   That is the kind of issue school vouchers happens to be.  And understanding the other side, even agreeing with them on many points, makes me a stronger thinker, gives me the confidence that when I choose a side at least I’m not blind in my thought process.

Because if you actually read the platform on StudentsFirst’s website about school choice, it sounds an awful lot like Michelle Rhee wants to add a little public transparency to private schools.  So maybe the conspiracy is not to privatize public education but the opposite.  

Monday, May 16, 2011

Telling Time: The Long and the Short of It

One aspect of education reform that is incredibly difficult to deal with in the highly politicized world that education reform occupies is time.  Time complicates everything both for those aggressively pushing new tactics and for those who believe the new tactics being introduced are a waste of resources.  Time, or more precisely a lack of it, creates false narratives, meaningless debates and premature decisions.  One thing that doesn’t exist when it comes to aggressive reform is patience whether it is the reformers pushing for change or the traditionalists pushing to evict the reformers.  Something missing from the larger debate is a firm understanding of time.

Life is subject to randomness.  Some days you are lucky and some days you are not.  Some days go better than expected and some days go worse.  Some years test scores rise and some years test scores fall.  This will happen no matter what.  The world is a random place full of the inexplicable.  Large sample sizes are required to reach confident conclusions.  Consistent trends take years to see.  Variance is the enemy of reliability and consistency.  And a consistently good education is what our students need to succeed over the course of 12-plus years in school.

It is easy to jump to conclusions after the short term.  But those conclusions are short term and nothing else.  What we are all in search of are long term solutions and those require long term conclusions.  Every year we see the release of test scores as a finish line, a referendum on newborn policies.  Every year someone like Jay Matthews will chime in with a voice of reason and say that a single year’s test scores don’t really mean much.  What matters is a three year trend, a five year trend, or, god forbid, a ten year trend that actually encompasses the bulk of a child’s education.

In a world full of competing interests, a need for instant gratification and education as political issue it is exceedingly difficult to give enough room for success to blossom.  Everyone is so focused on one off anecdotes that signal educational Armageddon or one number that represents the Absolute Truth of what is happening or aberrant results whether good or bad that they fail to look at the whole of an incredibly complex, impossible to fully understand picture.  No matter what anecdote a person finds there will be a matching opposite.  No matter what number a person identifies there will be an argument about what it really means.  No matter how extreme a success or failure is, it is likely to be less extreme next year.  Only after a number of years can we trust the numbers.  Only after a number of years of site visits, retrospective anecdotes, and injustices addressed do we start to see a narrative that may add some value.  Only after a number of years do outliers regress to the mean or signal once and for all failure and defeat.

School districts, and therefore school reform, operate on a school year schedule.  In year one a new intervention or reform or change is an idea.  In year two it will be implemented poorly because it is impossible to do something new perfectly.  In year three it will be implemented better and start showing usable results.  In year four maybe a legitimate evaluation can take place.  In year five you can toss the program if it is no good or try to scale it up to other locations if it is great. 

Every year, each program, each change, each idea, has one chance.  If that chance is missed the year is lost.  A focus on short term results compresses the timeline of responsible implementation, undermining any new program from the start and leading to evaluation of results without a firm understanding of the extent to which those results are noise, or random.  And the focus on early difficulties prevents proper learning by the school or the district.  Instead of learning from past mistakes, instead of learning how to deliver consistently, instead of evaluating long term data from many perspectives, a school or district or policymaker must defend their past decisions without truly knowing what works and what doesn’t.  Similar to the way teachers tend to be evaluated it is difficult to get past the voodoo and into the substantive and meaningful.  And sometimes someone gets stuck defending the wrong thing, or lets go of a promising program too soon, or a disaster too late.

