International Reason like a Pirate Day

My friend Tom Smith wrote the official Talk like a Pirate Day anthem:

The closest attitudes I’ve seen in education research ARRRRRRRRRR from econometric specialists, such as those trained by MIT’s Joshua Angrist. If you have Angrist and Jörn-Steffen Pischke’s Mostly Harmless Econometrics, like me, matey, you may have read a certain swashbuckling tone between the lines: Let’s grab that data, make bold assumptions that are pretty reasonable, and look at our booty the conclusions we can draw!

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California vs. Massachusetts education ballot question politics

Fifteen years ago, I am guessing, a ballot question in California to repeal the state’s ban on bilingual education would have been highly controversial, far more politically explosive than a ballot question in Massachusetts that would allow slow but consistent expansion of the state’s charter schools. At least in terms of spending on the ballot questions, you might expect a lot more money flying in California than in Massachusetts. But in 2016, it’s apparently Massachusetts Question 2 that has more than $15 million lined up on either side (combined). I could not find polls in California on Proposition 58 (the proposed repeal of 1998’s Proposition 227), but there are some in Massachusetts, which suggest that majority support from late spring may be melting (see the WBUR page linked above).

I suspect the vitriol in Massachusetts is only going to get worse, but from this outsider’s perspective, a few blunt thoughts:

  • Yes, the comparative participant benefits in urban Massachusetts charter schools exist, and by some pretty rigorous research are somewhere between half a magnitude or a magnitude larger than similar measures for voucher programs in general and a number of other policies with rigorous evaluations, let alone the pitiful outcomes of charters in a number of other states. Those who wish to explain this away (either with respect to local public schools or vouchers) have an uphill battle–there just aren’t (m)any good explanations of why this documented comparative participant benefit would be specious.
  • Yes, the expansion of charter schools under Question 2 could destabilize some local public school systems–not in the first year or two of expansion, but over repeated years. (The system in Massachusetts moves funding for the student to the charter school and is supposed to provide transitional funding for five years for the school district.) If a system had a number of charter schools open within its borders over five years or so, that could pose some interesting challenges for financial stability.
  • Yes, the Massachusetts Teachers Association leadership represents the views of its activists and likely the general population of public-school teachers in Massachusetts. In 2014, Barbara Madeloni beat the then-incumbent Paul Toner by promising to be more confrontational on a range of issues. She is not a leftover bureaucrat from some prior age but someone Massachusetts teachers actively and recently chose to battle on their behalf.
  • Yes, the money pouring into the question on both sides is going to feed distorted rhetoric in the next two months. “Poisoning the well” may be the wrong metaphor; try “poisoning the watershed.” From what I’ve seen on social media and a few news reports, I don’t think any advocates will be able to claim the high moral ground at the end of the campaign.


Happy Labor Day!

As Reg from Life of Brian might say, apart from the eight-hour day, the weekend, overtime pay, sick leave, paid vacations, child labor restrictions, minimum wage, Social Security and pensions, workers’ compensation, Medicare, written evaluation procedures, and due process in disciplinary procedures, what have the unions ever done for us?!


It’s Not the Courts, Stupid–or not the courts alone or primarily

Yesterday, the California Supreme Court declined to hear appeals-court decisions that ruled against plaintiffs in two cases: the Vergara case that tried to argue that state law and common practice that protected teachers in various ways violated the state’s constitutional promises to children, and the Campaign for Quality Education case that was the latest round in court battles over school funding. In each case, the lower appeals-court decision had in essence set fairly high bars for those wishing to sue the state of California to change broad swaths of education policy and practice. In essence, the collection of rulings says, it is not enough for education to be worse than what you think; before the courts will act, there needs to be much more solid evidence chaining together decisions of the legislature and violations of children’s rights under the California state constitution.

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Broken field defenses

Jack Schneider has a defense of American public schooling up at The Atlantic this week, and while it has an historian’s argument, it feels much like the claims of David Berliner and Bruce Biddle in The Manufactured Crisis, published 20 years ago, in the middle of the Bill Clinton era and most of a decade before No Child Left Behind. What Berliner and Biddle got right — as Schneider gets right this week — is that the declension story that many school critics have told over the past 50-60 years is wrong. There was not a “rising tide of mediocrity” in schools at the time A Nation at Risk was published in 1983. Its modern corollary is also wrong — the idea that “the modern curriculum is a relic of the past” is wildly ahistorical (see Audrey Watters and me on that point, in separate posts).

Schneider is also correct that schools do change, in curriculum and structure. As David Tyack and Larry Cuban pointed out in Tinkering toward Utopia (also a 20-year-old book), the cycles of reform rhetoric obscure long-term institutional trends that are important and largely outside the focus of hype. Pop quiz: what was the modal size of American high schools in the late 1950s? How about today? Hint: they’re not the same.

Where I disagree with Schneider — and Berliner and Biddle — is the conclusion he draws from pointing out how wrong the declension myth is. There are two ways in which the “rising tide of mediocrity” claim could be wrong. One is that public schools are not mediocre. The other is that public schools have significant weaknesses, but that they are longstanding and not traits that sprang up overnight. That is where I stand. There is an important historical argument to be made that “disruption” is a poor universal model for education reform. But its converse is not correct, either; desegregation was as disruptive when done properly as anything else.