334 Comments

I absolutely love the school reform/education issue. I've put 9 kids through public schools all over the country and overseas, and I'm talking everything from city to rural schools.

I am very much looking forward to this series. There isn't much to comment on right now, but here are some of my observations:

1. whatever happened to TFA (Teach for America)... it was the cool thing... but totally off the radar now.

2. Spending is overrated as a solution.

3. What works for high achievers isn't the same as what works for low achievers. Or... more specifically, high achieving upper middle-class kids will succeed regardless. It's struggling kids where pedagogy is more important.

4. Because of #3, school reformers get things wrong. My daughter is very high achieving... very self-motivated. She was able to do two years of HS math in 8th grade online, with almost zero instruction. But her younger sister would absolutely fail if put in that situation. She needs quality in-person rigorous instruction.

5. Teachers in low achieving inner-city schools have so much to deal with. It's hard enough to just teach when everything is on your side... (parents), but when you add all the poverty and crime and general life disruption that kids are faced with in some schools, it's practically impossible.

6. Brazil is hot. Working outside of Rio De Janeiro all week. At least I am a time zone ahead so I can reply early.

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I agree with much of what you say, but I'm afraid that the type of individual instruction struggling students need is beyond what we're willing to pay for. I also think bright kids like you one daughter need to be challenged. It's horrifying to watch a bright kid struggle with boredom in an unchallenging class.

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founding

Not just unwilling to pay for - unwilling to divert people from other employment for.

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Are we explicitly unwilling to divert people? Are politicians making the calculation that paying more would pull too many people away from other jobs?

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If we are not attracting candidates with the right compensation incentives (and funding), it is de facto unwillingness.

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I'm skeptical of this take just because in the status quo teachers have some of the lowest test scores of any white-collar profession, and surely everyone values teachers more than, like, bank branch managers

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Agree. I have run professional development workshops for public school teachers in a major city, and the actual education proficiency of teachers is all over the place. Teachers and even principals frequently didn't have the education to, say, write a good letter to parents. They often chose materials for kids that made me think they hadn't spent two minutes reviewing them.

The fact of the matter is, there are tons of smart lawyers who don't really care much about law -- they went into law to make the most money they could with their skills. There are also passionate lawyers who don't do it for the money. There are teachers like that, but not the first kind.

That said, it's not as though the private sector does much better. I've worked with people making > $200k who are functionally illiterate -- unable to, say, take notes on a meeting in real time.

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She ended up going to a public boarding magnet school. Plenty of challenge. Basically college level. Every teacher has a PhD in their subject. South Carolina School for Science and Math.

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I mean, the thrust of the “high achievers will be fine” idea is that it’s a waste of resources to have things like magnet schools.

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Mar 7, 2023·edited Mar 7, 2023

Only if you believe “being fine” is the most we can hope to achieve. You’d have had little social, scientific or technological innovation and progress these past two centuries with that attitude.

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Yes, that is the implicit criticism of “high achievers will be fine.”

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I'm surprised to see the basically Nietzschean idea that egalitarianism prevents the development of truly great individuals get so much support here

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You need to define “egalitarianism”. I don’t know about nietzchean , it’s rather the down to earth observation the people tend to make the best academic progress with peers who are roughly on their own level in every respect.

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Not helping struggling kids, beyond being morally questionable, may well end up more costly for us as a society.

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Mar 7, 2023·edited Mar 7, 2023

Excellent point

I am a strong supporter of a nonprofit called Reading Allowed which helps school age kids overcome reading disabilities.

They present a whole lot of research documenting the astounding percentage of violent criminals in our society who are undereducated and barely literate or plainly illiterate.

I see with my daughters struggles with dyslexia how closely tied this is to poor self esteem and other psycho-social problems that develop over childhood. I’m so pleased my daughter has gotten the supports she needs to get back on track and let her strengths on other areas shine. After overcoming reading challenges, she’s succeeding academically and socially

The costs to get intensive tutoring to a grade schooler are a whole lot less than society looking after an antisocial criminal as far as I can. These are in different ball parks.

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Struggling kids? Probably so.

Actively disruptive kids? Kids who won't even try? Ehh...

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Moreover, do we have a supply of teachers able to properly teach challenged kids? Is the compensation for this task higher than teaching "average" students?

