Posted by David A. Lehrer
Kids, young adults and ideologues of different stripes often see the world as a straight line progression---the world gradually, but inevitably, becomes more enlightened. Martin Luther King, Jr. summarized the view, “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
Many of us, as we get older and witness the recycling of issues and debates, are less sanguine about the course of history.
I am by nature an optimist and generally subscribe to the notion that as times change, as the benefits of tolerance and equality and liberty become obvious, more and more folks will become advocates and adherents of policies that promote those virtues.
That was what made reading a Wall Street Journal review last week so fascinating. In a museum review, Richard Holledge, describes a bit of antiquity that went on display at the Smithsonian last Saturday, the Cyrus Cylinder---a 2,600 year old football-sized barrel of clay with cuneiform writing on it. The writing proclaimed the King of Persia, Cyrus’, intention to allow freedom to the diverse peoples he ruled over after conquering Babylon. His realm stretched from Turkey to India.
The cylinder proclaims:
I collected together all of their people and returned them to their settlements, and the gods of the land of Sumer and Akkad which Nabonidus---to the fury of the lord of the gods---had brought into Shuanna, at the command of Marduk the great lord… I returned them unharmed to their cells, in the sanctuaries that make them happy. May all the gods that I returned to their sanctuaries…. every day before Bel and Nabu, ask for a long life for me, and mention my good deeds…I have enabled all the lands to live in peace.
Given the vastness of Cyrus’ empire, it is instructive that he decided that allowing each group to worship their own gods and to return to the lands from which they came were the best policies.
His actions inspired Jews, whom he allowed to return to Jerusalem from their exile in Babylon, to describe him in the Book of Isaiah as “the Lord’s anointed.” Thomas Jefferson, by virtue of an ancient history of King Cyrus (Xenophon’s Cyropedia), viewed him an inspiration for the Declaration of Independence.
The Cylinder was only re-discovered in 1879, yet for over two millennia its author inspired those who sought to follow in his path.
Clearly the “arc of history” is exceptionally long---especially for the very region ruled by Cyrus which today rejects most of the notions that prevailed over two millennia ago. When it will bend towards justice again is anyone’s guess.
The Cylinder is a reminder that history and its course are fickle, unpredictable and don’t inevitably follow a straight line upwards. Progress isn’t assured, but rather is the result of leadership, determination and the willingness to protect and defend its fruits.
The Cyrus Cylinder will be coming to Los Angeles, at the Getty Villa, later this year (October 2- December 2).
12.12.13 at 3:52 pm | When two heroic Prisoners of Conscience met
11.5.13 at 2:23 pm | America’s energy revolution has the potential. . .
11.4.13 at 11:26 am | Visit the Getty Villa to see the Cyrus. . .
10.24.13 at 2:01 pm | The Los Angeles City Council, in the wake of. . .
8.30.13 at 9:35 am | Intolerance, no matter its motivation, is. . .
8.28.13 at 10:54 am | America is not a racial Nirvana. However, a few. . .
February 14, 2013 | 4:33 pm
Posted David A. Lehrer and Joe R. Hicks
Having been in the civil rights field for several decades, we have read and been offered numerous explanations for the inequality that exists in America. From it being the product of overt racist beliefs on the part of bigots, to socio-economic explanations to historic discussions of the remnants of slavery--some analyses last, others prove ephemeral and faddy.
In recent years, a novel theory has taken hold that suggests that people harbor biases and prejudices of which even they are unaware ("implicit bias") and that those biases manifest themselves in the real world as discrimination and inequality.
The rise in popularity and acceptance of the Implicit Association Test (“IAT”) has offered what seemed like “evidence” that despite protestations of innocence, most of us harbor bias and that, as one advocate (Eva Patterson of the Equal Justice Society) has written—it is “social science research” that needs to be used “to prove that discrimination exists even when it is not tied to an overt act.” Patterson argues that the IAT is proof positive of just how pervasive and dangerous bigotry is---it has a hold on us of which we are unaware and it pervades how we act in the world. Patterson, and others, urge that the realtively new "science" needs to be drummed into the heads of judges and legislators to help them understand the world.
