a couple quick notes

So here’s some bile from commenter Dawn Kwicksoat that is one part common, one part unique:

And you guys… we have to stop arguing by telling others what the believe instead of arguing with what they actually believe. It’s useless and destructive.

I guess when you use a different internet handle at other locales, this general prescription doen’t apply to you, eh Fred?

But who can blame you? You have angst to release, and that’s so hard to do when you’re being an academic rhetorician writing convoluted, dry and boring jargon-laden essays. An academic has to avoid even passive aggression, and must stifle those nefarious urges to snark and ping and smack.

Thankfully one can inhabit as many alternate personages as one can imagine and manage separately, and those devices allow a lot of room for releasing the pent-up feelings whose expression academia proscribes when speaking to fellow academicians.

The first part, that I have other “handles” that I comment with online, is a new one on me. In large part, that’s because I’m fairly notorious for commenting on other people’s blogs and sites using my real name. A fair number of professional writer types have made fun of me for the practice; I guess the thinking is that commenting is for the rabble, not for the pros. Luckily, I’m not a pro. I comment using my own name because being held accountable for what you say is a cherished value to me. The only times I have deviated from this practice was back in like, 2005-2006, when I first started reading blogs, I had no blog of my own, and essentially nobody commented under their own name; and I also have occasionally commented at The Atlantic under a commenter handle because my Facebook-connected account got banned. (Totally unfairly, by the way.) I have since gotten a new account under my real name there. So I have no idea what Dawn here is talking about. I have had, in the past, people post intentionally offensive things under my name in comments sections as a way to discredit me (think, like, blatant anti-Semitism, racial slurs, etc.) but that was mostly a short-term thing when I had attracted the attention of some conservative cesspit.

I mean, I’m used to a lot of abuse, but the idea that I’m unable to be public about my feelings, or that I have to take to pseudonyms to express what I don’t like is… odd. It’s been the advice of many that I shouldn’t argue about politics as a graduate student, as that could unnecessarily disadvantage me for jobs in an already brutal market. But while some of my opinions are controversial, I don’t think any of them are offensive in the traditional sense, and I believe that basic academic and intellectual freedom should protect political expression. I also think that academics need to be more willing to express themselves publicly, not less. If there are negative professional consequences for that stance, well, I can live with it.

As for the second bit, making fun of me through making fun of the study of rhetoric, this one is quite common. It’s also a very bad tactic, because I don’t, by and large, study rhetoric. I’m in a rhetoric and composition program, yes. But just as you might, for example, be in a Film and Theater department and focus almost entirely on drama and not on film, I am focused on the composition side. My research, currently, explores hybrid approaches to writing education that involve techniques from applied linguistics and textual processing. I also have a strong focus on literacy education policy, particularly when it comes to empirical measures and assessment.  I have taken extensive coursework in rhetoric, and I very much value the field. I find the notion that there’s something inherently unserious about studying the way we argue and persuade each other to be pretty nuts. In a democracy, these questions are of vital importance. But regardless, don’t consider myself a rhetoric scholar, and it’s a very weird, scattershot way to go after me. So everybody who does this, please adjust your invective accordingly, OK? Lord knows, there’s plenty of material out there if you’re looking for avenues of attack.

Posted in Meta | 11 Comments

HIV after the death of nuance

So to continue with my complaints about how, in a world where nuance is dead, we’re unable to tell the truth, here’s a piece from Gawker’s Dayna Evans going after Vine star and moron Nash Grier for an ugly video in which he says the word “fag” and suggests that HIV/AIDS is “a gay thing.” Evans writes that Grier “endorses the wrongheaded and homophobic idea that HIV is an issue that exists primarily in the gay community.” The comments, meanwhile, are filled with people arguing that of course, everyone is at equal risk of getting infected. 

This kid, clearly, is an idiot and a jerk. And indeed, the idea that only gay men have to worry about AIDS is simply wrong: there are many heterosexual men and women who are infected with HIV, and no one is truly without risk. That said: it’s simply not true to suggest that men who have sex with men are not at significantly higher risk of getting infected with HIV, outside of the unique epidemiological conditions of sub-Saharan Africa. Here’s a chart of HIV infections in the United States from 2010 from the CDC:

(MSM = men who have sex with men)

Now, does that change the part where this kid is a dumb jerk? Of course not. Does it mean straight people have no risk? Of course not. Does it justify any kind of homophobic reaction, or acting like AIDS is a less important public health problem, or saying that people with HIV “deserve it”? Of course not. There is absolutely no contradiction in saying

1. HIV/AIDS remains a major public health risk, particularly for those without access to combination therapies;
2. Everyone should be smart and careful in their sexual practices, thanks to a variety of STDs, not just HIV;
3. We have a pressing moral responsibility, as a society, to confront HIV/AIDS;
4. In the developed world, men who have sex with men, and intravenous drug users, face far higher infection risks than the public writ large.

That all seems sensible and respectful to me. But I so often see educated, liberal people insisting that there isn’t any difference in risk factors, or reacting with anger to suggestions that different populations are at different risk. And it just gets back to this sense that we’ve made politics so much about signaling your tribal allegiances that you can’t speak with a modicum of nuance or care — either you’re on the team that thinks AIDS is a plague sent by god to punish sinful gays, or you’re on the team that thinks that everyone is perfectly equal in their risk because life is perfectly fair that way. Everything is this way now; you’re never allowed to believe the things you say, but rather have to lard every political statement with a litany of the things you expressly don’t believe, or else get sorted into the camp of the Evil People and get accused of believing things that you haven’t even suggested. It’s exhausting, pointless, and utterly childish, and it makes it so tempting to quit talking about politics entirely.

Posted in Rhetoric | 30 Comments

who’s really got tenure?

I’ve been thinking about pointing this out, off and on, for awhile now, but then David Brooks goes and lays it out so directly I can’t help myself. I’ve argued in the past that journalists and pundits, in general, don’t respect academics and teachers. Some people disagree. What’s much more clear, however, is that whether for university professors or school teachers, journalists and teachers don’t like tenure.

Academic tenure, that swiftly-dying job benefit that was designed to protect academic freedom and gives professors a degree of job security once they pass their initial (brutal) tenure review, is seen as a way for coddled professors to earn money without having to produce. (See Megan McArdle for a typical take.) Tenure for public school teachers is seen as a way to protect the unqualified and the corrupt and keep ed reformers from fixing our schools.  (See, of course, Even the Liberal New Republic.) Now I personally think that these claims are unfair; immediately post-tenure academics don’t, in my estimation, stop working hard as researchers. Indeed, often they accelerate, as there’s all sorts of status markers that academics tend to pursue in their tenured career. Whether the focus on research is healthy or beneficial is a discussion for a different time. I also have never personally understood the claim that tenured professors don’t care about teaching undergraduates, which simply does not jibe with my experience. But then, it’s only my experience. And it remains the case that there’s no strong evidence that tenure hurts student performance, and in fact the evidence mostly points in the other direction.

More to the point, though, my problems with media complaints about tenure is that they come from a class that appears, to me, to have a kind of tenure of their own. Brooks lays that out succinctly in this interview with Yahoo News:

 there are plenty of reasons for the 52-year-old to stay at the Times: He has unprecedented freedom and job security. Times columnists, Brooks said, are treated like “hothouse flowers.”

“I’ve never attended a meeting at the Times,” he said. “We can write about anything. I’ve been at the Times for over a decade, I’ve never had a performance review. We can go anywhere we want. And we are just left alone.” …

Brooks believes he — like the Times print edition — will still be published in 10 years.

