How to improve teaching

Elizabeth Green has a fascinating long read in the NYT today, from her forthcoming book.  The best thing about it is her attention to quality assurance practices: she’s much less about this or that cool classroom hack than about a program that improves teaching, whatever practices the latter turns out to entail.  Here are the key paragraphs, in my view:

When Akihiko Takahashi arrived in America, he was surprised to find how rarely teachers discussed their teaching methods. A year after he got to Chicago, he went to a one-day conference of teachers and mathematicians and was perplexed by the fact that the gathering occurred only twice a year. In Japan, meetings between math-education professors and teachers happened as a matter of course, even before the new American ideas arrived. More distressing to Takahashi was that American teachers had almost no opportunities to watch one another teach.

In Japan, teachers had always depended on jugyokenkyu, which translates literally as “lesson study,” a set of practices that Japanese teachers use to hone their craft. A teacher first plans lessons, then teaches in front of an audience of students and other teachers along with at least one university observer. Then the observers talk with the teacher about what has just taken place. Each public lesson poses a hypothesis, a new idea about how to help children learn. And each discussion offers a chance to determine whether it worked. Without jugyokenkyu, it was no wonder the American teachers’ work fell short of the model set by their best thinkers. Without jugyokenyku, Takahashi never would have learned to teach at all. Neither, certainly, would the rest of Japan’s teachers.

This is approximately the “quality circle” the sainted W. Edwards Deming taught Japanese manufacturers when our own were too arrogant to listen, and with which Toyota and pals ate Detroit’s lunch.  Teaching, as has been often noted, is the most isolating profession (maybe second to pathology) but I guess not in Japan.  I wonder if Japanese pathologists get away from their microscopes and schmoose with peers about their work?

Equally interesting, Green’s report is redolent with the idea that good teaching is not a trait, but that teachers can learn to be better. This is a problem because if true, it implies actual work, while totting up test scores and firing the teachers at the bottom of the list is a lot quicker and easier.

Higher ed faculty, keep moving; nothing to see here. Green’s prescription is for other people; we know that children learn in a completely different way from college students, and more important, that K-12 teachers are nothing like us: they need to learn to teach, and keep on learning, while we just need to eat the magic pill taped on the back of our PhD diplomas. The only reason a college professor should ever be in another’s classroom is at promotion and tenure time, where the name of the game is reward or punishment, not improving practice.  Common room conversation about pedagogy, of course, is goofing off and if tolerated (much less encouraged) must surely have devastating effects on research productivity. It may even endanger the record of the football team: why take foolhardy chances with our core values, either way?

Cannabis legalization: not whether, but how

The New York Times comes out for cannabis legalization.

David Frum is still against it.

Neither deals seriously with the balance of advantage and disadvantage; the Times simply blows off the question of substance use disorder and pretends that passing a law forbidding sales to minors takes care of the problem of increased use by minors, while Frum never mentions the damage done by the $40-billion-per-year illicit market created by cannabis prohibition and proposes nothing that would shrink that market.

And neither the Times editorial board nor David Frum seems interested in the question of how to legalize, as opposed to whether to legalize. The Times doesn’t notice that commercialization is only one approach to legal availability, and arguably not the best; Frum simply dismisses a temperate approach to legalization as politically unworkable, without explaining how to make his kinder, gentler prohibition a political winner.

Alas, I sometimes suspect they’re both right. As a matter of practical politics, our only choices may be a badly-implemented prohibition or a badly-implemented legalization.  (If so, I’m inclined to try the Devil I don’t know.)  So far, my attempts to put political and organizational muscle behind the idea of smart legalization have merely illustrated the wisdom of Ralph Yarborough’s maxim, “They ain’t nuthin’ in the middle of the road but yaller lines and dead armadillas.”  I don’t find life as political roadkill especially uncomfortable, but it does get frustrating. It’s not just that continued prohibition and commercial legalization are both bad ideas; it’s that the arguments for those two bad ideas leave no media space, or mindspace, for discussion of the good ideas that might lie between them.

Footnote Ann Althouse does a good demolition job on the Times editorial, though to the best of my knowledge there’s no evidence of intoxication or health damage from second-hand cannabis smoke or vapor.

Creeping conservatism: the guaranteed minimum income

What’s supposedly progressive Dylan Matthews at the supposedly progressive Vox doing pushing an idea favored by Hayek, Milton Friedman, and Richard Nixon?

