Tag Archives: evidence

Pence: Black Is White

National media outlets report that Mike Pence is again touting the virtues of “school choice.” Evidently, in the alternate reality that he and Betsy DeVos inhabit, vouchers and other “choice” programs are working wonderfully.

The evidence suggests otherwise–unless by “working,” they mean subsidizing religious schools and benefitting business’ bottom line.

Two recent reports, one from the Washington Post and another, lengthy investigation from the New York Times, convincingly rebut Pence’s sunny view of these programs. The Post article begins with the contrast between Pence’s reality and the one the rest of us inhabit:

The Trump administration has made the District’s federally mandated school voucher program Exhibit A in its campaign to allow public funds to flow to private schools. Vice President Pence has called the 13-year-old D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program a “case study in school choice success.”

In truth, the performance of the D.C. voucher program calls into question the wisdom of spending upward of $200 million in federal tax money on private schooling in a city where students already have many educational choices. And it’s a cautionary tale of how badly crafted voucher initiatives can hurt the very students they’re designed to help.

The article details “disappointing” student achievement, poor oversight, and a lack of available information that would allow parents to make informed choices. As a result, significant numbers of eligible families turn down the vouchers.

The Times article is a lengthy, detailed look at Betsy DeVos’ home state of Michigan, and its embrace of for-profit charter schools.

Michigan’s aggressively free-market approach to schools has resulted in one of the most deregulated educational environments in the country, a laboratory in which consumer choice and a shifting landscape of supply and demand (and profit motive, in the case of many charters) were pitched as ways to improve life in the classroom for the state’s 1.5 million public-school students. But a Brookings Institution analysis done this year of national test scores ranked Michigan last among all states when it came to improvements in student proficiency. And a 2016 analysis by the Education Trust-Midwest, a nonpartisan education policy and research organization, found that 70 percent of Michigan charters were in the bottom half of the state’s rankings. Michigan has the most for-profit charter schools in the country and some of the least state oversight. Even staunch charter advocates have blanched at the Michigan model.

The article makes an important point: it’s impossible to understand what happened in  Michigan’s schools unless you recognize that for-profit schools aren’t in the business of education; they are in the business of business.  These charters have become “potential financial assets to outside entities, inevitably complicating their broader social missions.”

The key phrase in the above paragraph is “broader social mission.” Unlike voucher schools, which are private and inevitably siphon resources from the public system, it is possible to operate charters successfully as options within a public school system. I would argue, however, that (a) the use of for-profit entities to manage such schools is incompatible with their social mission, and (b) strict oversight by and accountability to the relevant school board is essential.

The reason we call them public schools is because they serve a critical public function.

In the absence of any credible evidence that privatizing our schools improves either educational or civic outcomes, we should direct our energies–and our tax dollars–to improving our public systems.

 

 

 

 

 

Pence’s Protege?

Yesterday’s New York Times highlighted an amicus brief filed by prominent Republicans in the  gerrymandering case that will be heard by the Supreme Court this session.

Current and former GOP luminaries– including John McCain of Arizona; Gov. John R. Kasich of Ohio; Bob Dole, the former Republican Senate leader from Kansas and the party’s 1996 presidential nominee; the former senators John C. Danforth of Missouri, Richard G. Lugar of Indiana and Alan K. Simpson of Wyoming; and Arnold Schwarzenegger, a former governor of California–urged the Court to end the partisan redistricting that “has become a tool for powerful interests to distort the democratic process.”

Then there’s Indiana Attorney General Curtis Hill, who joined a very different “friend of the Court” brief, arguing that some partisanship is inevitable when legislators draw districts, there’s nothing “invidious” or improper about that reality, and even if there is, there’s no way for the Court to prove it.

So there!

Other than Hill, I have been pleasantly surprised by Indiana’s current Republican administration. Governor Holcomb seems eminently sane, and has focused on issues of governance–the “nitty-gritty” that Mike Pence ignored in favor of his crusades against Planned Parenthood, reproductive choice and gay people. Our current Superintendent of Public Instruction has actually demonstrated knowledge of and support for public education–a welcome change from the last Republican to hold that position.

