Really smart students are sort of a dime a dozen at my school; students who can finish in three years and get into graduate school, not so many.  This guy obviously has some real chops; too bad for me he was in such a hurry and didn’t have time to take any of my courses!  He has a really promising career in front of him; if it unfolds as it appears it will, it will be good for my health and yours down the line.

Unclear if that career will be as long as we might hope, though; the incredibly cool software he will code  after he’s, say, 40 may be left for someone else to do, or not done at all. See, to the best of my knowledge, our smart students do their thinking and like that with their physical brains, Brazinski too.  For some reason, Cal’s idea of how to take care of that particular device is to send it to collide with really big guys, again and again, to entertain the rest of us and pay for our fancy new stadium and coaching office palace.

Maybe that’s efficient use of a class-A brain; Mark weighs 305 lbs and will surely give us some Really Great Hits this season – the kind you can hear over the crowd and the announcers on TV – to go with all the one’s he’s taking and dishing up in practice. In the seven minutes of play he will probably get (that’s the average playing time of a member of our football squad), should be at least two or three of those!  As between doing some wonky computer stuff for a few decades, and steering an offensive lineman into collisions for a couple of years, don’t the fundamental values of a university clearly favor the latter way to use up a good brain?

Public school funding: perhaps the public could help out?

I hold forth on/as the Nonprofiteer on the idiocy of our debating who should pay for public schools, and the extreme idiocy of our thinking it swell that the cradle of a democratic society should be controlled by individuals whom nobody elected.

Diane Ravitch and the Corleone Rule

People in office have thin skin when it comes to being criticized by former office holders

Obama Education Department veteran Peter Cunningham has publicly ripped into Diane Ravitch. Cunningham blames the bad relationship between Ravitch and the Department on her personal and intellectual style, but Daniel Luzer argues that the fireworks stem from a deep, substantive policy disagreement about how to improve educational outcomes.

All Administrations have critics, including harsh critics, but they don’t usually let them get under their skin the way Ravitch apparently has. I don’t know the dramatis personae and take no position on the substance of the policy debate at issue. But my knowledge of Washington makes me suspect that at least part of the bad feeling within the Education Department derives from a principle well-articulated by Michael Corleone:

Let me tell you a true Washington story from a prior administration.

A new appointee — let’s call him Assistant Secretary Newguy for privacy’s sake — arrived in Washington intent on making a difference. One of his first meetings was with someone from the prior administration who had held a very similar position (Let’s call him Deputy Assistant Secretary Oldguy). Newguy was excited to meet someone who knew the ropes of his position and the lay of the Washington land. He looked forward to the meeting.

To his surprise, Oldguy did not come in alone. He brought three leading advocates in to berate Newguy for a long-standing policy of the agency Newguy now headed. After the advocates had completed their verbal barrage, Oldguy challenged Newguy “Are you going to fix this problem, or just give us some Washington song-and-dance about why it’s politically impossible?!”.

Stung and flustered, Newguy paused for a moment. He then said to the advocates “Thank you for telling me about this issue. I have never heard of it before and as a new arrival I can’t really tell you why the problem hasn’t been fixed. Fortunately though, we don’t have to rely on me, because Oldguy here had the power to fix it for many years and never did, so he’s the perfect person to help us understand why nothing has been done”.

This story of Oldguy getting vaporized in this fashion was told with delight around the agency over and over because it so perfectly captured how current appointees feel when someone who used to sit in their chair attacks them for doing things they themselves did not do while in office. Whether it is reasonable or not, the most common reaction is to feel betrayed and to seek vengeance. Even if Ravitch is 100% correct substantively and makes her public criticisms of Obama education policy in the most civil way possible, some people on the inside are going to go ballistic because she served in the Education Department in a prior administration. Informed criticism over drinks at the Cosmos Club or during a one-on-one meeting at the office are fine with, indeed even welcomed by, current insiders. But once a former insider publicly “takes sides against the family” the Tommy guns come out.

Sabotage of a generation

Everything in this heartbreaking article rings bell after bell, from the perspective of more than forty years on both sides of college and graduate classrooms.  And from my desk, critiquing student written work.  I think we will find the intellectual damage done to current American students by the testing/NCLB disaster is comparable to the effect of poisoning previous generations with leaded gasoline.  Well, at least it doesn’t cause violent crime.

