Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Big Tents

I voted for Nader in 2000.  It was a mistake.

I say this because while Nader expressed views likely more in line than my own,  he could only say them because Al Gore could not.  As a Green party candidate, Nader needed only pander to his own narrow base of leftists.  Democratic candidates must appeal to a much larger tent.  This is especially true at the national level, where entire cities and states are more or less conservative or liberal.

This concept of big vs. little tent politics was clarified for me in the current CA voter pamphlet.  The left wing parties basically set out a clear, concise liberal agenda:

Californians need living-wage jobs, affordable housing, sustainable energy, single-payer health care and progressive taxation. Greens support vibrant economically sustainable communities, preserving environments, withdrawing from Iraq and Afghanistan, and developing safe clean energy sources.... Supporting workplace representation, creating living-wage jobs, affordable housing, public transportation, and sustainable energy; implementing fair graduated taxation on one's ability to pay, eliminating government subsidies to corporations, and implementing carbon taxes; ... promoting public-owned safe, clean renewable energy; reducing global warming through efficiency, conservation and fossil fuel taxes; protecting endangered species, agricultural land, and opposing sprawl developments; supporting single-payer health care and free public education; supporting undocumented immigrants' right to work
Peace and Freedom 
The Peace and Freedom Party is a working-class party in a country run by and for the wealthy and their corporations. We should not have to sacrifice our health, our livelihoods and our planet for our bosses' profits. We can tax the rich, whose wealth is entirely created by workers, to pay for the people's needs. We favor: bringing all troops home now; ending all discrimination; full rights for immigrants; free health care for everyone; good services for disabled people; restoring and protecting the environment; real democracy and fair political representation; free education for all from preschool through the university; decent jobs and full labor rights for all.
The right wing parties were as clear and concise:

Libertarian solutions are the most practical and workable for strengthening our economy and governing our state. If they had been employed during the last decade, our state would be strong and not in a deficit. Thus, Libertarians work to: reduce government spending; promote business development, which will create jobs; reform public employee pensions, which are bankrupting cities, counties and the state; privatize services that are best delivered by cost-effective providers; guarantee equal treatment under the law for all Californians; strictly regulate, control and tax marijuana for adults, thus making it less available for children; reduce sessions of the Legislature to every other year.

American Independent
The American Independent Party is the party of ordered liberty in a nation under God. We believe in strict adherence to written law. We believe the Constitution is the contract America has with itself. Its willful distortion has led to the violation of our Tenth Amendment guaranteed right to limited government—which inevitably requires oppressive taxation. Its faithful application will lift that burden...  We will then establish truly free and responsible enterprise and reassert the basic human right to property.  We believe in protecting all human life however weak, defenseless, or disheartened; endorse the family as the essential bulwark of liberty, compassion, responsibility, and industry; and declare the family's right and responsibility to nurture, discipline, and educate their children.  We assert the absolute, concurrent Second Amendment guaranteed individual right to self defense coupled with a strong common defense, a common defense which requires a national sovereignty not damaged by imprudent treaties. We oppose all illegal immigration....
Contrast this with the bland, watered-down pablum the Democrats and Republicans present:

Democratic Party 
Building a healthier future for our state and improving the quality of life for all Californians.California Democrats were key in helping President Obama pass health insurance reform, ending the insurance company practice of denying coverage to children because of pre-existing conditions and lowering the cost of health care for millions of Americans... Democrats believe our state must make university and community college affordable for today's working and middle-class families.  We believe in rewarding hard work and expanding opportunities for all Californians in order to create stronger and healthier communities.
Republican Party
The California Republican Party supports restoring our state as the nation's leader in economic growth and innovation by cutting taxes, slashing wasteful regulations, and making California competitive again. We want to build a California where people and families are safe and secure because a vibrant economy is creating jobs and opportunities for everyone who is willing and able to work.  Republicans support boldly reforming our bloated and wasteful government and reducing its burden on taxpayers to grow our economy and generate the jobs and opportunities families need.  The Republican Party is the advocate for everyday Californians—people who were born and raised here, and those who have come here to raise a family or build a business. We support protecting every Californian's personal freedoms and opportunities to have a good education, to work, to save and to invest in one's future, and in one's family. 

Monday, September 27, 2010

Doing it "Our Way"

A common theme on this blog is that what is currently considered "education reform" is ineffective and actually destructive to the nation's schools. By now a firmly bipartisan movement, it is best exemplified in the Obama administration's quadruple platform of assessment, accountability, merit pay and charter schools. This blog generally finds those so-called "reforms" woefully inadequate and dangerous.

A story in the NY Times today presents a stark example of how real change can happen entirely outside the current reform model (and entirely within the traditional framework) of public education. It isn't anywhere near a game-changing exercise. What made it work is likely quite difficult to quantify, and no doubt even more so to replicate. It doesn't begin to address some of the larger complexities of the achievement gap, and lacks a long-term blueprint for guaranteeing success for poor children. But it does inspire hope, and confidence in good old fashioned teaching.

For a ten years now, Brockton High School in Brockton, Mass., with an enrollment of over 4000 students, has been exceeding expectations. And it has done so without tying teacher test scores to student performance, without mayoral control, without rigid top-down management hierarchy, without harsh "school improvement" penalties, breaking the union or shutting the school down. Instead, a small group of teachers simply got together and began a plan of action.

The committee’s first big step was to go back to basics, and deem that reading, writing, speaking and reasoning were the most important skills to teach. They set out to recruit every educator in the building — not just English, but math, science, even guidance counselors — to teach those skills to students.

