14 August 2014

Much Ado About Nothing

I do not support Hilary Clinton’s presidential aspirations. There are many qualified Democratic women who could run; in fact, I consider the view that Clinton is the only near-term potential female president to be atrociously sexist. However, Clinton is getting underserved flak for her comments in an interview with Jeffrey Goldberg in The Atlantic. In the context of the interview, Clinton is not critical of President Obama and his foreign policy. Indeed, she by and large defends  the Obama administration policy, one that she helped create as secretary of state. Here is what she said:

HRC: Great nations need organizing principles, and “Don’t do stupid stuff” is not an organizing principle. It may be a necessary brake on the actions you might take in order to promote a vision.

JG: So why do you think the president went out of his way to suggest recently that that this is his foreign policy in a nutshell?

HRC: I think he was trying to communicate to the American people that he’s not going to do something crazy. I’ve sat in too many rooms with the president. He’s thoughtful, he’s incredibly smart, and able to analyze a lot of different factors that are all moving at the same time. I think he is cautious because he knows what he inherited, both the two wars and the economic front, and he has expended a lot of capital and energy trying to pull us out of the hole we’re in. So I think that that’s a political message. It’s not his worldview, if that makes sense to you.

She did not argue that Obama’s foreign policy lacks an organizing principle but that the principle has not been well articulated. The domestic political concern—that the public will not support a more activist foreign policy—is driving presidential speechmaking. As part of the discussion prior to this, she said “One issue is that we don’t even tell our own story very well these days.” One issue. Not the only issue or even the primary issue.

And she is right. The perennial problem with the domestic politics of US foreign policy is that presidents fail to communicate what they are doing and why to persuade Congress, the political parties, and the public to support them. Instead, they either pretend that they do not have much of a foreign policy agenda or their articulate an agenda in such idealistic terms that it fails to actually explain what they are doing and why. Almost no president since FDR has been able to explain what he is doing and why (see his 23 Feb. 1942 “fireside chat”).

Even Clinton herself retreats to aspirations and domestic focus right after having critiqued the president’s policy so adeptly.

JG: What is your organizing principle, then?

HRC: Peace, progress, and prosperity. This worked for a very long time. Take prosperity. That’s a huge domestic challenge for us. If we don’t restore the American dream for Americans, then you can forget about any kind of continuing leadership in the world. Americans deserve to feel secure in their own lives, in their own middle-class aspirations, before you go to them and say, “We’re going to have to enforce navigable sea lanes in the South China Sea.”

The 3Ps are no more an organizing principle than stupidity avoidance (and even less so). Indeed, Clinton gets the causation wrong: to make Americans secure in their middle-class aspirations, we need to secure commercial shipping along the South China Sea. Otherwise, global trade is disrupted, the economies of key trading partners suffer, and the US economy slumps as a result. Peace is a wonderful goal but it is hard to square that with arming Syrian rebels without United Nations consent (which Russia and China would veto). As for progress, what kind, at what pace, toward what end? Those are the kinds of questions one needs to answer if one is going to run for president and be prepared to govern if one wins.

 

25 May 2014

Is Illinois Over-Taxed?

With the 5% income tax rate about to expire, many politicians are complaining about how over-taxed Illinois residents are. Illinois residents are unhappy, and more people leave the state than move to it. But when asked why they plan to leave, only 8% cite taxes. Illinois tax collection lags behind most other states, including its neighbors, compared to the size of its economy. When examining all state taxes, not just income, as a percentage of state gross domestic product (GDP), Illinois is behind its neighbors; I added Massachusetts ,which is another flat-tax state.

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As one can see, for some time Illinois lagged significantly behind other states in state tax collection as a percentage of GDP. The Illinois fiscal problems reflect persistent  under-taxation given the size of its economy.

 

11 April 2014

2016 Election: No Clinton?

While the buzz is that Hilary Clinton will run for the Democratic nomination in 2016, I would not be doing this if I were planning to run:

Since Mrs. Clinton left the State Department in February 2013, she has delivered a steady string of speeches to industry groups that pay her around $250,000 per event.

Usually this is what ex-politicians do after they have left public life, not when they plan to continue in it.  A rival for the nomination will certainly make this an issue.

9 April 2014

Common Sense in NYC

NYC is about to adopt a new promotion policy in K12 schooling that no longer uses state accountability tests as a decisive factor in student promotion from one grade to another. The tests will still be a factor, but a poor test score alone will no longer block advancement to the next grade. Instead, the test score will be one element in a larger portfolio of student work that teachers and principals will review to decide whether a student is ready for promotion to the next grade.

NYC had allowed students with low test scores to use a portfolio to appeal being held back on the basis of test score, but the policy required approval by the teacher, the principal, and the NYC schools chancellor’s designee.

If only Chicago had such a policy in place. Since 1996, Chicago Public Schools has used standardized and later state test scores as a decisive factor in deciding promotions in grades 3, 6, and 8. If the standardized test score was too low, regardless of grades, students had to attend summer school. There was no opportunity to retake the test before summer school, against the recommendation of the Standards for Educational and Psychological Testing standard 13.6:

Students who must demonstrate mastery of certain skills or knowledge before being promoted or granted a diploma should have a reasonable number of opportunities to succeed on equivalent forms of the test or be provided with construct-equivalent testing alternatives of equal difficulty to demonstrate skills or knowledge.