The IAT has become an exceptionally useful arrow in the quiver of those who argue that not much in America has changed, that we are a racist and discriminatory society that simply has a veneer of acceptance and tolerance. There are too many “civil rights” organizations who are wedded to the notion that the apparent increasing tolerance in America is a charade and that the disparities among racial and ethnic groups in terms of unemployment, income, health outcomes, etc. remain because of racism, mostly of the covert, subliminal kind. It’s a theme that gets hammered away at within academia, at conferences and in articles galore. America remains profoundly racist, it just doesn’t know it; so the message goes.
We have long been uneasy about questioning the data that the IATs offer, we are neither academics nor statisticians, but something seemed amiss. Virtually every poll that has come out over the past decade dealing with attitudes on race (many from the highly respected Pew Center) have evidenced greater tolerance and acceptance of differences based on race, ethnicity, religion and sexual orientation among virtually all cohorts of Americans. The data isn’t even close. We have written often about these studies over the past decade.
Additionally, and not incidentally, Americans elected an African American president of the United States and did so in no uncertain terms. His being black was not an obstacle to a majority of Americans (not just a plurality in 2012) electing him our commander-in-chief.
And yet the IATs were this nagging data set that seemed to indicate that the optimism of all the polls and the other indicia of progress might be illusory—that we were unconsciously bigots and none of us really knew when or where or how that hate it will manifest itself in what we do.
Saturday’s Wall Street Journal had a fascinating article by Professor Daniel J. Levitin reviewing a book about IATs---Blindspot: Hidden Biases of Good People. The article is worth a read.
What it elegantly does is point out the errant assumptions that underlie the notion that a test can reveal our subconscious and know how we think about others,
Ms. Banaji and Mr. Greenwald, like other IAT proponents, claim that the test detects biases better than simply asking people. The IAT has received a great deal of attention since it first came out 15 years ago. Here, it was said, was a test that relied not on subjective judgments but on objective measures, a simple test that could tell us once and for all who is racist or sexist or ageist, even when observable behavior revealed nothing of the sort. The IAT, the authors write, "enabled us to reveal to ourselves the contents of hidden-bias blindspots."
Levitin points out some of the IATs mistaken assumptions. The “test assumes that your attitude towards whites is complementary to your attitude towards blacks---in statistical terms, that they are negatively correlated. If you hold high opinions of whites, in other words, you cannot simultaneously hold high opinions of blacks….(in fact) the two attitudes are distinct and statistically separate.”
The test also assumes, as Levitin points out, that a test taker’s word associations are a window into to what he or she really thinks. Levitin clarifies why assuming that a word quickly associated with whites or blacks doesn’t mean much beyond that two words may go together in someone’s mind,
Another confounding factor is that the brain is designed to detect patterns of co-occurrence and responds to learned associations based on a lifetime of hearing word pairings. If I hear the word "bread," the first word that comes to mind might be "butter," even if I never eat butter, never buy it and for that matter don't even eat bread. But associations aren't the same as biases. My quickness in conjuring one word when hearing another says nothing about an "implicit bias." It says even less about how I would treat another individual. Common sense would tell you this.
As Levitin sets forth an even more profound concern, “its results don’t predict real world behavior very well.”
A reasonable criterion for the IAT would be the ways in which people act in real-world situations. As it turns out, a team of respected social scientists (including Hart Blanton, James Jaccard, Greg Mitchell and Phil Tetlock) have analyzed data on how individuals who had previously taken the IAT acted and reacted toward white and black people during a real conversation. Did they laugh? How much eye contact did they make? How much did they fidget? All told, a cluster of 16 behaviors were tracked. Those who received the highest scores for "anti-black bias" on the IAT showed no bias toward blacks at all. Other researchers have shown that high "anti-black" scores on the IAT actually predict that a person is more likely to respond compassionately toward blacks.
It appears, then, that the IAT is claiming to find racism, ageism, sexism and all sorts of interpersonal biases in people who probably don't possess them. When author Malcolm Gladwell took the IAT, it showed that he, the son of a black woman, is racist against blacks. Mr. Gladwell was suitably shocked and distressed. But if a test gives results that are so far-fetched, it's time to start questioning the validity of the test.
Next time someone cites the Implicit Association Test to you as evidence of how truly “racist” America is, send him the link to the Levitin article and common sense might win out.