Of course, the devil is in the details. It matters a lot how minimal the income really is, how fast it phases out, and (crucially) how much of the rest of the income-maintenance and social-services structure it replaces. It’s an idea with the defects of its virtues: Insofar as it displaces direct services, it saves overhead expense and avoids subjecting recipients to bureaucratic meddling in their lives. That’s good or bad depending on how great the expense is, how much fraud results, and how much meddling turns out to be useful. It gives recipients maximum flexibility in how and when to spend their money, which is good or bad depending on the recipients’ capacities for foresight and self-command. At the level of political economy, the question is whether the superior performance of the system would give redistributive policies a political edge sufficient to compensate for the loss of support from provider interests.

For those – including progressives – who think the virtues obviously trump the defects, here’s the thought-experiment: Would you replace public education with unrestricted cash payments to families with school-aged children?

But if you think, as I do, that most of what’s wrong with poor people is that they don’t have enough money, and that many of what look from the outside like behavioral pathologies are actually the predictable consequences of scarcity and insecurity, and despair, as I do, of the prospects for changing the distribution of market incomes enough to manage rising inequality, then the guaranteed-income idea looks very, very attractive. The problem then is to get as large a base and as gentle a phase-down as possible, and – this is the hard part – to discern what specific services need to be delivered alongside the cash. Seems pretty clear to me that housing, home heating, and food mostly shouldn’t get specific subsidies or direct provision, while education and health care should. But there’s lots of crucial detail to be worked out: even with a relatively generous income guarantee, I suspect there would be a need for direct housing provision to people who otherwise would be homeless victims of severe mental illness or substance use disorder. (Day care is an interesting liminal case; so is disability insurance, which could be replaced by a cash income not conditional on disability – likely to lead to substantially improved health outcomes – plus direct services or subsidies to help people deal with the consequences of disability other than difficulty in earning a living.)

The other key progressive goal should be keeping the income-support system national, to protect the poor people of, e.g., Mississippi from the hostility of state governments doing the bidding of bigoted majorities and exploitative employers whose business model is based on employees with no alternative to poorly-paid work but starvation or theft. That would have the side-effect of reducing one perverse impact of the current system, which ties poor people to high-cost-of-living areas where the social safety net tends to be less frayed. A family barely scraping by in Section 8 housing in the Bronx could live rather comfortably in Arkansas if it could cash out the value of that housing subsidy as part of a national income guarantee.

I have no idea whether Matthews is right that a guaranteed income is poised to become a mainstream political issue. But it’s a nice possibility to think about.

Pub Quiz

This quiz is made up of questions that have an obvious at first blush answer that is wrong, i.e., the sort of thing many people would blurt out without thinking. For each question your challenge is to get BOTH this obvious wrong answer and the right answer. For example, the question “Who is buried in Grant’s Tomb?” has an obvious wrong answer (Ulysses S. Grant) and a correct answer (Ulysses S. Grant and his wife Julia). If you guessed them both you would get 2 points, if you got just one you would still earn one point.

Google not and do your best. Please post scores at the end as well as any comments and critiques.

1. Who is Barloff Karloff playing here?


2. What is the world’s largest desert?

3. In Great Britain, who currently holds the title of First Lord of the Treasury?

4. Which state contains the southernmost point in the U.S.?

5. Who is this debonair, leonine voiced actor who rode an upper crust English accent to fame by playing a freelance detective in ten installments of The Falcon movie series in the 1940s?


Continue Reading…

Weekend Film Recommendation: The Trotsky

Rise, comrades, from your slumber! A rousing film of the people awaits you this weekend! Ok, maybe not. But at least it’ll give you a good chuckle. This week’s movie recommendation is Jacob Tierney’s recent offbeat independent Canadian film The Trotsky (2009).

Leon Bronstein, played by the stoner-comedy staple Jay Baruchel, is a quirky high school student in Montreal. He’s a bright kid with a peculiar dress sense, theatrical flair, and fervid empathy with the plight of the worker. Understandable, really, when you consider that he’s the re-incarnation of Leon Trotsky. Ok, again, maybe not. But even if his belief is misplaced, he certainly takes it seriously: he takes his impassioned effort to cultivate class consciousness to the oppressed laborers at the local factory, where he hopes to organize a hunger strike.

