Traits and management

K-12 education has been convulsed for years by the idea that good teaching is a trait, a tacit justification for all the versions of the loony idea that we can increase learning by just finding the ‘bad teachers’  and firing them. The latter scheme looks even better if “finding” employs a bureaucratic, mechanistic process of testing students (on things that can be measured “objectively”–bye-bye art, music, creativity, and courage). The alternative idea is that people with widely varying intrinsic qualities, or starting points, can all learn to be better teachers.  Both are obviously correct to some degree; at the time they get control of the chalk, some people have better “teacher traits” than others, and it must also be the case that practice, training,  and coaching can improve anyone’s performance at this job, like all others.  But the relative weight placed on trait and learning theories of effectiveness matters a lot.

Administrators and politicians love what I call immaculate corrections, schemes like student testing for teacher promotion, that excuse managers from all the heavy lifting of retail attention to what subordinates and customers are actually doing and why they do it.  If you can couple  impersonal performance assessment with a theory of motivation that puts greed (for a money raise) and fear (of dismissal) in play, and delegate the implementation labor to people who aren’t on your payroll and can’t defend themselves against having their time wasted (the students), it’s a hat trick.  The only defect of a scheme like this is that it doesn’t deliver much value in the classroom (or wherever), but that’s a feeble weapon with which to confront an internally consistent and theoretically beautiful construct that lets managers out of doing a lot of real work.

Alison Gopnik’s WSJ column has more on the costs of using the trait model, retailing this recent paper [paywall]: people in academics who believe traits count for a lot seem to (i) gather in particular disciplines (ii) have a lot of trouble engaging women and African-Americans as peers, presumably because they also wrap up familiar stereotypes about what kind of people are (intrinsically) smart. Gopnik:

Professors of philosophy, music, economics and math thought that “innate talent” was more important than did their peers in molecular biology, neuroscience and psychology. And they found this relationship: The more that people in a field believed success was due to intrinsic ability, the fewer women and African-Americans made it in that field.

This should be sort of a bombshell, but it’s been  a busy few weeks. We’ve known for a while that the student evaluations of teaching we use at Cal–to the near-exclusion of anything else–for promotion and tenure decisions don’t have much to do with student learning. Indeed, our administrative higher-ups are reflecting deeply on the fell implication that maybe we should (i) do more observation and coaching with an eye to actually improving teaching before review time, when it could actually be useful, and (ii) evaluate teaching for promotion in some way that actually indicates whether students are learning.  Of course, both of these involve actual work, while SETs produce numbers (which must be Data, right?) and don’t cost us (faculty) anything to obtain, so it’s a tough call.

This call has got a lot tougher with the appearance of the first study known to me [HT: Philip Stark] in which students could register their evaluations without knowing the actual sex of the instructor, using an on-line course in which the same teacher presented as a male and as a female, and hooboy:

Students in the two groups that perceived their assistant instructor to be male rated their instructor significantly higher than did the students in the two groups that perceived their assistant instructor to be female, regardless of the actual gender of the assistant instructor….For example, when the actual male and female instructors posted grades after two days as a male, this was considered by students to be a 4.35 out of 5 level of promptness, but when the same two instructors posted grades at the same time as a female, it was considered to be a 3.55 out of 5 level of promptness.

Hard to imagine anything more traity than sex, mmm. There’s more (a colleague reminded me of this about a minute after this post went up; click on the link at the top of the story) and stuff like this anyway needs to be considered against the background of the crap women put up with every day, at work, at school, and on the street.

So the same teaching practices will get a woman significantly lower student evaluation scores than a man.  Could this be true for minorities…how could it not?  I think this study–assuming of course that contrary findings don’t emerge from similar experiments–is a beacon to personal injury lawyers and every woman prof (at least; stay tuned for the experiment in which Phyleesha and Felice are the same person) henceforth denied a raise or tenure through a process in which student evaluations counted. Not to mention an ambitious federal prosecutor with a copy of Title IX in his pocket. Now we’re not just talking about leaving student learning on the table, but consent agreements and actual money: I wonder if this will be enough to make us stop delegating teaching assessment to unpaid, inexpert conscripts.  There’s lots of useful stuff to learn from student evaluations, but not for pay and hiring.

Religious terrorism

Most societies have exerted control of individuals they find dangerous by threatening to make the remaining life of a criminal miserable, or to simply confiscate it. This works well enough (with plenty of opportunity to improve existing practices): people with evil intent mostly think they will be caught and punished, or killed in the process of a violent act, and an expected value calculation comes out in favor of not doing the crime.

Sometimes violence isn’t a crime; the civilized world would have applauded the White Rose for blowing Hitler up if they had succeeded, and certainly (if it ever happens) the armed citizen who puts down the lunatic about to shoot up a school or theater is simply doing the right thing. People give up their lives to do good in this world, like the soldier who throws himself on the grenade to save his buddies.