The committee put together a rubric to help teachers understand what good writing looks like, and began devoting faculty meetings to teaching department heads how to use it. The school’s 300 teachers were then trained in small groups.

Writing exercises took many forms, but encouraged students to think methodically. A science teacher, for example, had her students write out, step by step, how to make a sandwich, starting with opening the cupboard to fetch the peanut butter, through washing the knife once the sandwich was made. Other writing exercises, of course, were much more sophisticated.
 A movement has been building for decades now, emphasizing small schools as crucial to turning around student improvement.  A seemingly common-sense idea - big institutions seem menacing and difficult to control.  But what this has often meant is hastily thrown together charter schools with little experience, yet big promises about what they can offer.  I taught at one of these myself and it was a nightmare.  Administration was highly out of proportion to the number of teachers and students.  Programs that required a larger student base to be run efficiently had to be cut.  There was no library, no gym, no music or art rooms,  no theater or cafeteria.  Special education was severely limited, requiring those with special needs to look elsewhere - generally forcing them back onto the traditional  public schools.

One of the hallmarks of the new reform movement is teacher bashing and union busting.  If only there were better teachers, they say, the achievement gap would be erased.  And the only thing standing in the way is the unions.  Yet "union intransigence" is about as specific as people tend to get.  That could mean anything.  Should teachers be expected to give up their preps?  Come in Saturdays?  Accept ill-conceived assessment regimes and time-wasting layers of bureaucracy and meaningless protocol?  Should there be due process?

At Brockton, because what the teachers wanted to do was driven from the bottom-up, and perfectly reasonable, there was zero union resistance.
The union never became a serious adversary, in part because most committee members were unionized teachers, and the committee scrupulously honored the union contract.
An example: the contract set aside two hours per month for teacher meetings, previously used to discuss mundane school business. The committee began dedicating those to teacher training, and made sure they never lasted a minute beyond the time allotted.
“Dr. Szachowicz takes the contract seriously, and we’ve worked together within its parameters,” said Tim Sullivan, who was president of the local teachers union through much of the last decade.
 There is little to no evidence that any of the currently en vogue reforms are any better than what we have always been doing.  That doesn't mean that we don't need real reform.  But it does mean that we are engaged in a superficial pursuit that promises big and doesn't deliver.  When a group of teachers can come together and do what all of the millions of wealthy donors like the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation can't (and can't show evidence for, either), it's time to reassess how we are approaching the entire subject of reform altogether.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Moonies over Marin

Apparently the Tea Party organized a rally in Marin County today, featuring guest speakers Ward Connerly and John Yoo, the mastermind of the Bush Administration's "enhanced interrogation" torture policies. 

Any excuse for a little Dead Kennedys:

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Island Killings

A common point of agreement made across both sides of the abortion debate is that we all agree that reducing the abortion rate is a good thing.

I'd actually go with the opposite.  If anything, there are too many unloved, unwanted, under-cared-for children in the world as it is.   I'm a hopeless utilitarian, but I can't help that, if purely looking at the production of suffering, increased abortions would likely reduce suffering overall.  The world will have been a better place if many people were simply not born to begin with.

I understand that the reaction to this idea will strike many as cold or cruel.  But think of it this way.  Imagine a car is filled to capacity, and an extra passenger would face severe risk.  Should the passenger be asked to wait for the next car?

I'm probably sounding like I believe in reincarnation.  If only. 

I just don't understand why a fetus must be made sacred.  Beyond its ability to feel pain (and we're talking about, if anything, a very brief period of discomfort - certainly no worse than the agony I surely felt when I was circumcised), what is there?  The parent's feelings would be next in line.  Then I suppose there is the squishy idea of social normative behavior.  Do we want people going around aborting fetuses?  I don't have a problem with it.

The last concern is largely designed to deal with the inevitable question of when it is OK to kill a developing human.  Many draw the line at viability.  But that's a slippery term.  When is a fetus viable.  Medicine had been advancing considerably, leading to earlier and earlier viability.  But what would be the argument anyway?  It seems an arbitrary point, designed generally for winning an argument, if not merely for public health and legal reasons - like the driving or drinking age.

No, I think the question that needs to be answered is whether it would be OK to kill a newborn.  Or what about a three month old, etc.?  If done without suffering, there is no cost to the individual.  And what if the mother and father don't mind? Grandparents?  We must draw the line somewhere in concentric rings of possible indirect suffering.  And yet this point could be made about any individual, really?  A thought experiment:

If you were stranded on a desert island with a stranger, with no hope of ever being rescued, would it be morally OK to kill him in his sleep? 

He wouldn't suffer.  No one would mourn his loss.  In fact, the same could be said for many fellow citizens with no apparent social ties.  It appears the only recourse to which we are left is an appeal to moral decency.   Well, Jesus Christ, what the Hell is that?!!!!

It's an excellent question.  But I think we can put one foot in the right direction with this proposition: we ought to do what we think everyone ought to do.  It's not unsimilar from the golden rule: do unto others as you would have them do unto you.  The trick is in the details, of course.  Not everyone is like me.  I might find it perfectly reasonable to kill my newborn child.  A horrible thought, indeed!  But, maybe in some circumstances, after terribly wrenching moral anguish, I determine that the child would be better off dead, then off we go.  But to simply allow for such behavior by law, willy-nilly, seems very untoward.

Why this is might hold the key insight.  Moral anguish.  My wife had a miscarriage.  Zero moral anguish.  Couldn't care less, really.  What was it but a plop of barely activated DNA sequences floating about in a loose organization of cellular membranes?  But fast forward to the moment of birth and a father's heart melts.  This is highly intuitive, mammalian shit right here.  We don't kill babies.  Those of us who do are monsters.  Well, to be accurate, they are deeply dysfunctional individuals whose lack mental faculties make them unfit for civilized society. 

