Tuesday, September 23, 2014

What's so bad about working together?

This post by Tom Paulson is more than a year out of date but it raises some still relevant questions.
I wasn’t actually allowed behind the scenes at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s recent meeting in Seattle entitled “Strategic Media Partnerships.”

The Gates Foundation funds a lot of media – more than $25 million in media grants for 2012 (but still less than 1% of the budget).

I’m media but I wasn’t invited. I asked if I could come and report on it, but was told the meeting was off the record. Those attending included representatives from the New York Times, NPR, the Guardian, NBC, Seattle Times and a number of other news organizations, non-profit groups and foundations. Not all were grant recipients, or partners. Some just came to consult.


Outside of the Gates media confab last week, I talked to a number of participants – usually ‘off the record’ – to learn that it was mostly a discussion about the sorry state of the media and how to improve coverage of neglected issues that concern the philanthropy in areas like global health, foreign aid, development and education. Media folks presented case studies, ideas and mulled over measuring impact – because that’s what Bill and Melinda want, measurable impacts.


Dan Green, a highly respected journalist and now director of media partnerships for the Gates Foundation, has by all accounts built a sturdy firewall at the philanthropy between grants to news organizations and anything to do with the foundation’s advocacy projects.
Even if we're talking about something like polio where not only the objectives but the sub-objectives and the methods are relatively noncontroversial, this kind of collaborative relationship between journalists and the organizations they cover should make people uncomfortable. As admirable as these goals may be, supporting them is not the job of journalists.

The ethical problems grow by orders of magnitude when we wander into advocacy. Just to pin down our terms, advocacy (at least the kind we're concerned with here) is trying to convince governments to take certain actions. For example, rather than building a hospital, advocacy projects try to get taxpayers to build it.

By its very nature, advocacy groups try to influence journalists. That is not, in and of itself, a bad thing -- advocates can perform a vital role -- but advocates are essentially salesmen, and journalists should treat their information and proposals with the same skepticism that consumers should treat claims in TV commercials.

All this talk of firewalls sounds impressive, but it is problematic under even the best of circumstances and in certain areas is all but impossible. When it comes to education, for all intents and purposes the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation is an advocacy group. The stated purpose of pretty much all of their major initiatives is to promote a collection of policy positions. They provide lobbying and massive PR funding and resources to promote the policies they support. They fund and propagate favorable research. They find and back like-minded public officials such as John Deasy. We can argue about the wisdom of those proposals, the validity of that research and the confidence of those officials, but we cannot reasonably say that this does not constitute advocacy, nor can we argue that cozy relationships between advocates and and journalists are a good thing.

Monday, September 22, 2014

More shifting alliances -- TPM edition

As mentioned before, when it came to the politics of the education reform movement, the big story four or five years ago was liberal support for what would normally be seen as conservative principles like privatization, deregulation and the need to limit the power of unions (discussed at great length here). Today, the big political story is the increasing number of prominent liberals who are breaking with the reform movement. Given that context, this exchange at Talking Points Memo takes on special significance.

For a while now, Conor P. Williams has been the de facto education guy for TPM. His schtick is to attack critics of the movement, usually by misrepresenting their positions or just make broad attacks on their character. This is often followed by an extended lament over how negative the reform debate has gotten due to all those mean people on the other side. Williams represents a sizable chunk in my to-write pile but I keep putting it off because it's just so much work correcting one of his columns.

The picture that went with Williams' essay on Common Core critics.

As far as I could tell, Williams was the voice of TPM when it came to education, which is one of the things that made this recent piece by Sabrina Joy Stevens so surprising. The tone is polite but the effect is devastating. Not only does Stevens point out the essential hypocrisy of Williams' calls for a more elevated tone, she gets at perhaps his greatest journalist offense, his habit of omitting relevant but inconvenient facts and context (for example, check out how he covers the D.C. cheating scandal when discussing the fall of Michelle Rhee).
Yet, both the more strident vitriol aimed at Brown, as well as Williams’ critique of these attacks, miss the real issues that we should discuss when considering the dangerous movement Brown leads.

As someone who has been subjected to sexist and racist attacks from “both” sides of the education debate, I agree there’s no room for oppressive behavior in this conversation — regardless of the feeble denials and/or justifications the offenders and their protectors try to offer. But it’s also important not to overlook the many substantive reasons why people object to how figures like Rhee (now Johnson) and Brown choose to participate in this debate. The ignorance that animates any sexist or racist insults directed at both women doesn’t erase the rhetorical and material harm both have caused in the course of their advocacy.

