First, the rush to celebrate Kristof’s acknowledgement of Thomas Picketty, inequality, and (gasp) the implication that capitalism is failing seems easy to accept. But that urge to pat Kristof on the back feels too much like the concurrent eagerness to praise John Merrow for (finally) unmasking Michelle Rhee, despite his repeated refusal to listen to valid criticism over the past few years.
But, I cannot praise Kristof [or Merrow especially (see HERE and HERE)] because there is a late-to-the-party and trivial quality to Kritof’s oversimplification of the problems raised by Picketty, a framing that allows considerations of inequity and poverty to remain comfortably within the exact free market/competition ideologies perpetuating all the ways in which we are failing life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
If Kristof’s initial premise is true—many in the U.S. do not have the sustained interest needed to consider fully Picketty’s work—then that may be what Kristof and others should to be addressing. Those likely to buy and then (not) read Picketty are disproportionately among the privileged for whom the current imbalance works in their favor.
A passing and brief interest in inequity (let’s drop the “inequality,” please) is evidence that many in the U.S. remain committed to the Social Darwinism that drives capitalism’s role in creating social inequity—”I’m going to get mine, others be damned”—and equally unaware that this selfish view of the world is in fact self-defeating.
And this leads me to the real problem I have with Kristof’s mostly flippant short-cut to Picketty:
Second, inequality in America is destabilizing. Some inequality is essential to create incentives, but we seem to have reached the point where inequality actually becomes an impediment to economic growth.
And while Kristof appears completely oblivious to what he is admitting here, that second claim is the essential problem with capitalism: The ideology that humans should seek the right balance of affluence and poverty, which is the essence of capitalism and the ugly truth that the market creates and needs poverty.
So I do not find Kristof’s idiot’s guide satisfying in any way, but I do have some questions.
In the U.S., where white males outnumber black males 6 to 1 and then black males outnumber white males 6 to 1 in prisons, what is the right balance of inequity we should have?
In the U.S. where blacks and white use illegal recreational drugs at the same rates but blacks are disproportionately targeted and charged with drug possession/use, what is the right balance of inequity we should have?
In the U.S. where women earn about 3/4s what men earn (for the same work), what is the right balance of inequity we should have?
In the U.S. where people born in poverty who complete college have a lower earning potential than people born in affluence who haven’t completed college, what is the right balance of inequity we should have?
In the U.S. where blacks with some college have the same earning potential as white high-school drop-outs, what is the right balance of inequity we should have?
Kristof’s guide may be intended for idiots, but it fails because his analysis remains trapped inside a market view of the world, a view that seeks an ugly and inhumane balance of inequity that values poverty, that needs the poor and thus creates the exact inequity we continue to trivialize in our political leadership and mainstream media.
Randy Olson’s Flock of Dodos (2006) explores the evolution and Intelligent Design (ID) debate that represents the newest attack on teaching evolution in U.S. public schools. The documentary is engaging, enlightening, and nearly too fair considering Olson admits upfront that he stands with scientists who support evolution as credible science and reject ID as something outside the realm of science.
Olson’s film, however, offers a powerful message that rises above the evolution debate. Particularly in the scenes depicting scientists discussing (during a poker game) why evolution remains a target of political and public interests, the documentary shows that evidence-based expertise often fails against clear and compelling messages (such as “teach the controversy”)—even when those clear and compelling messages are inaccurate.
In other words, ID advocacy has often won in the courts of political and public opinion despite having no credibility within the discipline it claims to inform—evolutionary biology.
With that sobering reality in mind, please identify what XYZ represents in the following statement about “What We Know Now”:
Is there a bottom line to all of this? If there is one, it would appear to be this: Despite media coverage, which has been exceedingly selective and misrepresentative, and despite the anecdotal meanderings of politicians, community members, educators, board members, parents, and students, XYZ have not been effective in achieving the outcomes they were assumed to aid….
This analysis is addressing school uniform policies, conducted by sociologist David L. Brunsma who examined evidence on school uniform effectiveness (did school uniform policies achieve stated goals of those policies) “from a variety of data gathered during eight years of rigorous research into this issue.”
This comprehensive analysis of research from Brunsma replicates the message in Flock of Dodos—political, public, and media messaging continues to trump evidence in the education reform debate. Making that reality more troubling is that a central element of No Child Left Behind was a call to usher in an era of scientifically based education research. As Sasha Zucker notes in a 2004 policy report for Pearson, “A significant aspect of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB) is the use of the phrase ‘scientifically based research’ well over 100 times throughout the text of the law.”