That's not quite how I'd describe myself.  And yet I still can't get worked up over a blastocyst.  I'm sure that when my chromosomes combined with those of my wife, it had made quite an interesting string of DNA.  But just as I wouldn't mourn the lost of a recipe I just printed off the internet in the same way I'd mourn the loss of a triple-decker cake I just spent hours lovingly crafting before it crashed to the floor, a fetus is only slowly moving toward my heart.  It exists as much in the eyes of my wife as I watch her belly grow, or the joy we share as the little feller begins to kick.

Oh, and by the way I wouldn't kill a stranger on a desert island.  But I'm not sure I'd mind if you did.  Although I'm sure I wouldn't think it wrong if you did.  And if we're ever stranded on an island together, just make sure it's quick and painless.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Moral Foundations and Emotional Geometry

Ravi Iyer has some graphs that show some pretty interesting delineations between liberalism and conservatism.  They're based on the five pillars of Jon Haidt's "Moral Foundations Theory" :
 1) Harm/care, related to our long evolution as mammals with attachment systems and an ability to feel (and dislike) the pain of others. This foundation underlies virtues of kindness, gentleness, and nurturance.

2) Fairness/reciprocity, related to the evolutionary process of reciprocal altruism. This foundation generates ideas of justice, rights, and autonomy.

3) Ingroup/loyalty, related to our long history as tribal creatures able to form shifting coalitions. This foundation underlies virtues of patriotism and self-sacrifice for the group. It is active anytime people feel that it's "one for all, and all for one."

4) Authority/respect, shaped by our long primate history of hierarchical social interactions. This foundation underlies virtues of leadership and followership, including deference to legitimate authority and respect for traditions.

5) Purity/sanctity, shaped by the psychology of disgust and contamination. This foundation underlies religious notions of striving to live in an elevated, less carnal, more noble way. It underlies the widespread idea that the body is a temple which can be desecrated by immoral activities and contaminants (an idea not unique to religious
Ravi's been collaborating on the web site YourMorals.org, where they've been collecting data on liberal and conservative self-reporting in regard to the pillars of each domain.  He writes,
The central finding of Moral Foundations theory to date is the split between what liberals and conservatives report caring about.


A comment on his post asks whether it isn't too early to claim any innate, or evolutionary evidence for such a construct.  I think that's a very fair point.  The pillars seem very universal, but so are a lot of human behaviors that would seem better explained as a function of simply being really smart people with culture. I can't remember the proper term but it's essentially the unintended consequence of another adaptation.

Something I find crucial to the liberal/conservative vision is determinism/free will. This is a complex subject, as it is philosophical, political, scientific, as well as intuitive.

We all obviously intuit that we have free will. Yet the argument against it says this is merely a mistake. Which then raises the question of how much our intuitions are culturally based. Or maybe simply too intellectually taxing. It is obviously advantageous to live our lives as if we were not determined, or at least not live in a perpetual state of laborious self-analysis of our every decision's causal impulse. (Although being more reflective can be ultimately quite beneficial both to ourselves and society).

But it is political in the sense that there are many political concepts wrapped up not only in the question itself but in the resulting implications. It is scientific in that we are getting better and better at being able to test consciousness and narrow down precisely the the physical structures involved in thought.

In a sense the question of determinism ties directly into a all of the pillars mentioned. Harm, loyalty, authority, fairness and purity are all directly affected by one's feelings on determinism. Or if not ones own actions, at least how one views the actions of others is affected. If the essential question is: from where comes the experience of the mind?, then each pillar takes on new meaning.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Academic Capital Rehabilitation Act of 2012

What if we began to treat every child like a special needs child?  According to the World Health Organization:
Disabilities is an umbrella term, covering impairments, activity limitations, and participation restrictions. An impairment is a problem in body function or structure; an activity limitation is a difficulty encountered by an individual in executing a task or action; while a participation restriction is a problem experienced by an individual in involvement in life situations.
Thus disability is a complex phenomenon, reflecting an interaction between features of a person’s body and features of the society in which he or she lives.
Public schools recognize students with certain special needs as having disabilities, and are mandated by law to provide them with accommodations.  But this is limited to a specific range of disabilities that are specifically classified as such.  Section 504 of the landmark Rehabilitation Act of 1973 states that "no qualified individual with a disability in the United States shall be excluded from, denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under" any federally funded program.  The idea behind this is of course that students with disabilities must be given special help in order to receive an equal education.

So how is this different than disadvantaged students who lack adequate levels of human and social capital (combined, they can be thought of as Academic Capital) required to be successful?  We have the tools to target, assess and diagnose these populations.  We know that they face severe deficits - certainly by Kindergarten age, but in reality much earlier in life.  And their level of future success is highly predictable based on a variety of risk-factors.  We know the interventions we can use to accommodate their special needs.

Maybe we need a new law.  How about the Academic Capital Rehabilitation Act of 2012?

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

A Hidden Philosophy

I came across a conservative argument against progressive taxation recently.  It began:
“To be clear, I do not believe the market rewards virtue of achievement. I believe it rewards choice.... I am all for helping people that make a series of choices toward one path, and something unexpected arises that changes their course. But I don’t feel the need to help people that chose to value different things”.
What to make of such a statement? If we all make our own choices (and are accountable as such), then how can we be helped to make choices? Am I missing something?

Sometimes I feel like I’m the only one in the world interested in how the determinism/free will debate drives liberal/conservative politics.  Nothing is more central to the liberal/conservative divide.  Yet it receives almost zero discussion. 

