Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Pro-Life, Animal Rights and Subjective Morality

Often times in ideological debate we make the mistake of trying to strengthen our argument by creating a false narrative for our opponent's character.  This is partially due to emotional frustration with the perceived consequences of their belief.  But it is also a cheap attempt to undermine their position by painting it as based upon character flaws. 

So the conservative is greedy and uncaring, so he opposes redistribution.  The environmentalist hates business, so wants more regulation.  The corporation doesn't care about anything but profit, and thus acts without moral consideration.  While there may be some truth to each of these claims, they have no direct bearing on a particular position's merits.  So a conservative may be charitable and compassionate, and still oppose progressive taxation.  An environmentalist may love business, and still want to regulate a particular business.  Etcetera.  While looking at an opponent's character may be useful in a sociological sense, it can be quite misleading and lead to irrational and unfair arguments.

One of the strongest cases of this is on the issue of abortion, specifically on the pro-life side. Understandably, because they believe that the fetus has all the special meaning of a birthed baby, abortion is in many ways no different than murder.  The more radical pro-life position is to indeed equate abortion with murder.  Yet it is not, necessarily murder at all.  If you do not attach the same meaning to the life of a fetus as you do the life of a birthed baby, then killing it is a very different act.  If one is not religious, and doesn't think there's anything wrong with killing a fetus because they don't consider it a meaningful life, then they are being entirely principled in supporting a woman's right to choose. It is perfectly congruent with leading a moral, compassionate and righteous life. So while your moral disagreement is perfectly legitimate, your narrative is false.

I think an illustrative example of this is the subject of animal rights. If you believe that animals are meaningful lives, in the sense that we ought not kill them for our own pleasure, then "murder" is being committed on a horrendous scale daily. But hunters and meat-eaters are not bad people - or even immoral. They simply have a different belief about the meaning of animal life - one that is perfectly reasonable within the bounds of modern attitudes. The "pro-choice" attitude among vegetarians would be that people ought to be allowed to make that determination for themselves, considering that the question of meaning and animal-rights, just like the question of meaning and fetuses, is reasonably debatable; There are very good reasons on both sides for making different, subjective decisions.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Ideology and Unemployment Insurance

Kevin Drum thinks that economics is inherently ideological.
Ideology is everywhere, and it's often strongest in the very places that pretend the hardest that they don't cater to it. Economics, unfortunately, is still an immature discipline, much more complex than something like chemistry or physics, and that mean that if you pick your assumptions carefully you can prove almost anything you want. And economists do.
He points to Mike Konczal who describes the bias built-in to economic theory:
Speaking as someone who has taken graduate coursework in “continental philosophy”, and been walked through the big hits of structural anthropology, Hegelian marxism and Freudian feminism, that graduate macroeconomics class was by far the most ideologically indoctrinating class I’ve ever seen. By a mile. There was like two weeks where the class just copied equations that said, if you speak math, “unemployment insurance makes people weak and slothful” over and over again. Hijacking poor Richard Bellman, the defining metaphor was the observation that if something is on an optimal path any subsection is also an optimal path, so government just needs to get out of the way as the macroeconomy is optimal absent absurdly defined shocks and our 9.6% unemployment is clearly optimal.
Arthur Laffer, darling of conservative economist, made a similarly ideological claim in a recent WSJ op-ed. He argued that unemployment insurance creates a disincentive to work, likening it to welfare. The problem is this ignores both the concept of unemployment insurance as just that - insurance. Highly skilled workers tend to be very specialized, and should not be expected to retrain in a new field just because of an economic downturn. What's more, they will only introduce more competition into the low-skill market. The idea of insurance is that we all pay into a pool so that during downturns, those of us unable to find employment will receive a sort of buffer until the economy picks up again. This is why it is called "insurance".

According to the theory, if the market for, say, heart surgeons takes a dive then offering unemployment insurance will disincentivize them to look for work. What they should be doing is taking a enormous pay-cut and applying at some low-skill job. But what if a new surgery position opens up? Should they just run out on their new employer? And do you really think that, in hard economic times, when jobs in their profession are hard to come by, they're simply going to not look for work, passing by possible (secure) job opportunities just so they can sit home and live off the maximum insurance payment - assuming that when it runs out they'll be able to find work easily?

It's all pretty ridiculous. I say this as an unemployed teacher who applies for every possible position available. I'd take anything in my profession at this point. If I thought there would never again be any teaching jobs I would face the reality and find a new line of work. But there will be (hopefully soon!), and applying at best buy isn't going to do me or any of the other low-skill workers any favors.

On a side note: many people are not quite aware of how unemployment insurance works.  You'll hear them - guiltily - justifying their acceptance of government checks by saying things like, "Well, it's my money.  I paid into it for years."  This is only partially true.  The structure of unemployment insurance system is a bit complicated, but suffice it to say that what one is paid has nothing to do with the total amount they have paid in.  While your payment rate is based on your previous year's income, the total payment is a fixed amount, regardless to any lifetime contribution to the pool. 

While working, your employer is the one who actually pays the state each month.  They are responsible for paying a set amount for each worker.  You could argue that this ultimately comes out of one's wages, but the amount is usually very small, with a monthly maximum (I believe) of around $50.  This means that the most an employer ever pays for a full time worker is $600 a year.  So if a hypothetical payment allocation of $6000 was made, one would of course have had to work for 10 years to pay in that amount to the system.

In essence, unemployment insurance is just that - insurance.  The model is that even during recessions, when unemployment might reach 5, 8, or even 10%, the other 90% is still paying into the pool, with the community-minded concept that we are all doing our part and if one of us faces difficulties we all - "have his back" so to speak.  This is no different than any other insurance model (healthcare, auto, etc.), where one might go a lifetime without needed open-heart surgery, God-forbid.  But in case we do, we're covered.

Monday, June 28, 2010

The Nihlism of Pain

I'm not sure how to start this off, but I wanted to say a few things about the experience of living with chronic pain.  One of the most jarring and confusing things about living with chronic pain is the extent to which one's daily rhythms and life habits are altered in ways that people who do not live with pain could not possibly understand.

Humans are social creatures.  We cannot help but identify and define ourselves by shared experiences with others, from the most specific ethnic eccentricities to the largest sort of intangible aspects of simply being human.  So a person in chronic pain, acutely aware of an absurd difference in daily experience, develops a sense of alienation.  More and more, the juxtaposition of personal experience begins to erode social bonds at the edges.  Things like walking or talking or sitting are sometimes difficult. 

So a fragile dance begins to pick up in rhythm.  The object of the game is to feel and appear normal.  When in public this is an utter necessity.  To the best of our ability, we all want to love and be loved.  Well, some of us do.  But society tends to shrink from suffering.  Nothing worse than to be shrunk from. 

That's less important.  The real trick is in maintaining personal integrity at home.  If a man's home is his castle, his body his temple, then chronic pain is like barbarians at the gate.  And they're sneaky.  Sometimes things look good - the sun is shining, the milk is flowing.  That's when they like to pop out!  Scabbards dangling, hatchets clanking, they throw you into the furnace.  It's hot in there.  You do things, say things you regret.

You recover, of course - you always do.  And hopefully the damage isn't too bad.  But a sense of impermanence sets in.  Life can begin to feel like a series of spinning plates.  Sure, you've got them all going now, the crowd is going wild - you're doing it, son, you're doing it!

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Spirit and Atheism

As an Atheist, one is often forced to grapple with how to define one's experiences in the absence of a preconceived narrative.  So, for instance, what does morality mean without an appeal to religious text or authority?  Often times, the process of becoming atheistic itself created the alternative conceptual language.  For something as vital to daily existence as questions of morality, this was likely the young Atheist's early order of business: in the absence of God, morality must come from human emotion and intellect, and as such any original religious teaching was thus informed; morals are relative to human experience and can only ever be based in it.  This of course is somewhat more complicated than simply appealing to text, saying, "it is true because it is written."  But such mindless dogmatism isn't serious anyway, and true religious thinkers know that interpreting sacred texts presents its own complications.  Atheism, almost by definition (at least by its radical place in today's discourse), demands a degree of non-dogmatic critical thought from the outset.

But there are other experiences that, once removed from a religious narrative, the Atheist struggles to define.   The term "spiritual" presents a special problem.  By definition, it refers to the "spirit", a concept traditionally thought of in metaphysical terms.  This need not imply that no such thing exists.  Many concepts we find useful are descriptions of phenomenon that, while not taking direct physical form, are very real and indirectly observable.  In philosophy, they are organized into different categories.  For instance the concept of action is not a "thing", with physical form, but a description of a series of events that can occur.  I suppose if one really wanted to be specific, all things are merely molecules in motion, and that an action could be thought of in similar terms, of molecular structure operating within a system of  physical forces.  So in the way that a pane of glass is actually a sheet of silica in gradual free-fall, a dance is merely an orchestrated series of motions involving an organized, organic body of molecules.  Where pane of glass implies the actions of gravity, dance implies the set of neural instructions signaling muscular performance.