This is why research and development is important.  This is why having the patience to try new ideas and see if they actually work is both important and difficult.  It requires time and political capital and credibility that nobody has.  Of course, this is how it is supposed to be, highly urgent.  We are failing kids every day.  Preaching patience is morally questionable.  But if we take a long term view, if we are serious about making the future a better place, we have to see that focusing exclusively on next year or even the next three years won’t help us build something better to outlast us all.  That doesn’t mean ignore the present.  No way.  Never.  But as we pull our hair out about short term results, recent battles, upcoming elections, all of us have to keep our eye on the future prize, the one where slow, steady solving might actually show us a place where skin color, zip code and parent’s occupation don’t define life outcomes.

And there is a small way everyone who cares about the education conversation can help get the long view instead of limiting themselves to just the short view.  And it isn’t to stop talking about yearly test scores.  That’s too unrealistic.  It is to learn basic statistical concepts.  I don’t care if you know stat or not.  I don’t.  I’m not statistician by any stretch of anyone’s imagination.  But understanding concepts like variance, regression to the mean, confidence intervals, statistically significant will go a long way toward understanding a clearer picture of what is and isn’t happening.  It will give a fuller picture of the difficulty of trying to identify successes and failures.  

Understanding common statistical fallacies like the Simpson’s Paradox or the Gambler’s Fallacy can make a huge difference in understanding what the numbers mean.  It can give anecdotes and headlines a broader context, a textual story to illustrate.  It can take some of the nitty gritty argument about numbers out of the arena of he-said, she-said and into the arena of explaining a nuanced approach to data analysis.  A better educated conversation could help us give the space to the experts to provide a better education to those who can benefit more from a discussion of solutions rather than a discussion of politics and personalities.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Deception and Rage...Must Be Education Reform

Time to get back to the original reason I even started this blog: Valerie Strauss, her blog and the type of debate it engages in enrage me.  To Ms. Strauss’ credit her bizarre vendetta against Michelle Rhee is at least consistent.  She has once again posted something with an ironic headline (considering that the post itself is at best completely absent of nuance and at worst totally deceptive itself), which I guess is a step up from literally creating a cartoon comprised of misquotes.

Anyway, the gist of Ms. Strauss’ post is that StudentsFirst (also known as Michelle Rhee’s organization) sent out a fundraising letter during Teacher Appreciation Week that refers to some reforms that Ms. Strauss doesn’t agree with.  This letter was apparently sent to Diane Ravitch.  Ms. Strauss acts shocked by this because Diane Ravitch and Michelle Rhee disagree.  I’m guessing that Ms. Ravitch, like many ed policy folks, is on the StudentsFirst mailing list.  I’m on the list too.  I got the letter too (I didn’t contribute, sorry Michelle Rhee).  Seemed pretty standard fare.  Barack Obama’s organization sends me a lot of emails too, some asking for money, some with third party commentary about what a good job our president is doing and most from someone not named Barack Obama.  I don’t see how this is unusual or deceptive in any way. 

The fact that this is news in the mind of Ms. Strauss is the perfect example of why so much of the debate around education in this country is false debate, focused more on personalities than policies, full of red herrings that don’t address the actual issues at hand, obsessed with narratives about conspiracies that don’t even make sense.

