Saturday, November 28, 2009

Non-Retributive Justice

Tom Clarke has a post up on causation and culpability. He laments the common reluctance, on grounds that people could no longer be held accountable for their actions, in allowing that free will does not exist.

I'm always amazed at how difficult it is for many people to grasp the concept of non-retributive justice. We do this everyday with our children (or so we try!). Of course this is because we know full well - it is plainly obvious - that they are not the cause of their actions.

Imagine how tiresome it would be to have to summon for children the same sort of anger and vengefulness that we so easily dish out upon adults.

Our greatest human achievement, the Golden Rule, is predicated upon our ability to create a model of conscious being in others. It is the source of our greatest courage, our greatest humility, and our greatest compassion. By looking at our own lives, and realizing that we could only ever have made the choice that we indeed made - even if in the future we choose differently, we can thus realize in others the same model. We are them and they are us.

Like children, we are all learning to be human. If at times this means we must be rewarded handsome salaries, then so be it. If at other times it means we must be locked away in prison, then so be it. But neither will be because we have deserved anything at all. It will be so that we may learn, and others may learn by us, and nothing more.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Student Success vs. Patient Survival Rates

Man, the education debate is depressing. Not only is teaching often one of the most difficult jobs one can do - but you have an endless parade of politicians and pundits heaping criticism on your profession after demonstrating again and again that they possess an embarrassing lack of knowledge.

As part of the Obama administration's race to the top, states are being encouraged to use pay-for-performance schemes, a hot concept among current education reformers. Many believe it represents a chance to dramatically alter the nation's troubled schools by providing a sort of market-based, competition-driven prescription for success. If we could only just look at which teachers were doing a good job, and compensate them for it, we would create an atmosphere that rewards success and punishes failure. The process has been likened to other industries where monetary rewards are based on outcomes. Mayor Bloomberg of New York city recently pointed the finger at detractors:

In New York, the state legislature passed a law last year that actually tells principals ‘you can evaluate teachers on any criteria you want, just not on student achievement data.’ That’s like saying to hospitals ‘you can evaluate surgeons on any criteria you want, just not patient survival rates.’

Unfortunately, while the idea is not without merit, it is highly problematic.

Comparing teacher evaluation to patient survival rates is absurd. It displays a fundamental ignorance of basic issues. One is reminded of those who would make generalizations from government spending to household spending. But hey - its just common sense, right?!!

For starters, "patient survival rates" imply highly controlled situations with clear parameters and guidelines to follow. From Wikipedia:

"Relative survival is calculated by dividing the overall survival after diagnosis of a disease by the survival as observed in a similar population that was not diagnosed with that disease. A similar population is composed of individuals with at least age and gender similar to those diagnosed with the disease."

Teacher quality is certainly important - why wouldn't it be? But the problem is in drilling down how to precisely determine that in a way that scales up, allowing districts to set policy. But in any given classroom, the variables effecting student outcomes are immense. Any teacher who has taught at multiple schools with different demographics knows that some classrooms can be orders of magnitude more demanding than others. How then to determine which teacher s performing better?

For example, at school A, the 10th grade Biology class is reading at or above grade level. Most parents can be counted on to enforce academic performance both in and out of class. There are few absences. Students are generally well-fed, groomed and comfortable. Resources are available for field trips (thanks in part to active PTO fund-raising), and most students have access to high-speed internet connections.

At school B however, the 10 grade biology class is reading at the 6th grade level. Few parents can be counted on to enforce performance, many don't return calls or numbers have been disconnected. Absences are frequent, as well as tardies. Students come to class unprepared, nervous and potential for conflict is constant. There are not enough books to send home - and few would be read (or even returned) if they were. There is no money for field trips, requiring the teacher to raise money on their own time. Maybe one or two students have access to a PC at home.

So how would one come up with a formula that would apply to both situations? As any of these variables could rise and fall day to day, how would a results-based compensation system be designed that would be as fair to teachers at school B, as is is at school A?

When you can begin to legitimately respond to these questions, you are ready to enter this debate. Until then, you need to do some more homework.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Citizens vs. Representatives

As a sometime citizen-who-contacts-his-elected-representatives, I often ask myself if it really matters if I do so. Sure, if they’re a democrat and I have a bone to pick with their stance on some issue, I might be interesting to hear from. But what would a republican care if he votes opposite me?
I had a robocall recently urging me to stop by the office of Rep. Mary Bono (R-CA) and give her a piece of my liberal mind regarding the health care vote. Mind you – this was after the house passed its version – without her vote. I’ve corresponded with my Republican state senator regarding the legalization of marijuana.
But these people were elected by a majority, and thus – we’re going big picture here – are supposed to express their point of view. Sure – a brilliant twist of pen might sway them into my camp. But I doubt it. In fact I would hope I’m not the lone citizen out here that is the difference between them shifting on a position. This is after all, what they get paid to do.
Who the hell am I?