This outcome is the predictable offspring of  a  marriage of two profound misapprehensions.  The first is a desperate, but doomed, hope that something as complicated and personal as education can be fixed by a piece of bureaucratic, mechanistic administrative machinery.  Really helping students learn is complicated, hard to do, and probably expensive; surely there’s some automatic process we can wind up and let loose that operates without anyone having to really think about what it is doing! The second is the absurd imperialism of a crippled, myopic economics that (i) infers, from the undeniable effects of money (and firing-threat) incentives in some contexts, that people can be either bribed or threatened to do anything, and (ii) that the only reality is what can be easily measured, whether by prices in markets or bubble short answer tests.

As readers of my other posts are aware, I am far from hiding behind the preparation problem as an excuse not to attend to our own (college) practice.  But two things can true at the same time.  There is no way four years of college can do what we traditionally expect of it, and also make up the unfinished work being passed to us.

The next crime reduction breakthrough

Many of our great universities are having some awkwardness about how they deal with people who sexually mistreat their students.  The government is making them report on cases and how they are handling them, and Yale’s offers an innovation that has vast promise for all criminal justice, even though its merit completely escapes some bloggers.    The innovation is to rename rape as  non-consensual sex.  Like most innovators, Yale didn’t push their invention as far as they should have, but we can fix that: what they actually meant was partially consensual sex: surely they didn’t mean to completely ignore the enthusiastic consent of the rapist that is universal in these cases! In the student-on-student cases, it’s not just anyone consenting, but a Yale Man, not to mention a future stream of alumni bucks – possibly even  a letter athlete. In gang rapes, it seems only right to say “minority nonconsensual sex“.

The language change is much more interesting than it might appear.  For one thing, it sounds much less like something that’s done to you by somebody, and more like something that just happened.  Like when you trip on a loose rug when you didn’t mean to.  So all that blaming and fault-finding that makes the dean have Seriously Awkward Meetings with the spoiled son of a rich alum gets the heat turned down from the start. For another, it elides what we know about rape being a matter of power and not, mainly, sex. And finally, it wonderfully raises the subconscious suggestion that maybe not consenting was the offense!

I foresee a whole penal code worth of creative renaming in this line.  For a start, it will be super useful as the military looks under its sexual abuse rock; in lots of those cases, the consenting rapist outranks the victim, a clear case of predominant consent. When someone points a gun at you and takes your money and your cell phone, that’s not robbery; it’s partially consensual sharing!  When Yale students cheat on their exams, they’re using partially approved study methods.  If that armed sharer just shoots you to move things along, he’s aggravated the offense with partially consensual lifespan determination.  The possibilities in international relations make my head swim; armed occupation, for example, is partially consensual governance, which is obviously not that far from enacting legislation in Congress with a less-than-unanimous vote.

Rape is a felony, and felonies tend to involve the police, prison sentences, and a bunch of other really messy stuff. If we call this something that sounds a lot more like kids having fun…well, you get the idea. If you call a dog’s tail a leg, the dog has five legs, right?

I am ashamed that my alma mater does not get credit for this breakthrough, but maybe we can come up with something like it in the next round.


What does an accountability enthusiast do when a favored charter school gets a low score? Why, he cheats.

What does a Republican charter-school enthusiast who believes in school-level accountability for educational results do when a charter school run by a big Republican donor gets a lousy evaluation score? Why, he cheats, of course.

Tony Bennett, former head education honcho in Indiana and current head education honcho in Florida, to his chief of staff:

Anything less than an A for Christel House compromises all of our accountability work.

Bennett to the official in charge of the grading system for schools:

I hope we come to the meeting today with solutions and not excuses and/or explanations for me to wiggle myself out of the repeated lies I have told over the past six months.

Somehow, magically, the score for Christel House went from 2.9 (C+) to 3.75 (a solid A).

Look: I believe in outcomes measurement. I believe in accountability. I even believe in school choice. (After all, I live in the jurisdiction of the LA Mummified School District.)

What I don’t believe is that the current testing/accountability/choice con artists and racketeering enterprises are going to make things better rather than worse. The cheating is so pervasive that I now see no basis for believing any claimed good result. That’s why Diane Ravitch has switched sides.