“They’re making new old people every day,” Brooks joked of the Times’ print demographic. “I think I’ll have a job in 10 years that looks very similar to the one I have now.”

And he gets to have regular, off-the-record meetings with U.S. presidents.

This is one of those enduring questions: what would it take to get an NYT columnist fired? I mean how many times can Tom Friedman fart out the identical column before somebody at the Times wonders what they’re getting for their money? And, of course, both Friedman and Brooks have made some consistently horrible predictions about foreign policy, with Friedman adding a bit of moral hideousness that should be grounds for firing in and of itself. Ah, but they’re columnists at the Times. They are at the pinnacle of their profession! But I see journalistic tenure as a broad phenomenon. As we’ve recently been discussing, having been totally wrong about the most important foreign policy question of the last 25 years, and being implicated in the hideous consequences, has done essentially nothing to harm the job security of those who supported the Iraq war. They have not only not been fired, they’ve often been invited back to support a new war to fix the old war they were already wrong about.

And it goes on. You can plagiarize and write favorable pieces on foreign regimes for money and maintain a professional career and prominence in the media scene. You can beat the drum for war again and again, get duped by a lying source, and falsely claim that an attack is imminent and not only remain employed, but be considered a favorite of many other journalists. You can make a number of absurd, utterly wrong predictions about war, push the racist IQ argument before calling takebacks, and sit on your comfortable perch at the same website for years. You can be a Wall Street crook and get banned by the SEC, get people working low-wage jobs fired out of entitlement and spite, and run a series of increasingly-inane Forrest Gump-style ruminations on why the world is a weird old place, and remain a titan of awful clickbait “journalism.” You can be whoever is in charge of Salon’s web design and not be fired from a cannon into the sun.  I could go on and on: the world of professional journalism and punditry is full of people who have made bad predictions, violated media ethics, plagiarized, lied, taken money for positive coverage, or just repeatedly done shoddy work, and maintained their personal and professional standing in the industry.

As a critic of education reform policies and rhetoric, I am constantly reading journalists and political writers arguing that teachers need objective, external review to ensure that they are doing high quality work. (Including, of course, from David Brooks, who has the incredible shamelessness to complain about inefficiency from a position where he faces no review by his own admission.) And I just want to laugh: what objective, external review are politicos subject to, exactly? What systems ensure that incompetence or unethical behavior are punished in an industry that still runs off of editor word-of-mouth, personal connections, and Klout scores? I don’t know what the system of accountability is supposed to be, but I do know that in a political world where Jeff Goldberg still gets to be seen as dispensing wisdom from the mountain on the subject of the Middle East, that system isn’t working. I don’t doubt that for many at the bottom of the food chain, professional political writing and journalism are precarious, risky propositions, but it seems that once you’re in, you’re in, and there’s no shaking you out. Maybe instead of going after teachers and academics for having too much job security, journalists and writers should put their own house in order first.

Posted in Education, Popular & Digital Writing | 13 Comments

difficult problems after the death of nuance

I have seen now some dozen people share this ProPublica map, about the use of restraining holds on school children, on various social networks and websites. It makes me sad, because this issue is sad. But the kind of reactions that are being provoked also make me sad, because they demonstrate the ways in which the world of sharing and likes and shallow understanding destroys nuance and creates a bogus conception of a black-and-white world.

It happens that I have some experience in this regard. For about a year and a half, I worked in a public school that had a special, segregated section for kids with severe emotional disturbance. Some of the students were significantly mainstreamed into the general ed population, but many couldn’t be, as they posed too much of a risk to other students and to themselves. Those risks were neither hypothetical nor minor. The more severe of these cases were children who typically could not last a single school day without inflicting harm on themselves or on others. I have personally witnessed a 10 year old lift his 40-pound desk from the floor and hurl it towards the head of another student. I have witnessed a student jump from her seat to claw and bite at another, with almost no provocation. I have seen kids go from seeming calm to punching other kids repeatedly in the back of the head without warning. The self-harm was even worse. I had to intervene when a child, frustrated with his multiplication homework, struck himself repeatedly in the face with a heavy fake gold medallion, to the point where he drew his own blood. I saw a student try to cut his own lip with safety scissors. I saw a girl tear padding from a padded wall and eat it; when she eventually had to be removed from the school via ambulance, she urinated on herself, rubbed her face with her urine, and attempted to do the same to paramedics.

Mental illness is powerful and terrible and that’s the world we live in.

Part of the response to this kind of behavior was restraint. I didn’t enjoy doing it; none of the staff did. Hated it, in fact. We were all trained in how to provide restraint as safely as possible, but that didn’t mean we were under any illusion: we knew that these techniques were uncomfortable and potentially harmful to students. Injuries to staff members were common. A fellow staff member badly broke her tailbone in the process of restraining a child, an injury that left her unable to work for a calender year. There was something gross about the euphemism “therapeutic hold,” and we talked about the trainings with black humor. I left, after that year and a half or so, because I could not take the emotional toll. There were women there who had been working with such children for over 30 years. I couldn’t make it two. The notion that these women were somehow callous or unconcerned about these children is ludicrous and defamatory. They had dedicated their lives to helping these kids, for terribly low pay. They had to watch these kids grow up and get shipped to the middle school level where there was no similar program. And we were the last stop, for these kids, before the state mental health system. That was the stark choice: if it didn’t work here, the only alternatives were either special private schools, which given that the students were overwhemingly from poverty, was not an option at all, or being committed to the state mental system, which most likely meant institutionalization and constant medication. Those were the stakes.

I have struggled to write about that period of my life for years, as I am still unable to adequately process the emotions I felt. I do know and will loudly say that the women (and besides me they were almost all women) who worked as teachers and paraprofessionals were an inspiration in the true sense, working quietly and without celebration to bring a little education and relief for children who life had treated terribly. They shame me with their dedication. To see them and people like them repeatedly represented as serial abusers who don’t care for if they harm children is infuriating, baseless, and wrong.

The question I have for someone like Heather Helen Vogell, who wrote this sensationalistic and damaging piece for ProPublica, and for all of the people sharing that map with breathless outrage, is this: what alternative would you propose? I am not kidding when I tell you that dozens of times, there was no choice but to physically restrain a child. The only alternative was to allow that child to badly hurt another or him- or herself. If you think that a 7 year old is incapable of badly harming another person, I assure you, you’re wrong. I have seen many people arguing that there is never a situation where such restraint is necessary, and  all I can say is that you’re ignorant, and that your ignorance is dangerous. To say that all children can be verbally calmed in all situations is to betray a stunning lack of understanding of the reality of childhood mental illness. Vogell mentions in passing that there are situations in which restraint is necessary, then spends thousands of words ignoring that fact. At every time when she is faced with a journalistic or stylistic choice, she opts for the most sensationalistic and unsympathetic presentation possible, minimizing the other side and failing to even pretend to have genuinely wrestled with the topic before coming to a conclusion. It’s not just that she insults thousands of nameless, faceless public servants who no capacity to fight back or even be seen as potentially-sympathetic human beings. It’s just lousy journalism, written for a clickbait culture, utterly credulous to one set of opinions and utterly dismissive of another. It’s an embarrassment.

