Class Warfare Blog

March 1, 2013

You Get What You Measure

Yesterday the Dow Jones Industrial Average, a measure of the temperature of the Stock Market, came within a hair’s breadth of hitting an all-time high (yes, all-time). At the same time personal income tumbled 3.6 percent in January, the largest drop since January 1993. The income at the disposal of households after inflation and taxes plunged a 4.0 percent in January after advancing 2.7 percent in December.

So, why do we use the DJ as an indicator of the overall health of the economy? Why do we not use an index of middle class wages, something that would reflect the ability of Americans to purchase goods and services? The stock market tells us very little; we think it does but it does not. If it were a measure of the economy’s health, should not the economy be booming?

Ask yourself: if middle class wages were growing at a very fast clip, would you think the economy were stagnant? or weak? or . . . ?

September 14, 2012

Liar, Liar, Pants on Fire

Filed under: Education,The Unions — Steve Ruis @ 9:46 am
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Just yesterday I said about the Chicago teacher’s strike “In my city (Chicago) there is a teacher’s strike currently stalling the opening of the school year. This is one of very, very few strikes in this era of crippled unions. The surrounding discourse is very disappointing. Mostly there are newspaper editorials that are shallow, often appealing to doing our “best for our children.” The real issues are nowhere to be seen.”

Well, today Eric Zorn of the Chicago Tribune made a liar out of me with the thoughtful (and fact-based!) column I reblog below. (I do not reblog stuff as a rule, but Mr. Zorn graciously gave his permission.)

Why teachers have test anxiety, too
by Eric Zorn, Chicago Tribune

The statement of the obvious: Bad teachers are afraid of being evaluated based on how well their students perform on standardized tests. When they fail their students, their students fail them.

The question: But why are so many presumptively good teachers also afraid? Why has the role of testing in teacher evaluations been a major sticking point in the public schools strike in Chicago?

The short answer: Because student test scores provide unreliable and erratic measurements of teacher quality. Because studies show that from subject to subject and from year to year, the same teacher can look alternately like a golden apple and a rotting fig.

The background: Statisticians have known for years that end-of-year student test scores alone aren’t a good gauge of teacher performance and have sought instead to try to measure the degree to which year-to-year improvements (or decreases) in student achievement can be attributed to the individual teacher.

This is the “value-added” approach that Chicago Public Schools have proposed to use for up to 40 percent of teacher-evaluation scores.

Refinements over the years have tried to take into account more and more of the different educational challenges, even within the same school, that can distort the scores. Add in a few extra pupils with learning disabilities, behavioral issues or language difficulties, for example, and even the best teachers will struggle to add value.

The analogy: A fertilizer test.

In a critical takedown of the value-added approach (.pdf) published this year in Notices of the American Mathematical Society, John Ewing, president of Math for America, an organization dedicated to improving high school math education, invited readers to consider the way scientists might compare the effectiveness of an array of fertilizers on different plants under various types of soil conditions.

Scientists would mix and match on dozens of plots of land and chart the growth and health of the plants over time. And with luck, in the end, they’d come up with simple fertilizer ratings that gardeners and farmers could use with confidence, year after year, on plants and in conditions not specifically measured by the test.

The bad luck: It turns out that when you chart the achievement growth of students (plants in our analogy) and try to take into account the socioeconomic factors (soil conditions) that affect educational attainment, there still are too many variables to yield a reliable, consistent measurement of the quality of teachers (the fertilizers).

Ewing quotes from a 2010 report from the Economic Policy Institute:

Analyses of (value-added model) results have led researchers to doubt whether the methodology can accurately identify more and less effective teachers. (Value-added model) estimates have proven to be unstable across statistical models, years and classes that teachers teach.

One study found that across five large urban districts, among teachers who were ranked in the top 20 percent of effectiveness in the first year, fewer than a third were in that top group the next year, and another third moved all the way down to the bottom 40 percent.

Another found that teachers’ effectiveness ratings in one year could only predict from 4 percent to 16 percent of the variation in such ratings in the following year.

The confirmation: Last year, 10 leading academics in the field of educational testing wrote a letter that said value-added measurements “are too unstable and too vulnerable to many sources of error to be used as a major part of teacher evaluation.”

It concluded, “Proposals that would place significant emphasis on this untested strategy . . . could have serious negative consequences for teachers and for the most vulnerable students.”

Author and independent education researcher Gary Rubinstein published on the Teach for Us blog a five-part analysis of 2007-10 value-added data collected on individual New York City teachers ( Part 1 and Part 2 and Part 3 and Part 4 and Part 5).

