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Facebook Study and Open-mindedness

June 30, 2014 Leave a comment

As a middling Facebook user, I was interested to read about a recent study conducted whereby it was demonstrated that readers’  mods were affected by the news feeds they received. Those receiving upbeat news feeds were demonstrably happier than those who received negative news feeds. While many news outlets engaged in hand-wringing over this, Cathy O’Neill aka The Mathbabe was elated:

It’s got everything a case study should have: ethical dilemmas, questionable methodology, sociological implications, and questionable claims, not to mention a whole bunch of media attention and dissection.

By the way, if I sound gleeful, it’s partly because I know this kind of experiment happens on a daily basis at a place like Facebook or Google. What’s special about this experiment isn’t that it happened, but that we get to see the data. And the response to the critiques might be, sadly, that we never get another chance like this, so we have to grab the opportunity while we can.

Of course she’s right about the fact that this kind of study happens daily: it HAS happened for decades in advertising agencies who are trying to find ways to connect with consumers and was a source of deep concern for George Orwell in his analysis of Hitler’s rise to power. I think the study overlooks a paradox of technology: the more media outlets there are the less people are willing to consider another individual or group’s perspective. That led me to make the following comment:

Here’s another hypothesis this study might support: the customization of news feeds has contributed to the polarization of politics in our country. There was a time when there were only three major news sources available to people on a daily basis and the news they provided was governed by a fairness doctrine. The segmentation that began with cable TV has increased with the internet making it possible for people to get, for example, “Christian News”. This segmentation leads to a situation where one’s world view is constantly reinforced making it harder for open-mindedness to prevail.

Her short post has links to the study itself, which was an interesting read. The bottom line from my perspective is that we need to include mindfulness in schools as soon as possible so people can gain a clearer understanding of how their mind works.

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Krugman Reports on ALEC

June 30, 2014 Leave a comment

At last a “headline” columnist is making ALEC’s exploits known! Today Paul Krugman’s column, “Charlatans, Cranks and Kansas” deals with the insidious impact ALEC has had and is having on the national, state and local economies, shifting public funds away from the government and into the pockets of the oligarchs. Krugman looks deeply into the KS tax cut debacle (see my post yesterday on this topic) and reaches a broader conclusion:

There’s an important lesson here — but it’s not what you think. Yes, the Kansas debacle shows that tax cuts don’t have magical powers, but we already knew that. The real lesson from Kansas is the enduring power of bad ideas, as long as those ideas serve the interests of the right people.

Those “right people” are the folks who bankroll the American Legislative Exchange Council- or ALEC- whose shenanigans have been widely reported in progressive blogs but mostly overlooked by the main stream media. Krugman succinctly describes ALEC and the folks who underwrite it:

And what is ALEC? It’s a secretive group, financed by major corporations, that drafts model legislation for conservative state-level politicians. Ed Pilkington of The Guardian, who acquired a number of leaked ALEC documents, describes it as “almost a dating service between politicians at the state level, local elected politicians, and many of America’s biggest companies.” And most of ALEC’s efforts are directed, not surprisingly, at privatization, deregulation, and tax cuts for corporations and the wealthy.

And I do mean for the wealthy. While ALEC supports big income-tax cuts, it calls for increases in the sales tax — which fall most heavily on lower-income households — and reductions in tax-based support for working households. So its agenda involves cutting taxes at the top while actually increasing taxes at the bottom, as well as cutting social services.

I felt compelled to elaborate a bit more in the comment section by offering the following:

Here’s the rest of the ALEC playbook: when revenues fall short raid the pension funds of public employees; privatize public services replacing union workers with lower-wage at-will employees thereby rewarding the shareholders while racing to the bottom on wages for those providing services; deregulate so that the privatizers do not have to meet the same standards as the agencies they replace; and make sure the media outlets controlled by ALEC repeat the mantra that government is the problem and the marketplace will solve all problems.

Sunlight is the best antidote to secrecy… and MAYBE if people realize that the economic ideas promoted by ALEC are designed to expand the wealth of the top .05% at the expense of the rest of us they MIGHT change their thinking… and if that happens the enduring power of a host of bad ideas might be diminished.

