Thursday, February 23, 2017

Pleading Ignorance

The last time I was in school, I enrolled in a seminar on education policy. It's not my area, but the course satisfied a degree requirement. After week one, I learned just how far out of my wheelhouse I had strayed.

I enjoyed the seminar and learned a ton, but the bulk of what I learned is 'just how little I know.'

I walked away from the experience with a profound appreciation for work I can't really do - the work economists, sociologists, and education researchers put into understanding how policies impact large populations.

Because that's what's at stake, right? Large populations.

Kids across the country are impacted by national and state education policies like Common Core, NCLB, School Choice, and Race to the Top.

So, while I was considering those issues in that seminar room, I had to stop thinking like a teacher. I had to stop thinking about individual classrooms, even individual schools. Not because those spaces don't matter (they do), but because the research tools used to understand education policy are not the tools used to examine pedagogy or a student's development.

That was a hard break for me to make. I didn't really succeed in the ten weeks I had, but the course did change the way I argue about school and education policy.

Ed policy is primarily the domain of quantitative researchers. They pour over numbers for two reasons:
  1. Legislation and policy are designed to impact huge numbers of people. When talking policy, knowing the details of what happens to a few individuals isn't informative - it can even be misleading.  
  2. Because of the first reason, numbers have typically been the best way to change the minds of policy makers. 
Let me say that again: Numbers have typically been the best way to change the minds of policy makers. 

I am no longer sure about that.

School Choice advocates believe that a crucial American value is at stake: Individualism.

For conservatives, the right to make choices for ourselves and the obligation to take responsibility for our choices is paramount. It is an assumption that undergirds the foundation of our nation.

I hear that.

To a point, I agree with it. According to the Political Compass survey, my distrust of authority makes me a Leftist Libertarian.

But I can only value individualism to a point.

If the choices I make benefit me while I knowingly damage my community. I gotta stop.

That is the limit a society ought to put on individual liberty.

I don't think many people from either side of the spectrum are going to argue against that.
I know liberals who will say conservatives don't believe this.
I also know conservatives who will say liberals don't believe this.

But put aside the disdain for a second.

The issue we have is not that one side wants to damage the community. They don't. I know you think they do, but they don't.

The issue we have is that neither side can say when the other has knowingly damaged the community.

We no longer agree on what we know anymore.

We have undermined the institutions we used to count on for knowledge.

NASA, economists, the media, universities...

Those were once sources all sides would go to for reliable information. Granted, arguments abound within each of these institutions, but we used to allow those internal arguments and accept each institution's concensus.

Today, people use disagreements between scientists or scholars to discredit science and scholarship.

So, we have a school choice advocate running the Department of Education. She aims to implement voucher programs nationwide. She intends to do so despite news of major studies from education policy researchers showing how voucher programs harm students who participate.

Here is an analysis of the results from a study of Louisiana's voucher program:
When people try to improve education, sometimes they succeed and sometimes they fail. The successes usually register as modest improvements, while the failures generally have no effect at all. It’s rare to see efforts to improve test scores having the opposite result. Martin West, a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, calls the negative effects in Louisiana “as large as any I’ve seen in the literature” — not just compared with other voucher studies, but in the history of American education research.
The work that went into these studies is complex and requires specialized knowledge. The findings have been examined by other specialists looking for weaknesses in the studies. The data used to arrive at the conclusions is drawn from the real world. Three separate studies found the same thing:

Students were harmed by voucher programs.

That much can be asserted with the closest thing to which I call certainty.

But if I present this to the new Secretary of Education or other supporters of school choice, the current state of political discourse allows them to focus on the sliver of uncertainty inherent in all the sciences. They can tell me we'll never truly know that harm was done... or what caused the harm... or what harm actually is... or something else.

They will remind me that the only thing we can be certain of is the value of the individual.

I think knowledge has got to up its public relations game.

Tuesday, February 07, 2017

We Cannot Argue about Saydnaya Military Prison

Over the past several years I have tried to remove "moral outrage" from my rhetorical toolbox.

I don't want to argue that someone else's views are awful, even if I believe they are.

I prefer to build arguments that demonstrate how my position is strong.

I didn't always feel this way. I've used moral outrage in my arguments more than once.

But then I recognized something:
When people argue that my position is morally bankrupt, I roll my eyes.

They might have a point. But I will never know, because the moment they go down the path of moral outrage, I tune them out.

And I'm pretty sure anyone I argue with is going to do the same thing.

No one ever asks, "Are we the baddies?" We all believe that our actions are justified.

So, when I try to convince a person that our disagreement stems from their moral failing, I have already begun to lose the debate.

All that said, today I learned of the report issued by Amnesty International detailing the systematic killing of civilians in Saydnaya Military Prison in Syria. And now I have to dust off my moral outrage.
At Saydnaya Military Prison, the Syrian authorities have quietly and methodically organized the killing of thousands of people in their custody. Amnesty International’s research shows that the murder, torture, enforced disappearance and extermination carried out at Saydnaya since 2011 have been perpetrated as part of an attack against the civilian population that has been widespread, as well as systematic, and carried out in furtherance of state policy. We therefore conclude that the Syrian authorities’ violations at Saydnaya amount to crimes against humanity. Amnesty International urgently calls for an independent and impartial investigation into crimes committed at Saydnaya.
I cannot assemble an argument related to this without moral outrage.

In the 20th century, we defined "human-perpetrated evil" as the systematic murder of civilians by a government. That is not something I will debate.

What was done at Saydnaya is evil.
Supporting the Syrian government is facilitating evil.

If we fail to help people trying to escape from a government that built facilities for the systematic killing its own citizens, that is a moral failure.

If you are rolling your eyes right now, your moral compass is not functioning.