Attorney General Hill is the exception. I knew nothing about him before his election, and not much more now, but his more newsworthy activities have been troubling, to say the least. It isn’t just his enthusiastic defense of gerrymandering–a position not universally shared even among Indiana Republicans. (The reform bill that failed in Indiana’s last legislative session was co-sponsored by Republican Representative Jerry Torr and Republican Speaker of the House Brian Bosma, both of whom evidently recognize that the process is pernicious.)

Hill has also clashed with the Centers for Disease Control over needle exchange programs. According to Indiana Public Media, Hill is accusing the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention of manipulating facts in order to push a “pro-needle-exchange agenda.” Hill insists that needle exchange programs increase drug use, a claim that medical research has consistently debunked.

The new U.S. Surgeon General (and former Indiana Health Commissioner) Jerome Adams has been a vocal proponent of syringe exchanges.

“There’s been no evidence that [a syringe exchange program] increases drug use,” says Dennis Watson, a researcher at the Fairbanks School of Public Health. On the contrary, he says, exchange programs can actually decrease the amount of injection drug use…

A Seattle-based study found that syringe exchange participants were five times more likely to enter treatment than those who didn’t participate.

Perhaps Hill hasn’t had time to review evidence about gerrymandering or the results of needle exchange research, since–as the Indianapolis Star recently reported–he has been busy redecorating his offices.

Indiana Attorney General Curtis Hill is spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on office renovations and a new state vehicle, sparking criticism from some budget leaders.

The renovations underway at Hill’s Statehouse office are expected to cost about $279,000. That includes $78,000 for new furniture, $71,000 for historic replica painting and $2,500 for seven reclaimed chandeliers. The six-room office is home to Hill and 10 to 15 of his top staffers.

Of course, Hill has found time to appeal rulings that favored Planned Parenthood, that protected the rights of LGBTQ citizens and that allowed police to pat down people to determine whether they’re carrying guns.He’s a perfect partisan culture warrior.

Mike Pence must be so proud…..

Don’t Confuse Her With Evidence….

Students at one of America’s historically Black colleges recently booed Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, who had (inexplicably) been invited to deliver the graduation speech. Many of the graduates also turned their backs when she spoke.

This behavior was rude–but it was understandable.

Like most of Trump’s Cabinet, DeVos is manifestly unfit for public office. She is an ideologue in the Pence tradition; a theocrat with a rigid and limited worldview who has demonstrated a lack of engagement with, let alone understanding of, the issues that face the department she’s been tapped to head.

DeVos has been a “Betsy One-Note,” focused on voucher programs that despite misleading rhetoric, actually replace public schools with religious ones. She insists that private schools do a better job, despite mounting evidence to the contrary. As the New York Times recently reported,

The confirmation of Betsy DeVos as secretary of education was a signal moment for the school choice movement. For the first time, the nation’s highest education official is someone fully committed to making school vouchers and other market-oriented policies the centerpiece of education reform.

But even as school choice is poised to go national, a wave of new research has emerged suggesting that private school vouchers may harm students who receive them. The results are startling — the worst in the history of the field, researchers say.

Voucher advocacy has gradually become part of GOP ideology, and as Republicans have assumed power in the states, voucher programs have expanded–especially in Indiana. That expansion has allowed researchers to make comparisons that had been less reliable when there were fewer schools to compare, and the results of that research began to emerge in late 2015.

Here are some of those research findings–conclusions that would make an intellectually honest educator revisit her preconceptions:

The first results came in late 2015. Researchers examined an Indiana voucher program that had quickly grown to serve tens of thousands of students under Mike Pence, then the state’s governor. “In mathematics,” they found, “voucher students who transfer to private schools experienced significant losses in achievement.” They also saw no improvement in reading.

The next results came a few months later, in February, when researchers published a major study of Louisiana’s voucher program. Students in the program were predominantly black and from low-income families, and they came from public schools that had received poor ratings from the state department of education, based on test scores. For private schools receiving more applicants than they could enroll, the law required that they admit students via lottery, which allowed the researchers to compare lottery winners with those who stayed in public school.

They found large negative results in both reading and math. Public elementary school students who started at the 50th percentile in math and then used a voucher to transfer to a private school dropped to the 26th percentile in a single year. Results were somewhat better in the second year, but were still well below the starting point.