February 13, 2013 | 2:43 pm
Posted by David A. Lehrer
It isn’t often that within days of each other two news stories on disparate topics---drones and guns-- both highlight a method of analysis on different sides of the political spectrum that fosters poor public policy choices and conclusions.
Recently, news stories have abounded regarding the US Justice Department’s (“DOJ”) memo laying out the legal and practical arguments behind its drone strike policies that allow for the targeting of an American citizen abroad.
The ground rules that the Obama Administration operated under have been laid out in some detail in the documents that are now public.
It is probably safe to assume that for most Americans the rationale offered by the DOJ memo works. A person (a foreigner or the bearer of an American passport) who is committed to terror against the United States, who can’t be easily apprehended and is a combatant in the on-going war of terror, can be killed if he poses an imminent threat to our country. Numerous pundits have opined on the subject in recent weeks, many urging greater scrutiny by a judge, or some other quasi-judicial body, to vet the Americans on the list of possible targets. A compromise seems in the works.
But, the seeming rationality of the DOJ’s arguments and the widely discussed potential safeguards don’t seem to satisfy those who proffer a “slippery slope” method of argumentation. That is, “if we allow this activity…it is a slippery slope to losing liberty itself.”
The ACLU lost no time in attacking the memo upon its release as “profoundly disturbing.” The director of its National Security Project opined, “It’s hard to believe that it was produced in a democracy built on a system of checks and balances.” She questioned “whether the limits the executive purports to impose on its killing authority are as loosely defined as in this summary, because if they are, they ultimately mean little.” The implication being that there will be broad overreach by government officials out to kill innocents---despite the fact that but three Americans affiliated with terror organizations have been killed over the past decade by virtue of drone strikes.
Nevertheless, despite the obvious restraint and concern evidenced by the Obama Administration (and its predecessor) the dangers of the slippery slope are invoked to negate what has clearly been an effective and restrained method of defending America.
The slippery slope logic to negate reasonable and moderate measures of change is evident as well in the months since Sandy Hook. The slippery slope arguments of the National Rifle Association strain logic.
Virtually no gun control legislation can be passed, the NRA argues, because it will, almost inevitably, lead to abrogation of the Second Amendment and the right to bear arms.
For example, the NRA asserts that the mere act of compiling a list of gun owners can only be for two reasons “to tax them or to take them.” No middle ground or rational purpose is conceivable---the slippery slope leads, inevitably, to the most extreme, dire results. A majority of Americans believes that laws covering the sale of firearms (including compiling lists of who buys what) should be stricter.
The reality that there are nasty folks in the world who our military needs to strike before they strike us (Americans or not) and under the conditions and criteria outlined in the DOJ memo or that there are people who shouldn’t be allowed to arm themselves and that monitoring gun purchases is among the most logical routes to that end seem evident but the position of the slippery slope advocates obscures the common sense view.
It is always possible that there will be over-reach, that the wrong person might be targeted by a drone strike or that over-zealous bureaucrats will try and regulate hunting guns and the like and that government will take well intentioned efforts too far---but that over-reach is not inevitable.
The fact that bad things might happen does not negate the argument that some reasonable good things should happen. The worst case scenario shouldn’t prevent acting reasonably and in a measured way.
The illogic of the slippery slope method of policy making was cogently answered by the famous dictum of Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes when faced with the question of how he could allow the federal government to be taxed by a state for the feds’ activities within the state. Precedent suggested that tolerating that power could lead to the states ultimately destroying the federal government by taxing it inappropriately:
Most of the distinctions of the law are distinctions of degree. If the States had any power it was assumed that they had all power, and that the necessary alternative was to deny it altogether. But this Court which so often has defeated the attempt to tax in certain ways can defeat an attempt to discriminate or otherwise go too far without wholly abolishing the power to tax. The power to tax is not the power to destroy while this Court sits.
Holmes wisely measured the degrees of an activity and knew that the courts and their limiting powers were a last recourse---not the first. The slippery slope and where things might end up don’t convincingly argue against logic and rational behavior that comports with the world around us---the ACLU and the NRA notwithstanding.
