Category Archives: policy

More than Gotcha: Kamala’s Busing Blunder

So I should confess to begin with that I really can’t stand Kamala Harris. As I say quite often on Twitter, her voice is as grating as Hillary Clinton’s, and it’s astonishing she doesn’t remind everyone of their least favorite ex-girlfriend or a really obnoxious seventh grade social studies teacher. What everyone else saw as passion in her debate, I saw as a windup doll whose string had been pulled.

But never mind that. As I write this, the consensus opinion among GOP analysts (Jonah Goldberg being the only demurrer I’ve seen) is that Harris poleaxed Biden when she said:

Clearly, her team had planned this carefully, up to and including using an altered image that makes her look like a black child of poverty.

But more to the point, why wasn’t every GOP analyst and every conservative reporter up in her face about it?

Harris lied, for one thing. Or at least implied, that we all might infer.

She was not the second class to be integrated at Berkeley public schools. The Berkeley school district, like most districts in California since Mendez vs Westminister, enrolled by neighborhood. Berkeley High School had always been integrated because it was the only high school in the district. After nearly a decade of black community pressure, junior high schools had been integrated in 1964. Berkeley High had tremendous racial tensions throughout the sixties, caused not by white segregationists but demands by emboldened black radicals. (I’m not saying that’s a bad thing).

After the school board survived a recall vote by opponents, they decided to work more slowly to integrate the elementary schools. This gave white opponents time to leave, and many of them did. (Prior to this white flight, Berkeley was a primarily conservative town; the liberals banded together with blacks to gain control. )  However, many other progressive whites moved to Berkeley to support the idea of voluntary integration, so the white population stayed the same. Notably, the black population didn’t increase: blacks in unintegrated Oakland stayed put rather than move to Berkeley.

Four years later, in 1968, the elementary schools were integrated via busing, with the black children in the Berkeley “flats” traveling to the mostly white schools of the hills, and vice versa. Kamala Harris was in the second class of integrated elementary school students. (all of this is easily sourced, but this book  goes into the most detail) While the elementary integration is generally considered successful, it hasn’t done anything to improve the achievement gap or de facto segregation.

All she had to do was insert one word in between “public” and “schools”.  There’s no question that Berkeley’s elementary school integration was notable for its two-directional busing and its smooth implementation. 1960s Berkeley was still discriminatory; it’s unlikely Harris’s academic mom could have lived outside the flats, thanks to redlinining practices. High school students were tracked ruthlessly, although most reports suggest accurately. Blacks weren’t doing well at Berkeley High, and Berkeley itself wasn’t the enlightened tolerant place it is today.

But to acknowledge that she wasn’t breaking color barriers would have ruined the narrative. How else could she hint at the horrors of racism if not to suggest that even liberal Berkeley was forcibly keeping black kids in black schools until she and her peers boldly broke the color lines?

Harris could rest assured that no mainstream media outlet would object to her lie. Factcheck.org supported her lie, even as it revealed the truth. This way, Harris could pretend that there but for the grace of liberal courts, her legal career would have been denied her.

The second part of Harris’s claim is ludicrous as well as dishonest. Her parents were academics, not working class or uneducated blacks. Her father was gone by that time, but Harris lived a very nice life even if her mother chose to live in the Berkeley flats while working at Cal. Given her parents’ background, how likely is it that the Harris sisters would have gone to a bad school?

Denied a professorship at Cal, Harris’s mother uprooted the family and took them to Canada for a new job, also in academia. Harris graduated from a Quebec high school.

So Harris is lying about the environment that gave her a bus ride, and pretending that going to a partially white elementary school when she was seven is all that prevented her from being a dropout or, god forbid, a teacher.

None of this is terrible. It’s just irritating in that no one picked up on the lie. Everyone accepted it, even though the misstatement is well-documented. Everyone allows her to pretend that busing is why she’s AG and a Senator.

But what I’m more puzzled and aggravated by is all the Republican pundits gleefully celebrating, or at least enjoying, the purported slam dunk of Biden. Ha, ha! Look, there’s Harris, a black woman, taking Biden apart for opposing busing when she was bused! It’s perfect! Wow, what timing! What elan! Harris wins!

It’s all about the gotcha and its entertainment value.

And I’m sitting here thinking what the hell? Busing? Busing was a disasterMuch of the country hated busing. Joe Biden took the lead on busing because he’d have been a one-term Senator if he didn’t. Read about the anger and the white flight throughout the 70s that resulted when cities tried to forcibly desegregate neighborhood schools and end de facto segregation and Biden’s position becomes obvious.

No one else seemed to notice, though. Even conservatives like Mollie Hemingway, Comfortably Smug, and Hugh Hewitt were gleefully celebrating Harris’s body blow based, from what I can tell, purely on hahahaha she’s black, he’s old, she’s using his decades old vote to catch him out on changing times.

Every conservative I follow was rightly stunned at the entire slate’s support for open borders. As Ari Fleischer put it:

But most people were so wowed by this comment that they don’t seem to think about what it meant:

And there was a little girl in California who was part of the second class to integrate her public schools and she was bussed [sic] to school every day. And that little girl was me. So I will tell you that on this subject, it cannot be an intellectual debate among Democrats. We have to take it seriously. We have to act swiftly.

…..It’s a failure of states to integrate public schools in America. I was a part of the second class to integrate Berkeley, California, public schools almost two decades after Brown v. Board of Education.

That’s where the federal government must step in.

Look, Americans who aren’t dealing with immigrants every day often don’t completely grasp what it’s like, and go squishy on things like border control or amnesty.

In contrast, they are entirely clear on the intrusive, invasive ways the federal government can “step in” to order schools.  And they don’t like it one bit.

Go ahead, Kamala, you brave truth teller, you survivor of segregated Berkeley discrimination. Tell all those Dem voters how busing is what America’s schools need to achieve the necessary diversity. Tell them how you’ll appoint judges who’ll overrule Milliken, allow states to mandate integration across districts.

Tell  white working class voters the Dems still need in order to win, all those rich white progressives who purport to love people of color so long as some other school is being integrated, not theirs. Tell low income African Americans to forget about those charter schools they like so much, because your great integration plan means they’ll be unnecessary.  Trumpet your plans to mandate school systems like San Francisco, where racial quotas determine where and how far each child will be sent away from home. While you’re at it, explain how this system resulted in far more segregation. 

Go ahead and tell people that your plan will end segregation as the government sorts populations based on race, just like the Civil Rights Act of 1964 planned all along.

But best of all, go tell Asians all about your great plans. Tell all those parents at  those 80, 90% Asian public schools you plan to yank half of the kids out and send them into the inner cities with all sorts of poor black and Hispanic kids. Go ahead and tell Asian immigrants that they can’t cluster and dominate in certain schools, tested or otherwise.

This is a community that sent out a 12 year old girl  to say, in public: “If I work hard, shouldn’t I have an advantage over those who don’t even try?…It’s just not right for me to work hard and do my best while others are being lazy.”

And even after that, the New York legislature backed down on deBlasio’s plan to open up the schools to the kids that girl called lazy.

These are people who brought enormous, angry pressure on a Palo Alto school district when the board wanted to name a school after  a Japanese American who fought for his country.  As immigrants who think of themselves only as Chinese, the opponents looked at an American and saw only a hated enemy from Japan. They won, too.

Raise your hand, everyone who thinks Asian immigrants are going to give the smallest iota of a rat’s dropping about Kamala Harris’s guilt trips? Go grab some popcorn, I say.

I hope Andrew Ujifusa or one of the other Edweek reporters will run with this opportunity hound Harris relentlessly with:

“Senator Harris, you’ve opposed charters throughout your career. In the debate, you strongly supported busing. Are you planning on ending charter schools so you can more easily enforce busing mandates? Will you appoint judges who will overrule the ban on inter-district busing?”

She would have to choose. She could walk back her insistence that the federal government must intervene to enforce school integration. Or she could explain how she’s going to implement country wide integration by taking away all choice from America’s parents.

