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The Cruel Irrelevance of Education Reform

Frederik deBoer points to a good piece by Pasi Sahlberg, a Finnish education expert, on the difficulties of applying Finland’s education methodology to the United States.  Unfortunately, even if we do everything right, we’re unlikely to duplicate Finland’s success:

Research on what explains students’ measured performance in school remains mixed. A commonly used conclusion is that 10% to 20% of the variance in measured student achievement belongs to the classroom, i.e., teachers and teaching, and a similar amount is attributable to schools, i.e., school climate, facilities and leadership. In other words, up to two-thirds of what explains student achievement is beyond the control of schools, i.e., family background and motivation to learn.

That is shocking, and yet it’s unsurprising it’s rarely heard in debates about education policy.  It was a neat little refrain during the Bush era that “the facts have a liberal bias”, and in many cases this is true.  But the actual facts on education have an unmistakably conservative valence, and that is the cruel fact that there’s only so much that technocracy can do here.  Let’s leave aside the complicated questions about teaching practice and methodology and focus on the analysis of variance – even if all the teachers in America were instantly transformed into perfect teachers, headline results on education quality wouldn’t change very much.

The problem gets worse – actually figuring out what works educationally is extremely difficult.  Child psychology is a difficult field, and anyone who says they know “what works” in the classroom is trying to sell you something.  There are no solved answers to the question of what makes a good teacher, unfortunately – and standardized tests are probably a relatively poor gauge to teacher quality.  Almost certainly, in fact – if the analysis of variance is correct, it will be very difficult to pick out the teacher’s effect from their student’s results even if the test is an accurate estimator of educational attainment.  Which is a big if!

So while education reform has become the favored cause of rich American liberals these days, it’s a problem uniquely poorly-suited for solutionism and a technocratic approach.  The signals are extremely noisy, and the feedback loops between policy and effect are both slow and weak.  It does explain why educational reformers have mostly focused on crushing unions – it’s one of the only areas where they can achieve something visible, even if the causal link between union-busting and educational success is totally unclear.  But the larger drivers of poor educational results lie well outside the realm of available solutions – better educational results wouldn’t just require more charter schools or ending tenure, but a substantial overhaul of America’s social order.  I suspect that as the ambiguous results of the education reform movement continue, these donors will find more productive ways to put their money to use.

Sponsored Content, Propaganda, & Public Behavior

Andrew Sullivan has been on a tirade recently against “sponsored content”.  His latest target – pro-Israel “advertorials” placed in Buzzfeed by ReThink Israel, an organization run by Sheldon Adelson.

It is generally assumed that propaganda is successful, but this relies on strong assumptions about media consumption and public opinion.  In order to actually affect behavior, a few links are necessary.  People must read or watch a given piece of media, people must process the media, people must remember the media, it must flow through in a non-trivial fashion to their expressed political beliefs, and finally it must actually change their actions.  In order to actually affect politics, the change in belief must be substantial enough for at least some people to alter their patterns of activism, donation, or voting.

This could be successful, but I’m pretty dubious.  Mr. Adelson spent a great deal of money (as much as $150M) on the 2012 election.  This was money spent in very short time period, on a single issue, with a very clear call to action – vote for Mitt Romney a few weeks from now.  He helped saturate the airwaves for a relatively small group of voters in swing states, again covering a very short time frame and with extremely strong messaging about how Barack Obama will destroy freedom & Israel.  There seems to be no noticeable change in the election directly attributable to Mr. Adelson’s spending.  In fact, as far as anybody can tell the money was basically wasted.  These milquetoast advertisements about how Israel is great to visit (accurate)

It’s not clear what the takeaway is for the Buzzfeed crowd.  On the one hand, given that it is so unlikely to have any sort of consequences on public opinion they can take the money with a clean conscience.  On the other, the fact that it has so little real weight makes it a more gratuitous insult to their journalistic ethics.  For those of you without much love for Adelson, you should probably feel relieved that he is blowing his money on such ineffectual things.

Responsibility in Campaign Donations

There’s a great story in the Washington Post today about the Tea Party and their “political activism”.  The Tea Party, as it turns out, is a highly efficient mechanism for converting anger from senior citizens into second homes for political professionals.  The numbers are absolutely staggering – “Out of the $37.5 million spent so far by the PACs of six major tea party organizations, less than $7 million has been devoted to directly helping candidates”.  The rest is going into “expenses”, namely lining the pockets of the people running the show.  Often the play isn’t a high director salary, but funneling it into “consulting fees” paid to a firm coincidentally owned by the director.

