Mandates don’t matter; power does

One more short piece on the midterm elections. I do not care whether a 4% (or 8% or 12%) margin of victory in a 25% (or 35%) turnout translates into something pundits love to call mandates. That’s a foolish concept for a number of reasons, but most importantly is this: elections are not designed to deliver ideological domination. That may only happen in retrospect (or may not: the 1936 victory of Franklin Roosevelt was followed by his disastrous entry into 1938 politics).

The main purpose of elections is to decide who has power afterwards. It does not matter if you win the presidency by 5 million votes or 537; what matters is whether you have all the legal authority and power structure of the Oval Office. If you doubt me, ask President Gore.

Or, if you really think the margin of victory matters more than which party holds the governor’s mansion or state legislature, assume for a moment that you accidentally won office; for some reason, you are a minor state official and some clerical error in state law placed you as the successor to a governor who was just appointed as a Cabinet officer in Washington. You’re told by the state’s Attorney General that, yes, you are governor. Complete accident, as far as you were concerned, but it’s the law.

How much would your decisions be made on the basis of that accident, or would you make the very best decisions you could, according to your best judgment?

That is why mandates do not matter. After an election, people who have power will (and should) try to exercise it to the fullest. And the rest of us kibitz and push back when appropriate.

Election results and education (brief version)

A few cynical thoughts after the 2014 election, focusing on education politics:

  • Get ready for Higher Ed Act and ESEA reauthorization! Er, or not. Wasn’t happening before the election, likely won’t happen in the next two years, either.
  • Ignore “the decline of” chatter, all of which is post-election punditry equivalent of a November 1 candy binge. Well-resourced, politically-oriented groups don’t disappear because they lose a single election, or even several. This holds whether you are talking about teachers unions in general, reformy campaigns in California, or any national political party. “I’ll be back!” may not be true for individual candidates, but “We’ll be back!” is a reasonably good bet for organizations over the medium term.
  • The closest statewide elections in both California and Arizona were the state superintendencies. In both cases, the majority party picked up the downballot race. Yeah, I know, you’d like to talk about the huge money spent in California and the professor-vs.-tea-partier match in Arizona, but at a first glance the dynamics were about tickets. (Update 11/6/14: enough late ballots are still uncounted to make the Arizona superintendent race still uncertain. Douglas is still likely to have her lead confirmed.)
  • State budgets are going to drive a good deal of education policy over the next few years. With a moderately-weak recovery, as well as different policy structures, states are diverging in their budget outlooks. That matters. Just to pick my last two states of residence, Florida was able to put more money into K-12 education in the current fiscal-year budget, while Arizona is struggling and will continue to struggle. The one pundit-oriented conclusion I can endorse for Arizona is that whoever was elected governor was going to have budget woes abosrb all of the oxygen for the next few years. With a court system’s battling with the legislature over K-12 funding, that will dominate discussion in my new state.

Zombie stats: “dropout rate” as a case in point

Education has a whole host of statistics that are unreliable, that have been unreliable or unnecessary or off-target for years, and that continue to be created, published, and reported on. “Dropout rate” is one of those. It’s been around for more than forty years, crafted in the late 1960s when there was no way to find out what proportion of students graduated from individual schools or school districts. Yet some districts said they counted those who left school without plans to return — dropouts, to use a term that had just recently become the dominant way Americans talked about teenagers who left high school before graduation. And because there was visible concern about dropping out, some tried to measure the phenomenon.

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Can sampling save high-stakes testing?

Over the weekend, the Washington Post‘s Valerie Strauss described one Colorado school district’s proposal to test a sample of children for accountability purposes. Proposals something like this float up occasionally: let’s not test all children in all subjects but a sample. Sometimes the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) sampling plan is used as a model: if sampling is good enough for the gold standard for assessment in the country, why shouldn’t it be used everywhere?

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Three book recommendations et alia

I haven’t gone this long without a blog entry in … hmmn. Don’t know how long, maybe not since 2003. My wife was hospitalized in late August, and until she came home last Wednesday, I have been juggling essential tasks like mad and jettisoning whatever was absolutely unnecessary for the time being.1 She’s much better, thank you, and I am very happy to have her home. This will not be a long or single-topic entry, but there are a few items I do not want to forget.

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Notes

  1. Giant kudos to East Valley Primary Care in Tempe and Banner Desert Medical Center for having competent medical professionals and being great on the whole with communication. I know from experience that is far from universal, and it is much appreciated. []