Tag Archives: testing

Why Competence Matters….

I’m so tired of writing about the Coronavirus pandemic, and I’m sure most of you are equally sick of reading about it–or receiving updates to the monumentally-long list of ways the Trump administration continues to commit malpractice–or worse.

But the hits keep coming…

You know we are in uncharted territory when a Republican governor admits that he is hiding protective gear and testing supplies from the federal government.

Not only is the administration not helping states navigate this pandemic, it is appropriating critically needed supplies and according to multiple reports, doling them out in ways that favor political allies and punish states seen as insufficiently enamored of “dear leader.”

Now, a report from the Inspector General of the Department of Health and Human Services has again highlighted the multiple failures of the administration. (There’s a reason Trump is constantly firing or otherwise neutering Inspectors General…) Update: Yesterday, Trump–reportedly furious– fired the IG who submitted this report.

NBC News reports that the HHS IG found that hospitals across the United States are lacking supplies as basic as thermometers, even as they’re being undercut by their own federal government in trying to acquire new supplies.

 “Vendors have told us that they need to send whatever they have to the national stockpile,” said Ruthanne Sudderth, senior vice president for the Michigan Health & Hospital Association.

Additionally, the report found that supplies delivered to states by the federal government were either inadequate or defective.

“One hospital received two shipments from the Federal Emergency Management Agency with protective gear that had expired in 2010,” NBC News writes. “Another hospital system received 1,000 masks from federal and state governments, even though it expected a much larger delivery, and ‘500 of the masks were for children and therefore unusable for adult staff,’ the report said.”

Professionals have characterized these and other failures listed in the report as “unprecedented.” (One hospital administrator reported sending his staff to auto part shops,  home supply stores, beauty salons and art supply stores in an effort to find gloves and masks.)

Hospital administrators around the country also complain that conflicting guidance from federal, state and local governments is causing confusion.

A report on the situation from NBC News  met with a response directly out of that “alternate reality” Trump inhabits.

President Donald Trump on Saturday said hospital administrators speaking to his administration were “thrilled” about their situation.

“Many hospital administrators that we’ve been in touch with, even in the really hotspots — you know what they are — are communicating directly with us that their level of supplies are meeting essential needs. And at the current time, they’re really thrilled to be where they are,” Trump told reporters.

All of the other failures reported pale in comparison to the shortage of testing supplies. The inability to test sufficient numbers of people and to get the results of those tests promptly delays the day the nation can reopen, and further strains an already inadequate system.

Diagnostic testing kits to identify patients or staff members with the virus were also in short supply, according to the inspector general. Hospitals said they were struggling with “a severe shortage of test kits,” limiting their ability to monitor the health of patients and staff members, the report said. There were also problems with incomplete testing kits missing nasal swabs or reagents to detect the virus.

“Across the industry millions are needed and we only have hundreds,” a hospital administrator was quoted as saying.

The shortage of testing kits was aggravated by delays in testing results, straining hospital resources and bed capacity as doctors waited for the results, the report said. One hospital reported test results’ taking as long as eight days, it said.

Hospitals said that presumptive patients waiting for test results took up bed capacity needed for other patients, according to the report, and that staff members were forced to use personal protective equipment, or PPE, as a precaution because of the slow pace of test results, wasting precious resources.

The armed idiots storming state capitols to demand an end to measures that are saving lives should be storming the White House and demanding competent governance.

But of course, that would require another possession that is apparently in short supply, at least in their ranks: cognitive capacity.

 

This Isn’t Just Incompetence

My Facebook feed has been full of unkind comments about the “protestors” who gathered together–in close quarters–to bewail the loss of their “liberty” to catch and spread the Coronavirus.

Granted, these gatherings were small, and definitely not genuine grass-roots displays. Numerous reports have identified the the rightwing, “astroturf” organizations funding and organizing them. Participants, however, have been drawn from the ranks of the true believers–the people who are convinced by the conspiracy theories of loonies like Alex Jones and who look askance at “elitists” like Dr. Fauci.

A few days ago, I posted about the critical social role played by trust, and the importance of    government in creating it. As the saying goes, fish rot from the head. When you cannot trust anything your government tells you, why would you trust the CDC? Or your doctor? (Why is my doctor pushing vaccines? Is s/he getting a kickback from Big Pharma?)

It’s easy enough to look at the recent protests and conclude that the participants are stupid or demented or both. For that matter, it’s not unreasonable to conclude that anyone still supporting Donald Trump is similarly demented–or so consumed by the racism and bigotry Trump stokes that nothing else, including basic competence, matters.

After all, in order to believe that the pandemic is a politically-motivated hoax–in order to risk your life on that belief, you would have to overlook more than the overwhelming ineptitude of this administration.