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Teaching salaries are obscenely low. A friend of mine decided to become a teacher recently, and it effectively means she’s retiring. Her full-time salary won’t even cover her rent.

She was told by basically everyone that teaching at the “high opportunity” schools wasn’t worth it because of the behavioral issues. The bonus for teaching at one of those schools is $20 / day.

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This really, really depends on where you live. I know several teachers in NY and MA - it pays about the same as other non-elite, non-STEM white collar jobs.

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Mar 8, 2023·edited Mar 8, 2023

Eh, that really depends on the area. My wife (with 7 years' teaching experience and a Master's degree) was making $75K a year teaching elementary school over a decade ago in a suburban Denver-area public school district. (She took a leave of absence after our first child was born and has only worked part-time since, so I don't know what the full-time salaries in that district are today, but I can't believe they've gone lower.)

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Although teachers where I live, Sacramento, seem to be decently compensated. I have several friends who own homes and have a quality standard of living and defined benefits pension.

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The answer to both questions is "No."

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“ high achieving upper middle-class kids will succeed regardless” probably correct - by and large- but it doesn’t mean that the quality of their education doesn’t matter. On the contrary, these are the people more likely to end up in leadership positions. Have they been inculcated with democratic values, ability to think critically, historical perspective , scientific literacy etc? The quality of education matters enormously, far beyond the question of your relative socio-economic status at the end of the day.

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Hmmm. Interesting, as I’d thought the research was that by far the most important factor in student achievement was parental involvement, and that quality of the school didn’t matter much. Does anyone know what current good research shows? Maybe there isn’t any, given the partisan nature of the dispute.

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Mar 7, 2023·edited Mar 7, 2023

There's an Economist article about a study that shows minimal academic difference between their fancy private schools and their public schools (using American terms) once you control for parental achievement.

https://www.economist.com/science-and-technology/2018/03/26/genes-and-backgrounds-matter-most-to-exam-results

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Mar 7, 2023·edited Mar 7, 2023

Just reading the web address I see it says “exam results”. Exam results is one measure of academic outcome but hardly the be all and end all.

Unfortunately I’m paywalled- what exams did they use as a measure? And how did they group the students ? Also I noticed they say “largely”- so they did find some effect?

P.S.

Would love to know how the schools were grouped. As you may know not all posh private schools in the uk are known for academic rigor . If you mix simply on the private vs public axis you’re using a pretty bad approximation for school quality.

P.P.S

The study I would have like to see is gpa in the first vs last year of college for students in the same college. Try to see if their high school has an effect by controlling for as much else as you can (Socio-economic background, high school gpa etc ). My personal impression is that there is a dramatic effect.

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Doesn't college GPA correlate to test scores anyway? I do t have access to the unpaywalled version anymore either.

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Thanks. Helpful.

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But how do you measure “achievement”? Does it address concerns I raise here ? How do we make sure our elites don’t drop the ball on our country’s success as a free , just wealthy society?

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Part of what you have to keep in mind with such studies is how narrow a space of possibilities they measured. Looking at the education system across thousands of schools, and measuring test scores and financial outcomes, students family backgrounds and class and race and gender swamp school factors. There has been some study of the short-term impact that the best teachers and schools have, at least according to what is most easily measurable. But no one has really been able to measure the long term impact that the best teachers and schools have.

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Sadly, “the best teachers and schools” seem pretty irrelevant to 21st century America.

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i vaguely recall Matt has also mentioned this in at least 1 post discussing his and Mrs Y's decision to send Jose to DCPS, but I don't have the link to the post at my finger tips... essentially that home environment/parents having their shit together is what matters, like you said, and that they figured the money they could have spent on fancy private school would be better saved for college tuition.

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I'll take a stab.

1. They didn't lead to improved outcomes and, to some extent, their lunch got eaten by charter schools and other alternative certification pathways. They've sort of pivoted to training school leadership now and have only a handful of enrollees compared with their heyday. There's probably also a cynical version of this wherein becoming a teacher is no longer effective virtue signaling so elite college graduates are much less interested in taking two years off their careers to teach. Not sure I buy it, but the argument is out there.