So what is a spirit?  What is spiritual?

This is a question that perplexes the Atheist because, while the term has a specific meaning in a religious context, it explains a human experience that seems to lose much of its meaning when removed from that narrative.  But it also seems to explain an experience that seems equally universal to human existence.  To the religious, the spirit is everything; indeed without it, man's life would have no purpose.  In the Atheist this question might provoke profound existential angst - if there is no God, there is no spirit, there is no purpose to life.  Sartre hinted at this seeming paradox:

God is absence. God is the solitude of man.
But once God is gone, is man really alone?  If God was only ever a manifestation of human experience, could not human experience simply replace God?  In this sense, God is merely a middle man between man and his quest for meaning.  Man's conscious experience is one of seeing himself as connected, yet apart from the physical universe.  There may be no more essentially human experience than that of grappling with one's place in the universe.  The obvious antidote to this angst throughout history has been the mythology of religious narrative.  Not only a rational explanation for the what and why of existence, it provides a framework upon which to hang all of the intangible feelings as well.

The concept of spirit can be thought of as describing this (categorically immaterial) process.  A somewhat nebulous placeholder concept, like "mind" or "emotion" - it describes a fundamental reality the conscious mind faces.  So while there may not be any such thing a "soul", or "spirit" in the religious sense, there is certainly a human experience that seeks to transcend one's corporeal existence and find a deeper connection to the larger universe.  Implicit in this concept is a basic, ineffable incomprehensibility.  There are obvious limits to conscious understanding.  We encounter experiences in our lives that have real meaning for us, yet we have great difficulty explaining.  Some of them are painful and tragic.  Some of them are profound and beautiful.  And we can adjust, orient our lives in order not only to avoid or to seek out such experiences, but also to understand them better alone or by sharing them with others.

Human culture is replete with activities designed to facilitate this sort of transcendence.   Art, sport, ritual, celebration, ceremony, and of course sex, we create normative pathways in which to access states of consciousness that are otherwise inaccessible.  If we think of spirituality as the degree to which our engagement in these activities facilitates transcendence, especially as a positive-sum progression towards greater knowledge or understanding of self and the universe, no matter how consciously articulated or  synthesized, it seems just as useful in an Atheistic context as in a religious one.


 So does an Atheist have a spirit?  Can an Atheist be spiritual?  To the religious, with faith in a strict dogma in which God is thought of as a very real entity, the answer must be no.  However, my hunch is that to many religious people, this conception of spirituality is entirely sufficient to describe their own relationship with their chosen dogma and teachings.  To this way of understanding, the conceptual meaning of God or spirit is less relevant than the actual human experience of transcendance - intellectual and emotional self-understanding and hyper-corporeal connection to the universe, in whatever traditional or non-traditional form it may take.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Huckabee's Disgust

Mark Kleiman highlights a recent comment by former governor of Arkansas and Republican candidate for president Mike Huckabee.
As a retreaded fundamentalist preacher, Huckabee has decided to make opposition to improving the legal status of gays and lesbians – - sorry, “the defense of traditional marriage” – a centerpiece of his politics. He does so with a mix of Scriptural quotations and simple-minded biology.
Here's Huckabee in the New Yorker:
I do believe that God created male and female and intended for marriage to be the relationship of the two opposite sexes. Male and female are biologically compatible to have a relationship. We can get into the ick factor, but the fact is two men in a relationship, two women in a relationship, biologically, that doesn’t work the same.
Whether it is bigoted to believe that homosexuality is wrong because it says so in the bible is one thing.  But describing it as "icky" is another.  Huckabee could be literally imagining himself having sex with another man, in which case he might be forgiven for expressing discomfort.  But I think it's pretty clear that he is instead simply expressing an emotion that originates in homophobia, and can be legitimately described as bigoted.

Disgust is an old and very important part of hatred and bigotry.  Hated groups have often been thought of as "unclean" or "impure" - whether it was blacks, Jews, immigrants or women's sexuality.  Matha C. Nussbaum, law and ethics professor at University of Chicago argues that disgust, along with shame, fundamentally  threaten the values of modern liberal society:
Disgust and shame are inherently hierarchical; they set up ranks and orders of human beings. They are also inherently connected with restrictions on liberty in areas of non-harmful conduct. For both of these reasons, I believe, anyone who cherishes the key democratic values of equality and liberty should be deeply suspicious of the appeal to those emotions in the context of law and public policy.
The real shame is that this sort of open and unabashed bigotry continues to be acceptable in American political discourse.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

A Charter by Any Other Name

In the local paper today they presented what I thought was a telling example of our current and dangerous fascination with charter schools.

In theory, there's nothing wrong with experimentation and having schools try new things.  But aside from the more subversive and toxic tendency for charters to employ union-busting, a few high-profile examples have come to leave an impression in the public's mind that they are somehow better than traditional public schools.  What is often not well understood is that these special cases are not at all representative of what a charter school typically looks like.  Those somewhat storied charter schools that have shown remarkable results in decreasing the achievement gap between socioeconomic groups also tend to rely heavily on private donations or sacrifices from staff that are somewhat onerous.  The most notable of these schools is KIPP, or the Knowledge Is Power Program.
Most KIPP schools run from 7:30 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. Monday through Friday and 8:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. on select Saturdays (usually twice a month), and middle school students also participate in a two- to three-week mandatory summer school, which includes extracurricular activities after school and on Saturdays. As a result, KIPP students spend approximately 60 percent more time in class than their peers.
This is not necessarily a bad model at all - if you can find the money and teachers to do it.  But the results you get from this type of environment should not be confused with what is possible from a more typical charter school, which is much more similar to the traditional model.

When the word charter becomes synonymous with some kind kind of magical reform, capable of turning around even the worst school, it can lead to some very unreasonable expectations.  The danger in this is that if people are taking false comfort from a supposed reform that has no real value, they are not taking action to support some other reform that might have real-world benefit.

A local school, Cielo Vista (one I have substitute taught at numerous times) has recently applied and been accepted to transfer to a charter model by the school board.  Apparently the staff and parents had been pushing very hard for the change, and for a while it appeared they weren't going to get it.  However, the application was approved, and everyone was ecstatic.  There are now 100 students on the waiting list.  Today's paper quoted a parent:
“When the charter came out, it was a win because we heard so many good things about Washington Charter — why couldn't Palm Springs do the same thing?” he said. “We wanted to get behind it.”
Now, what's interesting about this quote is that Cielo Vista and Washington Charter are two very different schools.  The "good things" the parent has heard most likely involve Washington Charter's API, or Academic Performance Index score, which is 915.  Cielo Vista's is 840.  That's actually quite good, and their score has been rising for a number of years. 

But what is also different about Washington Charter is the demographics.  The surrounding neighborhood from which it primarily draws students is upper middle class, and very white.  The state doesn't publish numbers on parent level of education or specific incomes, but around 80% of Cielo Vista students receive federally discounted lunches because of low-income, while only 30% Washington Charter students do.  Cielo Vista is 80% minority, Washington Charter is 30%.  60% of Cielo Vista students are Language Arts proficient, while 80% are at Washington Charter.

Yet despite these differences, Cielo Vista is doing quite well.  Both schools are actually ranked favorably against other schools with similar demographics.  If anything, based on indicators of how well each school should be doing considering the populations they serve, Cielo Vista is probably outperforming Washington Charter.

In the end, what this parent, and the larger public in general who see charters as somehow inherently superior to traditional schools, fail to grasp is that socio-economics - things like race, class, education and culture matter.  They matter more than any state test calculation could ever show.  Washington Charter is on one side of town, and Cielo Vista is on another.  The social capital is unevenly distributed.  In many ways, Cielo Vista will never be like Washington Charter.  The two neighborhoods will never be the same.  Maybe one day, with the right kind of investment, we will make sure that lack of social capital is no barrier to getting an equal education.  But simply calling a school a "charter" isn't enough.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Civilization At its Best

I know I have a tendency on this blog to return to a recurring set of issues and themes.  And for those of you out there bothering to read I apologize for that.  But what you're witnessing is the process by which my ideas unfold and cohere.  So, without further adieu, I return to the concept of Student Capital.

Glenn Loury can really bug me at times, especially his more apologetic framing of issues.  And he's a smart guy so he gets ahead of himself at times, which can lead to a tendency for nebulous philosophical blundering.  But his Bloggingheads here, with Ross Levine (a fellow professor at Brown), on the subject of mass incarceration in the United States and what it says about our current level of moral coherence, is quite good.