You’d have thought that charter schools, like private prisons, could hardly have done worse than their big, clumsy, bureaucratic, union-dominated public competition. But you would have been wrong, twice.

Best Intentions– the backstory of Mark’s post

How weird that Coulter picked up on this very old case. Without having clicked on your links, I recognize it as the story of Eddie Perry, who was a scholarship student at Exeter. It seemed to me that Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities relied on the story for its central plot line, although Wolfe took a lot of poetic license with the details. The writer Robert Anson, whose son was then a classmate of Perry’s, found the story shocking and researched it. His book, Best Intentions: The Education and Killing of Edmund Perry, is a classic. Meticulously researched, it dropped a bomb that all the New York newspapers failed to turn up and tried to answer the obvious question: how could all these good intentions, from the non-profit scholarship foundations, the public school teachers who nurtured Mr. Perry and got him into Exeter, the staff and students at Exeter themselves– have resulted in such a massive tragedy? Continue reading “Best Intentions– the backstory of Mark’s post”

Alternative letter to Janet Napolitano

The University of California needs fixing. Janet Napolitano’s job as President is not, however, to fix it. Her job is making sure there’s enough money. And there’s a way to do that: a ballot initiative to guarantee that the state spends at least as much on universities as it does on prisons.

Dear President Napolitano:

My colleague Michael O’Hare’s letter to you proves one proposition beyond any doubt: Your first act as President of the University of California should be to ask UCSF to start a crash program to clone O’Hares. We need at least one of him per campus.

As to the recommendations he actually makes: Mike’s analysis is always penetrating and provocative. His conclusions are, in many cases, correct. This, however, is one of the other cases. Yes, the basic functions of the University need fixing. No, yours is not the office in charge of fixing them.

The President of the University of California has three functions: (1) to choose the Chancellors who run the ten essentially independent teaching institutions that constitute the UC system; (2) to bring in money from the state government; and (3) to keep the Regents, the legislature, and the governor off the backs of the folks who do the actual work. It’s a brilliant system: as long as Regents and the rest of the politicians are talking with the President, the productive parts of the enterprise are insulated from ignorant meddling.

Your recent predecessors have grossly failed with respect to task #2. Their failure has put at risk an astoundingly successful machine for turning out new knowledge and educated people. Your central task is to reverse that failure. I would propose do so through a ballot initiative to be voted on in November of 2016 that would require the state to spend as much on its universities (UC plus CSU) as it does on its prisons.

Mike is right that lots of things about the contemporary research university need to change to adapt to new conditions. According to Susanne Lohmann’s long-anticipated book, that statement has remained true for the approximately 1000 years that research universities have existed. They have always adapted, and always far too slowly to please their internal and external critics.

No doubt the Office of the President can help that adaptation along, both by providing some resources (especially in the integration of information and communications technology into the teaching process) by choosing Chancellors committed to a reform agenda, and (perhaps) by taking action to curtail the proliferation of Deputy Assistant Vice-Chancellors for Nothing in Particular. But the OP has neither the expertise, the capacity, nor the standing to impose the sort of centralized management that Mike’s reform agenda seems to demand. There’s simply nothing productive to be done from Oakland about the problem that empirical labor economists, given a choice of colleagues, hire other empirical labor economists. And even Mike’s agenda omits improving the treatment of non-ladder faculty, a truly monstrous challenge that has been getting worse under budget pressure.

But here’s the central fact: American higher education is a remarkably successful sector. Within that sector, the University of California is a standout performer. Of our ten campuses, four are ranked among the top twenty research universities worldwide, and another three in the top fifty. And we do that while also maintaining an important avenue of social mobility; UCLA alone has more Pell Grant recipients than the entire Ivy League put together, and thirty percent of our graduates are the first in their families to attend college. That amazing accomplishment – most of it built over the last half-century – is what’s under threat, and the main threat to its maintenance is simply lack of money from the state.

When Al Carnesale got to UCLA as Chancellor in 1978 1997, the budget handwriting was already on the wall: UC had slipped from spending 70% of what Stanford spent to teach an undergraduate in 1970 to spending 30% as much a quarter-century later. (The ratio must be even lower now.) Al said that we would know that the battle was lost when people stopped stating our aspiration as being among the greatest universities in the world and started talking about remaining one of the leading public universities in the country.

