Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Conservatism: The God that Failed, Part 1

In 1949, a book called The God that Failed appeared. It is a collection of essays by ex-Marxists about their disillusionment with Communism, and signaled the beginning of the end of intellectual respect for Marxism-Leninism. The disillusionment was largely due to the economic and moral failures of the Soviet Union under Stalin. But it was also the result of intellectual critiques of Marx’s ideas. If the problem were only bad leadership, the ideology could have survived. The added intellectual critique was essential and in the long run fatal, because old leaders couldn’t convince bright young students that a more ‘pure’ Marxism could ever deliver on its original idealistic promises.

The Soviet Union didn’t fall for another forty years, but as an American graduate student at the London School of Economics in the late 1960’s I could see that, intellectually, the case for Communism was dead. I was working on my PhD in Philosophy under Sir Karl Popper, who had written The Open Society and Its Enemies, a book which exposed as bogus Marx’s claims to be “scientific”. The book was one of the nails in the coffin of intellectual respect for Marxism-Leninism.

In the 1968 I participated in the protests against the Vietnam war at Grosvenor Square (organized by Bill Clinton, as I later found out), discussed politics with some in the SocSoc—the student Socialist Society—and experienced the shutdown of the LSE in 1968 over student protests. The spirit and shallowness of the arguments of the young radical Left in England at that time was wonderfully captured by John Lennon, when he sang: “If you go carrying pictures of Chairman Mao, you ain’t goin’ to make it with anyone anyhow.”

In recent years, I have been seeing the same movie again, but this time the God that Failed is ‘conservatism’ of the Reagan variety: the idea that minimizing the size of government, the amount of government regulation, and the level of taxation, particularly on the wealthy, will make a country freer and more prosperous. Reagan’s philosophy was summed up in a famous phrase from his first Inaugural Address: “Government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.”

In cases of both Marxian Communism and Reaganite Conservatism there is a background of impressive intellectual work to give credibility to the ideology. But in the end it turns out that this intellectual superstructure is largely irrelevant to the actual question of the viability of the ideology as a practical program. The intellectual superstructure is fog and misdirection, and in the ‘Emperor's New Clothes’ moment it turns out that the ideology was based on nothing but faith, faith that turns out to be quite misplaced. It is a God that Failed.

Coming Next: Marxist and Reaganite Fantasies. 

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Good and Bad Strategy in Education Reform, Part 3

Part 1
Part 2
The third doable objective is to create effective school-to-work transition for the vast majority of those who will not go on to complete a four year academic college degree. We know that this is a realistic objective, because Germany has done this for decades with dedicated technical schools and apprenticeships. And recently Singapore is also succeeding with such a program. As it is now, our students in the lower part of the class academically fall behind and by age 16 feel humiliated and demoralized by this situation. Many drop out, and the labor market, even in better times, does not take them seriously until they are well into their twenties. And this group has the greatest social dysfunction, including jail and bearing children they can’t support.

To help these students we must offer a clear path to an honored place in the labor market, and in adult life. The key to success in apprenticeship and intern programs lies in students actually seeing the benefits of greater academic and non-academic education, and to having mentors in the real world who can show them a credible pathway to success. In this situation, the motivation that comes from goals meaningful to the student. These will lead to hard work, instead of despair and dropping out, either mentally or actually. And then schooling that leads them step by step from where they are to where they need to be—following the mastery learning model—will keep them progressing. Today, though successes do exist, technical and vocational education is a neglected step-child of secondary education. But it is a proven success when designed and resourced properly. 

If early childhood education, mastery learning, and strong school-to-work programs can meet the problem of educating poor children, why aren’t they now adopted? One of the reasons is, of course money. But money reflects priorities. Instead of money going to buy another yacht for the super-rich, it could go into schools, including these programs. In the case of mastery learning, Mamary succeeded in implementing it without additional funds. But in order to do it he had to focus the entire school on carrying it through, arranging teacher’s schedules so that children could always find a tutor after school and on vacations to help them master material, or to give them enrichment material if they had moved ahead of the class. It seems that because of the challenge of implementing it without additional cost, it has not spread widely. Of course, hiring more teachers would make it much easier to succeed.