Yet what I think it fails to adequately address  - and only so much can be expected from any 1 hour conversation - is the degree to which the problem of criminal justice is ultimately a problem of social justice, in that the level of criminality in society is proportional to the level of social development we are promoting through our political, economic and cultural institutions.

Because really, what what Loury is talking about is social determinism. And in case my use of that term be misunderstood, I mean that our lot in life, aside from luck, is determined by our access to human and social capital. With very few exceptions (learning disabled, mentally retarded, etc.), we all have a very similar capacity to become successful at birth (putting aside fetuses affected by high levels of maternal stress, environmental toxins, etc.).

What this means is that you take a kid and stick him in a home with little human and social capital, his chances of developing capital of his own are much lower. The reverse is true for kids from high capital homes. This has been studied at length. Differences in parenting can have profound effects on development. Cognitive skills, emotional development, vocabulary, etc. vary greatly between socio-economic groups - based solely on what the kid is being exposed to.

So this means kids are entering public education with enormous achievement gaps. And as currently structured, schools don't have near enough resources to even begin to make-up for what many children lack in human and social capital. As a constitutional right to education is based on the principle of a human right to some basic level of equality in capital - that a kid should be able to go into adulthood with the proper training to be competitive and successful, we are not guaranteeing that right.

While it is true that the parent should be responsible for raising their children, the fact is that many are not capable. This is either because they don't know how or because of their own lack of priorities, but either way it is a fundamental lack of human and social capital - they lack the emotional or knowledge skills to effectively develop in their children an adequate amount of capital. We can blame the parents all we want - but it isn't going to change the fact that meanwhile their children are being denied basic human rights. In so far as there is an argument that we should "shame" the parents into being better parents - it obviously doesn't work. As a utilitarian argument it is pathetic.

So, what can we as society do? Well, the obvious answer is strengthening public education. Our current attempts at "reform", when thought of as intervening responses to a human & social capital gap, are laughable. Because were they serious, we would be looking at results that would truly be the holy grail of social policy and justice: 100% graduation rate with an equality of cognitive, emotional, social, etc. skills. It's entirely possible. Schools have shown that poor kids can do it. But what it will take is a paradigm shift in thinking.

What needs to happen is, essentially, means-tested education. But the "means" is not a simple racial or economic calculation. Instead it is a multi-level, sophisticated assessment of each students' human and social capital: is their family intact? Is there drug use at home? Did both parents go to college? Is there a history of criminality? What neighborhood do they live in? What are their verbal, emotional and cognitive skills? How much basic knowledge do they have? Have they ever heard of Paris or Mt. Everest? Etc., etc.

This is obviously a monumental task. There's a realistic limit to the assessment regime any district can effectively implement. How does one go about verification? Can parents be tested as well? My guess is that if we seriously take this sort of project on, we could come up with some interesting solutions. In the end, instead of the basic education model - 30 kids, one teacher, library, free lunches, etc. - the emphasis needs to be on what I like to call "Student Capital". This is is basically a kid's human capital + social capital / their age. So for instance, one kid might come into Kindergarten with a score of 900 for her age. Another might only have a 250. Those kids have very different needs. Our social response should therefor be very different. This is targeted, efficient, soulful, community strengthening and revitalizing.

This is civilization at its best - doing its best for equality and brotherhood of man.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

You Can't "Reform" a Broken Pillar

Mark Kleiman has some comments on the concept of reform among a few some high-profile industries, namely oil, finance, public schools, and universities.  The structure of his post is interesting and it's worth a look, but his point is essentially: these institutions are very important, as such they all need to be under scrutiny, and yet their size and complexity demands an equal care and deft flexibility in holding them accountable.  I was reminded of how tricky the word "reform" is, and how, in terms of education, we're still so far from understanding what it should really mean.  With the financial crisis still hanging over us and oil from a damaged well rushing into the gulf, there is no argument that those are two industries in which the word regulation should never be out of earshot.  But with some minor reform they might indeed be set back on a proper course.  Education however needs a complete rethinking.

I had a long talk with my father (career high school teacher, retiring in 2 years, bless his soul) this morning. He’s off tomorrow on a flight to a week-long training seminar in project-based learning. We talked about the various reform proposals floated over the years, and how in the end it never fails to come down to a sort of synchronicity at the local level: administrators, teachers, parents, etc. all clicking in just the right way. But switch out some of the pieces and the entire structure falls apart. He recalled talking to a friend of his who’s been teaching for 3 decades and who agreed that, as far as what goes on in the classroom, nothing’s really changed. In his area of Seattle, the kids are still all black. Still an incredible achievement gap.

I understand the point on complexity and bureaucracy.  Schools will never be simple to adjust.

But what occurred to me is that there’s one really big difference between education, at least at the earlier levels, and the rest. Well any other field, really. And we’ve kind of understood this as a society. We’re beginning to use language that hints at it. It was the driving acknowledgment behind NCLB.


Education has the power to end social stratification. The end of class. The end of poverty. The end of criminal justice. The end of a lot. In fact, so much we’re afraid to even really try and imagine it. It seems too big. It seems, well, unimaginable. But all the social research tells us it is absolutely possible. There are examples of it happening in schools around the country. The problem is scale, among plenty others. But if they can do it, there’s no reason to think it can’t be done for all children.

The constitution points us in the right direction. Many major court cases have been fought over this very issue. Proposition 13 in California was built on it. The question was never if it was right to do it, but whether we could. Well, we can.

But we need a paradigm shift in thinking. This is where education needs to be thought of apart from any other sector, business or public. Education needs to be thought of less like a resource, or a public good, and more like a pillar of civilization; as an essential for life akin to air, food or water. As such, we need to take a serious look at how we deliver it unto each soul that enters our nation. 

This is not how we currently view it. Not by a long shot. And it isn't too much of a surprise.  The audacity of this notion, that you can take any child from any circumstance and through education put him on equal footing with his citizen peers.  The social research behind this idea, beginning with the thought that it might even be a worthwhile endeavor to begin with, has only been around for less than a century - much of it half that.  In a way, it's a sort of marvelous thing to be alive at a point in history when we not only have the philosophical and economic means to offer a plan for socioeconomic equality through education, but the scientific theory and data to back it up.

Take any two kids in America, from opposite ends of the socioeconomic spectrum, and look at what services get provided them by a public school. There is very little difference. Aside from some federal Title I money to pay for crappy lunches and a reading specialist, you get very little. Considering the vast differences in human and social capital that the two children have access to, the attempt at equity is almost absurd. You rectify this imbalance, you have social dividends that we can’t even begin to dream about.

I've been thinking a lot about what a policy prescription might look like.  At this point it revolves around the notion of Student Capital (human + social / age), and means-tested allocation of funds - likely eventually federal, as drawing from constitutional rights and recognition of natural law.  I'm not naive enough to think that it is anything that might be accomplished in even a decade; I think it might require a good 30 or 40 years to germinate and unfold as part of a larger awakening of social consciousness.  We are just beginning to grasp the significance of new understandings in human development and behavior.  As these begin to draw thin the old egocentric attitudes about human agency, hopefully more avenues for not just understanding but implementation of a theory of Student Capital may open up.

Arthur Laffer is Out of his Mind

His highness Arthur Laffer graced the editorial pages of the Wall Street Journal recently, warning of the impending economic collapse of 2011.  He tossed of this little treasure:
And it's also simple enough for most people to understand that if the government taxes people who work and pays people not to work, fewer people will work. Incentives matter.
Arthur Laffer is out of his mind. I don’t know how anyone can buy the shit he sells.   It's one thing to not believe in certain spending programs out of principle.  It is quite another to deceive believe into believing that cutting taxes is the way to pay for them.

First, as anyone ever decided to actually work less because of tax rates, or government policy? I mean, if you want to make some sort of Randian statement – off with you. But in reality no one makes these sorts of decisions.

Second, does he not believe in unemployment insurance? The idea is that everyone pools their resources so those of us who get the short straw in hard times can weather the storm, and then get back to work. But apparently this entire concept has been lost on him, and he thinks of it merely as welfare. Apparently Laffer thinks it unfair that his health insurance policy pays out to the injured.