Alas, that’s where we are now. And without radical political action, led by the Office of the President, there’s little hope for better to come.


Mark Kleiman

Letter to Janet Napolitano

Dear President Napolitano:

Welcome to the University of California, one of the really great institutions of the world.  I don’t know whether you will have fun, but you will never be bored here, especially if you can get out of the office in Oakland and go to and fro across the campuses.  You’re coming to us with a stellar resume and a priceless variety of work experience, so I’m looking forward to having you take the helm.  Of course, anyone who takes on a job like your new gig here will get lots of advice: here’s mine.

Not surprisingly, your imminent appointment has been the subject of much chatter among my colleagues.  A lot of this schmoose has articulated a fear that, not being a PhD, an academic, or a scholar, you won’t “understand the culture of the university”. Voices on this side hope you will (i) keep your hands off the educational and research enterprise completely, (ii) apply your political skills outside, somehow making  the state and the feds pony up a lot of money so (iii) we (faculty) can do what we know is best to do (this last is a close fit, as far as I can tell, to “what we [think we] are best at doing”), (iv) not interfere with our choices about what and how to teach and research, and (v) maybe charge our students less tuition as well.

I do not take this position; indeed, if you adopt our view of who we are and what we should be, and all we get from you is flackery and comfort, we will have been swindled. Even if we get more money, because merely patching up our financing is unlikely to be of much long-term value. I hope you will pay more attention to shaking up the actual internal culture of the university than to pitching us to the legislature, and coming in from outside our very closed little club at least raises the odds that you can perceive the needs and will give us the courage and confidence to attend to them.  Continue reading “Letter to Janet Napolitano”

Why The Best Performing Schools are Small Schools (Just Like The Worst Performing Ones)

Howard Weiner and Harris Zwerling provide a valuable lesson in how not to be fooled by small samples when trying to understand school performance.

Imagine that I told you with great excitement that I had flipped a coin “repeatedly” and it came up heads 100% of the time. You’d probably be surprised and wonder what could explain such an unlikely event: Was the coin two-headed? Was it of unbalanced weight? Did I had some weird method of flipping a coin such that it only came up heads?

But then imagine I told you that by “repeatedly” I mean that I flipped it twice. It came up heads both times so that’s 100% heads. You’d be exasperated that I was excited about something so trivial because clearly such a result is a million miles from rare: 100% of only two coin flips coming up heads is at best yawn-inducing.

Hold that example in your head and then consider the fact that whenever schools are ranked on student performance, small schools are always over-represented at the very top of the list. If you are a proponent of small schools, you might explain this as due to the fact that such schools are more home-like, that the teachers give students more individual attention, and that the kids have a sense of community. If you’re an opponent of small schools, you might argue that small schools do well because they tend to be exclusive places that screen out kids with disabilities and expel kids who pose behavior problems.

But if you knew the brilliant work of Wainer and Zwerling, you would recognize that the over-representation of small schools at the high end of performance is exactly as impressive as flipping a coin twice and having it come up heads 100% of the time, i.e., not at all.

The link between the two examples is small sample size. Small samples are more prone to extreme scores. Even though a fair coin will come up heads 50% of the time, having it come up heads on 100% of only two flips is common. In contrast, flipping a coin 20 times and having it come up 100% heads would be shocking. The larger the sample of coin flips gets, the closer the result is to the boring old true score of 50% heads.

Small schools by definition have fewer students than big schools. That means they will be more prone to extreme scores on any measurement, whether it’s academic performance, shoe size or degree of enjoyment of pistachio ice cream. The average test scores of 50-kid schools will be more likely to be very high than are the average scores of 500-kid schools even if the students in the two types of schools are perfectly identical in terms of ability.

Not incidentally, the tendency toward extreme scores in small samples is bidirectional. That’s why small schools are also over-represented at the very bottom of the list when schools are ranked on performance measures. As Wainer and Zwerling point out, The Gates Foundation was one of many charities that invested in small schools after looking only at the top of achievement lists. If they’d looked at both end of the distribution and seen all the small schools with extremely poor scores, they would have known that there was nothing more complex at work than small samples being prone to extreme scores.