There needs to be some sort of a standard for political donations – something like the model for rating charities.  Too many of the dollars that go into politics are just wasted and channeled into the pockets of charlatans.  I think there’s a real value for something like the “stamp of approval” that certifies that a given political organization is actually spending most of its money on political activists.  Maybe it’s time to learn how to use the Sunlight Foundation API…

SF’s Unstable Housing Equilibrium

Much as I hate to say it, TechCrunch has a surprisingly thoughtful and insightful piece on the housing crisis in San Francisco.  I loved living in San Francisco, and what’s happening there makes me sad.  Unfortunately, I think that rather than a realistic reassessment of housing policies, it is more likely that the city will drift into a de facto historical museum inhabited solely by the rich.

However, the endgame seems fairly obvious to me.  There will be some insightful mayor somewhere on the Peninsula who realizes the deadweight loss generated by restrictive housing policies in SF and the Peninsula.  Backed by huge amounts of real estate dollars, he steamrolls over NIMBYs and throws the gate open to development in his municipality.  Skyscrapers start rocketing up and urbanization (or “Manhattanization”, as SF residents disdainfully call it) takes place in the blink of an eye.  VC money and residents start flowing in, and in the space of a few years the nexus of energy and investment has moved from Palo Alto and SF to our new tech metropolis.  My guess is one of the relatively worse-off towns or cities mostly missed by the tech boom – perhaps South San Francisco?

The current equilibrium is unstable, and price pressures are building to incredible levels.  And if a trend is unsustainable, it will stop.  Either the tech industry will leave the Bay Area, or someone somewhere will break the dam on development and reap the rewards.  The latter simply seems more likely.

As a side note – if “anti-capitalist” protestors are currently fighting a development that replaces a Burger King with mixed market-priced and affordable-housing, it seems like their priorities got awfully strange along the way.

The Impossible Dream of Federalized Education

On pure policy terms, I like the idea of federalizing education spending, as Felix Salmon.  It will almost certainly result in more educational equity, a good thing in and of itself.  In terms of knock-on effect, it’s definitely a good thing that federal money usually comes with strings attached.  It is unlikely to affect states like Massachusetts that take education seriously already, and seems like a good way to prod Mississippi and Alabama in better directions.  It is unlikely that Deep South state governments will take a deep interest in the education of poor black children without an awful lot of federal coercion.

That being said, I worry that the political economy of federalized education spending is unsustainable.  Property taxes are an inherently unfair way to fund schools and virtually guarantee that education will be inequitably provided.  But it does serve the very important function of a clear and visible social contract, where residents are both funding and receiving public goods.  If you’ve ever lived in a state like New Hampshire, with “donor” and “receiver” districts, you know that redistribution of school funding can make politics pretty bitter and divisive.  Taking it to a federal level will make this problem worse, in much the same way that the fight over healthcare has gone – people with money and power really hate redistribution.

Furthermore, education spending is a form of social investment, and the federal government generally seems to underinvest.  Just look at the generally-deplorable levels of public infrastructure.  If we can’t trust the federal government to adequately provide structurally sound bridges and roads, how can we expect them to adequately prepare the minds of the next generation.  Especially given that metrics of education quality are necessarily more abstruse and poorly understood, it is a lot easier for the feds to skimp on spending without immediately seeing worse results.  The looser feedback loop (compared to, say, collapsing bridges) suggests that the federal government won’t be particularly responsive to declining education quality resulting from budget cuts.

I don’t know that there’s a first-best resolution to this issue.  Locally funded education has a lot of problems, principal among them inequity.  This is both an inequity of resources and of attention – well-educated districts are likely not only to be wealthier, but more committed to the principle of generously-funded schools, and inequality is entrenched on many levels.  On balance, federalizing the system might work somewhat better – but it’s not immediately apparent that’s the case.  And even if equity rises, I think it’s entirely possible that overall school quality falls a lot.  One result of our extremely unequal status quo is a relatively large number of very good suburban public schools that would be devastated by the loss of resources.  This is a policy issue with a pretty rough political economy, and while there are better possible worlds out there it’s definitely not immediately clear how we get there from here.

“Hashtag Activism” or Hashtag “Activism”?