Now mind you, I know plenty of liberals who consider themselves to believe in free will. But then you start talking about reality and it is soon clear they do not. I suppose maybe the real problem is that the subject is difficult to parse and meanings become confused.

But his point is clear, as is any conservative you’ll ever meet. In fact, the degree to which they are conservative is basically expressed in the degree to which they believe that we are rational actors, aside from biological/environmental causality.

Basically, he believes that the rich have chosen to be rich, just as the poor have chosen to be poor. The devil is in that terrible word “choice”. Because yes, most people are aware of their actions to a degree, and the rich and poor have done things differently – but in only a strict sense of the word is this a “choice”. Rich kids don’t generally stay rich out of choice. Neither do poor kids stay poor.

They have had it all handed to them by the world. They are not little Gods.

Liberals grasp this. Conservatives do not. I think in both regards it is an intuitive understanding; the details get tricky pretty fast. But liberal phrases like “it takes a village” say it all.  The folk wisdom has been around for millennium, yet the science overwhelmingly backs it up.  We are far from having a perfect model of the mind, but the extent to which is essentially a deterministic organ has been proven again and again.

I know the partisan divide has become rigid in this country.  Little dialogue seems to be taking place.  Each side sees the other as unfathomable, if not immoral or even mentally ill.  But worse convictions have been held.  I wonder if the great lever we have right now, one standing in the way of revolutionary political change, is sitting right beneath our noses.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Saving House Cleaners

I recently came across an idea that, while seemingly absurd on its face, I felt was likely a widely shared view and one that deserved a bit of examination.  The suggestion was that we maintain lower taxes for the rich, so that we can save the jobs of their house cleaners.

Let me apply some reality to that simple concept.  House cleaners typically make little money, lack benefits, and can only afford to live in poor neighborhoods with other low-skill workers.  This means they and their children are the prime beneficiaries of extra government spending on things like health insurance and childcare for the poor.  As a class, they likely also lack the ability to properly prepare their children for school. So extra government spending on things like schools lunches, tutoring, small class sizes, counselors and other intervention support become really important. 

They likely can't afford the $50 a month for high speed internet, so having a full-service computer lab at the library will also help when teachers assign homework.  Public transportation is also very important, as cars can be expensive to purchase, maintain and buy gas for.  Without much extra cash after bills are paid, public parks have always been indispensable to poor families looking for a cheap way to spend an afternoon together.  When their children graduate from high school (which isn't guaranteed, because the graduation rate for the children house cleaners and gardeners is terribly low), unless they can find a scholarship, state schools are the wisest option.  This means student loans are very important, as well as state universities and community colleges - the latter especially as a means of obtaining education in numerous trades.

Unfortunately, there's a considerable chance that their children will not have made it.  Whether due to poor support at home, negative peer influence (remember the neighborhood they live in), drugs, crime, gangs and sex are all pressures that will produce grandchildren to unfit mothers and fathers.  These children will be lucky if the 16 year old father sticks around at all (unlikely), or if the 16 year old mother knows how to address their cognitive and emotional needs through language and engagement (unlikely).  Assuming grandma is still cleaning house, the mother will have no option but to go on welfare while raising her child.  Because childcare for single mothers was just cut in her state, someone needs to take care of baby. 

But of course, few 16 year olds are cut out to be parents, and many will be resentful, realizing that when their friends are out partying, they're stuck changing diapers.  Broke, the father gone, and a bleak future ahead, who wouldn't be depressed and angry.  So fast forward 5 years, and this little kid enters kindergarten likely having only ever been read to a few times, with underdeveloped cognitive skills and zero knowledge of the alphabet or numeracy.  Hopefully he will have gone to a government funded head-start program, which will have reduced his knowledge gap from maybe 3 to 2 years. 

Along with his class of 30, most of whom are similarly disadvantaged, many worse off - already victims of neglect or an abusive household - they are thrown into an intense environment of academic catch-up.  Some will do OK, taking to the challenge.  Others, especially those with fewer supports at home, will begin to hate the world, especially as represented by the institution of public schooling, which they rapidly begin to associate with cold authoritarianism designed to punish them for their lack of understanding.  Some truly wonderful teachers, the enlightened type with limitless compassion and patience for slow developmental progress will be able to provide some of them with some of the remediation they need.  But many teachers will be ordinary people, and respond to a class of 30 cognitively, experientially and behaviorally disadvantaged children the best they know how, and considerably more will fall through the cracks.  With the government spigot closing fast, not only have class sizes ballooned, but "extras" like music and art will have been excises from these students lives.

That's the life of a house cleaner.  Or a gardener.  Or many a cashier.  Or clerk.  Or dishwasher.  Or generally anyone making poverty wages.  The more you lower taxes on the people most able to afford them, the less money you have to spend on any of the above interventions I've mentioned that play a crucial role in facilitating happiness and mobility in the lives of the working poor.  The growth you get by cutting taxes will not raise government revenues enough to pay for the original cuts you made.  In the end, we simply choose whether or not we feel these programs are worth paying for.  It isn't a matter of can we, but should we.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

We Know, But What Do We Do About It?

 Jessica Shiller points out that NY mayor Bloomberg's claims on closing the achievement gap were largely overblown.  She then reminds us that we are still ignoring the real problem.
What is interesting about these arguments is that achievement will increase if we change things outside of the schools, not inside. It is not a matter of raising standards, turning around failing schools, or increasing the amount of charters that will close the achievement gap, but we may have a great impact on the achievement gap by desegregating our schools, and providing families with economic stability.