I don’t understand politics, I know, but for the life of me I don’t understand why every politician from Trump on down to dogcatcher isn’t tweeting about Harris’s plan. Then hound every other Dem candidate and force them to fight that battle for her. Harris will be oh so very popular.

“If you like your school, too bad. Democrats won’t let you keep it.”

Note: I teach in a school that may as well have been formed by Harris’s mandate, so integrated and diverse it is. I like it fine. I just live in a reality-based world most of the time.


Idiosyncratic Explanations for Teacher Shortages

“We have examined and rejected a number of idiosyncratic explanations for rising costs in education…” Why Are The Prices So D*** High?, Helland/Tabarrok

Economics papers always make my head hurt, but because they’re focusing on my field, I’ve been following Alex Tabarrok’s posts on his upcoming book–well, maybe not following, but reading. I was pleased to see they didn’t find “bloat” in educator salaries, and grok the Baumol effect, but consider myself wholly unable to comment on their basic argument. (Except, you know, pensions?)

But a commenter, Slocum, caught my interest:

Another problem with the Baumol story is that, in education, costs are increasing dramatically even when salaries of workers providing education are low and stagnant. At this point nearly three quarters of faculty are non-tenure track. These positions are generally neither secure nor well paid. This is possible because supply of PhDs wanting teaching positions far outstrips demand. How does the Baumol explanation dovetail with a great oversupply of high-skilled workers relative to demand?

This reminded me of a question I wonder more researchers don’t wonder about.

Group A: PhDs wanting tenure track positions but settling for contracted adjunct jobs. Pay: low. Job security: horrible. Benefits: none.

Group B: public school teachers with tenure positions. Pay: a lot better than adjuncts. Job security: famed and resented throughout the land. Benefits: famed and resented throughout the land.

One would expect that Group B had the greater barrier to entry, except of course that’s why the job security and benefits are resented. High school teachers are the plebes of the cognitive elite, and elementary school teachers aren’t even granted that lowly status. Meanwhile, college adjunct professors spent at least seven years and god knows how much money earning a PhD, usually at a research institution.

In a world ordered by economists and education reformers, the PhDs who didn’t find college tenure would move down to secondary school and, thanks to their superior education and instructional training, displace the far less-educated high school teachers at high-paying suburban schools, where the principals would be delighted to hire them over mere BAs who often don’t even have a degree in the subject they teach. Those high school teachers found wanting by the suburbs would be forced into middle school or even Title I high schools–maybe even inner city schools.

All those PhDs would create a surplus in the K-12 teaching population, making it much easier for administrators to hire and fire, create more job insecurity among teachers. Oversupply of teachers would weaken unions ability to demand more pay, thus putting downward pressure on salaries.

Robbed of their desperate labor pool, post-secondary institutions would be forced to raise salaries, offer more tenured positions, favor international students over citizens, or automate instruction.  Ultimately, balance would be restored either by increased tenure opportunities for PhDs, better pay and conditions, or a near elimination of college adjuncts.

But the world is not so ordered. Only 1.3% of public school teachers have PhDs. Private schools have a slightly higher 2.3%

Why don’t these adjunct professors rebel against the crappy pay and insecurity and move down to high school level teaching?

Granted, they would still have to go back to school and get a credential–but they could get through the credential nonsense quickly, while working as a paid teacher. All that education will push them all the way to the right on the payscale, although this double MA holder advises you not to mention that education.  Better, really, would be to get the credential while going through the PhD program. I’ve often wondered why all those criticizing universities for overproducing doctorates don’t suggest something like this.

But ed school is a pretty minor barrier, really. Given the investment, why not get the security they were looking for? Instead, when they do leave, they tend to become administrators in the very universities that rejected them.

I have observed this oddness before, and answered my own question.   But if I don’t say this directly, some reader will annoy me by pointing out the obvious: yes, of course, the adjuncts see k-12 as unworthy and low status.  I don’t know how or if economists take status into account when they talk about rational actors. Accepting a low-paying, low security job when a little extra work would net them a much higher paying, low risk job certainly seems to be acting against self-interest, but maybe I’m missing something.

However, it’s also clear that principals don’t regard PhDs as inherently superior to regular garden-variety credentialed teachers. If they did, the few thousand dollars extra in salary wouldn’t deter them. But research consistently shows that hiring districts don’t have any hiring criteria that would advantage additional education. Paradoxically, private schools have more PhDs because they don’t pay more for education–and also because they don’t require credentials. Lower standards, not higher. Yeah, weird.

I am not for a moment suggesting that the solution to the K-12 teacher shortage is more failed PhDs. Even if principals were to prefer credentialed PhDs to credentialed BA/MAs, there’s no guarantee that the lower status teachers would settle for less desirable schools. It’s well known that universities produce far more elementary school teachers than needed; less well known that inner city and rural schools still go begging for teachers because many would-be teachers simply leave the field if the location or the kids aren’t what they had in mind. It might just send even more down the PhD path, this time with the express intent of teaching.

I argue instead that K-12 teaching is an entirely different animal, an art more than a skill with all sorts of non-cognitive abilities required, that demanding kids take demanding classes despite  little interest or ability in the subject matter is a terrible idea, and that teacher supply will continue to dwindle if policy makers refuse to acknowledge these fundamentals.

Anyway. Given the imbalance in these two fields, I’m just surprised more researchers haven’t explored it.

Look at that, 1000 words.

Note: Fantastic, detailed comment by JC , also by James Miller and Andrew Biggs.

 


Learning Styles

 

Isaac Asimov’s third robot story, “Reason“, has all the hallmarks of his early work: painful stereotypes, hackneyed dialog. Still, the conflict it explored has always hooked me.

Powell and Donovan, two troubleshooters who fix puzzling problems with experimental robots, are stuck on a remote sun-mining station training a new robot to capture energy from a planet’s nearby sun, run it through an energy converter, and direct it back to the planet. The robot, QT-1, or Cutie, decides that these humans are naturally inferior and must be early models that his superior frame and brain are designed to replace. His world was the station, his god was the Energy Converter, known as the Master, who wanted Cutie to direct beams to the dots. Powell and Donovan try to convince Cutie that the dots are planets, that he is a robot created by humans to do their bidding. Cutie thinks this is absurd and creates his own cult of believers, indoctrinating all the robots on the station with the will of the Master, with  Cutie as the Prophet. Powell and Donovan worry themselves sick with aggravation and fury.

The tale reaches a climax when Donovan spits on the Energy Converter. Cutie is horrified and angry at the sacrilege and refuses to let the two men into the Operations room. Powell and Donovan see a dangerous asteroid storm coming,  a catastrophic event that could cause the energy beam to misdirect and incinerate a third of the planet. Desperate to convince Cutie of his wrongthink, they hit on the idea of building a robot from the box, as it were. They uncrated a spare robot,  disassembled into parts, and spent three hours painstakingly putting the robot together. See? They created the robot! Just like they created Cutie!

Cutie shakes his head. Silly weak humans. Of course, they assembled the parts. But how did the parts get to the station? Only the Master could achieve that. So he turns away and ignores the two men, who stop sleeping and eating in sick anxiety over the incoming storm and the annihilation it will pour down on earth.

When, after the storm, they are finally released into the Operations room, Powell and Donovan rush in to assess the devastation. But no! Cutie protected all the humans on Earth perfectly and kept the energy supply constant. Or, as Cutie describes it,  Cutie “obeys the will of the Master” and keeps the beams directed to the right place on the dots.

Powell and Donovan realize they were worried for nothing. They just have to bring all the robots be indoctrinated in the Will of the Master as told by the Prophet (that is, trained by Cutie)  and the stations will be run beautifully. Cutie waves goodbye to them regretfully, knowing they are bound for “dissolution”, but encourages them to believe they are going to a better place.

Reasonquote

tl,dr: If learning styles make no difference in outcomes, who the hell cares what teachers believe?


