Saturday, March 30, 2013

Corruption in Education: It's the Assumptions, Dummy!

Concerns have been circulating for some time that teachers, or possibly even entire schools, have been cheating on behalf of their students on standardized tests. These concerns were widely publicized by, among others, Steven Levitt & Stephen Dubner of Freakonomics fame. The data they presented was pretty compelling - patterns in test answers indicated that cheating was definitely taking place.

Now the story is back in the headlines - this time with an entire school district. The former Superintendent of the Atlanta schools, along with 34 other administrators and teachers, has been indicted on charges of racketeering, theft, conspiracy, influencing witnesses, and making false statements. The superintendent faces 45 years in prison if convicted - punishment that would run beyond what many convicted Wall Street swindlers have faced in recent years. A total of 178 teachers and administrators were implicated district-wide.

That there is cheating and corruption on this scale in American public schools will come as a shock to some - although the "dramatic increases" in test scores seen in the Atlanta schools should have been enough to raise eyebrows rather than garner invitations to the White House. The article linked above should be read widely by anyone who is interested in K-12 education in America today. This isn't to say that every school district in America has this problem - but if you think it's confined to Atlanta, I have a bridge to sell you.

What's more interesting to me is how we got here. This kind of corruption is a direct product of No Child Left Behind and the high-stakes "accountability" testing that it ushered in. NCLB rests on a set of assumptions that, when exposed, are absurd. The entire system relies on a set of sticks and carrots, with standardized test scores designed to trigger either benefits to those who do well or punishment to those who fail to make the grade (with a decided emphasis on the punishment side, embodied in the widespread term "failing school"). And because you can't punish students directly, these carrots and sticks have been directed at districts, schools, and (increasingly, especially here in Ohio) individual teachers.

If you believe that this kind of accountability is going to improve children's education, you have to accept two assumptions. One is that standardized tests actually measure the educational outcomes we want. That belief has been widely debated and criticized, and I won't rehash that debate here.

Even if you believe that standardized tests are reliable and valid measures of student education, believing that carrots and sticks will change those outcomes requires a second assumption: that the fundamental obstacle preventing kids' learning is the motivation of teachers. You are, in essence, arguing that teachers are either lazy or incapable.

If the former is true, then threats and rewards should induce them to do what they could otherwise do, but won't. If the latter is true, then the system should force out teachers and replace them with others capable of doing the job (at the prevailing wage structure for teachers, no less).

Since we don't see mass teacher firings, the primary mechanism here is motivating the existing teacher workforce. People who believe in the NCLB approach think that if you threaten teachers, they'll suddenly start doing a good job - which they could have been doing all along, if only they were properly motivated.

This is, of course, an absurd assumption. Of all of the obstacles preventing kids (especially kids in inner-city districts like Atlanta) from learning, the motivation level of their teachers is pretty low on the list. Yet somehow, introducing "accountability" is supposed to solve everything.

That this kind of absurdity should produce widespread cheating and corruption, as it has in Atlanta, should not surprise us. NCLB has turned school districts into a version of Kafka's The Trial - a world in which truth is irrelevant and real progress is impossible. In such a world, what else should we expect? Teachers and administrators faced a terrible choice: cheat or be fired.

We should all hope that Dr. Hall, the administrator at the center of the whole mess, is sentenced to a goodly long prison term as an example to others. But even for her, the incentives were skewed. Until she was caught, cheating earned her the highest honors - invitations to the White House, plaudits from politicians and the business community, and some $500,000 in "performance bonuses".

Given the obstacles faced by a large number of the 52,000 children in her district, there was no way for her to earn these things honestly - especially without large numbers of additional resources to invest in Atlanta schools, which she did not have. It's unfortunate that she made the choices she did - but if we present people with a system in which cheating is the only way to get ahead, we shouldn't be surprised when some of them do.

It may be too much to ask that this one case, as shocking as it is, will cause us to reexamine the NCLB approach and the absurdist assumptions which underlie it. Maybe we need to indict a dozen more major urban superintendents. I hope that it doesn't take that long, and that we can someday soon rebuild our approach to education on the basis of a more rational set of assumptions.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

You Keep On Using That Word...

