A Response to Machiavelli: Three Legislative Proposals

Tom Block is an author, playwright and artist.  In his last 34justice guest post, Tom described Niccolò Machiavelli’s influence on American politics.  He also laid out his proposal for a “Moral Ombudsman,” a nonprofit that would “offer a true moral center from which to judge the legislation and actions of” politicians.  In this follow-up, Tom explains three specific policies a Moral Ombudsman might recommend.

Tom Block

Tom Block

Twentieth-century political theorist Hannah Arendt said of her friend Walter Benjamin (a philosopher and social critic) that he was a “clumsy theorist.”  Not that he couldn’t theorize and walk at the same time, but that he was only interested in developing theories which couldn’t be implemented, in the messy world of the public square.

I share this clumsiness with Walter Benjamin, and so I am transforming the theory for my Moral Ombudsman – proposed in my last posting in this space – into three very real proposals to begin implementation of this anti-Machiavellian political program in the rough-and-tumble world of contemporary American politics.

Though these ideas might at first appear heuristic (theoretical or exploratory), they are in fact common sense responses to some of our most pressing social challenges – and ideas which could be implemented at the local, state or even national level.

I. Family Legislation War Act

My fascination with the socially binding attitude toward war was heightened while watching the build-up to America’s incursion into Iraq in 2003.  An “adventure” which still haunts our economy and foreign policy today, more than a decade later.

My morbid attraction to the subject led me to write a book, A Fatal Addiction: War in the Name of God, which explored the conflation of war, spirituality and the state.  It investigated not only the religious language used in fomenting war fever in the country, but also the reasons why this framing of this deadly form of politics (which often amounts to genocide) resonated so successfully with the general public.

I also realized how ubiquitous war is, both in the United States and throughout human history.  By one count, the United States has been at war during 214 out of our 235 calendar years of existence.  Hardly surprising, however, when you learn that throughout the past 5600 years of recorded history, 14,600 wars have been fought, more than two wars for each year of human “civilization” (p. 17).

The American addiction to war has many causes: psychological (situating the generalized anxiety we feel inside in some far off “other” and then destroying it); economic (at least 50% of the American economy is dependent on the military-industrial complex) and political (nothing brings a population together or rallies them around a leader as does war).  As such, stemming this gruesome tide might appear nearly impossible.

However, for our psychic as well as social health, it makes sense to do everything we can to phase this activity out as a political option.  To this end, there is one simple legislative proposal which might help stop, or certainly slow, the pace of American wars – and if adopted throughout democracies and republics worldwide, could do much to stanch the bleeding around the globe.

If politicians were forced to vote a single member from their own immediate family into war at the head of the army, they might think twice about casting that politically expedient vote.   From Bill Clinton’s (42nd President of the United States) daughter Chelsea to President Barack Obama’s (44th President of the United States) daughters Malia or Sasha to one of George W. Bush’s (43rd President of the United States) twin daughters or even Senator Mitch McConnell’s (R-KY – at this writing, the Minority Leader in the US Senate) children: we could do much to lessen the rush to war if the vote was modified in this manner.

By personalizing the vote for bellicosity, the noxious pattern of sending other people’s children (usually from the underclass, as the armed forces often provides the best employment option for those who have few of them) to die for our country might be halted.  While it is easy for the rich and powerful to send unknown bodies off to other lands to be psychically or physically maimed, even politicians might think twice about involving their beloved kin.  And if a particular representative didn’t have children?  A sacrificial brother, sister or first cousin would suffice.

This simple law would allow even the most stolid of politicians to appreciate in its entirety what it means to go to war.  Not to say that all wars would be stopped – World War II, for instance, might well have been fought under these pretenses – but the succession of wars of choice that we have entered (and often instigated) over the past 75 years (currently numbering 18 and counting) would have been considered far more gravely beforehand than they in fact were.

II. National Service

My Father (b. 1933), drafted into the army as all of his generation and then recalled during the Cuban Crisis (1961-62), tells many stories about his experiences there.  In particular, he relates how people from all strata of American life came together to live in the shared cultural environment of the armed forces.  Living as equals, these men from rural, suburban and urban America, some toothless and poor, others headed to Ivy League colleges, shared an experience for months, a year or more which would stay with them for a lifetime.  Most importantly, it deepened their sense of the American community as one which involves people from all walks of life, even though they might have disparate political and social views, as well as economic prospects.

This sense of a national citizenry – in which all Americans got to personally know people from every segment of our society – has been lost with the passing of the draft.  In my opinion, much of the political and social fracturing of our country that we have seen over the past two decades might be due to this loss of shared experience.  We no longer get to know each other as equals, in a common American endeavor.  Community members from the rural South to the urban Northeast have grown insular, identifying more with their local culture than with the country at large.  And as our political life has suffered, our social discourse has soured and the answers we so desperately search for concerning everything from global warming to unemployment have become more and more difficult to come by.

I do not advocate reinstating the draft.  As you can see from my first idea, I am far more in favor of fazing out the standing army, rather than getting more Americans to serve in it.  However, I do strongly feel that we need some kind of national program to help knit our American community – far more diverse now than when my father was in the army fifty years ago – together into a singly polity.

I propose a democratizing event that brings all segments of our society together.  A year of national service concentrating on public and social work – from environmental cleanup to light infrastructure jobs to helping the poor in cities or rural areas where there is need – would reinstitute this shared sense of American community.  Taking place for one year between high school and college, and perhaps modeled on an existent program like Americorps, Teach for America or even the Depression-era Works Projects Administration (WPA), this endeavor would help heal the fissures that have been appearing in our culture, and threaten to grow from cracks into chasms of difference between disparate segments of our population.

Not only would young adults at a formative time in their lives come to feel the warmth of working for the common good, they would also be forced to work with and perhaps even befriend people from different socio-economic, religious, ethnic and geographical backgrounds.  This would do much to combat sectarian, economic and racial rifts that have yet to be healed (and sometimes seem to be on the rise) in our society.

III.  Into the Voting Booth

One of the unfortunately, though rarely remarked upon, concerns with our democracy is that such a small percentage of the voting age population votes in elections.  In presidential years, a bare majority of Americans vote – not even 60% of the voting age population in recent elections (since 1960, the percentage has ranged from a high of 63% in 1960 to 49% in 1996).  In off-year elections, known colloquially as “midterm elections,” a little more than a third of the voting public casts ballots, allowing only a 20% minority of voting age citizens (the majority of those voting) to make decisions that affect the whole country!

According to Howard Stephen Friedman (a professor at Columbia University and economist at the United Nations), the USA trails virtually all advanced democratic, economically healthy nations in voter participation.  According to his graph, the United States of America lags far behind Belgium, Australia, Italy, Greece, Spain, Korea, Portugal, Japan and many other industrialized nations, coming in with a paltry 38% of eligible voter participation, on average.

Screen Shot 2014-10-29 at 12.02.34 AM

Different countries address voter participation concerns in different manners.  Unfortunately, in our country, legislative energy has recently been expended in depressing voter turnout even further, rather than encouraging it.  One party has realized that the majority of Americans do not agree with their political program, so the surest way to electoral victory is to make it more difficult to vote, not easier.

As Wendy Weiser, who directs the Democracy Project at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University, noted:

For the first time in decades, voters in nearly half the country will find it harder to cast a ballot in the upcoming elections. Voters in 22 states will face tougher rules than in the last midterms. In 15 states, 2014 is slated to be the first major election with new voting restrictions in place.

These changes are the product of a concerted push to restrict voting by legislative majorities that swept into office in 2010.  They represent a sharp reversal for a country whose historical trajectory has been to expand voting rights and make the process more convenient and accessible.

It should also be clearly stated that these restrictive measures were passed in response to a problem (“voter fraud”) which has been shown time and again not to exist.  And that “of the 22 states with new restrictions, 18 passed them through entirely Republican-controlled bodies.”

American democracy should not be about inventing fraudulent, though “legal” (in the narrowest sense of the word) means to assure electoral victory.  We should work toward the kind of voter inclusion of Belgium (93%) or Australia (80%), instead of being satisfied with a little more than half of a bit more than a third of our voting age population making decisions for the whole country.

To this end, I propose not only making access far easier, but also moving the election day to the weekend (or declaring it a national holiday); having voting laws administered by the Federal Government (instead of a patchwork of state and even local jurisdictions, allowing partisan election judges to make, shift and change laws to the best effect for their political party) and even go so far as to – like Australia or Belgium – pass a law making voting in this country mandatory, instead of attempting to restrict it to partisan friends, while discouraging others from participation.

Democracy (a system of government by the whole population) cannot be healthy if certain segments of the citizenry are discouraged or even prevented from voting.  Current election tightening – something, that Weiser assures, hasn’t happened on this grand a scale since Reconstruction, more than 125 years ago – is bad for the country, though certainly better for one of the major parties.

We must take the ballot box back for all Americans.  Twenty two countries in the world have some form of compulsory voting, including much of Latin America, Australia and Belgium.  The State of Georgia (USA) had such a law on its books in its Constitution of 1777 which stated: “Every person absenting himself from an election, and shall neglect to give in his or their ballot at such election, shall be subject to a penalty,” though it was omitted from the State Constitution of 1789.

We cannot live in a democracy where some people control who votes, while more than half of the country doesn’t even cast them.  This leads to results which do not reflect the “will of the people,” but simply the will of the powerful.  As Joseph Stalin noted: “It is enough that the people know there was an election.  The people who cast the votes decide nothing.  The people who count the votes decide everything.”

A participatory democracy must include the voices from the vast majority of its citizens, even if their voices are compelled to speak.  If we, as a country, can pass laws to narrow the vote, then we can just as assuredly pass one that will compel it.  And if we truly want to live in a “democracy,” we should do it sooner rather than later.

1 Comment

Filed under Philosophy, US Government

Machiavelli in America and One Response to this Social Illness

Tom Block is an author, playwright and artist, whose work spans more than two decades.  In this blog post, Tom introduces us to his political antidote to our Machiavellian political sphere.  Adapted from his book, Machiavelli in America, this piece is part of Tom’s greater exploration of how to bring spiritual and even mystical values to bear on contemporary society. His work is collected under a theory he calls “Prophetic Activism,” a model of using art, thought and other means to infiltrate (rather than simply oppose) the power centers of business and politics.  For more information about Tom’s work, please visit his website.

Tom Block and his most recent book, Machiavelli in America

Tom Block and his most recent book, Machiavelli in America

Nowadays, the Machiavellian notion that political arrangements may not be judged by any objective standards of right and wrong, that there is neither any natural or any divine law, but only the law of will, of success and failure, is almost unchallenged (p. xvi).

Many people are familiar with the controversial thinking of the Renaissance political philosopher Niccolò Machiavelli (d. 1527).  His influence has been so widespread that the word “Machiavellian” has been incorporated into our language as a pejorative, defining a person who is cunning, duplicitous and operates in bad faith.

What might be less well known is the profound influence that Machiavelli has on contemporary American politics.  From state houses to the Presidency, Machiavelli’s ideas and motivations are central to building winning political campaigns and passing legislation, however un-democratic and antithetical to a healthy, pluralistic society.  As Renaissance scholar Paul Grendler noted (p.149): “Today, Machiavelli’s influence on political policy may be greater than at any time since he served the Florentine government.  Machiavelli has become American.”

The foundation of Machiavelli’s political ideology is straightforward: everyone in society is selfish, acting primarily for personal gain.  And for a politician to succeed in mastering this world, she has to either manipulate or frighten people into believing that their interests ally most closely with her own.

Machiavelli’s program concentrates on subjugation and mastery.  He does not concern himself with the common good, democracy or human rights.  For Machiavelli, the concepts of moral philosophers from Moses to the Sufis and the religions within which they operate are certainly important.  But only because these religious systems provide a fraudulent tool for the relentless, morally unhinged pursuit of power.  In terms of their direct relation to political reality, however, he considers them as meaningless as music.

Machiavelli’s central tenet is that the truth of any matter must be overwhelmed by two stronger factors: fear and fraud. In terms of inspiring fear in the populace, it is the surest method of gaining control over them:

I come to the conclusion that, men loving according to their own will and fearing according to that of the prince, a wise prince should establish himself on that which is in his own control and not in that of others (p. 82).

He also noted that truth can be easily shunted aside, using fraudulent means to inspire fear, and then oneself offered as the palliative, inspiring a populace to follow the leader:

The great majority of humans is satisfied with appearances, as though they were realities, and is often more influenced by the things that seem than by those that are (p. 182).