 

 

29 March 2014

An Empty Core

Field testing for the multi-state assessments for the Common Core State Standards began last week. Chris Minnich, the executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers, which oversaw the drafting of the CCSS with the National Governor’s Association, heralded the events in  the Huffington Post:

The promise of Common Core standards, now being implemented in more than 40 states, is that they set a higher bar for what students should know and understand at each grade level. What hasn’t changed is that even under these new standards, individual teachers and schools will continue to decide how best to teach their students to meet them. But because the Common Core standards are more rigorous expectations, carefully researched and pegged to meet or exceed what students in other high-performing countries are learning, they will discourage learning-by-memorizing drills and “teaching to the test.”

The aim is noble, but good intentions do not make good policy. Minnich says that the standards are more rigorous and “require students to develop and demonstrate stronger mastery of core subject matter.” The CCSS do not set out a curriculum for meeting them, though many publishers are offering such curricula ostensibly based on the standards. For those of us who have read them, it is by no means clear that a “higher bar” is set or that they enable “stronger mastery of core subject matter.” Instead, they often ask students to explain how they multiplied after multiplying 5 x 4, to which my daughter answers “by multiplying, duh!” Or asking for “evidence” from a story to explain why one character felt they way he or she did, and by evidence they mean quoting back a line from the text.

But let’s stipulate that the standards do require stronger mastery and higher learning. How then will schools and teachers revise their curricula to meet these new standards? Developing state-wide assessments should be the last step in rolling out the CCSS but instead it is the first step. Since the standards seek a progression from kindergarten—yes, now a half-day kindergarten must meet the same standards as a full-day kindergarten—how are teachers supposed to bring a 6th, 7th, or 8th grader up these higher standards when they were taught under lesser standards in their K-5 years? Either the standards are not substantively different and so this will take only a little extra time and effort,  or the standards are in fact significantly more rigorous and improving student instruction will take much more time and effort. If the latter, then the assessments come too soon. We know that many children do not meet the bar for old standards.

For once, an athletic analogy is appropriate for educational achievement. If an athlete cannot leap over a low hurdle, you do not improve his or her performance by raising the height of the hurdle.

19 February 2014

Common Core Math Questions

In November, PARCC, one of the two multi-state consortia developing Common Core assessments, released some more sample questions. CCSSI Mathematics has  good analysis of them.  As they right note, this is an exercise in factoring, not in multiplication. The 10 x  10 grid prohibits a student from arranging the tiles in a 2 x 24 or 4 x 12 grid. Only the 6 x 8 or 8 x 6 rectangular shape is possible.

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I have one more criticism to add for his math problem: the user interface is awful. To answer the question, the students need to click on at least 48 squares. This is a tedious task. With a pencil, the students could easily shade them in broad strokes across columns or rows. The user interface does not permit them to select tiles by click-and-drag or using the keyboard. To un-select the tiles, the student must click each one. So an error in selecting them, could require a child to make more than 48 mouse-clicks.

Then there is part C:

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Again, CCSSI Mathematics has a good criticism of the age-inappropriate nature of these CC standards. Setting that aside, as the item is written, the answer range is quite broad. Consider this:Screen Shot 2014-02-19 at 9.41.18 AM

This is a multiplication question that Andy could have written. It doesn’t represent the problem in C, but the item-writers did not require the test subject to do so. All they asked for was an multiplication equation that used ? to represent the number of row. Is this a correct answer? Or this:

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Neither demonstrates any understanding of the problem posed in C, but they are mathematically accurate multiplication equations that Andy could have written. And quite sophisticated ones indeed.

6 November 2013

Christie’s Shallow Victory

The press is proclaiming NJ Gov. Chris Christie to be the candidate that can reach beyond the GOP in 2016 based on his landslide victory on Tuesday. But this is a weak analysis of what actually occurred. Christie won with 1,242,568 votes, a small gain over his 2009 win with 1,174,445 votes, or 48.5% of the ballots cast. On Tuesday, he won 60.5% of the vote. Compare this to the 2012 presidential election in NJ —Mitt Romney lost NJ with 1,477,568 votes, more than Christie earned in either election. In short, Christie’s victory is due less to his appeal to a broad spectrum of voters and more to a lack of serious opposition.

The USA Today story buries a key finding:

Exit polls on Tuesday, with the same voters who handed Christie his epic win, showed that in a matchup with Democrat Hillary Clinton, Christie would lose New Jersey 48%-44%.

Considering that Democratic turnout was low, this is a surprising result. While reporter Martha T. Moore considers this to be due to NJ’s larger Democratic base, it also reflects the limits of Christie’s appeal compared to the alternatives.