2. Correct but maybe meaningful on the facilities and materials side of things. Poor kids deserve decent classrooms, not the moldering wrecks without books or paper that they often have to attend. Upper income parents will also find ways to funnel money to their kid's school regardless of the local/state/federal funding. PTAs routinely wield millions of dollars in spending in wealthy districts and it gives them considerable power. There are high schools in texas with 70 million dollar football stadiums, for example.

3. I think this is something schools have tried to sweep under the rug by touting individualized education (not the IEP that is mandated for students with disabilities) which is more of a buzzword than evidence-based practice. It also requires a very skilled teacher to understand the individual needs of 30+ students and build curriculum and instruction to support each individual's kid's needs. Supposedly this is where technology will make everything better by delivering exactly the right lesson for each student but it's not clear if that's working either.

4. Agreed. I have seen this in my own teaching career and even been that teacher not delivering the right instruction for every single kid in the classroom. Often we aren't supported in how to do this. Being assessed as a teacher is not always an opportunity to learn how you could improve or do better. Often times the assistant principal who is doing the assessment doesn't know either. The informal body of knowledge that teachers use to inform their practice is weak and seems to always fall back to a kind of muddy worksheet-ism as if the sheets themselves are enough.

5. Agreed. Not sure what can be done about that, though. If you don't improve outcomes, your school gets taken over by the state and everybody has to reapply for their jobs. No wonder teachers are quitting in droves.

6. Glad you're commenting!

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What grade do you teach?

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I'm presently an adjunct prof teaching education courses at a large public university but my first decade was high school english and special ed in the metro Atlanta area where probably the biggest thing I did was pilot a large remedial reading program that used phonics to help students entering high school learn to read (not all SPED kids, either. Lots need foundational reading skills). Thus my interest in phonics.

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Nice. My hot take in phonics is.... it's critical, but it's not fun, exciting or cool. It requires a lot of repetitive drilling on certain basics. It doesnt have the same glamor as project based instruction or differential learning or other fads, and therefore is easy to get dropped off the radar.

But its like a world class soccer player. They spend literally 100s if not 1000s of hours just dribbling until it becomes 2nd nature.

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Love to hear the interest in Phonics!

My wife is becoming a Wilson reading specialist for tutoring reading skills to children with learning disabilities. The program she is involved with is finding as they work closely with individual schools that switching reading programs to phonics based ones is dramatically reducing need for tutoring supports.

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I like Wilson a lot and cribbed heavily when writing the curriculum. I also really like OG but it doesn't translate as well to a classroom setting.

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I think you nail the challenge of teaching and teaching more students with points 3 & 4, speaking as a metro Atlanta, low income teacher myself

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"1. whatever happened to TFA (Teach for America)... it was the cool thing... but totally off the radar now."

Don't bright and talented college grads have something better to do than a difficult, low paying job that intersects with a sclerotic union hierarchy?

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I mean it isn’t 2011 people. Young high achievers aren’t being thrown turnips as their first job offers.

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Could be but a good 40% of TFAers worked in non-union charter schools (in 2018, I don't know what it's like now) and another ~20% worked in states with weak or no unions (for example, TFA was big in Florida where the Fordham institute ranked their teacher's union 50th, behind states like Georgia where teacher's unions are literally illegal). This is a big shift from their early days where they were directed at urban high-need schools in large cities. Today, many large cities have ended their TFA contracts - Jacksonville, for example.

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Thats a very real problem of public schooling.

Add in physical danger from violent students and collapsing, dangerous buildings like in Philly, then you don’t have to wonder why teachers feel they need unions and why education isn’t seen as a higher priority in our society. For kids and teachers both who have to endure these, no matter how talented or motivated any single child is, its pretty crushing

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What do idealist young achievers do these days?

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Go into a hot job market?

Because the post recession job market was poopie.

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TFA is still a fairly big employer of recent Ivy humanities grads

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On point #6, at least you're missing some really lousy Smarch weather here.

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Ha. My wife told me about it. You Boise too?

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He's Vancouver, WA.

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Boise weather on Meth... and less sun. but beautiful country.

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1. TFA is kind of horrible, it should go away imo.