Occasionally I find something amusing on Facebook, and rather than respond to it there I post it here. I do this in part so I don't scare off the "friends" I have on FB who are invaluable sources of information about ideologically and tribally extreme positions. Since those people don't read my blog, I feel pretty safe re-posting their stuff here.

The last couple of days on FB have, to a great extent, been dominated by the "marriage equality" discussion. Far too many of my FB friends have changed their profile pics, so that I can't tell them apart anymore. But what I was really waiting for was for someone on the other side - someone against gay marriage - to take a stand. I finally got my wish today, with this:

One Nation Under God supports Civil Unions this does not prevent anyone from living whatever lifestyle they choose but we believe strongly in the traditional, universally-held belief of a man and woman being required to constitute marriage. God created man and woman for a reason and this is an essential part of His plan of happiness for humankind. Sadly, whenever there is good as we know there tends to be evil. The reason for this particularly against the family is because this is where the potential for the most love and joy exists. Just as in politics those with less than honorable intentions purpose is character assassination so it is where the greatest cause of happiness exist so does Satan's desire exist to take away the ability for humankind to enjoy life. The family his his single greatest threat.

For those who claim because someone doesn't agree with them means they hate them they are nothing more than schoolyard bullies trying to force their own beliefs upon others while hypocritically attacking those who simply follow the traditional and universally-held belief that a man and a woman who have children are what constitutes a family.

This page has been, is and will ever always be for the love of the family. God bless the family!

I certainly support both free speech rights and the right of people to believe whatever theology they choose. But the "argument" here fails to persuade, largely because it rests on a twice-repeated assertion that the "traditional" definition of marriage as being between a man and a woman is "universally-held".

If this were true, would we be having this discussion? I think Inigo Montoya put it best:

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Obligatory Iraq Redux

With the 10th anniversary of the beginning of the US war in Iraq, many of my colleagues have been looking back at the last ten years and taking stock. My friend and colleague Steve Saideman does an excellent job of reconstructing his own thoughts and then examining them, so naturally I have to try to follow suit.

In that spirit, I went about trying to figure out what I actually thought (and wrote) at the time, and how well it did or didn't hold up. Like Steve, I didn't have a blog then, so there's no ready-made archive of stuff I wrote. I did oppose the war, which can be found on the record if you look hard enough - but that's not much of a stretch, since pretty much all IR scholars not being paid by the Bush administration felt the same way.

Here's a piece typical of what I wrote at the time - an op-ed that appeared in USA Today, titled "US Won't Get What It Wants".

That piece, and the notes from various public talks I gave at the time, tended to focus on three things:

• How many US soldiers will die? At the time, we were not that far removed from "Black Hawk Down" in Somalia and it was reasonable to suspect that any administration would suffer if there were high US casualties. This turned out not to be the case - Bush won re-election in 2004 (by a narrow margin, it's true) despite a war that had by voting time turned substantially south and was producing significant numbers of US casualties. Apparently, getting American soldiers killed doesn't extract much of a political price, at least for a Republican president.

• How many Iraqi civilians will die? This was an issue, I argued, not because Americans care (they didn't and don't) but because high Arab casualties would be the best recruitment drive al-Qaeda could want. The fear here was that high Iraqi casualties would generate greater sympathy for anti-American terrorists, leading to more anti-American terrorist attacks. This also turns out not so much to be true in the long run, as factions within Iraq have been far more interested in turning violence against each other than against, say, New Yorkers. That's not to say that there wasn't an increase in anti-American sentiment - but it was already pretty high before the invasion, so the increase may have been marginal. These days, people in the region (including in Iraq) have other issues to contend with; a substantial US withdrawal makes it harder to blame their ongoing problems on us. And the number and level of terrorist attacks since 9/11 has been pretty much in keeping with pre-9/11 history: few and far between, and not amounting to much on a strategic level.