In the case of effective school-to-work programs, there is an additional barrier, which is the cry of discriminatory ‘tracking.’ This is a bitter irony because the system is now tracking the weaker students to jail and poverty. A strong program would, starting at age 16, have diverse options for students with different goals. Students shouldn’t be forced into such programs, but they should be offered them. What we do now is play ‘let’s pretend’ that everyone has equal gifts until they are 18, and then let society ‘track’ them ruthlessly. We need a better transition, in the last two years of high school, and for most an additional one to two years, that will prepare students to be adults in a highly competitive society.

My own proposal has been to have a minimum academic skills standard that would be tested for at age 15, and those who don’t pass it will continue to be helped to master this level as they go through further education, with more diverse pathways. (This would be an exam based on criteria, as the driving test; these don’t have the dysfunctional effects of high-stakes normative tests.) The standard would be set at the level that is a minimum level of academic achievement to hold a career-track job in our economy. Once this is in place, it can also be used to inspire younger students.  Teachers can tell a 9 or 10 year old, "if you master the next step, you are on the road to a respected place in adult life. I’ve helped other children like you, and I can help you; you can do it.” Stronger early childhood education, mastery learning of skills, and diverse, good school-to-work programs are proven successes in meeting the challenge of educating poor children. We should adopt them, instead of fruitlessly chasing blue-sky goals.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Good and Bad Strategy in Education Reform, Part 2

Part 1.

The second doable objective to improve the schooling of poor children, in particular, is to get mastery learning implemented in all elementary and middle schools. The idea of mastery learning is simple and proven to work: to learn skills, break them down into steps, and regularly monitor progress to see whether students have mastered the basic skills before going on to more advanced ones. When a student has difficulties, then give him or her added help until mastery level is reached; then the student moves on to the next higher level of the skill.

The late Albert Mamary succeeded in implementing mastery learning in his school district in Johnson City, New York, in a relatively poor district near Bingham. He got the poor students to perform on the level of those in wealthy suburban schools, and his model was validated as effective, twice, by the U.S. Department of Education.

Mastery learning involves a lot of testing to monitor students’ advancement, but the tests are of a radically different kind than those used in the past decade’s school reform. They are formative, or diagnostic tests, relative to specific criteria of mastery, which the student has or hasn’t achieved so far. And they are used to determine what help and instruction the student is given next. The tests used in NCLB and RTTT are normative in that there are levels of achievement, and students and teachers are punished for failing to achieve the prescribed level.

When I visited Dr. Mamary’s school twenty years ago (my report on it is in Education Week, March 24, 1993), he said to me, “You can threaten and punish people into doing a lot of things, but learning is not one of them.” The punitive approach of current school reform is the most misguided and dysfunctional aspect of it. If punitive approaches worked to educate children, I would be all for them. The reality, though, is that they are a double disaster: 1. they suffer from a strategic disconnect, a disconnect between ends and means; and 2. they are very poor motivators compared with to positive goals that students believe are important to their lives.

The strategic design behind NCLB is to fire bad teachers and close bad schools, with the idea that this will magically improve the situation. The obvious question is, what are you going to replace those bad teachers and schools with? Have you changed the pool of those who want to teach for the better? Have you improved teacher training. Do you know what schools will be more effective, and make sure the new schools are that kind of school? In all cases there is not answer, no connection of the action to the underlying problem of poor children not succeeding academically.

The concept was that somehow by replacing “failing schools” with charter schools the magic of the free market would transform education for the better. Well, magic is not a strategy, and with the government paying and choosing whom to grant charters, it’s far from the ideal “competitive market” that is theorized to do the magic. It is open to all the kind of corrupting influence that conservatives have argued hurts government, and without immediate public oversight. In any event, the charter solution is not actually working—the charter schools have not proved, on average to be any better. After ten years, there is no ‘transformation.’ To improve schools, there is no substitute to changing what is actually going within them, and changing it for the better.