He found so many startling and absurd results that he begged his readers to “spread the word, since calculations like these will soon be used in nearly every state.”

The statement of the obvious, part deux: School officials need to find ways to identify and weed out bad teachers. But they, and the good teachers in their charge, should be very wary of using test scores.

(links at

Problems with the use of student test scores to evaluate teachers — Economic Policy Institute, 2010

Analyzing Released NYC Value-Added Data Part 1 by Gary Rubinstein, Teach for Us. See also Part 2 and Part 3 and Part 4 and Part 5.

“Here’s the letter that 10 assessment experts sent to the New York State Board of Regents (in 2011) urging it not to approve a system that links student standard test scores to the evaluations of teachers and principals”…Valerie Strauss, Washington Post
Mathematical Intimidation: Driven by the Data (.pdf) by John Ewing, Math for America

Standardized test scores are worst way to evaluate teachers by Isabel Nunez, associate professor at the Center for Policy Studies and Social Justice at Concordia University Chicago (Sun-Times)

The Toxic Trifecta, Bad Measurement & Evolving Teacher Evaluation Policies by Bruce D. Baker, professor in the Graduate School of Education at Rutgers (School Finance 101 blog)

Performance or Effectiveness? A Critical Distinction for Teacher Evaluation – Rod McCloy & Andrea Sinclair, Education Week

Why Standardized Tests Don’t Measure Educational Quality by W. James Popham, emeritus professor, UCLA Graduate School of Education and Information Studies (ASCD –formerly the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development — “an educational leadership organization dedicated to advancing best practices and policies for the success of each learner”)

Director of Private School Where Rahm Sends His Kids Opposes Using Testing for Teacher Evaluations In These Times

Writing on the University of Chicago’s Lab School website two years ago, (Chicago Lab School director David) Magill noted, “Measuring outcomes through standardized testing and referring to those results as the evidence of learning and the bottom line is, in my opinion, misguided and, unfortunately, continues to be advocated under a new name and supported by the current [Obama] administration.”

Review of Learning About Teaching, National Education Policy Center

The data in fact indicate that a teachers’ value-added for the state test is not strongly related to her effectiveness in a broader sense. … many teachers whose value-added for one test is low are in fact quite effective when judged by the other . . .there is every reason to think that the problems with value-added measures … would be worse in a high-stakes environment…

December 11, 2010

The Missing Pieces of Education, Part 2

Filed under: Education — Steve Ruis @ 11:41 am
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As I mentioned in my last post “There are two major problems in our education efforts that get very little play in the media or in public discourse: the problem of management and the lack of R and D.” In that post I addressed the problem of management and in this one I address the “lack of R & D.”

The Missing R&D of Education
If you buy any whiz-bang piece of technology, like an iPhone or iPad, if you wait six months, you will be able to get that thing with more features at a lower price. Ironically economists call that “deflation” and label it “bad” but I digress. How is it that car companies, consumer electronic companies, in fact most companies offer more value for less money as time progresses? That they do is indisputable, a 1950’s washing machine couldn’t hold a candle to a modern one, or last as long, etc. and they cost less (in real dollars, of course) now. How do they do that? They do it with concerted research and development efforts. R and D. If they didn’t, they would be out of business shortly.

Now consider the current state of education and I will focus on higher education as I know more about it but I think this applies as well to the other education endeavors. If you mention the Department of Education on any college or university campus, you will get smirks from most students. They universally regard such departments as intellectual wastelands. Top students are drawn to all sorts of endeavors, but education isn’t one of them. Now, it can be argued that training to be an “educator” is kind of a low wage dead end for an ambitious young person, but I think it goes further than that. Not all people are motivated by wealth. These departments are widely considered to be ineffective and possibly irrelevant.

Is this attitude because there is no good work being done by education departments? Actually, the answer is ‘no.” This is truly ironic. Education researchers, as poorly regarded and funded as they are, have actually made some amazing advances in teaching and learning. But even though these advances work exceedingly well in pilot projects, they almost never get implemented university- or system-wide. So, the obvious question to follow is “Why?” Why do innovations in education flounder in the background?

The Big Shocker
In no college, in no university, in no system of higher education in this country is anyone responsible for the quality of the product (education) produced. There are no generally accepted measures of learning. If you can’t measure it, it is very hard to even say it exists, let alone whether it is getting better or worse. So, the lack of R&D is part of a general lack of responsibility for the quality of the higher education experience.

In one community college district I served in for 17 years there was a time when the chancellor of the district (in an attempt to justify a rather large pay increase) decided that he would take over leadership of the instruction in the three college district. After the memo announcing this new management change, there was not one single communication from that person about any instructional program. So, while quite a few institutions can show an organization chart that identifies someone with the responsibility for the quality of instruction, you will find that no one is actually doing anything about it.