Michelle Rhee Johnson was primarily disliked because of the actual things she did — some of which were overtly and personally cruel, such as the humiliating decision to fire someone on camera. We’re talking about a person who chose to launch her media career as D.C. schools chancellor with an direct attack on teachers, posing for the cover of Time Magazine with a broom — strongly insinuating that many of her employees were not people, but trash she intended to sweep away.

Similarly, Brown began her new incarnation as an education “reformer” two years ago by launching an emotionally-charged smear campaign against organized teachers. Since kicking off her latest effort, she has reportedly bullied and undermined the ability of a grassroots parents organization to carry out an independent legal effort on behalf of their own children — allegedly interfering with their ability to retain desired counsel in order to strengthen her own position at the forefront of the legal assault on teachers’ due process rights in New York state. (It’s worth noting that these attacks constitute a very serious, material abuse of her class and racial privilege that has real consequences for its targets. That should concern Williams and others at least as much as the sexist jibes aimed at Brown on Twitter and elsewhere.)
If TPM continues running voices like Stevens, Williams' approach will no longer be viable. His is not a style that stands up well to knowledgeable dissent.

More self-defeating comment spam

I understand that a great deal of spam is generated by bots and translation software. I can even believe that for some products the bad grammar and stilted language is not that much of an impediment. There are, however, products and services where this can't be a good approach.
AnonymousSeptember 21, 2014 at 6:06 AM
Your encounter throughout helping learners creates you a great respected firm while it come to giving learners on what to post powerful entry documents.____Essay.com alternative is able to provide us quality and on time writing services with guarantee best service from others any providers.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Mrs. Johnson's class is doing well. Let's call that a school

If you are following the data side of the ed reform story, you really need to check out Gary Rubinstein's account of

Frayser 9GA, the miracle school of the Achievement School District

And you have a problem with Joe Camel?

Mental Floss (one of the internet's best time killers) has a very cool article called 10 Lifehacks from 100 Years Ago.

In the late 1880s, cigarette manufacturers began inserting stiffening cards into their paper packs of cigarettes to strengthen the containers. It wasn't long before they got the idea to put artwork, trivia, famous people, and pretty girls onto those cards, grouped into collectible series. The cards, which continued into the 1940s, are highly valuable now, with the most expensive (bearing the face of stringent anti-smoking baseball player Honus Wagner) selling for $2.8 million in 2007.

In the 1910s, Gallaher Ltd of Belfast & London and Ogden's Branch of the Imperial Tobacco Co printed "How-To" series, with clever hints for both everyday and emergency situations. From steaming out a splinter to stopping a mad dog, these cigarette cards told you the smart way to handle many of life's problems.
It's a fun list but I noticed something strange. Perhaps it's just a coincidence, but the target audience for many of these cards seems to have been boy scouts. Even in 1910, that had to be a bit odd.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Artificial intelligence, natural stupidity

This started out as one of my standard ddulite rants, another round of complaints about how the press goes all gee-whiz over high tech and stops thinking critically, but I think this might be something more basic, something where the editors were being less ddulites and more dullards.

I was checking out the news stories on Yahoo when I came across this ominous headline linking to a Business Insider story:

By 2045 'The Top Species Will No Longer Be Humans,' And That Could Be A Problem

I say 'ominous' not because I was worried about the future of humanity but because I was steeling myself for some bad journalism. I was not, however, prepared for this:
"It won't be the 'Terminator' scenario, not a war," said [Louis] Del Monte. "In the early part of the post-singularity world, one scenario is that the machines will seek to turn humans into cyborgs. This is nearly happening now, replacing faulty limbs with artificial parts. We'll see the machines as a useful tool. Productivity in business based on automation will be increased dramatically in various countries. In China it doubled, just based on GDP per employee due to use of machines."

"By the end of this century," he continued, "most of the human race will have become cyborgs [part human, part tech or machine]. The allure will be immortality. Machines will make breakthroughs in medical technology, most of the human race will have more leisure time, and we'll think we've never had it better. The concern I'm raising is that the machines will view us as an unpredictable and dangerous species."

Del Monte believes machines will become self-conscious and have the capabilities to protect themselves. They "might view us the same way we view harmful insects." Humans are a species that "is unstable, creates wars, has weapons to wipe out the world twice over, and makes computer viruses." Hardly an appealing roommate.
If a stranger started saying this sort of thing to you on the street, you would probably start backing away while avoiding eye contact, but it's not like Business Insider and Yahoo Finance would put their names behind some flake. This guy (described in the article as  'physicist, entrepreneur, and author of "The Artificial Intelligence Revolution."') obviously had something in his resume that merited a little extra indulgence when his theories got a little out there.

