Maybe I was too hasty in trusting Bruce Baker’s anti-reform ‘scholarship’

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When I took a full-time education policy job in 2010, I was not current on the latest research. I’d received my Masters in Public Policy, with a focus in education, a full 15 years earlier. Back then I paid close attention in my classes with Professors Jim Hines and Tom Loveless. It was widely accepted in scholarly literature that “inputs” such as money and teacher qualifications had not improved the quality of American public schools. Like many left-of-center observers, I found this scholarly conclusion disappointing, but it appeared robust, withstanding repeated attempts at re-analysis from the Coleman Report in 1966 to a 1986 survey by Eric Hanushek who is now at Stanford.

Twitter, of all things, provided me with news to the contrary in August of 2014. Mark Weber, a sincere reform skeptic and public school teacher in New Jersey, goes by the Twitter handle “Jersey Jazzman,” and is a part-time doctoral student at the Rutgers University Graduate School of Education. Weber pointed me to publications written by one of his professors, a fellow named Bruce Baker. Although I had never previously heard of Baker, Weber was not the only person who recommended him. Ben Spielberg, who graduated from my undergraduate alma mater told me flatly that Baker’s “research is legitimate.” Spielberg, Weber, and other reform skeptics cited Baker often, and indeed Baker was described by AEI’s Rick Hess as the 40th-most cited education scholar in America. Even better, it seemed that Baker was willing to engage folks I knew to be smart and careful, such as Ulrich Boser at the Center for American Progress and Rebecca Sibilia at EdBuild.

I thus read Baker’s research with an open mind.

Surprise! Decades of economic research, taught at Harvard as the consensus, had been wrong!

Baker’s papers blew me away. They totally reversed the narrative. For instance, Baker pointed me to a 2012 piece he wrote called “Does Money Matter in Education,” which concluded that school spending is important and impactful for students.

This conclusions was the opposite of the consensus in academia when I had been a student in the 1990s. How had the prior research been so wrong? What had happened in the previous 15 years? Well, Baker cited Northwestern University’s Larry Hedges, who re-reviewed Hanushek’s 1986 survey of evidence using “quality control measures” to exclude some studies and change some interpretations. According to Baker, this settled the matter: “by the early 2000s, the cloud of uncertainty conjured by Hanushek in 1986 had largely lifted in the aftermath of the various, more rigorous studies that followed.”

I was surprised, but frankly relieved. As I wrote in response to Baker at the time, “Thank heavens. Someone who actually talks evidence.” Shortly thereafter, I read another piece from Baker regarding implementation of high-stakes testing, and frankly his analysis was solid. I assumed that this level of analysis was typical of Baker’s work, and was further relieved that a high-profile reform skeptic was taking the time to do careful research. As I wrote to him, “Bruce, your facts & analysis R best I’ve seen on UR side. Wish AFT/NEA pushed you, not smears.” I circulated Baker’s work to elevate that approach.

But wait, something smells fishy

 Something was starting to smell fishy

The first clues that something was fishy came as I dove deeper into Baker’s body of work. The highly respected Ulrich Boser had written a report on waste and inefficiency in school spending, and Baker had written a rebuttal. Baker’s rebuttal was, as I wrote to him, “More strident, less compelling than UR usual.” I was being delicate; Baker’s rebuttal was full of personal insults and exclamation points. Disappointing for an alleged scholar.

Then, I read a Baker critique of Mathematica policy research regarding the effectiveness of KIPP charter schools. Baker’s critique was terrible, a long list of hand-waving attacks that seemed to call into question the very possibility of actual empirical research in education. As I wrote to him, the methodology of his approach seemed like that of climate denialists, whose attacks often are a “kritik” of the very idea of research.

Things got worse still when I started to read Baker’s work about teachers’ unions, a subject about which I had substantial personal exposure from visiting state legislators in places where unions were active. As I wrote to Baker in response to a blog of his on the subject, his thumb appeared to be on the scale of the internal workings of his models. His methodology on unions was so sloppy it seemed deliberate.

Boy, was I a sucker

Yes, I actually believed Bruce Baker was a scholar

In 2015, Rucker Johnson and others published an NBER analysis of the impacts of school spending. The NBER report was broadly sympathetic to Baker’s 2012 claims that money can matter, so I read the report with interest.

Wait a minute . . . the 2015 NBER report, entirely focused on the question of “does money matter in education,” did not once mention the Bruce Baker publication from 3 years earlier with the title “Does Money Matter in Education?”

That seemed odd. Even more odd, the NBER paper referred to studies from 1995 and 1996 that showed school spending doesn’t lead to better results.