Meanwhile, childhood mental illness continues to wreak its terrible havoc, and educators will be forced to make terrible choices. I hated restraining those children, but I saw with my own two eyes the incredible violence that mental illness made possible, and I do not for one minute regret properly restraining children when that was the only way to save that child or another from bodily harm. I invite Vogell, or any of the people loudly expressing their outrage, to take jobs in special education or child mental health services. You can actually get involved, you know. See it with your own eyes. Help actual human lives get a little bit better. See what choice you’re able to make when it is clear that you must intervene or allow injury to another person. But I’m afraid that takes more time and effort then launching a tweet.

In the broader view, I am reminded of a few sad realities: that American liberalism culture is now synonymous with a juvenile Manicheanism that imagines some perfect world we could achieve if people just weren’t so selfish and evil; that getting showily, publicly angry about problems is more popular than actually attempting to solve them; that there is no issue of such emotional and moral complexity that many people can’t reduce it to a black-and-white caricature; and that we have created a media which has made its financial best interest inextricable from destroying depth, nuance, and complexity. I genuinely don’t know if people believe in difficult choices and intractable problems anymore; they’ve been bludgeoned by the loud noises and shouting we mistake for discussion into thinking that all problems have clear villains and easy answers. I do know that this is no way to run a democracy. And I also know that, years from now, when people like Vogell are no longer wasting a second of their time thinking about physical restraint of children who are a danger to themselves and others, the women in my program will be working, quietly and selflessly and for awful compensation, trying to help the children they are now accused of abusing.

Posted in Popular & Digital Writing, Prose Style and Substance | 24 Comments

on Kevin Carey’s piece on the quality of American higher education

I have many issues with this piece on the quality of American colleges and universities by Kevin Carey of the ed reform shop the New America Foundation. Let’s dive deep.

Far from being complacent about higher education, America is the site of a perpetual crisis narrative about our colleges. Carey  writes, “While policy wonks hotly debate K-12 reform ideas like vouchers and the Common Core state standards, higher education is largely left to its own devices.” It’s incredible that someone who works in higher education policy circles can write this: since tertiary education has become a mass phenomenon in the United States, we’ve essentially never not been freaking out about it.

I’ve recently finished a chapter for my dissertation about the perpetual crisis narrative in higher education. Since the GI Bill resulted in a major expansion of access to college education, there has essentially never been a time when the federal government wasn’t getting involved in higher ed, and doing so under crisis rhetoric. The federal government has commissioned major reviews of higher education in the Truman administration, the Eisenhower administration, the Kennedy administration, the Reagan administration, the George HW Bush administration, the George W. Bush administration, and the Obama administration. The notion of a crisis in higher education is common to them. The reason changes — our colleges are unprepared for all of the WWII veterans who will go to school when they get home, we need better learning to fight the Cold War, we need to prepare students to win the space race, we need to compete economically with Germany/Japan/China, etc. — but the notion of a crisis is ever-present. Hell, A Nation at Risk is one of the most hysterical documents I’ve ever read.

And as Carey is surely aware, the last two presidential administrations have attempted to directly change the course of American higher education. The Spellings commission was one of the most direct attempts by government to date at enforcing a particular vision of collegiate education, this one driven by calls for “accountability” and standardized assessment. The regional accreditation agencies have responded, as they did with A Nation at Riskalthough not entirely as reformers would have hoped. Now, the Obama administration is giving this movement teeth, by tying access to federal funds to a series of rankings and making standardized assessments a large part of those rankings. Setting aside the wisdom or fairness of these proposals, they are the opposite of leaving colleges to their own devices.

Carey fails to account for socioeconomic and demographic differences — despite the fact that the PIAAC study provides information on that account. The most important part of doing legitimate and responsible educational comparisons– literally the most important thing– is making sure that you’re comparing like with like. In education research, student performance needs to be placed in context according to the major demographic factors that dictate educational outcomes, in particular income level and parent education level. Anyone reading this, I assume, has already read me go on about the power of these demographic factors at length, but for a recap I’ll just quote Diane Ravitch in her book Reign of Error:

American students in schools with low poverty— the schools where less than 10 percent of the students were poor— had scores that were equal to those of Shanghai and significantly better than those of high-scoring Finland, the Republic of Korea, Canada, New Zealand, Japan, and Australia. In U.S. schools where less than a quarter of the students were eligible for free or reduced-price lunch (the federal definition of poverty), the reading scores were similar to those of students in high-performing nations. Technically, the comparison is not valid, because it involves comparing students in low-poverty schools in the United States with the average score for entire nations. But it is important to recognize that the scores of students in low-poverty schools in the United States are far higher than the international average, higher even than the average for top-performing nations, and the scores decline as poverty levels increase, as they do in all nations.

This is hardly revelatory stuff; anyone talking responsibly about education must acknowledge the determinative power of these factors from the get go. And we know that completing a college degree is itself highly dependent on these demographic factors:


source: the College Board

Now the PISA looks at how college educated adults perform on a test, not on if they finish college. But we have strong evidence that GPA performance in college is influenced by demographic factors. For example, a 1999 study of more than 5,000 college students found that personal background factors, such as parental income and parental education level, had a strong influence on college GPA.

But perhaps Carey would speculate that, against all sense, these socioeconomic factors wouldn’t affect PISA scores the way they affect GPA and dropout rate. But Carey didn’t actually have to speculate; he only had to listen to PIAAC! Here, from page 104 of  the PIAAC study:

Adults from socio-economically advantaged backgrounds have higher average proficiency in the three domains assessed in the survey, than those from disadvantaged backgrounds (socio-economic background is proxied by parents’ educational attainment). Score differences on the literacy scale related to socio-economic background are largest in Germany, Poland and the United States, while they are smallest in Estonia, Japan and Korea. After accounting for other characteristics, the differences in literacy proficiency associated with socio-economic background are substantially smaller. This is because an individual’s educational attainment often mirrors that of his or her parents.

Later, on page 113:

The largest difference in both literacy and numeracy proficiency between adults with at least one parent who had high levels of educational attainment (i.e. from socio-economically advantaged backgrounds) and those with both parents who had low levels of educational attainment (i.e. from socio-economically disadvantaged backgrounds) is observed
in the United States and Germany (57 and 54 points, respectively). These are also the countries with the lowest average literacy score among adults with neither parent having attained upper secondary education. In contrast, Australia, Estonia, Japan and Sweden show the smallest difference (28-33 points) between these two groups of adults. These countries also feature relatively higher scores among adults with neither parent having completed upper secondary education.

In other words, in a piece criticizing the higher education system of a country of great socioeconomic inequality, based on data from a study, the author failed to mention that the study identifies that country as having a large impact from socioeconomic factors. It’s incredible that Carey failed to disclose that; it borders on dishonesty. I could easily see the Upshot running a piece that leads with this information — American Literacy and Numeracy Highly Influenced By Socioeconomic Background, Study Shows– if that was how the data was being spun. To not point out the impact of socioeconomic differences on PISA scores when those differences are laid out by the study’s authors is a major failing.

America is an unequal country, and our educational outcomes are unequal for this reason. That’s not disputed by this data, but rather supported by it.

Carey acknowledges that American students come in lower, then ignores that fact. Carey points out that our primary and secondary students lag far behind in PISA scores, meaning that they come to American colleges and universities further behind their international counterparts. Yet Carey continues to take American universities to task for not reaching parity with international peers. He’s looking at a comparison where some systems have a large head start and then complaining that our system doesn’t win the race. He writes, “Instead, Piaac suggests that the wide disparities of knowledge and skill present among American schoolchildren are not ameliorated by higher education.” But how could they be ameliorated if other country’s students are continuing to learn too? Again, what this data suggests is not that our schools are doing a poor job but rather that  student-side factors are more determinative of educational outcomes like PISA scores than school-side factors. 