As I've said before, only a fool would think that macroeconomics is something easily understood.  But a fool would also base his economic philosophy on his ideological interests.  Republicans, this is why we think you’re out of your minds.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Pigs, All Of Us

(via RBC) Seems there's a scenario going around in which the BP leak is actually a heck of a lot more serious:
All the actions and few tid bits of information all lead to one inescapable conclusion. The well pipes below the sea floor are broken and leaking.... To those of us outside the real inside loop, yet still fairly knowledgeable, [the failure of Top Kill] was a major confirmation of what many feared. That the system below the sea floor has serious failures of varying magnitude in the complicated chain, and it is breaking down and it will continue to.
I’ve been thinking lately about our collective response to the gulf crisis. Specifically, what has worried me is the degree to which this is obviously such a catastrophic event, yet we seem somewhat cavalier about it. It is as if we have struggled for so long on the front lines of the environmental wars that a sort of apathy has sunk in. For decades conservatism has fought tooth and nail for the view that private property absolutism and growth, no matter how greedy or cost-externalizing, is a net gain for society.

Even today, after the issue seemed wholly settled in the mid 00’s, after the successive IPCC reports, global warming is still doubted in polite company. After climategate, supposedly serious people were asking whether it proved once and for all that it was all a big hoax. Leader of this pack of absurdity, Rush Limbaugh, said shortly after the gulf leak started,
The ocean will take care of this on its own if it was left alone and left out there. It’s natural. It’s as natural as the ocean water is.

Look at what is happening out there! It isn’t at all out of the realm of possibility that this turns out to be true, that the pipes below the sea floor may indeed be broken. And were that to be the case, even half the oil from an uncontained Macondo Prospect would be 25 million barrels. The fact that we even considered allowing this to happen at all is unbelievable. And we still are! Their livelihoods drowned in crude, people in the gulf are arguing that we get right back to work. I guess one could argue the damage is done. What the hell is wrong with us?

Have we become so wretched and apathetic towards the future that an ecological nightmare of this magnitude seems to summon in us only the most timid reflections on where we have gone wrong? Or have the ideological stakes somehow been raised so high that individual thought has withered on the vine, tribalism of thought solidifying before an endlessly more relative and post-modern world?

Are we really ready for this? Has our brief history prepared us to take the care that is needed when the real threat of global catastrophe, political and economic collapse – the extinction of civilization – comes not from something so simple and philosophically targetable as war or corruption, but instead from the hubris of negligence.  There is no question that we could reverse course immediately - iron-fisted regulation would guarantee it. 

We have agreed to overcome so much – race, gender, human rights – the idea that we need look after and care for fellow man. We have enshrined it at the highest levels of law and government. We have learned so much about the world, technology why we do what we do, in such a short period of time. But now this unprecedented blossoming of human utility is now threatening to wash everything away, and we can’t bear to face it. We are being asked to put the brakes on the one thing that has driven us so far so fast.

Can ideology be expected to keep up? Part of what we have sacrificed to this machine of progress has been the dulling of the senses – the distancing, packaging, commodifying of existence en mass. If progress is the modern religion, then progress has become the opiate of the people. And it is from within this blankified state that we are expected to rise and transcend. How can we, from within progress, step out from it and see it for what it is. The media churns out the most grisly images of catastrophe, and yet we muster little more than a shrug. Back to business.

Between a Rock and a Hard Head

The long-term economic forecast doesn't look good.  Estimates are that by 2012, we'll still see unemployment just below 10%, certainly in California.  Matt Yglesias writes:
What’s so terrifying this is to contemplate what the long-term unemployment situation is going to look like by 2012 if this forecast comes to pass. We’re going to be talking about a simply stupendous number of people who’ve been out of work for three or four years, and it’s going to be nearly impossible to get these people back to work. The Depression Era teaches us that the manpower needs of a major global war would suffice, but otherwise who even knows.
It appears we're stuck between a rock and a hard place.  As a society, in terms of political philosophy, we have these two very different and competing ideological narratives.  Both claim to have the solution to our economic woes, but the reality is that neither has the political representation to implement its vision on a scale that its theory calls for.  Thus, you have a sort of catch-22 in which even if either economic narrative might have worked, political reality dictates that only half-measures can ever be taken: liberals' stimulus, conservatives' austerity and tax cuts, will only ever be inadequate.  

OK, so liberals think we can create jobs through government stimulus, conservatives think we can create jobs through tax and spending cuts. One’s Keynes, one’s Laffer. In the meantime, everyone complains about immigration, and sending jobs overseas.

But at the end of the day, these ideas, while originating in serious economic theory, are chosen out of ideology. Do we really know what drives job growth?  I mean, when the economy was booming, none of this seemed to matter. Who among us really has the chops to decipher which macroeconomic theory is legitimate?  It could certainly be possible that stimulus works, but no conservative would admit it.  It could be possible that tax cuts and austerity is what is needed, but no liberal will admit to that.

Yglesias' reference to the WWII as stimulus seems reasonable, but conservatives will disagree. To what extent is their opposition ideologically driven? They’ll present variables that don’t exist today, thereby making the case that the situation is different. But they don’t like the idea of “redistribution” in the first place, in the sense that government spending is supported by taxes which come from individuals – unless this redistributive spending is on the military, which has a whole ‘nother ideological appeal. Liberals simply don’t have a problem with the redistributive aspect of taxation, and in fact would prefer it to be more progressive, believing as they do in a more deterministic view of society in which winners and losers are largely by-products of social policy.

In the meantime, we'll all continue to enjoy the basic services the government provides - schools, roads, military, unemployment, social security, medicare, health insurance subsidies, etc.  But we'll blame each other for their inadequacies, and for the fact that spending on each feels more and more onerous and unfair. And we'll feel like the continuing recession is someone else's fault - the government, our neighbors who voted these "crooks" in to office, the immigrants, the greedy corporations. 

But maybe, in the end, there's no single reason.  Maybe it is a variety of things.  And maybe there could have been a variety of solutions.  Most tragic of all, maybe if we had only picked one path and committed to it we would have prevailed.  Or maybe there was nothing we could have done. 

But maybe, in the end, the important thing is to be thankful for what we do have.  We have a democracy that encourages different forms of thought.  While slow and at times even ineffective, it honors the idea that we each have a voice that is special, no matter how brilliant - or ignorant - our words and thoughts may be.  And if it may be reduced to any one, simple premise, it is that we are all in this together, and we will live or die by our capacity for honest debate and critical thought.  On that we can all agree.  And it is indeed something to be thankful for.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Blogging and Authority

A quote by Al Giordano, on the modern media world, has been making the rounds:
You’re expected to write or talk or shout about every crisis of the week, so you — I'm talking to you, fellow and sister media workers! — run to Wikipedia and the rest of the online library to pull up some factoids and buzzwords that fool the crowd into thinking the reporter or communicator really knows what he and she are writing or talking about.
The authority of any blogger is an interesting question. In the good old days, when all we had were news stories and opinion pieces, the two remained somewhat separate, and each was confined to much tighter parameters of coverage. To the extent that opinion writers weighed in on varying subjects, they generally did so in a broad way.

But now with popular bloggers publishing anywhere from 5 to 25 different pieces a day, often covering as many subjects, the authority can get spread pretty thin. What this often results is kind of cheap parroting of the thoughts of others, adding little in the way of real insight or expertise.

For instance I read Yglesias daily and while I appreciate much of his work, I find his ideas on education to be incredibly hackish. And I doubt mean to say I merely disagree, it's that he consistently misses crucial pieces of the debate that those of us who actually teach, or are in other ways quite involved with the surrounding issues, are much more aware of.

So while I appreciate the opportunity for diversity in thinking, it can also come at the expense of authority. And to the extent that it does, it results in at best the propagation of misinformation, and at worse its creation.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Student Capital and Constitutional Equity

Deborah Meier at Bridging Differences comments on the significance of modern education architecture versus the old, beautiful buildings that were once the norm for educational institutions.
we went from grand to pedestrian, from castle to factory. Looking at high schools, it's even more startling. The old buildings were statements about the power and glory of education. Of course, they weren't for everybody—especially the high schools. The trouble is that once we claimed them for "everyone," we forgot to build them to be inspiring.
She goes on to relate this decline in design to a more general trend in which the promise of educational equality is payed lip-service to, meanwhile still avoiding the hard task of actually doing something about it in a meaningful way.  She refers to Harvard's Paul E. Peterson as saying in essence:
...all our favorite silver bullets have failed to change scoring patterns over the past half-century: the end of legal segregation, extra federal dollars for students in poverty, high-stakes tests, schools of choice—via charters or vouchers, teachers with more degrees, teachers' unions, improved wages for teachers, and even smaller schools.

Wait a second here, Deborah - I have a silver bullet to add to the list!

OK, maybe it's not a single bullet - more like a full clip.  The standard model currently is guaranteeing each kid a classroom of 29 other kids and a teacher.  Within that model, miracles are supposed to occur that will completely reverse social stratification and generational poverty in one fell swoop.  I call it the "Rambo Teacher" model.  Federal funds are then sprinkled over the top like pixie dust - whoopie, reduced lunches and an extra hour of tutoring a week to the rescue!