Wait, what? Wasn’t that the period of time that Baker reviewed, when he wrote that the “cloud of uncertainty” created by Hanushek in 1986 had lifted based on subsequent work? Why didn’t Baker mention those 1995 and 1996 studies by other scholars?

With my antennae finally up, I dug into Baker’s 2012 claims more fully. As it turns out, Baker omitted so much context from his report that his conclusion borders on outright mendacity. For instance, Baker chooses not to mention that Hanushek wrote several peer-reviewed rebuttals to Hedges’ work, including that they engaged in “statistical manipulations … to overturn prevailing conclusions,” and that they “misinterpret the implications of their analysis [and,] through a series of analytical choices, systematically bias their results toward the conclusions they are seeking.” Baker wrote a conclusion that “uncertainty” created by Hanushek “lifted” after 1986, without even deigning to mention that Hanushek didn’t agree? Baker’s presentation of this conclusion was so skewed that later scholars on the exact same subject didn’t even mention Baker’s paper?

Giving Baker a taste of his own medicine

Although Baker’s attacks on Ulrich Boser and others have been filled with insults and sloppiness, we do not need to go to that level to properly assess Baker’s voice in the education reform debate. After all, serious education researchers tend to not even mention Baker. Instead, Baker’s arguments should be taken for what they are: raw advocacy, rather than academic research. Thus, when he makes fair points, they can be discussed on the merits. But no self-respecting writer should ever cite Bruce Baker’s conclusions without carefully reviewing all of his hyperlinks and details, and also doing a quick Google search to see if he’s omitting crucial information.

If I had done my research, I would have known this. Dropout Nation editor RiShawn Biddle pointed out  four years ago that Baker’s so-called “analyses” are designed to achieve his intended results by making subjective and one-sided decisions about what to include and what to ignore. This may be expected for expert witnesses at trials, but is disturbing for someone who pretends to be an academic, and is not transparent that he gets paid for reports by parties with a direct financial stake in his outcomes. Indeed, going forward, jurists, litigators, and policy-makers should be careful when Baker is called in as an expert witness in contentious proceedings.

The problem with Baker was further underscored in a 2011 tape-recorded conversation in which Baker said he would play with data, manipulate the questions he asked, and “pull things in and out” of his models “to tell the most compelling story” in exchange for a substantial research grant. This telephone conversation, including Baker’s own partially exculpatory comments, appears in full at about the 3-minute mark of this video clip. [Baker offers a rather lengthy explanation and defense of what happened.]

I am disappointed in the folks who encouraged me to read Baker, but I’m even more disappointed in myself for being so gullible. None of this automatically invalidates Baker’s conclusions, but most of his research suffers the same kinds of glaring deficiencies just mentioned regarding his 2012 Shanker Institute paper. Some day, someone may decide to write a point-by-point review of Baker’s editorials, but for now the main point is to take his sweeping anti-reform conclusions with a heaping of salt.

Lily’s same old song is out of tune

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by Dmitri Mehlhorn

Last week, American democracy received an unexpected gift from the leader of the nation’s largest teacher’s union. The gift came on Wednesday, when National Education Association President Lily Eskelsen García issued a statement about about education politics in Washington State.

In discussing her local affiliates in the Evergreen State, García said that there was “no stronger voice or advocate” for students, and that the local unions’ primary focus was “ensuring opportunity for every student, regardless of zip code.”

You read that correctly.

According to García, the teachers’ unions are the strongest advocate for students, and especially for students born into poor zip codes.

In the hallways of power everyone claims to be a selfless patriot.

Big agribusinesses block deficit reform? Not to protect their taxpayer subsidies, but rather to preserve America’s heartland, right?

Why do bankers block financial reform? Not to protect fat bonuses, but because they love American financial strength.

Why does big pharma lobby against cheap drugs?  Not for their own profit, but because they want to fund innovative drugs.

With misleading claims of selflessness creating a constant background noise, the most outrageous claims actually come as a relief. For example, when the CEOs of the 7 largest tobacco companies testified in 1994 that they did not believe that nicotine was addictive, it served as a wake-up call to America and permanently changed the national debate about cigarettes.

Every now and then, a lie is so Orwellian that it cuts through the noise and creates clarity.

Teachers’ unions serve teachers, not students

García and her counterpart Randi Weingarten of the American Federation of Teachers are among the most prominent lobbyists and spokespersons in the country. Together they lead organizations that have a collective national budget of over $2.2 billion per year. As I have documented elsewhere, roughly $700 million of that money is spent on various forms of communications and advocacy. Most of that advocacy, in turn, proclaims the selfless patriotism of the union lobbies.