It is through inspiring fear in the citizenry, as well as using fraud as a tool to appear to be what the people want (i.e., safe, religious, moral, “like” them etc.) that political victory can most easily be won.

In terms of winning political office or legislative battles by immoral means?  Not to worry.  He noted: “When the act accuses, the result excuses” (p. 139).  Whatever actions undertaken to attain political victory are excused if the actor is successful.  Machiavelli absolved triumphant leaders of all blame or responsibility for any act necessary to attain and retain power:

A wise mind will never censure anyone for having employed any extraordinary means for the purpose of establishing a kingdom or constituting a republic . . . when the result is good, it will always absolve him from blame (p. 139).

Machiavellian inspiration is not hard to discern, either throughout American history or even in our most recent political season.  A brief study of George W. Bush’s (43rd President of the United States) manner of attaining a very dubious electoral victory, and then his perverse political use of the terrorist attacks of 9/11/2001 (on New York’s World Trade Center and other sites) would suffice.  But for our purposes, it is important to mention that George W. Bush was acting in a time-honored American Machiavellian tradition.

Neo-Conservative thinker Michael Ledeen (b. 1941) noted the similarities between the beginnings of America and the Florentine’s ideals: “There is much in Machiavelli that sounds like the American Founding Fathers…Machiavelli’s notion of the good state calls to mind The Federalist Papers” (p. 109).

Ledeen continued on to reference specific Machiavellian influence on James Madison (fourth President of the United States), Alexander Hamilton (first United States Secretary of the Treasury) and Benjamin Franklin (Founding Father and so-called “First American”).  The Florentine’s inspiration can also be found on the thinking of George Washington (first President of the United States); Thomas Jefferson, (principal author of the Declaration of Independence) and John Adams (America’s first Vice President, as well as the second President of the United States).  All of this has been outlined in more depth in my book.

The reverberations of the long-ago Florentine political philosopher can clearly be ascertained in the most recent electoral campaigns, which often are based in fear, character assassination and moral fraud.

For instance, in this current electoral cycle in North Carolina, Republican challenger Thom Tillis is ratcheting up the fear by linking Senator Kay Hagan (D) to terrorist threats.  A campaign advertisement of his notes: “Hagan and [President] Obama are to blame for the growing emergency linked to extremist groups like ISIS.”  And in keeping with the Machiavellian dictate that another sure way to win a political campaign is to assassinate the opposition, Senator Mitch McConnell (R-KY) has undertaken a scorched-earth campaign against his challenger, Alison Grimes (D):

As many observers predicted, the McConnell strategy was to bring Grimes’ popularity down.  She has been bombarded by negative attacks over the summer by McConnell’s campaign and super PACs.

The reality of American politics turns away from the moral intentions of our Declaration of Independence and Constitution and toward a power-driven oligarchy, ruled over by the most pernicious, negative and fraudulent.

It should be noted that this problem infects one side of the aisle far more than the other.  Although the mainstream press would be loathe to appear anything but “objective” (defined as the midpoint between the two parties), it is the Republican Party, and even more so the right-wing “Tea Party” members of that party, who most clearly exhibit the influence of the medieval political philosopher.  Renaissance scholar Paul Grendler noted that this linkage between America’s right wing and the Renaissance philosopher goes back to at least World War II:

Machiavelli has been a theme in American conservative political discussion since the 1940s.  It is likely that the use of Machiavelli has contributed to the combative mentality that characterized American Cold War politics, the belligerency of American conservatism and the take-no-prisoners tactics and language employed against liberalism and the Democrats (p. 168).

In my book, I outline many specific manners in which Machiavelli not only influenced our Founding Fathers, but also can still be felt in the legislative, executive and even judicial branches of government, including the overwhelming power of money, the efficacy of character assassinations and the use of war-like language to the utilization of religious and moral fraud and war itself, all as immoral political tools.

Regardless of what we might wish, think or work for, it is the Machiavellian dictates of power politics which are accepted as “politics as usual,” while all other potential moral methods of political interaction are simply shunted to the side as the strategy of losers.  And time and again, the results of political elections confirm the view that Machiavelli is for winners.

Although this dynamic is well known and even remarked upon, we (as a society) haven’t developed effective responses to Machiavelli, specific manners of combatting this pernicious dynamic.  What I offer in my book, and will summarize here, is one manner of attempting to combat this social cancer.  And one which takes into account our zeitgeist, from the deeply religious nature of so much of America’s public life, to the unwillingness of American journalists to base their reporting on the truth, opting instead for some mushy middle between the positions of the two major parties, which they define as “objective.”  This lack of moral clarity in the press corps only allows fraudulent political actors more leeway in creating their own alternate reality, a vile combination of fraud, character assassination and amoral pandering.

Though at least one administrator of this blog might disagree with me, I feel strongly that God and religion must be taken into account when considering a palliative to the shared social illness exhibited in our public square.  Activist responses to social illnesses must take into account the reality of that society; and offer familiar (i.e., religiously-based for Americans) manners of infiltrating and changing it – instead of simply standing outside of the metaphorical walls to the city and lobbing well-meaning and ineffectual ideas toward a population that couldn’t care less.

A Response to Machiavelli: The Moral Ombudsman

Conservative columnist Cal Thomas put forward an interesting proposal concerning the insertion of truth into politics:

Before an election, have candidates take a lie detector test.  Put it on TV and/or the Internet.  A panel of reporters or other experts could ask the questions, just like they do in presidential debates.  In fact, this could be a five-minute segment at the end of the debates.  “And now, to the lie detectors…”

Ha, ha, ha!  The political participants on both sides of the aisle would never accept common sense remedies such as this one.  It would too easily and clearly unmask the whole pernicious system.  Lie detector tests are for criminals!  Not for politicians, they would assure.

And we certainly can’t rely on the press to offer us a reportage of current politics and events based on truth (instead of some bizarre combination of “objectivity,” generally held opinion and polling data – which itself only represents the desires of the most powerful propagandistic machine).

The unwillingness to base journalism in truth is well-noted, by the way.  As the Los Angeles Times noted in an editorial: “the canons of the profession [journalism] prevent most journalists from saying outright: These charges are false.”  And as Washington Post journalist Melinda Henneberger said, concerning her profession’s (lack of) attachment to truth in reporting:  “Newspapers hardly ever haul off and say a public figure lied, and I like that about us.”

So it falls to us, we the people, to devise our own method of inserting truth into the Machiavellian world of American politics, and what follows is one such proposal.  I have devised an idea that can be implemented within our political system, offering a muscular response to the ingathering of power and money by the top one percent of American citizens.  As Machiavelli noted (p.211): “So enormous is the ambition of the grandi that it soon brings that city to ruin if it is not beaten down by various ways and various modes.”

This response to Machiavelli offers one manner to “beat them down.”

Honest discourse and unimpeded knowledge is virtually impossible to come by in the American political panorama.  For this reason, I propose that clearly stated information itself represents the greatest potential tool supporting genuine democracy.  In a country where voter suppression, lying, cheating, stealing and all manner of fraud are accepted as “politics as usual,” the ability to come by clear and concise information on any issue is virtually impossible.

The Moral Ombudsman would operate within the parameters of 21st-century Washington D.C., acknowledging the manner in which power is won and imposed.  Specifically, this is the call for the creation of a non-profit organization of the same name: “The Moral Ombudsman,” to develop and insert a moral lodestar into politics.

The Moral Ombudsman would bring together a board of recognized religious and social leaders to form a non-governmental organization to provide moral oversight of our lawmakers, as well as the laws that they make.  This collective would be constituted of leaders from the following religious and spiritual groups, representing the breadth of faith and secular communities in the United States: Christianity (two each from Baptist, Pentecostal, Lutheran, Presbyterians, Methodist, Anglican, Catholic and Eastern Orthodox); Judaism (one each from Reformed, Conservative and Orthodox); Muslim (one each from Sunni, Shi’a and Sufi); Buddhism, Sikhism, Hindu, Mormon; Unitarian, Secular Humanist and Atheist.

Other potential board members might include an academic leader, an agreed upon politician (preferably at the end of his public career, and not at the beginning), a social theorist or perhaps lay leader who would add perspective to the conversation.  The final constitution of the board would represent the vast majority of American citizens.  It would also acknowledge the Christian heritage of our nation by weighting the board in that direction.

The board would first be charged with developing a social and political moral code that would be agreed upon by all members of the board.  Although at first blush, this step clearly seems to present a potentially insurmountable obstacle, it is not as difficult as it might appear.  At the core, virtually all religions are in accord.  There are moral values shared by all creeds, which inform the hearts of every sacred path.

In this response to Machiavelli, the common good will take into account such things as the obligation of those who have the means to aid those who do not; the right to adequate health care access to for every citizen (hardly revolutionary, as thirty-two of the thirty-three developed nations have universal health care, with the United States being the lone exception); adequate shelter, a necessary amount of nutritious food, free education, freedom of religion and association and freedom from racist or ethnically deleterious laws and treatment.

Social issues such as the following would be discussed and agreed upon, becoming the bedrock formulation for the Moral Ombudsman.  These positions would help define the manner in which politicians, their actions and their laws, would be viewed:

  • Obligation of the rich to help the poor
  • Human right to health care
  • Human right to adequate, nutritious food
  • Human right to satisfactory housing
  • Forgiveness, restitution and rehabilitation as bases for the prison system
  • Minority rights
  • Women’s rights
  • Freedom of association
  • Freedom of worship
  • Freedom from racism
  • Freedom from hate speech
  • Foreign policy based in respect and commonality
  • Truth as the basis for news reporting
  • Truth as the basis for political language and ideas
  • Truth as the basis for political campaigns

Each religion’s scriptures provides many different readings, from the suppression and slaughter of the “other;” veiling of women; polygamous and tribal laws to readings that emphasize peace, respect and open-mindedness.  Put bluntly, George W. Bush could find plenty in the Scriptures to justify his views, as could Martin Luther King Jr.

Leaders from the various religious creeds would be sought who believed in the opening and loving aspects of their creeds, not the close-minded, “us” vs. “them” manner of politicizing religion.  They would conceive of theirs as a valid path, and not the single road to spiritual grace.  They would be leaders whose views shared much with the contemporary zeitgeist in respecting the plurality of ethnic, social and cultural diversity and the worth of individuals (instead of holding that the religious system is more important than the rights of its constituent members).

The Moral Ombudsman would reach beyond social, economic and political barriers, speaking in the best interests of all Americans, all the time.  The Moral Ombudsman would be immune to fluctuations in the stock market, monetary reward, poll numbers or television ratings.

Issuing its decisions in policy papers, op-ed articles, newsletters, scorecards on the votes of members of congress, governors and the president and other like manners, this non-profit watchdog group would finally offer a true moral center from which to judge the legislation and actions of our elected princes.

Once the moral structure was set into place with the creation of a specific set of political virtues, the work of the organization would be to judge both legislators and legislation by its precepts.  Each law coming up for a vote in Congress would be compared to the moral principles agreed upon by the Board.  A grade would be issued, with a zero representing a completely immoral law (such as raising taxes on the poor so that the rich might have a lower tax burden), to a 100% (universal health care, for instance).  There would be a written release issued, as well as a rating.

Each legislator would have his votes analyzed, and would receive a sum-total number score for his moral centeredness.  This method is modeled on the scores issued by NGO groups from the National Rifle Association to the Nature Conservancy.

Additionally, the Executive Branch, military, State Department and actions of members from other governmental arms would be so judged.  Pilotless Drone attacks on other people’s soil?  Nope.  No matter how much verbiage there is about terrorism, eliciting the fear response of the population, this cannot be morally justified.  Secret Ops work in Latin America?  Presidential pandering, military posturing, and State Department dithering?  No, no and no.  The Moral Ombudsman’s job would not be to garner votes or make friends with the higher ups.  It’s job would be to begin the vital but nearly impossible work of centering American politics in a moral schema, instead of allowing it to continue to founder in the media created world of “objective reality.”

In the end, difficult though it might be, a moral middle would be carved out of the amorphous and amoral public and political square.  Finally, some manner of shared values would emerge that each of us, in our heart of hearts, might agree upon.

Is this solution easy?  Absolutely not.  Is it fraught with potential problems?

Yes.  Oh, yes.

But we are left with no choice but to try.

 

2 Comments

Filed under Philosophy, US Government

The Political Lens: What Global Warming and Wright v. New York Have in Common

During the 2003-2004 school year, my chemistry teacher told my class that global warming wasn’t occurring.  I believed her.  When I attended New Jersey’s Governor’s School of International Studies in the summer of 2005, a professor told me the opposite – the evidence for global warming, and for the human contribution to it, was virtually incontrovertible.  Confused about what to think, I began to research the issue.  I also reached out to some of my other former teachers to ask for their input.