Great Moments in Teaching: When It Had to Be You

Teachers who work with a large population of Asian students occasionally describe a student as “not getting the memo”.  High achieving or just hard working, the bulk of eastern and southern Asians all got the word: school is important.

Taio, who has been in my ELD class for a year or so, is a tall, plump fifteen year old who spent all of last year on his phone. I’d take it away, and he’d just sit impassively. Miko mentioned last year that the kid had said I talked too fast, which amused us both, but when I mentioned to Taio that I’d try to talk more slowly, he was shocked and got out his phone for Google Translate. “I like your class very much,” the text said. Huh.

Taio would do work sheets, and occasionally write a sentence or two. But he hated to talk and would sit, sullenly staring at me, as I gave out sentence starters again and again.

Another conversation with Miko, asking if we needed a parent conference. “His dad is the only one here, and he works three jobs.”

I sighed. “How are these basically indigent people getting here from China? And why come here, with rents what they are?”

Miko shrugged.

Taio improved  with the new school year. The class was motivated, I had some curriculum, and last year’s experiences gave the returning students a bond that build more camaraderie.  He was still on his phone every chance I gave him, but he participated more, would occasionally speak unprompted, and even wrote brief paragraphs. But he still hadn’t had any kind of breakthrough, and while he wasn’t at all unintelligent, I couldn’t get a sense of his abilities.

I assess all my ELL students in their math abilities. You would weep at how commonly they are placed above their skill level. Just today, a new student from Pakistan arrived. Because he’s a freshman and it’s second semester, he was placed in Algebra I. But he has no idea how to use negative numbers, and no understanding of fractions.

Now, I’m not faulting the registrar–I have no idea how these decisions are made. It’s just that ELL students spend close to half their school day having no idea what’s going on in their classes. Teachers often have no idea how to adjust their curriculum to meet ELL needs, and still grade the students using the same standards. We put them in “sheltered” history and English classes but we only have one each of those a year. We finally started a sheltered science class, which is very popular. Other than that, ELL students take electives: art, PE, photography, cooking. We don’t yet have a sheltered math class. Most ELL kids with any math ability are put in mainstream classes. The problem arises with those who don’t.

I’d assessed Taio last year and earlier in the fall. He knew algebra basics, and was taking our non-freshman algebra course. His teacher, new to the school, told me in October that Taio was doing very badly in his class, but Taio told me he was doing great. He had a B, which isn’t that spectacular for a deliberately easy course (taught by a teacher who was having a horrible time managing his class). But it was a passing grade, which was better than two of his other classes, so I quit wondering.

Then Taio made a big mistake. We were playing Wheel of Fortune: I form them up into teams, come up with a puzzle, they spin an online wheel for points, and guess. The teams are grouped so that weaker students can watch stronger students mull over their choices. I wish I could remember what the phrase was, but they were down to just the tricky consonants. Taio was on a team with two strong English speakers who were moved to ELL 2 just a week later.He rarely participated in these games, but I noticed he was watching closely, and suddenly I saw him say, softly, “K”.

As it happened, “K” was a missing letter from the puzzle–which I can’t remember, but I do recall there were only two letters left, both of them difficult.  The other two didn’t hear him and were discussing other options.

I looked at Taio and said, softly, “Louder.” He smiled, and shook his head.

“Hey, guys! Check with Taio.”

Taio’s teammates looked at him. “K”. They shrugged. “K”.

“Yep.” I put in “K”, and Taio, unprompted, guessed the puzzle.

Why, the little weasel. He’d been holding out on me.

I started watching him closely and realized that Taio simply didn’t like to speak English. He understood far more than he let on. I discussed with this with Miko, who agreed but said he could not figure out how to motivate him to work harder. He’d passed Algebra with a C, but was failing Miko’s class for not working, and his art class as well.

A few days later, after the semester had ended, I saw Taio’s algebra teacher, an Indian gentleman new to American schools, in the copy room, and asked again how he’d done.

“Oh, terrible. He’s in my Discovering Geometry class now, too. Never does anything, zeros every day.”

“That’s so weird. Taio’s not a liar, normally, and he tells me his tests are all A.”

“Oh, they are. He does well on the tests, but no classwork. On his phone all day, doing nothing.”

I stopped dead in my tracks and said–literally–“Wait. What?”

“Yes, he’s fine on the tests, but no homework, no classwork, phone all day. Same thing now. He got an A on the test, but no homework all week. He has a D.”

“So….he has an A average on the tests, but because he does no homework or classwork he gets a C.”

“Yes. Is that a problem?”

In less than a day, I’d contacted Taio’s counselor, had him moved from Discovery Geometry to freshman Geometry. This is  much harder than our 10-12 Geometry class and it was taught by Chuck, which gave me pause. So I emailed Chuck, hoping he’d reassure me. Instead, Chuck wrote:

As you know, Geometry is requires vocabulary and syntax (if/then). My experience is that Geometry does not appeal to most EL students because it requires language skills. Geometry provides students the opportunity to practice, but most students who are not motivated and/or not confident typically won’t put themselves out there when verbalizing logic is required.

I crossed my fingers and hoped this wouldn’t make things worse. Miko thought it was a great idea, even better since the change meant Taio was in the sheltered science class instead of PE, which he hated.

Unfortunately, he still failed Science. However, he’s passing Chuck’s extremely rigorous  Geometry class with a B. He’s talking more in my class. Taking lead in class discussions.  Passing Miko’s class, which he wasn’t before. He’s even talking to Giancarlo, a Guatemalan, teaching him Chinese and learning a little Spanish. He asks me for help with math homework. So now I have to go talk to his science teacher and see how to get him moving.

Usually my “Great Moments” series are about exciting classroom action. This is just a story about a Chinese kid who doesn’t want to be in America and hates school. He ‘s a loner who doesn’t even use school hours for socializing.

But Taio understands what I was doing when I put him in that geometry class. He knows I put myself on the line to make school something both interesting and challenging–but doable. I’m not sure he’s working and trying for his own sake. He just doesn’t want to let me down. Good enough. It’s a start.

The thing is, it had to be me–more precisely, it had to be an ELL teacher with the math knowledge to instantly realize that a new math teacher didn’t understand he had a student who was bored silly.  It had to be an ELL teacher with the knowledge of the math sequence who could make a recommendation to a counselor and have the standing to back it up.

I love having all my credentials, but it’s usually for the flexibility and variety they give me. Every so often, however, they provide insights that move me millions of miles further down a problem path.

As an aside: you ever notice that ELL discussions by outsiders always focus around immersion vs bilingual education?  Neither method is going to get high school ELL students anywhere past pijin. It’s irrelevant.

 

Food for thought.

 


Education Reform with Beer and Bourbon

Tis my wont to recount conversations with colleagues and students by assigning them pseudonyms similar to their real names.  However, the debates I describe here weren’t with work folks, but two public figures, each quite well-known in their own field. Identifying them would not only compromise my own pseudonymity, but also be a bit too much like (heh) talking out of school.   Simply assigning them similar names might help someone figure out their identities as well.

Therefore, I’ve chosen to name the two men for the booze imbibed whilst debate was underway.

My first sparring partner is very well-known in education reform circles; anyone who reads or writes about ed policy would at least know his name. We met in a pub, a good one, and went through easily four rounds before dinner crossed our minds. And so he is Beer.

The second man is more famous than the first in any absolute sense. He’s frequently on TV where his name is met with applause, and writes for a major political magazine. If I described his achievements even in the most generic sense, most Republicans would be able to identify him. I met him in a bar with other fans, after he gave a speech (not at the bar), and Maker’s Mark was flowing free, so he’s Bourbon.

Bourbon doesn’t talk or present like an elite, but his educational resume reads like one. Describing Beer’s educational history would give away his identity, but suffice it to say a simple google doesn’t give up his alma mater, although he has one. Beer spent some time teaching K-12 in high poverty schools. Bourbon has not taught K-12, poverty or otherwise.