February 4, 2013 | 3:23 pm
Posted by David A. Lehrer
Last week Community Advocates, in partnership with NPR station KPCC and its Airtalk broadcast, hosted a higher education “summit” with the three leaders of public higher education in California.
At the National Center for the Preservation of Democracy, the panel included Marc Yudof, the president of the University of California system, Timothy White, chancellor of the California State Colleges and Universities and Brice Harris, chancellor of the California Community Colleges with Larry Mantle (Airtalk’s host) moderating.
The hour long discussion touched upon compensation of administrators, reduced state funding for higher ed and the state's budget woes, distanced learning, the increasing costs of tuition, programs for veterans, and more.
It was a frank and informative colloquy on significant issues that entertained and enlightened the 150 people in attendance and the thousands more who listened in on the radio broadcast. The website of KPCC hosted a lengthy exchange among listeners to the broadcast in real time and on-line. The entire discussion can be accessed by clicking here.
January 28, 2013 | 4:04 pm
Posted by David A. Lehrer
If you are interested in public higher education and live in California, Thursday night will be right up your alley.
Community Advocates, in partnership with NPR station KPCC, will present an informative programming involving the three most important figures in public higher education in California---the statewide heads of the University of California, the California State Colleges and Universities and the California Community College system.
The three leaders will be interviewed by the award winning host of KPCC’s Airtalk broadcast, Larry Mantle. This will be a live taping of the broadcast at the National Center for the Preservation of Democracy at 111 North Central Avenue in Downtown. The program starts at 6:30 and will be done by 8:00. To reserve a seat please click here.
The Future of Public Higher Education in California on AirTalk
Rising tuitions, student unrest, "distanced" learning, the challenges of for-profit colleges and trimmed budgets---what is the future of higher education? Hear from a truly distinguished panel of higher educational leaders who represent the diversity of California's public higher education institutions.
President Mark G. Yudof, University of California
President Yudof has headed the University of California system since June, 2008. The UC is acknowledged to be the premier public university system in the world with ten campuses, five medical centers, three affiliated national labs, 220,000 students, and 185,000 faculty and staff. Yudof has formerly served as the president of both the Texas and Minnesota state-wide university systems.
Chancellor Timothy Peter White, California State University and Colleges
Chancellor White has just taken the reins of the California State University and College system, a network of 23 campuses, almost 427,000 students, and 44,000 faculty and staff. It is arguably the largest, the most diverse, and one of the most affordable university systems in the country. Chancellor White served as the chancellor of the University of California, Riverside from 2008 through the end of 2012.
Chancellor Brice W. Harris, California Community Colleges
Chancellor Harris was appointed head of the California Community College system in November, 2012. The system includes 112 colleges and 2.6 million students. It is the largest system of higher education in the nation. Chancellor Harris previously served as the chancellor of the Los Rios Community College District serving 85,000 students in Central California.
January 22, 2013 | 3:37 pm
Posted by David A. Lehrer
Last week’s blog described the challenges inherent in attempting to improve under-performing public schools. There are multiple moving parts, no simple answers and no silver bullets to answer the almost irrational burden society places on teachers to magically transform kids from educationally challenged /impoverished backgrounds into students that perform well on tests and succeed academically. A herculean task.
But recognizing the enormous challenge that many urban teachers face does not diminish the need to reform the process by which teachers are evaluated, paid, promoted and improved. A process that is, almost always, controlled by collective bargaining agreements between the teachers’ unions and school district management.
For decades, the general principle prevailed that teaching is a unique profession that isn’t amenable to evaluation like most other jobs. Teachers often toiled in isolation—confronted by thirty kids and no one to really see the daily challenges that were faced. Additionally, some teachers got better students whose potential was unlimited while others got laggards---how did each get evaluated in a fair manner? As a result of these difficulties, and a history of principals/supervisors who played favorites and rewarded buddies, many districts (at the behest of their unions) simply rewarded teachers on the basis of their longevity, their graduate courses taken and their ability to avoid trouble. Outstanding teachers were treated the same as mediocre and poor teachers.
The magic of computer technology with its capacity to track individual kids, their backgrounds and their test scores over time as well as far reaching longitudinal studies of what it takes for a teacher to succeed have led to a rethinking of how teachers can be evaluated. In fact, it is now possible to evaluate the capacity of teachers to teach comparable cohorts of students and determine which one does a better job over time.
