Friday, December 16, 2016

RIDE's AF data makes no sense and is bullshit

I revised my earlier analysis of RIDE and Brown's Achievement First fiscal impact memo as a post for RI Future:

Even if one accepts all of RIDE and RIIPL’s method and rationale for its fiscal analysis, the bottom line is that that all their calculations are derived from a single, early, clearly idiosyncratic study that overstates the positive achievement effects of AF compared to any other study I have subsequently found.

Friday, December 09, 2016

A Closer Look at Brown's Achievement First Fiscal Impact Memo

I've been sneaking peeks at the memo written for RIDE concerning the fiscal impact of the proposed expansion of the Achievement First network in Providence by 2,200 students while wrapping up Fall Forum and getting the next issue of Common Ground together. The memo was prepared by the Rhode Island Innovative Policy Lab (RIIPL) at Brown, which was started with a $4.3 million dollar grant from the Arnold Foundation, so any ed policy nerd can easily guess in what direction this story is going. The memo (that's what they call it, and that's what it is, not a study) is by Noah Kessler, Margarita Machelett, Miraj Shah, Jun Shepard, Justine Hastings, and included in the packet presented to the state Board of Education by the Commissioner last week.

Thanks to the ProJo for presenting some critical responses to the memo today. I was already working on an analysis of the calculations in the memo, and if this issue is hot today, I should probably get a quick (ha!) working version out ASAP. Thus this post. Consider it a draft.

The RIIPL memo is rather obviously a teetering tower of conjecture held up with a few high tension strands of research. While we can and should attack the foundation of this kind of thinking -- that the value of primary and secondary education can be measured in monetary gain or even college attendance -- as well as some of the basic suppositions -- do we really think that it is possible that every teacher in a system of seven schools will perform at one standard deviation above the mean every year? -- what really drives me around the bend is the mistakes and fudges that inevitably turn up in this genre of work with a little digging.

The basic chain of reasoning in the memo is: look at the performance of Achievement First elsewhere, extrapolate those gains over 13 years, run the performance numbers through Chetty, Friedman, & Rockoff's (2014) (CFR) findings to make predictions about future income and college completion, and finally compare that to other alternatives.

Or, as I like to picture it:

Test score growth -> The Chetty-izer -> predicted income growth.

The key piece of evidence here is really Justine S. Hastings (also an author of the AF memo), Christopher A. Neilson and Seth D. Zimmerman's 2012 paper on The Effect of School Choice on Intrinsic Motivation and Academic Outcomes. This is a study of choice in New Haven, with Achievement First's five flagship schools (and only these schools, apparently) representing charter school performance. This is a huge issue in itself, as the flagship schools aren't necessarily representative of the network as a whole across several states. In the district, students are apparently guaranteed a spot in a their neighborhood school (unlike Providence), with the option to apply for a large number of magnet schools:

Currently, half of the schools in the district (20) are magnet schools, and over a third of the students in the district (7,000) apply to them each year through a centralized lottery system. Of nine district high schools, eight are magnet schools open to choice, implying that almost all high school students either participate in school choice themselves or attend school with students who did.

In Providence, we don't really have magnets, other than Classical, but you can choose any district school through a lottery system. I would argue that in Providence's context any over-enrolled district school that you have to win a lottery to attend (Vartan Gregorian, Reservoir Elementary, etc... if anyone has a list, send me a copy) is functionally equivalent to a magnet school as defined in New Haven (remember, it is half the district there, not super exclusive). This is important because it affects the district baseline performance.

OK, let's step back to Chetty, Friedman, & Rockoff for a moment. This has become a very influential report because after some genuinely impressive number-crunching, they were able to show a correlation between, among other things, test scores and future income. Let's just say not everyone is a fan, and it is just one study. Nonetheless, this one of the key threads holding up the RIIPL memo, so it had better be used precisely. So, what data did CFR use in their original study?

We address these two questions using information from two administrative databases. The first is a dataset on test scores and classroom and teacher assignments in grades 3-8 from a large urban school district in the U.S. These data cover more than 2.5 million students and 18 million tests for math and English (reading) spanning 1989-2009. The second is selected data from United States tax records spanning 1996-2010. (page 3, emphasis mine)

CFR only looked at math and reading. We can only draw conclusions from CFR regarding math and reading. Keep that in mind...