Three things became immediately clear.  First, most popular articles about global warming contained more empty rhetoric than useful information.  The mainstream media, as it far too frequently does, focused not on the truth but on grandstanding and a false sense of balance.  Second, I didn’t know enough climate science to look through a given study’s results and determine their legitimacy.  Third, I didn’t have to – a different approach could tell me everything I needed to know about each study’s likely veracity.

Global warming research falls into two categories: research by legitimate scientists and “research” funded by big energy interestsLegitimate scientists, who have no economic incentive to lie, conclude that global warming is a manmade crisis deserving our immediate action.  The few studies that suggest otherwise are normally sponsored by organizations like Exxon and the American Petroleum Institute, interest groups with billions of dollars invested in the activity responsible for global warming.

As with global warming, knowledge of the individual and organizational incentives behind opposing “sides” of any debate provides us with critical information.  This “political lens,” though not completely foolproof, reminds us that certain claims deserve a larger dose of skepticism than others.  The agendas behind a movement are especially important to consider when we lack in-depth knowledge of a particular issue.

In education policy debates, “reformers” far too often selectively and inaccurately apply the political lens or dismiss its importance.  That dynamic surfaced after Stephen Colbert interviewed former CNN anchor Campbell Brown on July 31. Brown’s organization, Partnership for Educational Justice, had filed Wright v. New York three days before the interview.  Wright, modeled after Vergara v. California, challenges several aspects of teacher employment law.

A small group of teachers, parents, and grassroots organizers showed up to protest Brown’s appearance on the show.  Colbert, responding to the protesters and the Twitter hashtag #questions4campbell, asked Brown about her organization’s funding sources.  Brown refused to disclose her donors.  Amidst the criticism that followed, various stakeholders have rushed to Brown’s defenseThey continue to argue that a focus on Brown’s donors and political affiliations is a “desperate effort to distract from the real conversation” about teacher employment law.

The truth of the matter, however, is that educators would love to focus on substantive conversations about teacher employment law.  Teacher “tenure” and dismissal and layoff procedures, though they are intended to protect both student and teacher access to a positive, productive educational experience, don’t always work as intended.  Unions recognize this problem and recommend legislative improvements that simultaneously address issues with the execution of the laws and preserve their important components.  We also frequently discuss the laws on their merits.  Additionally, student advocates would love to see reformers, unions, and legislators engaged in substantive conversations about how to unite behind and fight for causes that matter considerably more for the lives of low-income students: in-school causes like funding equity and improved teacher support and out-of-school causes like the living wage and immigrant rights.

Unfortunately, pro-Wright propaganda, featured much more prominently in the mainstream media than legitimate arguments for the defense, often drowns out these “real conversations.”  No teacher has a job for life, competent school districts can and do dismiss bad teachers, and there is absolutely no evidence that teacher employment law causes inequities between low-income and high-income schools***, yet relatively large swaths of the American public have bought Brown’s misleading narrative and harbor severe misconceptions about the statutes and their effects.  Brown isn’t leading her crusade with a rigorous analysis of the facts and sound logical argument; instead, she “addresses” the lawsuit’s substantive critiques by ignoring inconvenient statistics and logic and implying that disagreement indicates a disregard for the well-being of children.  It’s hard for the public to understand the nuances of education law and research when Wright supporters prominently and erroneously equate opposition to the lawsuit with the defense of horrible teachers.

Thus while education law and research is arguably less complicated than the science behind global warming, the political lens is equally important to consider in this debate.  It’s theoretically possible that the unions who defend teacher employment law do so to protect teachers who call students names and sleep in class.  And it’s theoretically possible that Campbell Brown and her unnamed donors care more about the lives of low-income kids than do the unionized teachers who work with them every day.  It’s also theoretically possible that Exxon produces more honest research about global warming than does the entire scientific community.  But these theoretical possibilities are all extremely unlikely.

Instead, it’s significantly more likely that Campbell Brown’s donors, like the people who funded Vergara v. California, actively exacerbate economic inequality.  That Wright v. New York and Vergara conveniently allow them to undermine organized labor and distract us from the ways their business and political activities harm the families of the very same low-income students they purport to help.  That teachers in unions care deeply about delivering an excellent education to their students, and that their opposition to the lawsuit stems from its negative narrative, erroneous claims and premises, and failure to provide solutions to the actual causes of teacher quality issues.  In other words, looking through our political lens reminds us that there are literally billions more “adult interests” in support of Wright v. New York than in its defense.

Educators must continue to clarify facts about teacher employment law and support responsible reforms.  Most proponents of challenges to the statutes are well-intentioned, and a focus on agendas alone would not do the issues justice.  It is also entirely legitimate, however, to call attention to the profit and political motives behind lawsuits like Wright and Vergara.  Knowledge of donors and allies helps us understand why, when unions and Campbell Brown present conflicting information about the law’s intent and effects, Campbell Brown’s claims warrant significantly more suspicion.

Campbell Brown graphic

***While the plaintiffs in Wright, unlike those in Vergara, do not erroneously contend in their complaint that the laws cause inequities between low- and high-income schools, the idea that low-income students are disproportionately impacted by bad teachers was mentioned by Brown in her appearance on The Colbert Report and still surfaces in discussions of the lawsuit.

Update: A version of this post appeared on The Huffington Post on October 2.

Leave a comment

Filed under Education, Labor, Philosophy

The 34justice Political Tool: Ethics, Truth, and a Case Study of Michael Brown and Ferguson

Seating arrangements during the French Revolution gave us the Left-Right political spectrum.  During the first National Assembly in 1789, the king’s supporters sat on the right and proponents of revolution on the left.  In contemporary American politics, we often consider liberals, who  “believe in government action to achieve equal opportunity and equality for all,” to be on the Left. Conservatives, who “generally emphasize empowerment of the individual to solve problems,” form the Right.

The Left-Right political spectrum (via http://www.stephenpratt.net/Politics/illusionOpposites.htm)

The Left-Right political spectrum (via http://www.stephenpratt.net/Politics/illusionOpposites.htm)

David Nolan, one of the founders of the Libertarian Party, found this one-dimensional political spectrum problematic.  Theorizing “that virtually all human political action can be divided into two broad categories: economic and personal,” Nolan believed that “political positions can be defined by how much government control a person or political party favors in these two areas.”  Nolan’s views laid the foundation for The World’s Smallest Political Quiz, a ten-question survey which categorizes an individual’s political views on a two-dimensional chart.

If you take The World's Smallest Political Quiz, your views will be plotted on this chart.

If you take The World’s Smallest Political Quiz, your views will be plotted on this chart.

Nolan’s categorization scheme, though more descriptive than the Left-Right spectrum, unfortunately suffers from the same major flaw: it presents opposing points of view as ethically and intellectually equivalent.  A better system would articulate how different degrees of attention to social justice and the truth drive competing political perspectives.

Published in 1971, the same year that Nolan released the current version of his chart, A Theory of Justice laid out an approach to determining ethics that is widely considered to be the most “fair and impartial point of view…about fundamental principles of justice.”  American philosopher John Rawls argues that we must consider a thought experiment in which each of us is behind a “veil of ignorance” in “original position:”

The idea of the original position is to set up a fair procedure so that any principles agreed to will be just…Somehow we must nullify the effects of specific contingencies which put men at odds and tempt them to exploit social and natural circumstances to their own advantage…[A]ssume that [all people] are situated behind a veil of ignorance. They do not know how the various alternatives will affect their own particular case and they are obliged to evaluate principles solely on the basis of general considerations.

It is assumed, then, that the parties do not know certain kinds of particular facts. First of all, no one knows his place in society, his class position or social status; nor does he know his fortune in the distribution of natural assets and abilities, his intelligence and strength, and the like…They must choose principles the consequences of which they are prepared to live with whatever generation[, race, class, gender, disability status, sexual orientation, etc.] they turn out to belong to.

The veil of ignorance, by forcing us to consider the possibility that we will be anyone in society, focuses us on fairness and equality of opportunity.  Especially given human beings’ risk aversion, rational people behind the veil of ignorance would seek to minimize imbalances of power.  The ethics of a given policy proposal or viewpoint can be defined by the degree to which Rawls’s thought experiment informs our thinking, which generally means the degree to which we contemplate the circumstances of populations with low levels of power and privilege.

A better political categorization tool can capture this thought experiment with a horizontal “ethics axis.”  “Privilege-defending” viewpoints and policies that ignore the veil of ignorance – those that mainly consider the ideas, desires, and needs of people already in power – fall on the left side of this axis.  “Power-balancing” viewpoints and policies developed after reflection about the veil of ignorance – those that more ethically think through the concerns and needs of less-privileged people – fall on the right.  The vertical or “accuracy axis” of the tool orients us to the facts; it plots views according to the degree to which a combination of sound theory and empirical evidence informs them.

Political Tool.003

The ideal policy, developed with consideration of the veil of ignorance and using the most accurate interpretation of the facts, sits in the upper right hand corner.  This tool thus provides several advantages over the Nolan Chart and the traditional Left-Right spectrum.  First, it forces us to think about what matters; we cannot plot opinions on this tool without ethical and intellectual analysis.  Second, the tool captures that objectively good policy (policy in the upper right hand corner) is more desirable than the “center” of opposing viewpoints.  Third, it gives us a common framework to discuss policy ideas with people with different perspectives, orienting our conversation to two pillars – truth and justice – instead of normalizing disagreement as inevitable.

Applying the 34justice Political Tool

A case study of the Michael Brown shooting and related events in Ferguson, Missouri can illustrate how to use the 34justice political tool.

The Veil of Ignorance in Ferguson

Ethical considerations require us to imagine ourselves behind the veil of ignorance in original position.  We don’t know if we’re white or black, police officer or regular citizen.  We must ask ourselves what sort of policies rational people would adopt in that situation.  Given the power differential between police officers and citizens, rational people who knew they might end up as citizens would want a system that set high standards for police behavior.  They’d want to ensure that the police force acted with transparency, restraint, and the best interests of the community in mind.  Rational people behind the veil of ignorance would also want to make sure police officers could enforce reasonable laws and use force to protect themselves if necessary – they might end up as police officers, after all – but they’d set a very high bar for the use of that force.

Knowledge of institutional racism would also factor heavily into the calculation of the rational person in original position.  We are much more likely to harbor subconscious biases against and jump to negative conclusions about black people than white people, and black people routinely face both overt and covert forms of discrimination.  A rational person behind the veil of ignorance, knowing that he might become a black citizen, would be especially wary of mistreatment by police.  Nobody in original position would agree to a system that placed more responsibility on black citizens than white officers; a viewpoint that did so would consequently be privilege-defending and unethical.

An ethical and power-balancing viewpoint, therefore, approaches the actions of the Ferguson police force with more skepticism than the actions of the black community.  It begins with an attempt to understand the concerns and perspectives of black citizens.

We can thus categorize knee-jerk reactions about the Michael Brown shooting and Ferguson, all unsupported by evidence, as follows (as originally noted by Billy Griffin post-publication, the viewpoints described in the following sections are meant as an illustrative sample, not as a complete set of all possible viewpoints):

- Viewpoint A (privilege-defending): The police behave responsibly, so the conflicts are really the fault of an unruly black population.  The police officer who shot Michael Brown wouldn’t have done so unless he was in danger.  Similarly, the police wouldn’t use force against protesters unless it was necessary to maintain law and order.  Race is not an issue.

- Viewpoint B (partially privilege-defending): The police may have acted inappropriately during the shooting of Michael Brown and its aftermath in Ferguson, but Brown and the black community likely shoulder an equal amount of responsibility for what has happened.

- Viewpoint C (power-balancing): The police are in power and responsible for protecting citizens; police actions deserve intense scrutiny when they harm civilians.  We must avoid blaming the victim.  This situation is the likely product of systemic racism and institutional injustice.

Political Tool.004

The Accuracy Axis in Ferguson

Here are the facts from the Michael Brown shooting itself:

- Brown was shot six times.  He was unarmed.

- Eyewitness accounts following the shooting say that Brown had his hands up in the air and was trying to demonstrate that he was unarmed when he was killed.  Recent video has corroborated that Brown’s hands were, in fact, raised.

- The police did not release their version of events until the day after the crime.  The report, when released, said that Brown reached for the officer’s gun in the car and was shot as a result of the struggle for the weapon. The department also did not release the name of the officer who shot Brown (Darren Wilson) for 6 days, despite repeated requests by the media and public (the police claimed that the delay was due to threats on social media).