If teacher X has students from disadvantaged backgrounds who test at a certain level and after a year have shown no appreciable improvement but teacher Y has a similar cohort but accomplishes meaningful increases in achievement and the gap between what the two teachers’ students achieve persists over time---something needs attending to.
That reality has resulted in diverse groups of political leaders demanding that the new evaluation techniques and technology now be utilized when teachers are assessed. It isn’t a vast conspiracy of “anti-union reactionaries” seeking vengeance against union rabble. It is the Race to the Top advocates in the Obama Administration, it is the Democratic Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, it is the Democratic governor of New York Andrew Cuomo who just last week observed in frustration, “it’s not about the adults; it’s about the children….Our schools are not an employment program.”
The argument that the teaching profession is unique among careers in defying our capacity to fairly and systematically evaluate its practitioners is losing its believability. We can figure out who is a good teacher and who isn’t.
Nevertheless, Friday’s New York Times offered evidence of how entrenched the leadership of teachers’ unions can be when it comes to altering old ways of doing business. Not unlike the recent conduct of United Teachers of Los Angeles in nixing a $40 million grant to the Los Angeles School District in Race to the Top funds, the New York teacher’s union has refused to allow new evaluation techniques to be used for measuring its teachers. Even though both federal and New York state rules now require that at least part of the teachers’ assessment include their students’ test scores and that the city and the school district stood to lose $250 million, the Times reported that the union remained adamant. The NY union’s willingness to reject $250 million makes United Teachers Los Angeles look like amateurs (we only lost $40 million in federal funds).
As one reads the Times’ article it becomes clear that neither Mayor Bloomberg nor the federal government was asking for anything more or less than was just recommended as the fairest and most accurate way to evaluate teachers by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in a multi-year $45 million study (published in early January reporting on over 3,000 teachers and three years of study from across the country).
The Gates Foundation study recommended that a combination of student test scores (one half to one third of the evaluation metrics), “well-crafted observations” of classroom teaching (preferably with two observers) and even student surveys of teacher quality should be combined in a teacher’s evaluation. That formula was the most predictive of teacher quality as well as offering teachers the feedback they need to improve their performance. As the leader of the project, Harvard Professor Tom Kane noted, “this is not about accountability, it’s about providing the feedback every professional needs to strive towards excellence.”
Mayor Bloomberg was asking for 20% of the evaluation process to be comprised of students’ growth on state test scores (considerably less than the Gates’ recommended 33% minimum), another 20% based on local measures that the union would negotiate, and 60% based on classroom observations---those indices were unacceptable to the union.
It is clear that a reckoning is near when the leadership of teachers’ unions will discern where the world is moving and see that standing in the way of change isn’t going to continue to work; the price they will pay will simply be too burdensome.
Hopefully, it will happen sooner rather than later and the students won’t continue to pay the price of their intransigence.
January 17, 2013 | 12:34 pm
Posted by David A. Lehrer
An article in yesterday’s Los Angeles Times demonstrates, once again, how nuanced and challenging the effort to improve our public schools is. There are no panaceas, no silver bullets that can magically solve the problems that plague so many of our schools--the problems seem almost intractable in their complexity.
In the instance recounted by the Times one of the hurdles that reformers must overcome was laid out in disturbing detail---recalcitrant parents.
The LA Unified School District has undertaken to remedy the deplorable situation at Crenshaw High but a large and vocal group of parents is attempting to block the reforms (transforming Crenshaw into three magnet schools while requiring that all teachers reapply for their jobs).
The Times reported that Crenshaw, one of, if not the worst performing school in the District, had parents arguing before the Board to not change the status quo. A status quo that found 17% of its students testing at grade level in English (a decline of 2% in four years) and 3% of its students testing at grade level in math (a modest rise of 1% over four years). Virtually every speaker that came before the Board, as it considered fixing the school, was a community voice arguing that situation should not be changed.
Given the role of unions and their need to represent their membership, one might understand if United Teachers Los Angeles were in opposition to the transformation of Crenshaw; that would be in keeping with the union’s mission to protect its bargaining unit and changes in their status. One could also understand administrators who might object to the change in the set up that they have grown accustomed to; they will now answer to different masters.
