Monthly Archives: July 2005

experiments with get-out-the-vote

In 2004, my organization, CIRCLE, sponsored randomized field studies to test the effectiveness of various approaches to mobilizing voters. In these studies, some people are randomly selected to receive a “treatment” such as a phone call, a visit, or a mailing. Other people are deliberately left off the list. After the election, researchers consult voter rolls to see who actually voted. The difference in turnout rates between the treatment group and the control is the effect of the GOTV.

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Seamus Heaney on terrorism

On Crooked Timber, Kieran Healy quotes the poem “Claudy” by James Simmons as a kind of memorial for last week’s bombings in London. “Claudy” is a ballad about an IRA bombing in 1972: very direct, song-like, and simple. It made me think of the following passage from Seamus Heaney’s Nobel Lecture. These words are not verse but they are poetic in their concentrated power and wisdom:

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why I don’t care about Karl Rove

If Karl Rove committed a crime, then he should face the consequences, and it’s a matter for the criminal justice system. It’s a different question whether the rest of us–the press, the political parties, and the public–should focus attention on this case. I say no, for the following reasons:

First, the public consequences are unlikely to be good. If Rove is forced to resign in disgrace, voters will not be one ounce more likely to favor progressive policies or to trust the Democrats as the party of solutions. The President will lose Rove’s daily presence, but no one’s advice is all that valuable–and even if Bush fires Rove, he will still be able to consult his consigliere privately. One clear consequence will be the continued impression that Washington careers end with criminal prosecutions on obscure statutes. That impression is not helpful if we hope to attract good people to public service. Rove may be at fault for bringing an investigation on himself. But that doesn’t make the investigation a good thing, nor should we all follow the case intently and try to milk it for political purposes. The political “milking” of scandals is unsightly.

Second, Rove’s alleged leak, if it occurred, was wrong. However, there are vital public issues that should provoke our outrage, and I don’t see why we should focus any of our limited emotional energies on a classic case of Beltway Hardball. I’m trying to save my own attention and energy for our high school graduation rate (which is about 68%), the 5.6 million Americans who are in jail or have been released from prison, the global AIDS epidemic, our reliance on foreign oil, the pending fiscal crunch as the Boomers begin to retire, and Iraq. What Karl Rove said to whom is just a diversion.

Third, if we spend time thinking about Rove, then we must have decided that we are a virtual jury. Our job is to decide whether powerful celebrities are guilty or innocent and register our verdicts in opinion polls (if anyone happens to poll us). Or perhaps we think of politics as a contact sport, played by two relatively small teams of national pros. Then the question is whether Rove can play the second half–or was his foul so bad that he has to sit it out? Whether we’re a bunch of spectators or a virtual jury, we have no serious responsibilities or opportunities. But if we were focused, for example, on the high school graduation rate, then there would be much for us to do–starting in the schools of our own communities.

Fourth, despite claims by Frank Rich and others that the Rove case is “worse than Watergate,” I see it as a perfect cliche. With the heat and humidity of a Washington July, we almost always see criminal investigations of high officials in the incumbent administration, especially during a second term. This is not so much the tragedy of Watergate repeating as farce; it’s the annual ritual, replayed without conviction or intensity. I’m ready to change the channel.

Finally, the Rove case raises interesting issues (about the press, confidentiality agreements, the Supreme Court, the legal system, etc.) Like any national scandal, it can have an educative purpose for adults as well as kids. However, if we’re not careful, most of the “lessons” will be harmful. We will reinforce the proposition that “politics” involves a few powerful people in Washington–mostly in the executive branch–rather than a million decisions made throughout society. We will confirm people’s sense that politics is a nasty game, and the endgame is usually prosecution. And we will continue to teach journalists that their heroes ought to be Woodward and Bernstein. As Jay Rosen writes:

Watergate has been treated by journalists as a consensus narrative, with an agreed-upon lesson for all Americans. The Fourth Estate model not only works, it can save us. The press shall know the truth and the truth shall check the powers that be, whether Democrat or Republican. Chasing stories, exposing corruption, giving voice to the downtrodden: that’s what we in journalism do, the myth says. We do it for the American people. And they understand because they know from legend–from the movies–how it was when the country was in the dark about Nixon and Watergate.