Of course, as we know - there are huge differences in levels of human/social capital between students.  So instead of focusing resources on finding better teachers, or marginal programmatic improvements, how about creating a baseline for "Student Capital": what total resources the student brings to the table.

Any number of factors could go into this framework - parent education, family income, number of parents at home, language & cognitive skills, emotional/behavioral evaluation.  What the heck - test the parents too!  It may require an entire level of administration to assess children at a certain age, and maybe every two years thereafter.  But this data would then be used to allocate an appropriate level of resources and targeted intervention, if necessary.

The idea needs a lot of work, but I think if we are to take seriously the idea that no child be left behind, that each  child has a constitutional right to an equal education, this would be an excellent way of leveraging the public education system.  Currently, all students get a very similar level of funding.  In this system, that paradigm is reversed and some students will get dramatically less services, while others dramatically more.  The whole thing is essentially means tested.  In a very real sense, the concept is very similar to that of special education.  But instead of only acknowledging that a child with a learning disability or physical handicap has a special need, that designation is broadened to include a whole host of statistically significant risk factors for educational failure.

I think we've been going about this in a totally wrong way.  We've looked past family capital for too long - even while research has told us for decades that parenting is just as important if not more so than schooling.  Yet while we cannot (should not!), replace parenting, we can take ownership of that deficiency and take real steps to ameliorate its effects both through working with parents and providing extra resources to the child through schooling, home visits, or some other combination of programmatic engagement.  We don't need new schools, or new teachers, or new curriculum.  We need a new way of looking at how education is distributed.  It is simply unfair that some children grow up in households that leave them woefully unprepared, while others are pushing them to the very top.  This is not a recipe for social justice.

Groupthink Tank

While reading a bit of commentary on education policy recently, I was directed by the author to view what was referred to as a "study" by a major think tank, which he cited to support his argument.  It occurred to me that the study was flawed in a number of ways, and that reason behind this was simple: the "study" was really just a polemical, ideological argument dressed up in academic clothes.  It had researchers who went out and collected real data, analyzed it, and then presented conclusions.  By coincidence(!), it fit perfectly into the ideological narrative of the think tank that funded it.  I wondered whether if the study had reached different conclusions, it would have ever been published.  Of course not.  That would be at cross-purposes to the mission of the think-tank, which is generally to advocate for a particular political philosophy.

I then became interested in how common this practice was among other think tanks.  We're all familiar with them as their representatives are frequently used by the media, generally to provide quotes for news articles or television pieces.  Frequently, reporters will even cite these so-called studies the tanks put out.  To the extent that they are thought of as anything more than propagandists, there is a serious ethical concern.  These "studies" are designed to present entirely one-sided arguments that fit perfectly with the tank's pre-conceived ideology.

I took a brief look at four major think tanks to see how prevalent this practice of publishing biased "research" papers is.  The Heritage Foundation, The Center for American Progress (CAP) , The Hoover Institute, and The Cato Institute, each had sections devoted to "publications".  Both Hoover and Heritage offer what they call "research", while Cato presents "studies" and CAP presents "reports".  Each publication presented an entirely predictable argument strictly in line with the organization's politics.  Want an article in favor of stricter regulation?  The liberal Center for American Progress has you covered.  Opposition?  The libertarian Cato Institute has everything you might need. 

Though they may resemble academic papers in appearance, they have an obvious agenda and a close examination bears this out.  No good scholar would cite any of this research.  For example, the original cited article I spoke of was a report issued by the Center for American Progress titled, Supporting Effective Teaching Through Teacher Evaluation: A Study of Teacher Evaluation in Five Charter Schools.  The article, supportive of stricter teacher evaluations and firing practices, a type of reform popularly touted as key to closing the achievement gap among schools, cited the "report" as evidence of the efficacy of this approach in fundamentally changing education. 

Politically, the neoliberal Center for American Progress (along with Obama's education secretary Arne Duncan) has embraced the notion that accountability, standards, charters and testing are the key reforms needed to close the achievement gap - which is universally agreed as being profound.  The implicit assumption behind this view is that what is standing in the way of progress is poor teachers and the unions that protect them.  One would expect then, that any CAP study would seek to provide evidence that reinforces this narrative.  If evidence is found that does not support the preconception, it is not allowed.  This is evident in the fact that 100% of think tank publications fall strictly in line with the organization's philosophy.  This means either that data is thrown out, or that so-called research is designed in such a way that unwanted results are never found to being with.

This was certainly the case in the report I looked at.  The goal of the study was to show how charter schools performed better effectively used teacher evaluation data to improve student performance, often by circumventing union protections.  But the study began by choosing charter schools that were already effective.  While the reported differences in evaluation procedures were assumed to be different than in public schools which, it was again assumed, were limited by union protections, there was no evidence offered to support or deny this claim.  It could very well be the case that most charter schools have ineffective evaluation systems, or that most public schools have just as effective evaluation systems.  I doubt this is the case, but you wouldn't know either way from the report.  It could also be the case that what these schools were doing to increase student achievement had little to do with their evaluations.  But again, you could not tell from the report. 

In a truly academic study, these variables would need to be be addressed for the study to be taken seriously.  But the purpose of academic study is to find objective, peer-reviewed truth.  The purpose of think tank studies is to support the organization's stated philosophical agenda.  The word for this is propaganda.  When representatives of think tanks are cited by the media, they need to be understood in these terms.  Just as studies from an oil company should not be cited in news reports, as their intent is entirely dubious, or industry spokespeople should be understood not as objective authorities but as in service to a particular agenda, so too must think tank resources. 

While their contribution to debate should be welcome - after all, their purpose is to make as good a case for their side as possible, they must under no circumstances be treated as objective, or necessarily intellectually honest.  When journalists are presenting them in this light, or citing their "research" as authoritative, they are not doing their job.  In these politically-charged, partisan and highly polarized times, it is more important than ever to get quality, objective information.  While words are relative, the truth is not.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Regulation Babies

I've been thinking a lot about how the discussion of the BP disaster has played out.  One thing that seems to be conspicuously absent is the simple notion that there is a very ideological narrative to how this all happened.  Some people are angry at BP.  Others are angry at Obama.  This was clearly an accident, and as such things go it could have happened 10 years ago, or ten years from now.  But given BP's safety record, and the corruption at the Mineral Management Service (MMS), it was clearly an avoidable accident - one we could have easily predicted.

I think the only serious debate to have here is over ideology. All things being equal, as long as you have reasonably competent people in power, it doesn’t matter whether they are republican or democrat.
The differences arise out of ideology. If a leftist representative thinks the only way to do something well is by having the government do it, then they will be less able to take advantage of what the market might bring to the table. If a rightist thinks the only solution is less government, they will be less able to take advantage of what the government has to offer.

Modern leftists are perfectly comfortable with markets functioning freely as long as there is no fundamental need they are not meeting, or if they present a threat to the environment or public. Modern rightists, while comfortable with government to a degree, have moved much further in the direction of no-compromise free marketeering.

This is exemplified by the rhetoric we’re all familiar with: “Government is bad”, “Government can’t do anything right”, “The worst words one can hear are, “I’m from the government, I’m here to help”, etc. You would have to go back more than half a century to find anything similar on the left, i.e. “Business is bad”, “Business is corrupt”, etc. You will find specific reference to corporations, which is comparable. But even then, it isn’t the capitalism per say but the form it takes when incorporated.  Furthermore, most of what the government does is additive, in that were it to cease, no private market would fill the void.

So regarding oil spills, and any other man-made disaster, there is a very clear line you can draw between the degree to which an administration is opposed to regulation of industry and the implementation thereof. So, while a case could be made that Democratic presidents and congress weren’t tough enough on financial or environmental regulation, the fact of the matter is that the left has a built-in concern with making sure that the excesses of business are kept in check. The extent to which they are able to get any regulation at all is often tampered by the extent to which the right is shouting – in this case, “Drill, Baby! Drill!”  The previous administration was packed full of people who had a basic philosophical opposition to the very jobs they were supposed to be doing.  This would be like sending pacifists to fight a war.

