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To φ Or Not To φ (Daily Nous Philosophy Comics)

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istoner
8 days ago
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lol
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How Charter Schools Cook the Books

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For a variety of reasons, charter schools have long been the darlings of American news media’s discussions about education reform. For one thing, our media is disproportionately neoliberal and inclined to believe that markets make everything better. For another, our pundit class draws disproportionately from the elite classes, who tend to have attended expensive private schools and who have no particular sympathy – and often outright disdain – for public education. For another, the funding apparatus of our think tanks is heavily bent against public schools and towards charters, as the do-gooding rich types who fund such institutions are often market-focused and antagonistic to unionized public sector employees like public school teachers.

Whatever the reason, the general state of affairs in education reporting is near-total credulity towards charter schools and their advocates, with few in professional media digging in to charter school rhetoric to find the flaws. To understand these failures, it’s important to look at how charter schools achieve good numbers at the cost of fairness and transparency.

Manufacturing Selection Bias

Generating responsible arguments about education is difficult for a variety of reasons. Perhaps the biggest lies in selection bias. Selection bias refers to when inequalities in how samples are gathered – such as “public school students” vs “charter school students” – leads to incorrect assumptions about results. I have argued in the past that selection bias is in fact the single most important phenomenon in educational statistics.

A classic example in selection bias lies in the common assumption that private schools are superior to public. Many parents send their children to private schools without any rigorous investigation about whether those schools are superior to local public schools at all. After all, they might say, look at the star students the private schools graduate. But there is an obvious and immensely important factor missing when we attempt to naively compare outcomes across school types: the incoming student bodies are not remotely the same. Private schools almost universally have more affluent student bodies than traditional public schools, meaning many of the most disadvantaged students are systematically excluded. And many privates also employ entrance exams or grade requirements before enrollment, ensuring that their student bodies will be predisposed to succeed.

Charter advocates tend to speak as if charter schools have demographically and economically similar student bodies to public, and act as though we have true random placement into their schools. Some claim that lottery systems are sufficient to wash out differences in incoming student bodies. Random assignment is extremely important in educational statistics, as it is necessary to ensure that our comparisons are fair.

But we know that charter school student bodies are very often not equal. And we know that many charter schools go to immense lengths to make sure they aren’t. A 2013 Reuters investigation found myriad ways that charters go out of their way to exclude the most difficult to educate:

Students may be asked to submit a 15-page typed research paper, an original short story, or a handwritten essay on the historical figure they would most like to meet. There are interviews. Exams. And pages of questions for parents to answer, including: How do you intend to help this school if we admit your son or daughter?

These aren’t college applications. They’re applications for seats at charter schools.

Charters are public schools, funded by taxpayers and widely promoted as open to all. But Reuters has found that across the United States, charters aggressively screen student applicants, assessing their academic records, parental support, disciplinary history, motivation, special needs and even their citizenship, sometimes in violation of state and federal law.

Note that even requiring parents to opt their children in to lotteries is sufficient to contaminate randomization enough to make drawing responsible inferences impossible. And clearly these schools go far beyond that.

These behaviors are not only important in and of themselves, as indicators of how unscrupulous actors can bend the rules to make charters look better compared to public. They also demonstrate that even among charter officials themselves, there is a strong understanding of just how strong a role student selection plays in outcomes. Otherwise, why would they go to the trouble? For all of their talk about how charter practices are sufficient to help any child succeed, their own behavior demonstrates differently.

In fact, we have a raft of research showing that, when we employ genuinely random distribution, perceived differences in school quality makes no impact on student achievement.

You’d expect charter advocates to be particularly stringent about charters that engage in these practices; if they really believe that charters are better on the merits, they’d want to ensure fair comparisons. But in my experience, reformers are in fact incredibly credulous about even the rosiest numbers that arise from the charter world, almost never engaging in appropriate, productive skepticism.

Refusing to Backfill

An important type of selection bias is survivorship bias. With survivorship bias, we only observe a given characteristic in those examples that make it past some sort of selection procedure. If you ever hear a speech by any successful famous person, they are likely to deliver some sort of bromide about how they kept a positive attitude and never gave up. Which may be true – but there are also plenty of people who kept a positive attitude and never gave up and didn’t succeed, but crucially they never get the opportunity to make speeches about it so we don’t adjust our understanding accordingly. This is survivorship bias.

A common type of charter school chicanery involves the refusal to backfill and in so doing create a type of survivorship bias. “Backfill” refers to schools enrolling more students to fill spaces created through students dropping out, failing out, or being removed for disciplinary problems. Backfill – backfill through random selection, of course – is essential for making fair comparisons. After all, the students most likely to leave are often the ones living the most difficult, most transient lives, and thus those most likely to struggle academically. Refusing to backfill amounts to creaming the best students off the top after the fact.