I agree with where she's heading.  But I don't think she's quite there.

I'm not sure if either of those are very good solutions.  The first, desegregation, doesn't seem like a very real driver of disadvantage.  I think it was important decades ago, when racial problems were much worse, and white people may have needed to be broken out of their shells.  But it is problematic for numerous reasons.  It is very expensive and time consuming to send kids all over town to various schools.  Poor families are suddenly across town from their child's school, and for a population that already struggles with school engagement, this is only more burdensome.  And as we have seen, integration doesn't resolve deeper socio-economic issues.  Poor minority students being sent to affluent white neighborhood schools is a recipe for racial and class conflict.  I'm not entirely opposed to the idea.  Certainly having more diversity in schools is a good thing.  But at this point it may be more realistic to focus our resources on improving poor, minority schools where they are.

The second idea, regarding economic stability, is somewhat broad.  There are many things we can do right now, inexpensively, to stabilize poor families.  But as for more long-term solutions, these are entire communities in need of intervention at many levels.  The beauty of targeting poor schools with resources is that they can serve as hubs for a broader array of services to facilitate a community's social and economic transformation.  From day care, to parenting classes, drug counseling, to healthy cooking, home-nurse visits and after-school tutoring and mentorship programs, resources can more effectively be directed to the specific needs of the community.

I think once we begin to see the generational poverty cycle break, integration and economic stability will happen much more easily.  The larger question is what sort of downward pressure our economic system presents to neighborhood housing markets. Low-skill, low-wage jobs will only ever pay enough for employees to live in the cheapest neighborhoods, thereby concentrating poverty, and of which the neighborhood school in a poor neighborhood will always be a microcosm.  Until those types of jobs no longer exist, so too will that poverty.  Busing the children away to other neighborhoods seems an appealing remedy.  But I wonder how effective it really is at getting kids (and their families) what they really need in the form of targeted interventions and provision of critical services.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Measuring Your Footprint

James Wimberley notices some seemingly good-faith measures being taken by big business to reduce negative environmental impact.  But he reminds us that we all need to do our part.  He suggests better analytical measures.

I’ve been thinking recently about sitting down and trying to get a good idea of what my carbon footprint actually is. “Green” has become such a buzzword that you begin to feel like you’re never doing as much as you could, which then leads to a sort of hypocritical pessimism. And one thing I get hung up on is the relative footprint of each aspect of daily life. Some things are easy – but are they really that important? For instance, we bring cloth bags to the grocer, saving maybe 5-6 bags in the process. But what is the carbon/environmental footprint of one bag? How many minutes does that equal in power consumption, or miles driven for consumables, or driving instead of biking, etc.?

I’m reminded of the period I spend in my twenties trying to eat vegan. I would check labels to make sure they didn’t contain the slightest bit of dairy products, such as casein. Yet I then realized that every time I broke down and succumbed to my overwhelming desire for a cheeseburger, fried chicken or bacon, that I was essentially ingesting the equivalent of a lifetime supply of casein-tainted products.

At which point, chastened by the realization of my own hypocrisy, I gave up completely – no less concerned by animal welfare, however. I do think though, that having better information could at least allow one to make more serious commitments, comfortable in knowing less hypocrisy is involved, and that sacrifices being made are the right ones. 

Saturday, September 11, 2010


It occurred to me recently that something is often lost in the way we think about social development.  There is a sort of "pop-sociology" model that we use when thinking of dysfunctional individuals.  My wife was describing a friend of hers who seems to always encounter problems in her life.  The poor woman, to hear her tell it, is simply savaged day in, day out by one misfortune after another, generally involving mistreatment at the hands of another.  Yet of course, there is always two sides to these stories. 

In this recent case, my wife had recommended her favorite hairdresser to this "unlucky" friend.  After the appointment, the friend was severely disappointed with her service.  The woman had done a horrible job, and she was never going back!  Yet when my wife saw the hairdresser again, she was told of an individual who was very rude and difficult to work with.  Even after receiving a full refund, she called up and berated her over the phone, accusing her of not actually refunding her money.

So my immediate reaction upon hearing this story, and having heard before of this poor woman's daily struggles, was to ask whether she had had a difficult childhood.  According to her, of course, she indeed had.  But I realized too how cheap this analysis really is.  What does a "difficult childhood" really mean?  And why is it that many people seem to have come out of deeply troubling childhoods relatively unscathed - generally well-adjusted and free from nagging psychodynamic tensions?

What next occurred to me is that the line of analysis wasn't exactly misplaced.  There is an obvious causal connection between environment human development.  Those who have experienced childhood trauma are simply much more likely to struggle in adulthood.  But what is missing from this "pop-sociology" is the degree to which we are able to dig into the details and tease out the specific, granular details.  These things often require much deeper analysis, often at the hands of professionals, as the individual is likely to have never completely sorted out the unpleasant narrative, either from fear or because they lack the metacognitive skills.

And because this is Super Vidoqo, we must relate this experience to education.  As is generally the case with education, the micro is expressed at the macro level.  If one is to think of society as a single organism, poverty can be thought of as our collective "troubled past", in which a legacy of systematic dysfunction continues to play itself out not in the psychodynamics of the unconscious, but in the hidden ghettos and low-wage underworlds of the lower classes.  These are unpleasant stories with complex answers, and require complex solutions.  Just as we can't pop-sociologize our way into the dysfunction of a friend, we can't simplify the narrative of generational poverty, specifically the locus of its reconstitution, the impoverished child.