But it defies logicand common sense as to why parents in a manifestly dysfunctional school would argue against changes that just might have a chance of making things better. With 3% of the students at the minimal level of math competency one has to ask what is there to lose by trying something different?
Apparently, there were rumors that the school’s name might be changed, that the football program might be discarded and that other nefarious schemes might be hatched with the school’s change in status. But these rumors had no basis in fact and, even if true, ought not to stand in the way of changes that hold some promise of improving the abysmal educational program at Crenshaw.
Kudos to the Board for withstanding the dozens of speakers who opposed the move and persevering, by unanimous vote, to make Crenshaw into three magnet schools.
The lesson that should be drawn from the Crenshaw kerfuffle is that fixing a broken school is a VERY difficult task. Teachers need to be vetted and under-performing ones replaced or brought up to standard, administrators need to be monitored and evaluated, but, ultimately after all that is done if parents aren’t part of the process and supportive of a school environment that values academic success, the chances of reform are minimal; homework won’t get done, attendance will lag, behavior problems will persist and report cards will be ignored.
Sometimes, in the frenzy to reform broken and under-performing schools critics focus on those issues for which there are metrics---student test scores, teachers’ value added evaluations, administrators’ success rate---all critically important indices of how a school is performing. But it is the intangibles and the immeasurables (i.e. parent involvement and their support for change) which may trump all the other efforts and their associated numbers. Parents who are wedded to a manifestly broken system and buy into conspiracy rumors about what change will do may prevent virtually all the other efforts from making a meaningful difference.
It is parents who create the environment in which kids live for the seventeen hours/day that they aren’t in school---teachers, for all we expect of them, aren’t magicians or miracle workers. They can try and they can put their hearts into their curriculum and their interactions with students but if parents aren’t behind what is being done, it may all be fated to fail.
Let’s hope the noisy opponents of change at Crenshaw were simply a vocal minority and that “a change gonna come.”
The school board did what had to be done and now hopes for the best.
November 9, 2012 | 2:47 pm
Posted by David A. Lehrer
This Monday the Pew Research Center released one of its well-researched studies that has a serious message for those willing to listen. Unfortunately, in terms of news coverage, releasing a study the day before a presidential election guarantees that few folks will take note of the findings. They bear repeating.
The title of the report virtually says it all, “Record Shares of Young Adults Have Finished Both High School and College”. The educational attainment of 25 to 29 year olds has risen to unprecedented levels in this country between 2000 and 2012. High school graduates have risen from 88% of the population in 2000 to 90% in 2012, those having had the benefit of some college education grew from 58% to 63% and those with a bachelor’s degree or more increased from 29% to 33% of the population.
Lest that not seem to be an achievement of significant proportions, a longer term perspective (40 years) might help to illuminate the scale and breadth of what has occurred.
From 1971 to 2012 high school graduates have increased from 57% to 88% of the general population, those having some college education from 22% to 57% of the population, and bachelor degree holders from 12% to 31% of the population. Those are increases of 54%, 160% and 150% respectively.
The report notes that those increases occurred while there were profound crosscurrents in the demography of this country. Working to the benefit of the positive trend was the fact that less educated cohorts have died off (tending to boost the overall attainment ratio of the rest of the population) but concurrently immigration has also impacted that ratio. In the latter decades of the twentieth century the immigrants tended to be less educated than the domestic population while in the first decade of this century they tend to be better educated; so there were complex forces at work pushing the ratios one way and the other.
Despite the vagaries of demographics and economics and cuts in budgets, the direction is unmistakable and crosses sexual, racial and ethnic lines as well. Women have gone from 14% college completion levels in 1971 (two thirds of the rate of men at the time) to 37% graduation rates, 7% higher than men. African Americans have seen their college completion rates rise from 7% in 1971 to 23% in 2012. Hispanics have risen from 5% to 15%. The Asian community has seen its students with college degrees rise from 1987 (the earliest year for the data for this group) at 44% to 60% in 2012 (outstripping whites at 40%).
It is an encouraging story across the board---everyone seems to be doing better and, given the wage premium that has increased 40% since 1983 for those with college degrees, the prospects of success for many young people are increasing dramatically.