2. I wouldn't mind some more spending. It is kind of amazing though that it doesn't work better, given that so many schools have shortfalls in basic resources (classrooms, supplies, personnel etc). In CA at least, we have an over-regulation and beauracratic inefficiency problem so a lot of that money doesn't get where it needs to go or is earmarked for the wrong thing - i.e. a school that desperately needs some Ukrainian translators and a full time psychologist has no money for those kinds of personell (or the supply is really low in the area) but plenty of money for facilities upgrades. We have so so many strings attached to any money spent by the state or the districts.

3-6 strong agree

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Mar 7, 2023·edited Mar 7, 2023

Awesome points

I have little experience with public education but am intimately involved in my kids k-12 urban private school. Having some visibility into finances, strategy and the interplay between funding shortfalls and decisions schools must make, its my observation that there is widespread lack of appreciation for the greater expense involved with education in urban environments. Building infrastructure and use of space become enormously important but also a means to hide funding shortfalls

If you must find money today to make ends meet, it is from a leadership perspective almost always easier to punt the problem down the road by foregoing maintenance and building improvements, nearly always more tolerable to the community than cutting vital programming. That is, until it reaches a crisis point, which it has in Philadelphia and other urban areas.

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And then, all those young people who got 2 years of classroom experience disappear into other fields. It could be great to channel young smart people into education if they stayed and eventually got qualified through experience and training, but thats not the mission of TFA. So even if they did provide some marginal improvement over the replacement level teacher the benefit doesn't build into a stable supply of school staff for the long term, thus leaving the districts they serve treading water.

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As a former TfA corps member and teacher for over a decade, I agree. My training was extremely inadequate. Barely a year into teaching, they were trying to get us to quit teaching to grow our "leadership" in other professions.

I would advise a young person who wants to teach to do a better preparation program than TfA - and I'd advise a young person who doesn't want to teach to not waste poor students' time cosplaying for two years on the way to grad school.

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Mar 7, 2023·edited Mar 7, 2023

The overpromising take is correct.

The dirty little secret of education reform is that we don't actually know how to permanently change low achieving students into high achieving ones. There's no shortage of Lake Wobegon ideas to make all kids above average but none of them show durable results, scale etc.

The Great Awokening is a kind of surrender. It basically says "we can't get black kids to do as well as whites and Asians, so the problem must be that the standards themselves are systemically racist. We need to teach new a new anti-racist curriculum where black kids can score as well."

Yes, kind of insane but that is where we're at..

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Mar 8, 2023·edited Mar 9, 2023

This has been disturbing to me as well. In New York, when de Blasio was controversially proposing a change to the exam schools admittance criteria, and pointing out how many more Asian American kids than Black kids qualified, I was dismayed that no one on the left seemed to be asking, can we do for Black kids whatever already seems to be working for Asian kids?

I hesitate to approvingly quote Bush, but there really is a "soft bigotry of low expectations."

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I quote Donald Rumsfeld’s unknown knowns speech time to time.

Because it is a great statement about epistemology. It was just used to support a terrible unnecessary war in Iraq.

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I like the Great Awokening term you used because it really does have the hallmarks of an American religious revival.

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Actually we do know how to reform schools it's been done

https://simplecast.econtalk.org/episodes/roland-fryer-on-educational-reform

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Why does everyone think Chicago is "a city experiencing hard times"? My family has been living here for about 150 years and I think it's never been nicer. Crime is on a long-term downward curve, there's a crane on every street corner and old neighborhoods are gentrifying all the time. Seriously, where I live you wouldn't have gotten out of the car twenty years ago. Hasn't anyone in the media every visited Chicago or do they just get all their news from Fox?

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author

Well the population was lower in 2020 than it was in 2000 which isn’t a great trajectory, and since then crime has rise and like most cities it’s facing big looming fiscal issues due to remote work.

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All this could be fixed if we just focused on getting 1 billion Chicagoans! (Sort of kidding but also sort of not - Chicago politics is dysfunctional so I don’t see this happening, but good housing policy could put the city back on the right track)

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1 billion Chicagoans? The strategic celery salt reserves would never recover!

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A sport pepper on every corner.

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You can't speak in generalities about Chicago because it's so segregated, though--the North Side is doing better than fine

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Yes, but is this due to changing composition of family units. Less kids, more two adults... no kids?