Who’s guilty of refusing to backfill? Why, Success Academy Charters, the darlings of the charter school set! Aside from the brutal working conditions and army of short-term “tourist teachers” looking for a foothold in New York City, I suspect that this accounts for a large portion of the supposed advantage of Success Academy. If charter advocates are serious about actually wanting real student gains, why have they not led the charge against this kind of practice?

You can also just routinely suspend the most vulnerable students until they drop out or are forced out, which many charter schools already do.

When In Doubt, Cook the Books

Survivorship bias strikes again. The 2013 CREDO study was widely ballyhooed at the time as a vindication of charter schools, showing significant learning gains relative to public. And with the credibility and prestige of Stanford’s CREDO project behind it, the report made serious waves. Unfortunately, few people seemed to dig into the fine print. As a (pseudonymous) writer pointed out at EduShyster, the CREDO report admitted that 8 percent of the charter schools in the initial sample had closed. And which schools are most likely to close? The worst performers! Of course your numbers are going to look good when the worst 8% of the sample simple vanishes into thin air, a vanishing act generally impossible for public schools. Again: why would serious charter school advocates tolerate this kind of thing, if they are genuinely interested in helping children learn?

There are many, many other examples of charter advocates playing fast and loose with numbers in order to attack public schools. For example, when discussing the supposed New Orleans miracle in post-Katrina schooling, charter advocates are prone to trumpet the rise in the number of schools receiving a passing grade from the state since public schools were closed and replaced by charters. They typically neglect to mention that the cut score for passing was lowered in between the rating of the public schools and the rating of the charter schools.

Just Giving Everybody A’s

I like this one the best, because it is the most brazen. At San Diego Metropolitan Career and Technical School, every student is above average. The grades are sterling. The graduation rate is top notch.

The test scores, sadly, are quite bad. Because they seem to be giving out great grades to everybody regardless of performance. Hey, that’s one way to achieve – just lower standards. Reform types love to argue that market forces compel schools to promote student learning, but this is incorrect on its face. Market forces compel charter schools to please parents, which is not at all the same thing. And you can bet if it’s happening at one school, it’s happening at another. There are thousands of charter schools in the country, and yet their advocates constantly talk as though any given school performs identically to the attention-grabbing, high-resource, big-city idiosyncratic schools they love to tout.

If I am hard on the charter school crowd, it’s in part because they’ve spent the last several decades attacking teachers, hundreds of thousands of public servants who make middling wages performing an impossible job. But it’s also because issues like these are simply not discussed by advocates, who tend to adopt a defensive position and refuse to countenance any questioning of charter schools at all. I am currently working on a book about these topics; my day job is in academic assessment; I wrote a dissertation about standardized tests; and I’ve taught students from kindergarten to graduate school in a variety of contexts. I have never found serious attempts to grapple with the profound challenges to charter school numbers that I have laid out here. If charter advocates actually care about improving education, rather than simply winning, you’d think they’d leap at the challenge.

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istoner
15 days ago
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The Supreme Court's First Rule on Racism

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Though it remains unclear, many Supreme Court observers predict that the high court will uphold President Trump's Muslim Ban, in spite of the obvious evidence that the ban was motivated by illicit animus against Muslims.

The thing is, in any other context this is a very straightforward case. If Tom is up for a promotion at work, and says in his interview that if he's promoted, he will fire "all the Black people" in his department, then when Tom proceeds to start firing Black people he and his company are going to be in serious legal jeopardy even if he puts "performance-reasons" in a memo somewhere.

Likewise, this case isn't hard if the guy making the hateful comments and then acting exactly as said hateful comments predicts is a small-town Mayor (Justice Kennedy did raise this hypothetical). If Smallsville, Anystate tried to pull a stunt like this -- announce a "complete ban on hiring Blacks," then implement a policy that the town won't hire anyone from a list of neighborhoods that happen to be overwhelmingly Black -- again, this would be a dunker.

So why is this case hard? The answer is: Because the guy who made the comments is the President of the United States.

But let's be clear about the reason that makes this case hard. It's not because the President should get some special solicitude under the Constitution. If anything, the Supreme Court's jurisprudence around race, ethnicity, and religion suggests that the Court should be applying the most rigorous scrutiny possible in cases like this.

No, the reason that it's "hard" is because a ruling that the President had engaged in unlawful discrimination means conceding that overt, intentional discrimination is present at the highest level of American government. It means saying, in a very real sense, that America is racist -- or at least, we were fine electing a racist. And I think this Supreme Court wants to resist that conclusion with all of its might.