Some very large amount of hideous behavior never occurs because most people have a working moral sense whether or not it derives from religious teaching, and some faiths assert an eternal post-life time during which acts on earth will be punished or rewarded, so doing wrong is discouraged by some combination of just knowing what wrong is, and a selfish benefit-cost calculation.

When religious teaching promises heavenly reward for savagery on earth, we face a distinctive set of challenges (and what seem to be new levels of savagery, like sending a ten-year-old girl into a market with a bomb).   Suicidal murderers are not deterred like bank robbers by the fear that they won’t “get away with it”; oversimplifying only a little, they have been sold the belief that the mayhem they are about is a quick ticket to eternal happiness. If their present life is a dead-end struggle in a segregated banlieue slum, so much the better.  There is no practical sanction society can threaten such a person with to get a good benefit-cost calculation, especially if the society trying to protect itself looks like a bunch of ungodly infidels. Neither armed guards hoping to shoot first, nor a room full of heat-packing citizens going about their business, offer more than modest protection against a suicide bomber at the security desk or door, or in a large heavy vehicle with a running start. Tactics directed at the bombers and shooters, that kept gangster crime in last century down to a dull roar, are toothless here. Continue Reading…

Fatwa draft (also encyclical, etc.)

People with the necessary authority need to get this out soon:

The God of our great faith is all-knowing and all-powerful. God’s strength is beyond the imagining of humans and infinitely exceeds their puny forces.

If anyone shall teach the opposite, that God–or God’s holy prophets–can receive the slightest pinprick of injury from words, deeds, or thoughts of men, whether casual or purposeful; satirical, disrespectful, or directly hostile, that person is a false teacher and enemy of God. Let him be anathema, cast out from the company of the faithful, or taught the truth by real believers. The blasphemy that God or his prophets require protection by humanity is a sin against every truth and moral duty; to believe that God seeks such protection in the form of violence and bloodshed is to believe what is even more evil.

Wretched excess

The University of Michigan is a great institution, probably the second or third best public university in the world.  I did not realize how great it is until today, when I found it has such a surplus of brilliant faculty, and such prosperous students who don’t need to borrow a penny to graduate right on time with a fine education, that it is going to pass up about six fully-endowed chairs, or 25 ordinary full profs for six years each, or four thousand full-ride scholarships, to hire the ’49ers slightly used football coach.  [update 30/XII: apparently early reports of a $48m deal were exaggerated: Harbaugh is making a little less than 2/3 of that plus incentives of unknown amount. Numbers corrected above, no correction to my main point required.] Now that’s an academic program that knows its place, one that the football boosters can be proud of! The athletic program claims to turn a profit (from experience, I am highly skeptical of cost accounting for college athletics financials) but things are so flush on campus that instead of wasting this money on students, classrooms, or teachers, Michigan seems to invest it all back into athletic facilities. Michigan’s unemployment rate is almost down to 7%, and its population has stopped shrinking after seven years of flight.  There are those who think business seeks out places with a highly educated workforce and a great science establishment, but those people know nothing about economics: a winning college sports program is what grows a state’s economy; look at Alabama! In fact, all four states with playoff teams have median incomes in the top  (I hate it when the web doesn’t come up with the facts I’m expecting!) bottom half of states…never mind, those out-of-work Michiganders are proud to buy one, whatever it costs, and they deserve the best circuses the state can put on.

New nonsense from Heritage

Does anyone at the Washington Post read their Op-Eds before they go up? Like, a quick check for coherence and plausibility?  Today we have the Heritage Foundation’s chief economist (really) getting everything about the Laffer Curve wrong.

OK, let’s go over it again, time to rewhack the zombie.  The LC is a graph of government revenue against income tax rate.  Not GDP, not the sum of human happiness, not moral standing of a nation in the world, not any of those things: government revenue. The curve, like Ohio, is zero at the ends and high in the middle, duh; if the government takes all of everyone’s income, no-one will bother to earn any income and therefore not  pay any taxes; if it doesn’t take any, it doesn’t get any.  Again, duh.  Where the maximum is, and how steeply it slopes down where, are debatable with data, but a hat-shaped curve that is zero at the ends is assuredly the correct description of this relationship. Yes, Virginia, there is a Laffer Curve. No-one ever said there isn’t; how could there not be?

The LC, sketched without units on a napkin, is trotted out by people who want to make taxes lower: “see, the government could actually get more money if tax rates were lower!” (Notice that the tax rate axis always changes  from average income tax rates to top rates (what only a very few very rich people pay, and the only rates the Heritage Foundation’s funders care about) in this conversation.) To use it that way, you have to believe the high point is to the left of where we are now, not just that the curve exists, and this argument never, ever, comes with any data bearing on that. But you also have to be a liberal who wants government revenues to be higher!

