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A Teacher’s Story

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A friend who is a teacher told me his story after I shared my last post, and I asked if he minded if I shared it. He agreed, so here it is. As I said before, testing is only part of all this. It’s important to understand it in light of the issues discussed in my earlier post.

I teach elementary school in a socioeconomically diverse district in Northern California. Like many states, California is preparing to unveil new online state tests to assess the mastery of the new Common Core State Standards. In the upcoming months, California students will take part in the new online testing. In a wise decision, California has decided to use the 2013-2014 school year as a trial run for the new tests. Individual scores will not be reported to students or their families. Instead, the state will use the massive amount of collected data to assess the new assessments by weeding out poorly designed questions, examining technological difficulties, and by discovering areas of learning that teachers will need to focus on in the coming years. California chose to make this a trial year for the new testing despite threats of reduced federal education dollars made by the US Department of Education. Unfortunately, my district did not make nearly as sensible decisions this year.

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Written by David Kaib

March 12, 2014 at 11:40 pm

Who Will Push Back? Without Strong Democratic Teachers’ Unions, We’re All Screwed

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Kindergartner students in the deep blue state of Massachusetts are being shamed by publicly posting their test scores. Here’s Sarah Jaffe reporting on “data walls”:

Last year, K-12 teachers in the Holyoke, Massachusetts school district were told to try a new tactic to improve test scores: posting “data walls” in their classrooms. The walls list students by name and rank them by their scores on standardized tests. This, they say administrators told them, would motivate children to try harder on those tests.

Teachers did so, many unwillingly. Agustin Morales, an English teacher at Maurice A. Donahue Elementary School in Holyoke felt pressure to comply, but finds the data walls cruel. One of his top students did poorly on a standardized test in November and found her name at the bottom of the data wall. Afterward, in a writing assignment for class, she “wrote about how sad she was, how depressed she was because she’d scored negatively on it, she felt stupid.”

“So why do I hate data walls?” he continued. “Because of how she felt that day. She felt worthless. She felt like she wasn’t as good as other people.”

Morales isn’t alone in opposing the data walls. They’re widely seen as just the latest front in a war being fought by educators, parents and students nationwide against what teacher educator Barbara Madeloni calls “predatory education reform.”

Earlier, Jaffe wrote about the difficulties of kindergartners given standardized tests  in New York , which “pit children against one another instead of teaching them to share, which can turn even a kindergarten classroom into a den of hyper-individualistic bootstrappers.”  And indeed, like the data wall and the shaming it facilities, “This is a feature, not a bug, of the testing regime.”

These sort of stories should not be dismissed as outliers.  They are part of the same drive to relentlessly rate the relative merits of students, teachers, and schools, to place them in competition with one another, to address education problems by mass firings of teachers or mass closure of schools, to devalue the contributions of experienced teachers as well as traditional (or more accurately, real) public schools.

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Written by David Kaib

March 11, 2014 at 10:32 pm

The State of the Union is Ambivalent (2013)

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Last year Elias Isquith asked me to contribute a piece to a forum he did on the State of the Union speech. There was some dispute between the contributors over how they read the speech which was my jumping off point. I’m posting it again before this year’s speech because most of what I had to say is still applicable, even if some of the details have changed.

Obama 2010 SOTU

Pete Souza [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The fact that people have such different readings of this speech isn’t that surprising. It reads to me like it was designed to do just that – let each of us hear what we want to hear.  Our normal way of understanding the SOTU is outward.  We tend to think of the president seeking to persuade the opposition or independents.  But there are two ways we might think of ‘us’ as the target.  First, speeches can be used to mobilize one’s own supporters to action. Second, they can be used to demobilize one’s own team. But ultimately, the impact depends on how we react.  We can use the good things that were mentioned as a resource, in making demands.  Or we can assume that the White House has the issue in hand and therefore we can stand down – at least until we get marching orders.  The latter is a losing proposition, regardless of your thoughts about the president’s own motives. I cringe at the barrage of emails about supporting the president’s agenda. We should have our own agenda, and pressure him to support us.