You would have to be able to ask–and answer— the following questions:

Why would a President who claims to be addressing (“perfectly”) a serious public health crisis encourage people to rise up against the very measures his administration has advocated to abate that crisis?

Why would a President insist on lying about the availability of testing and equipment? Nearly a month ago, Trump promised that 27 million tests would be available by the end of March. We are now in the latter part of April, and according to most reports,  only 4 million tests have been conducted.

Why would an administration tell the states that dealing with the pandemic is their job, and proceed to make it more difficult for those states to get the protective equipment they need? Reports like this one have been widespread.

Over the last few weeks, it has started to appear as though, in addition to abandoning the states to their own devices in a time of national emergency, the federal government has effectively erected a blockade — like that which the Union used to choke off the supply chains of the Confederacy during the Civil War — to prevent delivery of critical medical equipment to states desperately in need. At the very least, federal authorities have made governors and hospital executives all around the country operate in fear that shipments of necessary supplies will be seized along the way. In a time of pandemic, having evacuated federal responsibility, the White House is functionally waging a war against state leadership and the initiative of local hospitals to secure what they need to provide sufficient treatment.

If a President isn’t doing anything wrong–i.e., stealing us blind, or withholding supplies from states led by Democrats, or diverting funds meant for struggling Americans to wealthy friends and supporters–why does he undermine any and all efforts to monitor his behaviors?

Time Magazine recently reported on Trump’s most recent refusal of oversight. Congressional Democrats had insisted that the bill authorizing pandemic aid contain three oversight mechanisms: an inspector general at the Treasury Department to oversee the $500 billion Treasury fund, and Congress and executive branch panels to monitor the Treasury fund and broadly oversee the law’s implementation. Trump signed the bill, but said he would ignore those provisions, and would not allow the Inspector General overseeing the executive branch’s committee to submit reports to Congress. This is arguably illegal/unconstitutional, and entirely in character: Trump has waged war against rules and Inspectors General throughout his term.

Gee, I wonder why?

Presumably, protestors and others who believe in the various conspiracy theories think that facts–some reported by multiple, credible journalists, some attested to by Trump’s own tweets and bloviations–are false. They, and only they, are privy to the real story.

Many of the dispiriting details of the real real story, of course, probably won’t be known for years. One thing, however, is already clear: the malpractice of this horrific administration goes way, way beyond mere incompetence.

And it is killing people.

 

 

Measuring Up

I’ve become increasingly fascinated by our human obsession with measurement, and the ways in which measuring something affects–and often distorts–our ability to understand it.

There’s polling, of course, for the political among us. Despite the admonitions of the pollsters themselves, we far too often see the “snapshots” they provide– not to mention the selected populations they quiz and the often-ambiguous questions they ask–as descriptive of the whole of America’s electorate and thus predictive of the future.

In education, legislators have embraced subject-matter testing without considering the way it distorts what happens in the classroom. Subjects that will be tested get extra time and attention; subjects that are of equal (or often superior) importance, like civics, get short shrift because they aren’t tested. (And don’t get me started on the mistaken belief that students’ test rresults measure teacher competence…)

Scientists know that the very act of testing something  can change the results. Scholars also remind us that drawing unwarranted conclusions from what we have chosen to test can lead us astray. Which brings me to a Guardian column by Joseph Stiglitz, one of my favorite economists.

The world is facing three existential crises: a climate crisis, an inequality crisis and a crisis in democracy. Will we be able to prosper within our planetary boundaries? Can a modern economy deliver shared prosperity? And can democracies thrive if our economies fail to deliver shared prosperity? These are critical questions, yet the accepted ways by which we measure economic performance give absolutely no hint that we might be facing a problem. Each of these crises has reinforced the fact that we need better tools to assess economic performance and social progress.

Stiglitz proceeds to point out problems with relying on GDP–long the standard measure of economic performance–to measure a country’s economic performance. (GDP is the sum of the value of goods and services produced within a country over a given period.)

As Stiglitz notes, GDP metrics don’t fully reflect impacts of things like Europe’s austerity measures on long-term standards of living.

Nor do our standard GDP measures provide us with the guidance we need to address the inequality crisis. So what if GDP goes up, if most citizens are worse off? In the first three years of the so-called recovery from the financial crisis, about 91% of the gains went to the top 1%. No wonder that many people doubted the claims of politicians who were then saying the economy was well on the way to a robust recovery.

For a long time I have been concerned with this problem – the gap between what our metrics show and what they need to show. During the Clinton administration, when I served as a member and then chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers, I grew increasingly worried about how our main economic measures failed to take into account environmental degradation and resource depletion. If our economy seems to be growing but that growth is not sustainable because we are destroying the environment and using up scarce natural resources, our statistics should warn us. But because GDP didn’t include resource depletion and environmental degradation, we typically get an excessively rosy picture.