Simplistic numeracy tests are very poor measures of college learning; better assessments, like the Collegiate Learning Assessment, show strong student growth. It’s essential to say: the PIAAC study is not intended for the purpose that Carey uses it for. The study is not intended as an assessment of collegiate learning. For example, on page 118, the study says, “The formal education system is not the only setting in which the skills assessed in the Survey of Adult Skills are developed. Learning occurs in a range of other settings, including the family, the workplace and through self-directed individual activity.” And it’s entirely unclear to me that the kind of numeracy and literacy items the PISA uses are an appropriate mechanism to test college students. Do you remember taking a class in “numeracy” in college? You can’t get on schools for failing to teach students things they didn’t intend to teach them. 

In contrast, I think an assessment system like the College Learning Assessment+ is probably a better gauge, in part simply because it’s designed for the purpose of measuring college learning. There are deep problems with value-added modeling, and while I am a qualified supporter of the CLA/CLA+, there are some issues with it as well. (Unfortunately for my dissertation research, it seems that not being an unqualified supporter makes it harder to get access to information. But that’s a discussion for another time.) But it’s an instrument that’s far more suited to this kind of comparison than PISA scores, and one that tries specifically to show how these different skills work in concert, rather than separated and deracinated. Take a look at this regression of CLA scores over SAT scores.


What we see here is encouraging: the gap between the two regression lines is large, indicating that American college students are learning a great deal in school. Indeed, you can read about this learning at length in the Council for Aid to Education’s paper “Does College Matter?“However, we can also see that the gap between those who start out the lowest (on the left) and those who start out the highest (on the right) is not made up by college education; the gap is just too big. Again, this comports with my point above and with my broader take on education as a whole: schooling works, but it can’t close gaps caused by demographic differences, in large measure because those at the top keep learning as well. I don’t doubt that many other countries would have students who end up higher on the CLA+ than ours do — but I also don’t doubt that they’d start out higher, as well. And I also don’t doubt that there are structural economic reasons for this advantage.

The notion that economic competitiveness is dependent on performance on educational metrics is broadly assumed by relatively unproven. As is very common with reform types, Carey argues that we need to fix this supposed crisis because educational performance is strongly tied to economic performance. This is ed reform boilerplate, but it’s never been clear to me how strong the evidence is. I think having a highly educated workforce is probably a good thing economically, but I think we should be clear: American education has never been good in international comparisons, even during boom economic times. Often, people assert that we’ve fallen from our perch as the world leader in education. But not only were we never the best, we’ve never been close to the best. In a comprehensive review of the evidence, David E. Drew demonstrates that as long as people have been making rigorous international comparisons of educational outcomes, the United States has done very poorly. This was true in the 1960s, it was true in both the boom and bust times of the 1980s, it was true in the go-go economy of the late 1990s. Whatever the relationship between student test scores and the economy, it’s not a simple one.

There is a conversation to be had about the quality of our higher education system. I think leaving research out of that conversation, as Carey does, is nuts, particularly given that he’s specifically invoked our economic well being. And surely there is a difference between prestige and the quality of undergraduate education. But I don’t think using the PIAAC data is a  responsible way to approach the question, and I think Carey has failed to address the central problem of comparing like with like in educational data. I worry that he began from a particular conclusion and looked around for evidence to reach it.

Posted in Education | 4 Comments

quote for the day

“There’s a whorish desperation to even the very few halfway-decent writers today. You either write about the same tripe everybody else writes about—Game of Thrones, Hillary Clinton, Silicon Valley, whatever new subculture is offended by its lack of persecution, a sports star, a wealthy rapper, the Tea Party, the new iPhone—or you make a stunt out of not doing that specific thing: Dark Matters: A Gamer Woman’s Journey Through a Year Without Using Light Bulbs In a Very Dark House, etc. The paucity of aesthetic morality throughout global civilization dulls the wits of even the sharpest satirists at The Baffler and The Onion.”

- Ken Layne. Yowza.

Posted in Prose Style and Substance | 3 Comments

people, not instruments

Here is a response from Karl Steel. Please take a moment and read it. I am only asking to be judged for what I actually believe and what I’ve actually said, and I have never said, suggested, or implied that race and gender are not wholly unique sites of oppression, or that solving those oppressions belongs anywhere below our highest priorities. I merely said that I don’t believe left-wing discourse, as currently constituted, ignores race and gender issues. Don’t confuse my claims about attention with claims about efficacy. Saying that there is a lot of attention focused on race and gender is a wholly different claim than saying that we’ve got them covered. Indeed: it’s precisely that tendency to mistake intention for effect that muddies these discussions.

And you guys… we have to stop arguing by telling others what the believe instead of arguing with what they actually believe. It’s useless and destructive. I spend so much time now articulating what I don’t believe and haven’t said that I have no time to articulate what I do believe and intended to say. Each of us is the sole determiner of what we believe. For the love of god, please stop trying to find convoluted ways to accuse others of saying things that are plainly wrong or offensive rather than rebutting what you find wrong about what they actually think. We can’t win that way. We can’t.


Above is a mural by Marela Zacarias, the gifted left-wing muralist. In the early to mid 2000s, Marela was a close comrade and friend of mine in the anti-war movement. Like many people I knew in my daily activism days, I’ve lost touch with her. And as with many of them I wish I hadn’t. I mention Marela because, while I have no right to define her politics for her now, not being in touch with her, at the time she was a Marxist. Not just a Marxist, but a far more educated and orthodox Marxist than I ever have been. In that, she was just one of many, many women and people of color who have taught me about socialism, communism, and Marxism. And yet I find people like Marela are written out of existence every day by those who suggest — as there are many who do — that socialist, communism, and Marxism are only the province of white men.

This is ugly for several reasons. The first is that it plays into a very disturbing trend I’ve noticed of white liberals and leftists essentializing and instrumentalizing people of color as a kind of rhetorical tool. So, so many political arguments on the left today devolve into white people attempting to assert who is a closer friend to people of color. I don’t think that this can possibly be a means to  achieve racial justice. Instrumentalizing human beings is ugly business. And in the zeal to assert that one is in closer solidarity with people of color very often prompts people to draw a narrowing vision of what people of color can be. At my old blog, I often fought with my commenters about the phenomenon of black conservatives. When they would instrumentalize blackness and talk about a default black political identity, I would point to black conservatives and ask why they didn’t count. And while the people arguing with me were too politic to come right out and say so, it was clear that what the ultimately thought was that black conservatives weren’t “really black.” In that way, a supposed stance of anti-racism became a way in which white people defined black political identity. That’s just a terrible way to behave.

Second, I think it just does a kind of intellectual and spiritual violence to people to deny that they exist for short-term political expediency. I have known hundreds (hundreds) of post- or anti-capitalists in my life who were people of color, women, transgender, or gender queer. I have known dozens of women of color who were Marxian or Marxist. I have known Indonesian socialists, Nigerian communists, and Peruvian Maoists. I have known people raised in inner city America who can cite chapter and verse from the Manifesto. None of this should be a surprise to anyone, not in the world of Che Guevara, Mao, and Alexandra Kollontai. Nobody who understands the history of radical black nationalism, South American independence movements, African anti-colonialism, or Southeast Asian history should make these mistakes.

None of which means you have to be any flavor of socialist or Marxist, and none of which means you have to believe that socialism or Marxism are best, or best for women or people of color specifically. Just argue what you think is best, for whatever groups and identities you think you have a responsibility to advocate for. But argue honestly, and if you’re white, give up on the temptation to treat people of color as a rhetorical bludgeon.