This is very unusual. When people try to improve education, sometimes they succeed and sometimes they fail. The successes usually register as modest improvements, while the failures generally have no effect at all. It’s rare to see efforts to improve test scores having the opposite result. Martin West, a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, calls the negative effects in Louisiana “as large as any I’ve seen in the literature” — not just compared with other voucher studies, but in the history of American education research.

It is important to note that these results come from voucher proponents as well as voucher skeptics. As the Times article noted,

In June, a third voucher study was released by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a conservative think tank and proponent of school choice. The study, which was financed by the pro-voucher Walton Family Foundation, focused on a large voucher program in Ohio. “Students who use vouchers to attend private schools have fared worse academically compared to their closely matched peers attending public schools,” the researchers found. Once again, results were worse in math.

DeVos has been an outspoken opponent of even minimal efforts to regulate schools that accept vouchers, but it has become clear that such regulation is necessary and salutary:

The new voucher studies stand in marked contrast to research findings that well-regulated charter schools in Massachusetts and elsewhere have a strong, positive impact on test scores. But while vouchers and charters are often grouped under the umbrella of “school choice,” the best charters tend to be nonprofit public schools, open to all and accountable to public authorities. The less “private” that school choice programs are, the better they seem to work.

If DeVos has seen these studies or addressed their findings, I haven’t seen it reported.

Betsy DeVos is certainly entitled to live in her own alternate universe. What she isn’t entitled to is a public position that allows her to inflict considerable damage on the rest of us.

THIS Is What’s Wrong With America

A Facebook friend who lives in Todd Rokita’s Congressional district attended his recent Town Hall. In a post following the event, she reported on an exchange she had with the Congressman:

My question was “What evidence do you require in order to revise your opinion on climate change?”

His response was “No evidence could ever exist that would change my mind. It’s all Liberal science.”

If the constituent who posted this conversation transcribed it accurately–and I have no reason to doubt that–this is a disturbing and revealing admission. Don’t confuse me with facts. I’m a zealot who’s impervious to evidence. 

This one exchange is a (horrifying) example of what is wrong with Rokita, with today’s Republican Party, and –to the extent people of this ilk dominate our government–what’s wrong with American politics.

As appalling as I find the sentiment–“I’ve formed an opinion that cannot be altered by evidence or reality”–what is truly illuminating about this exchange is the immediate resort to labeling. Rokita and those like him find no need to engage in reasoned debate, no need to defend their positions; instead of providing grounds for their opinions, they simply dismiss opposing perspectives by labeling them “liberal.”

(Perhaps that response is inadvertent confirmation of the snarky observation that “reality has a well-known liberal bias…”.)

I cannot think of any position more disqualifying for public office–or for any responsible job–than one that refuses in advance to even consider evidence that might be inconsistent with one’s prejudices.

Of course, I shouldn’t be so surprised: evidence has never been Rokita’s strong suit.

Todd Rokita was the Indiana Secretary of State whose discovery of (vanishingly rare) “voter fraud” led to his championing of the state’s Voter ID law, which (entirely co-incidently, I’m sure) disenfranchised poor minority voters who had a deplorable tendency to vote Democratic.

I really never expected to live in a country where science and empirical research required defense, but evidently Luddites aren’t simply historical oddities. So later this morning, I will join other Hoosiers at the Statehouse to participate in a “March for Science.”

As the website for the March explains,

The March for Science is a celebration of science.  It’s not only about scientists and politicians; it is about the very real role that science plays in each of our lives and the need to respect and encourage research that gives us insight into the world.  Nevertheless, the march has generated a great deal of conversation around whether or not scientists should involve themselves in politics. In the face of an alarming trend toward discrediting scientific consensus and restricting scientific discovery, we might ask instead: can we afford not to speak out in its defense?

People who value science have remained silent for far too long in the face of policies that ignore scientific evidence and endanger both human life and the future of our world. New policies threaten to further restrict scientists’ ability to research and communicate their findings.  We face a possible future where people not only ignore scientific evidence, but seek to eliminate it entirely.  Staying silent is a luxury that we can no longer afford.  We must stand together and support science.

The application of science to policy is not a partisan issue. Anti-science agendas and policies have been advanced by politicians on both sides of the aisle, and they harm everyone — without exception. Science should neither serve special interests nor be rejected based on personal convictions. At its core, science is a tool for seeking answers.  It can and should influence policy and guide our long-term decision-making.

