Valedictatorian

Education

But while I have no problem with the idea that there should be consequences for Beverly Hall or Michelle Rhee or any other school chancellor who presides over cheating, I’m genuinely puzzled by what anti-reform people think these cheating scandals prove.

Matthew Yglesias

Genuine puzzlement, right up there with “swear to God”, usually precedes a lie. It’s the verbal equivalent of clammy sweat and rapid blinking, and even on the rare occasion that it doesn’t presage a whopper, it makes everything subsequent seem dishonest. Yglesias goes on to set fire to a hiring hall full of unionized straw men who want teacher pay to be tied to tenure of service and nothing else, but what the hell, I’ll see if I can raise my voice above the crackling fire.

The cheating scandals prove that education reform is a wholly fraudulent endeavor. It isn’t the equivalent of a doping scandal in sports; it’s the equivalent of Enron, Madoff, the financial crisis. You think testing has something to do with compensation, hiring, and firing? It doesn’t. Testing is the accounting of the reform movement, and the executives are cooking the books. They’re manipulating the statements so it looks like the venture is turning a profit. Well, actually, it’s got negative cash flow. The gains are phantoms. The enterprise is insolvent. Even by its own standards, reform fails.

The central proposition of so-called education reform is that it endeavors to make schooling more entrepreneurial. Now this is bogus on its face. The most salient fact about entrepreneurialism is that most ventures fail. Is that the proper model for the delivery of a universal service? Consider the question irrespective of your thoughts about the larger questions surrounding the provision of universal education. Ostensible reformers say they want to mimic the dynamism and innovation of the private sector. The first question is: to what end, exactly? The second is: do you know how dynamism and innovation work?

Like most pro-market types, these people are ignorant of the actual workings of capitalism. They see Apple’s glittering headquarters, Google’s quarterly revenue numbers, and they think, Damn! I wish schools could be more like that! Strewn across the historic landscape behind all this success are hundreds of thousands of failed attempts, many of which don’t make it out of their first year. And you want school to look like this? Well, uh, no; we only want school to imitate successful ventures! Well, I want better arms and a bigger dick, but editing every other eighth of an inch out of the measuring tape will not make it so.

Here is a question for you: who is more fixated on pay, education reformers or traditional teachers’ unions? Reformers make two mistakes that have plagued badly run businesses for an age. If Yglesias had half the MBA he tries to write like he has, he’d be familiar. 1.) Monetary compensation is an ineffective and inefficient motivator of employee performance (Organizational Behavior: Leadership and Group Effect), and 2.) Labor-cost arbitrage—in this case, from union to open shop—can have diminishing productivity returns (Managing Human Resources in a Global Economy).  And once again, I’m saying: leave aside the ideological and human problems of late capitalism; even by its own standards, it fails.

What does the ubiquitous cheating in reform-era education mean? It means that reformers are so dumb they can’t even set up arbitrary benchmarks for success; they literally fail their own tests despite having written the questions and answers themselves. Imagine a panel of fish oil salesmen riddled with arthritis and clearly suffering from memory loss and you get some idea. What the cheating proves is that these people are liars and cheats, but more than that, it proves that the systems of accountancy and auditing promoted by the liars and cheaters are themselves a lie. The reform is doubly fraudulent.

Now, it may be true that seniority is a bad way to determine pay. I don’t really have a dog in that fight. But let me propose to you this one staggering advantage seniority has over “performance.” It cannot readily be faked.

You Can’t Spell Revenue By Principal Operations Without Venal

Culture, Economy, Education, Plus ça change motherfuckers

Diane Ravitch, now an indefatigable opponent of the weirdly popular idea that the proper formative model for The Children, Who Are the Future is a combination of factory feedlot and highway weigh station, finds the Washington Post lambasting the State of Texas–yes, that Texas–for “reduc[ing] the number of end-of-course exams required for a diploma and loosen[ing] the required courses for graduation.” Needless to say, the Chinese (“increased international competition”) make an appearance, as does the, uh, the, uh, the spurious notion that “an auto technician or sheet-metal worker” needs something called Algebra II. The fact that the Post editorial board uses the term “auto technician” suggests a gang of 24-month BMW leaseholders who haven’t exactly been frequenting the local Meineke for the $29.99 fluids brakes & rotation special, but, you know, whatever. Look, we all know that these people are assholes, but Ravitch is wrong to suppose that they also don’t know what they’re talking about. She’s kinder than I am. Unfortunately  Diane, they’re just assholes.