Pre-K is Too Late

June 29, 2014 Leave a comment

“Inequality Begins at Birth”, Jeff Madrick’s New York Review of Books blog post earlier this week, describes carefully researched evidence demonstrating how the vicious circle of poverty adversely affects children before they enter school. In short, the “toxic stress” experienced by children under the age of three has a devastating effect on their ability to learn and the behaviors of parents experiencing poverty cause their children to experience more toxic stress:

Under stress, the body produces two hormones that are protective, adrenaline and cortisol. But when stress becomes excessive—what the field now describes as “toxic stress”—the excessive hormonal activity damages neural connections, undermines immune responses, and changes the parts of the brain that directly affect memory, learning, and emotional control.

These studies generally concur that persistent neglect and inadequate nurturing are primary causes of brain deterioration. Evidence based on a wide variety of studies of children, including children in foster care around the world, clearly shows, usually with the use of MRIs, the detrimental consequences for neural connections and brain size of seriously inadequate nurturing.

Sociological research, in turn, shows how common child neglect is among the poor. Poor parents are fraught with anxieties about providing adequate food and transportation, and often the safety of their communities and the stability of their families. Some may simply be irresponsible, or use drugs, but numerous ethnographies of the poor, by the Children’s Defense Fund, independent scholars, and others, show that these parents, including single mothers, care about their children as much as parents of greater means. The issue is rather that they often can’t get jobs that allow time for them to spend with their children and lack the resources, time, or freedom from anxieties to cope. Studies also show that the quality of prenatal care can affect early childhood development and that pregnant women on drugs or in depression can also affect the newborn child’s neurological growth.

Madrick’s article is full of detailed descriptions of research supporting his conclusions and decries the failure of political leaders to face up to the scientific evidence regarding the effects of poverty and their failure to accept evidence that government anti-poverty programs CAN make a difference. When the scientific evidence and careful research shows something is true, why isn’t there a groundswell of support for legislation to use that evidence to move forward?

A recent blog post by Paul Waldman in the American Prospect has the answer to the question. The post, titled “What Americans Think of the Poor” provides some insights into voters’ ideas about poor people based on a recent poll conducted by the Pew Charitable Trust. Dividing respondents into seven different ideological/demographic groups ranging from “Steadfast Conservatives” to Solid Liberals”, the poll shows that over 77% of the identified “conservatives” believe the poor have it easy and over 55% of the same group believed a lack of effort was more responsible for their lot in life than “circumstances beyond their control”. For all intents and purposes the American public was split down the middle on these questions.

The fact remains that 25% of the children under five in this country are poor… and none of them are poor because of a “lack of effort” and none of them “have it easy”. Madrick concludes his post with this paragraph:

The research is now undeniable. Inequality in America begins at birth, or, for those born to women who are ill during pregnancy or do not have adequate prenatal care, even before. Through no fault of their own, up to one quarter of American children start off well behind, and another quarter live in families that earn only twice the poverty line—about $48,000 a year for a family of four. Armed with the unambiguous findings of twenty-first-century neuroscience, we can no longer just tell children raised poor to study harder and find jobs as they grow up. A nation that needs all its citizens to be productive workers, and that promises a fair and dignified life to all, regardless of race or color, must now turn its attention to its enormous pool of poor children.

I keep hoping someone running for a political office somewhere in this country will take up this issue and MAYBE help the public understand that poverty is neither a choice nor an easy life for children.

This Just In: Tax Cuts DON’T Work

June 29, 2014 Leave a comment

The Washington Post reports that despite KS Governor Sam Brownback’s claims to the contrary, the tax cuts he championed are NOT having the impact he claims. As the chart below indicates, KS job growth has lagged behind that of the rest of the country and the effects on public schools have been devastating. Here’s the analysis provided in the article:

Earlier this year, my colleague Niraj Chokshi reported on a Center and Budget Policy Priorities study of Kansas’ cuts. In an unusually frank assessment from the nonpartisan think tank, the study’s authors concluded that “Kansas is a cautionary tale, not a model. As other states recover from the recent recession and turn toward the future, Kansas’ huge tax cuts have left that state’s schools and other public services stuck in the recession, and declining further — a serious threat to the state’s long-term economic vitality. Meanwhile, promises of immediate economic improvement have utterly failed to materialize.”