Of course, we all know that the president faces a hostile Republican majority in the House, and an obstructionist Republican minority in the Senate which, as a result of Harry Reid’s unwillingness to undo the filibuster, has a great deal of power.  Because of the sequester, there will likely be fiscal legislation, and because of Republicans’ fear over losing the Latino vote in perpetuity, immigration legislation will at least get a hearing.

So I thought I’d focus more on some other things, including those the White House has more control over.

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Written by David Kaib

January 27, 2014 at 11:13 am

Five Economic Reforms Americans are Open To

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Last week, Jesse Myerson caused a major stir with a Rolling Stone piece, Five Economic Reforms Millennials Should Be Fighting For. It’s a great piece, and we should all be fighting for them.

It’s a new year, but one thing hasn’t changed: The economy still blows. Five years after Wall Street crashed, America’s banker-gamblers have only gotten richer, while huge swaths of the country are still drowning in personal debt, tens of millions of Americans remain unemployed – and the new jobs being created are largely low-wage, sub-contracted, part-time grunt work.

Millennials have been especially hard-hit by the downturn, which is probably why so many people in this generation (like myself) regard capitalism with a level of suspicion that would have been unthinkable a decade ago. But that egalitarian impulse isn’t often accompanied by concrete proposals about how to get out of this catastrophe. Here are a few things we might want to start fighting for, pronto, if we want to grow old in a just, fair society, rather than the economic hellhole our parents have handed us.

The piece did two things. First, it drove conservatives absolutely insane, and second, it led to a serious discussion of these policies that previously were largely at the margins of the agenda.

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Written by David Kaib

January 14, 2014 at 10:42 pm

Blacks are Everyday People: Baltimore and the Drug War

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[Updated below]

In a post perhaps better entitled “Official makes offensive, ludicrous claim,” but actually entitled Batts: Crime dropped for “everyday citizens” in 2013, Justin Fenton ‏points us to this statement by Baltimore top cop.

With murders, non-fatal shootings and street robberies up in 2013, Police Commissioner Anthony W. Batts emphasized in television interviews Monday that crime affecting “everyday citizens” was moving in the right direction.

“It’s not throughout the city as a whole,” Batts told WBAL-TV of the violence. “It’s very localized and unfortunately, it’s with African American men who are involved in the drug trade and 80 to 85 percent of the victims are involved in the drug trade going back and forth.”

As Fenton points out, “Batts also said that ’80 to 85 percent’ of victims of violence were African-American men involved in the drug trade. But overall, only 84 percent of city homicide victims are black men” and “police determined a drug motive in just 3 of 224.” Three.

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Written by David Kaib

January 6, 2014 at 7:55 am

I am outraged at David Brooks’ continuing execution of the War on Drugs

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[Updated below]

[If you read my piece entitled I’m so outraged at Kim Kardashian for maintaining the 5th Fleet in a human rights violating autocracy, some of this may be familiar.]

Someone who doesn't have any lawmaking or prosecutorial power

Someone who doesn’t have any lawmaking or prosecutorial power

One of the strange things about our politics is the disconnect between what sorts of things lead us, collectively, to express outrage and what sorts of things we don’t notice.  I’m thinking specifically of how a statement can set off outrage while the background behaviors, activities or policies that the statement expresses or seeks to justify do not.  So Mitt Romney can, as the nominee of the Republican Party, run an entire campaign on policies that are designed to better distribute wealth to the wealthy while ignoring the concerns of large blocs of voters, but it takes him saying that he only cares about half of the voters to really get people outraged.

I think this dynamic is a product of two things.  First, a great deal of our politics concerns people’s motives and character, which are largely unknowable, as opposed to assessing their actions on their own terms.  So when someone says something, potentially revealing their intentions, it seems powerful.  Second, and I suspect more importantly, it’s hard to get upset about long-standing, entrenched conditions.  We do better trying to oppose some deviation from the norm, or at least, things that are understood that way.  Thus we see a great deal of arguments over precedents outside the courtroom, where they may well seem misplaced. Similarly, the nonstop efforts to paint people and positions are “extreme” without attending to the merits of the position. Politics is in many ways largely an effort to decide whose positions are considered speakable and whose are not, which is fairly antithetical to both the idea of progress and the ideal of democracy.

