A quick note regarding an item in my last blog post, and its connection to an item in the news right now: the Reinhart-Rogoff study, which has been used by many to justify austerity thinking, has been shown to be as flawed as the assumptions the IMF has made over the last few years about fiscal multipliers.And yes, I can and do extrapolate from this that quantitative data is used, perhaps gleefully, always purposefully, in a manner that reflects the intentions of the researchers, and for desired ends, particularly when it comes to fiscal policy.
As I noted in my previous post, this coupling of desire with willful blindness to certain "factual" elements that don't fit the ideal knowledge frame is an active choice. And a very conscious act. These economists and policy makers are doing what they do, where and how they do it, with an audience in mind -- perhaps a small audience of fellow economists, or a wide audience of politicians of a particular bent -- while getting a need (for certainty, or attention, or maybe to promote Randian thought?) met. How is this different from that guy who likes to jerk off near the walking path in the park?
March 6, 2013
News out this week about efforts by Rupert Murdoch and the Gates Foundation (inevitable efforts, given the players) to go down the road of turning all K-12 student data into a funland for entrepreneurs prompted me to post my own view, from inside:
The research director of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) co-authored a report in January in which he explained how he and his colleagues had miscalculated the impacts of fiscal multipliers (“the short-term effects of government spending cuts or tax hikes on economic activity”) within the various economies which were bound by the austerity policies the IMF promoted during the recent global economic downturn. The IMF had used “empirical studies from 27 economies the 1930’s” (another period when interest rates were near zero) to establish a baseline for what fiscal multipliers should have been in 2010, and forecasted a model that under “rational conditions” would have a “coefficient on the fiscal consolidation” that was quite low – or in other words, held an expectation that the fiscal multipliers for these economies would be very small and would remain fairly static over time. This was coupled with an apparently willful blindness to another context, wherein “lower output and lower income, together with a poorly functioning financial system, imply that consumption may have depended more on current than future income, and that investment may have depended more on current than on future profits, with both effects leading to larger multipliers.” Or in other words: Greece.
The IMF then realized, after prioritizing debt-repayment and austerity policies that had devastating impacts on these economies, that “a number of empirical studies have found that fiscal multipliers are likely to be larger when there is a great deal of slack in the economy…[and] fiscal multipliers associated with government spending can fluctuate from being near zero in normal times to about 2.5 during recessions.” A Washington Post story from January 3rd provided some perspective on the IMF’s policies and on this recent report by stating that: “The Fund has been accused of intentionally underestimating the effects of austerity in Greece to make its programs palatable, at least on paper” and noted that the projected fiscal multiplier number used for policy formation was “a background assumption rather than a variable that needed to be fine-tuned based on national circumstances or peculiarities.” The IMF essentially apologized in their report for the consequences of policy decisions that were not bounded by reality, or context; these decisions were not, in the end, trustworthy.
Along these same lines, the Economic Policy Institute, in collaboration with Stanford University’s Graduate School of Education, published a report in January that claims comparisons of international tests of students do not provide trustworthy premises on which to base currently popular U.S. school reform policies, in part because of a very basic item: “social class inequality is greater in the United States than in any of the countries with which we can reasonably be compared…If U.S. adolescents had a social class distribution that was similar to the distribution in countries to which the United States is frequently compared, average reading scores in the Unites States would be higher than average reading scores in the similar post-industrial countries we examined (France, Germany and the United Kingdom).” The authors do not simply use income, race, ethnicity, or parental education level to define social class groups. Instead, the authors use household literacy, specified by the number of books in a child’s home, which they find “plausibly relevant to student academic performance” within an accepted social science research frame, and they posit that “children in different countries have similar social-class backgrounds if their homes have similar number of books.” By making this choice, the authors implicitly encourage policy makers to broaden their definitions of social and class distinctions, and to be aware that “countries’ social class compositions change over time” so that “comparisons of test score trends over time by social class group provide more useful information…than comparisons of total average test scores at one point in time.” And they encourage policymakers to think about a range of contexts, including time, when forming policy, the hoped-for result being policy based on more trustworthy assumptions about data.
Policymakers do often choose to sidestep contexts, or base decisions on a specific or static state without any expectation of or comprehension of change, when forming policies that they nonetheless believe are rational and therefore ethical and beneficial. Policymakers also tend to be removed (or by intention keep themselves removed) from the problematic environment they are making policy about. The two examples cited above speak to this; they are also examples of how such thinking can be challenged in a reasoned manner. And these examples also connect to the current accountability era in school reform in a particular way, as they forefront both how persuasion can be and is used to make policy arguments that seem rational and trustworthy but are not, and how this might be countered. For how one counters these reforms – the calls for accountability in education as measured through tests, “objective” evidence-based policies, “objective” data-driven decisions, the primacy of standardized testing, the commodification of teaching and learning, for the general overhaul of public education to align more closely with business priorities – matters, not simply because time and data have shown these reforms to be more about exercising power than enhancing student experience or skills, but because these policies and tenets were from the outset based on hypocritical conceits. And hypocrisy, as Hannah Arendt once noted, “cannot be met with what is recognized as reasonable behavior. Words can be relied upon only so long as one is sure that their function is to reveal and not to conceal. It is the semblance of rationality, rather than the interests behind it, that provokes rage. To respond with reason when reason is used as a trap is not ‘rational’.”