When regulation inhibits growth, the left must take ownership of that. Of course, the argument there is that what the right often deems “growth” comes via externalizing costs. In the case of BP, we may have enjoyed a small (tiny?) amount of growth because regulations were being dodged – whether because the MMS was being paid off in whores and coke, or some other reason, and that allowed business to move more quickly than it otherwise could. But even a fool can see that that bargain was one that ultimately didn’t pay out very well.  You can't have it all.  You either have to maybe sacrifice some growth, or you get stuck with billion-dollar catastrophes.  To the extent that we are unable to come to this conclusion, we aren't acting like adults.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Performance Pay and What Taxes are Really For

At Mother Jones, Jessica Calefati weighs in on pay-for-performance, asking "Should Teachers' Raises Depend on Test Scores?".
A 2009 study (PDF) by UC-Berkeley public policy professor Jesse Rothstein found a correlation between North Carolina elementary school students' fifth-grade classroom assignments and their fourth-grade standardized-test performance. To fairly evaluate teachers using student test scores, principals would need to assign students to classrooms randomly, but Rothstein's findings confirm what most teachers already know—classroom lists are generated using students' reading and math proficiency, their disciplinary records, and their parents' requests for specific teachers, among other factors. Teachers who instruct classes full of gifted students have a better chance at posting test-score gains than their counterparts who work with remedial learners. In his study's conclusion, Rothstein warns that tying teacher evaluations to student testing "will reward or punish teachers who do not deserve it and fail to reward or punish teachers who do."
Supporters of pay-for-performance bristle at accusations they are engaged in "teacher bashing".  But the underlying assumptions behind this type of reform paint a different picture. 

The proposed reform is targeted towards teachers who are performing poorly.  While no one questions whether such low-quality teachers exist, there is reason to believe that this reform, even if possible to be implemented fairly, could have any more than a marginal effect on the fundamental problem of public school achievement.  If we look at the real factors that effect student achievement, things like neighborhood and family are not only more consequential, but are correlated highly with demographics and therefore very predictable.  Poor teaching is both less significant a problem, as well as difficult to predict, with wide variance even at the site level. 

While the difference between a good and bad teacher can can have profound effects in the classroom, there is little reason to see how the fundamental inequities across American cities regarding human and social capital could ever be seriously altered simply through better teaching, even if we managed to attract the very best teachers to the very worst schools.  Complicating matters, a teacher's efficacy may vary greatly according to what demographic they are serving.  A teacher who seems amazing with high-SES kids might fall apart completely when faced with low-SES kids multiple grade-levels behind and bringing issues into the classroom that the teacher has no idea how to deal with.

And all of that is assuming that we can actually implement pay-for-performance in a way that is both fair and effective.  As Calefati notes, there are numerous challenges in eliminating variables that might cloud the data and unfairly penalize certain teachers over others.  At the district level, one might consider overall school API scores, and assume that teaching at a school that serves more prepared populations - that is, with better access to human and social capital - will always weigh towards better performance.  For instance, if I have a student reading at grade level, you can be sure that it will be easier to make progress with him than one who is 2-3 grade levels behind.  But even this broad adjustment is very rough and vulnerable to error. 

Zooming in to the site level, we're now getting into even more difficult terrain.  Even if students were assigned to each class at random, you'd have natural clustering and some teachers would be getting better "deals" then others, as their classes performance benefited from a larger portion of higher-performing students.  A smart way to avoid clustering and get better data would be to extend the performance period over several years.  But here you run into problems of student and staff transiency .  Getting all the variables to line up is almost impossible.  At the secondary level, you have the added problem of how to judge results in different disciplines.  Some subjects are just going to be more of a struggle than others.  How do you compare, for instance Art and PE to Math or Language Arts?  Some subjects, such as AP Chemistry or Honors English will by definition select more motivated students. 

Taking implementation into account, as well as the marginal effect pay-for-performance can be expected to have on wide disparities in human and social capital across demographic and geographic regions, the entire scheme seems not only woefully inadequate but insultingly hubristic in its devaluation of the task teachers are being asked to achieve.  In courts across the country, the striking disparities across districts have been found to be unconstitutional.  In California, Serrano vs. Priest found that per-pupil spending must be equalized.  In Connecticut, Horton vs. Meskill in 1977 mandated that the state "provide a substantially equal educational opportunity", and Sheff v. O'Neill in 1996 reaffirmed the same right. 

Yet we have yet to take this constitutional right seriously, choosing instead what amount to stalling tactics.  Chief among them is "teacher bashing", or the insistence that the education achievement gap persists due to the failure of teachers to do their job properly.  Yet what these constitutional challenges implied, yet stopped short of truly addressing, is the extent to which the achievement gap can only be closed by first closing the gap in human and social capital of students.  Successful programs across the country - those who consistently bring poor students to real success - do so not by relying on one amazing teacher in a class of 30.  They do it by pouring targeted resources in a comprehensive way into not just these kids but the community as well.

Geoffrey Canada, CEO of the Harlem Children's Zone (which get's 2/3 of its funding from private sources) on this strategy:

The first is to rebuild our communities. You can't have successful schools in communities where everything else is falling apart or falling down, where there are no block associations or tenant associations, where the parks are lousy and the playgrounds are lousy — it simply isn't going to happen. So we've begun to rebuild the infrastructure in the Harlem Children's Zone, building by building, block by block, apartment by apartment, forming tenant associations, block associations, making sure we don't forget about the neighborhood playgrounds and parks...
....  developing a catalog of best practices for each developmental stage of a child's life. They have to be basic, central tenets — we don't want or need to create anything new, because it's all out there. You do an Internet search under "early childhood" and you're going to get a thousand hits. But when it comes to identifying best practices and then making the case for those practices, we just don't do it. In fact, in poor communities, you see the worst practices. For example, in terms of grade-school instruction, we know the best practice is to limit the number of kids in a class and to teach them all day. But what do you usually find in poor communities? Large numbers of kids being taught half the day. And we wonder why children end up failing?...
...Our aim at HCZ is to have a best-practice recommendation for each developmental stage of a child's life, starting with pregnancy. So we have a Baby College, where we work on a regular basis with pregnant moms and moms of toddlers, sharing information with them from pediatricians and nurse practitioners and doulas and lots of other folks about how they should be taking care of themselves, making sure they're prepared, what to do when the baby's seven months old, nine months old, and so on...
...Then we go to pre-K and Head Start... Once kids are in kindergarten, first, and second grade, we really want to push to make sure they get a lot of attention, and our vehicle for doing that is the Harlem Peacemakers program, which works inside the public schools to reduce class size...
...Then we have a program for adolescents called TRUCE, where we use the arts and other activities to keep kids engaged and out of trouble. For example, some of the kids in the program put out a newspaper — I think the circulation is up to fifty thousand — and another group of kids writes and produces a TV show that goes out via the Manhattan Neighborhood Network, our local cable outlet. The idea is to use constructive activities as a counterweight to the kinds of leaders that spring up naturally in poor communities — you know, the kids who say, "Hey, I know where we can make some fast money," and then go out and rob a store or sell drugs. Our program, in contrast, tries to create situations where a kid can say, "Look, I know a place where we can go in and volunteer to help children learn to read," or where they can go to create a mural or build a Web site. The problem in poor communities is that they seldom produce that second kind of leader.
 All of this doesn't come cheap.  But neither does ignoring it.  We can't continue to let kids suffer through a failing system and then blame them for not being successful in adulthood.  We need to take a hard look at our priorities and decide what the point of public education is in the first place?  Is it a building, a classroom, and a a teacher for every child, regardless of need or result?  Is it a lump sum payment of cash for services provided?  Or is it the promise that we make to every child that they too deserve, as an American Citizen, to receive as best as we can provide the human and social capital necessary to have an equal education before they reach adulthood?  

Poor students don't need equal funding, they need equal resources.  This includes what they are less likely to be receiving at home.  We can't give them all the stable families with low stress,  rich language, cognitive stimulation, and positive role-models they need.  But we can at least try.  We can recognize that these teenagers need more.  These children need more.  These babies need more.  They are starving in so many ways and that brief time they share with the teacher, who's already divided her time into 1/30s, isn't enough.  We need to reach into our hearts and agree to paying the taxes the government needs to put these resources into the hands of the children who need them.  The complexities of allocation and management can be handed over to our leaders - so we must elect men and women who will take up this task.  

Higher standards, accountability, innovation and performance all sound good - and they are, as far as they go.  But they are little more than rhetoric that is wasting precious time.  These communities are lying out there, pock-marking the American landscape, neglected and dying slow, agonizing deaths.  The children are humiliated, knowing nothing more than that they aren't important.  We are the adults.  We are the inheritors of this nation's dream.  It is up to us to keep that promise.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Bigotry and the Human Struggle

Julian Sanchez describes the limits to which scientific understanding can assuage our strongly held beliefs.  He describes how homosexuality's removal from the DSM, psychiatric manual on mental disease, owed as much to more general social progress than to the scientific evidence.
I’m glad, of course, that we’ve dispensed with a lot of bogus science that served to rationalize homophobia—that’s a pure scientific victory.  And I’m glad that we no longer classify homosexuality as a disorder—but that’s a choice and, above all, a moral victory. It ultimately stems from the more general recognition that we shouldn’t stigmatize dispositions and behaviors that are neither intrinsically distressing to the subject nor harmful, in the Millian sense, to the rest of us.
I think this is true. It also explains the persistence of irrational bigotry, as we are seeing coloring (no pun intended) the debate around immigration, social programs, not to mention our black president. People no longer have any scientific, rational justification for their biases, yet they persist. This is best evinced by the person who has no religious or moral problem with gays – but just thinks they’re “gross”.