Even on the Heritage payroll, Moore can’t recite the traditional Laffer refrain with a straight face, but after backsliding dangerously, he falls into complete heresy:

But today, even the most ardent disciples of the Laffer Curve don’t argue that cutting tax rates will increase revenue — except in extreme cases when rates are at the very highest range of the curve….It’s a happy byproduct that [economic] growth will help generate higher revenue than the government’s “static” estimates always undercount.

Happy? Stephen, Stephen, revenue is what the government uses to pay its jack-booted thugs to take away your freedoms. Where is Grover Norquist, when we need him to ferret out these red Commies at Heritage, and explain to de Mint that the party line is ” less revenue for government, not more”! Why is Moore not on the street this very morning, with a tin cup and a badge of shame?

Moore’s argument wanders through a bunch of post hoc ergo propter hoc anecdotes that prove exactly nothing, and he  is happy to wrap up by reporting that middle-class incomes going up 30% from 1980 to 2005  is (i) upward mobility (ii) caused by tax cuts. Well, the middle quintile’s share of after-tax income went from 16 to 15% during that time; he lowest quintile’s from 6 to 5.  The top 1% were quite upwardly mobile, as they scarfed up pretty much the whole increase in national wealth over that period, and their share of after-tax income went from 9 to 15%.  Except at the Heritage Foundation, that’s not upward mobility, that’s the rich getting ahead while everyone else stands still or falls behind,  exactly what you would expect when you collect less taxes from the very richest people and otherwise ply them with favors like carried interest deals.

Yes, there is a Laffer Curve. No, it tells us nothing about what tax rates should be. Yes, the Washington Post Op-Ed page needs warning signs.



John Bewick

John Bewick, for whom I worked when he was Secretary of Environmental Affairs in Massachusetts, died this morning, surrounded by his family and celebrated by his friends. With all due respect to my various deans and chairs, I think John was the best boss I ever had, and a week doesn’t go by that I don’t teach off my years in EOEA, shamelessly retailing what I learned from him and from the rest of the gang he assembled.  Ed King, the governor in whose administration we served, was a sort of Harry Truman/business-oriented Democrat from whom almost nothing was expected on the environmental front, but John discerned that King (i) liked finished product rather than being asked permission even though King asserted the opposite (ii) was basically indifferent to environmental issues but loved anything with an economic development payoff. Especially at the time, this set was a target-rich environment. Generally regarded as the most successful executive agency in that administration, we put through a series of important environmental initiatives affecting (for example) endangered species, cleaning up the Charles River, a depuration plant that put Massachusetts shellfish back on menus up and down the East Coast, a whole series of environmental regulations implementing delegated environmental powers, and an innovative hazardous waste facility siting law.  It was an exciting time in environmental policy and we had the unusual opportunity to make up a lot of it as we went along.

John’s achievements in public service, when I worked for him, are inseparable from the team of assistant secretaries he chose by a rule of never hiring anyone not smarter than he in at least one useful way, and no two people alike.  I (and the others) remember our first meeting together, when we all looked around the table at the Newton fireman’s son who finished a GI Bill BA at U.Mass in two years, the dollar-a-year hi-tech exec, the pointy-head MIT professor, etc., all thinking, “I have nothing in common with anyone here. This is going to be awful!” We were completely mistaken. John made the team work by being patient with everyone who wasn’t smarter than he in all the other ways, namely all of us, by being almost radiantly committed to each of us as individuals and to the public good, by forcing us to educate and challenge each other, and by his terrier-like obsession with getting the science right and understanding the politics of the current issue. It’s significant that the whole team, including various commissioners and other staff, have had well-attended reunions every five or ten years, the last this past summer.   Here is a brief formal biography.

If you fall out of your dinghy into the Charles and don’t get sick, or see an eagle flying around the Quabbin, or for that matter if you think you learned anything in a course I taught, thank John Bewick.

Things to know for Christmas Eve

Not only is Santa’s sleigh powered by transportation biofuel, but as reindeer eat lichen, which is half algae, it’s an especially advanced type. A green operation, more so since he has stopped distributing coal to bad kids.

It’s OK to leave a fire burning out in the fireplace when you go to bed.  Santa can easily handle this, for reasons too complicated to explain to grownups.

Rudolph recharges with a plain micro-USB, not one of those tiny Apple things. Leave a cable long enough to go up the chimney.  This is especially important given tonight’s weather on the east coast.

And most important, speaking of navigation: all electronic devices (other than musical instruments) confuse Santa’s GPS.  Leave them off, and spend the evening talking to each other, singing, cooking, and like that.