Beer’s views are difficult to predict, save his primary cause, which I can’t describe because it would instantly identify him. Bourbon, who is not involved with education in any real sense, holds utterly typical conservative views: choice, more choice, and more choice still, vouchers good, unions suck. In both cases, I knew this going in. I’ve read both men’s work for years.

As to my own participation, the setting with Beer is right in my zone. We talked for easily three hours. I had plenty of time to lose track, retrack, restate, dig deep, hop around, zing his boss with a clever tag (he laughed).  I was at my best.

Bourbon, on the other hand, was a celebrity giving time to fans. I was one of many. He was generously sharing his time with everyone.  It was a good time for an elevator speech, and, er, well. I write something under 1000 words, it’s a big day. Short enough for three floors, I don’t do. Paradigm-shifting takes time and in this case I’d never really expected education policy to emerge as a topic. So I don’t know what sort of impression I left. At my best, for better or worse,  people remember me. I’m not sure Bourbon would.

Wait. Trump-voting teacher,  three credentials, thinks charters and choice are overrated and expensive.

He’ll remember me.

Anyway.  While I enjoyed both encounters tremendously,  I’m writing about them because both Beer and Bourbon made comments that helped me to see past the end of this era of education reform. Both men, in the midst of discussions about various education policy issues, waved off an issue that was a foundational basis for the modern education reform movement.

In Beer’s case, we were discussing his ready acceptance of cherrypicking charters. Because charter school attendance isn’t a right linked directly to geography, as it is for public schools, charters can be selective. There are academically selective chartersimmigrant only charters, Muslim-run charters. Despite all these obvious cases, the major public argument is about the technically open charters (KIPP, Success, other no excuses charters) and whether or not they are secretly selective. The research is pretty conclusive on this point, much as charter advocates deny it.

But Beer shrugged this off. “I want charters to skim. I want them to be selective.”

I was taken aback. “I mean, come on.  Go back to the mid-90s when charters started taking off. The entire argument for charters was ‘failing public schools’. The whole point was that the failure of public education was located in the public schools themselves: unions, bad teachers, stupid rules, curriculum, whatever. Charter schools, freed from all those stupid laws, but open to everyone, could do better automatically simply by not being those rules bound public schools. Now you’re saying that they can’t actually do better unless they skim, unless they have different discipline rules.”

“Yeah.”

“But….that won’t scale.”

Shrug.

“And you’re going to increase segregation, probably, since if charters can skim then they’re going to focus more on homogeneity.”

Shrug. “I want as many kids to get as good an education as possible. Skim away.”

I don’t want to continue, because I don’t want to get his arguments wrong. And for this particular piece, the shrug is the point.

So now, on to Bourbon who was waxing eloquent on the uselessness of unions, one large one (with which I am unaffiliated) in particular.

“They’re losing kids because their schools suck. It’s not money.  They’ve had billions. They want more, more, always more. Charters just do a better job and don’t whine for money.”

“Well, charters get to pick and choose their kids. But leaev that aside, charters aren’t ever going to end public schools. Catholic schools in inner cities have been almost obliterated. and even  private schools are getting hurt bad by charters, with declining enrollment. Once you offer basically private school at public prices, then many people who would otherwise pay private are going to go for the free option.”

“That’s fine.”

“Wait, what? You’re arguing in favor of a government policy that kills private enterprise?”

“Sure. Well, I reject your premise that private schools are being hurt all that bad by charters. But if so, so what?”

I can only imagine the look on my face. “So you’re arguing against free markets and private enterprise?”

“No that’s what I’m arguing for. Free markets. Parental choice.”

“But no. You are arguing for public schools to be able to act like private schools. That’s government intervention. If the public option allows discrimination and selectivity,  there’s no need for private.”

“Great.”

“But then you’re moving all the teachers from the private market into the public market–meaning higher salaries, higher pensions, more government costs. And because these are basically private schools, so you can cap–so there will be even more teachers, thus creating shortages, driving up salaries, driving up costs.”

“So?”

“SO?”

I wasn’t mad. I was genuinely perplexed. Again, I’ll stop there, because I don’t want to recreate any part of a debate that I didn’t have down cold. In this case, as in Beer’s, I am certain that this was my understanding of Bourbon’s position, and I’m at least reasonably sure I had it right.

Like most teachers, I see the modern education reform movement (choice and accountability legs) as being fueled by two things. Funding the effort were billionaire Republicans or elitist technocrats, the first dedicated to killing the Democrat fundraising monster known as teacher unions, the second dedicated to upgrading a non-meritocratic profession. Nothing personal, that’s just how we see it.

But on the surface, where it counted, the argument for education reform focused on “failing schools”, caused by incompetent and stupid teachers, creating a horrible racial achievement gap because lazy teachers didn’t believe all students could succeed.

[Note: The actual arguments were often more nuanced than that, with many choice advocates like Cato and Jay Greene arguing for all choice and no accountability, and others arguing that all students, regardless of race, deserved the education of their choice. But the bottom line sale, the one designed to gain the support of a public who loved their own schools, was the let’s get poor kids out of failing schools pitch.}

A while back at Steve Sailer’s blog, I wrote a short synopsis of the rise and fall of the modern education reform era, and I probably should rewrite it for here sometime. I’ve also written at length about it here, notably “Good Teaching” and the Failure of Education ReformEnd of Education Reform?, and Charters: The Center Won’t Hold.

So the modern education reform movement will probably be dated in the future from either 1991 (first charter) or 1995, the year when the Public Charter Schools Program began, through the early heady days when people were allowed to say that KIPP was ending the achievement gap, the 1998 Higher Education Act, which advocates thought would kill ed schools, through No Child Left Behind,  onto New York becoming an all choice district, to Hurricane Katrina allowing the New Orleans’ conversion to an all-charter district, Race to the Top waivers, Common Core, and then the unspooling: Adrian Fenty getting thrown out of office on account of Michelle Rhee (who has apparently left education entirely), Common Core opposition leading to a massive repudiation of all forms of federal accountability, teacher unions rising in red states after Janus was supposed to end union power entirely, and the wholesale rewrite of the ESEA that wiped out most of the reforms won during the Bush/Obama era. Education reformers understand these are dark days, even though the mainstream media appears to have no idea anything happened.

Charters are ed reform’s one happy place. For the moment, they are still popular. Why not? They are, as I say, private schools at public prices.  Although everyone should look carefully at California, which is considering not only giving charter control to districts, but also restricting TFA and other alternative teacher programs.  Taxpayers may finally care about the issues that didn’t trouble Bourbon.

But as so much else falls away from their grasp, it’s instructive to see both an ed reformer and a conservative shrug off aspects of charters that the original case argued strongly against. Charters were supposed to weaken teachers, but unlimited charters coupled with strong federal laws will only increase their scarcity. Charters were supposed to improve the achievement gap for all kids, but now they’ll just do so for a lucky few.

Or am I missing something?

Anyway. They were great arguments, and have given me much to mull. My thanks to Beer and Bourbon–both the men and the booze.

***********************************************************************************

I met some other cool people at the Bourbon event, and at some point in the evening, I mentioned I write a blog.

One guy said, “Wow, that’s dangerous for a teacher.”

“Indeed, which is why it’s an anonymous blog.”

“Really? I read a blog written by an anonymous teacher from this area who voted for Trump.”

I laughed. “Well, if that’s true, then you read me, although I never say what area I’m from.”

“It can’t be you.”

“I’m crushed.”

“No, no, I just mean…it’s not you.”

“OK, then I’d love to know who it is, because as far as I know I’m the only anonymous teacher blogger, Trump voter or otherwise, from this area.”

He got out his phone, brought up his Twitter account, and clicked on a profile. “This you?”

And reader, it was.

First time I’ve met my audience!


The Case Against The Case Against Education: Average Was Always Over.

Part 5. (Parts onetwo, and three, and four.)

In his book, Caplan goes on at great length about what level of academic achievement predicts probability of success in attaining a credential.  But he complete ignores the fact that the probability of low academic achievement is skewed based on demographic attributes. While it’s fashionable these days to pretend that income is the great demographic divider, the mother of all disaggregations in America is race.