As Neil DeGrasse Tyson likes to say, science is true whether we believe it or not. What he implies, but doesn’t say, is that rejecting reality is a prescription for disaster–and so is continuing to elect people who find science unacceptably “liberal.”

 

“Alternative” Realities

Bizarre as he is, Donald Trump does embody the GOP’s longstanding effort to substitute fantasy for evidence, and to act on the basis of the former.  

Forbes Magazine recently reported that Republican lawmakers have buried a report by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, because the findings debunked their preferred  (fanciful) economic worldview.

The research study found absolutely no correlation between the the level of top tax rates and economic growth. The belief that taxing the rich slows economic growth is a key tenet of conservative economic theory, so rather than considering evidence contrary to that theory, Senate Republicans suppressed the report.

This has become the standard reaction of Republican lawmakers when inconvenient reality–facts, evidence, what your lying eyes tell you–conflicts with their preferred beliefs and/or the interests of their donors.

The question is: how long can a war on reality be maintained?

It isn’t just economics. An interesting article in a recent issue of the New York Times compared the anti-science assault of the new Trump Administration with a similar effort mounted by Stephen Harper, a previous Prime Minister of Canada.

I was surprised by the article, since Canadians seem so sane and reasonable in comparison to the United States. (I look rather longingly at Justin Trudeau…). Evidently, however, waging war on facts, evidence and empirical investigation are not solely an American phenomenon.

VANCOUVER, British Columbia — Less than a month into the Trump presidency, and the forecast for science seems ominous.

Scientists at federal agencies have been hit with gag orders preventing them from communicating their findings, or in some cases, attending scientific conferences. Social media accounts and websites have been censored, and at least one agency was asked to identify personnel who worked on climate policies. Now there are proposals for slashing research budgets and gutting funding that could affect the training of the next generation of scientists. To top it all off, President Trump’s cabinet nominees and senior advisers include many who are climate deniers or doubters.

Canadians experienced a similar assault on science a decade ago under Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

The author of the article, a Canadian scientist, shared the experience of that country’s scientific community in the hopes that it might prove helpful here. The parallels were striking:

Starting in 2007, shortly after Mr. Harper became prime minister, new rules were issued that prevented federal scientists from speaking freely with the media about their research without clearing it with public relations specialists or having an administrative “minder” accompany the scientists on interviews or to scientific conferences. More often, the government would simply deny permission for a scientist to speak with reporters if that person’s findings ran counter to Mr. Harper’s political agenda. Inquiries from journalists became mired in an obstinate bureaucracy, and media coverage of government climate research dropped 80 percent after the rules were imposed.

This censorship also had a chilling effect on scientific inquiry. A survey of federal Canadian scientists revealed that 90 percent felt they could not speak freely to the media about their work. If they were to speak up about science that affected public health or the environment, 86 percent felt that they would suffer retaliation. Nearly half of the scientists knew of specific cases of political interference hampering efforts to protect the public.

The article detailed the destruction of research libraries, and other “cost saving” measures. Research on pollution and environmental contaminants was de-funded;  monitoring stations were closed. Environmental protection laws were repealed.

Fearing the continued erosion of even the most basic protections for food inspection, water quality and human health, Canadian scientists filled Ottawa’s streets in the Death of Evidence march. That theatrical mock funeral procession became something of a cultural touchstone. It was a turning point that galvanized public opinion against Prime Minister Harper’s anti-science agenda. By the next election, Justin Trudeau’s center-left government swept in on a platform that put scientists’ right to speak and the promise of evidence-based decisions alongside job creation and economic growth.

In a very real sense, America’s political divisions are not between rational Republicans and Democrats, or conservatives and liberals. Our divisions are between people willing to examine evidence, value and trust expertise, and grapple with the complexities of modern life, and people who are unwilling or unable to do so–people frantic to avoid both ambiguity and evidence inconsistent with their religious or political fundamentalism.

A number of pundits have opined that the demonstrations and marches being held around the country will have little effect on political decision-making. The Canadian “Death of Evidence” march–and more recently, the “pussy hats” of the Women’s March–suggest otherwise.

Reason is an adaptive characteristic. It will prevail. Unfortunately, a lot of harm can be done in the interim.