Well, maybe not. As far as I can tell, Del Monte never worked as a physicist, at least not the theoretical kind. He has a master's in physics from Fordham and he appears to have had a very successful run as an engineer (particularly for Honeywell). Some time after that he started self-publishing general interest science books and making some fairly bold claims about new theories.

I don't want to dismiss someone for a lack of qualifications (Martin Gardner had a bachelor's in philosophy) or for self-publishing (I'm a blogger for crying out loud), but credentials do imply a certain level of vetting, which means that if someone uncredentialed is about to be published by a major media brand, the editors need to do their own vetting, perhaps by Googling that someone and checking out reactions to previous work. For example, the people at Business Insider might have taken a look at this review of an earlier Del Monte book.
“Unraveling the Universe’s Mysteries” is Louis A. Del Monte’s contribution to the world of science writing. If you haven’t heard of him, don’t be surprised. He’s not a prolific author or researcher, but worked in the development of microelectronics for the US companies IBM and Honeywell before forming a high-tech e-marketing agency.

The book lives up to its title and long subtitle: “Explore sciences’ most baffling mysteries, including the Big Bang’s origin, time travel, dark energy, humankind’s fate, and more.” It covers string theory, the Big Bang, dark matter, dark energy, time travel, the existence of God, and other mysterious aspects of our Universe. Del Monte also discusses artificial intelligence, the end of the Universe, and the mysterious nature of light. These subjects have all been covered in great detail by other authors in other books. How does Del Monte’s treatment of these subjects stand up in comparison?

Not great, in my opinion. The writing is somehow uninviting. The book reads more like a textbook or a lecture than it does a science book for an interested audience. It’s somewhat dry, and the writing is kind of heavy. After looking into Del Monte’s background, it becomes clear why. He’s an engineer, and his background is in writing technical papers.

This book is a bit of a puzzle, as is the author himself. I’ve mentioned the problems with the writing, but there are other issues. In one instance Del Monte references a study from the Journal of Cosmology. If you haven’t heard of that journal, it’s come under heavy criticism for its peer-review process, and isn’t highly regarded in science circles. The Journal of Cosmology seems to be a journal for people with an axe to grind around certain issues more than a healthy part of the science journal community. To be quoting studies from it is a bit of a black mark, in my opinion.

In another instance, he opens the chapter on Advanced Aliens with a quote from “Chariot of the Gods”, that old book/documentary from the 1970’s that just won’t seem to die, no matter how discredited it is. The main thrust of “Chariot of the Gods” is that human civilisation got a technological boost from visitations by advanced aliens. Readers can judge for themselves the wisdom of quoting “Chariot of the Gods” in a science book.
If anything, the reviewer goes a bit easy on the Journal of Cosmology -- Wikipedia has a very good rundown -- but it's the Chariot quote that really pushes things over the top.  This is the sort of information that a reader might have found useful when evaluating the threat of machines seeking to turn humans into cyborgs.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

At least we can all agree that ad hominem and overly general attacks are bad

I keep meaning to write something substantial about Conor P. Williams who is, among other things, the voice of Talking Points Memo in the field of education. Williams is a particularly good source of material for the emerging thread about the way the reform movement has recently started dealing with the emergence of prominent critics.

Here's a brief but representative example.
I’m far from convinced by everything that gets done today in the name of education reform. But [Michelle] Rhee’s and [Campbell] Brown’s examples are indicative of a troubling pattern for reform opponents: anti-reformers are prone to shooting any reform messenger. Anti-reform has an ad hominem problem. In part this is because the anti-reform crowd is obsessed with who has standing to participate in education debates. Non-teachers don't count (unless they're Diane Ravitch). Parents’ voices are only permitted so long as they avoid direct challenges to failing schools.
Williams doesn't address the exceptions to those awfully sweeping statements. Instead he follows with this:
I write about American education for a living, so I get a front row seat on this. Sometimes I write things like “Some charter schools, under some circumstances, are performing especially well.” When I write these sorts of things, my inbox, my Twitter mentions, and (occasionally) my phone spontaneously, simultaneously ignite. I get accused of hating teachers, teachers unions, and (a few times) white people. I get told that I’m a secret agent for Pearson, Bill Gates, the United Nations, and sometimes even the Muslim Brotherhood (really. No—REALLY). This isn’t occasional. It happens every time I write anything vaguely favorable about reform efforts, even when it’s mixed with criticism.
Just to sum things up, Williams complains that critics of the reform movement have "an ad hominem problem." He then goes on to describe their criticisms in terms of racism, paranoia and religious bigotry.

Further comment would be superfluous.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Yes, it's bear-in-the-pool hot

Recently, the hottest times of the year in LA are spring and fall.