• What will the ultimate outcome in Iraq be? The Bush administration argued that Iraq would be "freed" and democratized, and that a free & democratic Iraq would do more good for US interests than anything else we could possibly do in the region. I argued (see the above piece) that a democratic and stable Iraq was an extremely unlikely scenario, and that resources put towards such an end (if that were the goal) were likely to be wasted. This one I think I got pretty well on target: 10 years on there still isn't a stable government, there are still massive problems with refugees, human trafficking, a ruined infrastructure, and no more than an uneasy detente between the Kurds, the Shiites, and the Sunnis. Separatism in the north is still a very real and viable concern, and control over the oilfields still hasn't been clearly established. In short, Iraq is a mess and is likely to stay that way (with varying levels of violence and instability) for a while.

So after 10 years, the best summary I can suggest is this: our worst fears haven't been realized (massive new waves of anti-American terrorism), but it's hard to argue that the expenditure of resources (lives and money) was worth it (no WMD, no democracy in Iraq). We've learned some things about the US public (more casualty-acceptant than many thought; discussions of a "post-Vietnam politics" may have to give way to a "post-post-Vietnam politics"). And apparently, Colin Powell's "Pottery Barn rule" (You Break It, You Bought It) doesn't really work - 10 years on, Iraq is still decidedly broken but we're going to walk away anyway.

The real test of the future effects of all of this will be ... when? In future elections, will aggressive neo-conservatism play well? (probably not) Will this engender some caution in US foreign policy? Probably - but then, Iraq was an outlier, so perhaps what we will see is simply reversion to the mean. If we've buried the most aggressive neo-con ideas politically, that would be a good thing, though it hurts to have paid so much for the lesson.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Zero Tolerance and the Upside-Down Rules of Violence in Schools

Much has been made of the craziness of "zero tolerance" policies recently in light of a story about a student who bit a pop-tart into the shape of a gun. Gun-rights advocates have been having a field day with this, which may compete for Dumbest Decision By a School District this year.

But there's a deeper reality behind the way schools have set up rules about violence, bullying, and the use or threat of force in schools. "Zero tolerance" is easy to make fun of, with good reason: it is very likely counterproductive. But there is a deeper, underlying set of "rules of engagement" shared by many schools, whether written or not. And these rules are teaching some very bizarre lessons.

Consider this story, posted by a substitute teacher who happens to be a martial arts instructor (and therefore, well versed in the controlled use of force) to a group of martial artists:
Junior High Student KICKED AT ME (Substitute teacher)
Let's just say, everyone is OK, except potentially the future of my clearance to work with children.
This kid was supposed to be working on math, in his seat. Instead, he was closing the period with three VERY CLOSE spin kicks to a seated student's face. 
Helping another student, I told him to stop and rose, closed my distance to create space between them (no idea of how serious either was). Once there, he lifted his hand and said "Do you want to spar?" {Yes, insert groans now} 
Declining, I had my left hand out to "ward off" and as I turned toward him, the weasel did another spin kick AT ME. I was out of range, but as we all know, even a badly done kick still can hurt like %$#@! No contact, but avoided the kick rather than BLOCK. 
I extended my right hand to press/direct him away from the other seated students (for the safety of all) and maneuvered behind him to an Aikido-like position. Right hand hovering near elbow, left hand on his left shoulder, middle finger behind clavicle- I was in an "I AM HERE" grounding/control position and in a direct and slightly elevated voice said "You need to STOP", "You need to SIT","Do you UNDERSTAND?" 
Of course, I had cut my fingernails at the beginning of the day, to accommodate the later guitar class. The "poor innocent baby" felt the scratch of my fingernail and reported "my attack" to the principal. As there was no high risk attack or equal force defense, I had planned upon reporting the incident myself during the third period prep, but instead was called in, provided my statement and dismissed for the day and removed from the sub list for that district. Later that morning, as I was typing my own statement, a sheriff's deputy came to interview me. I demonstrated the position upon him, and although underwhelmed himself, he could not verbally tell me how ridiculous this was, because he had not interviewed all the parties and witnesses. 
This fellow tried to do his best under very trying circumstances - a kid who would not behave in class or respect his authority, and who was endangering (not to mention distracting) others in the class. For those non-martial artists (that's most of you) among my readership, this fellow's detailed description of the physical steps he took is imminently reasonable, and he showed remarkable restraint. For which he was punished by the school district.

Here's the rub: what he did was technically correct and ethically proper, but totally wrong under the rules of engagement of the school. What he should have done is something almost no one would think of: take the kick.