Now please stay tuned for a multi-part series from somebody or other, “deBoer declares white people most important, says socialism no place for people of color.”

Posted in Rhetoric | 20 Comments

it’s hard to have self-awareness, especially about yourself

Timothy B. Lee, going after Jill Lepore’s wonderful takedown of the cult of disruptive innovation:

One of the big problems with the theory of disruptive innovation is that its originator, Clay Christensen, faced a conflict of interest that we might call the “Innovator’s Dilemma” Dilemma. In the introduction to his 1997 book, Christensen wrote that “colleagues who have read my academic papers reporting the findings recounted in chapters 1 through 4 were struck by their near-fatalism.” Over and over again, the book described how businesses tried and failed to cope with the problem of disruptive innovation

Yet as a business professor at Harvard, Christensen’s job is to provide business advice to (and train future leaders of) large, incumbent businesses. Telling your clients that they’re doomed is bad for business. So Christensen has faced a strong temptation to soft-pedal his own theory.

As Upton Sinclair wrote, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.”

Ah, but here’s Lee later in that article:

In contrast, web-native organizations like BuzzFeed and Vox Media don’t face this kind of dilemma. As web-only publications, we earn 100 percent of our revenue from our website and so are completely focused on doing a style of journalism that works well on the web. That doesn’t mean compromising our editorial integrity — we’re just as willing to trash our advertisers and owners, when doing so is merited, as our newspaper competitors. But it does mean that we’re comfortable experimenting with lists, cardstacks, colorful headlines and other innovations that help our work stand out on the web. And it means that we’ve erected the wall between editorial and advertising in a more sensible place, allowing close collaboration among writers, designers, and technologists.

In other words, Christensen’s protective attitude towards his own financial best interests make it difficult or impossible for him to be an unbiased observer, but for Lee, well…. Only human! I would be no different, I think. It just seems to me that, if the theory of disruption is sound, it’s likely that it would threaten those who assume they are immune to it most of all.

I also continue to wonder if online publishing is going to come up with some sort of broad response to ad block. Because that stuff is an existential threat.

Posted in Tech Stuff | 15 Comments

some stats stuff

1. Statistical error is inevitable and necessary. Error, in its generic usage, pretty much always means that something has gone wrong. But statistical error refers instead to the natural variation in a distribution and the consequences of that variation. If I take a sample of some quantifiable variable, like height, and I find an average or other measure, there is always going to be some difference between the average we calculate from the sample and the true average of the population.(If we use inferential statistics to try and predict a particular measure, the difference between that prediction and an observation is called a residual.) Error is OK! If we have an adequate sample size, an appropriate and genuinely random sampling mechanism, and we use appropriate calculations of variance and error, we can often reach responsible quantitative conclusions that we can express with great confidence. Not always! But often.

2. Bias is neither. When people hear “error,” what they often think naturally of is bias. Bias refers to systematic problems of data collection or sampling that cause discrepancies in descriptive and inferential statistics that cannot be accounted for with measurements of error or variance. If I decide to measure the average height of Purdue students, but I only sample from players on the basketball team, that’s bias. And bias is a big problem.

3. Not everything is normally distributed, but averages (almost) always are. The normal distribution — the bell curve — is at once fundamental to statistics and not always easy to grasp. I can’t do a good job of explaining it all here. I do want to say, though, that there is a kind of misunderstanding about the normal distribution that’s easy to fall into. Lots of times people ask why things have to be normally distributed– why would nature require things to be distributed that way? But the normal distribution is less a product of nature and more a product of our conceptions of big or small and average. First, some things aren’t normally distributed. If you sampled how much people had gotten paid out in car insurance reimbursements in the last year, for example, you’d likely find that the biggest number would be at zero, then a gap for common deductible sizes, then clumps of payments past those cutoffs.

But many, many things are normally distributed, and generally, the more variables contribute to a given quantitative result, the more likely the distribution is to be normal. Think about it this way. Think of the times you’ve seen someone walking down the street who was unusually tall or unusually short. What makes that height unusual? Why did you take notice? Because extremes are rare. If height was evenly distributed across the spectrum, you’d be no more surprised to see a 7 foot tall person than you would be to see a 5’8 person. What the normal distribution says is that, for normally distributed variables, you’re going to find very few at the extremes and a large clump near the average, and further that there is a certain portion of the distribution within defined spaces around that average. (Defined, that is, by the standard deviation.)

Why would height be normally distributed? Well, think of all the various factors that contribute to height: several different genes, nutrition, childhood health, random chance. The odds of all of them breaking in the direction of being short or tell are very low. Suppose for the sake of example that 10 genes contribute to height. (Totally making that number up.) If there’s a 50/50 chance that any one gene is expressed in the shorter or taller way, we could easily calculate the odds that all 10 ended up being short or tall, and those odds would be quite low. Instead, most people would expect some short, some tall, and wind up near the middle. That doesn’t make very short or tall people impossible. With billions of repetitions, you get extremes. That’s how we get Yao Ming. But Yao is what we call a “three sigma” outlier– that is, he’s three standard deviations or more away from the average. That means he’s way rarer than one in a hundred. 

Even things that are not normally distributed themselves, however, have normally distributed averages. Meaning that if I took a sample of 100 Americans and measured them on a non-normally distributed variable, they wouldn’t be normally distributed themselves. But if I took another 100 Americans and measured them and noted the average, and then another hundred and another hundred, then laid them out on a distribution, the averages would be normally distributed themselves. Think about what an average does: it pulls in the extremes. So you get a clumping effect that makes averages fall into a bell curve even when underlying distributions don’t. That ends up being hugely important for inferential statistics like regression.

4. Averages often need standard deviations to be understood. We use averages all the time by themselves, and they can be useful and necessary. But frequently, we need to combine them with measures of spread to really understand them. An average (arithmetic mean) is a measure of central location. That means we’re using a distribution and trying to represent it as a single data point. That can be potentially very misleading. Suppose you own a restaurant and you want to do a customer satisfaction survey. You use a scale from 0-10. What if the average is 5? What should you do? Well, it depends. If everybody is grading your restaurant around a 5, you know you’ve got a consistently mediocre establishment, and you’ll want to improve in a certain way. But if the votes are all clustered around the extremes of the spectrum, with lots of 0s and 10s, you’ll also get an average near 5. But how you interpret that result would be completely different. You might have a great night waitstaff but a terrible day staff, or you might be getting bad produce and meat on a certain day of the week. The average can’t help you by itself.

The standard deviation, a measure of spread, can help make the average more meaningful. The standard deviation is a measurement of the variance that’s calculated in such a way so that deviations on either side of the average don’t cancel each other out — so that a high and low difference from the average don’t combine to show up as zero difference — and so that it can be easily compared to the mean. So in the above example, the first situation might have a standard deviation of 1. You would know, in other words, that about 68% of the survey respondents rated the restaurant between 4-6. On the other hand, the second situation’s standard deviation would be closer to 5, telling you that the average couldn’t really be trusted.

5. The proportional relationship between a sample and its population is irrelevant to standard error. This one is a mind-bender, but it’s true. Given a reasonable definition of a sample, and given that the sample is really random, a sample size of 100 is of the same accuracy no matter if the population is 100,000 or 100,000,000. The calculations of standard error are exactly the same. A 100 person sample is just as accurate a predictor of the total population of Fargo, the total population of North Dakota, the total population of the United States, and the total population of the world. (Again, provided that sample is a truly random sample from each of those populations.)