- Anonymous police sources have claimed that Wilson was injured and taken to the hospital after the shooting, but initial reports about the injuries turned out to be false (as did a photo circulated by a Chicago firefighter). The police have not provided independent verification of the injuries.

Commentators have also debated whether several additional facts are related to the shooting:

- Brown took cigars from a convenience store without paying about 10 minutes prior to the shooting.  He shoved the store clerk on his way out the door.  We know this fact because the police department released a video of these events (which, despite the police chief’s claims, the press and public did not ask for) the same day they released Wilson’s name (which the press and public did request).  Wilson almost certainly did not know about the robbery when he stopped Brown on the street.

- Brown had marijuana in his system when he was shot (this information was released by an anonymous source and not in response to a specific request).  Marijuana can remain in a person’s system for over a month and there is no legitimate evidence linking marijuana use to violent behavior.

- The Ferguson police force has a (probably very long) history of unprovoked attacks on black people in the community.

Finally, the following facts relate to the protests in Ferguson immediately following the shooting:

- Across the country, numerous black citizens have been shot and killed by white police officers under suspicious circumstances.

- Unarmed black teens Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis have also been killed by white citizens in recent years.  Mostly-white juries failed to convict the offending citizens of murder (Mike Dunn, Davis’s killer, was found guilty of multiple counts of attempted murder, while George Zimmerman, who killed Martin, was acquitted).

- Most protests were entirely peaceful, but a small percentage of people threw molotov cocktails and looted local stores.

- The Ferguson police, wearing military attire and sporting intense assault weapons, pointed guns at and used tear gas and other violent crowd control tactics on peaceful protesters.

- There is a clear pattern of racial profiling in Ferguson.  About 67% of Ferguson citizens are black, but black people comprise less than 6% of the Ferguson police force.  Over 85% of police stops and arrests are for black people.  Some police lieutenants in Missouri have been caught ordering indiscriminate harassment of black citizens.

- The city of Ferguson makes considerable revenue by routinely fining poor black people for minor offenses (like driving with a suspended license).  When they can’t pay, these citizens often spend time in prison.

These facts can help us categorize more evidence-based viewpoints:

- Viewpoint D (privilege-defending): We’ll never know exactly what happened when Michael Brown got shot, and we must remember that police work is difficult and dangerous.  Our police officers need to be able to use their judgment when they feel threatened.  Michael Brown was clearly violent, as can be demonstrated in the video of him robbing a convenience store, and he was also probably high.  There isn’t anywhere near enough evidence to convict Darren Wilson, and it is a concern that black people on the jury might show racial solidarity instead of looking at the evidence.

The black community’s rioting and looting also necessitated police action.  Citizens who don’t want to experience police violence should avoid doing anything that appears unlawful and/or dangerous.  Nothing is wrong with our police system.

- Viewpoint E (partially privilege-defending): The circumstances of Brown’s death look suspicious.  The police department certainly should have released its report sooner, so it’s hard to trust them over eyewitness accounts.  At the same time, the main eyewitness was a friend of Brown’s and the community is more likely to side with Brown than with the police.  Additionally, the fact that Brown robbed a convenience store beforehand, shoving and intimidating the store clerk, suggests that Wilson had good reason to fear Brown.

The racial disparities in Ferguson are definitely something to look into, but police also probably don’t pull people over for no reason at all.  And while the police used excessive violence in some cases, the rioting and looting of black citizens was a large part of the escalation of the situation.  The citizens in Ferguson and the police must both reflect on their behavior.

- Viewpoint F (power-balancing): The Michael Brown shooting and Ferguson’s response to it are a direct result of the effects of institutional racism.  Black people in this country clearly face challenges that those of us with white privilege never encounter.  We must listen to the black community and work immediately to correct the policies that lead to a justice system that unequally treats blacks and whites.

It’s pretty clear that Michael Brown’s death was an unjustifiable murder – not only was he unarmed and shot six times, multiple eyewitnesses consistently report that he had his hands in the air and was no immediate threat to Wilson.  The police department’s behavior raises considerable doubt about their claims.  There was no legitimate reason to delay the release of Darren Wilson’s name and the police report for so long, or to ignore eyewitness testimony.  The release of the convenience store video was also in bad faith because Wilson almost certainly did not know about this event when he stopped Brown; the police department seems more intent on blaming the victim than on assessing evidence relevant to the shooting.  Wilson should certainly get a fair trial, but police behavior has made that less likely to happen.  The trials in related cases raise doubts about whether the mostly-white jurors will deliver an evidence-based verdict in this case.

Like Martin Luther King, Jr., we must remember that “it is as necessary…to be as vigorous in condemning the conditions which cause persons to feel that they must engage in riotous activities as it is…to condemn riots. [A] riot is the language of the unheard.”  These riots are caused by frequent police harassment, unfair treatment by the criminal justice system, and a feeling of powerlessness.  Addressing those root causes is where our focus must lie.  That the vast majority of protests were peaceful and the police were the aggressors in nearly every conflict underscores the need for rapid reform in the way law enforcement operates.

The ethics and accuracy axes aren’t completely independent.  It’s relatively difficult to find somebody espousing an unethical viewpoint that accounts for all the facts, for example, and Viewpoints D and E require selective interpretation of available information.  A privilege-defending but evidence-based viewpoint (Viewpoint G) would have to acknowledge unequal treatment of blacks and police misconduct but, harboring open racial animus, excuse it anyway.

Political Tool.005

Another category of interest might be viewpoints based on deliberate lies, rather than on a lack of information; they would fall below Viewpoints A, B, and C.

Assuming we agree that ethical considerations and the truth matter, Viewpoint F is objectively superior to the others.  Calling Viewpoints A, D, and G “conservative” and Viewpoints C and F “liberal,” as we might today, fails to identify fundamentally racist positions as unacceptable.  The traditional spectrum also ignores the importance of conducting thorough and accurate analyses.  Our traditional political categorization tools falsely suggest that truth and morality are relative.  In most cases, like the case of Michael Brown, they very clearly aren’t.

If we instead evaluate viewpoints using the veil of ignorance and a thorough analysis of the facts, we will more easily identify the root causes of disagreements.  We will also be forced to focus our conversations around ethical considerations and honest dialogue.  Over time, we could potentially revolutionize the way we discuss politics.

Note: The Huffington Post published a version of this post on Tuesday, September 23.

2 Comments

Filed under Philosophy, Poverty and the Justice System, Race

On Education and Poverty, and How We Talk About Them (Part 3b)

StudentsFirst Vice President Eric Lerum and I recently began a debate about approaches to teacher evaluation.  During Part 2 of that debate, the conversation touched on the relationship between anti-poverty work and education reform.  We resume that conversation below.

Here were the relevant parts of our original exchange, in case you missed it:

Lerum: The larger point that is made repeatedly is that because outside factors play a larger overall role in impacting student achievement, we should not focus on teacher effectiveness and instead solve for these other factors. This is a key disconnect in the education reform debate. Reformers believe that focusing on things like teacher quality and focusing on improving circumstances for children outside of school need not be mutually exclusive. Teacher quality is still very important, as Shankerblog notes. Improving teacher quality and then doing everything we can to ensure students have access to great teachers does not conflict at all with efforts to eliminate poverty. In fact, I would view them as complementary. But critics of these reforms use this argument to say that one should come before the other – that because these other things play larger roles, we should focus our efforts there. That is misguided, I think – we can do both simultaneously. And as importantly in terms of the debate, no reformer that I know suggests that we should only focus on teacher quality or choice or whatever at the expense or exclusion of something else, like poverty reduction or improving health care.

Spielberg: I believe you discuss [a] very important question…Given that student outcomes are primarily determined by factors unrelated to teaching quality, can and should people still work on improving teacher effectiveness?

Yes!  While teaching quality accounts for, at most, a small percentage of the opportunity gap, teacher effectiveness is still very important.  Your characterization of reform critics is a common misconception; everyone I’ve ever spoken with believes we can work on addressing poverty and improving schools simultaneously.  Especially since we decided to have this conversation to talk about how to measure teacher performance, I’m not sure why you think I’d argue that “we should not focus on teacher effectiveness.”  I am critiquing the quality of some of StudentsFirst’s recommendations – they are unlikely to improve teacher effectiveness and have serious negative consequences – not the topic of reform itself.  I recommend we pursue policy solutions more likely to improve our schools.

Critics of reform do have a legitimate issue with the way education reformers discuss poverty, however.  Education research’s clearest conclusion is that poverty explains inequality significantly better than school-related factors.  Reformers often pay lip-service to the importance of poverty and then erroneously imply an equivalence between the impact of anti-poverty initiatives and education reforms.  They suggest that there’s far more class mobility in the United States than actually exists.  This suggestion harms low-income students.

As an example, consider the controversy that surrounded New York mayor Bill de Blasio several months ago.  De Blasio was a huge proponent of measures to reduce income inequality, helped reform stop-and-frisk laws that unfairly targeted minorities, had fought to institute universal pre-K, and had shown himself in nearly every other arena to fight for underprivileged populations.  While it would have been perfectly reasonable for StudentsFirst to disagree with him about the three charter co-locations (out of seventeen) that he rejected, StudentsFirst’s insinuation that de Blasio’s position was “down with good schools” was dishonest, especially since a comprehensive assessment of de Blasio’s policies would have indisputably given him high marks on helping low-income students.  At the same time, StudentsFirst aligns itself with corporate philanthropists and politicians, like the Waltons and Chris Christie, who actively exploit the poor and undermine anti-poverty efforts.  This alignment allows wealthy interests to masquerade as advocates for low-income students while they work behind the scenes to deprive poor students of basic services.  Critics argue that organizations like StudentsFirst have chosen the wrong allies and enemies.

I wholeheartedly agree that anti-poverty initiatives and smart education reforms are complementary.  I’d just like to see StudentsFirst speak honestly about the relative impact of both.  I’d also love to see you hold donors and politicians accountable for their overall impact on students in low-income communities.  Then reformers and critics of reform alike could stop accusing each other of pursuing “adult interests” and focus instead on the important work of improving our schools.

Lerum: So I’m beginning to understand where some of the miscommunication is coming from. You speak a lot about how you view StudentsFirst’s (and other reformers’) discussion of poverty from the perspective of what you expect us to talk about, rather than from the perspective of our stated objectives. That is, what you deem as “lip service” is merely an acknowledgement of something that is not our primary focus. There are many folks in education reform – I have a few on my team – who could spend hours talking about poverty reduction and could very easily work in another field that more traditionally aligns with what you think of as efforts geared toward reducing poverty. But the route we’re taking is one where reducing poverty, achieving social justice, lifting the long-term opportunities for our country – they all intersect. And therefore what we focus on at StudentsFirst are the policy levers – what we think of as levers for reform or change. For example, creating the conditions for other reforms to flourish or for educators and school leaders to use their resources more wisely (fiscal transparency, structuring smarter compensation systems, creating more school-level autonomy) are levers, whereas something like instituting a STEM program or increasing funding for social and mental health services would be specific programs or initiatives. Both are great for kids. Both are needed in order to ultimately reduce poverty. But we’re squarely focused on the former, while critics seem to be expecting we would focus on the latter. This disconnect is made worse though because critics seem to believe that an approach that involves initiatives is the only way to combat poverty. There’s a lack of appreciation and understanding of what’s intended by reform efforts that target levers.

Spielberg: I actually wasn’t talking about the distinction between levers and initiatives; I was talking about accurate messaging and political activity.

My two critiques from above (rephrased and with my questions for you added) were:

1) StudentsFirst leaders and board members frequently suggest that education can improve the lives of low-income kids as much or more than alleviating poverty.  That suggestion is demonstrably false.  You could say the following, but don’t: “Research is clear that school-related factors cannot fix the achievement gap, but it’s also clear that schools make a difference.  They seem to account for about 20% of student achievement, and our organization believes we can maximize the impact of this 20% with an intense focus on certain policy levers.  We fully support other organizations that work on the anti-poverty efforts that are most important for low-income kids.”  Why won’t you speak honestly about the limitations and relative importance of the reforms you push when compared with other efforts?

2) Relatedly, StudentsFirst supports politicians (besides just Chris Christie, who I discussed above) who substantially harm some of the neediest kids: your preferred candidates have rejected the Medicaid expansion, slashed education spending, tried to prevent immigrants from enrolling in school, and actively discriminated against LGBT youth (though you finally withdrew support for your 2013 “education reformer of the year” after intense public pressure).  StudentsFirst says on your website that the candidates you support “have demonstrated a commitment to policies that prioritize student interests;” I find this assertion at best myopic, and at worst deliberately misleading.  How can you reconcile StudentsFirst’s candidate support with the fact that, on the whole, many of these candidates cause significant harm to low-income and minority students?