Let’s examine Caplan’s discussion of race in educational achievement. Go get your copy of Case Against Education and check the index. I’ll wait.

Huh.

Caplan mentions authors named “Black” about as often as he mentions blacks as a demographic category,  which he does three times .

What about Hispanics? No one has the last name “Hispanic”, or “Mexican” or “Puerto Rico”, much less “Dominican” or “Salvadoran”, so the sum total of their mention is uno.

And mind you, I mean mentions.  At no point does Caplan do anything so basic as discuss the  academic performance of different demographic categories. Blacks and Hispanics make a brief appearance in name only during the Griggs discussion and never show up again.

How do you write a book that argues for draconian cuts in our education system—and not discuss race?

Education policy in America is obsessed with race. Name a single problem in education and it’s a mortal lock that it was either caused by the achievement gap or caused by a policy put in place to end the achievement gap. Any attempts to solve educational challenges will be sued out of existence, or fail, or simply ignored to death because of its impact on the racial achievement gap.

But Caplan never once explores whether the implications of his proposals might unduly affect certain demographics. He simply uses median scores and percentages for the overall population. I am not a huge fan of Tyler Cowen’s dystopic fantasies but in education, there’s no doubt that average is over and has been for years. Averages hide too much. In Caplan’s book, averages hide the implications of his “ability archetypes”:

capstudentdef

Caplan advises people to use “ability archetypes” to ensure they are realistic about their goals:

capstudentselfish

Let’s consider the racial implications of his advice.  Once again, we’ll use the  NAAL report that Caplan discarded after culling a few shallow data points.

Here’s the results broken down by race in the four ability categories, from Below Basic to Proficient, for Prose and Document. For example, white comprise 70% of the population and 7% of the tested white population scored below basic in the Prose category.  So 4.9% of the tested population was white and below basic in Prose.  White scores are in gray, black scores in blue.

2003NAALproscomprace2003NAALdoccomprace

(I’ve been working on this forever, and just now noticed I didn’t put the percentage of each race’s contribution to each category. Sigh.)

Asian and Hispanic results are skewed by the conflation of immigrant and native results.  But it’s instantly obvious that blacks, who were only 12% of the tested population, contribute far more to the lower categories and are almost non-existent in the skill categories Caplan considers suitable for college.

The columns in the graph below list the median score by race in each education category. The horizontal lines are the overall population percentiles. So 14% got Below Basic, while “Basic” scores went from the 14th to 44th, Intermediate from 44th to 85th, and Proficient above that. The “Excellent”, “Good”, “Fair”, and “Poor” classifications are those that Caplan defined and are at (very roughly) the corresponding percentile location. (“Good” is a bit low, I think.)

naal2003raceandedNotice that white high schoolers and high school graduates have roughly the same scores as blacks with 4 year degrees or more. This is a very consistent finding in most test score data.

Caplan argues that only students from the Excellent or Good categories should invest in college. The NAAL report finds that only two percent of blacks read at proficient levels,  31% score at the intermediate level.  If blacks or colleges took Caplan’s directive and only went to college with that qualification (which is actually broader than Caplan would like) just 4% of the overall population would be black college graduates.

NAAL doesn’t disaggregate by race, education, and performance category. But another survey, done three years later, gives us some insight: The Literacy of America’s College Students. This literacy survey tested 25 randomly selected students from each of over 1800 universities.

This survey uses the same assessment as NAAL, and the same categories, to assess  college students in their last semester of an AA or BA degree. Again, I’m restricting the comparison  to blacks and whites.

First, I benchmarked the literacy data to the NAAL data for college graduates. 2006colllitmedian

The literacy survey data is much higher for blacks than the NAAL data, particularly for black AA holders. But it’s pretty close for BA holders. Moreover, standards change over time so it’s at least possible that looking at brand new AA degrees would differ from the overall population.

Here’s the breakdown by score category. Black AA and BA candidates are on the left, whites on the right. Blue and green are intermediate and proficient categories. 2006colllitmedian

And consistent with the first graph, these results seem quite high for African Americans. Only 5% of  blacks in 4 year schools scored below basic?  Blacks in 2 year colleges had no below-basic scorers? Really?

Still, this is fine for my purposes. 1 in 4 blacks about to get a BA had basic or lower reading scores, while less than 1 in 40 whites had the same low ability.

Caplan asserts “we” should  be shocked that  “under a third” of those with a BA or higher achieve Proficient levels in numeracy and literacy.  But close to half of the white college BA holders achieved Proficient levels in the three categories  ( 42%, 45%, and 40%).  The same black proficiency scores are 16%, 17%, and 5%.

Whites are achieving considerably higher than the results Caplan sniffs at, while black scores are far worse than “under a third” but rather “under a fifth”. Moreover, Caplan argues that he’s giving this advice to prevent low-skilled people from failing in college–but clearly, these blacks are about to graduate and made it through with skills he deems too low to succeed.

The college graduate data above would almost certainly be replicated in all the other education categories. Whatever Americans Caplan decries as low-skilled and incapable of succeeding in education, rest assured that he’s skewering a group that’s considerably more African American than the overall population.

Remember, too, that Caplan regularly dismisses the idea that our education system might be able to improve results.  He spent an hour debating Ric Hanushek arguing this very point.

But NAAL results over time (below) suggest that our k-12 system has improved results for African Americans. Asterisked scores indicate significant improvement. Blacks saw significant improvement in all three areas. (note again Hispanic performance declined rather spectacularly, thanks to increased immigration)

chgbyrace92to03

What educational categories saw the most black improvement?

chgbyedrace92to03

Well, hey now. Look at that. The blacks that graduated (or even dropped out!) of high school in the 10 years previous saw significant improvement in prose and quantitative skills.

Black proficiency scores on the NAAL survey are extremely low. But they have improved.

Caplan’s prescriptions run into all sorts of problems when evaluating black academic performance. If Caplan is correct about the skills needed for college, then why is the black college graduate average below the level that Caplan declares essential for college success? Certainly, as I’ve observed, colleges are lowering standards (for all admissions as well as blacks in particular). But while the average earnings of black college graduates are less than those of whites, black earnings increase with education nonetheless. So should they invest in more education even though they don’t meet Caplan’s criteria?

I pointed this out to Caplan on Twitter, and  he observed that the ethnic group improvements were marginal  and that the absolute level of basic skills were “terrible”. Which suggests he was aware of the ethnic group differences and just decided not to mention them.

Breaking down test scores by race can be incredibly depressing. No one likes to do it. But Caplan’s failure to include this information is simply irresponsible.

Caplan argues that people outside the top 30% of academic achievement should stop investing in school, the sooner the better. He sees this as both selfishly correct and also the correct government policy, so he thinks all funding for education past minimal skills should end. Those who are worth further investment can justify the expense to a bank or a parent. Meanwhile, we should end the child labor laws so that the very lowest academic achievers can get to work as soon as it becomes a waste of time to educate them.

Applying his policies to black Americans, around 25 percent would be in need of those changed labor laws, because Caplan wouldn’t spend a penny to educate them.

In his conversation with Hanushek, Caplan proposes giving low-skilled kids “more realistic” careers–the example being “plumber”, of course. Like most elites, Caplan uses  “plumber” as a low-skilled proxy when in fact the occupation is one of the more cognitively complex of blue collar jobs. But I think his focus on the job is also a tactical choice. “Plumber” sounds good, like a meaningful career. You can be self-employed or build a business.

Imagine telling a kid his best option is “janitor”. Now imagine telling a poor black kid his best option is “janitor”. Then imagine telling about 1 in 4 black kids that yeah, “janitors” where it’s at for them.

If you can’t imagine doing that, then don’t write a book arguing that Americans get too much education.

