Monthly Archives: August 2015

What’s the Best Way to Deal with the Ku Klux Klan?

On the recommendation of my friend and colleague Mike Mitchell, I recently listened to a fascinating podcast about Daryl Davis, an award-winning musician who is best known for his role in bringing down the Maryland chapter of the Ku Klux Klan – through his friendship with Klan members.  In the podcast, Davis describes how, while playing country music in a bar in 1983, a White man approached him and expressed that he had never heard a Black man “play as well as Jerry Lee Lewis.”  The two men struck up a conversation, during which Davis discovered that his counterpart was a card-carrying member of the KKK.

Amazingly, Davis befriended the man.  Nearly a decade later, he decided that he wanted to meet more KKK members.  When experiencing overt forms of personal racism throughout his life, Davis had always wondered how people could harbor animosity towards him – without knowing him – just because of the color of his skin, and he believed that talking to members of the KKK could help him understand this phenomenon.

Davis had his secretary set up an interview with Roger Kelly, the head of the Maryland KKK at the time, and, after a tense initial encounter, Davis became friends with Kelly as well.  In the years thereafter, he developed relationships with several other high-ranking KKK members.  During each of his encounters with them, Davis listened closely to what they had to say.  He would challenge the Klansmen – when Kelly referenced the Bible during his initial interview, for example, Davis would pull out a copy of the Bible and ask Kelly to show him the relevant passages that ostensibly supported racism – but he remained polite and friendly while doing so.  Over time, as the Klansmen got to know Davis, many of their prejudiced (and factually incorrect) beliefs about Black people began to erode.  Eventually, some of the highest-ranking members in Maryland left the Klan and the organization itself dissolved.

I have deep respect and awe for what Davis did and how much he accomplished.

I would characterize Davis’s approach – politely disagreeing with Klansmen in order to break down stereotypes over time – as the “long game.”  It’s about changing people’s minds and attitudes in the long run, and, if successful, pays huge dividends.

At the same time, the long game is remarkably time-intensive.  It’s also very risky – there’s no guarantee of eventual success, and in the short run, the Klan has relatively free reign to terrify and oppress a whole lot of people.

An alternative approach – the “short game” – prioritizes protecting the oppressed over changing the mindsets of oppressors.  The short game is about checking people in power.  That often means stating, in very clear terms, that certain viewpoints are unacceptable, and that there will be consequences for people who espouse them in public.

There’s obviously some tension here between the short game and the long game, between laying down speech and policy that protect the oppressed right now and keeping the oppressors listening so they might in fact eventually change.  I generally play the short game with a few elements of the long game incorporated – I love to engage with those with racist opinions, and I am happy to listen to what they have to say, but I differ from Davis in that I won’t say “we disagree” when I’m talking about a Klan member; instead, I’ll say that the Klan member is ethically and factually wrong, and that he shouldn’t be allowed to hold his intimidation rallies (I’ve long made a similar case when it comes to LGBT issues, too).

I like to think that there is an appropriate balance to be struck between both tactics, but I struggle a lot with it.  I want Klansmen to know (and society to acknowledge) that we don’t have mere differences of opinion – the Klan is definitively wrong about race and their incorrect and unethical viewpoint harms large numbers of people.  At the same time, telling people their views are wrong and bigoted and preventing them from expressing them publicly is likely to cause them to tune out and feel more resentment, no matter how much I insist (genuinely) that I am interested in talking to them and hearing what they have to say.

There’s definitely a difference between calling a viewpoint bigoted and calling a person bigoted, but part of me thinks there’s a lot of value in tying viewpoints to identity, especially in terms of the social pressure that can bring for people to curtail open forms of oppression.  And I’m generally willing to accept some tuning out from oppressors, if it means that society will stop giving them a microphone and label racism and bigotry what it is.  I tend to think that helping a few people change is less important than making sure they don’t harm anyone, and that, absent an amplifier for oppressors’ views, reason and compassion will become much more prevalent in the next generation.

All of that said, I recognize that my White privilege allows me to advocate for this approach with little fear of repercussion, whereas Davis would very likely be labeled an Angry Black person if he were to adopt my strategy today (and if he tried it with Roger Kelly, he almost certainly would have ended up dead).  I question whether my preferred tactic for confronting racism is most appropriate in large part because it’s available to me only as part of a menu of relatively consequence-free options that may be unavailable to my Black friends.

In short, I would be very interested in hearing Davis’ and others’ thoughts on my tendencies in this space, and on whether or not there’s a better way to reconcile the tension between the pursuit of short-run protection for the oppressed and long-run change in the oppressors.


Filed under Philosophy, Race and Religion

Is VAM a Sham? Depends on the Question You’re Asking.