The September Southern California heat wave has sent at least one bear into a backyard swimming pool. Sunday afternoon, some Sierra Madre homeowners spied a sizable black bear lounging on the steps of their in-ground pool. The bear swam and rested for about 15 minutes before leaving like an unwanted party guest. It's hard to blame the wildlife. Temperatures in Sierra Madre hit 103 on Sunday and 100 on Monday, according to AccuWeather.

Southern Californians are accustomed to bears in pools and hot tubs. (This reporter once watched a bobcat visit her pool.)

The state's black bear population has been on the rise in the last 25 years and is now at about 30,000.

Wondering where the numbers come from -- Rotten Tomatoes

A while back I was taking one of my random walks through Wikipedia and I came across the movie Postal. For some forgotten reason (possibly to see what the critics had to say about Dave Foley, J.K. Simmons or Zack Ward, all interesting actors), I clicked on the link for Rotten Tomatoes.

The movie had a perfect 0% among top critics, but I noticed Peter Hartlaub of the San Francisco Chronicle had a rather kind blurb.
If this movie had been made by an unknown young director, a lot of critics would still be panning the movie for its inconsistencies -- but many others would be praising his courage.
This got me curious so I took a look at the actual review:
Movie review: 'Postal' delivers funny madness
Peter Hartlaub, Chronicle Pop Culture Critic

So what to do with "Postal," which is not only less than horrible, but actually occasionally enjoyable? The much-delayed low-budget movie may be completely beyond the bounds of mainstream taste, but it's also funny, and criticizes our government's hypocrisy and political correctness in a way that's refreshingly pointed. If this movie had been made by an unknown young director, a lot of critics would still be panning the movie for its inconsistencies - but many others would be praising his courage.


It's an unfocused movie, with much lower production values than more generously budgeted Boll productions such as "BloodRayne." (For years, Boll movies had been augmented by healthy tax breaks provided by the German government, which no longer offers the perks.) Much of the humor is cliched, and Boll's seething anger at his real-life tormenters often gives his script a bitterness that is more awkward than funny.

But there's still a catharsis that comes from watching the madness unfold onscreen, making the film a potential future double-bill partner with "Team America World Police." Boll's greatest asset is the underrated [Zack] Ward, a longtime character actor who is best known for playing the red-haired bully Scut Farkus in "A Christmas Story," and tends to show up these days in small roles in big projects - including "The Transformers" and "Lost." Clearly grateful to be the leading man (and apparently unfazed by the more unsavory parts of the script), he throws himself into the role. Ward is likable and wry, but still looks right as an action hero when it comes time to start blowing stuff up.

And blow stuff up he does, but this time the low-budget look that Boll embraces seems to be on purpose.
It didn't sound like Hartlaub was going to list Postal in his top ten but overall the review sounded fairly positive. I also noticed this icon at the top of the review.

This figure indicates a "Good" rating. How does that translate to "Rotten"? Apparently it's because the Chronicle scores on a scale of zero to four with two being 'good.' I assume that Rotten Tomatoes is used to dealing with either one to four or one to five scales, both of which would designate two as below average. I don't have an opinion on Postal or on the director Uwe Boll having never seen any of his movies, but this does seem a bit unfair, both to this movie and to others the Chronicle  rated "Good."

What is interesting is the fact that this is pretty clearly a glitch and it's a glitch in the easy part of review aggregation. Rotten Tomatoes also attempts to assign binary ratings to reviews without specified ranking (Pauline Kael called John Huston's The Bible "A sprawling, flawed epic, but with some breathtaking conceptions and moments of beauty." -- is that a thumbs up or a thumbs down?). Metacritic takes things to the next level with a hundred point scale.

This brings up one of my problems with data-driven journalism. Reporters and bloggers are constantly barraging us with graphs and analyses and of course, narratives looking at things like Rotten Tomatoes rankings. All to often, though, their process starts with the data as given. They spend remarkably little time asking where the data came from or whether it's worth bothering with.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Shifting alliances

I'm not sure what the general lessons of the Zephyr Teachout campaign are. I'll leave it to the real political scientists to debate whether her performance should be judged in relative or absolute terms. One area I will weigh in on, however, (or at least point out) is how much the alignment of the education reform movement has changed recently.

2010 was something of an inflection point in the education reform movement (Here's a Kindle single of posts from that year -- Things I saw at the Counter-Reformation).  For the first decade of this century, The reform movement had remarkably broad bipartisan support. No major pundit or editorial board seriously opposed it. To the extent there was a debate, it was generally between those moderate in their support and those extreme in their support, and to the extent that the debate had a partisan tilt, it was often relative conservatives like Robert Samuelson, David Brooks and Jim Manzi taking the moderate positions and relative liberals like Jonathan Chait and Matt Yglesias taking the extreme ones.