Screen shot 2014-07-25 at 11.19.00

There’s a small hitch. Leon’s dad (played by Saul Rubinek) is the oppressive factory owner from whom Leon petitions for the liberation of the workers. When the hunger strike barely crosses over from nuisance to inconvenience, dad sees a teachable moment. He pulls Leon from his plush private school and enrolls him in public school. This is all for the best, as it gives young Leon a ripe opportunity to sharpen his wits against the oppressive regime of Principal Berkhoff, played by Colm Feore, who sports an uncanny resemblance to Lenin. The rest of the film is about Leon’s efforts to rise to the occasion for which he feels destined, and this includes unionizing the school pupils, falling in love with an older woman named Alexandra, and hopefully being exiled from his home.

Part of the comic conceit is that young Leon’s efforts to emulate the life of the real Trotsky so obviously take priority above actually making good on the promises Trotsky might have made – when all’s said and done, if there’s a choice between gaining publicity for himself and liberating the oppressed, Leon seems to care more about the former than the latter.

Nonetheless, one of the heartwarming take-away messages is that the difference between boredom and apathy – the accurate diagnosis of which preoccupies much of Leon’s interactions with his fellow schoolmates – is that between people who are either yet to be roused to action, or those who cannot be so roused. If boredom is the affliction, then Leon fancies himself as the man capable of delivering the necessary message. And while Leon’s efforts throughout the film certainly seem self-indulgently theatrical, there’s a charm in his fanciful charade. For this, the role of Professor McGovern (played by Michael Murphy), a political theorist who’s wistfully nostalgic for his days of agitation at Berkeley in the ‘60s, is a useful foil: by the end of the film, the older characters are forced to wonder when they decided that the kind of futile idealism that Leon characterizes switched from something they encouraged to something they now view as pie-in-the-sky petty insurrection.

Screen shot 2014-07-25 at 11.20.13Part of the fun in a film such as this is placing the references: some of them are straightforward (Trotsky’s search for an intellectual soul-mate by the name of Vladimir who will fill the role of his Lenin), while others are less so (the positioning of the characters is sometimes a little artificial, and held just long enough to evoke a propaganda poster). But the film does a good job of playing to different audiences with varying levels of familiarity with Trotsky lore. The lower threshold of audience familiarity with communist history is set invitingly low to ensure that only very few people will feel left out. If you’re one of those people whose knowledge of the real Trotsky’s life extends only as far as ‘something about a czar’ and ‘something else about a pick-axe,’ don’t worry: the bulk of the rest is covered within the film itself. There are, however, plenty of inside gags for those with more than merely a passing interest (a recurring nightmare of Leon’s, usually stimulated by some interaction in which another character has made him feel infantilized, is a nice witty reference to Battleship Potemkin). But there are plenty of base guffaws littered throughout to keep anyone entertained.

The supporting cast is wonderful, with particular highlights from Leon’s father and Principal Berkhoff. Sure, it’s a high school comedy, but the audience extends far beyond the usual stoner crowd that forms the main draw for most films of that ilk and for which Baruchel often appears as a principal character.

Military education, apparently,…

is to education as military music is to music, as the old joke about military justice goes.

When we don’t need to kill people (and I do not diss the military function of the military), our armed forces still create value for our society by modeling a code of honesty and personal honor, just like professional sports; people we can look up to and try to emulate, who do it the hard way and don’t cheat, and who know we all depend on each other and go out of their way to share credit for their accomplishments. Right?

Oops.  Poor Walsh is being savaged as a plagiarist, and I think there had better be something in the UCMJ that would support a court martial. But that isn’t even the big outrage in this story (HT member of a private listserv).  There’s no evidence in this story that Walsh’s behavior is typical or common; anything as big as the Army will have some number of cheats, liars, sexual abusers, and whatnot.  What we should be up in (figurative) arms about is what the story does indicate to be a convention: our government is operating a “college” that regards fifteen pages with no original thinking or insights as a master’s thesis.  I read and supervise these things in my day job: this is not a master’s thesis, nor an undergraduate thesis, and (close to) not a course term paper, and wouldn’t be any of those things if Walsh had actually written it.

Where is the accreditation committee for the Army War College? Where is Darrell Issa when we need him?

The Enduring Myth of “Killer Heroin”

I was at a meeting with the Australian drug addiction researcher Shane Darke last week, which gave me the chance to congratulate him for publically predicting correctly that Philip Seymour Hoffman’s autopsy would show that the actor’s tragic overdose death was due to a combination of drugs and not an unusually strong or contaminated batch of heroin.