Now I am an agèd 32, an icy planetoid careening through the scattered disk of the Millennial Generation, far, far from the warm, YOLO star at its core, and I can’t remember whether I ever took Algebra II, or if it had anything to do with getting a job. I do, on the other hand, know a thing or two about financial accounting and corporate finance. Also, I have an internet connection, and therefore access to the Washington Post Company’s Investor Relations Page and Annual Report. So lemme first lay something graphical down upon ye:

wapo

That is to say that 55% of their gross receipts come from boondoggling students. But the Post is a business, and you don’t measure a business by revenues alone. You gotta look at income, and the nice folks at Investor Relations are kind enough to provide revenue and income by operating segment, and right now, the picture of the Education segment resembles a particularly terrifying Bosch. In 2010, the segment booked $360 million in operational income. In 2011, it dropped to $96 million.

In 2012, it booked a $105 million loss.

Damn, girlfriend, don’t take my word for it. What’s management got to say?

Education Division. Education division revenue in 2012 totaled $2,196.5 million, a 9% decline from $2,404.5 million in 2011. Excluding revenue from acquired businesses, education division revenue declined 10% in 2012. Kaplan reported an operating loss of $105.4 million for 2012, compared to operating income of $96.3 million in 2011. Kaplan’s 2012 operating results were adversely impacted by a significant decline in KHE results; a $111.6 million noncash goodwill and other long-lived assets impairment charge related to KTP; and $45.2 million in restructuring costs. These were offset by improved results at KTP and Kaplan International.

In response to student demand levels, Kaplan has formulated and implemented restructuring plans at its various businesses that have resulted in significant costs in 2012 and 2011, with the objective of establishing lower cost levels in future periods. Across all businesses, restructuring costs totaled $45.2 million in 2012 and $28.9 million in 2011. Kaplan currently expects to incur approximately $25 million in additional restructuring costs in 2013 at KHE and Kaplan International in conjunction with completing these restructuring plans. Kaplan may also incur additional restructuring charges in 2013 as the Company continues to evaluate its cost structure.

When a company starts to “incur additional restructuring charges” as it “continues to evaluate its cost structure,” you can be reasonably sure that, in the poetical language of MBAs everywhere, their Revenue Model Is Fucked. Pace WalMart and its giant un-staffed aisles of rotting meat, you cannot make profit on cost cutting and labor arbitrage alone. At some point, you have to sell shit that people want to buy at a price somewhat greater than the expense of actually putting it on the shelves. But this is the sort of fundamental logic of the marketplace that the parishoners understand even as the high priests of late capitalism keep yammering about miracles from their corner pulpits. Every braid shop in DC gets this basic equation, with or without Algebra II. Meanwhile, the WaPo group is booking $100 million dollar goodwill impairment expenses for one subdivision of its Education segment. Oh, I guess that means they have been completely misrepresenting their asset base too, huh. You mean to tell me that KTP (Kaplan Test Prep) doesn’t actually have hundreds of millions in goodwill? Like I said, not idiots. Just assholes.

Well, we’ve wandered far enough afield. The Washington Post, the newspaper, is a loss leader for the Washington Post, the company; damn, they ought to just reorganize it as a marketing division, eliminate sales and ad revenue altogether, and deduct the whole thing as a business expense. And so, anytime you see the Post editorializing about something that directly affects the core businesses (roughly speaking, training scams and cable TV), you should ask, cui bono? Which roughly translates as, NO, FUCK YOU!

You see, when even Texas recognizes that even these United States are still filled with “auto technicians” and welders and waitrons and janitors and a hundred million other mooks just trying to work a job and pay the rent and afford a beer and the WaPo’s cable box at the end of the day, well, that’s a lot less need for test prep; it’s a lot fewer kids getting shoveled into pointless 2-year Kaplan Higher Ed (KHE) pogroms programs in dental veterinary respiratory therapeutic office support. The thing about “rigorous” curricula and expensive testing is that it provides a busted gas cap through which rent-seeking corporations can siphon more money out of the unsuspecting public.