The NEA and AFT regularly claim to represent all of the nation’s 3.3 million teachers, and they claim that they serve only the best interests of America’s 50 million public school students.

Like most lobbyists’ braggadocio, these claims are mostly misleading.

Unlike professional guilds like the American Bar Association or the American Medical Association, teachers’ unions followed the organizing model of blue collar assembly-line industries. When public sector unions obtained collective bargaining rights in the 1960s and 1970s this model corrupted their internal politics so that they don’t tend to represent the views of most actual teachers. Neither García nor Weingarten was directly elected. Instead, both unions select their national leaders at closed-door sessions of power-brokers from the state and municipal labor groups.

In other words, they are politicians chosen by politicians. This model is an anachronistic throwback to a century ago.

The union’s state and local power-brokers tend to represent the teachers who vote. Roughly four-fifths of teachers don’t even bother to vote in union elections. With low voter turnout the internal union electorate is dominated by weak performers who see education reforms as directly threatening their livelihood.

Labor leaders like García and Weingarten disproportionately represent the nation’s lowest-performing teachers, not the vast majority of teachers who want schools to succeed for the benefit of kids.

For similar reasons, the claim that teachers’ unions defend student interests is mostly false. Yes, some union investments help both teachers and students: for example, when the unions invest in professional development that makes teachers more effective.

My interviews with state and national legislators, however, suggest that this is not where union lobbyists spend their political capital. Rather, the unions put their muscle to defend low-performing teachers and schools: by fighting school choice and by attacking teacher accountability systems.

Washington teachers fail their students

All of this sets the stage for García’s epic mendacity last week. For those just tuning in, the Washington State facts are as follows:

  • In November 2012, Washington State voters approved a ballot initiative to open 40 charter schools across the state.
  • In March of 2015, Stanford University released a definitive study showing that urban charter schools provided “dramatically better” results in many cases, and overall better results on average, than traditional public schools. This followed increasing evidence that the mere existence of charter schools tends to improve the performance of neighboring traditional public schools. Washington State’s charter program is too new to have been studied for either type of effect, but the state’s parents wanted the choice. Heading into the 2015-2016 school year, 10 state charter schools were prepared to serve over 1300 students. Perhaps the most enthusiastic parents were those who’d been least well served by the status quo. For example, 32.6% of the state’s charter students were African American, vs. the statewide average of 13.4%.
  • On Friday, September 4, 2015, a 6-3 majority of the state’s supreme court ruled that the charter law violated the constitution, citing a 1909 precedent which in turn was grounded in the state’s early pioneering history. Washington’s state court justices are chosen by popular election, and members of the ruling majority did not recuse themselves despite receiving the maximum possible financial contributions from the unions for their electoral campaigns. Washington’s Attorney General joined most of the state’s newspaper editorial boards in calling for the state supreme court to reconsider.
  • On Tuesday, September 8, the Seattle branch of the teachers’ union declared that Seattle’s 5,000 school employees would go on strike. This followed a spring and summer of teacher strikes all over the state. The Seattle strike indefinitely delayed the start of the school year for 53,000 students out of school indefinitely. The Seattle union spokesperson explained to local NBC news affiliate that the strike would last as long as necessary for the teachers to get pay increases in exchange for longer working days:  “They are still expecting us to work a longer day without paying for it.” The district’s contract proposal asks teachers to work 30 more minutes per day, in exchange for a 10% salary increase over the next two years, plus a cost-of-living adjustment. Today, Seattle’s teachers on average earn about $60,000 per year, roughly 50% more than the average salary in Seattle (or more if you compare benefit differences). The union has demanded a 17% increase over two years.
  • Also on Tuesday, Seattle’s school board authorized its superintendent to go to court to resolve the dispute. Local teachers’ union president Jonathan Knapp criticized the school board for “grasping at legalistic straws” to keep schools open.
  • Meanwhile, with Seattle’s public schools closed, the state’s now-unfunded charter schools raised private money to stay open for their students.  As described by former traditional public school teacher and state union member Taylor Williams, “I can’t ignore the irony of the fact that Washington’s public charter schoolteachers will be at school with students on Wednesday morning, while public school teachers in Seattle may be on strike, leaving their students behind.”

This is the context that makes García’s statement last week a gift for the nation.

Fifty three thousand students in Washington State missed their first week of school, and perhaps more, because the local union is demanding a 17% pay increase rather than a 10% pay increase.

Meanwhile, charter schools for disadvantaged students found ways to stay open, despite the fact that union-funded court proceedings cut off all of their funding.