 

20 September 2013

On Interpreting the ISATs, Part I

If you were to design a system to hold public schools accountable to parents of those attending and the citizens whose taxes support the schools, you would only design it the way that Illinois has if you were trying to hide something. Over the past few weeks, Illinois public schools are giving parents of children who were in 3rd through 8th grade in March 2013 the results of their Illinois State Achievement Tests (ISAT) scores. These parents will receive the score their child received in math and reading (and science for grades 4 and 7). In the past, they also received the national percentile rank — how their child ranked compared to the national sample of the children.

Unfortunately, the percentile comes from an independent section of the ISAT, a subset of the SAT10 (no the college application exam, but a different test), and it is not connected to the rest of the ISAT from which the scores that determine whether children exceed, meet, or are below state standards are derived. Indeed, many parents are puzzled as to how their child could fail to meet state standards on the scored ISAT but rank well in the SAT10 percentile. Rather than explain why this would be the case, the Illinois State Board of Education chose not to print forms with the percentile on it. Indeed, one should have grave doubt about the validity of a test that says you fail to meet standards if you score in the 60th percentile or higher nationally.

ISBE has an evasive answer. The ISAT cut-scores — the scores that determine whether a student exceeds, meets, or is below the standards — were raised in 2013. Why? Because ISBE thought they should be recalibrated to reflect how ISBE believes students will perform when tests that are designed to assess how well students meet the Common Core State Standards are developed and administered. Yes, you read that sentence correctly: ISBE believed it knew how students would do on a test that has yet to be completed, let alone taken, and based on that belief, changed the scores for the test that the students actually took.

Now, ISBE will claim that it can predict how well students in grades 3-8 will do on a non-existent test because it knows how well students who took the ISAT in grade 8 in 2008 did on the Praire State Achievement Exam (PSAE) as 11th graders in 2011. And since only 51% of students in 2011 met the “college and career readiness,” something had to be wrong with the cut-scores on the 2008 ISAT in which 82% of the 8th graders met state standards. It never crossed anyone’s mind at ISBE, it seems, that:
1) the set of skills and knowledge that enable 8th grader to meet ISAT standards are not the same set needed to meet standards on the PSAE.;
2) the content of the PSAE, especially the ACT part, is more difficult than the ISATs
3) the CCSS-based tests will not be equatable with the PSAE tests.
4) the instruction in high school does not prepare them for the PSAEs

So ISBE changed cut scores so that a 2008 8th grader who had met the standards on the 2008 ISAT but did not met expectations on the PSAE in 2011 would no longer meet standards on the 2008 ISAT. It used that rescaling to change the cut scores for 2013. The statistical technique that ISBE used to rescale the scores guaranteed that the more students would fall below state standards and fewer students would exceed them. Indeed, the statistical method used — equipercentile equating — is intended to be use on tests that measure the same underlying dimensions (for example, comparing the ACT with the SAT), not comparing dissimilar tests three years apart.

So what is a parent to do with the results of the 2013 ISATs? Not very much. At best you can compare the scores and sub-scores of your child v. the school, district, and state averages. This doesn’t tell you much: you are either lower, equal, or higher than the averages.What data would help? Stay tuned for part II.

 

4 September 2013

Accountability means not telling you later

Correction: In examining prior cohort data, in turns out that what ISBE and the IIRC call cohort data is not what I describe it as below. In fact, the IIRC “cohort” just compares the scores of all 3rd graders in year to all 4th graders in year t+1. The trouble with doing this is that not all 3rd graders in year t stay in the same school for year t+1 and some new students arrive from other schools. Now CPS did distinguish in this more accurate way as part of its value-added scores; I had assumed they drew on the same data that went into the cohort study. I was wrong. CPS assembled this dataset itself (CPS has not issued value-added scores for 2013 ISATs, probably because they are moving over to NWEA MAP to measure teacher and principal performance). Nevertheless, I do not see why the IIRC site cannot be updated publicly when the data has been there since July. Now parents have to download a bulky Excel file to find out how their school performed.

The 2013 ISAT scores for Illinois schools have been out since July 2013. But the more helpful data, how cohorts of students have performed, has only been available to school officials. The public has no access to it. And the Illinois State Board of Education refuses to release it to the public until the last moment possible under state law, 31 Oct. That date is the deadline by which ISBE must release the data. But the board members apparently don’t know what a deadline is. They have the data, but they have chosen to deny it to the public until the last legal moment.

But, you might object, the 2013 ISAT results at the school and grade level were released in July. True, but that data is not all that useful. Cohort data tells us, for example, how 3rd graders who took the test in 2012 did as 4th graders in 2013.  [It should do this but the IIRC data does not.] The data we have available compares, for example, the set of 3rd graders in 2012 with the set of 3rd graders in 2013. That doesn’t tell us much about the school or the teachers; it tells us about the 3rd graders.

 

31 August 2013

Democracy and Foreign Policy

This is how US foreign policy is supposed to work when it comes to using force when there is not an imminent danger: the president asks Congress for authorization. Of course, like Presidents George H. and George W. Bush, President Obama denied that he needs this authorization to use force under the Constitution, but what he says he needs and what he and his recent predecessors actually did are two different things. His decision to seek Congressional approval for the use of force reinforces the legal position that the president does not have unilateral authority to use force. It won’t resolve the debate, but it is a step in the right direction.