And on that note I guess it is time for me to chime in on “privatizing public schools” and the three ways Michelle Rhee is accomplishing this feat that I don’t think is remotely possible even if that was her intention, which I’m completely sure it isn’t.
  1.            Expanding charter schools that are often run by for-profit companies – Call me crazy but I’m in favor of kids receiving a good education.  And I’ve definitely seen charter schools that provide a better education than most public schools.  There is a reason charters have such a large share of the students in DC.  Yes, just like some public schools are good and some are bad, some charters are good and some are bad.  The good news is failing charter schools can be shut down easily, or at least should be.  In terms of the charter-traditional debate…who cares?  Whoever serves the students the best works for me.  As for the for-profit companies running the schools; I say if you can provide a high quality education to a bunch of kids, it is free for the kids, you don’t require a private school style application and you can make money from it, more power to you.  Way to be the best kind of capitalist there is.  And if you try and fail then the city or district or state who hired you should do the right thing and fire you.
  2.            Increasing the use of standardized tests that are sold to schools by private firms – You mean like the SAT?  Or the AP tests?  Or the ACT?  Or IB? Or the LSAT? Or the MCAT?  Did I miss something here?  I’ve already said a little bit about how I feel about standardized tests.  But the private profit thing…I never realized that engaging in business was such a bad thing.  Michelle Rhee didn’t invent standardized tests or testing companies.  Her issues of choice aren’t even the issues keeping those companies in the black.  Look at the suburbs, look at the best schools in the country including the private ones and tell me if standardized testing plays a major role there.  There are absolutely companies taking advantage of a huge market for testing and making a big profit.  Once again, I’m pretty sure that is a side effect of capitalism.  And pretending that standardized tests are evil extensions of profiteering corporations seems a little…I’m not even sure what.  People are entitled to their beliefs.  But try getting into the Ivy League without a good SAT score.  I’m pretty sure Harvard arrived on the scene before Kaplan.  Those standardized tests aren’t just a money maker for companies.  They are the currency that our education system uses for just about everything and everything isn’t all bad, not all good either, but not all bad.
  3.           Supporting the use of public money for use as private school tuition – Now here is an example of something I don’t agree with.  But I can see why people would be in favor of school vouchers.  In fact, there has been a lot of debate here in DC on this very topic.  There are pretty good arguments on both sides.  In my mind one of the reasons vouchers aren’t a great solution is because if they were scaled up enough to impact a lot of students it would just shift the same problems we see in public schools to private schools but with less oversight.  Plus, last time I checked, the current research on vouchers is a little wishy-washy.  I don’t think it would ever lead to “privatizing public schools” on the level of actually threatening public schools as we know them.  But strictly speaking school vouchers could be considered a form of privatizing public schools.  I just don’t see it as one of the long term consequences of vouchers.
StudentsFirst isn't evil or deceptive.  I know some people who work there and they’re good people who care about kids. Just like I know many people in DC who are connected in various ways to education who are good people and care about kids.  I very often don’t agree with them.  And believe me, I’ve been yelled at enough times in public to know that a lot of them don’t agree with me.  But most of the time all of us, even while disagreeing about the color of the sky, are pushing for the same thing: a better education for all students.  That’s a noble thing.

I may disagree with Michelle Rhee about school vouchers but that doesn’t make her deceptive.  To call someone deceptive, to openly question their integrity, to continuously use an internationally acclaimed newspaper to push one side of an agenda is irresponsible.  If you disagree about school vouchers or charters or standardized testing or teacher evaluations those are fine opinions to have.  Write that.  Write about the arguments you disagree with and why you think they are wrong.  Don’t pander to “privatizing public schools” conspiracy theorists.  Don’t knee-jerk disagree just because Michelle Rhee believes something.  Don’t automatically pigeon-hole supporters of education reform as people who for some bizarre reason have decided to destroy the education system they are apparently only pretending to work to save.  There are a lot of things I don’t understand but one thing I do understand is that real life is complex and difficult and sometimes hard decisions have to be made that will hurt people.  And when you walk through a failing school and you talk to students who are being asked to be more heroic than I’ve ever been just to graduate from high school you might see, like I have, that the hardest decision to make is the decision to not change something.  But maybe not, up to you.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Being Optimally Crazy

During negotiations what you signal to your counterpart is incredibly important.  What you are capable of has an incredible impact on how your counterpart will act and react and thus how you should act and react.  Think of Mutual Assured Destruction in the Cold War (or just think of Dr. Strangelove).  Total Annihilation from a nuclear winter? Bad for everyone.  Credibly signaling that in the event of attack the worst possible scenario would happen to everyone? In light of the fact that no nuclear war took place between the US and Soviet Union, good for everyone.