When people talk about the “bad old days” of American education, they are referring to the era when people did exactly what Caplan advises. School counselors looked at the students’ test scores and gave them a list of possible careers. White kids had higher scores and were advised to go to college. Black kids had lower scores and were advised to go to factories or custodial work. For a guy who spent several pages on the likelihood of Griggs lawsuits, Caplan doesn’t seem to have spent a single second looking at the case history of school district consent decrees.

But then again the kicker: Caplan wants open borders. So in Caplan’s ideal future, all those  teenagers of all races that have been kicked out of school because they aren’t worth educating  will be  competing for jobs and housing with millions or more adults from third world countries.

Earlier, I wrote:

I’ve been struggling with the best way to take on Bryan Caplan’s woefully simplistic argument about the uselessness of education. What do you do when someone with a much bigger megaphone takes up a position similar to one you hold–but does it with lousy data and specious reasoning, promoting the utterly wrong approach in seeming ignorance about the consequences?

Nowhere is this dilemma clearer than in Caplan’s utter refusal to engage with the racial implications of his proposals. I, too, want fewer people in college. The best way to keep unqualified people from investing in college is to make work worthwhile. But Caplan wants to devalue work to the point of worthlessness through open borders, all the while denying even the possibility of education to those who can’t afford it.

Caplan complains that no proponents of public education have seriously engaged with his book. That’s because no one has observed, in so many words,  “Bryan Caplan thinks most blacks shouldn’t go to college because they’ll fail. He thinks state funded education is a waste of time. Kids whose parents can’t afford education should have to be smart enough to get a scholarship.”

That’ll get him some engagement. But then, he knows that.

Caplan is often rather smug about his media popularity. “Steve Sailer’s policy views are much closer to the typical American’s than mine.  Compared to me, he’s virtually normal.  But the mainstream media is very sweet to me, and treats Steve like a pariah.  I have to admit, it’s bizarre.”

It’s not bizarre at all. Honesty usually goes unrewarded.

 

 

 

 


Homework: The Rules that Matter

While reading another carefully worded propaganda blast on the value of  homework, I thought of Pirates of the Caribbean, a splendid film that I’d remembered recently for my ELL class.

Research on homework, and debates about research on homework can’t really be taken seriously. It’s all more what you’d call guidelines than actual rules. But the fundamentals of homework are very much a cascading series of Jack Sparrow’s “two rules that matter“. For high school, anyway–and if it’s not high school or beyond, it doesn’t matter.

So as long as we’re just hanging here, pay attention. The only rules that really matter are these:

IronLaws

Savvy?

“Homework” is practice, work that is assigned with the intent to improve fluency and understanding. Math homework is the most common sort, but there are also science lab notes, reading textbook notes, those idiotic shoebox assignments, collages, or any other sort of out-of-school activity that isn’t formal written expression or assessment.

“Corrupted” is a strong word for grading that is very much standard procedure in most high schools nationwide, but appropriately dramatic given the degree to which grades are used as a proxy for ability. Many teachers would be upset at this description of their usual practice; in this conversation of mostly college-level instructors, most of the participants acknowledge that many students do well on tests, but flunk or get a much lower grade because they don’t do the homework.  Others point out how absurd this is. At the high school level, far fewer are found in the second group.

Teachers have a wide, legally enforced latitude in grading, but districts and schools can institute policies that reduce options. Overwhelmingly, these policies take place in low income schools, where the students shrug off the Fs and the failure rates affect the graduation rates. District and school efforts to protect students from low grades due to homework take the shape of  forced incompletes,  banning zeros and sometimes banning graded homework altogether.  And the public always scoffs. Lazy kids these days.

District or school-imposed restrictions are not to be confused with parent-initiated drama fests about homework overload.

The research on homework almost all focuses on two questions: does homework improves academic performance? How much homework are students doing? (The latter issue, in particular, has been annoying American parents for decades.)

I’m not…terribly interested in either of those questions. The first, which most consider quite important, is specifically in conflict with a teacher’s responsibility to grade accurately. No one would ever assume that homework improvement is anything other than relative to student ability.

But grades aren’t relative. Teachers can’t grade homework without impacting students’ performance grade. They can’t.

And so  they shouldn’t.

******************************************************

I don’t do homework, and this isn’t the first time I’ve written about the primary damage done by homework’s corrupting impact on grades.

Grades, really, are the main issue. Grades in America are simply junk. I can’t stress this enough.  Research–never mention a moment’s reflection–reveals that in  Title I schools like mine, an A denotes a much lower performance than at a high-income high school.

No one’s interested in adequately assessing student merit across classrooms, much less school districts, much less cities, states, or countries, so laugh at anyone who declares passionately that Harvard and other private universities are discriminating against more worthy claimants, Asian or otherwise.  No one knows who the worthy claimants are, and no one’s interested in finding out.

But that’s a topic for another day.

 

 

 


The Case Against The Case Against Education: Toe Fungus Prevention

Part Three of my Caplan thoughts.

caplantoefungus

–Caplan, The Case Against Education

In Caplan’s world, toe fungus stands in for the “disease” of no education. The fungus cream is public schools. Caplan believes he’s proved that public school hasn’t worked, and thus we should stop funding public education. Live with the illiteracy and innumeracy that is only slightly mitigated, and then temporarily, by failing public education.

Caplan screws up the analogy. He says the obvious remedy is  “don’t use the cream”  (end all public education) but then explores “use less of the cream” (end subsidies) or “buy a cheaper cream” (curriculum austerity).

But I digress. Caplan uses some extremely old data–the 2003 National Assessment of Adult Literacy (NAAL). The NAAL results are categorized as Below Basic, Basic, Intermediate, and Proficient (the survey had originally wanted to use “Advanced”, but considered it too value-laden. As if “Proficient” isn’t.) Caplan uses this data to argue that Americans are incredibly uneducated and therefore American education is terrible–the toe fungus that can’t be cured.

There’s a lot wrong with his analysis, some of which I’ll hold off until the next chunk, and he misrepresents NAAL’s connection to public education. Besides, static education snapshots are pointless. Change over time and disaggregation, baby, or it’s nothing. So I disaggregated by education category and found change over time, using the same report Caplan cites.

NAAL has three categories of assessment: prose, document, and quantitative. The adults surveyed were captured by their highest level of education: still in high school all the way through graduate degree.  So I broke the scores into two categories. First, on the left, are the scores of those whose highest education was vocational school or lower. On the right, those with some college through graduate degrees. In each case, the graph shows the average score for that category in 1992 and then in 2003. I’m terrible at data display, but I made the axes the same–the actual scores go from 0 to 500, but that was too small.

naal2003prosechgHS naal2003prosechgCO
naal2003docchgHS naal2003docchgCO
naal2003quantchgHS naal2003quantchgCO

She average reading ability of an individual with post-secondary education declined significantly from 1992 to 2003, while the decline in high school educated reading abilities declined less significantly or not at all. Quant scores were unchanged.

Here’s another take on the data, using a graph straight from the report. The percentage of “proficient” readers declined significantly for most college categories, while remaining largely unchanged for the high school only educated groups.

At the low end, the “less than/some high school” reading abilities dropped in the prose category, but the rest remained largely unchanged.

chgbyedcat92to03

Caplan doesn’t look at change over time, and so doesn’t take on the challenge of explaining why the average college graduate living in America became less proficient at reading over a decade.

Caplan’s opponents in the economics field argue that education builds human capital. Human capital is, or should be, reflected in the score gaps between different education categories. Those with some college should have higher scores than those with none, and so on.

So I calculated the change in the gap between “adjacent” education categories from the 1992 NAAL to the 2003 study.

naal2003gapprose

naal3003gapdoc

naal2003gapquant

So in one decade, the human capital improvement of education dropped in all but one college category.

From 1992 to 2003, high schools produced the same caliber of student. Colleges produced lower quality students that had built less human capital with their increased education.

It will come as no surprise that colleges produced more graduates than before.

naal2003edpops.

Caplan goes on about inflated credentials, the perils of increased access. But he doesn’t acknowledge a simple truth: it’s colleges, not high schools, that have significantly deteriorated in their ability to build human capital.