Brunsma’s conclusion about school uniform policies, I regret to note, is not an outlier in education reform but a typical representation of education reform policy. Let’s consider what we know now about the major education reform agendas currently impacting out schools:
- What we know now about grade retention: Grade retention is growing in popularity across the U.S., represented by accountability policies in Florida. But grade retention has been shown by four decades of research not to achieve the goals advocates claim, and to cause harm.
- What we know now about charter schools: Despite the increased support and funding for charter schools, “charterness” has not been shown to be a determining factor in school quality (when compared to traditional public schools [TPS]), charter schools have produced a range of outcomes essentially indistinguishable from TPS, but charter schools have increased segregation (by class and race) as well as underserved English language learners and special needs students (see annotated research here).
- What we know now about school choice (and competition): Decades of a variety of commitments to school choice (notably vouchers) have resulted in a growing body of evidence that school choice fails to achieve the goals of its proponents (see a critical analysis of choice here). Choice, however, has been associated, like charter schools, with shuffling populations of students and increasing segregation. More broadly, the research on competition shows that it causes harm, and not the positive outcomes choice advocates claim.
- What we know now about value added methods (VAM) of teacher evaluation: Although it is fair to say that the jury is still out on VAM, even advocates for exploring the potential for VAM have expressed caution about using it in high-stakes policies (see cautious considerations of VAM validity and reliability). Broadly, high-stakes implementation of VAM is certainly premature, and likely a significant waste of time and money better spent on problems more pressing and clearly defined.
- What we know now about teacher quality: Teacher quality matters, but teacher quality is dwarfed by factors outside of school and outside the control of schools. The real teacher quality problem in schools is teacher assignment since impoverished students, African American students, Latina/o students, English language learners, and special needs students are disproportionately assigned to inexperienced and un-/under-certified teachers.
- What we know now about merit pay: Simply stated, merit pay doesn’t work (and it may often have powerful negative consequences). It doesn’t work in education (see Pink also), but the business world has recognized that as well.
- What we know now about Teach for America (TFA): The growing research base on TFA reveals a mixed picture, but it also shows that TFA advocacy is misleading (see also “three biggest lies”). Further TFA contributes negatively to some central problems public education faces: teacher attrition/turnover and inequitable teacher assignments (high-poverty and minority students being assigned disproportionately new and uncertified teachers).
- What we know now about the SAT: The SAT remains a weaker predictor of freshman college success than GPA and also does not contribute positively to the public perception of school quality. SAT-prep classes also create a drain on school time and resources that could be better used addressing other needs. As well, the SAT remains race, class, and gender biased*.
- What we know now about accountability, standards, and high-stakes testing: After thirty years of accountability, standards, and high-stakes testing in 50 separate state experiments, the research base is clear: “the absence or presence of rigorous or national standards says nothing about equity, educational quality, or the provision of adequate educational services, there is no reason to expect CCSS or any other standards initiative to be an effective educational reform by itself” (Mathis, 2012).
- What we know now about miracle schools: Virtually every school designated “miracle” by advocates or the media (Texas miracle, Chicago miracle, Harlem miracle, Florida miracle, etc.) has been debunked by close analysis. Claims that some high-poverty schools excel (and thus all should excel) has also been exposed as misleading: “only 1.1 percent of high-poverty schools were identified as ‘high flyers.'”
- What we know now about education as a social change agent: Simply stated: “you are better off being born rich regardless of whether you go to college than being born poor and getting a college degree” (Bruenig, 2013, based on data from “Pursuing the American Dream,” Pew Charitable Trusts).
Well into the second decade of the twenty-first century, then, education reform continues a failed tradition of honoring messaging over evidence. Neither the claims made about educational failures, nor the solutions for education reform policy today are supported by large bodies of compelling research.
As the fate of NCLB continues to be debated, the evidence shows not only that NCLB has failed its stated goals, but also that politicians, the media, and the public have failed to embrace the one element of the legislation that held the most promise—scientifically based research—suggesting that dodos may in fact not be extinct.
* Santelices, M. V., & Wilson, M. (2010, Spring). Unfair treatment? The case of Freedle, the SAT, and the standardization approach to differential item functioning. Harvard Educational Review, 80(1), 106-133.; Spelke, E. S. (2005, December). Sex differences in intrinsic aptitude for mathematics and science? American Psychologist, 60(9), 950-958; See page 4 for 2012 SAT data: http://media.collegeboard.com/digitalServices/pdf/research/TotalGroup-2012.pdf
Between parts I and II of Oprah Winfrey’s interview with Lance Armstrong, an ad ran on OWN that included a clip of Armstrong acknowledging losing 75 million dollars in one day due to sponsors abandoning him followed by Armstrong noting his lowest moment. The sequence suggests that Armstrong was saying his loss of millions was his lowest moment, but when the full part II ran, Armstrong, in fact, identified removing himself from LIVESTRONG as the low moment.