The all important math and reading data that the RIIPL memo is going to plug into the Chetty-izer to get future income data comes from the New Haven paper:

We use estimates of AF value-added impact from Hastings, Neilson, and Zimmerman (2012) (HNZ). They find that test scores of children winning the lottery to attend Achievement First increase by 0.346 student level standard deviations.

Feed 0.346 into the Chetty-izer, assume every student at AF will see this effect every year K-12, and they get an increased income at age 28 for each former student of $10,954 - $13,451, extrapolated over a lifetime, that's $268,477 - $330,578.

OK, so, let's look at where this "0.346" number comes from in the New Haven paper. For this sort of thing I use the advanced research technique of searching for the "0.346" in the pdf. Here's where it comes from -- Table 7:

If you look under the third column, "Charter," the "Combined Z-Score" is 0.346. For an extra dollop of confusion, this is also the Z-Score for reading, but that is just a coincidence. Their combined Z-score is the mean of reading, writing and math. The problem is, again, that CFR didn't have writing scores (the word "writing" does not appear in the text at all), and thus we cannot make any CFR-based predictions using writing scores. We're feeding data into the Chetty-izer that it doesn't know how to process.

This is particularly important if you look more closely at the math and writing Z-scores the New Haven study found for AF. Math seems anomalously low and writing seems unreasonably high. It doesn't make any sense and my spidey statistical-noise sense is tingling.

The bottom line is that there is no justification for including writing scores in a CFR-based analysis, and without writing, the combined Z-score for AF goes from 0.346 to 0.127. As a quick recalculation, we can multiply all the subsequent estimates of income gain in the RIIPL by 0.367.

So... let's look back at those projected earnings. For our back of the envelope calculations here, if we assume the income increase goes down linearly with a reduced Z-score, instead of looking at $10,954 - $13,451 at age 28 for a student who had attended AF for 13 years, it would be more like $4,020 - $4,936. That is the difference between including or not including writing scores. Whichever number you believe, if either, there is no way those two numbers should be that far apart.

Another issue illustrated in table 7 is that in math and reading alone, according to Hastings, Neilson and Zimmerman, magnet schools outperform charters (AF). If we assume that over-enrolled Providence district schools are equivalent to New Haven's many magnets, the Chetty-izer would predict that students in the best Providence District Schools are getting a similar lifetime earnings benefit to their projections for Achievement First. This would need to be part of a serious analysis of impact. Not all children in Providence Public Schools are in the lowest performing schools.

There is an additional straightforward mistake in the calculation of the total cohort gains of an additional 2,200 students attending AF schools in Providence. They project the impact of 2,200 students attending AF from K-12, but since AF only proposes a single high school for the three K-8 schools, only 160 of each K-8 cohort of 276 students will get the full "treatment." By my calculations, to correct this their full cohort outcomes should be multiplied by 0.87.

So... my back of the envelope corrections would take the predicted increased lifetime earnings resulting from adding 2,200 seats to Achievement First Providence from RIIPL's $590.6 - $727.3 million down to $188.6 - $232.2 million.

One of the things which is particularly annoying about this economist-written memo about the financial return of a charter school is that they do not do the obvious thing of comparing their projected financial return to the student from this educational improvement to simply chucking money into an index fund. Let's say instead of having a lottery for additional seats at Achievement First, we had a lottery where the winners had $4,347 a year (the amount Providence has to send to AF with each child) deposited in an index fund with a 5% annual return. After 13 years, the student would have about $77,500. Let that sit for 10 years gathering interest (to $126,200), then at 28 start paying out a 40 year annuity of about $7,300. That's a total payout of almost $294,000 (well, if this calculator is accurate). That's nearly in the middle of RIIPL's predicted lifetime benefit of attending AF for 13 years, and basically double my corrected Chetty-ization.

The point is, in financial terms, this is not some kind of extraordinary payout. It is quite ordinary. All the numbers RIIPL throws around -- following the example of CFR's paper -- look quite impressive, but when you start talking about the full cost of educating a child, or a group of children, or cumulative earnings over a lifetime, all the numbers get bigger than you expect very quickly. Also, compound interest is a heck of a thing.

Finally, finally, Commissioner Ken Wagner wrapped up his ProJo op ed supporting the AF expansion by asking:

If one is opposed to the Achievement First proposal, what is the alternate plan for the children of Providence? And how is this plan different - truly different - from what we have already tried over the past 25 years?