  1. “Does data source X provide useful information?” and
  2. “Should data source X be used for purpose Y?”

are two very different questions.  Unfortunately, conflation of these questions by education researchers, writers, and advocates far too frequently results in bad policy recommendations.

This problem surfaces especially often in debates about value added modeling (VAM), a statistical method aimed at capturing a teacher’s effectiveness in the classroom.  Based on a new paper from economists Raj Chetty, John Friedman, and Jonah Rockoff, Andew Flowers writes, in response to question 1 above, that we’re pretty good at “the science of grading teachers” with VAM results.  Flowers weighs in on question 2 as well, arguing that Chetty et al.’s work means that “administrators can legitimately use value-added scores to hire, fire and otherwise evaluate teacher performance.”

In terms of question 1, the idea that VAM research indicates that we’re pretty good at “grading teachers” is itself debatable.  Flowers doesn’t conduct an extensive survey of researchers or research, but focuses on six well-known veterans of VAM debates, including several of the more outspoken defenders of the metric (Chetty and Thomas Kane specifically; Friedman, Rockoff, and Douglas Staiger are also longtime VAM supporters).  While many respected academics caution about VAM’s limitations and/or have more nuanced positions on its use, Jesse Rothstein is the only one Flowers cites.

In fact, whether VAM estimates are systematically biased (Rothstein’s argument) or not (Chetty et al.’s contention), there are legitimate questions about whether VAM results are valid (whether or not they are really capturing “teacher effectiveness” in the way that most people think about it).  VAM estimates correlate surprisingly little with other measures aimed at capturing effective teaching (like experts’ assessments of classroom instruction).  They’re also notoriously unstable, meaning that a teacher’s scores bounce around a lot depending on the year and test studied.  While other methods of evaluating teacher effectiveness have similar issues and there are certain approaches to VAM (not commonly used) that are more useful than others, it’s perfectly reasonable to argue that we’re still pretty bad at “grading teachers.”

More importantly, however, debates about bias, validity, and stability in VAM actually have much less to do with the answer to question 2 – should we use VAM to evaluate teachers in the way its proponents recommend? – than many people think.  To understand why, we need look no farther than two of the core purposes of teacher evaluation, purposes which everyone from teachers unions to education reform organizations generally agree about (at least rhetorically).

1) One core purpose of teacher evaluation is helping teachers improve. Making VAM results a defined percentage of a teacher’s evaluation is not useful for this purpose even if we assume VAM results are unbiased, valid, and stable.  Such a policy may actually undermine teacher improvement, and hence the quality of instruction that students receive.

For starters, a VAM score is opaque.  Teachers cannot match their VAM results back to specific questions on a test or use them to figure out what their students did or didn’t know.  VAM may be able to tell a teacher if her students did well or poorly on a specific test, but not why students did well or poorly.  In other words, a VAM score provides no actionable feedback. It does not indicate anything about what a teacher can do to help her students learn.

In addition, VAM results are outcomes over which a teacher has very limited control – research typically finds that teachers contribute to less than a fifth of the variation in student test scores (the rest is mostly random error and outside-of-school factors).  If a teacher’s VAM results look good, that might be because the teacher did something well, but it also might be because the teacher got lucky, or because some other factor contributed to her students’ success.  The tendency to view VAM results as indicative of whether or not a teacher did a good job – a common side effect of making VAM results a defined percentage of a teacher’s evaluation – is thus misguided (and a potential recipe for the reinforcement of unhelpful behaviors).  This concern is especially germane because VAM results are often viewed as “grades” by the teachers receiving them – even if they are only a small percentage of a teachers’ evaluation “score” – and thus threaten to overwhelm other, potentially productive elements of an evaluation conversation.

A better evaluation system would focus on actionable feedback about things over which a teacher has direct control.  Student performance should absolutely be included in the teacher evaluation process, but instead of making VAM a defined percentage of a teacher’s evaluation (part of a “grade”), evaluators should give teachers feedback on how well they use information about student performance to analyze their teaching practices and adapt their instruction accordingly.  This approach, unlike the approach favored by many VAM proponents, would help a teacher improve over time.

2) A second core purpose of teacher evaluation is to help evaluators make personnel decisions. Relative to the evaluation system described above – one that focuses on actions over which a teacher has control – making VAM results a defined percentage of teacher evaluations does not help us with this purpose, either.  Suppose a teacher gets a bad VAM result.  If that result is consistent with classroom observation data, the quality of assigned work, and various other elements of the teacher’s practice, an evaluator shouldn’t need it to conclude that the teacher is ineffective.