Now apply that thought process to the following hypothetical: 

You are engaged in negotiations around a 100 million dollar business deal.  Your counterpart is an aggressive negotiator with a history of walking out on big deals because of, if the rumors are true, minor disagreements over contract language.  After six months of working on the deal it appears signatures on the contract are imminent.  But your counterpart declares something in the contract that is not especially favorable to his company is a problem, enough of a problem that he will nix the deal.  Walking out on the deal would be bad for both of your businesses.  But you know he might actually walk out, leaving both of you with nothing and six months of work wasted.  What is the right choice? 

The right choice is to compromise, give in, whatever it takes to seal the deal.  The risk of him actually walking out, which his reputation indicates is a real possibility, is too much in the face of a minor loss at the negotiating table for your company.  In other words, because your counterpart would be willing to do something crazy and detrimental to you both, he was able to negotiate from a position of power.  Whether this is an optimal strategy in the long run is open to debate but in this case, probably a good move by him.

Now, look at recent political negotiations between the Democrats and the Republicans.  It feels like the Republicans are smacking around the Democrats with frequency, especially on budget matters, and definitely on raising the debt ceiling.  It feels like the Republicans win the PR battle easily every time, mobilizing their base, staying mostly unified and sticking to extreme positions.  This picture is an oversimplification of what is actually occurring but it does play into the larger narrative of Republican means strong and Democrat means weak.  Or from the Democrat viewpoint Democrat means reasonable and Republican means crazy.
I think it is because the Republicans will credibly signal that they will do something crazy if they do not get a lot of concessions.  Much of their rhetoric is devoted to not backing down.  Many of the platforms conservatives ran on in the midterm elections were platforms of non-governance.  This lends credibility to any negotiating position they take.  Based on the political philosophy that got them elected stalemate, or simply not acting at all, is a viable goal to have. 

The current example of note is their refusal to raise the debt ceiling.  Everything I have read on the topic indicates that not raising the debt ceiling would be a total disaster for the US economy and for the US Government’s ability to meet its financial responsibilities including such basics as paying our soldiers on time.  Yet there is debate over whether to raise the debt ceiling.  And the Democrats will concede something to raise the debt ceiling.  Because they absolutely believe the Republicans will allow potential disaster to occur.  With the stakes so high the Democrats cannot in good conscience call their bluff.  The right choice is to concede just as it was in our hypothetical above.  Regardless of whether the Republicans would actually not raise the debt ceiling without serious concessions, the fact that they can credibly signal that they wouldn’t is part of their optimal strategy.  This imbalance in credibility shifts any negotiation equilibrium towards the right on the political spectrum. 

As with any game involving multiple actors, a predictable strategy can eventually be exploited.  So why does this imbalance exist?  Why don’t the Democrats change their strategy, take more extreme positions, let the Republicans take the lead on stalemate and move the negotiation equilibrium further to the left?  Because, while that is an optimal strategy for Republicans it isn’t for Democrats.  Recent research done by Pew shows that the Republican base overwhelmingly prefers political candidates who stand by their beliefs over candidates who compromise with opponents.  Meanwhile, the Democrat base overwhelmingly prefers candidates who compromise with opponents over candidates who stand by their beliefs. 

This is a core difference in values, thought process and approach to problem solving among the supporters of the two parties.  And it creates a strange equilibrium where representatives of both parties practice optimal strategy based on the constituents they represent but the optimal strategy means one group of constituents will consistently give up more of what they believe in than the other group.  Of course, from the perspective of the right it likely feels that the equilibrium remains too far to the left because even as Republicans win negotiation battles they still, in the end, compromise, albeit with much stronger results than would otherwise be expected in the absence of credibly extreme positions.