I appreciate, as you mentioned in a comment on Part 2 of this conversation, that you “created a school-based mental health program and piloted a half-dozen evidence-based mental/social/emotional health programs” in DC, and I’d love to talk more about the other issues you raised in your response, but I think your thoughts on the above points and questions are most relevant to typical reformer critiques.

Lerum: On the policy discussion, I would just end with this then. Saying that education can’t solve the achievement gap is demonstrably false only works if you base it on the education system we have now. To say that today’s education system cannot and has not solved the problem of poverty or the problem of the achievement gap thus far is correct. It’s also correct that in 60 years we haven’t solved the problem of segregation. But I got into this work because, like every reformer I know, I believe completely that we can do better than this. We don’t even know what’s possible because we haven’t actually tried. We’ve never run a public school system at scale completely differently. We’re not very good at breaking the mold of a model that hasn’t worked. But there are reasons – an increasing body of research – to believe that if we do, we just might get somewhere. That’s a theory of change. You can disagree with it. But you do not have the evidence that it won’t work because everything that’s been tried or done thus far has been done within some confines or under some of the restraints of the existing system. There are many limitations, that’s true. I think we’ve done a pretty good job of talking about those limitations through our advocacy work.

I would also add that there’s little evidence that other approaches that are championed as counters to reform will have a tremendous impact on kids either. I would love to see this “comprehensive assessment of de Blasio’s policies” that you spoke of earlier – but it doesn’t exist. Rather, there is simply a different theory of change – that certain other levers, be they class size or overall funding or whatever will have a greater impact than reforms we’re advocating for. What we need is a way to model, using rigorous research, what the potential impact of various reforms would be. That doesn’t exist right now either. But what I’m trying to get you to agree to here is that by attacking one side as only having a theory that’s not proven while not acknowledging that the anti-reform side isn’t exactly operating with a track record of success seems to me to be disingenuous, but more importantly, allows opponents to occupy this space wherein they own the debate on what’s good for solving poverty, what the right approach is to combat social ills, etc. And I just believe that way of thinking hasn’t gotten us very far and doesn’t advance social change.

As to the political issues you raise – we consistently say that we will support public officials who support the policies we believe are right for kids. I understand you have issues with our agenda – but there’s nothing inconsistent about a single-issue organization supporting candidates that support and will advocate for their issues. That almost always means as an organization we will support candidates with whom I may not agree with on a personal level when it comes to any number of other issues. But that is not unique to StudentsFirst and I do not think it is reasonable to expect us to answer for their stances on other issues or to ask them to change their stance on other issues. The issues we prioritize are those on our policy agenda and we work to stick with that approach, as do countless other organizations in other fields.

Spielberg: While I would agree with you (and said in Part 1 of our conversation) that the research on many in-school reforms is mixed, the suggestion that you seem to be making – that school-based reforms alone could potentially solve the opportunity gap – is contradicted by existing research and logic.  Research has never attributed more than one-third of the variation in student outcomes to school-based factors, we know that “children from rich and poor families score very differently on school readiness tests when they enter kindergarten,” and there is even “some evidence that achievement gaps between high- and low-income students actually narrow during the nine-month school year, but they widen again in the summer months.”  Though I suppose it’s theoretically possible that these studies are wrong, that could be said about almost anything, and the findings you link about teacher attrition and charters in no way support that conclusion.  Our knowledge about the disadvantages of growing up in poverty and the past several decades of research suggest that this theoretical possibility is negligible, which is why I called that statement demonstrably false.

I certainly understand the sentiment behind what you’re saying – we are in agreement that we haven’t yet maximized education’s contribution to anti-poverty efforts, and I think it’s important to remember and highlight that fact – but all the evidence points to a relatively low upper bound on what education reforms alone can accomplish.  Recognizing that anti-poverty work matters more than schools does not preclude us from arguing that what happens in schools is very important for low-income kids.

I really appreciate having had this conversation and want to thank you again for going back-and-forth with me, but I believe we’re at a bit of an impasse.  My questions deal with the out-of-school factors, like having access to health care, that very clearly matter for low-income students, and I don’t think your response addresses the issues I raised.  You’re absolutely right that StudentsFirst isn’t alone in narrowing its policy focus, but the fact that other organizations also do so doesn’t qualify as a defense of that approach.  Talking about what’s “right for kids” means considering more than just education policy.

As I’ve pointed out to critics of typical reform efforts before, I think it would be reasonable for reform organizations to focus their professional advocacy on school-based approaches to the opportunity gap if you did two things:

1) Acknowledge that the best school-based reforms imaginable, while important, would likely only be able to solve 20% to, at most, 33% of the problem.

2) Avoid undermining the anti-poverty work that can address a larger percentage of the opportunity gap.

I don’t believe that StudentsFirst currently does those two things, but I will leave it up to our readers to decide which arguments they find more compelling.

Leave a comment

Filed under Education, Poverty and the Justice System

A Person Among Machines

34justice’s first guest author is David Fischer, a student at Harvard Medical School and a Howard Hughes Medical Institute medical research fellow.  In this piece, David discusses how physicians navigate “the gray zone between life and death” when they interact with patients on life support.  David studies the effects of noninvasive brain stimulation on movement and cognition and has authored several articles pertaining to neuroscience research, philosophy, and medicine. He has a B.S. from Haverford College, where he studied psychology and philosophy.

David Fischer

David Fischer

The attending physician sat at the foot of the patient’s bed, while I stood watching. He was smiling, but the look in his eyes conveyed far more kindness than his mouth or words could. He reached for the patient’s hand, which was contorted into a strained position, and took it in his. “You’re a lovely gentleman,” the doctor said, his voice quiet but firm. “It’s my pleasure to meet you.” The patient turned his eyes to meet the doctor’s gaze, his neck twisted and cocked at a sharp angle. The patient said nothing, and could say nothing, but kept his eyes fixed on the doctor’s. Several moments passed in silence, punctuated only by the mechanical sighs of the patient’s ventilator and the rhythmic beeping of nearby monitors. The doctor gave the patient’s hand a final squeeze, smiled, and led me from the room.

There was something remarkable about this encounter. It was, in some sense, a mundane scenario: a physician evaluating a patient with spastic paralysis, altered level of consciousness and dependence upon a ventilator. So what made the doctor’s attitude towards the patient so striking?

Treating patients with diminished consciousness and dependence upon life-sustaining technology poses unique challenges to the cultivation of humanity in patient care. In many areas of medicine, the distinction between life and death is roughly dichotomous. When alive, patients can often interact, remember past experiences, and demonstrate their personality. Following a fatal event, the transition between life and death, from a person to a body, often occurs quickly, save for relatively brief alterations in mentation. However, the technology that has permitted modern life-sustaining treatment, such as mechanical ventilation, has complicated this distinction. Following a severe neurologic insult, patients such as the one we encountered can remain in this transition for prolonged periods of time. Patients with disorders of consciousness or severe dementia may appear to lack the memories and personality that made them who they were in life. Yet, by mechanically preserving basic physiologic functions, we can ward off death. In this way, these technologies, though undoubtedly important, can suspend patients in a gray zone between life and death.

For physicians who care for patients in this gray zone, the encounters can be uncomfortable. The ability to interact with people, a skillset developed through years of human experience, is difficult to apply in these circumstances. The moments alone with such patients can be haunting, as one greets the patient by name and then awaits a response. As the silence lengthens, the patient may seem neither alive nor dead, like a ghost of his or her formal self. When the expectant silence is broken only by the mechanical sounds of equipment, technology can feel like the only presence.

Doctors who regularly encounter experiences such as these may come to treat these patients like bodies, like sets of physiologic processes as inanimate as the technology the patients rely upon. This is not to say that such patients are not treated with respect, but that the respect is similar to that paid to a body in a funeral home. This is an approach that protects the doctor’s psyche in several ways. For one, the doctor must often purposefully inflict pain on patients in order to gauge the extent of neurologic impairment. To summon the strength to deliberately injure a fellow, vulnerable person requires a forceful violation of empathy in what can be an emotionally harrowing task.  To do so to a human body – to transform the ‘experience of pain’ into a ‘noxious stimulus’ – is much more manageable. Moreover, the prognosis in disorders of consciousness can often be poor, and the range of therapeutic options is often limited, rendering the physician largely powerless. With patients viewed as bodies, however, the physician is afforded emotional distance from these tragedies, and the instances of clinical improvement are all the more gratifying. Ultimately, for many physicians, eliminating humanism from these interactions is emotionally protective in the care of these patients.

This context is what made the encounter between the doctor and his patient so powerful. It was not merely that the doctor sat at the patient’s side, was polite, or maintained eye contact. We have all learned to do these things. What was striking was the attitude that appeared to underlie these behaviors: despite the patient’s altered level of consciousness and dependence upon life-sustaining technology, the doctor treated the patient like a full person. The doctor, with no expectation of reciprocation or gratitude, was willing to take the time to speak to and hold hands with a person who may not have understood these gestures. The doctor’s time, however, was the least of his sacrifices; by approaching the patient as a person, he rendered himself vulnerable to the emotional hazards of care, from the discomfort of inflicting pain to the powerlessness associated with management.

In addition to emotional fortitude, the doctor’s willingness to treat the patient as a person reflected a poignant wisdom. Much of the discomfort associated with treating patients in this state stems from confronting the gray zone between life and death. Our binary concepts of life and death provide us comfort, distancing us from the thought of mortality. However, life-sustaining technologies challenge this dichotomy, and threaten the view that the line between ourselves and death is a sharp one. In such cases, it can be easier to circumvent these existential discomforts by treating these patients as bodies, dedicating more attention to the monitors and ventilation settings than to the person before us. This doctor, however, was able and willing to appreciate the spectrum between life and death, and in doing so could comfortably recognize, within that spectrum, an ill person in need of compassion. He could recognize someone who was more than the mechanics upon which he relied. This wisdom ultimately empowered him to accept the emotional sacrifices of care and, as was clear to me in that room, allowed him to see a person when few else dared to see more than machines.

3 Comments

Filed under Medicine, Philosophy

Cooks, Chefs, and Teachers: A Long-Form Debate on Evaluation (Part 3a)

StudentsFirst Vice President Eric Lerum and I have been debating teacher evaluation approaches since my blog post about why evaluating teachers based on student test scores is misguided and counterproductive.  Our conversation began to touch on the relationship between anti-poverty activism and education reform conversations, a topic we plan to continue discussing.  First, however, we wanted to focus back on our evaluation debate.  Eric originally compared teachers to cooks, and while I noted that cooks have considerably more control over the outcomes of their work than do teachers, we fleshed that analogy out and continue discussing its applicability to teaching below.

Click here to read Part 1 of the conversation.

Click here to read Part 2 of the conversation.

Lerum: I love the analogy you use for this simple reason – I don’t think we’re as interested in figuring out whether the cook is an “excellent recipe-follower” as we are about whether the cook makes food that tastes delicious. And since we’re talking about the evaluation systems themselves – and not the consequences attached (which by and large, most jurisdictions are not using) – then this really matters. The evaluation instrument may reveal that the cook is not an “excellent recipe follower,” which you gloss over. But that’s an important point. It could certainly identify those cooks that need to work on their recipe-following skills. That’s helpful in creating better cooks.

But taking your hypothetical that it identifies someone who can follow a recipe well and executes our strategies, but then the outcome is still bad – that is also important information. It could cause us to re-evaluate the recipe, the meal choice, certain techniques, even the assessment instrument itself (do the people tasting the food know what good food tastes like?). But all of those would be useful and significant pieces of information that we would not get if we weren’t starting with an evaluation framework that includes outcomes measures.

You clearly make the assumption that nobody would question the evaluation instrument or anything else – if we had this result for multiple cooks, we would just keep going with it and assume it’s the cooks and nothing else. But that’s an unreasonable assumption that I think is founded on a lack of trust and respect for the intentions underlying the evaluation. What we’re focused on is identifying, improving, rewarding, and making decisions based on performance. And we want accurate measures for doing so – nobody is interested in models that do not work. That’s why you constantly see the earliest adopters of such models making improvements as they go.