We use poverty/SES as a sort of rule of thumb, but it is a blunt instrument.  Some poor families will do better than others.  Why is this?  In a word, social and human capital - what parents pass on to their children and the environment they live within.  So this is emotional, language, cognitive, etc.  A parent rich in human capital yet financially poor will still serve that child well.

Our number one policy goal ought to be identifying these disparities in social & human capital and leveraging resources to overcome them.  This ought to start in maternity wards, where mothers can be briefly evaluated and "plugged in" to a network of services that continue to track the child, via nurse-visits, or community center incentives. 

I work with at-risk teens and 17 year old girls are in no way competent to raise children without help.  In just a few years these are the kids entering kindergartens vastly disadvantaged to peers in other neighborhoods.  This program of social/human capital tracking - assessment & remediation, is beyond the purview of the standard schoolhouse model, much less the classroom teacher.  "At risk" families and children ought to be placed in a database that follows them, regularly checking in on their progress and providing a sort of socio-economic scaffolding. 

This is would certainly be a costly endeavor.  But maybe not as much as it sounds at first.  And ultimately the payoff will far outweigh the investment, both in economic and moral terms.  Ending generational poverty could save us billions in lost productivity as well as criminal justice expenditures.  This new model completely disposes of current reform thinking, leaping past it and attacking the real problems placing so much downward pressure on poor families.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Reform on the Cheap

Alfie Kohn has a pretty angry take on the state of education reform these days. 

The less people know about teaching and learning, the more sympathetic they're likely to be to the kind of "school reform" that's all the rage these days. Look, they say, some teachers (and schools) are lousy, aren't they? And we want kids to receive a better education -- including poor kids, who typically get the short end of the stick, right? So let's rock the boat a little! Clean out the dead wood, close down the places that don't work, slap public ratings on these suckers just like restaurants that have to display the results of their health inspections.

On my sunnier days, I manage to look past the ugliness of the L.A. Times's unconscionable public shaming of teachers who haven't "added value" to their students, the sheer stupidity and arrogance of Newsweek's cover story on the topic last spring, the fact that the editorials and columns about education in every major newspaper in the U.S. seem to have been written by the same person, all reflecting an uncritical acceptance of the Bush-Obama-Gates version of school reform.

But while he emphasizes the degree to which teachers are being unfairly blamed, curriculum is becoming ever-more data-centric, and charter schools are generally being oversold, my main concern is that we are simply missing the target altogether.  I'm largely in agreement with everything he says.  And he is especially brilliant when he draws a textbook example of what a good teacher is supposed to look like, and then leaves it hanging, the question implied being, "Is that all we really want from a teacher?"
 Imagine a teacher who gives students plenty of worksheets to complete in class as well as a substantial amount of homework, who emphasizes the connection between studying hard and getting good grades, who is clearly in control of the class, insisting that students raise their hands and wait patiently to be recognized, who prepares detailed lesson plans well ahead of time, uses the latest textbooks, gives regular quizzes to make sure kids stay on track, and imposes consequences to enforce rules that have been laid out clearly from the beginning. Plenty of parents would move mountains to get their children into that teacher's classroom. I'd do whatever I could to get my children out.

Yet what is lost here is that his children (and mine) are not the children that this approach to learning was designed to reach.  What he likely wants is the classic progressive model - more Summerhill, less data analysis.  But that model is disastrous for low income, disadvantaged communities.  At least not in anything like the same model.  Summerhill was never scalable.  What happened instead was that the same sort of progressive attitude - exploratory, hands-on learning with an emphasis on critical thinking and child-centered growth - was brought into the traditional, 1:30 teacher/student classroom.  What was ignored was the reality of enormous class differences in academic capital children were bringing to class. 

Children like those of college-educated, high SES types, for whom progressivity was even on the radar, could thrive in such an environment rich opportunities for metacognitive development.  These kids could do whole language reading because they had been read to by their mothers and fathers for years before ever entering school.  They could do exploratory math because they had been engaging in spatial reasoning and numeracy their whole lives. 

The brutal truth is that if one is going to fill a school with 20 teachers, give them 30 students each, make do with limited resources, in a depressed community bringing kids to the door with limited cognitive and language abilities, and most of all without the sort of leadership in administration equipped to hire and cultivate teachers with the right kind of spiritual and intellectual presence to pull a progressive education off, well, you've a recipe for disaster. 

I think this is the context within which we need to see NCLB and current attempts at reform.  We also need to recognize the degree to which poverty has come to be seen as a social ill caused not by some mysterious hand of discriminatory oppression.  While that is certainly a founding part of the story, and still in the picture to a degree, what we are really reckoning with is the widespread understanding that education is the one guaranteed key out of generational poverty.  As much progress as we have made as a society in terms of racial and cultural acceptance, the surest, most immediate ticket to success for any child is a proper education.  This is what NCLB has shined a light on so dramatically.  We can now simply look at maps not just of depressed neighborhoods and communities, but we can attach a number to the schoolhouse and make predictions from that number.

Now, that number is complicated.  It doesn't come near to explaining what is really happening behind the school walls.  But what it does do is make a simple statement about class in America, and inequality that is being built into American society town by town, city by city.  That number signifies an underclass with a lack of opportunity, headed for low-paying jobs, drug abuse, crime, prison and more.  Those are the stakes.

But here is where current reform makes its big mistake.  It refuses to recognize reality - that these communities are severely disadvantaged in both the human and social capital they are able to provide for their children.  Bold steps are not being taken to intervene and make up for this deficiency not just in the schoolhouse through smaller classes, extended hours, reading aides and tutors, psychologists and social workers on site, extra field trips and properly maintained facilities, but also in the community through centralized service centers designed to specifically target deficiencies in social capital.  Instead we are getting reform on the cheap, simply using the existing system to solve a problem that is in size and scope entirely beyond its ability to remedy.  National standards, accountability, charter school and merit pay are not going to begin to solve this problem.  It's far from clear if they are even helping much at all.