I mean, when you think about it, schooling is actually a pretty low-rent activity, right? Considered at its most fundamental level. You build a center-courtyard building with a bunch of identical rooms. You buy some books. You divide everyone up by age and you hire 1 staff person per 15-20 kids to talk all day. Whatever your opinions on the particular merits of universal education, this is a remarkably efficient delivery of an effectively universal service. You hire some janitors and some cafeteria ladies and maybe a coach, and then the only annual service contract you’ve got to worry about are the nice guys who fix the boilers. YO, HOW’S A DIVERSIFIED EDUCATION AND MEDIA COMPANY SUPPOSED TO GET ITS NUT UP IN THAT?

Well, what you do is you get everyone all hepped up about the devilish Chinese eating our kids’ lunch, and you add a little taste of cryptoracism about achievement gaps and such, and you get politicians and schoolboards and affiliated business roundtables and chambers of commerce to insist that without seventeen different kinds of tests, all of them proprietary, all of them supported by teacher training (fee for service) and software packages (licensing, fees, service, updates) and, for the rich kids, more test prep (fee for service) outside of school, ad inf., well, like we said, CHINA! Look out!

So basically, the guys at the Washington Post, well, they don’t know enough higher order math to go make money at their own investment firms. You gotta know, like, calculus. But they do know that selling Algebra II is one small step toward making back that $100 million loss.

How Hume’s Critique of the Social Contract and an Anarchist Critique of the State Explains Pervasive Gang Violence on Chicago’s South Side

Education, Plus ça change motherfuckers, War and Politics

Around 11:30 in this segment, Linda Lutton reports what is surely meant to be devastating revelation to people like you and me, people who catch bits of This American Life on the radio on the way to Whole Foods. In Chicago’s South Side, you don’t join a gang. You’re just in one. You live on this block? That corner? That’s your gang. You haven’t got any choice in the matter. You can’t just be neutral.

Anyway, while I listened, I thought of this: political_world_map-e1274920713406

In fact, right up the road, there are surely some very smart political scientist sorts at the University of Chicago who, despite Hume’s best warnings, will tell you all about the Social Contract and elucidate the principle of tacit consent.

Obviously in this context the idea is laughable. These kids didn’t agree to this. They didn’t make the informed decision to subordinate themselves to some group based on some principle of geographic destiny. Still, they belong.

Meanwhile, the gangs, it’s fair to say, have some mechanism of governance and decision making, even though the absence of an absolute monarch leads the reporter and the various official interlocutors to proclaim the groups “leaderless” and anarchic. The gangs protect kids on the way to school, confer identity, have habits and traditions, allies and enemies, practices and policies.

And they have guns. And violence is a tool of statecraft. What, after all, is a drone strike if not a drive-by shooting? In either case, obscure intelligence suggests that some person who may or may not be whom someone thinks he is and may or may not be affiliated with a group with whom we are currently in something like conflict may or may not be at a certain place at a certain time, and so we shoot in that general direction, and whomever we hit should’ve known better, been elsewhere, been someone else, had a better father.

They Gotta Score If They Wanna Put Points on the Board, Phil

Education

As exercises in question-begging go, the sporting press is beat by the education beat, which ranks right beside conspiracy literature in treating the assumed validity of its own conclusions as a priori evidence of their truth. So you find Louis Menand in the middle of a prototypical Oh-Those-Crazy-French piece on President Hollande’s plan to do away with homework, making an approving citation:

According to the leading authority in the field, Harris Cooper, of Duke University, homework correlates positively—although the effect is not large—with success in school.

Many things “correlate positively” with many other things, and without seeing the study, it’s impossible to know what this is supposed to mean, although you’d suspect that it means that there was some non-negligible adjusted r-squared value in the regression, ahem, the sort of thing that I don’t imagine New Yorker generalists spend a great deal of time . . . understanding.

Generally, though, saying that homework correlates with success in school is not very different from saying that success in school correlates with success in school; the existence of a necessary component of a condition when the condition obtains says nothing about condition itself. Here’s a question: what is success in school, and why should we want it?