Learning from the “failure” of polling

The tie between [Progressive-era] administrative authority and the discourse of special education lay in three connected features: the objects of study in the field, the evangelism of experts embedded in personal and professional networks, and the technical tools that experts and their public partners used in practice. We can call this set a triangle of expertise: objects, experts, and tools. – Artiles, Dorn, & Bal (forthcoming, Review of Research in Education)

After the failure of most polling aggregators this week, I am not all that surprised that some observers of education have taken it as a warning about the flaws in big data in education, whether Harry Boyte, Audrey Watters, or others. As someone who has written a bit about the history of expertise in education — yes, the block quotation above is a bit of a tease about a future article — I am sympathetic towards that skepticism. Yet that is not the only conclusion one can draw, and it is important to consider alternative arguments.

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Veterans Day: remember the Double-V campaign

Pittsburgh Courier's

Pittsburgh Courier’s “Double Victory” logo

This Veterans Day, many of my fellow Americans are worried about their vulnerability after a hate-filled national campaign. Or, rather, not worried but justifiably anticipating attacks, if not having witnessed/experienced them directly.

So today, I’m remembering the Double-V campaign in World War II, pushed by the Pittsburgh Courier, as Black soldiers, veterans, and their families committed to make sure that they fought for citizenship at home at the same time that they committed to fight against dictatorship abroad.

A few post-election notes

A few short notes:

  • I have no sense for how much the racist, sexist discourse of the campaign and the Trump presidency will shape our culture over the next few years. I cannot pretend to know the extent to which reports of campaign-period bullying are valid, but with a few exceptions, this concerns me more than concrete policy issues. Despite President Obama’s hopeful statement this morning, I think Dara Lind is more on target for millions of my fellow Americans.
  • One huge consequence for children’s lives: Paul Ryan will have much more influence on the federal budget, including the block-granting of Medicaid and other programs that support poor children and the overall level of federal budget support for education.
  • ESSA’s passage moved much of K-12 policymaking back to the state level, and the Trump administration has no incentive to change that, except perhaps for cultural politics.
  • Silver beat Wang: A poker player with a bachelor’s degree beat out a bunch of PhDs in understanding the uncertainty in the data about the election. I think we have much to learn from that in education research, but that’s for a different post.
  • Cold comfort for my skills as an observer: the sleeper education issue in the election (California’s proposition 58) won handily, and I was correct in predicting both that it would remain a sleeper issue and the contrast between its politics and the politics of Massachusetts Question 2.

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.