In other words, Stiglitz is telling us that there is something fundamentally wrong with how we measure economic performance and social progress.

Getting the measure right – or at least a lot better – is crucially important, especially in our metrics- and performance-oriented society. If we measure the wrong thing, we will do the wrong thing. If our measures tell us everything is fine when it really isn’t, we will be complacent.

A recent article in Time suggests that other nations are coming around to Stiglitz’ view.

New Zealand became the first nation to formally drop gross domestic product (GDP) as its main measure of economic success. The government of Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said the budget would aim not at maximizing GDP but instead at maximizing well-being.

Apart from schools, hospitals and roads, whose budgets would be allocated in the normal way, resources would be distributed according to their impact on five government priorities: mental health, child well-being, the inequalities of indigenous people, building a nation adapted to the digital age and fashioning a low-emission economy.

Shades of Bhutan’s “Gross National Happiness” index!

Stiglitz says it is now possible to construct much more accurate measures of an economy’s health.. I think it is fair to say that we should adopt those measures–but only after we subject them to a rigorous analysis to assure ourselves that the elements being measured are the ones that should be measured, the ones that will give us a more accurate understanding of ecological and economic (and inevitably social and political) reality.

What we choose to measure will tell us what we really value.

 

 

Testing….1,2,3…Testing

I’ve been watching school reform efforts for several years now, and I’m depressed.

Most of the organizations that have formed to improve our public schools are populated by wonderful, well-meaning people, and most of the men and women who have chosen to teach in those schools are caring, dedicated professionals. So you’d think they would all be talking to each other and working together to identify and eliminate the barriers to better schools.

Instead, they seem to be at war with each other.

Now, I understand that focusing on common goals has been made more difficult by  the “take no prisoners” attitudes of ideologues like the departed-but-certainly-not-missed Tony Bennett, whose arrogance and autocratic tactics created a backlash of resentment among the teachers he regularly and unfairly bashed. (It shouldn’t surprise us when people who’ve been told they are overpaid and underperforming nitwits are unenthusiastic about collaborating with those who leveled the accusations.) But Bennett and his equally tone-deaf boss are gone, and the folks on the front lines–the teachers–need to help the real reformers understand what they need.

I haven’t been a high school teacher for nearly 50 years; neither do I have mastery of the reform literature. I’m just an interested observer who believes that public education is an immensely important public good, so you should take the following observations with the appropriate amount of salt.

Reformers are absolutely right to want teacher accountability. But teachers are absolutely right that high-stakes testing is not accountability.

Testing to figure out what kids know is a time-honored necessity; testing as a way to evaluate teacher performance is deeply problematic. For one thing, poor people move so frequently that turnover in many inner-city schools exceeds 100% during the school year, and the kids being tested at the end of the year aren’t the same kids who were tested at the beginning. Tests in such classrooms are meaningless.

Even in more stable environments, the current testing regime does significant damage–to students, who are being taught that there is always a “right” answer, and to teachers who are forced to focus their efforts on the subjects being tested and neglect other, equally important lessons. Furthermore, years of research demonstrate that more affluent kids test better for lots of reasons unrelated to the quality of classroom performance. If teachers are going to be evaluated and paid based upon test results, a lot of good teachers are going to leave the poorer schools that need them most and head for precincts where the students are better off and easier to teach.  (And yes, I know the theory is that we are testing for improvement, not absolute knowledge, but that theory is too often just that–theoretical.)

Here’s a heretical thought: before we engage in programs to assess accountability, let’s see if we can achieve agreement on what we mean by “education” and “quality instruction.” In other words, let’s be sure we know what instructors are supposed to be accountable for.

Too many of the self-styled “reformers” (not all, but too many) equate education with job training and quality instruction with (easy to test) rote learning.  For that matter, too many teachers agree with those definitions.

The people who genuinely want to improve public education–and there are a lot of them in both reform organizations and classrooms–  start by tackling the hard questions: what do kids really, really need to know in order to function in 21st Century America? What skills are essential? What are the barriers to imparting that information and those skills?  What additional resources do poorer kids need?  How much money does it take to provide a  good education, and how much does ignorance cost us?

Here’s how you can separate out the genuine education reformers from the ideologues and shills: real reformers understand the importance of public education’s civic mission. Because they understand the constitutive function of the public schools–because they understand that education is more than just another consumer good–they want to fix public education by working with teachers and parents and policymakers to make our public school systems work.

The genuine reformers aren’t the ones insisting that we  privatize or abandon those schools.