So perhaps these policies need simply to be challenged outright, to be met with the emotion suitable to them, and their “rationality” denied.
Because if one were to reverse-engineer the IMF policy formation process, one could clearly say (and the report’s authors do say) that the policy makers engaged in that process were entirely capable of imagining varying contexts, pressures, and “peculiarities” in national economic systems had they chosen to, and were capable of incorporating these into the thinking that fueled their policies, but for political or other reasons, they chose not to do so. One can also look at contemporary school reform policies that, at their inception, incorporated the fearful predictions of 1983's fear-inducing screed A Nation at Risk and ideas on education from Ross Perot, and say that policy makers engaged in that process were entirely capable of envisioning American public education as not being a threat to global competitiveness and capable of envisioning its “chaos” as not needing to be managed like an enterprise IT system, but for political or other reasons, they decided not to.
This may seem an extreme perspective, but it is a position that is actually given weight by much of the thorough, methodical, and decidedly not extreme analysis of school reform initiatives provided by educational researchers in the past decade. Much of this research addresses the very things that school reformers see as problematic about public education (such as agency and control in educational practice and management, choice in educational environments, accountability in educational processes, access to educational resources, and equity in education) and finds that while these are issues that directly connect with and impact both teaching and learning, designing profit-promoting reforms that commoditize the intellectual capital around pedagogy has not been shown to directly impact either teaching or learning in a positive manner.
January 10, 2013
In the interview, Rhee refers to the 2nd grade students she taught, briefly, in Baltimore as "my kids," a sentiment that any actual educator who has spent some time in the field knows is usually a new teacher's mask for insecurity. She also became infamous for a classroom episode where she, in a straight up act of aggression, killed and ate an annoying bee in front of her class of seven-year-olds. She could not, after all, swat and swallow the annoying and unruly students in this urban elementary school.
Rhee presents herself as being compelling because she is a lonely warrior in a fight for student success. Of course the only thing compelling about this is that Rhee repeats the mantra so often you start to think she is simply hypnotizing herself into believing her motivations are good. Or worse -- that she is trying, perhaps, to wrestle some deep anger into a positive sales slogan. Because again, its not like she could kill and eat those pesky "urban" kids.
But the thing I found most fascinating about her self-presentation is how removed it was from the actual experience of being an educator, particularly in an urban school. Setting aside what one thinks the core function of a school is for a moment, one thing most urban educators do share is the experience of having to be many selves in many situations to many people. And this is done in a manner entirely unlike the self-shifting one has to engage in in a corporate setting. This is done in a work environment where the actors are relatively powerless and not rewarded well, and where the subjects they have to respond to are not present by choice and range in age, developmental level, skills, etc.
And yet there these teachers are, morphing themselves on any given day into social workers, disciplinarians, narcs, protectors, legal counsel, sex educators, emergency workers, advisers and guides, resource managers, stand-in parents, what have you. The strength it takes to be that flexible and responsive is not easy to comprehend, and is not generally respected by leaders like Rhee who pin their personal success on having a very fixed self-identity.
The Rhee interview also made me think of another interview, one with a surviving first-grade teacher from Sandy Hook, who struggled after the fact with the professionalism of her decision to tell all the children she had hidden in the closet that she loved them all so much. She said, in the interview, that she knew this was maybe a violation of some kind, in terms of keeping a professional distance as an educator, but at that moment of total fear she could only think of this: if I were a six-year-old and very afraid, what would I want most to hear? And, she thought, what if the last words these children ever heard in their lives were whatever words I spoke? So she just told them, repeatedly, that she loved each one of them.
Aside from the amazing compassion and awareness she displayed (and the remarkable control of her own fear in that moment) what I appreciated about this teacher's story was that it conveyed so powerfully exactly what good educators can do. They can allow themselves to be in others, without risk to their own identities or their integrity.
That this teacher was concerned about how this ability would be perceived by those who assess the the profession in the manner that Rhee obviously does speaks to the patriarchal nature of education reform initiatives, on the one hand, and to the limited nature of how "reformers" like Rhee think about the self. It is likely this is something Rhee found out in her brief and contentious tenure as the leader of an urban school district -- that equating a static, immovable self with strength is both limiting and destructive.
When I watched Piers Morgan's recent interview with right-wing conspiracy theorist and gun fan Alex Jones, I could not help but think the same thing. Jones and his ilk speak of the traumatic consequences that will befall us all if we don't stick to "who we are," a static and unchanging notion of self that must be defended at all costs, against all imagined tyrants. I could not help but listen to his rant as a projection of his visceral fear of self-flexibility, as if his very sense of self was under threat, so much so that near the end of the interview his fear compelled him to mock the British accent "identifier" of Piers Morgan.
I really saw Jones' self-presentation in the same light at Rhee's. Both seem to be fighting for the definition of self to be inviolate, and both seem to make a living by aggressively projecting this need onto everyone around them.
Plus, I think Alex Jones would have happily swatted and swallowed Morgan if he had had the chance.