This is a topic I would like to explore further.  The negotiation game and the optimal strategy for achieving the desired results can be applied in an interesting way to some education issues.  Also the differences between the supporters of the parties explains a lot about why supporters of both parties often have a hard time understanding each other and why they have the attitudes they do about government.  While the question of supporting strict adherence to values or compromise isn’t the focus of the Pew research it does have huge implications that deserve to be explored further.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

A Little Bit on Standardized Testing

Today I ready a blog post by Matt Yglesias that hits the nail on the head for how I feel about standardized tests and the arguments against them.  My feelings on standardized testing are a little more complicated than what can easily be communicated in a single blog post but generally speaking I think they are essential.  Not because they accurately test what children have learned and not because they are the best way to evaluate teachers and not because the are fair to everyone.  Those concerns are more complex and require a nuanced discussion.  

The essential part about standardized tests are that by their very nature they are not especially difficult.  They are geared towards standards that most children should be passing with ease.  They are a blunt instrument that measures whether children are achieving even the most basic skills required to progress in our society.  Students not passing standardized tests is unacceptable because generally speaking that means you can't read and we are failing.

Yglesias' post mentions how high the functional illiteracy rate is in Detroit.  DC also suffers from a shockingly high functional illiteracy rate.  Students who are not functionally literate cannot pass standardized tests, including the math portions.  I would venture a guess that not doing well on standardized tests correlates highly with not going to college and diminished earning power throughout life.  Because that's what happens when someone can't read and it is a tragedy.

When people throw standardized tests under the bus they cite low expectations, not encouraging students to be creative, being unfair to children who just aren't great test takers.  All those are probably legitimate to a certain extent.  But if we were all doing our jobs they would be irrelevant.  Standardized tests are only a big deal because of the extent to which we fail at educating our students.  When people talk about standardized testing not really measuring anything they are talking from the perspective of someone who is worried about the difference between the 60th percentile and the 90th.  What standardized tests and NCLB are actually useful for is finding out where the 0-30 percentile is and targeting those children as the ones who need to learn to read right now or be damned to a life without options.

Are standardized tests a panacea?  Like everything in education the answer is no.  But it is naive to think they don't play an important role and that they don't provide a legitimate benchmark in our lowest performing schools.  Nothing drives me crazy like someone telling me a school with 30% proficiency is actually a good school despite the test scores.  Maybe that school is moving in the right direction but until everyone can read well enough to move the proficiency into the 80s or 90s  it isn't a good school.  Think about going into a school and picking four children at random.  How heartbreaking would it be if one of them couldn't read? What about if two couldn't read?  What about three?  What if it was in high school?

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Someone Else's Shoes

Before today 99% of my experience with political hearings came from DC Council and DC Public Schools. Today I went to Attorney General Eric Holder’s oversight hearing with the House Judiciary Committee. I was there to show some solidarity with my fellow online poker players who now don’t have a game to play. And yes, the Poker Player Alliance gave me a t-shirt for showing up.

I mention the t-shirt because once upon a time I attended Michelle Rhee’s oversight hearing with DC Council and there were people wearing t-shirts, protesting some of her decisions. Back then I honestly didn’t pay too much attention to the t-shirt wearers. I already knew their stance, had already heard their voices and already knew they weren’t going to get what they wanted. But they showed up in their t-shirts to make a statement, to be seen, to show that they were united, just as I did today. Of course, the House Judiciary made us take our t-shirts off, no protests, even silent ones, during committee hearings apparently.

Truth be told even before I went I knew the hearing would not change anything in my life, not poker or anything else. But it was something to do, an action to take. And it was very interesting seeing something I’d only experienced in support of the person giving testimony and never as an audience member who wasn’t well versed in all the issues. I thought about the prep work Eric Holder had put in, recognized the dodges, the bristles at personal barbs made by grandstanding politicians (honest grandstanding and not), and the desire to explain and make clear the nuances of some issues and decisions that are far more complicated and difficult than they may appear at first glance.

The big takeaway was a takeaway I already knew. Hearings don’t solve problems or answer questions. Just like the t-shirt wearers from my past, I was powerless at this hearing. My issue was one of twenty that were discussed. The venue was wrong for creating change. The tactics used by myself and my t-shirt wearing new friends were wrong if our intention was to actually do something. The politicians who did bring up our issues weren’t briefed well enough to ask the questions in the right way. Eric Holder was not especially knowledgeable about the poker issue because his priorities rightfully lie elsewhere.