But the point of an ad is to tease, not reflect truth.
For many cycling enthusiasts like me, the dark underbelly of professional cycling and Armstrong have been no revelation. For the many innocent people trampled by the Armstrong stampede—such as cycling journalist Neil Browne and the well publicized Frankie and Betsy Andreu—the Armstrong confession has opened the door for some vindication of their honesty, but unlikely is that the tremendous damage done to their livelihoods can ever be repaid.
Within hours of the Armstrong interview being aired, details of a book on Armstrong’s disgraceful fall were announced for a June 2013 publication, to be followed by a film.
And herein lies one thing that is receiving almost no public discussion: As long as the media, the USADA, and the public keep the gaze on Armstrong alone, the culture within which Armstrong flourished, the culture within which Armstrong was created will remain unexamined, unscathed, and free to consume.
Today among the rubble of Armstrong’s machine, Capitalism remains unchecked, and many now line up once again to profit off Armstrong as they did during his rise to false King of Cycling.
What are the problems?
What is the evidence the problems exist?
What is the quality of that evidence?
Who are the stakeholders in the problems and solutions?
What are the perspectives of those stakeholders?
What are the perspectives of the stakeholders with experience and expertise in the problems and solutions?
Who stands to gain personally, professionally, and financially from the problems and solutions?
In the pursuit of any sort of reform, the right questions are essential—as is credible evidence—before solutions can be identified as valid, useful, and potentially effective. The great failure of democracy is that it appears those elected to power have neither the ability to ask the right questions nor the propensity to seek credible solutions. Those leaders are, however, eager to claim problems and support solutions that benefit them.
“In a bold experiment in performance pay, complaints from patients at New York City’s public hospitals and other measures of their care — like how long before they are discharged and how they fare afterward — will be reflected in doctors’ paychecks under a plan being negotiated by the physicians and their hospitals,” announces the lede to “New York City Ties Doctors’ Income to Quality of Care.”
“Bold” apparently means “making decisions based on ideology and not a shred of evidence.”
The article makes no case that doctor pay currently poses any sort of genuine problem—just that doctor pay is “traditional.” Further, the article does acknowledge two important facts:
“Still, doctors are hesitant, saying they could be penalized for conditions they cannot control, including how clean the hospital floors are, the attentiveness of nurses and the availability of beds.
“And it is unclear whether performance incentives work in the medical world; studies of similar programs in other countries indicate that doctors learn to manipulate the system.”
For those of us struggling against a similar baseless current of teacher evaluation and pay reform, these details are all too familiar: (1) Concerns about accountability being linked to conditions over which a worker has no control (or autonomy), and (2) A complete disregard for the mountain of evidence that merit pay of all kinds proves to be ineffective and triggers for many negative unintended consequences:
“‘The consequences in a complex system like a hospital for giving an incentive for one little piece of behavior are virtually impossible to foresee,’ said Dr. David U. Himmelstein, professor of public health at the City University of New York and a visiting professor at Harvard Medical School, who has reviewed the literature on performance incentives. ‘There are ways of gaming it without even outright lying that distort the meaning of the measure.’ …
“Dr. Himmelstein also said doctors could try to avoid the sickest and poorest patients, who tend to have the worst outcomes and be the least satisfied. But physicians within the public hospital system have little ability to choose their patients, Mr. Aviles said. He added that he did not expect the doctors to act so cynically because, ‘in the main, physicians are here because they are attracted to that very mission of serving everybody equally.'”
The medical profession is poised to experience the complete failure of democracy that has been the fate of educators for at least three decades now. Democracy has spawned a legion of people with power but no expertise, and the result is a template for reform that ignores clearly identifying problems, fails to gather credible evidence, bypasses a wealth of experience and expertise, and imposes the mechanisms of inequity that brought those in power to that power.
As a result, buried late in this article on doctor pay reform is a cautionary tale:
“But Dr. Himmelstein said there were still hazards in the city’s plan. He said that when primary-care doctors in England were offered bonuses based on quality measures, they met virtually all of them in the first year, suggesting either that quality improved or — the more likely explanation, in his view — ‘they learned very quickly to teach to the test.'”
Educators, sound familiar?