But if our problems are incarceration, high school dropout rates, oil dependence, and Iraq, then the press certainly cannot “save us” by revealing who said what about Valerie Plame.

limits of market mechanisms in education

I suspect that increased choice and competition may improve educational outcomes to a degree. I am fairly agnostic about the advantages and disadvantages of market mechanisms. However, the potential drawbacks are at least worth listing:

1. Motivation: Usually, if a company makes money on each client, then it wants to attract more. It is motivated to please its customers and develop a good reputation. However, many educators prefer to work in smaller schools and within smaller organizations. They are not automatically motivated to attract more “clients” (in this case, students and parents). If we decide to reward them for increasing the size of their schools or for founding new branches, then those benefits will to some degree counteract their desire to remain small. It would be a good idea to reward educators for expanding their organizations if we thought that big schools (or chains of similar schools) tended to work better than small ones. But the contrary is more likely to be true.

2. Sorting problems: Parents want their kids to get good educations. But they also want their own kids to be among other children who are relatively well-off and academically successful. I know this for a fact, since I hear parents in my neighborhood talking about the percentage of students in each local school who are “out-of-bounds.” The in-bounds kids around here tend to be affluent and White; the out-of-bound students tend to be poorer and very diverse. Many parents quite blatantly choose their home addresses so that their own children can attend schools without many pupils from poor neighborhoods. Meanwhile, the private schools are highly exclusive, and that exclusivity is one value that parents are buying (for $20k/year). It doesn’t matter if a private school adds much value through the quality of its teaching; as long as the student body is highly selected, kids’ talents and advantages will rub off on one another.

All of this means that in a true market, kids’ socio-economic status and test scores will be valuable commodities. Those who are better off will be desirable, both to schools and to other parents. The result will be increased sorting–which we already see in markets like DC where there is a lot of private education.

3. Public goods: Our surveys and focus groups have often found that parents want other people’s children to be educated for citizenship; they are not so concerned about civic education for their own family. This may be because civic skills and attitudes are examples of public goods. If a child becomes a capable and responsible citizen, then everyone benefits. In contrast, economic skills benefit the individual first, and society only indirectly. In a market, parents are likely to demand information about the effects of schools on their own kids’ economic skills. Such data will be provided, and parents will choose schools accordingly. They are much less likely to demand evidence that schools are enhancing public goods such as citizenship, social cohesion, and equity. Thus a market mechanism is likely to enhance certain kinds of education over other kinds.

4. Bad parents. It’s politically incorrect to suggest that some parents are not up to the task of selecting schools. And indeed, I am often the first to complain that big school systems undervalue their parents and take too little advantage of citizens’ talents and energies. However, some parents are the problem. Yesterday, Kate Zernike wrote in the New York Times:

Nationwide, the Drug Enforcement Administration says that over the last five years 15,000 children were found at laboratories where methamphetamine was made. But that number vastly understates the problem, federal officials say, because it does not include children whose parents use methamphetamine but do not make it and because it relies on state reporting, which can be spotty.

In a true market, there is no “paternalism,” because customers make their own free choices. But in education, kids are not the decision-makers; parents are. So there is no escaping paternalism. The only question is what balance of power we want to accord to literal parents versus the community or the state. While this balance should favor parents, it can’t tip all the way over, as long as some adults are abusive and neglectful.

Finally, I am convinced that much of the enthusiasm for markets arises because people believe that teachers and administrators, on the whole, are lazy and/or incompetent. Thus “market discipline” would squeeze out the waste and enhance efficiency. But my many visits to urban public schools tell me that teachers and administrators, with some exceptions, are hard-working and idealistic. Increasing their motivation through market mechanisms wouldn’t help, since they are motivated already.

books I read as a teenager that I’d like to read again

On the blog “Balloon Juice,” John Cole lists five books that he read as a teen or young adult and that he considers worth re-reading today. He asks some other bloggers to compile similar lists, picking them out by name. By way of Laura at 11D, the game reached Russell Arben Fox at In Medias Res, who passed it on to me. I’m flattered to be “tagged.” Besides, nostalgia is one of my most pervasive and favorite emotions. So here goes …