Just like progressive education was unfairly foisted on impoverished communities by offering a model that wasn't scalable, contemporary reform - while mostly well-intentioned (aside from the tendency toward gratuitous union-bashing) - is not only misguided but distracting from the real social problems it pretends to solve.

 photo: serge

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Taxes vs. Growth?

Driving to work this morning a story on NPR intrigued me.  Obama has been making an issue of his opposition to allowing the Bush tax cuts for the rich to continue.  The conservative argument against this is that allowing the tax cut to expire will hurt small businesses, thus hurting growth.  Apparently the liberal talking point that only 3% of small businesses will qualify for a tax increase is based on faulty numbers.  If you don't include people who aren't serious small businesses - such as people who claim side-business income, etc. - then the figure could be more like 50%.  In NPR's story, an economist claimed that an effective tax rate increase on the wealthy would indeed have a negative impact on growth.

OK, so I've struggled with this before.  I like taxes.  I think there are many things that they pay for that are very valuable to the country.  But this doesn't mean that they don't slow growth.  What if, as conservatives generally  claim, the reduction in growth actually comes at the expense of what good the taxes will have done?  That is, what if more growth is ultimately a net gain to the common good - via jobs, innovation, cheaper goods, etc.?

Of course there are some things that simply need to be paid for - I'll argue - because they are correcting an already unconscionable imbalance in civil rights.  Things like education for poor kids, child care for single mothers, or crucial regulationary activity, like national defense, should be a highest priority.

But what about at the margins?  Maybe a reduction in growth is a pretty bad thing after all.  Would my desire for more taxes be coming up against some cold hard facts?  Like a good ideologue, I figured I had to at least do a little critical maneuvering.

Why, for instance, are small business owners making so much money?  As I understand it, this tax applies to business income, or profit.  One of the claims against raising the tax rate is that it would deter investment, discouraging business owners from putting more money into their businesses when forced with the prospect of not being able to get as much profit out.  But this doesn't make sense to me.  (And as I am not a small business owner, go figure).  But wouldn't a lower rate actually encourage owners to invest less in their businesses?  Because if a low rate means more pocket money, then there is less need to put in for deductibles.  An extra $50k at the end of the year would be worth much more after taxes.  At a higher rate, that $50K would mean less money in the bank, and so the incentive would be even greater to put it back into the business, whether by hiring more staff, giving them more benefits, raising wages, etc.

Am I missing something here?  Doesn't a lower tax rate on incomes over $250k mean that they will have more money in their pocket, as opposed to investing back into tax-deductible business expenses?  Isn't the "nudge" from the government essentially saying, "Just put it back in the business."?

I suppose the piece I may be missing here is a ceiling on deductibles.  Maybe if there is a limit on deductions, pouring it back into the business doesn't really save money anyway.  A lower rate might allow owners to keep more of their profit, thus making the decision to put more of it back into the business easier to swallow.

So I suppose I'm not sold either way.  In the end, I want more taxes to pay for the things I believe the government ought to do.  And I believe the rich ought to pay a greater share of the tax burden, as they have obviously benefited so much more form society.  But if a higher rate, despite my wishes (!) turns out to put a serious drag on growth, at least enough to crowd out benefit from government programs, then I suppose I would have no choice but to concede.

Until then...

Monday, September 6, 2010

Misplaced Protest

Sara Mead wonders whether principles in LA are being overwhelmed right now by parents clamoring to get their kids into teacher's classes who looked good in the value-added story.  She makes a great point that this sort of individualized advocacy actually works against broader reform:
To the extent that parents are successful in lobbying for better teachers for their kids, it only locks in inequities between kids with more engaged and savvy parents and those without. And in a system where principals don't necessarily control who teaches in their schools, what can they do in response to 100 parents demanding Mrs. so-and-so and NOT Mrs. thus-and-such teach their kids? Getting beyond zero-sum would require some form of organizing and advocacy to get parents engaged in broader systemic issues--how teachers are hired, assigned, and removed--beyond their individual child. That kind of organizing is difficult, but can be done.
While I can sympathize with parent frustration, I'm more concerned that this is all a massive waste of time in general.

In my view the real problem is low levels of social and human capital among parents in poor schools. This is a deficit that is simply not realistically dealt with via "great" teachers. Focusing on good teaching as a meaningful remediation to this larger problem neglects more useful policy projects. What should be emphasized are specific structural responses geared toward correcting this socioeconomic imbalance in the first place.

Once these programs are in place, ensuring quality teaching in the classroom will still be just as important, but won't be as fraught with problems as it is now. Teaching across SES schools won't be so difficult to compare, nor will it even at the site level, as an emphasis on assessment and family intervention will make tough classrooms more manageable.

In an ultimate irony, by focusing less on teaching and more on implementing targeted, research-based programs to specific school populations, outcomes will improve dramatically and the high-pressure emphasis on teacher quality will cease to be seen as important. The evidence of this is that there is little complaint about the teaching in higher SES schools. This isn't because the teachers are magically better (if the data in the Times piece is to be believed, on of their findings was that teacher performance varied little across SES schools). It is simply that the parents at higher SES schools have higher levels of human and social capital and are thus better equipped to provide their children the proper developmental nourishment to ensure they are successful at school. The teaching still matters, but the job is no longer a herculean task, but what it should be: taking a class of students ready to learn and teaching them.