I keep this link on auto-dial for occasions like this:

To the current reformers, integration is at best an irrelevance and at worst an excuse to shift attention away from shoddy teaching. But a spate of research says otherwise. The experience of an integrated education made all the difference in the lives of black children — and in the lives of their children as well. These economists’ studies consistently conclude that African-American students who attended integrated schools fared better academically than those left behind in segregated schools. They were more likely to graduate from high school and attend and graduate from college; and, the longer they spent attending integrated schools, the better they did. What’s more, the fear that white children would suffer, voiced by opponents of integration, proved groundless. Between 1970 and 1990, the black-white gap in educational attainment shrank — not because white youngsters did worse but because black youngsters did better.

Not only were they more successful in school, they were more successful in life as well. A 2011 study by the Berkeley public policy professor Rucker C. Johnson concludes that black youths who spent five years in desegregated schools have earned 25 percent more than those who never had that opportunity. Now in their 30s and 40s, they’re also healthier — the equivalent of being seven years younger.

According to the Chetty-izer an education in an integrated school for five years is equivalent to going to Achievement First for twenty-five years, and it is a lot cheaper. All we would need is the will to try something different - truly different - than we've been doing for the last 25 250 years.

Tuesday, December 06, 2016

Dropping the Curtain on the Coalition of Essential Schools

For the past few months I've been working part time with Jill Davidson to put on the final Coalition of Essential Schools Fall Forum -- their annual national conference. It is also the end of CES as an independent organization, more or less. It was Jill's conference; I was just assisting her vision. There are a bunch of reasons to gracefully wind up the organization at this point: structurally it has always been too loose and decentralized for the current funding climate, and the expanded reach of many of its principles has come through new organizations like Expeditionary Learning, Big Picture Learning, High Tech High, and Deeper Learning.

So we held the conference last week in Providence at the Omni to give everyone a chance for one last "conversation among friends." I suppose it is not my place to say so, but it went really well. We had between 400 and 500 people, which was enough for our financial requirements and enough to make the venue feel full -- but still small enough for Jill and I and a few other volunteers to give everyone quick and personal service. I could easily keep an eye on the 15 or so session rooms myself. The Omni staff was great; food was tasty; A/V support way beyond what teachers are used to.

The goal was to still have the same working conference for classroom teachers from Coalition schools that Fall Forum has always been, with a strong thread of reflection, nostalgia, and opportunity for closure as a community.

The emotional center of the conference -- at this point you might consider how many conferences you've attended that had an emotional center -- was its grand-matriarchs, Deborah Meier and Nancy Faust Sizer. Debbie's eyesight is failing so I (and I am sure many others) made it my mission to scurry around making her path as smooth as possible. Debbie and Nancy were in the middle of everything all weekend. Nancy Sizer's closing words were emotionally raw but perfect for the moment, and wrapping everything up with some second-line tunes from the Extraordinary Rendition Band worked better than I could have hoped.

From my point of view, even the screw-ups were kind of amazing. I'd sent out invitations for participating authors to do book signings, but the actual implementation was a bit ad hoc. I ducked into the main ballroom to finally get a bite to eat on the first full day of the conference and when I came out, Linda Darling-Hammond, Dennis Littky (of Big Picture), Debbie Meier, and George Wood (president of CES) were all sitting around a little table wedged in between the bookseller and another vendor table, having a grand chat. The only problem is that without a proper sign, etc., even if other people had realized it was supposed to be a book signing, it was a rather intimidating conversation to interrupt for a signature. It was a satisfying moment to stand back and observe, and maybe grab a young person and whisper, "Do you know who those people are!?!".

CES is kind of like an American labor union -- full participation is mostly based on where you happen to work -- and since I've never worked at a CES school, I've never been an active member. But CES and Ted Sizer's work at Brown is what brought me to Providence in the first place, and I have always thought of my educational philosophy first and foremost as a "CES-style progressive," so it was an honor to contribute to its legacy and do something for those who built it over the past three decades.

Saturday, November 05, 2016

I *still* leave comments...

Erika Sanzi has a post on her personal blog which has also been picked up by Citizen Ed and Fordham celebrating the addition of a middle school gifted program in our neighborhood middle school. Of course, from Sanzi's point of view, this is a foreign, benighted realm into which she rarely, if ever sets foot, except perhaps while slumming for good Cambodian food or visiting a charter school, so the whole thing is a bit annoying, and I left some comments!