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founding

But other comparable cities have been growing, and Chicago doesn’t have the same shortage of housing units that they do, so it must be a bit more than that.

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Mar 7, 2023·edited Mar 7, 2023

Maybe not the same problems with housing, but Chicago still has related housing shortages especially affordable housing (and I’d imagine especially short in combinations of affordable housing in relatively low crime areas.)

https://www.chicagotribune.com/real-estate/ct-re-affordable-housing-in-chicago-0409-20210412-tzcbnjsslbdoxmnwdo27h7lehi-story.html

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I think this really undersells the magnitude of the cliff Chicago is heading towards in the 1-5 years time horizon. Municipal budget crises are about to get really bad!

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Just returning from Chicago and seems to me it is objectively more pleasant to visit in practically every way than it was 25 years ago when I visited regularly

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Matt ran an "I'm worried about Chicago" post last year. I disagreed with the bulk of it, but it's good background for his thinking.

https://www.slowboring.com/p/im-worried-about-chicago

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I'm a new resident of the Chicago area (actually the suburbs N of Chicago). I was listening to the Chicago NPR station as a panel was discussing the current mayor's loss in the election. The conversation was centered on crime (of course...that's the hot topic.) The political science professor on the panel explained that the 2 remaining candidates represented the progressive approach vs the conservative approach to crime. I think that framing is incorrect. I would propose it's more the progressive approach vs everyone else's approach. I think a lot of big city normie democrats are also upset about crime. And really, conservatives have little sway in large, blue dominated cities. I get it that progressives will attempt to paint Vallas as a conservative, but is that really true?

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Mar 7, 2023·edited Mar 7, 2023

It is really true. Vallas was a normie centrist Chicago dem until about 2014. He has actually taken a rightward turn since then. He knows that as long as he’s still technically running as a dem and as long as his campaign website says the right things about abortion and LGBT rights, he can fool uninformed laypeople.

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Is he far to the right of what Joe Biden or Barack Obama would have said in 2008 or 2012, or is he just far to the right of a leftward moving democratic progressive party and zeitgeist?

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I keep saying this every time I go home! The nice parts of the city are so much cleaner, nicer, and prettier than when I was a kid.

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Chicago is worse off than other huge cities (LA, NYC) but it’s basically an average or slightly worse than average American city in terms of murder rate, I think. Safer and richer than Cleveland or Milwaukee or Philly, for example. And much safer than New Orleans or Memphis.

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I think a lot of Chicago's reputation stems from it being worse off than LA and NYC, specifically.

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It's also taken off as a conservative boogeyman

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This was an Obama-era thing, but even Reagan used "people from Chicago" as a euphemism for poor Black people

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I was more thinking of regular, not-especially-political people from red states who are genuinely scared to visit Chicago b/c they've heard there's so much crime there.

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i just moved to Chicago from NYC, and as an ex-New Yorker I can definitively say that since 2021 or so Chicago is no longer worse off. Given what i'm hearing about homelessness & housing affordability in LA these days I'm not sure it's worse off than LA anymore either.

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No longer worse off in what way? I'd find it very hard to believe that Chicago is richer than NYC now.

I, too, am an ex-New Yorker - I moved to the Boston area in 2020. But I've been back to NYC numerous times since then, and while I do think it's gone downhill *a bit,* the extent to which this is true is often overstated.

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I'm not saying it's richer, which I'm sure it still isn't. Rather, I'm referring to quality of life, which is significantly better here than it was in NYC over the past couple of years.

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Mar 7, 2023·edited Mar 7, 2023

Its murder rate is at least double the national average for large cities. It's not as bad as those other cities you mentioned, but all 6 of them are in the top 15 (with Chicago 15th) by murder rate out of these 100 cities:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_United_States_cities_by_crime_rate

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I absolutely don't say this to celebrate it, but "Chicago" as an overall place is as safe as the next place. There are specific regions within Chicago where one ought not go.