Flash forward a few years. Zephyr Teachout is held up as the reform alternative to the second generation establishment candidate Andrew Cuomo, Simon Johnson called her "An Elizabeth Warren for New York." Charles Pierce made similar points. New York Magazine (home of Chait) took the same narrative tack.

There's a bit of irony in New York's touting Teachout as the liberal in the race since few pundits have been as aggressive as Chait in pushing the idea that the reform movement is one of today's preeminent liberal causes while few figures demonstrate better than Teachout the growing rift between the left and the reform movement.

This is how Teachout summarized her education platform:
One of the prime duties of the governor of New York is to safeguard our public schools from any private interest that threatens their public purpose. Yet Governor Cuomo, in his four years in office, has rarely even visited a public school. As Governor, I would dedicate myself every day to restoring New York’s public schools to their rightful place as the best in the nation. Specifically, I would pursue the following five strategies:

a. Full and Equal Funding for Public Education

New York spends $8,700 less per pupil in poor districts than we do in rich ones. That makes New York the sixth most unequal state in all America when it comes to school funding. This also means that New York is in violation of its own Constitution, which requires the government to provide a “sound, basic education” to every student, no matter his zip-code. I believe this constitutional obligation should be our floor, not our ceiling. New Yorkers have a right to demand the best public schools in the nation, with small class sizes, arts, and physical education for every child.

I would work to make funding more fair and equitable. Despite a promise to the contrary, Governor Cuomo has actually widened the funding gap between poor and wealthy districts.

b. End High-Stakes Testing

Under Governor Cuomo’s leadership, we’ve seen a culture of test-and-punish overthrow actual teaching and real learning. New York State entirely botched the implementation of Common Core, which has ushered in an unrelenting regimen of tests. Governor Cuomo’s system of basing teacher evaluations on student tests has corroded actual learning.

We should slam the brakes on the barrage of high-stakes testing. This means halting both the new Common Core tests and tests that are part of the teacher evaluation system. We need to undertake a thorough reevaluation of all high stakes tests, with full input from educators and parents.

c. Protect Against Privatization

Governor Cuomo has promoted a private takeover of public education policy, by opening state coffers up to charter schools, which serve only three percent of New York’s students. In New York City, meanwhile, he has mandated that city taxpayers pay rent for privately run charter schools to the tune of $11,000 per pupil, thus fueling their massive expansion at the expense of public schools.

We should protect our public schools from privatization schemes, including the diversion of state funds to private schools through vouchers or back-door tax credits. We should repeal provisions enacted in 2014 that hijack control of decision-making about charter school co-locations out of the hands of local governments and that mandate that New York City pay for charter school rent.

d. Empower Local Communities

I would eliminate the undemocratic provisions of the cap on local school budgets— falsely sold as a tax cap even though it caps nobody’s taxes. Specifically we should hand back to local voters the right to control their own school budgets, by eliminating the requirement of a 60 percent supermajority. We should return to the principle of one person, one vote in school budget elections.

e. Suspend the Suspension Pipeline

We must end the ‘school to prison pipeline’ where excessive use of school suspensions for minor infractions deprive students of education, leaving them behind. Suspensions actually increase behavior problems and decrease school safety. In many urban communities there is a school suspension crisis—with huge racial inequalities in suspension rates. Greater suspension rates lead to higher expulsion rates and to increases in school-based arrests. This cycle starts with high suspension rates for young students, even as young as pre-k and kindergarten. We need solutions, not suspensions. We need to transform the culture in school buildings to support teachers and students, foster collaboration, teach problem-solving, engender real responsibility and accountability and keep students in school. This approach, called “restorative justice,” has proven highly effective. Due to a local community organizing effort in Buffalo, the implementation of these reforms have already led to a 30 percent reduction in suspensions. Students cannot learn if they are not in school.

f. Halt Common Core

I am calling for an immediate halt on all four new teacher certification tests, and for them to be replaced by the three former ones. Only by stopping the exams, which were introduced this year and are aligned with Common Core, will 2014 and 2015 teacher candidate graduates have a fair opportunity to enter the teaching profession.

Common Core has been widely and justly recognized as a rushed and flawed initiative, as well as an undemocratic one. Criticism of the new educational standards has been fierce among both Democratic and Republican legislators. Governor Andrew Cuomo, too, has acknowledged that Common Core needs to be fixed before students and teachers can be judged by it. Speaking out in support of a two-year delay on the use of negative evaluations for current teachers, Governor Cuomo said, “We want a fair evaluation ... People's lives are being judged by this instrument, so you want the instrument in the evaluation to be correct."