That’s not true if your sample is a significant percentage of the total population, but then that’s not a real sample, and in most cases, you could never get a sample that’s a significant percentage of the population of interest anyway.

6. The value of adding more observations to your sample diminishes exponentially. In the formula for calculating a standard error (which is what gets you those polling margins of error you see every election season), the is placed under a square root sign, which means that the power of adding more observations to reduce error decreases exponentially. For this reason, your first 100 observations give you about as much positive effect on your margins of error as the next 900. This is part of the reason you rarely see giant sample sizes in human subject research; the value to your accuracy is just too low compared to work and cost.

Posted in The Discipline | 9 Comments

Karl Steel is a liar

Here’s some things I said in my post yesterday:

“Class is real and important but it’s not the same as gender and race and those are important to.” To which I would say… well, yeah!

Is there a stereotype of socialists who say “it’s not about race” or similar nonsense? Sure. Such people are stupid and should be told so. Race and gender are separate from class, women and people of color face types of discrimination and oppression that are separate from class oppressions, and it’s our responsibility to address those issues head-on.

The ultimate point, for me, is that while race and gender injustice are inherently separate from class injustice, the best solutions to race and gender injustice are class solutions.

And here is hipster professor Karl Steel, a tenured radical at Brooklyn College, responding to that piece:


It should go without saying, but this is a lie. It’s an intentional and direct misrepresentation of what I wrote. It’s a lie. There is no way that any remotely honest human being could read my piece and believe that I said that race doesn’t matter. None. At all. It is flagrantly dishonest. Karl Steel: you are a liar and a coward. I know that being cool with the right people is all that people like you care about. I know this is all about teams, for you. I know that politics is, for people like Karl Steel, a game of popularity and digital strokes, where what matters is not that what you say is true or fair or generative or politically valuable or smart, but rather that it deliver the right kind of reciprocal regard for others so that you can get favorites and retweets in return. I get that all of these people are a few years away from NIMBY liberalism and, finally, affluent apathy. I still find it sort of shocking that some people can be so basically, directly dishonest.

Steel’s an extreme example, but this is what Twitter is. This is the world Twitter has made. It’s a world where you’re invited to say blatant lies about people, knowing that you will receive digital support anyway, because these relationships are based on elevating each other in a popularity hierarchy rather than, you know, actually winning political victory. And I know that, of course, the affluent Twitter left will turn around and get on me for this. Look at me again, expecting honesty! Calling someone out for lying! And when they do, will any of them point out that Steel directly and unquestionably misrepresented what I said, claiming that I said that race doesn’t matter when I explicitly said it does over and over? Of course not! I’m used to that. I’m used to connected, protected people feeling free to lie about someone with no connections and no protection, and I’m used to the crowd defending itself by mocking anyone who criticizes it. But I still think basic human honesty matters. I’m crazy that way.

I know that this is shouting into the wind; the koffee klatsch that is the credit-seeking left, which wants only to advance itself and not to achieve justice, cannot be moved by asking people to maintain basic manners and honesty. And I know that, when it comes to me, they are relying on the fact that I don’t play ball the way they do, so I can’t rally the digital troops in the way they can. But it’s worth saying, because the truth matters. If you think that honesty still matters, and that a public intellectual who enjoys the protection of a degree and a Karl should be more honest, you can email him at ksteel@brooklyn.cuny.edu or tweet at him at @karlsteel. Ask him if he thinks that reading that post and claiming I believe “race doesn’t matter” is a remotely honest way to behave. And ask him if he thinks that honesty matters at all.

Six years in to blogging, I know that being direct, frank, and public in calling people out for indefensible behavior will always be unpopular. But that unpopularity makes it even more important to me. If people aren’t honest and they aren’t willing to be direct, then nothing will ever change.

Posted in Uncategorized | 12 Comments

I don’t recognize the world Peter Frase is critiquing

Peter Frase is ordinarily a writer of great clarity, which makes his latest piece for Jacobin even harder to understand. It’s a meandering, directionless complaint that seems to me to be addressing a strawman left. For all its digressions and myriad targets, it can be boiled down to saying, “Class is real and important but it’s not the same as gender and race and those are important to.” To which I would say… well, yeah!

Is there a stereotype of socialists who say “it’s not about race” or similar nonsense? Sure. Such people are stupid and should be told so. Race and gender are separate from class, women and people of color face types of discrimination and oppression that are separate from class oppressions, and it’s our responsibility to address those issues head-on. But it’s quite strange to me to see the suggestion that this is somehow a major problem in the current world of left-wing publishing. Left-wing thought has become utterly dominated by intersectionality. (Or, really, a vague and loose concept that has taken the name of the more rigorous and specific theory of intersectionality.) Marxist and socialist journals publish tons and tons of work on race and gender, far more than they do on class as an overarching phenomenon. Left-wing publishing, for good and bad, is defined in large measure by a particular social and cultural group. And that group has little use for issues of class that aren’t ancillary to issues of race and gender. Just check the publishing records of the popular left. Find how many of them concern, say, the destitute white underclass of the Appalachian mountains. You won’t find many!

There are many reasons for why discussions of race and gender move the needle with the young left in a way that class analysis doesn’t. Obviously, a genuine desire to address racial and gender injustice is a very large part. But less helpfully, there’s a powerful lack of familiarity with poor white people among many young leftists. Many or most of them grew up in economic security or affluence and went to elite colleges. In such environments, they had little or no opportunity to experience white poverty as a lived phenomenon. In contrast, their experiences of black and Hispanic people stem largely from media portrayals of such people as poor, criminal, and generally dysfunctional. White poverty plays outside of the narrative that they have developed from this limited perspective. Another major reason is implicit racism. They talk endlessly about their high regard for “POC.” But their tendency to see poverty and hopelessness as inherently associated with people of color ultimately reveals a condescension, a quiet belief that black and Hispanic people can’t help but be poor. Though they direct apathy at best towards the white poor and concern for poor people of color, ultimately they belittle both, in that their lack of concern for white poverty implies that they think white people deserve it while black and Hispanic people can’t be expected to do better. It’s the soft bigotry of low expectations for people of color and high expectations for white people. The truth is that in both cases, there are systemic inequalities that contribute to the immisseration of both groups, though surely they are different for each.

The ultimate point, for me, is that while race and gender injustice are inherently separate from class injustice, the best solutions to race and gender injustice are class solutions. For decades, we’ve tried to fight racism by being nice about race, by not saying bad words. It’s utterly failed. Instead, we should advance structural, economic solutions to structural, economic problems. Like reparations!

Frase has failed to prove that the specific writers he criticizes don’t see race and gender as separate and important parts of oppression. And though it’s necessarily harder to adjudicate, given that we’re talking about broad trends, I think it’s very hard to argue that the vulgar Marxism he’s critiquing is anything like the norm. Indeed, I think it’s the opposite. Whether this near-exclusive focus on race and gender helps solve race and gender injustice, and whether this is all for the long-term good, is a matter of debate. But I just don’t recognize the world Frase is describing.

Look, try this experiment: if you’re the kind of digitally-connected young lefty who has a Twitter account and is connected to all the other people from that social milieu, try tweeting “I think the problem of white poverty is under-discussed in left-wing circles.” Try it! You will be swiftly and vociferously punished. And though you can deeply believe in the cause of racial and gender equality, and though you can say so over and over again, you will be castigated. The social dictates the political, and in the social world of today’s left, white lefties seem to see no percentage in speaking out against white poverty. (Indeed: I find leftists of color far, far more likely to talk about poverty as a society-wide phenomena than young white leftists, currently.) So I’m not sure I understand Frase’s perspective.