Why?

Because they are increasingly reaching further down into the barrel, accepting everyone. They’re accepting kids who can’t read at an eighth grade level, who can’t do middle school math. They have no standards beyond what’s on the high school transcript (giving high schools tremendous incentives of the wrong sort). For the past several decades, post-secondary education have been accepting transcripts at face value, then testing the students to establish how truthful the transcript was, then putting the students whose abilities didn’t match the transcript into remediation. Every state has its tale of trying to increase access, only to learn how shockingly unprepared and incapable students were, and how their efforts at remediation ended in failure.

All these efforts have only depreciated the value of a college degree. But not content with accepting unqualified students and trying to remediate them before, sadly, flunking them out, colleges kept reaching further down. It’s now quite possible to get accepted to college with Algebra 2 on the transcript, demonstrate that you have only elementary school math, take middle school math classes for credit, and earn a degree. No more remediation. Math was the last holdout; English and grammar requirements have been much easier to ignore.

Caplan argues that most cost benefit analyses for college education fail to account for dropouts. But colleges are reducing the risk of dropping out by lowering standards even further. His own college accepts unqualified students every year; 25% of George Mason’s freshmen enter with SAT scores below the “college ready” standard.  Now that colleges are ending remediation and giving credit for middle school ability, the risk of dropping out will continue to diminish. Those who want to “signal” will have to get graduate degrees–and of course, some academic will come along in a few years and deem “graduate degree” a “path to success”, and then everyone will do that.

“Would you rather have a Princeton degree without the education, or the Princeton education without the degree?”  Caplan asks, and readers go oooooh and aahh.

But that wasn’t always the case. Back when a college degree had meaning, a degree from a decent public university meant an education that would take one further than a Princeton diploma with no knowledge. Unfortunately, colleges have unilaterally obliterated all faith in their ability to educate, leaving  competitive admissions  on test scores–tests not administered by colleges in any way–as the only indicator of potential intelligence.

Caplan’s fix is to deny all educational funding. Applying that solution simply to colleges won’t solve anything. Colleges will still have the incentive to lower standards. The free market won’t fix the signalling problem. Ending public funding of education won’t stop colleges from lowering standards and giving degrees to anyone who can buy them. It will just deny any chance of education to those who can’t afford it. Over time, America under Caplan’s rule would be a country where rich people got educated, not smart people. We spent generations giving opportunity to those who could achieve. Our error was not spending too much money, but forgetting the meaning and the demands of education itself.

In Caplan’s view, “We would be better off if education were less affordable.” He wants to deny education to everyone who can’t afford it.

Why make it about money? Why not about ability?

We could prevent  or minimize toe fungus, the failure to successfully educate,  at the college level by setting a standard for college entry. Those who meet the standard can still qualify for public funding. I suggested a standard, back when I was an optimist who couldn’t even imagine colleges abolishing remediation.

Setting a standard for college entry would reduce the risk of failure as well as increase the human capital earned by even an incomplete education. Going to college wouldn’t just be another educational choice, but a choice only available to those who have the ability to develop and use the education.

Understand that I’m not some purist, calling for the days of Latin and Greek. I’m saying that colleges should accept students who can read, write, and calculate at an agreed-upon level. The levels we used in the 30 years after World War 2 would do nicely.

There are obviously–oh, so very obviously–political problems that go along with restricting access to higher education. But Caplan, man, he’s bold. He’s fearless. “In any other industry, a whistle-blower would be an outcast.”

So why call to eliminate public funding, denying education to qualified people who can’t afford it, while not bothering to fix the obvious standards problem in college admissions?

Maybe Caplan’s political ideology suggests the nail to which libertarianism has the hammer. I dunno.

What I do know is that people have been complaining about “too many kids are going to college” for forty years or more. It’s not new. It’s not bold. The devil is very much in the details. Which Caplan avoids.

 


The Case Against The Case Against Education: How Did We Get Here?

“But why, some say, the moon? Why choose this as our goal? And they may well ask why climb the highest mountain? Why, 35 years ago, fly the Atlantic? Why does Rice play Texas?

We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.”–John F. Kennedy, 1962

“That something is hard is not an argument against doing it.”

“I say it is. It’s not a decisive argument, but it’s one of the better ones.”––Sean Illing and Bryan Caplan, 2018

For at least four months, I’ve been struggling with the best way to take on Bryan Caplan’s woefully simplistic argument about the uselessness of education. What do you do when someone with a much bigger megaphone takes up a position similar to one you hold–but does it with lousy data and specious reasoning, promoting the utterly wrong approach in seeming ignorance about the consequences?

Bryan Caplan wants to eradicate public funding for education because he thinks most of the spending is wasted. He’d like to eliminate all public school, but will settle for killing all post-secondary education as a reasonable first step.  He thinks too many people spend far too much money to learn very little or nothing.

Now, much of this was caught up in a whole rather tedious economics debate as to whether education is signaling, ability bias, or human capital. I don’t care at all about this aspect; for what it’s worth, I think education historically built human capital and the level that one could benefit from it was based on ability and access. For about 20 years, we had something close to perfect–access for all races, incomes, and creeds. And then we blew it. For the past 20 years, our education policy has been, either by accident or design, focused entirely on eradicating human capital and eliminating the advantage given ability in order that that everyone, regardless of ability, can signal the same meaningless credential.

So Caplan–who likes to say he cares about history–cares about none of the history that got us to this point (and he doesn’t accurately capture “this point”, but more on that later).

It’s customary for liberals to decry America’s social safety net as obviously and uniquely inferior to other Western countries, but rarely does our country get credit for its obvious and unique dedication to public education. For most of our history public education–a facet of our society much remarked upon as early as de Tocqueville– was focused on providing basic reading and writing skills to everyone.  In 1910, that focus expanded to the “high school movement” an unprecedented investment in secondary education that Europe took the better part of the 20th century to catch up to. (Best read on the high school movement is Goldin/Katz, who went on to write a highly regarded book on the topic. Caplan barely mentions their work in the footnotes.)

Call me crazy for wondering why Caplan doesn’t mention this history. He treats public education as some flukish fad that we just took on because of Social Desirability Bias and by golly, no one ever realized that not all students were learning what we taught until he showed up to point this out. Maybe that’s the arrogance you need to get book deals.

But public education is thoroughly baked into America’s history, and Caplan is proposing a massive change in American policy without in any way considering how it is we arrived at this point.

Nor is he looking at the enormous transformation that occurred fifty years ago.

The high school movement, and all the tremendous investment in public education that predated it, was almost entirely a state and local affair. We have thousands upon thousands of school districts from little to large because communities formed to achieve common goals. State public universities were also first funded (by sale of federal lands) in no small part to provide teachers for public schools, but also originally to encourage industrial education. But apart from offering land, the federal government had stayed out of public education for a very long time.  Catholic interests, southern politicians, and anti-communists (as Diane Ravitch put it in my favorite of her books, “race, religion, and fear of federal control”) blocked all attempts at federal funding for years. Catholics and urban politicians refused to vote for federal funding unless their private schools were included, Southern politicians refused to treat students of each race equally, and I dunno, anti-communists thought teachers would turn everyone red.

So American investment in education was unprompted, unprecedented, and entirely uncoordinated at the national level. Goldin and Katz say the purpose was not to create a “literate citizenry”, but rather an “intergenerational loan”. It doesn’t appear to have been designed for employers; in fact, area economies strong in manufacturing saw less investment in education.

Then, Brown vs. Board of Education began the federal intervention into public education, followed by the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and finally the big kahuna known as the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965. Ever since then, public schools have been crushed with demands, most of them entirely unrealistic and unfunded, many of them imposed by court decree,  and very few of them ever voted on by the citizenry, local or national.

It’s hard to study the history of public education and not be struck by all these contrasts. See the early generosity of local communities, the belief in an educated citizenry almost entirely for its own sake, with little debate about its purpose, and it’s easy to understand the resonance this issue has, the heart and the soul we imbue into this history. And yet inequity underlines the entire enterprise–inequality of funding, of access, of opportunity. But the grand effort to undo that inequity hasn’t succeeded to the degree that anyone expected it to and god knows we haven’t been learning from our mistakes.