(I'm sure that's largely also true of the other Debbie Downers on the list)

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Fair - I suppose it depends on the cohort for comparison. If the cohort is just "cities", Chicago is significantly worse than average, albeit not the outlier it's painted as being in national media. If the cohort is "rust belt cities" or "large, diverse midwestern cities" (to exclude Des Moines or Omaha - the latter of which is mostly suburbs that are technically within city limits, to the point where the more suburban parts of Omaha aren't even part of the Omaha city school district), Chicago looks fairly typical. The data you linked is also pre-COVID, and Chicago (surprisingly!) hasn't had a big post-COVID murder spike compared to most cities, so it's probably even closer to average now. Unfortunately really hard to find 2022 murder rate by city data so I don't have a citation on that.

There's a separate and probably smarter conversation to be had about the rust belt as a whole. If you exclude college towns like Columbus, the entire IL/OH/MI/WI/PA/western upstate NY region looks pretty bleak. Chicago is an example of that trend but not really an outlier, and there are both blue and red states in the area so politicizing it doesn't make sense.

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I agree with much of this perspective, but I think the data points are a bit off if we are talking about murder rates and by extension serious crime. My go-to murder rate source is the CDC, which collects cause of death data nationwide and is fairly complete.

For Cook county I am seeing a rate 2018-19 rate of around 12.9 per 100k. For 2020, the rate 18.7 (and the jump started in May 2020) and for 2021 a rate of 20.5 per 100k. I don't know where it's being reported that Chicago didn't experience a murder spike, but the CDC shows an almost 50% spike in Cook County. I can't narrow the CDC's data down to city limits, but Chicago itself is disproportionately Black (and the Black population is lower income than in the suburbs) and the Black murder victim rate jumped from 43 / 100k pre-covid to 70 post-covid in Cook county, which is a 63% jump.

There's an odd regional pattern in regional x racial homicide patterns. If you break the nation into the 4 census regions of W, S, NE and MW and Demographics into Black and non-Black, you'll find that non-Black people have their lowest homicide victim rates in the NE and MW (2.3 and 3.2 vs 4.6 and 4.9 for the S and W) but Black people's homicide rates are by far the worst in the MW, 49, vs the rest (31 in the S, 27 in the W, 22 in the NE). So basically, the MW is a more peaceful-than-average region overall but a much worse than average region among Black people.

"and there are both blue and red states in the area so politicizing it doesn't make sense". That's true on the state level but city mayors and city councils certainly bear some responsibility, and nearly all big cities in the MW with crime problems are Blue.

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Chicago in 2019 had 463 homicides; 2020 it was 724, 798 in 2021 and settled down to 665 last year. Shootings tracked in the same way.

I’m not sure about this claim of a lack of a post Covid murder spike. Having said that we had warning signs in 2017 .

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I mean there was a spike just not a disproportionate spike - it was basically an average result for an American city. My Chicago opinion isn’t that it’s the best American city to live, but that it’s not an outlier. There are lots of Cleveland area parents (not just Fox News watchers) who would be terrified if their adult children moved to Chicago despite Cleveland being objectively more dangerous.

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Mar 8, 2023·edited Mar 8, 2023

I don’t follow that this is not a disproportionate spike. That’s a huge increase no matter your prefs for % increase, crime rate per 100k, absolute body count etc. I’m also not sure why it needs to be hand waved away.

It’s bad. Cleveland is pretty bad but far fewer people live in the city. It was trending in a much better direction but has lost all of the gains made since the 90s. Hopefully the return back to *only* 600+ murders last year is a good sign.

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I've said it on this aubstack before, looking at Chicago as one city rather than two is what maks a lot of folks think it's on a downward trajectory. If you remove the Southside from your analysis, the city is growing, getting richer and denser, and crime isn't an outstanding issue.

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I’m hoping we get something on phonics and other boring issues that were missed by the education reform movement - if it focused on less sexy things that worked instead of being an excuse to fight with unions, it might have shown more concrete evidence of effectiveness and it could have been more successful

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Consider me #teamphonics and #teammasteryofmultiplicationtables

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I'm 75 years old, and I remember the phonics wars when I was kid. Not sure there's much to be learned here. But I know Matt's a huge fan; so I'm sure he'll get to it.

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Listen to the sold a story podcast

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My wife is a 1st grade teacher and the kids today learn way more phonics than I did. There is a big movement in K-5 education to do more evidence based instruction techniques. I think it's getting better already, and I don't hear about that in our national dialogue.