Also, to clarify, we do not advocate for the “use of standardized test scores as a defined percentage of teacher evaluations.” I assume you probably didn’t mean that literally, but I think it’s important for readers to understand the difference as it’s a common and oft-repeated misconception among critics of reform. We advocate for use of measures of student growth – big difference from just using the scores alone. It doesn’t make any sense to evaluate teachers based on the test scores themselves – there needs to be some measure (such as VAM) of how much students learn over time (their growth), but that is not a single snapshot based on any one test.

I appreciate your recommendation regarding the use of even growth data based on assessments, but again, your recommendation is based on your opinion and I respectfully disagree, as do many researchers and respected analysts (also see here and here – getting at some of the issues you raise as concerns, but proposing different solutions). To go back to your analogy, nobody is interested in going to a restaurant run by really good recipe-followers. They want to go where the food tastes good. Period. Likewise, no parent wants to send her child to a classroom taught by a teacher who creates and executes the best lesson-planning. They want to send their child to a classroom in which she will learn. Outcomes are always part of the equation. Figuring out the best way to measure them may always have some inherent issues with subjectivity or variability, but I believe removing outcomes from the overall evaluation itself betrays to some degree the initial purpose.

Spielberg: I think there’s some confusion here about what I’m advocating for and critiquing.  I’d like to reiterate what I have consistently argued in this exchange – that student outcomes should be a part of the teacher evaluation process in two ways:

1) We should evaluate how well teachers gather data on student achievement, analyze the data, and use the data to reflect on and improve their future instruction.

2) We should examine the correlation between the effective execution of teacher practices and student outcome results.  We should then use the results of this examination to revise our instructional practices as needed.

I have never critiqued the fact that you care about student outcomes and believe they should factor heavily into our thinking – on this point we agree (I’ve never met anyone who works in education who doesn’t).  We also agree that it is better to measure student growth on standardized test scores, as value added modeling (VAM) attempts to do, than to look at absolute scores on standardized tests (I apologize if my earlier wording about StudentsFirst’s position was unclear – I haven’t heard anyone speak in favor of the use of absolute scores in quite some time and assumed everyone reading this exchange would know what I meant).  Furthermore, the “useful and significant pieces of information” you talk about above are all captured in the evaluation framework I recommend.

My issue has always been with the specific way you want to factor student outcomes into evaluation systems.  StudentsFirst supports making teachers’ VAM results a defined percentage of a teacher’s “score” during the evaluation process, do you not?  You highlight places, like DC and Tennessee, that use VAM results in this fashion.  Whether or not this practice is likely to achieve its desired effect is not really a matter of opinion; it’s a matter of mathematical theory and empirical research.  I’ve laid out why StudentsFirst’s approach is inconsistent with the theory and research in earlier parts of our conversation and none of the work you link above refutes that argument.  As you mention, both Matt Di Carlo and Douglas Harris, the authors of the four pieces you linked, identify issues with the typical uses of VAM similar to the ones I discuss.  Their main defense of VAM is only to suggest that other methods of evaluation are similarly problematic; Harris discusses a “lack of reliability in essentially all measures” and Di Carlo notes that “alternative measures are also noisy.”  There is, however, more recent evidence from MET that multiple, full-period classroom observations by multiple evaluators are significantly more reliable than VAM results.  While Di Carlo and Harris do have slightly different opinions than me about the role of value added, Di Carlo’s writing and Harris’s suggestion for evaluation on the whole seem far closer to what I’m advocating than to StudentsFirst’s recommendations, and I’d be very interested to hear their thoughts on this conversation.

That said, I like your focus above on what parents want, and I think it’s a worthwhile exercise to look at the purposes of evaluation systems and how our respective proposals meet the desires and needs of different stakeholders.  I believe evaluation systems have three primary purposes: providing information, facilitating support, and creating incentives.

1) Providing Information – You wrote the following:

…nobody is interested in going to a restaurant run by really good recipe-followers. They want to go where the food tastes good. Period. Likewise, no parent wants to send her child to a classroom taught by a teacher who creates and executes the best lesson-planning. They want to send their child to a classroom in which she will learn.

The first thing I’d note is that this juxtaposition doesn’t make very much sense; students taught by teachers who create and execute the best lesson-planning will most likely learn quite a bit (assuming that the teachers who are great lesson planners are at least decent at other aspects of good teaching). In addition, restaurants run by really good recipe-followers, if the recipes are good, will probably produce good-tasting food.  Good outputs are expected when inputs are well-chosen and executed effectively.

The cooking analogy is a bit problematic here because, in the example you give, the taste of the food is both the ultimately desired outcome and the metric by which you propose to assess the cook’s output.  In the educational setting, the metric – VAM, in the case of our debate – is not the same as the desired output.  In fact, VAM results are a relatively weak proxy for only a subset of the outcomes we care about for kids (those related to academic growth).  To construct a more appropriate analogy for judging a teacher on VAM results, let’s consider a chef who works in a restaurant where we want to eat dinner.  We are interested, ultimately, in the overall dining experience we will have at the restaurant. A measurement tool parallel to VAM, one that gives us a potentially useful but very limited picture of only one aspect of the experience other diners had, could be other diners’ assessments of the smell of the chef’s previous meals.

This analogy is more appropriate because the degree to which different diners value different aspects of a dining experience is highly variable.  All diners likely care to some extent about a combination of the food selection, the sustainability of their meal, the food’s taste, the atmosphere, the service, and the price.  Some, however, might value a beautiful, romantic environment over the taste of their entrees, while others may care about service above all else.  Likewise, some parents may care most about a classroom that fosters kindness, some may prioritize the development of critical thinking skills, and others may hold content knowledge in the highest esteem.

Were I to eat at a restaurant, I’d certainly get some information from knowing other diners’ assessments of previous meals’ smells.  Smell and taste are definitely correlated and I tend to value taste above other considerations when I’m considering a restaurant.  Yet it’s possible that other diners like different kinds of food than me, or that their senses of smell were affected by the weather or allergies when they dined there.  Some food, even though it smells bad, tastes quite good (and vice versa).  If I didn’t look deeper and really analyze what caused the smell ratings, I could very easily choose a sub-optimal restaurant.

What I’d really want to know would be answers to the following questions: what kind of food does the chef plan to make?  Does he source it sustainably?  Is it prepared to order?  Is the wait-staff attentive?  What’s the decor like?  The lighting?  Does the chef accommodate special requests?  How does the chef solicit feedback from his guests, and does he, when necessary, modify his practices in response to the feedback?  If diners could get information on the execution in each of these areas, they would be much better positioned to figure out whether they would enjoy the dining experience than if they focused on other diners’ smell ratings.  A chef who did all of these things well and who used Bayesian analysis to add, drop, and refine menu items and restaurant practices over time would almost certainly maximize the likelihood that future guests would leave satisfied.  A chef with great smell ratings might maximize that probability, but he also might not.

The exact same reasoning applies to the classroom experience.  Good VAM results might indicate a classroom that would provide a learning experience appropriate for a given student, but they might not.  Though I will again note that you don’t advocate for judging teachers solely on VAM, VAM scores tend to be what people focus on when they’re a defined percentage of evaluations.  That focus, again, does not provide very good information.  Whether parents value character development, inspiration, skill building, content mastery, or any other aspect of their children’s educational experience, they would get the best information by concentrating on teacher actions. If a parent knows a teacher’s skill – at establishing a positive classroom environment, at lesson planning, at lesson delivery, at using formative assessment to monitor student progress and adapt instruction, at helping students outside of class, etc. – that parent will be much more informed about the likelihood that a child will learn in a teacher’s class than if that parent focuses attention on the teacher’s VAM results.

2) Facilitating support – A chef with bad smell ratings might not be a very good chef.  But if that’s the case, any system that addressed the questions above – that assessed the chef’s skill at choosing recipes, sourcing great ingredients, making food to order, training his wait-staff, decorating his restaurant, responding to guest feedback, etc. – should also give him poor marks.  Bad results that truly signify bad performance, as opposed to reflecting bad luck or circumstances outside of the chef’s control, are the result of a bad input.  The key idea here is that, if we judge chefs on input execution but monitor outputs to make sure the inputs are comprehensive and accurate, judging chefs on their smell ratings won’t give us any additional information about which chefs need support.

More importantly, making smell ratings a defined percentage of a chef’s evaluation would not help a struggling chef improve his performance.  No matter the other components of his evaluation, he is likely to concentrate primarily on the smell ratings, feel like a failure, and have difficulty focusing on areas in which he can improve.  If we instead show the chef that, despite training the waitstaff well, he is having trouble selecting the best ingredients, we give him an actionable item to consider.  “Try these approaches to selecting new ingredients” is much easier to follow and much less demoralizing a directive than “raise your smell ratings.”

I think the parallel here is pretty clear – if we define and measure appropriate teaching inputs and use outcomes in Bayesian analysis to constantly revise those inputs, making VAM a defined percentage of an evaluation provides no new information about which teachers need support.  Especially because VAM formulas are complex statistical models that aren’t easily understood, the defined-percentage approach also focuses the evaluation away from actionable improvement items and towards the assignment of credit and blame.

3) Creating Incentives – Finally, a third goal of evaluation systems is related to workforce incentives.  First, we often wish to reward and retain high-performers and, in the instances in which support fails, exit consistently low-performers.  For retention and dismissal to improve overall workforce quality, we must base these decisions on accurate performance measures.

I don’t think the incomplete information provided by VAM results and smell ratings needs rehashing here; the argument is the same as above.  We are going to retain a higher percentage of chefs and teachers who are actually excellent if our evaluation systems focus on what they control than if our incentives focus on outputs over which they have limited impact.

Of particular concern to me, however, are the incentives teachers have for working with the highest-need populations.  Even efforts that take great pains to “level the playing field” between teachers with different student populations result in significantly better VAM results for teachers and schools that work with more privileged students.  Research strongly suggests that teachers who work in low-income communities could substantially improve their VAM scores by moving to classrooms with more affluent populations (and keeping their teaching quality constant).  When we make VAM results a defined percentage of an evaluation, we provide incentives for teachers who work with the highest-need populations to leave.  The type of evaluation I’m proposing, if we execute it properly, would eliminate this perverse incentive.

Again, I want to reiterate that I support constantly monitoring student outcomes; we should evaluate teachers on their ability to modify instruction in response to student outcomes, and we should also use outcomes to continuously refine our list of great teaching inputs.  But we rely on evaluation systems to provide accurate and comprehensive information, to help struggling employees improve, and to provide appropriate incentives.  VAM can help us think about good teaching practices, but StudentsFirst’s proposed use of VAM does not help us accomplish the goals of teacher evaluation.

Part 3b – in which we return to our discussion about the relationship between anti-poverty work and education reform – will follow soon!

Update (8/21/14) – Matt Barnum alerted me to the fact that the article I linked above about efforts to “level the playing field” when looking at VAM results actually does provide evidence that “two-step VAM” can eliminate the bias against low-income schools.  That’s exciting because, assuming the results are replicable and accurate, this particular VAM method would eliminate one of the incentive concerns I discussed.  However, while Educators 4 Excellence (Barnum’s organization) advocates for the use of this method, I don’t believe states currently use it (if you know of a state that does, please feel free to let me know).  The significant other issues with VAM would also still exist even with the use of the two-step version.

5 Comments

Filed under Education

Eric Lerum and I Debate Teacher Evaluation and the Role of Anti-Poverty Work (Part 2)

StudentsFirst Vice President Eric Lerum and I recently began debating the use of standardized test scores in high stakes decision-making.  I argued in a recent blog post that we should instead evaluate teachers on what they directly control – their actions.  Our conversation, which began to touch on additional interesting topics, is continued below.

Click here to read Part 1 of the conversation.

Lerum: To finish the outcomes discussion – measuring teachers by the actions they take is itself measuring an input. What do we learn from evaluating how hard a teacher tries? And is that enough to evaluate teacher performance? Shouldn’t performance be at least somewhat related to the results the teacher gets, independent of how hard she tries? If I put in lots of hours learning how to cook, assembling the perfect recipes, buying the best ingredients, and then even more hours in the kitchen – but the meal I prepare doesn’t taste good and nobody likes it, am I a good cook?