Inexplicably, Governor Cuomo has not extended the same rights to teacher candidates. Even though their exams mirror those used to evaluate current teachers, teacher candidates were not offered the same delay. As a result, qualified candidates are being blocked from entering the teaching profession because of flawed and unfair tests. Under Governor Cuomo’s watch and with his full knowledge, the State Education Department is shamefully using teacher candidates as guinea pigs while the standards are still being corrected.

Thousands of teacher careers are being ruined. This must stop immediately. We must go beyond the two-year delay and indefinitely halt the standards proposed for evaluations of both current and candidate teachers.

g. Prioritizing Early Intervention

For more than two decades, the New York State Early Intervention Program has been a vital resource for infants and toddlers with disabilities, and their families. Available to children of up to three-years old, the program has traditionally been open to all eligible children, regardless of socioeconomic status and level of family resources.

Since Governor Andrew Cuomo entered office, the Early Intervention Program in NYS has faced significant budget cuts. In 2012-2013 its budget was reduced to $508 million, down from $650 million in 2010-2011. As a result, many families of young children with special needs have been left without the crucial services they need to protect their children's future. A record number of Early Intervention providers and provider agencies – including physical therapists, occupational therapists, speech-language pathologists, psychologists, social workers, vision therapists, and nutritionists – have closed their doors over the last 18 months, due to changes in policies that have both reduced what they can earn and created huge lags in payments for services already rendered.

Early Intervention was created to make sure we get involved when we have the greatest chance of making a difference. From birth to three years of age is when a child’s brain grows to 80 percent of its adult size and is hence most responsive to change. Research has found that early intervention can change brain architecture and improve outcomes for children.

What’s more, intervening early can save the state huge resources. Investing in Early Intervention programs has been found to reduce education costs, by minimizing the need for special education services later. Studies document how every dollar spent in Early Intervention saves the state up to $17 in education costs.

Of course statistics can’t quantify for the joy and relief that a well-managed Early Intervention Program can personally provide families. Reducing state expenditures on Early Intervention is neither smart social policy nor prudent fiscal policy. It will make life far more difficult for tens of thousands of struggling families. And in the guise of saving taxpayers money it will actually cost taxpayers far more. In slashing funding, Governor Cuomo has ignored experience and evidence.
You can see why Diane Ravitch was an enthusiastic supporter.

Perhaps just as telling are the anecdotes Teachout used to support her positions:
My first real job out of college was as a third-grade Special Education classroom assistant in a small rural public school outside the town my grandparents had lived. It was like a lot of small Vermont schools where the kids came from two different worlds, even if they made the same amount of money–the children of college educated hippies and the children of working class families that had lived there for a long time.

One of the kids I was working with was from neither of those worlds; he had been in a string of foster homes, and was new to the area. He was a wonderful kid who was testing two years behind and had some emotional challenges. Controlling anger wasn’t easy for him. I worked with him on writing and math and science.

For the first two months he just refused to write. He told me he was stupid and didn’t have an imagination so he couldn’t write anything. During writing hour, he’d sit in his desk and stab at pieces of paper and draw angry lines all over them. “That’s all I can say,” he’d shout at me, or refuse to speak. It was hard, but he was helped by having a patient classroom teacher who didn’t ruffle easily. She was warm but firm, and I learned from her.

Then one day we figured out a solution. I started reading his angry scribbles out loud, as if he’d written a story. He was on to me though.  He said, “I didn’t write that, you wrote that!” but I kept doing it and he laughed a little. Then I made a bunch of angry scribbles on my page and asked him to read what I’d written out loud. He thought it was funny to see a teacher like that and started reading a story about trolls. After a few weeks, we got into a pattern, where he’d “read” in my scribbles a long story about trolls, and getting shipwrecked with his brother.  It was a really beautiful adventure story.  Then he wrote down what he’d read into his own book, as if transcribing. He still insisted that I had written it, but he started to glow a little.

After that, he did better in math too—the confidence seemed to flow from the writing. According to him, he didn’t understand math but trolls who lived in his knuckles would tell him the answer. When he cracked his knuckles the trolls would wake up and run up to his ear to tell him the answers.

That student never ended up at the top of the class, and he’d still have tantrums, but he was really proud of one of the troll stories that we stapled into a book, and he started doing better on the loose tests the school used. The book—which I still have a copy of—is one of my proudest creative moments, too.