Financial Wizardry

I'd still like to know how in the world shareholders get suckered in to paying out such absurd salaries and bonuses to captains of the financial industry. The standard explanation is that good ones can bring in millions - even billions - for a company. But what does this have to do with the market value of each hiree?

I assume that prospective hires can demonstrate past success - and that compensation structures have to be competitive with other companies. But it all seems so arbitrary. It is a fact that the financial industry is incredibly nepotistic - many traders have little or no education and were hired based largely on who their father, friend or neighbor was.

It seems shareholders could easily pay millions of dollars less for people just as talented & who will work just as hard. Yet one must have a successful record, and thus have worked for some company - and that company was already in the position of paying outrageous sums to their employees. What are the starting salaries at these places? How did the incentive structure become so absurd?

Friday, November 20, 2009

What's Wrong With California?

Californians have been described as having “political schizophrenia” – they want to spend without paying the taxes to support it. Then they complain about their elected representatives…

Lately I’ve been thinking about the “starve the beast” concept in reverse. Proposition 13, which made it incredibly difficult to raise taxes, is now forcing the state to cut spending on services across the board. This is the idea behind starving the beast. And now class sizes are through the roof, clinics are closing, tuition is hiking, etc., etc. As people start to see the effects of low levels of spending, will they finally turn around and “put their money where their values are”?

I believe that people want these services. But they have bought into the conservative myth that cutting taxes will solve all of our problems – force government to be more efficient, stimulate the economy, create jobs and ultimately increase government tax revenue. Republicans repeat this over and over – their solution to everything is to cut taxes. And when government goes broke it isn’t because of low taxes, it is because of inefficiencies, unions, or illegal immigrants – that’s a really popular one. The strangest part of this to me is how little taxes end up being for so many of us. Supporting a wife and 2 kids on an income of $45K last year, with no property I paid $147. On a $250,000 home I would have paid a state average of $1500. That’s an average monthly payment of $137, or 3% of yearly income. And that’s for the privilege of living in the beautiful state of California.

Of course many simply don’t want to pay for health care, education, etc. – and although their political views are at least more consistent, they don’t represent anything like a, well, moral majority.

The worst analogy is the macro = micro. You know, the one where government budgets are equated with family budgets. “When our family can’t pay the bills, we have to cut spending”. Of course, no one would ever say, “when our family can’t pay the bills, we stop working and reduce our income”. But this is level at which many people approach economics.

I think in the end it is a fundamental ignorance of the citizenry – not of what they actually believe, but in their understanding of what policies will get them there.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Have Obama Liberals Embraced Realpolitik?

It seems to me there is still a rather large difference between the Kissinger/Kirkpatrick model and the sort that some liberals embrace. With the former, you would favor propping up this or that regime for reasons of both economic and political principle - namely to defend against foreseen anti-imperialism or communism.

Support for vicious, undemocratic brutality was justified by the greater threat of where these leftist movements were imagined to lead. Yet there was always a good deal of sympathy for the plutocratic regimes. Not only were they acting as proxies for western interests that stood to lose substantial investments, but their very existence was in large part a natural extension of the capitalist narrative: that in markets there are winners and losers, and pity he who ends up on the losing side.

Yet with modern liberal realism, concerned as it is inherently in the progressive concept of social justice, it seems you have less an apology for the propping of regimes’ right to exist, and more a pragmatic, short-term avoidance of instability so as to increase not only future democracy and economic prosperity but social equality. When undemocratic Afghanistan is given aid to go after the Taliban or Al Queda, no apologies are made for the paradigm – within the logic of liberalism it is certainly illegitimate.

What’s more, it is hard to compare the brutality of the Taliban & Al Queda with the Sandinistas or most other communist revolutionaries (although you could draw reasonable comparisons between the Taliban and Latin American Death Squads). Going further, Hamid Karzai – or even Gen. Musharaff are hardly Samoza or Pinochet.

Friday, November 13, 2009

The Moral Justification for Progressive Taxation

The director of the Congressional Budget Office recently wrote a blog post about the fundamental disconnect between the American people's desire for government services - specifically entitlements - and their desire for low taxes.

I think the equations on this issue are pretty simple.

First, you have entitlement spending as a moral issue. Do people deserve these basic service guarantees?

Second, you have the efficacy of government spending. Is the government the most efficient delivery system for these services?

Third, is our economic system inherently fair? Did the winners and losers deserve their fate?

Fourth, what role does taxation play in growth? Do higher tax rates inhibit investment?

Fifth, do people really deserve their wealth? Is it justified to progressively tax higher earners?

For decades the right has railed against taxation with assumptions on all five counts: People don't deserve these guarantees; the government is wasteful and inefficient; our economic system is a meritocracy; Supply-side principles say high tax rates slow the economy; progressive taxation is immoral because it unfairly redistributes legitimately earned income.