Regarding your use of probability theory and VAM – the problem I have with your analysis there is that VAM is not used to raise student achievement. So using it – even improperly – should not have a direct effect on student achievement. What VAM is used for is determining a teacher’s impact on student achievement, and thereby identifying which teachers are more likely to raise student achievement based on their past ability to do so. So even if you want to apply probability theory and even if you’re right, at best what you’re saying is that we’re unlikely to be able to use it to identify those teachers accurately on an ongoing basis. The larger point that is made repeatedly is that because outside factors play a larger overall role in impacting student achievement, we should not focus on teacher effectiveness and instead solve for these other factors. This is a key disconnect in the education reform debate. Reformers believe that focusing on things like teacher quality and focusing on improving circumstances for children outside of school need not be mutually exclusive. Teacher quality is still very important, as Shankerblog notes. Improving teacher quality and then doing everything we can to ensure students have access to great teachers does not conflict at all with efforts to eliminate poverty. In fact, I would view them as complementary. But critics of these reforms use this argument to say that one should come before the other – that because these other things play larger roles, we should focus our efforts there. That is misguided, I think – we can do both simultaneously. And as importantly in terms of the debate, no reformer that I know suggests that we should only focus on teacher quality or choice or whatever at the expense or exclusion of something else, like poverty reduction or improving health care.

If you’re interested in catching up on class size research, I highly recommend the paper published by Matt Chingos at Brookings, found here with follow-up here. To be clear about my position on class size, however; I’m not against smaller class sizes. If school leaders determine that is an effective way for improving instruction and student achievement in their school, they should utilize that approach. But it’s not the best approach for every school, every class, every teacher, or every child. And thus, state policy should reflect that. Mandating class size limits or restrictions makes no sense. It ties the hands of administrators who may choose to staff their schools differently and use their resources differently. It hinders innovation for educators who may want to teach larger classes in order to configure their classrooms differently, leverage technology or team teaching, etc. Why not instead leave decisions about staffing to school leaders and their educators?

The performance framework for San Jose seems pretty straightforward. I’m curious how you measure #2 (whether teachers know the subjects) – are those through rigorous content exams or some other kind of check?

I think a solid evaluation system would include measures using indicators like these. But you would also need actual student learning/growth data to validate whether those things are working – as you say, “student outcome results should take care of themselves.” You need a measure to confirm that.

I honestly think my short response to all of this would be that there’s nothing in the policies we advocate for that prevent what you’re talking about. And we advocate for meaningful evaluations being used for feedback and professional development – those are critical elements of bills we try to move in states. But as a state-level policy advocacy organization, we don’t advocate for specific models or types of evaluations. We believe certain elements need to be there, but we wouldn’t be advocating for states to adopt the San Jose model or any other specifically – that’s just not what policy advocacy is. So I think there’s just general confusion about that – that simply because you don’t hear us saying to build a model with the components you’re looking for, that must mean we don’t support it. In fact, we’re focused on policy at a level higher than the district level, and design and implementation of programs isn’t in our wheelhouse.

Spielberg: I believe you discuss three very important questions, each one of which deserves some attention:

1) Given that student outcomes are primarily determined by factors unrelated to teaching quality, can and should people still work on improving teacher effectiveness?

Yes!  While teaching quality accounts for, at most, a small percentage of the opportunity gap, teacher effectiveness is still very important.  Your characterization of reform critics is a common misconception; everyone I’ve ever spoken with believes we can work on addressing poverty and improving schools simultaneously.  Especially since we decided to have this conversation to talk about how to measure teacher performance, I’m not sure why you think I’d argue that “we should not focus on teacher effectiveness.”  I am critiquing the quality of some of StudentsFirst’s recommendations – they are unlikely to improve teacher effectiveness and have serious negative consequences – not the topic of reform itself.  I recommend we pursue policy solutions more likely to improve our schools.

Critics of reform do have a legitimate issue with the way education reformers discuss poverty, however.  Education research’s clearest conclusion is that poverty explains inequality significantly better than school-related factors.  Reformers often pay lip-service to the importance of poverty and then erroneously imply an equivalence between the impact of anti-poverty initiatives and education reforms.  They suggest that there’s far more class mobility in the United States than actually exists.  This suggestion harms low-income students.

As an example, consider the controversy that surrounded New York mayor Bill de Blasio several months ago.  De Blasio was a huge proponent of measures to reduce income inequality, helped reform stop-and-frisk laws that unfairly targeted minorities, had fought to institute universal pre-K, and had shown himself in nearly every other arena to fight for underprivileged populations.  While it would have been perfectly reasonable for StudentsFirst to disagree with him about the three charter co-locations (out of seventeen) that he rejected, StudentsFirst’s insinuation that de Blasio’s position was “down with good schools” was dishonest, especially since a comprehensive assessment of de Blasio’s policies would have indisputably given him high marks on helping low-income students.  At the same time, StudentsFirst aligns itself with corporate philanthropists and politicians, like the Waltons and Chris Christie, who actively exploit the poor and undermine anti-poverty efforts.  This alignment allows wealthy interests to masquerade as advocates for low-income students while they work behind the scenes to deprive poor students of basic services.  Critics argue that organizations like StudentsFirst have chosen the wrong allies and enemies.

I wholeheartedly agree that anti-poverty initiatives and smart education reforms are complementary.  I’d just like to see StudentsFirst speak honestly about the relative impact of both.  I’d also love to see you hold donors and politicians accountable for their overall impact on students in low-income communities.  Then reformers and critics of reform alike could stop accusing each other of pursuing “adult interests” and focus instead on the important work of improving our schools.

2) How can we use student outcome data to evaluate whether an input-based teacher evaluation system has identified the right teaching inputs?

This concept was the one we originally set out to discuss.  I’d love to focus on it in subsequent posts if that works for you (though I’d love to revisit the other topics in a different conversation if you’re interested).

I’m glad we agree that “a solid evaluation system would include [teacher input-based] measures…like [the ones used in San Jose Unified].”  I also completely agree with you that we need to use student outcome data “to validate whether those things are working.”  That’s exactly the use of student outcome data I recommend.  Though cooks probably have a lot more control over outcomes than teachers, we can use your cooking analogy to discuss how Bayesian analysis works.

We’d need to first estimate the probability that a given input – let’s say, following a specific recipe – is the best path to a desired outcome (a meal that tastes delicious).  This probability is called our “prior.”  Let’s then assume that the situation you describe occurs – a cook follows the recipe perfectly and the food turns out poorly.  We’d need to estimate two additional probabilities. First, we’d need to know the probability the food would have turned out badly if our original prediction was correct and the recipe was a good one.  Second, we’d need the probability that the food would have turned out poorly if our original prediction was incorrect and the recipe was actually a bad one.  Once we had those estimates, there’s a very simple formula we could use to give us an updated probability that the input – the recipe – is a good one.  Were this probability sufficiently low, we would throw out the recipe and pick a new one for the next meal.  We would, however, identify the cook as an excellent recipe-follower.

This approach has several advantages over the alternative (evaluating the cook primarily on the taste of the food).  Most obviously, it accurately captures the cook’s performance.  The cook clearly did an excellent job doing what both you and he thought was a good idea – following this specific recipe – and can therefore be expected to do a good job following other recipes in the future.  If we punished him, we’d be sending the message that his actual performance matters less than having good luck, and if we fired him, we’d be depriving ourselves of a potentially great cook.  Additionally, it’s not the cook’s fault that we picked the wrong cooking strategy, so it’s unethical to punish him for doing everything we asked him to do.

Just as importantly, this approach would help us identify the strategies most likely to lead to better meals in the long run.  We might not catch the problem with the recipe if we incorrectly attribute the meal’s taste to the cook’s performance – we might end up continuously hiring and firing a bunch of great cooks before we realize that the recipe is bad.  If we instead focus on the cook’s locus of control – following the recipe – and use Bayesian analysis, we will more quickly discover the best recipes and retain more cooks with recipe-following skills.  Judging cooks on their ability to execute inputs and using outcomes to evaluate the validity of the inputs would, over time, increase the quality of our meals.

Let’s now imagine the analogous situation for teachers.  Suppose a school adopts blended learning as its instructional framework, and suppose a teacher executes the school’s blended learning model perfectly.  However, the teacher’s value added (VAM) results aren’t particularly high.  Should we punish the teacher?  The answer, quite clearly, is no; unless the teacher was bad at something we forgot to identify as an effective teaching practice, none of the explanations for the low scores have anything to do with the teacher’s performance.  Just as with cooking, we might not catch a real problem with a given teaching approach if we incorrectly attribute outcome data to a teacher’s performance – we might end up continuously hiring and firing a bunch of great teachers based on random error, a problem with an instructional framework, or a problem with VAM methodology.

The improper use of student outcome data in high-stakes decision-making has negative consequences for students precisely because of this incorrect attribution.  Making VAM a defined percentage of teacher evaluations leads to employment decisions based on inaccurate perceptions of teacher quality.  Typical VAM usage also makes it harder for us to identify successful teaching practices.  If we instead focus on teachers’ locus of control – effective execution of teacher practices – and use Bayesian analysis, we will more quickly discover the best teaching strategies and retain more teachers who can execute teaching strategies effectively.  Judging teachers on their ability to execute inputs and using outcomes to evaluate the validity of the inputs would, over time, increase the likelihood of student success.

3) As “a state-level policy advocacy organization,” what is the scope of StudentsFirst’s work?

You wrote that StudentsFirst “[doesn’t] advocate for specific models or types of evaluations” but believes “certain elements need to be there.”  One of the elements you recommend is “evaluating teachers based on evidence of student results.”  This recommendation has translated into your support for the use of standardized test scores as a defined percentage of teacher evaluations.  I was not recommending that you ask states to adopt San Jose Unified’s evaluation framework (as an aside, the component you ask about deals mostly with planning and, among other things, uses lesson plans, teacher-created materials, and assessments as evidence) or that you recommend across-the-board class size reduction (thanks for clarifying your position on that, by the way – I look forward to reading the pieces you linked).  Instead, since probability theory and research suggest it isn’t likely to improve teacher performance, I recommend that StudentsFirst discontinue its push to make standardized test scores a percentage of evaluations.  You could instead advocate for evaluation systems that clearly define good teacher practices, hold teachers accountable for implementing good practices, and use student outcomes in Bayesian analysis to evaluate the validity of the defined practices.  This approach would increase the likelihood of achieving your stated organizational goals.

Thanks again for engaging in such an in-depth conversation.  I think more superficial correspondence often misses the nuance in these issues, and I am excited that you and I are getting the opportunity to both identify common ground and discuss our concerns.

Click here to read Part 3a of the conversation, which focuses back on the evaluation debate.

Click here to read Part 3b of the conversation, which focuses on how reformers and other educators talk about poverty.

5 Comments

Filed under Education

What Did I Just Pay For?

One year down and the greater part of a decade to go. As a first year medical student, having finished class for a couple months has allowed for ample time to digest much of what happened to me over the last twelve months, I can’t help but ask the question: what did I just sign up to pay for?

Students aren’t afforded the time to process the new information, surroundings, and lifestyle that comes with being a med student—it just sort of happens to you whether you like it or not. Medical school confronts students with a unique problem from the very first day of class: too many teaching resources to learn from and not enough time to use them all. It is up to the student to determine the most efficient way to retain information and stick with it for the year. The problem is that different subjects require different types of learning—some rote memorization, others require more critical thinking and problem solving—so there isn’t a magic bullet for getting by. Most students would agree that the material offered in medical school is not particularly difficult, there is just a lot of it. A policy at my school, along with many other medical schools, is to record all lectures and to ease restraints on mandatory attendance. This decision has deep ramifications that may end up changing the face of not only medical school, but higher education in its entirety.

The motivation behind recording all lectures with the professor’s corresponding notes is presumably to make life easier on the students, and in doing so, move medical education into the 21st century. The theory is that if all students have the ability to go back and listen to old lectures surely test scores will rise, as will the scores for the all-important and ever-looming United States Medical License Exam (USMLE) Step 1, which is a national standardized test given to all medical students following completion of their second year.

I’m not complaining. Streamlining content and making it accessible from anywhere on the planet is certainly more beneficial to students than having to attend each lecture and furiously scribble notes while simultaneously attempting to comprehend what is being dictated. I have it easier than classes before me and classes after me will have it easier than me. This is a good thing.

Not all courses involve professors standing in a lecture hall speaking to students. There are several courses in which students are taught how to interact with patients, colleagues, and peers, as well as using small groups and teams to discuss and work through cases. These require the students to be present because some things—like interviewing patients and teamwork—just don’t translate to the digital world yet. While watching lectures at a time and place of my choosing I can pause, rewind, and increase the lecture speed to ensure that everything I need to spend more time on I can go over slowly, and material that I know well I can just skim through.

Every now and then a lecturer will get called into an emergency and cannot attend class, so the lecture from last year on the same topic will be posted online. This is also good. No classes are ever really canceled or postponed due to unforeseen circumstances because there is always the previous year’s lecture ready to be posted at a moment’s notice. Lectures that were canceled but would have discussed updated material to reflect new findings in the field would have an emailed addendum with the additional slides or lecture notes to reflect such changes.