The Solution?
So, why is it that so many consumer products we buy get better and better over time and their real costs keep going down while education becomes costlier and costlier (only health care cost have been outstripping education costs) but the education being delivered is no better and possibly worse than it was twenty years ago?

And please do not be confuse the use of computers and learning laboratories with a “better” education. Technology makes things different, for example, where in my youth a list of homework assignments might have been distributed in the form of a dittoed sheet of paper, now it is distributed by email, ease of distribution of assignments does not in itself constitute a better education.

The real reason is that there is no one or no system in place whose responsibility it is to create a better product and you can learn what is really going on by taking a tour for prospective students at any major university. They will show you the student center (which typically has a well-appointed workout space), they will show you hotel quality dormitory rooms, they will show you athletic facilities, they will show you the trappings of university life. They are marketing education through student lifestyle. They aren’t marketing getting an education, they are marketing getting an “educational experience.”

If they were truly marketing an education, they would emphasize how demanding they were, how hard their students work, and all of the support systems available (you won’t have time for a part-time job, so we provide ample financial aid), etc.

And they would start by putting someone, with real authority, in charge of educational quality. They would have a system of rewards that reflect that focus. If a professor has a half-time research and half-time teacher assignment, they would be evaluated on each equally. If their teaching were lacking, but their research was good, their schedule would be adjusted for less teaching and more research and vice-versa. Currently professors in research institutions are evaluated on their research and teaching but the research is preeminent, the teaching an afterthought.

This cannot continue.

June 16, 2010

You Want an Energy Plan? I’ve Got an Energy Plan!

Filed under: Economics,Politics — Steve Ruis @ 5:59 pm
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This is not as hard as people think.

Think about the total amount of electricity Americans use every day. Used by every electric tool, light bulb, toaster, hair dryer, TV, computer, cell phone, . . . , everything. If you want numbers, in 2007 it was 783 GW (summer) and 640 GW (winter). (GW is Gigawatts, giga being “tech speak” for “billions of.”) So, do you have that in mind (not the number, the idea of the total amount)? Okay, that’s also the amount of electricity wasted every day by the electric grid, the set of lines used to move our electricity around. We waste half of all electricity we generate, just in the way we distribute it. The companies who jointly share responsibility for the grid are using technology many decades old and haven’t invested much in upgrading this system.

If we were to upgrade “the grid” to current standards, we would need only half of coal and natural gas, etc. we are using today to generate electricity. But there is a better use for that energy. Keeping the amounts of electricity generated the same, how many all-electric cars do you think can be powered by that much electricity? (Keep thinking about the amount that would be made available—the total amount of electrical power we are using now for all purposes would be doubled by just not throwing away half of what we generate.)

The average distance of a car trip is 27 miles. The average range of electric cars is about 160 miles. What this means is that half, actually way over half, of the car trips taken each and every day could be made in all-electric vehicles with no need of recharging until you got back home. This means that close to half of all of the gas and diesel fuel used in vehicles each and every day could be saved! tale that OPEC!

If you aren’t aware, the first cars in the U.S. in the early 1900’s included many all-electric cars. This is old technology which is made even better using current technology (consider the Tesla, for example, all-electric and 160 mph). GM actually made a good electric car in the early 1980’s but recalled all of them and crushed them because they created a new standard in low maintenance, long lifetime vehicles. Interestingly, the Federal Government essentially owns GM at the moment. I wonder if they could dust off those blueprints?

None of this plan involves any dangerous materials. And none of it involves a single extra gram of carbon being released into the air. None of this involves a major expansion of unknown or even new technology. People were begging GM to buy the cars they were recalling and crushing 30 years ago. Many hundreds of thousands will buy them now.

Nationalize “the grid.”

Fix the grid.

Make adequate electric cars for short run drivers and families with more than one car.

That’s the plan.

It doesn’t cover everything but it covers a lot and the benefits continue into the future.

June 3, 2010

Bonuses, Smonuses

Filed under: Economics,Politics — Steve Ruis @ 4:17 pm
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There has been much talk about the size of the “bonuses” being doled out to officers of Wall Street banks and brokerage houses. The outrage is real and deserved but their focus is off somewhat.