When I turned 12 and 13, I attended a very scary English school, then for boys only, physically resembling Hogwarts but much more concerned with corporal punishment and personal neatness. To get there, I rode British Rail by myself and often read the newspaper on the way. (The headlines must have been about recession, oil shortages, racial conflict in London, terrorist bombings, and revolution in Iran. The details change, but the wheel keeps turning.) Most of my books came either from the school’s library or from the public library branch behind Victoria Station, where I would walk on my own.

I mention all this because it’s only by thinking of physical places that I can conjure up titles of books from that era. Among the ones that I would like to read again were Rudyard Kipling’s Kim and William McFee’s Casuals of the Sea (1916). I thought Kim was a great adventure (no parents, espionage, mysticism, the Empire–what more could a boy want?). Later in life, I would have assumed that it was sheer imperial propaganda. But Pankraj Mishra’s recent essay in the New York Review of Books has made me want to look at it again (although I’d rather read Mishra himself). As for Casuals of the Sea–it was some kind of fictional biography, beginning with the hero’s conception in an extramarital sex scene that I shouldn’t have read when I was 12 (although I suspect it was tame). The protagonist then lived in London and worked on ships, but I remember little else.

During those years, I read a series of Napoleonic sea novels that traced the hero’s career from midshipman to admiral. It wasn’t the “Horatio Hornblower” series, because I had read that earlier. I vaguely remember that the author’s name was Irish. Could I have been reading the Aubrey/Maturin series by Patrick O’Brien? It seems unlikely, especially since I read Post Captain in 2004 and had no recollection of it whatsoever.

For the next five years, we lived in Syracuse, New York, making frequent, long visits to New York City and spending the summers in England, with two separate months in Paris. I believe a read a lot of history and archaeology in those years. The one book that I recall well enough to want to re-read is Edmund Wilson’s To the Finland Station, which is basically the history of the idea that human nature is highly changeable. I would call that idea “historicism,” and it became my main intellectual interest right through graduate school. Wilson brilliantly combines intellectual history with portraits of major political figures: above all, Lenin.

In about tenth grade, I read a series of anti-totalitarian novels from the 1930s, cementing my liberalism. They included Orwell’s Nineteen-Eighty Four (which I was assigned to read, with millions of others, in 1984), Malraux’s Man’s Fate, and Koestler’s Darkness at Noon. The 1930s seemed much closer then than they do today, partly because another 20 years have elapsed, and partly because the Soviet Union still existed.

I also read lots of mystery, suspense, fantasy, and adventure, ranging from Ivanhoe to John le Carre. I fondly remember Ursula Le Guin as well as Tolkien. I have no idea whether I would find the Earthsea trilogy fascinating or sheer hokum today, but I’m looking forward to trying it with my little daughter in a few years.

One summer in my later teens, I went each day to the National Art Library inside the Victoria & Albert Museum, which is open to the public as a nineteenth-century venture in democratic education. There I read Ernst Gombrich‘s Art and Illusion with great interest. Gombrich was deeply influenced by his friend Karl Popper; he saw the history of art as a series of scientific experiments in representing the world realistically. Since the stone age, people have found or randomly created objects that happen to resemble the world. They notice the resemblance and so learn to imitate nature. But each imitation is wrong in some ways; later artists learn to correct it. One of Gombrich’s aphorisms is “Making comes before matching.”

By the way, Gombrich’s account of art history is intended to answer the following question: “Why is it that different ages and different nations have represented the visible world in such different ways?” He replies that art has always had a single purpose–representation–and it has proceeded by trial and error. This theory contradicts a historicist account, according to which each “culture” has its own fundamental conception of art. In my late teens, I wanted somehow to put those two ideas together.

So whom do I “tag” to continue this game? How about: Prairie Weather, Brad Rourke, Brett Marston, Ciar?n O’Kelly, “Imshin”, Anjali Taneja, and Eli.