During this year alone our class had over 20 lectures used from last year (out of over 450), most of which came during the unusually snowy winter. I appreciate the option to learn medicine while in my pajamas and not having to go to campus each day, but what if every class simply used the previous year’s recorded lectures and then addenda were sent out addressing the newest research or pertinent clinical findings so that students are current on the given topic? Since the vast majority of students don’t attend lectures anyway this would only affect 2 groups: the professors themselves and the students who do attend lectures in person. I am usually hesitant to call for automation at the expense of other people’s labor, salaries and livelihoods, but if it can be shown that the cost of paying the salaries for lecturers can be used on other important learning tools then I believe it is an interesting proposition. The average medical school tuition is over $40,000 per year with an average class size of 135 students, meaning about 8 full-time professors/faculty making $85,000 a year would need to be laid off in order to reduce tuition just $5,000/year per student. Keep in mind the cost of medical school is far greater than just tuition, and more accurately comes to $60,000 and upwards each year (with many students coming out owing well over $200,000) and does not even include interest. All of this to say that saving $5,000 or so on tuition each year is really only a drop in the bucket from a student’s perspective and money should be spent on technology and facilities that find innovative ways improve learning. Additionally, most of the professors do not teach full time but perform research on campus and use teaching as supplemental income (or it’s part of their contract), or hold other positions on the medical school staff such as advisors, committee members, etc. I’m sure many of the professors would prefer to spend more time in their laboratory and less time in front of students teaching, but would they really wish to do so at the expense of a decreased salary?

However, the real question is: if the vast majority of lectures are posted online, how far away is medical school from becoming an online degree? Facilities such as the simulation laboratory (a robot patient that interacts with student doctors and responds to treatments given), and micro and gross anatomy laboratories have difficulty translating into the virtual world, but with new technology we are not far from having a fully interactive human body that looks and responds to our scalpels in the same way that our actual cadavers do. As technology streamlines education, how will this affect students’ abilities to learn the required material? Most schools have the same core curriculum that covers standard topics that are required for the USMLE. Doesn’t it make sense to have a centralized database in which there are only a handful of professors lecturing on topics to every med student in the U.S.? This somewhat exists already for students studying for the USMLE exams. The vast majority of students use only a handful of resources to prepare for the test. Couldn’t this be adopted for actual school material throughout the year rather than only for USMLE prep?

Curriculum for U.S. med schools is not completely uniform, however, as a school in a rural area will be more likely to have classes that are geared towards illnesses afflicting the surrounding population than a school in an urban environment. This variation can also be accounted for in recorded lectures and shouldn’t deter the schools from adopting more online-only content.

The reasons for having a physical campus for medical school is to be able to put in face time with peers to create a sense of community and attend the occasional classes in which groups of students are required debate and discuss case studies. Extracurricular activities and student groups also need places to meet. Students should meet with their advisors and professors for office hours, although I will admit that the increasing ease and frequency of video conferencing programs such Skype makes this less pressing. Students need to be face to face with their “mock patients” when conducting interviews and physical exams, but even the traditional doctor-patient relationship is becoming a thing of the past. As of this point, learning the hands-on aspects of becoming a physician cannot be substituted for an internet connection. In the same vein, gross anatomy needs to be attended by students because getting close to the cadavers is an important experience that means more than just learning to cut flesh and identify organs. It is important to strip away much of the excessive or redundant amount of information coming at the student, yet keep the humanistic and emotional aspect of learning to become a more complete physician intact.

The physical med school will require adequate study space, but a library with books is certainly not as necessary as it once was. As a matter of fact, I recently received an email from my school notifying all students that librarian hours will be cut to 20 hours per week due to the lack of student demand. Of course the library will remain open 24/7 but faculty and staff will no longer be available for as many hours. With almost all textbooks having digital formats, less and less space will be needed on bookshelves but students should have the opportunity to order physical books through their library, or a central library in a city or region. I began college in 2004 and all textbooks in biology were over 500 pages, weighed 10 lbs. and cost hundreds of dollars with a new addition of the book arriving every other year, making the books resale value almost nil. My younger brother recently graduated from college studying biology and all of his textbooks were digital, much cheaper, contained animations of biological pathways and reactions, and have the added benefit of being able to download updates so that the book always has the newest material. This is how the new generation of doctors will be studying. I still like the feel of paper between my fingers but there’s no reason to prefer it beyond familiarity and nostalgia. Digital formats are superior in every aspect except maybe they’re a little harsher on the eyes (but that could also be because I didn’t grow up staring at monitors).

The med school of the future still needs to contain conference rooms and an auditorium for notable lecturers or guest speakers so that more ears can be reached rather than speaking to a mostly empty room but with a digital camera pointed at the speaker. Something needs to be said about being in the presence of a great speaker who can advocate passionately about their novel ideas, and the sound of clapping that gives energy to a room can really make their notions hit home.

Ultimately if students are doing 80% of their learning in front of their computer screen is there a point where administrators have to be careful so that students don’t start to ask, “am I getting my money’s worth?”

If more schools develop online-only learning tools, how will teachers and professors be viewed by society? Will they be marginalized in their own classroom and become relegated to only answering the sparse questions from the student that can’t find his answer on Google? Will this shift free up more time for professors at higher institutions to pursue their own research or projects regardless of the field? These are the questions that medical schools will begin to face as more universities begin to shift their content into online databases that can be accessed by enrolled students as well as the public.

As tuition skyrockets and students are saddled with hundreds of thousands of dollars of debt, many feel as though they need to make up for lost time not spent earning a paycheck in the workforce and become highly specialized physicians. Highly specialized physicians are great when there is a pressing need for them, but the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) reports that there will be a shortfall of 45,000 primary care physicians by 2020 so more needs to be done to incentivize students to pursue more broad (and often lower paying) types of doctors. There is also projected to be a shortfall of specialty physicians, but if primary care is emphasized in America, the use of specialty physician will wane as diseases and other illnesses will be caught and treated earlier rather than being able to progress to more difficult-to-treat stages which ends up increasing health insurance premiums across the board.

Another effort to lower costs of medical school is being explored by New York University, and having a 3 year medical degree. Although this is a new frontier for U.S. schools, where is the incentive for a private university to completely forego millions of dollars from its students by axing a year of payable tuition? This is another example where the profit-motive and efficient and effective healthcare do not coincide. The medical school industry, much like healthcare in the U.S., needs to reduce costs but maintain its efficiency in pumping out quality physicians. There is a difference between taking shortcuts and cutting corners and right now medical schools in the U.S. aren’t doing either, which is hurting both medical students as well as the future delivery of healthcare in America. The shortsightedness of the medical education system is forcing students to rack up enormous amounts of debt which ultimately will end up harming the population decades down the line either because the debt will discourage enrollment, or students will feel compelled to pursue higher-paying specialties rather than serving in a more utilitarian role. Medical schools would be wise to implement cost-saving measures that may prove to enhance student training while by embracing the latest technological advances. In many circumstances bloated industries and less-effective methods would be phased out by new and cheaper start-ups. In the highly regulated medical school field this type of progress is impeded by old ways of thinking and layers upon layers of bureaucracy. The last thing anybody wants to think walking out of the supermarket, a car dealership, or a campus is, “What did I just pay for?”

2 Comments

Filed under Education, Medicine

Paid Sick Leave and the Three Lenses of Policy Analysis

Some political debates have two equally valid sides.  More often than not, however, the evidence is significantly more one-sided than journalists and pundits suggest.  AB 1522, a bill that the California Senate’s Committee on Appropriations just shunted into its Suspense File for consideration on August 14, is an example of legislation for which there is no ethical, intellectually honest opposition.  Three related lenses of policy analysis demonstrate why AB 1522’s minimum requirement of three paid sick days for all California workers deserves our support.

The ethical lens: The debate about paid sick leave, at its core, is about values.  It is undisputed that high percentages of low-income workers, particularly women and Latinos, currently lack the access to paid sick leave enjoyed by more privileged populations.  Supporters of a guaranteed minimum number of days recognize that low-income workers must often decide between working through illness and leaving bills unpaid.  Nobody should have to make that choice.

Opposition to guaranteed paid sick days, on the other hand, elevates considerations of employer profit and flexibility above the job security and subsistence of sick low-income workers.  No matter its professed motivation, therefore, anti-paid sick day activism is immoral by most people’s standards.

The factual lens: Few opponents of AB 1522 explicitly state a disregard for the plight of the working poor.  Instead, they call the bill a “job killer,” enumerating a long list of reasons that guaranteed paid sick leave will allegedly harm working Americans.  Some of the listed reasons are obvious fabrications; for example, the idea that employers who already offer paid sick leave “will have to completely change their existing policies and accounting procedures” is directly contradicted by the law’s provision that “an employer is not required to provide additional paid sick days…if the employer…makes available an amount of leave that satisfies the accrual requirements.”

Other opposition arguments, though slightly more time-consuming to debunk, are no less untrue.  To contend that AB 1522 “will reduce jobs,” its detractors, like those who oppose paying employees a living wage, embrace an economic theory that’s inconsistent with the facts.  Even studies that rely exclusively on the unverified assertions of employers fail to suggest negative economic consequences of paid sick leave laws.  The first report opponents of AB 1522 attempt to marshal in support of their claims concludes only that it was “too early to make a definitive judgment about” the economic effects of Connecticut’s paid sick leave law in February 2013.  A more comprehensive study of the Connecticut law’s effects in March 2014 notes:

“most employers reported a modest effect or no effect of the law on their costs or business operations; and they typically found that the administrative burden was minimal.  [Despite] strong business opposition to the law prior to its passage, a year and a half after its implementation, more than three-quarters of surveyed employers expressed support for the earned paid sick leave law.”

The findings from the opponents’ second citation, a 2011 report from the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, similarly contradict their claims.  The study finds that “most San Francisco employers reported that implementing the [city’s Paid Sick Leave Ordinance] was not difficult and that it did not negatively affect their profitability.”  While “a relatively small share of employers and employees” reported negative effects, the study concludes that the law “is functioning as intended.”  Just about every study on the economic effects of paid sick leave legislation, in fact, refutes the myths propagated by opponents of the laws.  Research studies also clearly demonstrate “that gaps in paid sick leave result in severe impacts on public health.”  This clear consensus helps explain why “the rest of the world’s rich economies have taken a legislative approach to ensuring paid sick days.”

The political lens: Despite the clear ethical arguments, research consensus, and overwhelming public support in favor of guaranteed paid sick day laws, several states have passed bills that preempt cities’ attempts to enact such legislation.  In 2008, a more robust sick leave bill (AB 2716) died after ending up in the Suspense File of the California Senate’s Committee on Appropriations, the same place in which AB 1522 currently resides.  A coalition of corporate lobbyists, led by chambers of commerce and the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), is responsible.  This coalition has, in the words of David Sirota, successfully recast their “desire to exploit workers as fight-for-the-little guy altruism” by confusing the public and politicians with a relentless stream of unfounded claims.

A simple analysis of the broader advocacy decisions and agendas of the parties to a debate can help us assess the likely veracity of each party’s claims.  For several years now, the corporate coalition that opposes AB 1522 has been systematically “reshaping the fundamental balance of power between workers and employers.”  They have misled the public about a wide variety of issues and maintain clear power and profit motives for misleading the public about sick leave.  People unfamiliar with the specifics of AB 1522 could compare the backgrounds of its opponents with its supporters (typically academics, labor organizations, and other groups that advocate for low-income people) and recognize that proponents of AB 1522 are significantly more likely to be telling the truth.  This political lens heuristic isn’t failsafe – first impressions can be wrong and even the worst organizations sometimes endorse correct policy decisions – but it always provides valuable perspective.  Funding sources and political allies are especially important indicators of truth when topics involve complex research findings and/or similar ethical arguments from each side of a debate.

On the issue of guaranteed paid sick leave, however, each of the three lenses – ethical, factual, and political – is extremely straightforward; if anything, the three days required by AB 1522 are too few.  California lawmakers should rectify their predecessors mistakes and move the bill forward on August 14.

Note: Versions of this post originally appeared on The Left Hook and The Huffington Post.

Update (8/30/14): An amended version of the bill that “would exempt in-home caregivers from the requirement” has “cleared the legislature.”  The SEIU and other unions pulled their support because of the unnecessary and unethical exemption, and I believe they were correct to do so.

2 Comments

Filed under Business, Labor