Performance bonuses are considered an incentive in most people’s minds, incentives to work hard and do well for the company. Unfortunately modern research has shown that such “external rewards,” such as baseball players getting additional compensation if they have “X at bats” or “Y runs batted in,” or students who will receive $50 for each A on their report cards, do work, but only for fairly mechanical tasks and fairly simple ones at that. So paying people so much for the first of 50 simple tasks, but paying them for a higher rate for the next fifty, and even more for the next 50, works quite nicely, thank you. (And, no, I am not building a case for “piece work” pay schemes.) The research goes on to tell us that for more complicated tasks, external reward systems flat out don’t work, in fact they can work in the opposite. (They go on to say that complex tasks are better served by internal rewards, but that is another topic.)

I am sure there is some cognitive dissonance around this, because I felt it when I first heard of the research results. Bonuses actually diminish performance? Hey, it’s why we do the research instead of just guessing. Quite a few things in life are counterintuitive. (This is why the word “counterintuitive” exists.)

My main point here is that “bonuses” paid to Wall Street employees as we are all reading about and decrying, do not work and I can prove this. If these “bonuses” actually provided a real incentive to spur hard work and inventiveness, that is if they actually worked, then all of these bankers and brokers would be quite happy with a standard form of performance bonus, the kind where if the company does better, everyone makes more money, if the company does poorer, everyone makes less money (proportionately, of course, based on the value of each position to the company). If the core idea of such bonuses worked, they would actually be supported and encouraged by these employees. But none of these people actually believe these incentives do or even can work, because every one of them gamed the system so that the “bonuses” are actually structured as a “heads I win, tails you lose” system. As these “bonuses” are structured, if the company does well, the bonuses are augmented; if it doesn’t do well, even if it has horrendous losses, the bonuses are as promised. So, these bonuses are not incentives, they are simply a form of delayed compensation, compensation that can’t be adjusted downward but can be adjusted upward.

You can look at executive compensation in the same manner. If Wall Street executives actually believed that bonuses provided actual incentives, and generated greater performances, why have their own compensation packages been structured so that, no matter what happens, they get paid, to the extent that if they get sacked for non- or even woeful performance, they are still due any “golden parachute” that they negotiated when they got hired. “Yes, you sucked as CEO; you’re fired, and here take this 56 million dollars as a token of a job poorly done.”

And, you can also establish that Boards of Trustees of these companies also believe that these “bonuses” cannot possibly work because they have agreed to the “heads I win, tails you lose” contracts for these CEOs and other executives.

One must ask why if no one, not the workers, not the CEOs, nor Boards of Trustees believe performance bonuses work, and they are backed up by sound psychological research, why are they using the word “bonuses” at all? Those of a suspicious mind might think that this may be a form of protective camouflage. “Hey, gang, if we call ‘em “bonuses” people will think we earned ‘em!” I am someone who thinks “incompetence” nine times before “malice,” so I think these contracts probable drifted into the position they are now in without much thought, well, aside from thoughts of greed, anyway.

So, what can be done? All of these companies insist that they will lose their best workers if they don’t pay them lavishly. Well, that is an interesting proposition. A savvy business person might want to look at it from a cost effectiveness basis. If I get rid of my most expensive employees and replace them with people who are only half as good, but I only have to pay one quarter as much, I will make money on this. (Don’t act shocked, this is a standard business practice when companies are laying off workers, sometimes for no other reason than it is cost effective to do so. If you haven’t read business history, check out how many people actually got fired within a month of the date their pensions were due to be vested.)

If you think so highly of your employees that you couldn’t do without your best producers, you probably think too much of them and yourself. At one point in the last 20 years, the rule of thumb was that once a corporate manager was one and a half years in a position, it was time to look for a new position higher up. And the standard recommendation was that, if there wasn’t a position available in company, it was time to look at other companies. Just how long have these people worked for you? Have they always been top producers? Are they planning to stay? Why are you so willing to stiff the stock holders to pay these employees who aren’t doing such a good job? Maybe the ones who almost brought the entire world’s economy to its knees could be done without. Just a suggestion, mind you.

A fair system would be to pay everybody a base salary pegged to the companies total business (or even a division’s total business). Then a portion of the companies profits could be set aside to be divvied up at the end of the year. If the company does well, workers get their share. If the company loses money, there are no profits, no divvying, and the next year base salaries would be pegged to a smaller number. Now, that would be a real incentive system. (This is not a pipe dream, I worked for 17 years in such a system.) And you could promise shareholders and workers a fixed share of the profits (which they could argue about being appropriate between and among themselves) and if management had a new capital investment plan to move the company into the future, they would need to convince both workers and shareholders of the validity of their plan because everyone would have to sacrifice some of their short-term gains for potential long-term gains. This might be a better basis for making such decisions and it certainly would make for better management evaluations. Management which makes poor recommendations sound like good ones should probably not stay intact.

So, if greed doesn’t work, how about a little democracy?

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