To pull it together, the unions then said that the courts should not be used to keep traditional schools open, only to close charter schools. All over the country, parents should pay attention to García’s claim that Washington State’s students, “regardless of zip code,” have “no stronger voice or advocate” than unions.

Well, that song remains the same. Out of tune with reality.

Neighborhood Schools: Also Bad for Middle Class Whites

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by Dmitri Mehlhorn

Of course, they contacted the principal right away.

Their son – call him John – loves math. John had always earned top grades in math, so he applied to join the elementary school’s specialized math program. Shortly thereafter, the principal sent John’s parents a generic email rejecting his application. John’s parents replied with a friendly note asking how the decision had been made. They wanted to give John some feedback in case he wanted to try again.

The principal’s email response began by flatly stating that the decision would not be reconsidered. The next few sentences generically described a process based on tests and faculty judgment. The final line of the email reiterated that the decision was final.

My friends, John’s parents, were shocked. Public school alumni themselves, they had been committed to sending their kids to public school. They had considered the reputation of local schools when picking where to live. As successful professionals, they felt sure they’d be able to engage with the local school bureaucracy as needed. They were totally unprepared when that bureaucracy refused to admit the possibility of error; refused to give them voice in John’s education; and refused to even give concrete suggestions for how John could succeed. Next year, John will be attending private school.

Sadly, my friends’ experience is not unusual. Parents look out for their kids. In a wealthy area, you’d think that white, upper-middle class parents who share a language, culture, and race with their kids’ admins and teachers would find ways to make the bureaucracy work. Yet I live in Fairfax County, by reputation one of the best public school systems in the United States, and I hear stories like this all the time. Parents see kids assigned to the wrong teachers for them, or the wrong pedagogy or curriculum, and try to fix it. They ask for more rigor, different approaches, and sometimes even more tests – but get stonewalled. Customization and choice create too much administrative headache. So many parents leave the system, choosing to double-pay (once in taxes, and again in private tuition) to get programs tailored to their kids.

I say this as a K-12 veteran. My parents are public school alumni, loyal to public schools. My mom was a public school teacher, with friends and relatives throughout the public school system. Unfortunately, Washington Elementary School in 1970’s Richmond, California, used a lecture-based format that suited me poorly. At the end of my kindergarten year, my teacher informed my family that I would need to repeat kindergarten because I failed “chair-sitting.” My parents, with difficulty, scraped together the money to send me to a Montessori school in a neighboring city. The Montessori approach suited me so well that when I returned to public school after three years, rather than being a grade behind, I was a full grade ahead of my former classmates. After two more years of elementary school, my parents moved to a better neighborhood so I could attend Adams Junior High. Two years later, my mom’s knowledge of our district’s limited choice system allowed me to pick electives that allowed me to attend El Cerrito High School (rather than the default high school into which I was zoned).

Someone looking to defend the neighborhood school model might point to me as a case study. I spent 9 years in K-12 public schools, got good scores, and went to college. But my parents had to use every tool at their disposal. Along the way, they read to me, did math with me, built models with me, and enrolled me in afterschool and summer school enrichment programs. They moved homes. They worked the bureaucracy. When all else failed, they made sacrifices to send me to a private school for three critical years.

My parents’ story is frustrating. So is John’s parents’ story. So are the stories of many others in similar situations. But none of those stories make me really mad. After all, the middle class white parents ultimately found ways to make things work.

What makes me really mad is when I think about a girl – call her Sally – that I know from the local intramural soccer team. Sally is a fantastic kid. She’s hardworking, smart, athletic, and polite. But her parents don’t have many tools with which to advocate for Sally. They do not speak English. They live in a small apartment. They do not have a car. They do not have email. They work multiple jobs to stay afloat. During the 13 years spanning Sally’s kindergarten through twelfth grade, the question is not whether the neighborhood schools will fail Sally; unfortunately, the question is when, how often, and how badly. Will she make it? Or, like many of the kids with whom I went to school, will she fail to graduate – or perhaps scrape through graduation but fail to live long enough to attend her 10th high school reunion?

The monopoly K-12 school system – the neighborhood school system – is an unyielding bureaucracy. We try to pretend it’s not so bad. Heck, we trust our kids and our taxes to the system – acknowledging the problems would create cognitive dissonance. So we take comfort that the vast majority of individual teachers and administrators who want students to succeed. But the proof of the failure of the system comes in the behavior of middle class white parents, including public school teachers themselves. In addition to paying more in K-12 taxes than any society in human history, American parents with resources go to enormous lengths to overcome the system’s casual but brutal oppression. For students whose parents who don’t have those extra tools, the system is as deadly as the police and prison bureaucracies that it feeds.