In addition to the disconnect between ends (helping poor students) and means (closing failing schools and replacing them with charters), in fact punitive approaches are counterproductive as motivation for either students or teachers. The research of psychologist Edward Deci has shown that by far the most powerful motivation for sustained efforts are goals that people have chosen for themselves, and are meaningful in their lives. For students, these goals are connected to what kind of person the student wants to be when he or she grows up. When a child is threatened with failure, particularly without adding a clear method of meeting the threat, it creates anxiety and even desperation, which are counterproductive for any person trying to carry out a complex task like learning—or teaching.

 The negative impact of threats is has recently been made clear especially in the case of principals and teachers. The recent Frontline show “The Education of Michelle Rhee” reports that when Rhee entered the DC schools as superintendent she made a list of the schools are doing better and worse on standardized exams. And she explicitly threatened those principals whose schools had been doing worst with firing unless their school improved by the end of the year. There was no analysis of the challenge faced by those particular schools, and a plan tailored to meet it. The idea seemed to be that being tough and punitive is what will make schools better, and the implication was that this punitive approach should cascade down: principals should threaten fire teachers if they didn’t measure up, and teachers should threaten to fail children if they didn’t pass exams. What happened, among other things, was the false raising of test scores through cheating.

Part 3

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Good and Bad Strategy in Education Reform, Part 1

In his powerful book Good Strategy, Bad Strategy (2011), strategy expert Richard Rumelt describes the most common patterns of bad strategy that organizations, both public and private, fall into. These are patterns which regularly cause organizations to fail in their efforts to advance their missions. One of the patterns Rumelt calls “blue sky objectives.” He explains:

"A good strategy defines a critical challenge. What is more, it builds a bridge between that challenge and action, between desire and immediate objectives that lie within grasp. Thus the objectives should stand a good chance of being accomplished, given existing resources and competence. By contrast a blue sky objective is usually a simple restatement of the desired state of affairs or of the challenge. It skips over the annoying fact that no one has a clue of how to get there."

Unfortunately, this describes all too accurately our national education reform efforts over the past decade. The telltale marks of ineffectual blue-sky strategy are right in the names of the programs. President George W. Bush’s program has been labeled “No Child Left Behind.” Left behind what? No goal is clearly defined (51 different ‘proficiency levels’ open to interpretation and change), and the implication is that every child will excel, every child will have top achievement. They will reach the blue sky.

President Barak Obama’s program is labeled “race to the to top.” The top of what? The goal is explained as “career or college ready,” which is still maddeningly vague. There are different academic levels in different colleges, and more importantly a huge variety of skills and skill levels needed for different careers. In any case the goal is still that every child will have “top” achievement. They will all reach the blue sky.

The key to good strategic design is, as Rumelt says, that it provides a bridge between a clearly defined challenge and doable objectives that will meet it. In fact, the current reform efforts have been sparked by two clear challenges. The first challenge has been the low academic achievement of children living in poverty, called the “achievement gap,” and the secondary challenge has been meeting the desire for more people with expertise in science and technology. Instead of focusing on these challenges, and what it would take to meet them, the national conversation has leaped over these real problems to the blue sky goals of NCLB and RTTT, and then has backfilled with a strategy actually unrelated to the original challenge, and based on unrealistic, refutable premises—a strategy that is not succeeding now in meeting the underlying challenges, and won’t succeed in the future.

Let me focus on three doable objectives that already we know will actually help meet the primary challenge of helping poor children, and compare with these three with the current national programs.

The first doable objective—if the political will is there—is to get quality early childhood education to all poor children. Research just keeps confirming that the pre-school years from toddler through kindergarten have a huge impact on children. Clichés such as that you can straighten the sapling but not the tree, or that the hand that rocks the cradle can rule the world are true. If we wanted to be serious about helping poor children, we would be putting much more money into early childhood education.