Why allow yourself to get hit? Because the underlying rules of engagement in schools are simple: whoever gets caught hitting (kicking/etc.) loses. Whoever is the victim of the strike wins. This is particularly true if the interaction is teacher/student; a teacher who lays a hand on a student is asking for trouble.

School administrators apparently think that these rules will deter fights, bullying, etc. Instead, they have created a loophole that bullies and jerks (like the kid mentioned in this story) exploit ruthlessly. There are numerous stories of kids being suspended for defending themselves, when everyone around (including the teachers) knows who really initiated the fight. There are other stories of fights started by bullies in which both bully and victim are punished equally.

Essentially, what schools are saying is: you are not allowed to defend yourself. If someone wants to hit you, let them - let us (the authorities) handle it from there. This gives bullies, masters of going right up to the line and not getting caught, all kinds of opportunities to induce fear and get other kids in trouble.

This is an upside-down, looking glass world that teaches bullies to be sneaky and everyone else to be victims. It's time to get chuck these rules of engagement and develop a more realistic and reasonable approach to dealing with bullies and fighting in schools.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

For-Profit Universities: Between a Rock and a Hard Place

I wrote a little while back about the University of Phoenix and its current difficulties with its accrediting body, the Higher Learning Commission (HLC) of the North Central Association. Now we find out why they're in trouble: the HLC has revised its accrediting standards to include a statement that universities must, first and foremost, serve the public good.

This new statement is fascinating for a couple of reasons. First, it is a deliberate push back against the general philosophical direction which the US has been headed in for a few decades - namely, that university education is a private good, not a public one. All of the recent discussion about "is college worth it?" and the debates over student debt assume, as a matter of course, that a college education is something an individual buys as an investment in their own future, much as one might buy a car in order to get to and from work. State legislatures have been following this trend, sending less and less money to heretofore "public" universities. I don't know if the HLC's action can, on its own, reverse these trends, but it's a step in the right direction.

So the HLC's move is, in and of itself, interesting. What's more interesting is the potential impact on for-profit universities like Phoenix. In essence, the HLC's statement has put Phoenix in the proverbial Catch-22:

• In order to be accredited (which is necessary for survival - only accredited universities can receive Federal financial aid), Phoenix must convince outsiders that it is willing and able to put the public interest ahead of its own self-interest.

• In order to continue operating under securities laws as a publicly-traded company, the Apollo Group (Phoenix's parent company, which gets 90% of its revenue from Phoenix) is legally bound to take whatever action is necessary to protect the interest of its shareholders.

This is a circle that can't be squared - you can't always and everywhere operate both in the public interest and in the fiduciary interest of particular investors. I don't expect for-profits to go out of business tomorrow. But unless they find a way out of this trap, they will ultimately have to decide between their publicly-traded for-profit status and their accreditation as universities.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

A Rare Bipartisan Moment Over Drone Attacks

Last week saw a rare bit of political theater in Washington: an actual filibuster by a US Senator. Rand Paul (KY) took the floor and held it by speaking for some 13 hours to block confirmation of President Obama's nominee for CIA director.

The filibuster had little practical effect - other than reviving references to the Jimmy Stewart classic "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington," it merely delayed confirmation by a day - but it did raise awareness of an issue: the administration's apparent stance that it has the legal right to kill American citizens, on American soil, with drone strikes if national security demands it.

This raised two interesting observations (at least, they're interesting to me...):

First, there was of course a social media buzz about Paul's grandstanding. Memes like these were common on FB throughout the day:

What was fascinating to me about the social media frenzy was that this same message was coming from both the right and the left. Tribes that usually have nothing but contempt for each other's positions - and who mock each other regularly as a matter of instinct - suddenly started singing in unison. I don't know if any of them noticed - I doubt it, given how little the most committed tribalists will listen to each other - but I found it fascinating nevertheless. If nothing else, this sends an interesting political message to the President: you've managed to piss off both sides on this one. Maybe it's time to back down.

Second, it is fascinating to me the extent to which the technology (armed predator drones) provided a red herring distraction on the entire debate (a taste of "squirrel sauce", as my friend Steve Saideman would put it). "Targeted killing" is a polite term for either "assassination" or "murder", depending on your taste, and the fact that it's done with one weapon over another seems largely irrelevant.