But then, why would we? Every time we’d expanded education in the past, we saw the benefit. We didn’t have the same data we have today. We didn’t see the failures. We only saw the many people who benefited from access. Who can blame us for thinking this expansion would go on forever? I don’t think I’m alone in noting that the last fifty years of public education policy, the ones when the feds have been in charge, have failed not only the country, but the people we were most trying to help. By turning education into a massive federal program in which the public’s voice was almost completely eliminated, we’ve wasted a fortune and a great deal of good will in exchange for improved test scores that never seem to last through high school.

So maybe look at what our expectations are, and ask if they are realistic. Surely an economist who understands data might spend a page or two talking about the ludicrous nature of a federal education bill that demands everyone–literally everyone–must achieve proficiency in a dozen years. Perhaps he might ask whether a federal program that insists on  mainstreaming children with severe mental disabilities into regular classrooms might possibly lead to students feeling trapped and and bored in school.

But such nuances are beyond Caplan.  The problems he outlines aren’t new, and  if you want a real idea of the depth and breadth of our education system, to determine whether or not we should kill funding, I recommend Larry Cuban, David Tyack, David Labaree, Diane Ravitch, Goldin and Katz and a host of other serious scholars before coming to any conclusions.

I can’t remember when or where he did this, but at some point Caplan has complained that no progressive has taken on his book seriously (or few did, I forget which). But he’s clearly unhappy that his book hasn’t made even the slightest ripple in the education “blob”.

Speaking from within the blob, I can say that Caplan’s book never got close enough to the water to make a ripple. The book is utterly without any of the understanding that would cause the blob the smallest frisson of fear. If Caplan wants to make a serious argument about defunding public education, he needs to understand this history,  the belief in education that is hardcoded into America’s DNA. He needs to understand the degree to which public education has been straitjacketed, for better and mostly worse, for the past 50 years by court order. He needs to understand the mandates that ensure his simplistic proposal to defund education will go nowhere.

Having thoroughly trashed the higher end value of a high school diploma, our country is currently in the midst of doing the same to an undergraduate degree. It’s appalling and we need serious, honest people who aren’t afraid of disapproval to take on this problem and, I desperately hope, stop it. Caplan’s not that guy. He’s smart, and I think he knows what would be required to actually engage in this conversation. But he won’t. He once bragged that Steve Sailer’s views were much closer to the public’s than his were, but that Steve is treated “like a pariah”, but is “very sweet” to him. He says he finds this bizarre, but my guess he knows exactly why he gets the better treatment. He loves floating shocking ideas, but “float” is exactly what he does.

I included the JFK quote and the exchange not because I think public education is one of the “hard” things we choose to do, but because Illing and Caplan’s exchange should have spurred some…I don’t know, some ironic sense in either of them that they were touching on a famous speech. Alas, these two public intellectuals didn’t recognize the connection at all. Typical these days to use history in the shallowest possible manner. But their exchange is also interesting because it captures Caplan perfectly.  A genuine, realistic argument to rethink public education in this country in a way to address the problems Caplan reports would be hard. So he dodges it entirely.  Not only is this easier, but it insures he’ll still get kid gloved by the media.

I can’t even really recommend the book, because anyone who comes away thinking that public education is a waste of time and money for the reasons Caplan outlines is doomed to be disappointed. But the bibliography is great, so maybe see what you can get from the googlebooks index.

****************************************************************************

I spent months trying to figure out how to capture all this in one review, and I just can’t. I’ve had a tough time focusing on writing this year–not sure why. But I decided to just chunk off the thoughts about Caplan as they come up. Consider this a long throat clearing, but also the context. In my next piece, I will be talking about the stuff that Caplan gets flatly wrong or incomplete. I hope to have it done soon. Wish me luck. Nag me.


Should Reporters Allow Teachers Pseudonymous Opinions?

Look, I’m not defending this idiot, who uses her picture, her location, and her occupation to discuss how she “infiltrates” the public school system with her white nationalist views. If she discusses in class her belief that Nigerians have lower IQs than Swedes,  if she teaches her students nudge-nudge-wink-wink that whites are superior, then she should be fired.

But she should be fired for what she does, not what she believes.

Maybe she’s been an item of constant concern at her school. Maybe she’s convinced her students to lie for her, as she merrily runs her pre-pubescent white supremacist club. Maybe she’s teaching them that the South was destroyed by Northern aggressors, that slavery was really a well-meaning effort by paternal whites looking after their helpless African “workers”.

On the other hand, I wouldn’t be entirely surprised to learn that she’s mild-mannered Mildred at school, that her podcast is all fantasy land. What if she’s a popular teacher, much loved for her accessible lessons and commitment to equitable outcomes? She thinks all the equity talk is feel-good, useless preachery and runs a podcast to vent her distaste at the liberal nostrums she has to preach. Her little podcast gets popular beyond her wildest expectations, and she starts talking up fiction to increase her audience.

Likely? No. But imagine, for a moment, that she is a good teacher who doesn’t proselytize, who has equitable outcomes.

Does this Florida teacher deserve to lose her job? She isn’t denigrating her students, as Natalie Munroe did.  As I understand it, a teacher’s right to free speech is balanced with the school’s right to efficient operations. Her district will certainly be able to claim she is a distraction to the school’s primary business.

Now. Now, she is. Once the Huffpo reporters got her in their targets. Once they tracked her down and  went to her employer and raised questions, her termination due to the disruption is reasonably certain. I wonder if the union will bother to protect her?

And of course, she used her own picture, used her own town, and claimed to be influencing her students, which gives the reporters a reasonable pretext to out her.

But what if she’d offered no specifics? What if she hadn’t used her picture, hadn’t bragged about influencing her kids, about parents complaining?

I don’t like the teacher’s opinions, although some are far less shocking than the HuffPo folk like to think. It seems quite clear she wasn’t calling for Muslims to be eradicated. I am unfussed by her sarcastic dismissal of white privilege. I find retweeting KKK and the “JQ” comments to be beyond the pale (although apparently the latter is a term not unknown to at least one  US Democrat congressman. )

But no matter how repugnant, these and other views, such as accepting as fact the average intelligence levels of Nigerian and Swedish students, are not illegal.  They’re minority fringe political opinions in a country that says it protects free speech.

What if she just had a podcast and Twitter account as an teacher using a pseudonym, without any talk of infiltration, no use of a picture? I don’t see that stopping the HuffPo reporters once they’d gotten the tip. They clearly see this passage as damning:teachervotingtrump

Three in ten teachers voted for Trump.. Are journalists intending to hunt us all down? Or will that just be added fodder, after the teacher has been nailed for supporting immigration restriction or IQ science?

John Fensterwald is considerably more reasonable than any HuffPo reporter, yet he can’t conceive  of the possibility that a teacher is capable of separating his or her personal beliefs from classroom interactions. In that case what stops any reporter for hunting out teachers who express their opinions in political forums using a pseudonym?  If reporters can’t even imagine that a teacher can treat students decently despite his or her political opinions, then they’ll feel wholly justified in outing these teachers. Hell, it’s a sacred duty.

Don’t even dare suggest these reporters might be deliberately creating a chilling effect for free speech. That the reporters are deliberately creating a furor that forces the district to terminate the employment of a teacher purely for wrong opinions, regardless of the teacher’s professional behavior and teaching ability. Don’t suggest that perhaps  journalism should acknowledge bias, let anonymous people alone rather than enforcing their ideological preferences in the guise of reporting a story.

All that remains is to define racist, intolerant, the “wrong opinions”.

I find that….unnerving.

I guess teachers should know better than to express the wrong opinions.

For now, I’m mildly grateful that a foolish young woman provided a test case that suggests reporters will at least try to find some public interest before outing anyone.

Do I take this personally? Why do you ask?