Yet all of these assumptions hinge on a simple question: how fair is our economy - do all people have equal access to the means of success? If they do, then they should be responsible for their own fate. Neither the government nor the people have any responsibility to them. Therefore, guaranteed access to services is not necessary and they can be provided more efficiently and better by private markets. Whether or not supply-side theory is correct is really irrelevant - taxation is in principle unfair and inefficient anyway. One's income is one's own and should not be subject to redistribution.

Yet during these same decades more and more data has been collected that disproves the assumption that our economy is fair, and provides equal opportunity for all - something liberals have always known intuitively. Research in many fields has unraveled the complexities of human behavior and uncovered overwhelming evidence with only one conclusion: one's success in life is solely determined by the genes they were born with and the environment that activated them throughout their life.

Starting in the womb, human development progresses according to its environmental stimulus. This includes everything from what social scientists call "human capital" (an individual's cognitive development according to levels of lead exposure, parental linguistic feedback, peer group interaction), to what social scientists call "social capital" (an individual's exposure to the cultural information and procedures necessary for success). Any theory is only as good as its predictions. And this theory of human development and social interaction has been confirmed repeatedly.

A simple thought experiment gives you an idea of what to expect: take two embryos and place one in the belly of a happy white mother from a wealthy, educated, functional family in Connecticut. Place the other in a 17 year old black girl in Detroit who is 4 grade levels behind with anger issues, her father incarcerated, her mother addicted to methamphetamines , her home with high levels of lead and pests, etc. - you get the idea.

The obvious predicted outcomes for each child are intuitively quite different. One child would seem to have quite an advantage over the other. But what researchers have done is isolated specific factors that can be applied to each situation with powerfully predictive results. Zooming out to the macro level - looking at populations in the tens of thousands, this application of data analysis gives us a clear understanding of what it takes to be successful.
The most common reaction to all of this from the right is to dismiss it, with an appeal to free will. They will point to one or another example of a man who has "risen to the top" despite all all odds. Coming from truly wretched circumstances, he has faced down adversity and by sheer pluck and determination achieved success. If he could do it, goes the argument, then anyone could. They just have to "choose" it.

This narrative is appealing. America is full of stories such as these. Its very founding was in a sense an expression of this sensibility - the power of the human spirit to overcome adversity - writ large. And it seems reasonable: we have set up a society that encourages the freedom to achieve greatness through individual effort. It would seem that all one has to do is work hard, make the right choices and success is easily within reach.

But this story is deceptively simple. It overlooks some basic realities of human development. For starters, "the exception does not prove the rule". These individual examples indeed seem heroic. But this is precisely because we all understand intuitively that these men were outliers. The fact that we see them as exceptional is based on the reality that most in their circumstance do not fare the same. Statistical demographic data bears this out. The children of poor Detroit do not succeed at the same rate as the children of wealthy Connecticut. What must it be then about the poor children of Detroit that makes them "choose" to be unsuccessful? And what then allows the children of wealthy Connecticut NOT to choose to be unsuccessful.

Well, we know why. In fact, we know exactly why. And it has nothing to do with "choice". If a child born to poor Detroit had access to sufficient human and social capital, the likelihood of his success would be virtually guaranteed. He would make the right "choice" every time. And if the child of wealthy Connecticut only had access to low levels of human and social capital, his likelihood for success would be rather dismal.

This can all be backed up by data. Countless devoted people all over the country are working tirelessly on finding ways to close this gap. How it will be done is a difficult proposition. There are no easy answers. But one thing is clear: all people do not have equal access to the means of success; all people do not have access to the means of freedom to self-actualize. Accordingly, it is then our job as compassionate and rational, civilized citizens to do whatever it takes to achieve this. It is our constitutional obligation.

The only way to guarantee equal access to human and social capital is through government services. Charity or private industry might fill in the gaps here and there. But if we are to truly offer equal access to every citizen, government is the only entity with the means to do so. This of course requires funding, and thus taxation. As we have already established, success is dependent on genetic and social circumstance. Earned income is dependent on success. Therefore, earned income is dependent on genetic and social circumstance. It is perfectly moral then to enact a system of progressive taxation. In fact, it would be immoral not to do so.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Brooks Rematch: Choice and Cultural Psychopathology

Brooks' latest takes on the Ft. Hood massacre. I liked my comment and decided to submit it as a formal letter to the editor. (It worked before).

"Brooks sets up a false dichotomy when he describes Hasan as being either driven by psychological and emotional disturbances, or having selected from cultural and religious narratives. One is certainly at the mercy of one's mental state. But isn't one just as compelled by their cultural state as well? That is, aren't we all forced to choose from a limited palette of memories and social experiences?