Posted in Rhetoric | 3 Comments

my interview on WFHB

Last night, I appeared on Interchange with Doug Storm on WFHB in Bloomington. I chatted about my dissertation research, why I am guardedly optimistic about the Collegiate Learning Assessment, the crisis narrative in education, and the Gates Foundation’s role in Common Core. You can check it out here.

Posted in Education, Meta | 1 Comment

it’s great that we’re having this argument

As Libby Nelson wrote, it seems like everybody and their brother, including your cousin Freddie, wrote about the Brookings Institution paper on student loan debts today. It’s an emotional conversation. Given the limitations of our information, it’s also a frustrating conversation. But it’s a profoundly necessary type of conversation, and one that we’re going to have to have more and more.

I am a little frustrated by people who think my position is somehow a betrayal of the movement to address student loan debt. Again, I support broad forgiveness of loan debt held by the federal government, which is massive. We control the world’s fiat currency, a powerful central bank, and the printing press. If that’s too radical, then we surely could reduce interest rates down to the point of inflation. Why should the federal government be making a dime off of student loans, which are supposed to be a subsidy, not a predatory source of profit? (As Mike Konczal has said, raking in interest off of student loans is the opposite of a subsidy.) And for god’s sake, let’s restore bankruptcy protections to student debt.

I am also disappointed that some people think I’m in the “data uber alles” camp, which is certainly not true. I strongly believe that all data is generated and understood through a lens of ideology and theory, and I encourage everyone to be skeptical, careful readers of research. Empirical data is neither everything nor nothing. We should be critical of data and claims to objectivity. But we simply cannot afford to abandon interrogation of data altogether. As Amber A’Lee Frost said, if we fail to engage in data-driven arguments and critiques of same, we simply give up on fighting in that arena. We can embrace qualitative and other non-numbers based ways of understanding while still using quantitative arguments where appropriate. I have tried to talk about empiricism and research methods in this space in a way that sees the value in quantitative research while remaining aware of the many pitfalls and seductions of this kind of knowledge.

I want to be abundantly clear: when I critiqued that piece in the Awl, I was in no way trying to represent myself as an expert. I was instead trying to publicly talk through the ideas that were being considered and to bring a little of the learning I’ve done to bear. Five years ago, I knew essentially nothing about research methods at all. I’ve worked hard and done a lot of reading and spent a lot of time in office hours with patient and sympathetic professors. That has helped me grow, in terms of my understanding, and it has also helped me recognize the very real limits on my knowledge. For example, I was signed up to take a class in Bayesian probability theory this summer. But my statistics instructor, who has guided me through tons of complex reasoning and mathematical processes, advised me not to take the class, and he was right to — I just don’t have the calculus chops. And I never will. Purdue’s upper level statistics classes for graduate students are notoriously brutal, and I would most likely have failed the class. I have read a lot of condensed and simplified explanations of Bayesian reasoning, and I think I have a fairly strong grasp of how those models work, but there’s a certain level where you just have to have the math, and I don’t.

So I rely on others and do my best, which is what we all have to do. Because it certainly seems like data journalism is here to stay. I’ve had a few people email me, with the rise of sites like Five Thirty Eight, to ask how I feel about data journalism. And I guess I just find that like asking how you feel about investigative journalism. The question is, which data journalism? Which pieces, which writers, which publications? We have to work on becoming better consumers of data, and we have to work hard on being the right kind of skeptics. I find these issues totally resistant to hard rules. Some days I’m convinced that we’re all too credulous towards quantitative data, that we fail to understand the deep caveats and limitations of all studies. Some days I’m sure that we’ve all become too cynical and critical and that we don’t appreciate the importance of good data. The truth is that we have to take each case separately and try our best.

I know that it’s not realistic to expect everyone to have the time to subject everything they read to careful methodological review. We’ll always have to rely on some to do that kind of close, appropriately skeptical reading. But to the degree we’re able, we need to crowdsource methodological critique, and to create a culture where it’s alright to stick our necks out a little bit, the way Choire Sicha did. Even though I disagree with some of his conclusions, I value his criticism and am glad he engaged. We’re all going to have to check each other’s work, and we’re going to have to forgive each other when we inevitably make mistakes. Because, again– this stuff is hard. I can’t tell you how often I’ve labored for hours on a research proposal, trying to get the methodology tight, only to give it to a peer to look at and have them identify a flaw in like five minutes. If we’re all going to be steeped in data in the future — and it seems we will be — then we all have to be critics of methods and methodology. We have to watch each other’s backs. There’s no alternative.

Posted in Meta, Tech Stuff, The Discipline | 4 Comments

no, the Brookings Institution study isn’t “garbage”

It’s just research like all research: conducted by humans, with limitations and caveats, but also deserving of a respectful, accurate reading.

There’s way too much student loan debt in this country. (I hold some of it myself.) I’ve written about it at length, and many times, over the course of years. I’ve written about ways to reduce the cost of college, about structural changes to the student loan system, about the desperate need for state governments to reinvest in higher education, and about a potential system of no-frills, low-or-no tuition federal universities that could graduate thousands without loan debt. It’s a big economic drag to have so many young people pouring money into student loans instead of into houses and cars, and it’s a moral travesty for so many people to suffer because they can’t afford to pay for the education they already received.


It’s also the case that people who write and argue about the student loan debt crisis frequently speak about the problem irresponsibly. People throw around fake figures all the time, propose all sorts of doomsday scenarios, and generally represent the problem in ways that are not supportable from data. I can’t tell you how often I’ve had people talk about “every graduate running around with six figure debt!,” when six figure debt is extremely rare. Or when people compare the size of the problem to that of the housing bubble, which is simply not correct. The housing bubble was orders of magnitude bigger than the student loan crisis. Pointing these things out is not a matter of disagreeing that there’s a problem, and it’s not a matter of being callous to those struggling under student loan debt. It’s a matter of being responsible in talking about a problem, under the theory that this is the only way to solve such problems.

So I’m seeing a lot of breathless sharing of this piece by Choire Sicha, attacking the methodology of a Brookings Institution report showing that student loan debt concerns are somewhat overblown. Like all studies, there are issues with the methodology of this one. But Sicha does not do a great job of critiquing this study. I don’t blame him– methodological critiques are really hard and take a lot of work. I’ve taken something like 9 graduate courses in research methodology and statistics, and I still find confronting methods and methodology an imposing task. But there’s lots that’s off, here. And Sicha isn’t mincing words: he’s saying the study is garbage, and people are listening to him. That’s not supportable, at least not from the evidence that he provides, and it’s unclear if he’s angry about the methods or about the conclusion.

Of all the households in that study, only about 1711 have “household heads” that are younger than 40. That’s what they’re extrapolating from. (And, intriguingly, a small number of those have a head of household younger than 18.) This is not a big sample!”

This is something I’ve written about before– people dramatically overestimate the sample size needed to make responsible statistical conclusions. A sample size of almost 2,000 isn’t just big, it’s enormous. The standard error of a sample of this size will be very low. Absent systematic sampling bias (as opposed to error), the odds of the underlying population being significantly different from a sample of this size is tiny. Saying that it’s not a big sample just displays ignorance about the standards applied in statistical research.

One effect of this age spread sample is that it includes college graduates from up to almost 20 years ago. This is literally not at all a study of college graduates of the last five years, or even ten years. We’re talking about people up to the age of 40, well into Gen X.