Every month brings fresh economic news that further validates these findings — job creation in Kansas has remained essentially flat since last fall, even as employment increased in the rest of the country.

And meanwhile, our political leaders are turning a blind eye to this “cautionary tale“, insisting on ever increasing cuts to public education in order to reduce taxes while at the same time proclaiming the need for us to improve education to help improve our nation’s “long term economic vitality”. The chart below should be sent to every legislator in the country who makes the bogus claim that lower taxes will increase employment:

tax_cuts-1

 

Enough said!

 

 

How To Increase Heterogeneity

June 29, 2014 Leave a comment

Elite, Separate and Unequal, , an op ed piece by Richard Kahlenberg in today’s NYTimes, describes NYC’s current method of identifying students for its three top tier high schools and its consequences on racial balance and offers an alternative Kahlenberg implemented in Chicago. By law (only in NYS do you find the State meddling in local school district operations), the admission to NYC’s most competitive HSs is based on a two-hour examination. As a result of this narrow admission criteria, the school is disproportionately white and/or Asian. When he was running for office diBlasio pledged to address this inequity and he has kept that promise:

In his campaign for mayor, Bill de Blasio called for diversifying these schools. His administration recently endorsed proposed state legislation that would broaden the criteria for admissions to the city’s three original specialized high schools — Stuyvesant, the Bronx High School of Science, and Brooklyn Technical High School — where the use of the test is mandated by state law, to also include factors such as a student’s grade point average, state exam scores and attendance. At the five other selective schools, Mr. de Blasio has the power to change the criteria without legislation.

Kahlenberg, however, is not confident that these changes will help with the balance and suggests admission to the schools be done by census tract. Under the plan he implemented in Chicago, 30% of the seats to highly competitive schools went to students who did well on tests and had high GPAs. Then,

The remaining seats are allocated to the highest-scoring students from four different socioeconomic tiers, under the premise that students in the poorest parts of the city who score modestly lower on standardized tests have a lot to offer, given the obstacles they’ve had to overcome.

I have an even easier solution: expand the number of high schools that offer a comprehensive college preparatory program mandating that at least one cohort of students in each HS are offered a program that matches the one taught in the elite schools. NYC is a classic examples of the effects of magnet schools: if you attend a “non-magnet” school you are “un-gifted and un-talented” and your school’s reputation is tarnished, its expectations are lower, and its teachers less enthusiastic. Expand the number of classrooms that offer high caliber classes in neighborhood high schools and you will expand the pool of African American and Latino students in highly competitive courses. Voila!

Chainsaws in Schools

June 28, 2014 Leave a comment

Years ago when I began my career as a Superintendent in the 1980s there was a small group of Superintendents who districts hired to “clean house” and to “run schools like a business”. When they were appointed everyone in the district knew their “playbook”: they’d fire people knowing that the board would support them, cut the budgets by looking for imprudent spending that was “baked into” the budget, and drive hard bargains at the negotiating table. In all cases, though, the Board expected them to play by the rules in place, respond to the parents, be respectful to teachers, and use public funds prudently and wisely. In the 1970s and 1980s this was the way business operated and while it was often unsettling for teachers there was some legal mechanism in place for them to seek relief be it through their union or the State’s Labor Relations Board.

Nowadays there is a “new breed” of school superintendents who districts hire to “clean house” and “run schools like a business”… and the paradigmatic “new breed” Superintendent, Paul Vallas, is described in detail in this Common Dreams article by Black Agenda Report writer Bruce Dixon. Unfortunately for the public today, “running schools like a business” means privatization and outsourcing which, in turn, mean meeting the needs of shareholders instead of children. While there is no evidence whatsoever that privatization improves the overall performance of school districts, it capitalizes on the misguided belief that the private sector can always run things better than the public sector… this despite the recent travails of GM, the serial failures of the banking industry, and the devastating effect that outsourcing has had on our economy.