If there is a discrepancy between the VAM result and the other measures, on the other hand, there are a few possibilities.  The VAM results might have been unlucky.  The teaching practices the teacher employed might not be as useful as the teacher or evaluator thought they would be.  Or perhaps VAM isn’t a very good indicator of teacher quality (there’s also a possibility that the various other measures aren’t good indicators of teacher quality, but the measures suggested all have more face validity – meaning that they’re more intuitively likely to reflect relevant information – than do VAM results).  Under any of these alternative scenarios, using VAM results as a defined percentage of a teacher’s evaluation makes us more likely both to fire teachers who might actually be good at their jobs and to reward teachers who might not be.

When we evaluate schools on student outcomes, we reward (and punish) them for factors they don’t directly control. A more intelligent and fair approach would evaluate the actions schools take in pursuit of better student outcomes, not the outcomes themselves.

Relative to teacher evaluation systems that focus on things over which a teacher has direct control, using VAM results as a defined percentage of a teacher’s evaluation makes us more likely both to fire teachers who might actually be good at their jobs and to reward teachers who might not be.

To be fair, question 1 could have some relevance for this purpose of teacher evaluation; if VAM results were an excellent indicator of teaching quality (again, they aren’t, but let’s suspend disbelief for a moment), that would negate one of the concerns above and make us more confident in using VAM for reward and punishment.  Yet even in this case the defined-percentage approach would hold little if any advantage over the properly-designed evaluation system described above in helping administrators make personnel decisions, and it would be significantly more likely both to feel unfair to teachers and to result in a variety of negative consequences.

I’ve had many conversations with proponents of making VAM a defined percentage of teacher evaluations, and not a single one has been able to explain why their approach to VAM is better than an alternative approach that focuses on aspects of teaching practice – like creating a safe classroom environment, lesson planning, analyzing student data, and delivering high-quality instruction – over which teachers have more control.

So while the answer to question 1 in the case of VAM is that, despite its shortcomings, it may provide useful information, the answer to question 2 – should VAM results be used as a defined percentage of teacher evaluations? – is a resounding “no.”  And those who understand the crucial distinction between the two questions know that no amount of papers, articles, or researcher opinions, however interesting or useful for other purposes they may be, is ever going to change that fact.


Filed under Education

Black Lives Matter Movement Gives Bernie Sanders’ Racial Justice Agenda the Push It Needs

Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders has unveiled a comprehensive racial justice agenda aimed at “addressing the four central types of violence waged against black and brown Americans: physical, political, legal and economic.”  The agenda includes, among other policy proposals, a call for police demilitarization, community policing, aggressive prosecution of police officers who break the law, the re-enfranchisement of those with criminal records, banning for-profit prisons, eliminating mandatory minimum sentences, automatic voter registration, making Election Day a national holiday, youth employment programs, free college, and pay equity legislation.  Sanders also has an excellent record on racial justice issues, much better than any other candidate running for president.

In the 1960s, while a young Hillary Clinton was supporting Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater – an outspoken opponent of civil rights legislation – in his quest for the presidency, Sanders was leading protests against police brutality and segregated schools and housing, marching in the March on Washington, and working as an officer for the Congress of Racial Equality.  His voting record while in Congress, first as a Representative (1990-2005) and then as a Senator (2006-Present), has earned him consistently excellent marks from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).  The NAACP has given Sanders 100% ratings on its Legislative Report Cards for the entirety of his time in the Senate and near-100% or 100% ratings during his time in the House for, among many other things, voting in favor of strengthening the Voting Rights Act, anti-discrimination laws, and hate crimes legislation and against the death penalty, stringent sentencing guidelines for those caught up in the criminal justice system, and the welfare reform law of 1996 (the only blip on his record is gun control, an issue on which he admittedly has a mixed voting history, though his stance on the issue is much more sensible than many of his detractors contend).

A 20-year-old Bernie Sanders helps organize a protest of housing segregation in properties owned by the University of Chicago in the 1960s (via

In the 1960s, a 20-year-old Bernie Sanders helps organize a protest of housing segregation in properties owned by the University of Chicago (via

Because of that excellent record, a number of Sanders supporters have been upset by Black Lives Matter protests targeting Sanders.  Sanders supporters’ frustration seems to be borne out of two observations.  First, Sanders’ passion for economic justice – raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour, breaking up the big banks, making our tax system more progressive, advancing single-payer health care – is intimately connected with a passion for racial justice.  Income, wealth, and opportunity inequality in this country disproportionately affect communities of color, and a commitment to addressing them is in many ways in and of itself indicative of a view that Black Lives Matter.

Second, and relatedly, Sanders has received a disproportionate amount of attention from protesters relative to Hillary Clinton and Republican candidates, who have almost-uniformly worse records and stances (the one exception may be Clinton on gun control) on issues affecting Black Americans (in fact, Sanders has what is by far the best record of any prominent candidate on civil and human rights across the board; he has long been a strong ally on issues affecting Latinos, the LGBT community, women, and poor people around the world).  Sanders supporters wonder why Black Lives Matter is applying pressure primarily to the candidate most sympathetic to their cause.