It is nice that in a couple years, my child may be able to walk to Roger Williams instead of getting on a bus to Greene or Bishop to get a more challenging middle school experience, but it is not as if those programs exclude students from south Providence. This is similar to the error in your post about Rhode Island’s PARCC scores that forgot that Classical High School has 63% of its students eligible for free and reduced lunch and is majority minority. Clearly low-income and minority students have been challenged and succeeded in Providence Public Schools for a long time.

It is also not accurate to assume that this side of town has not had other innovative, challenging programs in its public schools. They just usually haven’t been called “gifted” programs and had selective enrollment, and they haven’t had much political or public relations muscle. The advent of No Child Left Behind wiped out a whole swath of programs — for example Fortes Elementary was known nationally for both its very early laptop initiative and their in-school local history museum, until NCLB hit, and the same school that was a model yesterday was “failing” today, and promptly gutted.

Of course, middle schools are and pretty much always have been a huge issue all over the city, so creating an additional magnetic island is probably not a bad thing, even if it doesn’t help the rest of the middle school problem much.

Finally I would question what seems to be an implicit assumption that people from other parts of the city won’t be sending their kids down here to the Roger Williams advanced academics program if it becomes successful. It is right off 95!


Also, can we mention the demographics of Nathanael Greene Middle School, the school which has hosted the district middle school gifted program for decades? It has 72% of students eligible for free or reduced lunch and is 92% non-white. The elementary school in that neighborhood — which is NOT the East Side — is 93% free or reduced lunch and 91% non-white. So the entire premise that bringing a gifted program to a low income neighborhood is new for Providence is false.

The fact of the matter is that adding a new, unproven "advanced academics" program to the neighborhood middle school which doesn't exactly have a great track record presents a real dilemma. It would certainly be convenient, and we would prefer to support such an effort through the participation of our children, but at this point who knows if it is going to take, and by the time you get to middle school, the cultural isolation of a neighborhood like this becomes a bit more of a concern. If students in the new Roger Williams program end up being isolated from the rest of the gifted streams of students from the rest of the city, that's a serious risk.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

QOTD: Goal setting

Rita Rathbone:

How, exactly, does creating a goal in any way help you accomplish it? What is the point other than to establish an artificial sense of accomplishment by achieving some arbitrarily defined thing?

Apparently when I think that way it is my working class side showing.

Tuesday, August 09, 2016

Britain's Next Choice

Ian Welsh:

I have little patience for all the Brits who are wringing their hands about Labour and parking their votes in the Conservative party. This is a good, non-radical plan that will work. It is a plan of a government that wants to be good to the poor and the young. Corbyn is entirely credible on all of it since he stuck by these principles all thru the Thatcher and Blairite years.

If you’re planning to vote Conservative in the UK, when this is on offer, you’re just an asshole, a “I”ve got mine, fuck you Jack”, or someone who has bought so far into neo-liberal ideology that your political actions make you indistinguishable from an asshole, whether or not you think they “work”. (Especially as all the evidence is that the only work for a minority, presumably a minority which you belong to.)

Brits have something which most of the rest of us don’t in most of the Western world: the opportunity to vote for a government which is not the lesser evil, but which is actually good. If they blow it, as far as I’m concerned, the majority blame will be on Brits, not on Corbyn. This is a character test: do enough Brits still want government which tries to take care of everyone or not?

Remember, the Conservative government, among other policies, cut a program which gave disabled people things like wheelchairs. That resulted, literally, wheelchairs being taken away from cripples. That’s what you’re voting for if you vote Conservative, and yes, you should be judged on that.

Monday, August 08, 2016

QOTD: What (Danish) politicians want

William Frederiksen:

And that’s what politicians want! They want kids out of their rooms, away from screens, out there doing shit – basically what skateboarding’s all about.


This is why architects always photoshop some fucking skateboarder in the 3D plans when they propose them.


Yeah. This for instance is the headquarters of one of the largest banks in northern Europe. I called them up, told them “there’s going to be an event, we’re going to have some music, some drinking and it’s a skateboard event” – “oh we love the skaters, they hang out here all the time, yeah of course”.