I think of him all the time when I think about high stakes testing, or the cuts to special education, or the cuts to the arts. He’d have failed, repeatedly, if he was following some lockstep program. He would have been an angry kindergartner instead of a frustrated 3rd grader. If his teacher thought that his failure would lead to her failure, that awareness might have put more pressure on him than he was capable of managing. He was so sensitive to anxiety in other people, I don’t think he could have handled the stress of knowing—intuitively—that his success or failure on a math test would have an impact on his teacher’s evaluations. I think he would have kicked more, and kept scrawling. I don’t know that the trolls could have found their way into his knuckles, or into my heart.

In the break room at the small elementary school the teachers didn’t talk about testing. They talked about the kids. They followed them as they grew up. They knew how to be patient with his tantrums because they knew him.
The education reform movement has never lent itself to the standard left/right axis. Not only was its support bipartisan; it was often the supporters on the left who were quickest to embrace privatization, deregulation and market-based solutions. Zephyr Teachout may be a sign that anomaly is ending.

Friday, September 12, 2014

I'm sure it's not an original observation but

Have you ever thought about the fact that the names of two of the best known cartoon characters to come out of WWII (Snafu and Sad Sack) were euphemisms for a couple of decidedly colorful phrases?

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Driverless Cars and Uneasy Riders

I had forgotten we've been having this discussion for over three years.
Tyler Cowen has a piece in the New York Times on how regulation inhibits innovation in transportation using the example of driverless cars. I'm not sure he's made his general case (that's the subject for an upcoming post), but his specific case is particularly problematic.

In case you haven't been following this story, Google has been getting a lot of press for its experiments with self-driving cars, especially after statements like this from Stanford professor Sebastian Thrun:
"Think about the car as a medium of mass transit: So, what if our highway-train of the future meant you go on the highway, and there's a train of very close-driving cars with very low wind drag, fantastic capacity, is twice as efficient as possible as today, and so there is no congestion anymore?"
Cowen is clearly thinking along the same lines:
Furthermore, computer-driven cars could allow for tighter packing of vehicles on the road, which would speed traffic times and allow a given road or city to handle more cars. Trips to transport goods might dispense with drivers altogether, and rental cars could routinely pick up customers. And if you worry about the environmental consequences of packing our roads with cars, since we can’t do without them entirely, we still can make those we use as efficient — and as green — as possible.
Putting aside the question of the magnitude of these savings in time, road capacity and fuel effeiciency (which, given the level of technology we're talking about here, aren't that great), where exactly are these savings coming from?

Some can certainly be attributed to more optimal decision-making and near instantaneous reaction time, but that's not where the real pay-off is. To get the big savings, you need communication and cooperation. Your ideal driving strategy needs to take into account the destination, capabilities and strategies of all the vehicles around you. Every car on the road has got be talking with every other car on the road, all using the same language and rules of the road, to get anything near optimal results.

Throw just one vehicle that's not communicating (either because it has a human driver or because its communication system is down or is incompatible) into the mix and suddenly every other vehicle nearby will have to allow for unexpected acceleration and lane changes. Will driverless cars be able to deal with the challenge? Sure, but they will not be able to able to do it while achieving the results Thrun describes.

A large number of driverless cars might improve speed and congestion slightly, but getting to the packed, efficient roads that Cowen mentions would mean draconian regulations requiring highly specific attributes for all vehicles driving on a major freeway. The manufacture and modification of vehicles would have to be tightly controlled. Motorcycles would almost certainly have to be banned from major roads. Severe limits would have to be put on when a car or truck could be driven manually.
Based on the conversation that followed that post (check out the comment section), I should probably add that much of the benefit described by Thrun and Cowen could achieved by making special lanes and sections of road driverless-only. One the whole though, I stand by the point that much of what we've been promised (speed, fuel efficiency, road capacity) require an all driverless group of cars working together.

One point I made in passing could probably use more elaboration. Motorcycles are small, accident prone vehicles. They can accelerate very quickly, they often behave erratically, and they tend to function under a somewhat looser set of traffic laws. Their small size and low cost make them more difficult to regulate. And finally, as far as I can tell, there is no serious plan to introduce fully autonomous versions. If you want to get close to the level of performance Thrun promises, you do not want motorcycles on the road.

It's hard to see this not becoming a typical convenience-of-the-many argument for regulation. As autonomous vehicles become more common, it is pretty much inevitable that, while overall accidents and traffic jams will go down, those that still occur will be disproportionately caused by vehicles that don't lend themselves to autonomous control or those which routinely have to do things that are difficult to explain to a computer. The first group would include motorcycles and classic/antique cars. The second would include real pick-ups* or SUVs that actually leave the pavement. I would hate to see those vehicles forced off most major roads but that would seem to be the likely outcome.