Dixon describes how Democrats and Republicans alike have bought into the notion that privatization is the best way to solve the problems facing public education, and concludes with this paragraph:

We should never forget that the idea that all children in a society deserve quality education is historically a new and revolutionary idea. Even more revolutionary is the notion that students, parents, communities and teachers ought to design and control every aspect of those educational processes. There is a struggle of historic proportions going on over the question of education, and ultimately all of us will have to take a side. Jerry Brown, Andrew Cuomo, Michelle Rhee, Barack ObamaRahm Emanuel and Chainsaw Paul Vallas are on one side. What side are we on?

I think the notion that there are “two sides” is too simplistic. As the recent New Yorker article on the Newark schools indicted a continuation of the status quo in Newark would have resulted in the perpetuation of patronage assignments that did not help children in the classrooms and antiquated teaching methods and administrative oversight that failed to provide opportunities for better learning. Public education needs to change and improve and it needs to be exempt from politics… but the kinds of changes imposed by businessmen with spreadsheets overlooks the human side of schools and schools are first and foremost humanistic enterprises and NOT profit centers or “branch offices”. In short, if you are opposed to the “side” of the politicians and “chainsaw” superintendents you are not necessarily on the “side” of the status quo… because there are clearly some aspects of the status quo that need to be improved.

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The Times Ends “The Great Divide”

June 28, 2014 Leave a comment

“The Great Divide”, one of the sections of the NYTimes that provided lots of food for thought (and many links to my blog posts) ended today with an outstanding article by economist Joseph Stiglitz. Here are some of topics covered in the article:

  • Our current brand of capitalism is an ersatz capitalism. For proof of this go back to our response to the Great Recession, where we socialized losses, even as we privatized gains.
  • If it is not the inexorable laws of economics that have led to America’s great divide, what is it? The straightforward answer: our policies and our politics.
  • Some drew the wrong lesson from the collapse of the Soviet system. The pendulum swung from much too much government there to much too little here.

  • The bankers, among the strongest advocates of laissez-faire economics, were only too willing to accept hundreds of billions of dollars from the government in the bailouts that have been a recurring feature of the global economy since the beginning of the Thatcher-Reagan era of “free” markets and deregulation.

  • The American political system is overrun by money. Economic inequality translates into political inequality, and political inequality yields increasing economic inequality.
  • So corporate welfare increases as we curtail welfare for the poor.
  • OUR divisions are deep. Economic and geographic segregation have immunized those at the top from the problems of those down below.
  • With almost a quarter of American children younger than 5 living in poverty, and with America doing so little for its poor, the deprivations of one generation are being visited upon the next.
  • Justice has become a commodity, affordable to only a few.
  • We need not just a new war on poverty but a war to protect the middle class.
  • The problem of inequality is not so much a matter of technical economics. It’s really a problem of practical politics. Ensuring that those at the top pay their fair share of taxes — ending the special privileges of speculators, corporations and the rich — is both pragmatic and fair.

The final essay in the series concludes with this paragraph:

We have located the underlying source of the problem: political inequities and policies that have commodified and corrupted our democracy. It is only engaged citizens who can fight to restore a fairer America, and they can do so only if they understand the depths and dimensions of the challenge. It is not too late to restore our position in the world and recapture our sense of who we are as a nation. Widening and deepening inequality is not driven by immutable economic laws, but by laws we have written ourselves.

Widening and deepening inequality is not only drive by the “laws we have written ourselves” but also by the laws we have ignored and failed to write. Brown v. Board of Education celebrated its 60th year on the books, and schools are more segregated than ever. Several states have failed to meet their constitutional mandates to provide a free and equitable education to its students and their legislatures have failed to take the action needed to address the problem. I am dismayed that this section of the Times is ending… and hope that the decision was an editorial one and not one driven by squeamish shareholders who don’t want the facts about inequality to see the light of day.