Cheap oil fallout

I filled up my car for just under $3 a US gallon yesterday and got a short-lived sugar high, followed by the predictable crash. Gasoline in the US retails for about half what it should counting its climate effects and the taxes it should carry for road use, so this is overall, and importantly, a Bad Thing, as is anything that makes fossil fuels cheaper rather than more expensive.

Of course $55 oil is a very big deal in an world addicted to petroleum in other ways, like selling it, as the Russians and Venezuelans will tell you. Oil companies, of course, are scrambling. BP, trying to stop the bleeding across its operations, is also pulling the plug on its cellulosic biofuels projects. I am quite ambivalent about this last development. On the one hand, the BP-funded Energy Biosciences Institute here at Cal has done a lot of good science and people I like and respect have worked there for several years, mostly trying to make liquid fuels out of whole plants. They are going to be seriously dinged by BP’s pullback.

On the other hand, I am broadly skeptical of liquid biofuels generally, and especially of trying to make them out of whole plants, and I think BPs retreat signals twilight for the latter enterprise.  Getting the lignin off the cellulose, and then breaking the cellulose down into something a yeast will eat, has been very refractory. If you have a big pile of biomass in one place to use for energy, why take a bunch of thermodynamic hits doing chemistry on it to make liquid fuel?  Just throw it in a boiler in place of any fossil fuel (especially coal), burn it directly, and make electricity.

A cautionary example, and a special case, is ethanol from sugarcane, especially in Brazil, where they have spent many years getting really good at it.  This is a C4 grass, the most efficient solar collecting kind of plant, grown where there’s lots of sun and (except this year) water, that only has to be planted every six years or so, and makes sugar that can be fermented directly, so no enzymes to dismantle starch.  Because the whole plant stem has to be hauled to the refinery to be squeezed, the fibrous residue is burned as fuel to run the plant and make electricity to put back in the grid. (If the Brazilian grid were less green–they have a lot of hydro–it would be better.)  Like any crop-based biofuel, it displaces food production and winds up pushing agriculture into forest land, with a big carbon discharge from land clearing.  This is about as good as whole-plant liquid fuel can get, and it’s still only about a third less carbon-intensive than gasoline; it will be very hard for cellulosic liquid fuels to come close, especially at tolerable cost.

On doing bad things, being a bad person, making a living, and having a voice

The torture report hit the streets today, and John Yoo is teaching in my university, with a named chair.  I have a real problem that we are putting him in front of a classroom, especially a law classroom, no matter whether the course is international criminal law, constitutional law, or even civil procedure. That the law school permanently displays four canvases from the Botero Abu Ghraib series doesn’t make it OK, it just puts in doubt the efficacy of art as moral improvement.

I could be wrong, or inconsistent, about this. In the last three weeks, I’ve assigned my students leadership “cases” by Richard Wagner (Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg) and T.S. Eliot (Murder in the Cathedral).  I make a point of recognizing that these authors are a pair of notorious anti-Semites and misogynists, that Wagner was adopted as a Nazi poster boy, and make sure they attend to Sachs’ nasty little xenophobic speech at the end of the opera. I also point out that while this is a fairly long assignment, as a freebie they get to spend time with some of the most glorious music of the 19th century and poetry of the 20th.

This morning we learned that MIT has taken down Walter Lewin’s online physics lectures, because he sexually harassed one or more students taking an MITx  course that he is no longer offering.  There’s no suggestion that the lectures contained sexist physics, whatever that would be, or sexist anything else. Over the last few weeks, Bill Cosby has had what appear to be all his gigs pulled, including reruns of a TV show more than 40 years old that no-one ever complained about, because of offstage behavior that is invisible in his paid work. The football news is all about whether players whose on-field performance is completely unsexist  and sober should lose employment because they hit their lady friends or drive drunk.  I’m writing this on a computer made possible by the invention of William Shockley, who was just awful both personally and politically, but his transistor works fine both for harmless bloggers and ISIS recruiters. My college organic chemistry professor invented napalm that helped win World War II, and did so with that end in mind, but he took a lot of heat when it was used in Vietnam.

Continue Reading…

Economist fail

No, not “an economist”, the magazine.  In a long discussion of winners and losers from low oil prices, we find what has to be the stupidest assertion in a mainstream publication this month, maybe even ever, who knows:

But the overall economic effect of cheaper oil is clearly positive.

Really. This is hard to even talk about without insulting the intelligence of our readers, but it’s in The Economist, for Pete’s sake. How does that work? Does The Economist think ‘overall economic effects’ just end in a few decades, before the, um, economic effects of climate change really kick in? Has a radical Christian sect with a line on the rapture schedule taken them over?  Or has the law of demand been repealed when we weren’t looking, so lower prices cause people to use less instead of more?