* Those that do real work. Us country boys take this seriously.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Useful, fun and affordable -- one out of three ain't bad

I saw a fellow riding one of these near Pershing Square in downtown LA. It looked very cool.

Weighing 25 pounds (11 kg), sporting folding leg platforms on each side and a carry handle on top, the 17 x 19 x 5-inch (43 x 48 x 13 cm) Solowheel from Inventist is sure to turn some heads as you trundle along at up to 12mph. The durable external housing hides a Li-ion battery that's said to be good for two hours of use between charges and a 1000-Watt electric motor, and a self-balancing gyro system. Its battery is reported to take 45 minutes to charge but a regenerative system returns energy to the battery when the rider slows down or the unit goes downhill, which could help extend the range.

The electric unicycle's creators say that it's easy to use and quick to learn, the feet are quite close to the ground and the legs rest against each side of the housing which help with balance and steering. With both feet on the vehicle, you just lean forward to start going. When you want to slow down or stop, you lean back. You use the legs to steer, much as you would on the Magic Wheel.

Jinalyn Liljedahl from Inventist told Gizmag that he expects the Solowheel to be available from April at a cost of US$1495. Each unit will be shipped with an instructional DVD and charger.

I can see the Solowheel being a useful, fun and quite affordable way to trundle from the railway station into work and back again.
25 lbs is amazingly light for a vehicle but it will get heavy quickly when you're carrying around the train station, particularly if you're paying fifteen hundred for the privilege.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Another story that needs to be on our radar -- ECOT

I've been meaning to get the blog up to speed on Ohio, a state with a pro-privatization, anti-regulation philosophy, that seems determined to catch up with Florida and Michigan. I've also been meaning to write more on the various scandals associated with online charters.

Now Ohio blogger Plunderbund gives me a chance to a two-fer:
The Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow (ECOT) is the largest charter school in the state of Ohio.  The online school is easily the largest charter school in Ohio, is larger than the vast majority of Ohio’s traditional school districts, and received nearly $100 million in state taxpayer dollars last school year.
On the latest report cards released by the Ohio Department of Education, ECOT continues to rank below all of the 8 large urban schools that are often-criticized by legislators and in the media for their “sub-par” performance.
[Founder William] Lager is also the owner of two privately-held companies that provide both the management services (Altair Learning Management) and curriculum (IQ Innovations) to the online school.  According to audits released by the Ohio Auditor of State, here’s a summary of the funds that have gone from taxpayers through ECOT and directly to Lager’s companies:

Lager’s personally-owned private companies have now received over $130 million in tax dollars – money that has been taken directly away from other, higher-performing public schools and for which Lager does not have to account for publicly.
These astounding dollar figures explain help explain how Lager is able to donate an inconceivable amount of money to political campaigns.  We’ve dug even deeper into Lager’s campaign contributions and discovered that he not only donates under his own name to Republican campaigns in other states, he has also made donations directly from his two companies over the past decade totaling over $184,000.  Here’s an updated list of Lager’s political donations (under his name and from his two companies)since he entered the charter school business in 2000:

Over the last eight years, Lager’s average annual donation amount is $$199,826.85.  For some perspective, the Toledo Public School District recently hired a new superintendent to a five-year contract.  Toledo has better performance numbers than ECOT, serves nearly twice as many students, and the new superintendent will make an annual salary of $175,000 – $25,000 LESS than Lager donates on an annual basis!!!

Jon Chait at his absolute best

Jon Chait has an excellent article on small government.  One excellent excerpt:
Cutting down excessive licensing rules, not to mention other incarnations of Big Small Government, would require overruling the prerogatives of state and local governments—governments with absolutely no interest in reducing their power voluntarily. The paradoxical reality is that ending the most abusive practices of American government requires moving responsibility up the local-state-federal chain, which is the opposite of ingrained conservative impulses. And when national right-wing organizations do plunge into local politics, they generally attempt to replicate Washington-style conservatism. Rather than attack nefarious exercises of state power, they attack the most benign ones. A recent Center for American Progress report sums up incursions by the Koch network into state and local controversies: It is hard at work blocking tiny tax increases, preventing infrastructure maintenance, and shuttering zoos and community centers. Big Small Government is spared its ideological assault.
I think it is well know that Jon Chait and I are on the opposite side of the education reform debate.  But he is at his best when talking about the functions of government.  I think this issue is a lot of why I distrust education reform -- moving away from big government may well result in less accountability (e.g via small charters).

But having said that, it is an amazing piece where he correctly diagnoses how problems at the small government level are often left to fester.  A very important piece, and one I recommend reading.