I myself am a strong Sanders supporter and find these observations relevant, but they miss a few crucial points.  For one thing, while racial and economic justice are intimately connected, they are not the exact same thing.  As Jennifer Roesch puts it in an excellent article for Jacobin:

It is certainly true that the struggle against racism today must entail a radical program of economic demands…It is also clear that such reforms would benefit the entire working class and reduce income inequality. But such demands cannot be delinked from, or stand in the place of, explicit demands around racism…

Fighting economic inequality is insufficient — any challenge to capital has to be coupled with race-specific demands for reform. Jobs programs would have to include affirmative-action policies and a prohibition on discrimination on the basis of a criminal record; fights to expand funding for public hospitals, schools, and services would have to recognize the specific needs of black communities hollowed out by decades of deindustrialization and neglect; and housing policies would need to explicitly target practices such as redlining and predatory lending.

The crisis faced by black America is also not solely economic — it is also a social crisis. Mass incarceration, police violence, and resegregation have devastated black communities…

This fight will require forging a unity not by collapsing the fight against racism into a broader class fight for economic equality, but by highlighting the central role of racism and making it a concern of the entire working class.

Black Lives Matter protesters wanted Sanders’ campaign to stop treating racial justice as an inevitable byproduct of economic justice.  They wanted Sanders to instead promote a specific racial justice platform complementary to his economic justice agenda, and they had every right to demand that he do so.

While I also hope to see Black Lives Matter turn the pressure up on Clinton and the Republican candidates in the weeks and months to come, criticisms of their tactics thus far – targeting Sanders and “taking over” some of his speaking events – are in my view off base.  Black Lives Matter is the type of grassroots people’s movement that Sanders prides himself on representing; he was a good first target precisely because he’s a natural ally and the candidate most likely to respond to such a protest with a policy agenda addressing its legitimate concerns.  Writing about the first protest at Netroots Nation, Joe Dinkin captured it best:

Here’s one stab at a better response [Sanders] could have given [to the Black Lives Matter protesters]: “We need a democratic revolution, and you are part of it. I admire your courage in speaking up. I learned of the troubling death of a black woman in police custody, and, yes, I will say her name: Sandra Bland. I will say her name because black lives matter. I admit I don’t have all the answers. But your fight is my fight. For dignity and equality for all. I need you to fight with me and help me learn. Together we can change both politics and culture and ensure that black lives matter…”

This constituency is demanding to have the issues of structural racism and police violence taken up within the political system…They’re forcing Sanders and other candidates to respond on an issue that it seems like they would have preferred to avoid. If Sanders responds by joining in their fight, they’ve pushed the Movement for Black Lives into the presidential debate and into the mainstream of [American] progressive politics—from which they currently and justifiably feel left out.

This is fair game, and an approach that fans of Bernie Sanders should understand…For people who simply wanted to hear the candidates answer questions and present their stump speeches, there are plenty of opportunities for candidates to share positions on the issues—at least on the ones they’re not ducking…The Black Lives Matter agenda is not the only issue of moral urgency, but it most certainly is one of them. All progressives should applaud activists who took the opportunity to push it forward.

It is quite possible that, were it not for the Black Lives Matter movement, Sanders’ racial justice agenda would not yet exist.  That it contains excerpts like the following is telling:

“At the federal level we need to establish a new model police training program that reorients the way we do law enforcement in this country. With input from a broad segment of the community including activists and leaders from organizations like Black Lives Matter we will reinvent how we police America.”

So we have two groups to thank for Sanders’ ambitious racial justice platform. Sanders and his campaign staff absolutely deserve credit for unleashing it and for being allies in the movement. Black Lives Matter deserves the bulk of the credit, however, not just for pushing the conversation on this issue forward, but also for reminding us that even the best presidential candidate won’t be able to enact the change we need without a constructively critical social movement behind him.

Update (8/11/15): The original version of this post included the following paragraph as part of the block quote from Roesch’s article:

As the historical record shows, we cannot assume that reductions in the overall level of inequality will trickle down to African Americans. In the golden age of postwar American capitalism, an era to which many left-liberals yearn to return, economic inequality was much lower than it is today, but there was no corresponding decrease in racial inequality. If anything, it was even starker — in 1959, more than half of black families lived in poverty, while 15 percent of white families did.

While it is certainly true that a strong economy on its own has never come close to eliminating racial disparities in economic outcomes, the wording in this paragraph implies that outcomes for Black Americans did not improve during “the golden age of postwar American capitalism,” an implication which is incorrect (big thanks to Dean Baker for pointing out this issue).  In fact, a growing body of evidence shows that a strong economy is especially important for Black workers.


Filed under 2016 Presidential Election, Poverty and the Justice System, Race and Religion