In the gay marriage context, one the arguments conservative jurists made as to why gay marriage bans couldn't be motivated by unlawful animus was the fact that many people supported them -- and how outrageous, how rude, to accuse them all of being bigots! Animus, in this view, was by definition something uncommon. Hence, if a challenged law had widespread support and wasn't limited to a stray set of outcasts or an idiosyncratic township, it couldn't be unconstitutional.

When it comes to racism, the same rules apply. Conservatives may be willing to concede it exists in some nowhere county or scattered across a few corporate malcontents. But the core rule about racism in America is that it is aberrant. It is rare.* It is not who we are. And so any ruling or doctrine which interferes with that conclusion -- that racism has been isolated to a few obscure corners of America -- has got to go.

In a sense, this is what prompted the Supreme Court's doctrinal push towards making motivation the be-all-end-all of what counts as legal racism in America. If you make it so that the only way to prove racism is basically someone admitting "I am doing this because of race/ethnicity/religion" -- I mean, who is going to be dumb enough to do that (other than some podunk mayor or sheriff or other rando)? Well, guess what -- someone just called their bluff, because now the answer is the President of the United States of America. And I don't think the Court cares about the doctrinal niceties as much as they care about the underlying principle that Racism. Is. Rare. Hence, we're going to get some pretzel-logic about why words clearly establishing motive don't count in a doctrinal world where motive is supposedly all that counts.

So that's my prediction: The Supreme Court will uphold the travel ban, with language about how it is unreasonable or unfair or goes too far to ascribe animus to the order based solely on the fact that the President clearly and unambiguously communicated that animus was the reason for his decision.

And I'll make a further prediction: 15 years after the ruling, it will stop being cited. 30 years after the ruling, it will become part of the anti-canon. 45 years after the ruling, it will be beyond obvious that it was an embarrassment, but fortunately, the sort of embarrassment we as a nation have thankfully outgrown.

And 60 years after the ruling, we'll do it again -- or something very much like it.

* The exception is alleged racism against White people. In that case, they are entirely willing to adopt expansive interpretations of the Fourteenth Amendment and civil rights laws to capture wide swaths of public activity.
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istoner
28 days ago
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David puts his finger on a principle in play well beyond the Supreme Court. This one muddles the thinking of MANY of my white community college students.
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To φ Or Not To φ (Daily Nous Philosophy Comics)

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istoner
35 days ago
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ABDUCTIVE!
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Nasim Aghdam's Massacre Is Part of the Crisis of Big Tech

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Yesterday afternoon Nasim Aghdam, 39, walked onto the YouTube campus in San Bruno, California, fired dozens of shots, injured four people and then killed herself. Initial reports suggested the shooter might be a disgruntled former employee or friend. Aghdam’s name already has led some to jump to the conclusion that the attack is tied to Islamic fundamentalism. But that seems pretty clearly not to be the case. Aghdam’s activism was tied to animal rights and veganism. Her extensive online trail shows that she was intensely angry at YouTube itself for “demonetizing” her YouTube channels and in other ways purportedly discriminating against her. This seems clear to have been the motive behind her rampage. In other words, she was a disgruntled YouTube user.

All of Aghdam’s social media platform accounts have already been suspended. They were down shortly after her name became public last night. But her site remains online. Here are a couple screen grabs of the site, both to give you some flavor of her world and to let you read some of her grudge. Read More →

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istoner
49 days ago
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NARRATOR: it was not fine.

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archive - contact - sexy exciting merchandise - search - about
March 30th, 2018next

March 30th, 2018: Shout out to my new physicist friend Daniel for shooting me an email covering most of this, after yesterday's comic! This is basically the Dinosaur Comics version of his email, and I was thrilled to learn more about The Physics Of Shooting The Sun. If we work together, one day we can do it. Thank you Daniel, and to everyone else who emailed me with corrections too!

– Ryan

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istoner
54 days ago
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Kerbal Space Program prepared me to grumble effectively about yesterday's orbital mechanics nonsense, and to enjoy today's correction all the more. Thanks, video games!
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daanzu_alt_text_bot
54 days ago
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[rss title] NARRATOR: it was not fine.

[img title] If you're saying, hold on, I'll just build a gun that fires a smaller gun that fires a bullet to get around this, then congratulations, you have just invented multi-stage rockets.

[mailto subject] We've gotten spaceships up to insane speeds by slingshotting them around planets, so it's possible you could calculate an orbital trajectory for your bullet that does it. Maybe. I haven't run the numbers; I'm already on enough watchlists for searching "CAN YOU SHOOT THE SUN" so many times
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