I talked with Harold Pollack recently about how careful research on overdoses destroyed my prior belief in “killer heroin” hype:

There’s a very nice paper just out by Professors Shane Darke and Michael Farrell, who are two of the world’s leading experts on the topic…toxicology studies of overdosed people very rarely find that impurities played an important role…victims didn’t particularly receive high doses, either. Such findings surprised me. The fact that we’ve got 16,000 people a year dying from pure, legally-manufactured opiate analgesics shows you that it’s really not about the unpredictability of illegal markets, it’s about the drugs per se.

The killer heroin/impure heroin narrative sounds plausible on its face, but the data completely undermine it. Data notwithstanding, here it is again from Isaac Campos in a recent article by German Lopez.

The most dangerous thing about taking heroin right now is you don’t know what you’re really taking. You don’t know how pure it is, which makes it very easy to overdose,” Campos says

I can’t be judgmental of Campos as I would have said the same thing, with confidence, at one point (particularly before the nation was flooded with pure, consistent, labeled opioids like Oxycodone and the result was…an overdose epidemic). But I would respectfully ask him and everyone else to look at the data on overdoses and have a rethink. Successfully tackling the overdose crisis — which is now causing almost as many deaths in the U.S. a year as AIDS did at its peak — will not be facilitated by incorrect assumptions about the nature of the problem.

Tangled-web Dep’t

Julia Ioffe, reporting on the insane theories about the Malaysian jetliner peddled on Russian TV and in Russian newspapers, points reports that Vladimir Putin is now caught in a trap of his own making.

Russian mass media is now dominated by an extreme-nationalist lunatic fringe, built up by Putin and his cronies but no longer under their detailed control. And the alternative reality presented there influences not only mass public opinion but also elite opinion, since to stay in touch people with real decisions to make have to pay attention to the prolefeed. If Putin wanted to act responsibly, he’d be swimming against the tide. Yes, it’s his tide, in the sense that he made it, but Ioffe – quoting a Karl Rove/Mark Penn figure named Gleb Pavlovsky, who fell out with Putin after helping to engineer his last election – suggests that he cannot control it in detail.

It’s a scary picture.

What’s scarier is that, if you change the names, it applies to the relationships among the plutocrats, the GOP apparatchiki, and the world of the Murdochized press, the Koch-driven think-tanks, and Red Blogistan.

Orwell was right: there are historical moments when insisting that 2+ 2 = 4 is a radical political act.

Three Ways of Looking at Marijuana Consumption Data

Here’s a nice chart from Andrew Sullivan on marijuana consumption in Colorado. It illustrates a point that has been made many times by drug policy analysts such as Mark Kleiman and Beau Kilmer: The total volume of pot consumption is accounted for almost entirely by users who smoke every day or nearly every day. Envisioning how different stakeholders would respond to this evidence can be helpful both for appreciating the impossibility of value-free evidence-based policy and for understanding one of the basic dilemmas of legal marijuana regulation.


AT THE PUBLIC HEALTH CONFERENCE: “Colleagues, you can see from this chart that not all marijuana users are of equal concern to us. Some people use the drug rarely, and we know that such users tend to be high social capital individuals who could set their lives right in the unlikely event that they did develop a drug problem. So we should focus instead on these heavy users in the bottom two bars of the chart, who tend not incidentally to be people with less education, less income and poorer access to health care. The evidence we have shows that the primary risks of this drug, for example marijuana dependence, mental health problems and poor school and work performance, are concentrated in the subset of people who use every day or almost every day. Let us therefore resolve to keep the size of this group as small as possible through high taxes that discourage heavy consumption, caps on THC content that reduce the ability of the drug to promote dependence and limits on advertising and points of sale in vulnerable communities.”

AT THE CORPORATE BOARD MEETING: “Well friends, you can see from this chart that not all of our customers are of equal concern to us. We can’t make much money from the people in the top few bars of the chart, so we should focus mainly on the heavy users who provide us the bulk of our revenue. We need to move as much of the population as possible into this high-revenue bracket. So let’s all agree to press for lower taxes, higher THC content and as much advertising and as many retail locations as possible in the communities where our best customers tend to live.”

AT THE STATE LEGISLATURE: “Fellow committee members, as you know we have seen this chart twice today, once when the public health advocates visited and again when the marijuana industry lobbyists visited. Both groups agreed on the evidence but they wanted us to respond to it in opposite ways. And that’s not the end of what we have to consider. The state budget analyst’s office has calculated that almost 90% of the marijuana tax revenue we wanted from legalization comes from the people in the bottom bars of this chart. We care about public health but if we implement policies that make too many of those heavy marijuana users quit, the tax revenue hit we will take might force us to sacrifice other important priorities.”