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Mar 8, 2023·edited Mar 8, 2023

Unfortunately this is not uniform across districts. Ask me about Lucy Calkins if you want to hear me scream. That said most but not all kids need phonics to read.

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Big like on the unsexy things - the policies that are likely to be effective are not the policies likely to get people riled up or clicking on articles or donating money to campaigns.

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Yeah, this is a good line of questioning. I'd argue that standardization of elementary curricula along common core lines gave the balanced literacy folks a huge push because schools really needed the prepackaged all-in-one setup (including staff development, consulting, reams of leveled books, and other non-classroom facing supports) they offered.

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I look back on how well-received Waiting for Superman was when it was released compared to how it would be received now. It’s very striking!

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author

Exactly

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It personally motivated me to join Teach For America, which I did. Just a totally different time.

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How has your career in education been?

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I wouldn’t say I have a career in education, I went to grad school afterwards and now I’m an ml software engineer. My wife was also in TFA, and she’s now a methodology professor in a school of education, though

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What's her take on reform? (And yours?) I like to hear from people who have some kind of connection to education because I feel like their voices are not well represented.

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I think most people like us don’t think in terms of “reform”, but more about what works in making measurable outcomes of education better. I’m pro whatever improves education performance. My wife comes up with ways to measure that all day every day. Clearly the system has lots of room for improvement.

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I teach at an elite university, and I guarantee that our teaching skills are not superior. We understand how to teach students like ourselves. Putting us in a remedial math classroom, or even an average math classroom, would be a disaster.

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I went to an elite university for undergrad, studied abroad at a solid technical state school, and got my masters at a strong but not elite state school. The education was exactly the same at all three, but the students (and student culture around cheating/cutting corners) was quite different.

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In our large lecture classes with multiple sections, we find that the person giving the lectures hardly matters for the grade distributions anyway. I will say that we can make an impact with focused one-on-one help, but it doesn't scale well, obviously.

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The "education reform movement" is/was more of a loose constellation of ideas than one particular set of reforms that were agreed upon. As someone who worked alternatively in the center and left-of-center of the movement, here's how I would grade them out:

Standards - it's basically become fashionable to say that Common Core "failed," and I'd agree that the impact was overpromised. However, if you read state standards now - even states that showily "rejected" CCSS, you'll see that the large majority of states now have similar standards in English and math, and that these are more coherent than what came previously. The downside was that instructional materials/curricula were not in place when standards were adopted, which created a mismatch for several years. It's getting better, but not all the way there yet.

Assessments - The Obama administration put a lot of $ into developing better student assessments and funded the two multi-state consortia - PARCC and Smarter Balanced. Sad to say that this did not work out as hoped, partly because the whole multi-state agreement structure began to break down almost at the outset, and party (mostly?) because of the "anti-testing" backlash that was really pronounced in blue states and certainly fed by the teachers' unions (due to testing's link to teacher evaluations). And in general, support for assessment is an elite-driven phenomenon - most people don't love testing! The only upside is that some states adopted the SAT or ACT as their high school assessment, which meant all kids had access to taking a college-readiness assessment.

School accountability - oh man, what a mess. Public reporting of school quality based on assessments: pretty good, there's now much better and more granular data on performance at a school/district level. School-level accountability to lead to "turnaround" of low-performing schools: the metrics do a pretty good job of identifying poor-performing schools, but ultimately school turnaround is really really hard, and the remedies in Race to the Top were either too weak (lots of $, everyone keeps their job, pick a turnaround strategy) to the unpopular-with-the-unions (let go of 50% of the staff and rehire) to the politically very unpopular-if-maybe-for-the-best (school closure).

Teacher accountability - best-of-intentions but a lot of the measures here were not-ready-for-prime-time. That plus massive resistance from teachers unions made this the reform that ultimately broke the movement uniting the center-left to center-right.

Last thing, but important: The timing of Race to the Top at the outset of the Great Recession, coupled with big $$ for states that adopted reforms as a precondition for applying for RTTT, really supercharged the reform movement, but it was always elite-driven and very thinly supported on the ground. I worked on a state's RTTT application, and this state frankly had no business applying for the funding given its policies and history. But the state applied and in the process adopted many of the reforms listed above. After RTTT $ ran out (or states who applied didn't win) there was not a lot of momentum to keep the reforms going.