I was vaguely aware of the little #CancelColbert Twitter tempest-in-a-teapot. Sorry, should I say #TwitterTeapotTempest?  Apparently while mocking Dan Snyder’s miserable efforts to make “Washington Redskins” socially acceptable, Colbert (in character) used some words that annoyed some people.  So a young “hashtag activist” struck out to #CancelColbert.  She obviously didn’t succeed in anything but getting some people riled up and earning herself some marvelous publicity.  Which kudos to her, I suppose.  No such thing as bad (free) press.

I’ve never understood the intended mechanism of action for “hashtag activism”.  By this I mean the use of social media to rally around some sort of sentiment and then…what?  In this case, it consisted of one “activist” grabbing a lot more followers and some headlines for herself.  As far as I understand, the implicit model for this tactic is:

  1. Make provocative statements and hit Twitter’s trending list
  2. ???
  3. Profit!

The aim certainly can’t be to change minds, because Twitter is mainly used for communicating with pre-existing ideological communities.  It can’t be to spread awareness generally, for the same reason.  It could plausibly be defended as a method for ideological activation or to increase issue salience in order to drive real actions.  But in order for that the plausible mechanism of political change, a furious Twitter campaign needs to be followed up by…actions.  Organizing a boycott of Colbert’s advertisers, for example.  But this wasn’t happening because said activist’s goal wasn’t even to get Colbert canceled.  The hope was to “start a conversation”, which inevitably centered around the messenger rather than…well, I’m not sure what the message was.

I admire our valiant hero’s gumption, but this is a pretty silly mental model of political change.  It reminds me of Corrine McConnaughy’s article from the Monkey Cage a few days ago asking us to forget Susan B. Anthony.  The reason is that idealizing Ms. Anthony ignores the what actually made change happen in America – the boring and dull work of partisan competition, angling for advantage, and picking tactical fights.  The women who picked up her cause organized pressure campaigns, corralled voters, traded horses, rolled logs, worked the streets and most importantly built institutions for sustained political movement.

Finally, the New Yorker article I cite up top includes the absolutely infuriating phrase “after speaking to [our hero] about what she hoped to accomplish with all this (a paternalistic question if there ever was one)…”.  That’s not a paternalistic question, it’s a reasonable adult one.  I hope the activists that represent my political ideals are actually trying to accomplish things, especially when deciding where to donate my time or money.  The idea that we should ask the partisans of our cause what they hope to accomplish seems like a basic question, one which all activists be able to answer.

Should we ask Supreme Court Justices to Retire?

Seth Masket ably makes the case for lobbying elderly Supreme Court Justices to step down.  Ginsburg and Breyer are quite elderly, and to be frank about it, are unlikely to make it to the next Democratic President after Obama.  And we know that Supreme Court Justices are a type of politician, albeit much more principled than most.  Supreme Court Justices are a lot like the type of politicians most people would say they want, who act with judgment and foresight to advance a vision of what is best for the country based on their experience, insight and wisdom.  Frankly, as a liberal, I would be pretty relieved if either of them decided to step down tomorrow and make way for a younger and healthier liberal Justice.  I see the case for pressuring them to step down.

And yet.

The authority the Supreme Court relies on is in some way a sleight of hand.  It is the pretense they are above politics and sit in sober disinterested judgment – which we all kind of know is a pretense but still badly want to believe.  Their legitimacy isn’t from popular acclamation and it certainly isn’t from their political activism – but they both have and need legitimacy.  In order to properly perform their constitutional duties, Supreme Court Justices need to be unafraid to take on political authorities when it is truly necessary.  There is some evidence that when their legitimacy is in question by the public, they are less willing to do so.

So while political scientists know that Supreme Court justices are really political actors, it’d probably be best if that didn’t become conventional wisdom.  Frankly, the normative issues seem pretty conflicted and there’s not necessarily an easy answer.

Myths of Small Government

The New York Times has a pretty local and pretty disgusting story on a vacant lot in New York City.  The local assemblyman for the Lower East Side, Sheldon Silver, is a well-known and well-respected politician representing a very ethnically diverse district.  As it has changed character over the past decades from Jewish to increasingly Asian and Latino, he has remained in office.  As it turns out, this was at least partially because he was interfering in policy to make sure his district stayed demographically friendly.  He arranged for the tear-down of a mostly Latino housing project and has kept the lot empty for almost fifty years.  Because if the lot wasn’t empty, minorities less loyal to Silver might move in.

There are a lot of convincing abstract arguments for a very democratic approach to land use and housing policy.  People should be able to elect leaders and set the laws of their own communities.  People should have a voice in what happens in their own districts.  Local government should be responsive to the will of the people.  Small government is more enlightened government.