I think the discussion on racism, sexism, etc. would benefit greatly from a transition from the dogmatic – you “are” or “are not” a bigot – to the nuanced – are your feelings/opinions being informed by social patterns of bias? I think in the past, when bigotry was largely acceptable, the unconscious biases were still there, and just because we decided as a society to make them taboo – the underlying drivers of bias didn’t simply vanish into thin air. The problem now is in identifying ways in which we are still being driven by them.

This is always incredibly dicey. People worked up over illegal immigration always hate any suggestion that racism/ethnocentrism/nativism/etc. might be playing a role in the anger they feel over the issue. This is justified in the sense that no one’s political beliefs should be declared illegitimate from the start, especially if they aren’t explicitly bigoted. But at the same time, there is a historical pattern of bias, built on cultural structures, against poor immigrants. So it is an important conversation to have.

Wikipedia has an excellent list of cognitive biases that provide a nice framework for understanding how this pattern might have historically developed. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cognitive_biases. It’s actually a pretty frightening as a look into the frailty of the human psyche. But it’s also disarming in that by explaining why we err, we offer our ego forgiveness.

Of course, the next step is to remain vigilant. And that is a lifelong process that will never achieve perfection. As humans, we are all prone to be led by our fears, angers and prejudices. I think larger social diseases such as bigotry can be thought of as on the same spectrum of behavior as, say, being rude to a store clerk, or acting selfishly towards a roommate or spouse. We are flawed and we are all (hopefully) engaged in an endless struggle to “be better”. The way we do this is always the same: we reflect, we untangle the root of the problem, and then we try to develop the cognitive tools so that should the behavior arise in the future, we have the ability to keep it in check.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Technological Relativism

John Quiggin at Crooked Timber sums up what is likely a widely shared response to the flurry of recent commentary on what effect the internet is having on the ways we think about the world.
 I can’t help imagining some grouchy old-timer saying something like “Damn cave paintings. In my day, we told stories about the sacred mammoth hunt, and you really had to use your imagination. Kids these days just want to stare at a wall all night. No wonder they can’t throw a spear straight”.

The NY Times is asking what technology is doing to us, especially all these gadgets.

It isn't new.  Last year Wired made the bold claim that Digital Overload Is Frying Our Brains.  What really got this ball rolling seems to be credited to Nick Carr's 2008 piece in the Atlantic, in which he asked, "Is Google Making Us Stupid?"
Over the past few years I’ve had an uncomfortable sense that someone, or something, has been tinkering with my brain, remapping the neural circuitry, reprogramming the memory. My mind isn’t going—so far as I can tell—but it’s changing. I’m not thinking the way I used to think. I can feel it most strongly when I’m reading. Immersing myself in a book or a lengthy article used to be easy. My mind would get caught up in the narrative or the turns of the argument, and I’d spend hours strolling through long stretches of prose. That’s rarely the case anymore.
To those familiar with the historical development of just about any new technology, fears about what each new step might be bringing are nothing new.  As Quiggin notes, new technology brings with it new ways of doing things - and this inevitably means losing old ones.  The trick is in assessing the cost/benefit ratio.  However, because there is no way of knowing what the future really holds, attempts to prognosticate will always suffer - whether resulting in pessimism or optimism; we just don't know.

I'm reminded of James Burke's classic television series Connections.  Here's the implications of the thermos flask:


So, obviously this doesn't mean we can't make informed predictions, or notice changes in society that are occurring around us.  It simply suggests that there are often unforeseen consequences of technological innovation, and that we ought to be very careful not to get ahead of ourselves.

A commenter at Crooked Timber writes:
Socrates also IIRC was cranky about those young whippersnappers who think they can understand something by reading it, instead of memorizing it and actually holding in their heads where understanding happens. And if you base your knowledge on what you read, then of course you can flit from book to book, without the true discipline and concentration needed to study in an oral tradition.

Socrates was right, of course. If wisdom is based on what is in your head, then reading is pseudo-wisdom, a cheat. I prefer to think of it as off-site storage, and that reading is a way to access lots of information and ideas without having to keep them on-site. The Internet does the exact same thing, but it pumps the process up another couple of orders of magnitude.

I used to say that Aristotle was undoubtably smarter than I, but I plus the Columbia Encyclopedia know more than Aristotle. Today, I plus Wikipedia know way more than that, but the essential process is the same.
If you want to talk about how the Internet is changing the way we think, first look at how literacy changed the way people think.

I think that is well-put.  I’d also add that when reading a book you’re also stuck in that author’s head. Now, this may be a marvelous place to be. But it can also be insidious. I’m thinking of the Stockholm syndrome, in which hostages develop false feelings of fealty towards their captors. One of the most marvelous aspects of reading the classics is the availability of annotation.


I’ve yet to read a book on one of these new-fangled e-readers, but the addition of subtle hyper-linking might be interesting. But then of course, if they’re created by the author you’re still in his grip. Maybe one day we’ll have open-sourced editions, whereby anyone can publish their own hyper-link annotations for a particular work.

In the meantime, having the computer handy is often just a brilliant reference tool. For instance, right now I’m reading Donald Worster’s biography of John Muir (which is excellent, by the way... and come to think of it, quite ironic) and I’ve popped over to Wikipedia more than once.  I won't try to argue that the internet hasn't had a profound impact on the way we engage with media.  But I think it is still much too early to say whether the bad outweighs the good, or that shifting attention spans is necessarily a bad thing.

Finally, and I feel guilty for waiting until the end to say this, but I'm afraid that, in the interest of full-disclosure, I must admit to having always had a horrifically short attention span.  When Carr describes the uncomfortable feeling he gets as he realizes that becoming immersed in a novel is no longer as easy at is might have once been, my first thought is, "Welcome to Super Vidoqo's world."  I realize that my own anecdotal experience may actually be clinical.  But I know I've never been alone.  And for those of us out here in la-la land, the internet presents a way to engage with media in a way that is certainly more satisfying, if not a net gain in intellectual development.  Maybe it will turn out for the worse.  But I, for one, am enjoying the ride.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

What's In a Name

Here in California, the primaries are just about upon us and campaigns are in full swing.  Boulevards are awash in the garish reds, blues and yellows of political signage.   Surnames jockey for eyeballs in thickets of 4, 5, 10 at a time.  There isn't much room to craft a message on a 1'x2' card - especially for drivers whizzing by at 40mph.  So simplicity is key.  Candidate's name, office sought.

We have no idea who these people are.  As a conscientious voter I always make an attempt to try and find out.  The voter's guide gives them a profile and brief summary of their philosophy.  They're always hardworking, honest, dignified - real pillars of the community.  Which I have no doubt they are.  Local politics may be the one arena in which personal ambition is not at the top of the agenda.  But the problem comes in actually deciphering the difference between the candidates.  Often times there is no profile for a particular office; only the candidate's name is listed.  Thanks to the internet the task is now somewhat easier.  Most candidates have a website.  But even then it's hard to make out what they really believe.

So I think what many of us end up doing is looking at endorsements.  We find an organization with whom we tend to share a political philosophy, and then trust that they know something about a candidate that we do not.  We make a little checklist (who's really going to remember who all these people are, anyway?!!) and head off to the polls.

But I have a hunch that this isn't how many voters operate.  And this would explain the signs.  Most voters at least know who the big guys are.  They know which senator they like.  They know which governor.  They might not have a very clear understanding of why, if the average campaign ad is any indication.  But they at least know something about the candidate.  And I'll wager seeing nothing but a name on a roadside sign isn't going to really push them one way or the other.  To the extent that you see a big name on a sign, it's likely advertising the identity of the resident more than anything else.

But the sheriffs and judges, comptrollers and water board members - these are the guys you see staggered along main drags, their lonely names signifying little more than coherent little strings of letters.  But in the polling booth, once the main candidates are chosen, these signs come alive.  From deep within the cerebral tissue, filed away somewhere between a radio station's call letters and the password to an email account, this specific alphabetic arrangement suddenly bursts forth and there, what to the wondering blue pen should appear, but
"TONKS for COMMISSIONER"
 And just like that it is gone.  By the end of the next week the signs are packed up and carted away in the middle of the night.  The appellate judges go on judging, the school board members go on membering.  The auditors go on auditing.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Virtual Charters and the Kids Down the Road

The New York Times has a piece up documenting the continued growth of online charter schools - by definition paid for at taxpayer expense, and at the same level of individual student funding as brick-and-mortar schools.  This means that a virtual charter can expect to receive anywhere from $5-7k per student, or whatever the going rate is in that district.