Society has finally realized that A)students in poor schools are not receiving a proper education, and B)that because of this their civil right to an equal chance at success in America is being denied. Yet what we have not realized is that this is a problem that is not solveable by teachers alone. While some schools and teachers are able to achieve great things, generational poverty will not be ended by relying on such miracles in every neighborhood, town and city in the country.

Instead we need to be completely restructuring our response, so that our policy response is commensurate with the level of human and social capital in a given community. To give a brief example, my daughter's <900 API charter school, in an upper-SES neighborhood raised $90k last year. And she's reading at a 1-2 grade level in kindergarten. This school should in no way be receiving the same resources as the high-poverty school down the road. Those kids need extended hours, smaller class-sizes, psychological counseling, parent/family classes, special field-trips, one-on-one tutoring, etc. Their teachers don't need ever more scrutiny and hoop-jumping. Real change will require that the capital deficit be made up.

I understand that in many ways this is unrealistic. The public simply doesn't want to spend any more money on education. But by falsely assuming that teaching is the real problem, we are shooting ourselves in the foot. The more we emphasize teacher quality as a remedy for the achievement gap, the more teachers will look like failures when progress will inevitably be meager. The problem thus begins to look even more intractable and policy-fatigue will set in (if it hasn't already).

But instead, if we champion the idea that these communities are struggling and need our help, and we follow through on that promise, success will breed more success. Programs like the Harlem Children's Center, which show incredible results through research-based interventions (yet spend 3x the money), will seem like worthy options.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Ming's Mind Trap

Yesterday today I woke up feeling pretty lousy - quite sore (I've been basically typing at a computer on my class syllabus all period every period all week).  And I guess sort of grouchy - my brain's been much too interested in thinking negative thoughts. 

So as it happens I find myself engaged in two separate internet debates, both involving individuals I would describe as not the most reasonable or intellectually generous.  That's twice breaking my rule of not engaging with people who are crazy.  Although of the two, one was somewhat polite - just incoherent and confused.

Basically I should not have been writing to them.  But somehow in my mental state it seemed really important.  Like I need to respond correctly.  What I should have been doing was relaxing my mind, finding situations for myself throughout the day that would minimize the possibility of conflict and facilitate positive thinking.  Of course, I normally take great joy in thinking and writing about politics and society, so reading and writing on the internet was a reasonable enterprise.  Yet the thing about the internet is that, especially in political and social commentary, it is filled with opportunities for conflict.  And as human interaction is reduced to simple written word, it is much easier to be provocative and behave towards others in ways which in real life would be obviously offensive. 

This is certainly part of its charm: the writing process allows one to be both deliberative and focused more on one's argument than how it might be received.  In real world communication we have developed many normative cues for establishing polite and civil discourse.  Tone of voice, turns of phrase, and body language allow us to navigate each other's emotional space with delicacy.  On the internet, the absence of these cues often leads to impoliteness and unnecessary conflict.  This is especially true when dealing with individuals who lack a good foundation in critical thought and the proper benevolence required to engage in thoughtful disagreement.

So, what the did people do before the internet?  I mean, in real life if you don't like arguing with people you just don't hang out with them.  Usually that means it only happens on holidays when you see the relatives. But now we're in constant contact with opportunities to debate people.  And it's in a totally impersonal way.  I've probably debated hundreds of people on the internet.  I've driven in my car thinking about them.  I've laid awake at night in bed perfecting imaginary responses to them.  But I've never met any of them! 

We just aren't built for this kind of shit.  It's like that hole that Ming makes Flash Gordon put his hand into.  Our fucking hand is in the hole and we don't know what's going on in there!  What the fuck is going on?  But we can't resist putting it in there and seeing what happens.  This is something entirely new to civilization - a worldwide salon that transcends normal cultural, political and class divides.  We are able to interact with the "other" in ways that would have been impossible before, or at least everywhere but the most exclusive cosmopolitan cities, the crossroads of global trade routes. 

The possibilities for intellectual expression are only limited by one's own capacity for thought.  Yet with each new foray into this intellectual sphere, one ventures into a terrain that is in many ways lawless and filled with opportunities for emotional barbarity.  For those of us predisposed to bouts of negative mental disorganization, this presents an ever-present threat to our emotional stability, precarious as it can sometimes be.  There are just people out there with whom reasonable dialogue will be impossible.  The continuing lesson will be to recognize the signs of impending struggle, and to quickly disengage.  The alternative might just ruin your day.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Value Added?

"Value-added modeling" has been in the news a lot lately.  A way of judging teacher performance through student testing that attempts to adjust for socio-economics and other factors, it is viewed by some as a more factual representation of teaching ability.  Instead of merely looking at student scores for one year, it tracks performance of individual students over multiple years, and aligns predictions of student performance with actual performance in a teachers' class.  Thus students on track to make a certain level of progressed are averaged against how students tend to do in a teacher's classroom.  Sounds good, right?

Well, the Economic Policy Institute, a liberal Washington think-tank has a new policy brief out that challenges the efficacy of this type of modeling.  Some pretty high-powered co-authors, including the infamous Diane Ravitch. Choice quote:
A study designed to test this question used VAM methods to assign effects to teachers after controlling for other factors, but applied the model backwards to see if credible results were obtained. Surprisingly, it found that students’ fifth grade teachers were good predictors of their fourth grade test scores. Inasmuch as a student’s later fifth grade teacher cannot possibly have influenced that student’s fourth grade performance, this curious result can only mean that VAM results are based on factors other than teachers’ actual effectiveness.

Read the whole thing.

p.s. EPI is a think-tank after all, and have an axe to grind.  fwiw