Friday, June 24, 2016

Terminology Check

Like most Americans, I didn't understand this until I looked it up shortly before going to Scotland, and the "Brexit" discussion does not help because as usual, actual usage is inconsistent.


  • Great Britain is the big island containing England, Wales, and Scotland.
  • England is a nation made up of the part of Great Britain that is not Scotland or Wales.
  • The British Isles includes Great Britain, technically Ireland and thousands of other smaller islands.
  • The United Kingdom is made up of the nations of Great Britain, plus Northern Ireland.

Strictly speaking, saying "Britain" was voting on the EU exit yesterday doesn't really make sense. It was a UK vote. Most of the time when people talk about "Britain" in terms of politics, they mean the UK. In terms of culture, "British" generally means Great Britain (not Irish).

Who will take away the punch bowl?

So, Brexit won. As far as I can think of, this is the first time in recent memory that the populist right has cost the neo-liberal status quo a lot of money. It will be interesting to see what reaction this causes on both sides of the pond.

Monday, May 09, 2016

Let us praise Sly Stone, while he's still alive

Noah Berlatsky:

Stone may not be much thought about, but his music still sounds startlingly current. More than George Clinton, more than James Brown, more even perhaps than Prince, Sly and the Family Stone’s hits foreshadow the bricolage construction and magpie eclecticism of hip-hop. The first track on Sly Stone’s first album, 1967’s A Whole New Thing, opens with what is effectively a proto-sample: a horn riff from, of all things, Frère Jacques. ...

Maybe Stone would be a little more discussed or acknowledged if his message wasn’t so insistently political and uncomfortable. Still, the real reason there aren’t a bazillion Sly Stone think-pieces whooshing through the net isn’t because of that. It’s just a marketing failure. “Ain’t nobody got the thing I can hear / But if I have to I will yell in your ear,” he sang in one of his 70s tracks, Time for Livin’, but he’s been singularly bad at shouting in anyone’s ear for decades. The media needs a news peg, and when an artist isn’t releasing music, or performing, or maintaining the brand, it’s difficult to generate interest.

The one exception, of course, is that final news peg, death. If you’re not in the spotlight, nobody looks at you – until you die, at which point think piece writers are all given one last chance to consider your legacy. “You only funky as your last cut / You focus on the past your ass’ll be a has-what”, as Sly-and-Prince-disciple Andre 3000 said, back when he was still relevant and people wrote think pieces about him. Time and the media chug ahead, and Stevie Wonder’s career is less important at the moment than whatever Justin Bieber happened to say yesterday on Twitter. That’s pop, and there’s not much point in being bitter about it. Still, it’s worthwhile to take a moment now and then to think about the legends while they’re here, rather than waiting for that arbitrary online instant when everybody all at once will be allowed to remember, after Sly’s left, how important it was for him to have been here all along.

One thing I like about Sirius XM (satellite radio) in the car is that when someone like Bowie or Prince dies they dedicate a channel to his or her music for several weeks playing deep cuts and allowing me to go through the appropriate stages of semi-grieving for a great artist I've never much cared for: indifference, questioning of one's taste, guilt, remembering that 90% of the artist's work is not your thing and the rest mostly sounds dated outside of the handful of cuts you started thinking of in phase 2, smug reassurance.

Anyhow, point is the article in the Guardian is right on -- Sly Stone sounds as current and as perfect as ever. Sign me up for the Praising Sly Before He's Dead movement.

Sunday, April 03, 2016

Exciting Start to Opening Day

Very clever of the ICC and MLB to have the T20 Cricket World Cup championship match end pretty much exactly as the first pitch of the Major League Baseball season was thrown. Baseball will be lucky to come up with as dramatic an ending to the World Series as the West Indies getting four sixes in a row in the final over to overtake England.

I wish I'd picked up on the T20 World Cup sooner -- it is really the only cricket tournament I'd even half-way be able to follow, unless I add some channels to our FIOS package and somehow develop a rooting interest in one of the clubs in the Indian Premier League.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Meanwhile, back in the ancestral homeland...

Kylie Hawn:

A heated argument over free expression versus racial intimidation regarding the Confederate flag took place at an emergency public meeting called by administrators of the Southern Huntingdon County Middle/High School Wednesday evening.

Superintendent Mike Zinobile said the meeting was called Wednesday afternoon when unrest started brewing in the community after nine students were suspended for displaying the Confederate flag on their vehicles.