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Written by David Kaib

January 4, 2014 at 3:29 pm

Top Posts for 2013

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Here they are–the top posts, based on views, for 2013.

1. Blaming Consumers is a Cop Out

This is the no contest the most read piece this year, also the most comments for a post.  It included a shout out to John Kenneth Galbraith, and a link to Albert Hirschman. (Mental note, talk about more good economists.)

“our willingness” to buy products produced under these conditions is an odd way to talk about it. Businesses spend a lot of energy obscuring these working conditions, to tell those who are concerned about it that they have improved them, will work to improve them, or that they aren’t that bad or that they are inevitable.  Beyond that, it’s not clear what consumers are supposed to do. If all products were clearly labeled to give us a full sense of the conditions in which they were made, it’s not as if it would be possible to simply avoid such products. Anyone who’s ever spent time trying to do this knows while you can occasionally find something made in fair conditions, it’s next to impossible to do it consistently.  Despite the myth that markets always provide broad choice, this is simply not the case.

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Written by David Kaib

December 26, 2013 at 5:53 pm

Targeting the Right To Vote

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bentele_obrienI’ve written about voting rights before, a topic that has become all the more urgent in the wake of recent efforts to restrict voting rights and the Supreme Court’s gutting of the Voting Rights Act. Keith Bentele and Erin O’Brien have a piece examining recent GOP efforts at adopting various voting barriers: Jim Crow 2.0? Why States Consider and Adopt Restrictive Voter Access Policies. (Full disclosure, Erin is a good friend from my doctoral program, and I provided feedback on the paper.) Their empirical findings are going to get the most attention, and they are certainly important. I’ll review them below. But the larger implications are important too, and since I fear these may get lost I want to discuss them more fully.

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Written by David Kaib

December 18, 2013 at 10:56 am

Inequality is a Problem: There is Too Little

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thebestinequalitygraphupdated-figure1-version3Talk about inequality is in the air. Everyone seems to agree it’s a problem, although a lot of people seem to offering the same old policy proposals to address it. It’s almost as if they are simply attaching what they already want to do to the rhetoric of today’s demands. But maybe the problem is that we misunderstand what exactly the problem of inequality is as far as elites are concerned.

Speaking of which, Jonathan Cohn points us to this story by Scott Amey from the Project On Government Oversight

On the same day that the President spoke eloquently and fervently about the rising income inequality in the United States, the ever-contractor-friendly Office of Federal Procurement Policy (OFPP) in the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) increased the maximum amount of contractor compensation that can be charged to government contracts from a mere$763,029 per employee per year to what OFPP apparently considers a much more reasonable $952,308 per employee per year. This increase primarily affects the employees of the largest government contractors—most notably defense and information technology firms. So taxpayers are now on the hook for paying up to nearly $1 million for every one of these contractor executives or employees every year.

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Written by David Kaib

December 9, 2013 at 10:56 am

What is Politics? Easton, Stone and Claim Making

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I don’t remember where it all started, but I’ve been unhappy with the concept of the decision as the central framework for political science for a long time. Very few political scientists, I should note, would say this is the case. They’d probably object to the idea that there is a central framework. Instead, they would likely focus on various different frameworks.  But, being heterodox and inclined to see the biggest picture possible, it was clear to me there was a deep similarity among these different approaches.  For one thing, there was so much political activity that was left out of this dominant framework, or dismissed or obscured.  Of course, we might conclude that something that political actors think is important is not after investigating it, but to do so as a matter of definitions makes little sense.

Since I began developing my idea of ‘politics as a contest of claim making’ as an alternative, I find that idea all over political science, although rarely foregrounded. It seems the sort of banal point that is widely understood but rarely the basis for much explicit theorizing. But it does come up again and again. My task seems to be to call attention to it and explicate its implications.

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Written by David Kaib

December 2, 2013 at 8:33 am

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