In terms of advocacy we had failed, a blip on the radar of everyone in the room except the youngest of interns excited to see politics up close. In terms of our own psychology I suppose we had probably won because we had done something, we had shown up, fought the good fight albeit quietly and without our t-shirts on.

The thing is I felt very similarly to how I felt about many advocates during my days in public education. I truly appreciated the information, the reality check, the feedback and even sometimes the thank you’s. I always felt good when I got to help someone. But what I grew tired of, what wore me down even as I worked really hard to keep my faith, was empty gestures and empty criticism. I wanted to scream at people that if they spent as much time thinking about solutions and helping me, and my colleagues, do things the right way as they did yelling at me and complaining about how everything I did was wrong, we might actually get somewhere. Especially because so many times I was screwing up and I did need to change something or improve something and I needed someone to help me do it. But legitimate voices were easily drowned out and it became hard for me to tell the difference between a problem I needed to jump in and solve and a problem that wasn’t a problem at all.

The really hard part is just about everyone’s heart is in the right place. Everyone is pushing their agenda because they think it is important. But with so much noise it is easy to forget that showing up at a hearing in coordinated t-shirts is not a victory, it is not an end, it is not anything except showing up. If you are pushing real solutions and pushing those solutions in a meaningful and thoughtful way, in a way where even your worst adversaries are able to listen, then you are a true activist, making the world a better place. Anything else and you are just as much a part of the recurring mess that you are trying to clean up as anyone else is. It doesn’t make you a bad person. It just means the world isn’t getting fixed.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Online Poker Issues...With a Little Education

For those of you who are interested in what I've been up to the last couple weeks, a lot of it has been working on this [PDF]. Beware, it is twenty dense pages about the ins and outs of online poker issues, with a heavy emphasis on legal interpretation.

I have questioned why I have jumped onto the online poker issue so intensely. The obvious answer is I'm incredibly biased because I was playing a lot and winning enough. But even beyond that it began to serve as an interesting gateway into a better understanding of the way our legal system actually works, the ways in which political arguments are made and the powers and limits of activism.

Essentially it has served as a microcosm of a lot of things I was seeing in other arenas, especially politics and education. My stance here, to sum up my research and opinions, are:
  • the Department of Justice violated both legal precedent and legislative intent through their interpretation and enforcement of US gambling law.
  • the DoJ's actions are essentially without checks.
  • the political climate surrounding online poker tends to be one based on dishonest assessments of issues and shameless pandering to people's fears.
  • the intentions of the DoJ remain unclear but they failed to solve any of the problems mentioned as reasons to ban online poker
  • the online poker mess has cost the US government billions of dollars over the past five years in lost tax revenue, licensing fees and trade concessions
The part of this that really speaks to me beyond the legal questions is the way political debates are conducted. The online poker debate is similar to conversations in education, and really most debates. It is easy to be sidetracked by worries that sound real and solutions that sound obvious. But if people take their time and think about the underlying reasons for taking a particular course of action the logic frequently breaks down.

An example from my paper is that outlawing online poker to protect gambling addicts, which sounds logical, doesn't stop addicts from gambling, it only stops non addicts from playing. Addicts will stop gambling when they learn to manage their addiction. Until then they will find new venues and new games. Therefore, using gambling addiction as a reason to outlaw online poker is faulty logic.

Anyone who can think of similar examples from education please pass them along. I think one possibility is teacher tenure rules are intended to protect good teachers from unfair or discriminatory termination and ensure intellectual freedom. But in many ways good teachers, who are the least likely to be terminated, are the ones punished because teacher tenure rules tend to prevent differentiation among teachers based on anything except seniority. Resulting in a situation where the least deserving of protection gain the most from the protection that is offered while the most deserving lose the most value from investing so much in protection and not enough in merit based raises and bonuses.