He explained to the approximately 60 parents, students, board members and community members who attended the meeting, at which state police were present, the suspension stemmed from more than just students displaying the flag.

“We had a recent issue that was reported in the Police Log of The Daily News,” said Zinobile. “A couple of weeks ago, a student constructed a noose while he was on a district bus and hung it on the ceiling. While that was done, there were also racial slurs and comments directed at two minority students indicating they should be hanged.

OBE -> SBE -> CBE -> ?BE

I mostly agree with Peter Greene's on the malign take on what we now call "competency-based assessment." He sees it more as the return of "outcome based assessment" 20 years later, whereas I see the standards-based era as a continuous evolutionary thread of the the same theme, with slight rebranding.

The underlying problem is that there is no real theory underpinning the action. I mean, people have probably written some theory about the nature of standards, competencies, etc., but it is not cited or used in K-12 education. Nobody actually refers to it. You can never definitively say that someone's competency list is incorrectly designed, for example, because there is no recognized authority on the question of competency design.

Beyond that, there's not much alternative theory. That is, nobody really wants to defend assessing learning by Carnegie units instead of directly tracking student learning, although one can probably empirically show that it works well enough in various high performing systems around the world, despite its apparent logical flaws.

Put another way, when has anyone decided not to send their child to an elite prep school because it tracked graduation requirements by course credit, not competency?

When it comes to the administration of justice, I am in favor of legal systems based on written law, with the caveat that the efficacy of the system is entirely dependent on the quality and fairness of the laws, not to mention the many details of their implementation. Being generically in favor of outcome/standards/competency/skill-based education is equivalent to being in favor of a law-based justice system. Yes, of course! But if you don't have a good set of laws, based on a foundation of legal theory and scholarship, it doesn't get you far, and even then, the success of the system is entirely dependent on administration and implementation. In this metaphor, we're trying to write "laws," or competencies, without a constitution, law library, legal scholars or firm theory of law.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Ethnic studies and revising PPSD's history curriculum

I wrote a long piece on the Providence Student Union's campaign for the PPSD to offer ethnic studies courses in the February Common Ground (en Español).

Going a bit beyond what I could fit in the article, the PPSD history curriculum just strikes me as a universally unsatisfying document. Here's the basic breakdown, grades 6-12:

  • Grade 6: World History: early hominids -> 300 CE;
  • Grade 7: US History: Pre-columbian world -> 1790's;
  • Grade 8: US History: US Constitution -> 1900;
  • Grade 9: World History: 300 CE -> 1750;
  • Grade 10: World History: 1750 -> today;
  • Grade 11: US History: 1900 -> today.

This curriculum was put together rather quickly after the arrival of Tom Brady as superintendent of the PPSD circa 2008. At the time the Dana Center was doing a lot of consulting with the district, and they helped coordinate the process, despite their core competence in math, not history. It is closely aligned to world history standards, and follows the chronology of the Pearson textbooks the district bought at the same time. The curriculum is very standards-driven, despite the relative unimportance of history and social studies standards, compared to reading and mathematics standards.

One thing that it is important to understand is that it is not, by design, a particularly Western or Euro-centric curriculum. I don't think it is very good, and it is hard to say how different the taught curriculum is than the written curriculum, but look -- there is no Western Civ., and the world history standards are, you know, meant to reflect a global perspective, whether or not that is perfectly implemented at all times.

In fact, traditionalists or conservatives should hate this curriculum. In addition to having no Western Civ., there is no American history prior to 1900 in high school at all, no civics, no study of our foundational documents outside of English class, as required by the Common Core ELA standards.

If you try do do world history chronologically, it is going to seem rushed no matter what. There is a lot to cover! You're pretty much focusing on global trends, at a cultural or imperial level, entire nations just step in for cameos as they rise and fall. It is probably one reason kids feel like "their" history isn't in there. Hispaniola has a supporting role to Columbus, but you're not going to hear much about Germany before WWI either, except as "barbarians" vis a vis Rome. Regions like Southeast Asia are inevitably going to be described in terms of the waxing and waning influence of global empires, if at all. It is the nature of the beast.

Despite the rush, there are a few glaring redundancies in the high school curriculum. Many of the tent-poles of 20th century American history (11th grade) are also global events (10th grade), meaning the whole WWI, Great Depression, WWII, Cold War sequence is repeated in consecutive years. 19th century America is fairly interesting, but I'm not sure why it rates taking up all of 8th grade.