Imagine this thought experiment: what if Sen. Paul had gotten up and asked for the President to publicly declare that the administration has no legal right to assassinate American citizens, on American soil, without trial, using CIA snipers with rifles? Or with agents slipping poison into their coffee? The universal response would have been, "of course he can't do that". The violations of habeus corpus and other portions of the Constitution, not to mention Federal law, are numerous. So why does this become a "legitimate debate" when we change "sniper rifle" to "predator drone"?

Nearly a dozen years after 9/11/01, most Americans don't worry much about terrorism anymore - with good reason. Yet the political debates in Washington continue to be shaped (some might say mis-shaped) by this one event and our failure to come to terms with it. Perhaps the response of both the left and the right to this could start to move things back to some sense. In the meantime, we'll likely see more interesting political theater - which is always entertaining!

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Money Talks in Higher Ed; Do We Have to Listen?

A few days ago, the Chronicle of Higher Education published an article about the National Association of Scholars, an academically conservative organization that seeks to advance a particular vision of higher education. For the record, I'm sympathetic to some of the NAS' ideas, although I don't know how universal they are and I don't always agree with how they go about advancing their agenda. Nevertheless, what I think doesn't matter much. The article painted a portrait of an organization in decline, struggling for both relevance and financial survival.

Into that context comes yesterday's Chronicle piece about a bit of "research" conducted by the NAS, specifically targeting Bowdoin College in Maine. The NAS has apparently put together a report of Bowdoin's "curriculum, student activities, and campus values". The report itself isn't slated to be released until April, but already the outlines are becoming clear from a recent NAS conference, which included a panel discussing the project. It appears that, as the Chronicle put it, "the private Maine college has been teed up for the verbal equivalent of a beating with a nine iron".

Under the First Amendment, the NAS is welcome to do whatever research it wants and say whatever it likes, provided it isn't libelous or otherwise actionable. But outside critiques of colleges based on particular ideologies are rare precisely because very few people will take them seriously.

Those folks who agree with the NAS' claims about what higher education "should" be will cheer it on, but based on the earlier article there aren't very many of those folks left. The rest of the country will pretty much ignore the "report"; even within the higher education community, it likely won't have much impact. If you agree with the NAS' point of view, you would already be working to make your own institution look like what they want; if you don't, them browbeating another college with the same stick isn't going to change your mind.

What's particularly troublesome here, however, is the business model underpinning the "research", which was apparently bankrolled by a wealthy investor who happens to share the NAS' ideology. This is a classic example of "money speaking loudly", if crudely - the fellow went off and found an organization desperate for funds and brought them in as his "hired guns" to criticize an institution he wanted to criticize. The fact that the guy in question is apparently a Williams College graduate only makes me sad - although it's also evidence that a liberal arts education is no antidote for hubris and arrogance.

In the broader view, this is a pissing contest in a teapot. The liberal arts colleges that both this fellow and the NAS want to criticize enroll a tiny fraction of the nation's college students. Some of those colleges, like Bowdoin and Williams, do "punch above their weight" by enrolling some of the nation's wealthy elite, folks who will go on to positions of influence. But while I am a champion of the liberal arts education, and a fervent support of my own alma mater, we must admit that the overall impact of these institutions on either the economy or society as a whole is not huge.

If the NAS wants to drive itself further into irrelevance, hiring itself out as hit man to rich, disaffected businessmen with axes to grind is a great way to do it. Bowdoin won't like the negative press it gets for a while - but I would guess that, in the end, they won't change much either. Wall Street controls many things, but their money doesn't buy respect in academia - or make it any more likely that people will listen to them.

Friday, March 1, 2013

Tell Me Again Why We're Worried About For-Profit Higher Education?

Another in a long string of setbacks in the for-profit education sector:
Accreditor Puts Ashford on Notice
It looks a little cheesy that this institution tried to gain accreditation under one region (Southwest, which turned it down) and has now turned around and applied in the midwest. After years of being told by various know-nothing outsiders that for-profits were going to "upend" higher education and do away with existing universities, it's good to see reality reasserting itself.