Surely we are only able to "choose" one or another narrative to the degree that we possess the mental and experiential awareness to do so. This is why entire nations follow similar religions. This is why we raise our children the best we can.

Hasan chose his narrative, to the extent that he selected ideas that appealed to his experience and impulses. But this "choice" was no more his own than a neurological disorder or underdeveloped cerebral cortex would have been."

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Standardized Testing = Yugos vs. Ferraris

So, as a requirement to get my credential to teach Secondary Science, I'm taking an online methods course from the UCLA extension. So far its been really fascinating. This week's reading has been on the subject of standardized testing.
Another difficulty stemming from the profusion of curricular aims that customized standards-based tests try to assess is that the tests themselves can’t possibly include a sufficient number of items to shed light on a students’ status regarding the curricular aims that do make the cut in a given year. More often than not, there’s only one item, or perhaps two, to assess students’ achievement of a specific curricular aim. Teachers really can’t get an accurate fix on a student’s mastery of a curricular aim based on only one or two items. Typically, the developers of customized standards-based accountability tests report students’ performances at more general levels of aggregation: amalgamations of students’ performance with respect to collections of a variety of curricular aims, some of them very different. This is what you see when accountability results are reported at the “strand” level or at the “content standard” level. But this kind of reporting obfuscates which curricular aims students have mastered.
Excerpted from “Transformative Assessment,” by W. James Popham, Copyright 2008, Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, Alexandria, VA.

I'm not sure if I did this right, so someone correct me if I'm wrong. But what I did was create a hypothetical sample class of 10 students, (A-J). I showed the results of 10 concepts covered in class, and their respective true performance on each. They ranged from one student (A) getting 90% correct, to another (J) only getting 50%.

(click on image for larger view)
But as the reading pointed out, there is simply not enough time to test for every concept, and so they sample. Even if they try and target important, representative skills, you're still stuck with the problem of getting a poor reflection of what was taught in the classroom, much less that student's particular knowledge.

In my sketch, student B happened to miss one of the sampled concepts, and so scored a 50%, even though he was 80% mastery over all. And student J, only 50% over all, happened to get the sampled concepts correct, and so was scored 100%.

The author goes on to argue that what standardized tests end up showing is a student's SES (socioeconomic status) and inherited aptitudes. Which would explain high levels of correlation between test scores and demographics. To me this is basically what NCLB has highlighted, by making such a huge deal out of test scores with the public: that there are wide gaps in academic achievement across demographics.

Unfortunately, the take away for many here is simply that teachers are doing a terrible job. All you have to do is look at test scores as a measure of teacher performance and it looks like you have some really bad teaching going on. But of course the reality is that there are numerous other factors involved, and that while bad teaching is bad teaching, it is apples and oranges. I liken it to measuring the performance of two race car drivers, one in a Ferrari, and one in a Yugo. This would seem a terrible way to describe students (as cars), but what we are really comparing is the craftsmanship and materials used to create the individual. A student can be made into a Ferrari or a Yugo over the course of his life. But once he gets to the teacher, most of the raw materials are in place, and there is only so much the average teacher can do to get him up to speed.

Just a thought.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Thoughts on Lysergic Acid

Kleiman linked to a Nat Geo special on LSD, which made me ponder...

As a post-hippie child of Santa Cruz, CA I ended up doing LSD at the age of 9. I had scored it from an older brother and shared it with friends. I had a blast. I remember riding in the car with my mother days later and suggesting to her an insight I had developed while “frying”: maybe reality existed only “to the front of us… while what was behind us – what we could not see – was not really there.” I remember her responding to me that she had had the same thought once while on LSD herself. I had not told her about my illicit activities, but worried she was on to me. Had she only known!

A friend at the time saved a hit and later dropped it one morning before school. I heard later they sent him home after he began barking like a dog on the floor of his 5th grade classroom. As a teen he committed suicide.

Recently I reflected that during that period of time in my life my two closest friends were without fathers. One, a native American Indian (yet one more suicide statistic), lived alone with his mother in a small apartment. She was a house cleaner, and one of her ears had been burned off – I fuzzily recall it being a domestic case, but I’m unclear. The other had a father who was either dead or in prison. My father, on the other hand was our family’s sole provider, a high school teacher who cared deeply for us, but often seemed preoccupied – either physically or emotionally.

I dropped a few more times, but never close to the more than 100 my brother did. He ended up having a bad trip that induced in him an anxiety condition that he still medicates for today. Fortunately, it’s now in prescription form, with less side effects than the booze he spent his twenties downing.

I often attribute much of my lifelong battle with depression to a fracturing of my psyche received from LSD and marijuana. Of course, chronic neck pain has always been the primary causal factor. But when the shades of consciousness begin to unravel, and that dark lubrication begins to bubble, one curses anything that might have ever amplified the chaos.

And yet such bittersweet music it is. The human condition is one of fragility, defined by its penchant for wreckage.