In short, it is hard to imagine anybody coming up with or liking this curriculum who wasn't preoccupied with meeting a standards alignment rubric. It should be re-written from scratch, yet the overall emphasis on world history should be acceptable to multi-cultural minded critics, including the PSU.

This process would be complicated by the fact that the PPSD does not have anyone in charge of History/Social Studies with a History/Social Studies background. As I recall, the same person -- with a literacy background -- is now in charge of history and ELA/Literacy, but I can't figure out who this person is from looking at the new PPSD website.

Here is a rough outline of a new curriculum:

  • A serious one or two semester ethnic studies course for all 8th or 9th graders (one or the other). This needs to be framed as an intervention that is going to help students understand their identity and place in the context of the world, America, Providence, and their school.
  • A one semester civics and government course in high school. This should be active, relevant, and participatory.
  • The world history sequence has to be reorganized and redesigned to connect to Providence's students. Arranging the whole thing chronologically does not seem to be working. A thematic, "less is more" approach could be a big improvement, particularly if it gives students and teachers more flexibility to explore a given theme in a geographic or cultural context that is more relevant to the students on hand.
  • US history needs new textbooks -- or no textbooks -- and a stronger and more varied set of instructional resources.

Monday, March 14, 2016

I need a publicist

My wife would never blog because it seems too self-aggrandizing. I've never had that problem, but I can't take it one step further and cross-promote my own writing.

As you may know, one (of several) reasons my blogging has finally nearly stopped here is because I've been editing -- and writing most of -- Common Ground, a monthly free labor paper here in Rhode Island. It is mostly distributed through union halls and more or less random (and inconsistent) drop-offs at shops, restaurants, etc.

Since this pays as a very part time job, it has taken me about a year to find the time, energy and motivation to get the website into what I would consider a usable state.

So... have a look at the new Common Ground website at

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

How broken is the American labor market?

Joseph Scott:

My normal schedule is 6 A.M. to 6 P.M. — twelve hour shifts. I’m on seven days, but every other week, we take what’s called a “fatigue day.” The plant requires that every contractor have a fatigue day. I get two days off a month.

That is noted in passing in an interview about the guy's skateboarding (after his 12 hour shift doing heavy labor), not some socialist muckraking.

Wednesday, February 03, 2016

The textual form of yelling at the radio while preparing dinner

Me, at RI NPR:

It is not accurate to say the Mass Insight found inefficiencies in the Providence School Department. The report simply was not that detailed. They found that, on paper, Providence had a very lean staff compared to other districts, and seemed to have a lot of people listed as clerks. It ignored perhaps the most salient point, that many of those clerk positions had been unfilled for years, thus rendering any inefficiency purely hypothetical. They did not, for example, look at what each clerk was doing and determine if there actually were specific inefficiencies or redundancies, because Mass Insight are overstretched hacks, and as long as they say what people expect them to say, nobody questions it.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Did I get this right?

Me, February 17, 2009:

The reality of our current political situation is that we have a socially conservative, obstructionist Southern regional party and everyone else. I don't see how we're going to get to national standards in that climate. The problem is, however, a good distraction though for people who might otherwise find more effective ways to screw up public education.

I'd say I underestimated the collateral damage they managed to create -- particularly through a media blitz for the standards that focused on half-baked pedagogical hobby horses -- informational texts! close reading for six year olds! -- rather than the standards themselves.

A logical requirement we never fully debated

David Cleary:

Under ESSA, state standards have to be aligned so that the end point of the state standards in k-12 is aligned with the entrance requirements for the public system of higher education and career and technical state standards. This seemed like a logical requirement: students and parents expect that when the student leaves high school, the student is then prepared to go on to higher education or career and technical education.

The problem with this is that it is neither a logical expectation, nor is it the expectation we have had traditionally. Nor is it every fully explained.

Well, whatever. I guess the good part is that the only logically consistent way to do this is to align high school standards to the least demanding post-secondary requirements in each area, because there is still no justification for denying a student a high school diploma if they are eligible for any post-secondary job training.

Tuesday, January 05, 2016

How bad are things (in schools)?