America’s last century is a powerful counter-argument to these abstract ideas.  The power of local government in housing has been deployed, in its least worrying versions, to push awful economic policies like rent control and all manner of terrible NIMBYism.  But the power of local government to push social policies has been much worse, and local governments spent the 20th century wielding their power as tools of exclusion and discrimination.  We have run the experiment in strong local control over local policy, and as it turns out the people who care most about local government authority are those with noxious views.   People like Sheldon Silver should be kept far away from decisions about housing.

American Democracy Comes to France

There’s a great piece in the Times today by Sasha Issenberg about how the American model of primaries is going worldwide.  The reason why it’s particularly interesting is why – it’s not so much an ideological reason or a wave of good-government stuff.  It’s because primaries are really useful at building parties.   Especially in European countries which have restrictive laws about using voter registration data, holding a primary turns out to be a fantastic method for getting the party faithful to self-ID.  It also gets them more engaged with the party, increases the salience of the party’s message to them, and provides a really useful training ground for political operatives.  It’s interesting to see the American experience transferred to other countries, because it is at least suggestive of its effect here.

The idea that primaries help consolidate parties suggests, for example, that open (non-partisan) primaries are unlikely to seriously impact partisanship and produce more moderate nominees over the long run.  At least anecdotally, the way that primaries are strengthening partisan identity and organization is through the exercise of actually having the primary rather than by electing more extreme representatives.  Having primary elections that are non-partisan will still put the party machinery through the paces, get voters more engaged with the party and cement party identification.

It’s also a reminder that ultimately, a lot of what matters about political systems isn’t written down in constitutions or even part of the state itself.  American parties are really important to American government, despite the fact that they’re totally “off the books” in terms of the formal system. The stuff that goes on within them is worthy of a lot of attention – both from academics and activists.  Because the same logic that applies to parties applies to activist movements – they can only build their movement and build their skills by getting real-world experience in mobilizing voters.  And by far the best way to do this is through party primaries.  Left-wing activists who turn up their noses at the Democrats (and right-wingers with the GOP) aren’t doing themselves any favors.

Today in Abuse of Social Science

“Campaign Donations Buy Politicians, Says Science“. The actual survey described does this:

Kalla and Broockman worked with CREDO Action, a progressive organizing group you may be aware of, to develop a pitch for a meeting with Congressional staff that they sent out to 191 Congressional offices. The meeting asked for a meeting about a bill CREDO was organizing on, but varied whether the people asking were identified as “local constituents” or “local campaign donors.” There was no lying; the people in question were actually local donors, and agreed to participate. CREDO just switched up whether their pitch for a meeting identified them as a donor.

Okay, that seems like a reasonable experiment – are Congresspeople more willing to take constituent meetings or donor meetings?  The answer seems pretty obvious.  The answer seems especially obvious because “a local campaign donor” is both a donor AND a constituent. But let’s lay aside the condescension for a moment and see what they found:

The professors then compared who got to meet with important people (the member, senior staff), less important people (junior staff, outreach staffer), or no one at all. The evidence was very clear — people who identified themselves as donors in the pitch letter were significantly more likely to get a plum meeting. As you can see from this chart, people who didn’t identify themselves as donors were more likely to get no meeting or meet with the less important staffers in the left columns, whereas donors were much more likely to meet the members themselves or almost-as-important staff on the right:

So donors were 4 times more likely to get a meeting with a member of Congress!  Except…well.  First of all, given the fact that the majority of people got blown off (a district staff meeting counts as a blow-off), the expected outcome for both treatments was the same.  Secondly, given the sample size – this means a grand total of two constituents and eight donors got a chance to meet with the member of Congress.  The error bars on this ought to be large.  Thirdly, there’s probably some bias associated with the fact that CREDO is the sole agency doing this.  Maybe a local Chamber of Commerce would have different results instead of a liberal pressure group.  Or maybe not.  Maybe Republican Congressmen would respond differently.  It’s really hard to generalize away from this specific example.

Finally and by far most importantly – CREDO didn’t buy shit.  This legislation has not been passed.  No money changed hands.  There was certainly no quid pro quo, or even the hint of one.  Meetings are cheap – there is a world of difference between a fifteen-minute sit-down with a Congresscritter and having them actually marshall votes for a piece of legislation you drop into their hot little hands.  This study, even if it is completely valid, proves exactly nothing about donors’ ability to “buy” a Congressperson.  And even a casual glance at Kalla and Broockman’s paper shows they claim nothing of the sort.

American journalists, this is why you can’t have nice things.