Part 2

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

The Republicon Mythology Continued

The Republicon Mythology Continued:

A fundamental tenet of Republicon ideology is the supply-side theory that if you just cut the marginal tax rates for the wealthy, they will be incentivized to consume more, to increase their business investments, and to provide major boosts to domestic economic growth. This has been the hidebound Republican assertion ever since Herbert Walker Bush blasphemed his party by raising marginal tax rates in November of 1990.  This “trickle down” economic theory has a long history and was better known as “Horse and Sparrow” theory in the late 1800s – since the basic notion here was that if you just fed the horse more oats (i.e. beneficial tax policies for the rich) those horses would “pass through” some undigested oats for the sparrows (i.e.. the 47 percenters).  Indeed, it’s really all B.S. isn’t it???

One of the important tests of this particular philosophy was portrayed in a recent CBO analysis of the effects of changes in the marginal tax rates upon a variety of economic outcomes. That report was presented on September 14, 2012, and then pulled at the request of Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell.(http://www.nytimes.com/2012/11/02/business/questions-raised-on-withdrawal-of-congressional-research-services-report-on-tax-rates.html?_r=0)

There were two principal findings: a) analysis strongly suggested that reduction in top tax rates had virtually no association with saving, investment, or productivity growth; and b) reductions in top tax rates were however strongly associated with increases in the “shares” of the income pie held by the wealthiest (Apparently the horse “held on” to a lot of those oats).

Still, all of those findings occur in an economic maze, completely disconnected from a more serious examination of underlying Republican and Democratic policies that have contributed to these outcomes. A non-voting Reagan Republican and political scientist at Princeton, Larry Bartels insists that the political governance of the two parties is critical to the outcomes. He finds (http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2008/06/12/AR2008061203779.html) in his outstanding analysis of partisan differences in income outcomes, that partisan differences have had major effects upon income inequality. Specifically, he concludes that the income gap increased under presidents Eisenhower, Nixon, Ford, Reagan, and the Bushes, while it declined under 4 of 5 Democratic presidents. Republicans worry about inflation (which has negligible effects on income growth at the bottom of the income distribution, but substantial effects at the top).

Friday, January 11, 2013

Must see interview of Krugman by Moyers

Here is a wonderful interview of Paul Krugman by Bill Moyers. What is great about this is that it is long enough for Krugman to make his case clearly.

I was particularly gratified by his pointing out that journalists have forgotten how to ask "Why?" In this blog, from the first few posts, I have bemoaning two things. One is that journalists don't ask Republicans why they think that cutting taxes and government will grow the economy, given the massive evidence against this. The other is that Obama doesn't make the Keynesian case to the public in general. He would force the journalists to talk about it, and then for the Republi-cons to actually reply on point.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

112th Congress: Proof that Republicans have been the Obstructionists

With at last an initial bipartisan deal on the budget, we now have definitive proof that both of the parties have *not* been equally responsible for the inability to get bipartisan agreement on any budget deals.

Of course there was overwhelming evidence before this: Mitch McConnell's statement that his top priority was to defeat Obama—and not to govern; the unprecedented and largely successful effort by the Republican minority in the Senate to block all legislation supported by the Democrats through the filibuster; and the repeated passing of bills by the Republican House that had no chance of passing the Senate.

But now we have definitive proof. Another key method of the obstructionism has been the Republican House leadership refusing to bring up votes without a majority of their own caucus in favor. It has been this deeply anti-majoritarian policy, along with the flagrant abuse of the filibuster in the Senate, which have been responsible for this being the least productive congress in history.

The definitive proof is that in the last hours of this congress, Boehner finally allowed a bipartisan vote, without a majority of his party. And we got a compromise bill. If the Republicans, with their hatred of government, had not been blocking majorities, against the explicit wishes of the American founding fathers, we wouldn't have had the blockage.

Update Jan 3: According to this story what occasioned Speaker of the House Boehner telling Senate Majority Leader in the White House to "go fuck yourself," and repeating it and being unrepentant in his rudeness was exactly that Reid had called him on his preventing majority votes, calling him a 'dictator.' In fact, Boehner had no civil reply because his previous policy—the so-called 'Hastert rule'—is anti-democratic and explicitly against the principles of the founding fathers. Hence the f-bomb. Further evidence that this incident has laid bare the anti-democratic obstructionism of the Republicans.