Scott Alexander:

I work in a wealthy, mostly-white college town consistently ranked one of the best places to live in the country. If there’s anywhere that you might dare hope wasn’t filled to the brim with people living hopeless lives, it would be here. But that hope is not realized. Every day I get to listen to people describe problems that would seem overwrought if they were in a novel, and made-up if they were in a thinkpiece on The Fragmentation Of American Society.

A perfectly average patient will be a 70 year old woman who used to live somewhere else but who moved her a few years ago after her husband died in order to be closer to family. She has some medical condition or other that prevents her from driving or walking around much, and the family she wanted to be closer to have their own issues, so she has no friends within five hundred miles and never leaves her house except to go to doctors’ appointments. She has one son, who is in jail, and one daughter, who married a drug addict. She also has one grandchild, her only remaining joy in the world – but her drug-addict son-in-law uses access to him as a bargaining chip to make her give him money from her rapidly-dwindling retirement account so he can buy drugs. When she can’t cough up enough quickly enough, he bans her from visiting or talking to the grandchild, plus he tells the grandchild it’s her fault. Her retirement savings are rapidly running out and she has no idea what she will do when they’re gone. Probably end up on the street. Also, her dog just died.

If my patients were to read the above paragraph, there are a handful who would sue me for breach of confidentiality, assuming I had just written down their medical history and gotten a couple of details like the number of children wrong. I didn’t. This is a type. ...

So I made a short script based on the following information:

– About 1% of people are in prison at any given time
– About 2% of people are on probation, which can actually be really limiting and unpleasant
– About 1% of people are in nursing homes or hospices
– About 2% of people have dementia
– About 20% of people have chronic pain, though this varies widely with the exact survey question, but we are not talking minor aches here. About two-thirds of people with chronic pain describe it as “constant”, and half of people describe it as “unbearable and excruciating”.
– About 7% of people have depression in any given year
– About 2% of people are cognitively disabled aka mentally retarded
– About 1% of people are schizophrenic
– About 20% of people are on food stamps
– About 1% of people are wheelchair-bound
– About 7% of people are alcoholic
– About 0.5% of people are chronic heroin users
– About 5% of people are unemployed as per the official definition which includes only those looking for jobs
– About 3% of people are former workers now receiving disability payments
– About 1% of people experience domestic violence each year
– About 10% of people were sexually abused as children, many of whom are still working through the trauma.
– Difficult to get statistics, but possibly about 20% of people were physically abused as children, likewise.
– About 9% of people (male and female) have been raped during their lifetime, likewise.

These numbers might be inflated, since I took them from groups working on these problems and those groups have every incentive to make them sound as bad as possible. There’s also a really big problem where a lot of these are conditional upon one another – that is, a person in prison is not also in a nursing home, but a person who is unemployed is far more likely to be on food stamps. This will likely underestimate both the percent of people who have no problems at all, and the percent of people who have multiple problems at once.

Nevertheless, I ran the script twenty times to simulate twenty different people, and here’s what I got (NP stands for “no problems”):

01. Chronic pain
02. Alcoholic
03. Chronic pain
04. NP
05. NP
06. Sexually molested as a child + suffering from domestic violence
07. Unemployed
08. Alcoholic
09. NP
10. NP
11. NP
12. Abused as a child
13. NP
14. Chronic pain
15. NP
16. Abused as a child + unemployed
17. NP
18. Alcoholic + on food stamps
19. NP
20. Clinically depressed

If the two problems mentioned above haven’t totally thrown off the calculations, this makes me think Psychiatrist-Me is getting a much better window into reality than Normal-Person-Me.

If you made a similar script for students in an urban public school district, including recent refugees, etc., it would be even more intense. Alexander's post cuts to part of the disconnect about urban school districts in particular.

On one hand people say, usually from a distance, "Poor kids can learn! Black kids can learn! This is totally doable." And on the other hand, up close, others see just how many kids in their classroom aren't just low-income, but working under a whole matrix of issues: homeless and learning disabled and sexually abused. ESL and lead poisoning and parents in prison. That's the reality. It is difficult to wrap your head around, even if you see those kids every day you might not know all or most of the issues, and from a distance it just sounds overwrought and made up.

The two sides are talking past each other because the complexity of the problems just comes across as excuses to the distant optimist. The school level realist doesn't actually disagree with the basic point -- "yes, poor kids can succeed!" -- but that gets muddled because it isn't actually the problem they face.