From the article:
  • There are no libraries, cafeterias, playgrounds, coaches, janitors, nurses, buses or bus drivers.
  • Twenty percent of California’s 872 charter schools now conduct some or all of their classes online.
Regular readers of this blog will know that I taught for 3 years at a California charter school based around a similar model.  While a small number of its students, such as those I taught, were served in more traditional school houses, most of the nearly 3000 students were home-schooled.  These students received up to $800 for curriculum and supplies, and access to an "education specialist", a fully-compensated credentialed teacher who met with the family weekly or bi-weekly to oversee progress, and who usually had around 30 students on their roster.  So basically, the school paid a teacher around $60k, and took in 210k - all without the normal expenses associated with running a school building.

The homeschool parents were by and large thrilled with the service.  Mostly mid to upper-SES, they had the typical human and social capital to provide a quality education to their child.  What this typically meant was that the household had two parents, and enough income to support one parent (usually the mother) staying home to teach the children.  They had access to online resources that served as lesson guides, and the ability to meet their child's academic needs.  I don't have access to such specific demographic data, but my guess would be that most had a college education.

While there were a handful of schools in which students came in for instruction in a classroom setting - "acedemies" they were called, they represented only a small number of enrolled students.  Of the academies, only a few served primarily low-SES familes.  In fact, ours happened to be one of maybe two, located as we were in a small, poor town 2 hours from the corporate offices.  Our school had begun as a small K-12 staging area for the largely upper-SES, white, religious families in the community who sought homeschooling as a way to avoid the neighborhood schools, which were mostly poor and Hispanic.  Yet as a charter school, any local children were allowed to attend, and the original population was slowly replaced with one that reflected more clearly the demographic make-up of the surrounding area.

Currently, 35% of the school's students are eligible for free & reduced lunches, a standard means-tested measure of poverty in any given school.  At our academy, this would likely been at least 80% of the population.  Unfortunately, a range of administrative failures resulted in a profound denial of resources to these students.  Had they attended the local public school, they would have had access to a variety of services.  Yet the academy was seen by many parents as preferable; many considered it somewhat exclusive - almost "private schoolish".  This was certainly how the school wanted to present itself.  As most of the parents were unfamiliar with what a good school environment really looked like, few among them having gone to college or experienced much academic success in life, they were ignorant of what their children were missing out on.

Sadly, the main component of a "good school" is often simply students from higher-SES parents.  So such a large percentage of poor families in one school inevitably requires a whole range of special resources to compensate: better teachers, better administration, smaller classes, as well as a variety of extra services like meal programs, special education, etc.  In many ways our school did as well as any school could have hoped.  Our teachers and staff were dedicated and caring, we had high standards, and did our best to work with meager resources.  But we were in no position to offer what these students really needed.

Despite our students' eligibility for federal Title I resources - extra funding for poor students, we struggled to provide a bare minimum:
  • We had no meal program (no breakfast or lunch).  Students often came to school hungry, without food, or with nothing but a soda and a bag of chips.
  • We had no library, or librarian.
  • We had no PE, Music, or Art teachers.  Foreign Languages were taught via software.
  • There was no budget for field trips.  No school bus.
  • We had one special education teacher, working on a pull-out basis.  No special day class.
  • We had a skeleton crew for yard duty.  Teachers had no preparation periods.
In my time there, enrollment was in rapid decline.  Apparently many parents were realizing that their students were being under-served.  In my final year, the elementary grades had been divided into combination classes, where one teacher would be responsible for teaching two different grades.  I was stuck teaching Kindergarten and First.  With a low-SES population, this meant taking kids who were woefully unprepared and struggling to get them all to where they needed to be - x2.  In order to give direct instruction to each grade level, I was forced to rotate the students in groups of 4, 4 times a day.  This meant 16 separate activities in math and reading.  All without a prep.

I ended up being sent to teach high school science mid year, as the students there had already received a semester's instruction from a substitute.  There were only 3 high school teachers (English, Math, History) as it was.  The school hadn't been able to afford to pay for an assistant director - so she'd have to teach elementary.  As a young man, they thought I could do better with the rowdy highschoolers.  I began teaching Chemistry, Biology and Earth Science in February.  Fortunately I actually enjoyed it.  I went on that summer to get a credential in Geosciences.  That fall I taught Chemistry, Biology, Earth Science, Career Exploration, Visual Arts and Journalism.  But as more students left or dropped out, by November they couldn't afford me and I was laid off.  The science courses were split between the English, Math and History teachers.

Of course, there was no union.  Teachers were often fired the last week of school, and always for seemingly arbitrary reasons.  The principal wasn't really a principal - she was 2 hours away.  He was a site administrator.  This meant that the little input he had in site decisions (he didn't have a budget), always had to be passed through corporate offices.  Suffice it to say what teacher input there might have been was strangled.  We eventually gave up on leadership committees.  We were either too busy, felt our input was unwanted, or simply too scared to question the school's increasingly poor service of its students.

The school's principal had previously come under fire for financial corruption and misuse of funds.  The result was a split from a former organization and her establishing the present charter through the county district.  Her husband is the chief financial officer.  This may explain why the school was so comfortable with what may have been its most fraudulent activity.

When I was hired to teach Kindergarten, I learned that I was technically to be called an "Education Specialist", just like the homeschool advisers.  This was because, technically, the academies were simply meeting places for homeschool students, although the students all attended full-time.  This odd arrangement had a very lucrative benefit for the school: as long as the student could be accounted for having done a lesson at home, they could miss a day and still be claimed as having attended.  Teachers were required to fill out a sheet of paper every month on which they would check if a student had completed an educational activity for each eligible day of attendance.  In theory, the parent would arrange in advance for an absence, and the teacher would arrange for an activity to take place.  Of course, an activity might take no more than an hour, and in no way could be considered equal to a full day's attendance on-site.

What was more often the case however, was that the student would simply not show up to school, with no contact from the parent.  The teacher would mark the absence.  Yet teachers were routinely pressured to go back and have students do a "make-up" assignment so that a full attendance day could be claimed.  The justification for this was, wink-wink, more money from the state = more money for the school to provide better services.  Classes routinely had 100% attendance rates.  Yet, if any money was indeed "trickling down" to the site, we certainly saw no evidence of it.

As far as I know, the site is still surviving.  Although it remains to be seen how much longer they can continue attracting students.  The larger school, meanwhile, is flourishing.  As the story in the Times suggests, many parents have discovered quite a large loophole in the public school system that allows for what amounts to a de facto voucher for private education.  Our academy was seen as a sort of pro bono charity case, in which poor students who otherwise would not have had access to the homeschool model, and ultimately for whom public education was originally designed, were being thrown a bone.  But I doubt very many virtual and homeschool charters are even bothering with a pretense of generosity.

Philosophically, the problem with the voucher model - full funding for individual student expenses - is antithetical to the public school model, which is ultimately founded on the principal that society is responsible for providing a basic education to every child.  Public resources aren't divvied up according to head-counts.  Like an insurance model, they provide a baseline coverage and then allocate resources accordingly.  We don't demand "our fair share" of auto insurance when we don't have accidents.  We don't demand our fair share of health insurance when we don't get sick.  This is the general model for public services in general.  We don't demand our fair share of parks, roads, libraries, police or emergency services when we don't use them.  We believe that society at large should come together and share our collective wealth in order to provide what we believe are basic human rights.

When a high-SES student receives a maximum share of public education funds, they are taking money away from other children who do not possess the same level of human and social capital.  Those students are then further marginalized into schools whose demographic  make-up is increasingly similar to theirs, placing an ever higher burden on institutions that are designed to turn no child away, to "leave no child behind".  As it stands, one of the greatest barriers to reducing the socio-economic achievement gap is our unwillingness to adopt fundamentally means-tested education services.  My daughter, bless her heart, has two college educated parents who themselves came from parents of reasonable means.  When she enters Kindergarten next year, in a neighborhood composed largely of other higher-SES families that feeds an extremely high-achieving elementary school, she will be reading, writing and doing math at a roughly mid-1st grade level, not to mention having a generally well-enriched vocabulary and cognitive capabilities.  She will receive a very similar level of state resources very similar to the children from the poor communities a few miles down the road.

It isn't hard to see what this means for her future, as well as that of the kids in poor communities.  It isn't fair.  It isn't moral.  It isn't just.  It isn't what America stands for.  As long as we continue to think in such selfish and uncompassionate terms, we will continue to fail our future generations.