This is a strange statement. As Sicha acknowledges, the people sampled in the study are from ages 20-40. That certainly includes many people who have graduated in the last five to ten years. It also includes people up the the age of 40, but so what? Why is that disqualifying? The study admits that up front– it’s right there in the methods. And if you’re making the case that aggregating 20 year old debt holders with 40 year old debt holders necessarily invalidates your sample, you have to say why. The notion that there’s some dramatic difference between those who graduated within the last five years and those who graduated fifteen years ago is an empirical point that has to be proved. And it’s not as if tuitions have suddenly exploded; they’ve been rising, at a totally indefensible rate, for decades. (They have actually slowed their growth, but that’s cold comfort.) People who assert that the student loan debt issue is bigger rather than smaller have a burden of proof, as well.

Worse still:

And finally… this survey is, essentially, of rich people. No, literally!

We apply survey weights throughout the analysis so that the results are representative of the U.S.
population of households. The use of survey weights is particularly important in the SCF because
the sample design oversamples high-income households to properly measure the full distribution of
wealth and assets in the United States. This high-income sample makes up approximately 25 percent of
households in the SCF.

Literally what they are saying there is that the information on which they are basing a sweeping assessment of American student loan debt is based on a sample in which 25% of those surveyed were “high-income households.” This is insane.

This is the problem with reading methods sections without having an adequate basis in research methodology. As commenters other than me point out in the comments, this practice is absolutely common, and quite responsible. Given an adequate sample, it’s not at all hard to adjust this kind of imbalance quantitatively. Sicha calls a standard, simple practice “insane,” which demonstrates the degree to which he fails to moderate his claims. I’m afraid he doesn’t know what he’s talking about.

Sicha’s basic problem is a very common one, which it’s understandable but unfortunate: overestimating sampling standards necessary to make responsible generalizations with statistical data. I get it. I remember when my stats prof told me, last fall, that in certain situations an of 30 is adequate to make broad generalizations. I was flabbergasted. But when you pay attention to the processes of generating confidence intervals and standard errors, and when you understand the law of large numbers and the central limit theorem, it makes more sense. I understand why Sicha is put out by the head-of-household distinction, and I agree that you could view that as a limitation. But people asserting that this necessarily invalidates the data are going too far, and they themselves face a burden of proof in establishing that the heads of households are necessarily different enough from the broader population of debt holders to invalidate the sample.

If you’d like a sober, data-supported argument about the size of the debt crisis, I recommend this infographic by Derek Thompson of The Atlantic. It includes some data from Brookings– but also from the NCES, the NBER, the BLS, Harvard, UChicago…. Maybe they’re all in a conspiracy to underestimate this problem! But I doubt it. I instead think that the student loan crisis is indeed a crisis, a moral and practical problem of considerable size. But it’s not the size that most people think it is. And more, it doesn’t change this fact: that despite the endless concern trolling of almost our entire media, the constant tendency for the (college educated) professional writers in our  culture to say that “college isn’t worth it,” a college education remains a very good investment for the large majority of graduates. American college graduates are, by essentially any international standards and in comparison to Americans with only a high school degree, in a very economically secure class. There are tons of exceptions; that’s how averages and aggregates work. Those who are among the exceptions deserve not just sympathy but structural change to improve their lives. I’ll keep saying: there is no reason for the federal government not to engage in broad forgiveness of the vast amounts of loan debt it controls. In a bigger perspective, a universal basic income could solve an enormous number of our social problems. Most certainly including those of recent college graduates.

But I have feeling that this kind of support will not be sufficient. By criticizing the louder and less careful claims about this problem, I’m necessarily going to be placed in the ranks of the bad guys. But that’s OK. I just think being careful matters, and the truth matters, and that solving this kind of problem requires having higher evidentiary standards, rather than lower.

Posted in Education | 21 Comments

teachers, not entertainers

One of the things that I have valued most about my graduate education has been the level of attention my programs and instructors have brought to my own teaching. At both my MA institution and at the doctoral level, I’ve been part of programs and departments that take graduate teaching of undergraduates very seriously, and that have invested real resources in teaching graduate students like me to be better teachers ourselves. I can’t speak rigorously about other programs, but the professors and departments I’m familiar with have always treated graduate teaching as matters of great personal and professional responsibility, contrary to the stereotype about uninterested faculty.

Part of this training is participation in mentor groups with other graduate TAs, where we discuss syllabuses and assignments, share successes and failures, and generally support each other in the work of teaching. It’s been a great help to me not only as an instructor but as a researcher, too. Almost all of my peers in these groups have been very enthusiastic and dedicated, and I’ve had the pleasure of observing the classes of other TAs a half dozen times, always coming away impressed. One aspect of this teacher training that always worries me, though, is the common notion among graduate instructors that their pedagogy has to be entertaining. Often, my peers have expressed great anxiety that their students aren’t sufficiently entertained, and have spoken as if a lack of entertainment value is in and of itself reason to change a lesson plan. I get it; it’s hard not to want to entertain people you’re teaching, in any situation, and given that part of the graduate experience is the tacit, mutual understanding that the undergrads you teach have more power in the institution than you do, it’s an understandable desire. But I find it disturbing, because learning is not principally or even majorly a matter of being entertained, and there are many things that you have to understand in life that aren’t fun to learn.

Of course, I would also be disturbed if I thought that my teaching was never entertaining, and I work hard to make my pedagogy engaging and interesting. But those have to be orthogonal to the essential question of whether I think my teaching is effective.

At its worst, the notion that teaching always has to be entertaining is of a piece with the broader sense in which education has become yet another service industry, where students are actually customers, teachers are servants, and the only ultimate goal is to leave the customer satisfied– which is totally contrary to the historical and philosophical purpose of teaching, which is to help others improve themselves, most certainly including in areas they don’t particularly have interest in. You give up that commitment and you should simply stop educating.

This is not a “kids these days” type of argument. To whatever degree they feel entitled to be entertained all the time, it’s a product of economic and cultural forces that are not of their own making. I have far more blame for capitalism, neoliberalism, college administrators, and parents than I do the students. But at the heart of it, there’s the necessary defense of learning as a kind of work, a kind of intellectual work that can and should be entertaining at times but will also involve a lot of thankless grinds and drudgery. That’s life.

I mention this after reading this post by Alan Jacobs, reacting to this unfortunate piece by Robert Talbert on laptops in the classroom. As Alan alludes, the idea that good teaching is always necessarily going to be more entertaining than whatever is on a student’s laptop seems, well, nuts. It would be great if that were true, but the world isn’t laid out that way. Trust me, often when I’m teaching, say, techniques for producing voiced interdental fricatives, I’d rather be shooting zombies on my computer. But there’s necessary work to be done. I’m reminded again of a friend who’s a mathematician who has told me that academic mathematics tends to be taught in a very traditional, analog way, with tons of old-fashioned professor talking at the whiteboard-style pedagogy. Because when it comes to that purest of the pure sciences, there’s a no-bullshit need to grasp the concepts, and the concepts are complex and not easily reducible, and you either sink or swim. Maybe it would be better if it weren’t that way, but it is that way. So that’s how they tend to do it.

This is what I was getting at with my post about difficult reading: not everything necessary or good in life is easy, and though everything in your culture militates against it, you are likely to find yourself a more fulfilled person if you are willing to forgo  convenience and entertainment for rigor and work. Sometimes!

Posted in Education | 9 Comments