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Was working in education in NYC during the Bloomberg years and school closures there turned out to be kind of a (sad, expensive, and disruptive) joke. Close a school, reopen it 2 months later in the same building with much of the same staff, and mostly the same students. But with a new name, and usually some poor principal trying to Tinkerbell their way to success.

Just introduced more chaos into what was already a very chaotic situation. What was the point of all of that?

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I believe Chicago tried this too during the Rahm years. In addition, he managed to close low performing schools under the pretense they money would be saved and valuable real estate could be sold into more productive uses. What actually happened is that the issues of plant and property meant no one wanted to buy…no money seemed to have been saved, and the schools sat empty.

Meanwhile CPS lost track of kids entirely or those kids had a choice of going to a school in a different gang zone with predictable loss of life.

I get that there is a healthy skepticism of ‘wokeness’ on this comment page but I would encourage people to read Eve Ewings ‘Ghosts in the Schoolyard’ to get an appreciation for what a ‘failing’ school brings to the table in a neighborhood in difficult circumstances.

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I think the point was less that a closure would turn around a school and more about having a punishment for administrators that failed to turn the school around. Most schools that were threatened with closure were able to turn things around and stay open. I don't know how well it worked, but I don't think having no repurcussions has worked out better.

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My understanding is that the reform movement lost steam because we failed to discover highly impactful reforms. Looking forward to future articles in this series to validate that intuition.

Fredrik deBoer has written extensively on the topic of educational interventions, and how none of them are found to have long term effects on student performance and life outcomes. He’s summarized his argument in the Jul 2022 article, “Education Doesn't Work 2.0”, https://freddiedeboer.substack.com/p/education-doesnt-work-20

> The brute reality is that most kids slot themselves into academic ability bands early in life and stay there throughout schooling. We have a certain natural level of performance, gravitate towards it early on, and are likely to remain in that band relative to peers until our education ends. There is some room for wiggle, and in large populations there are always outliers. But in thousands of years of education humanity has discovered no replicable and reliable means of taking kids from one educational percentile and raising them up into another. Mobility of individual students in quantitative academic metrics relative to their peers over time is far lower than popularly believed. The children identified as the smart kids early in elementary school will, with surprising regularity, maintain that position throughout schooling. Do some kids transcend (or fall from) their early positions? Sure. But the system as a whole is quite static. Most everybody stays in about the same place relative to peers over academic careers. The consequences of this are immense, as it is this relative position, not learning itself, which is rewarded economically and socially in our society.

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I always find this FDB line of argument to be strange. He argues that kids “sort into ability bands” and then don’t shift from band to band. But even if you accept that’s true how does that show education doesn’t work? Jose knows a lot more reading and math than he did four years ago. If he had different, worse, teachers or they were using a worse curriculum he would know less reading & math than he does. If his schooling hadn’t been interrupted by Covid and Covid NPIs he would know more math (probably the same amount of reading) than he does.

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Mar 7, 2023·edited Mar 7, 2023

I think it mostly shows that education as a big driver of "equity" is a flawed concept. Effective education doesn't actually work to normalize cohorts in the way a big part of the Ed establishment think, or at least like to claim, it does.

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Maybe! The only thing I've found in psychology of education research is that it's shoddy. Very little is scientific. Hard to make almost any definitive claims.

It's truly an area where basic research is very bad and low hanging fruit is ready to be picked. Luckily we now know in person education for kids is actually very effective (something that was actually not super well established!), because COVID made the education deficits really obvious! Still, let's not wait for another pandemic to systematically study different education interventions.

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That’s a straw man. Education isn’t supposed to drive “equity” as in equal outcomes, it’s supposed to unleash equality of opportunities or allow each kid to achieve his or her potential (which is not to suggest all have the same potential !)

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I agree with you, but I don't think it's a strawman to say that many educators conceptualize their role as lifting up the marginalized to par with the privileged, which is just fundamentally not how it works. Maximizing individual capabilities is the correct goal.

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Mar 7, 2023·edited Mar 7, 2023

Arguably the two goals aren’t mutually exclusive but I agree with you that the latter is the more precise (if more abstract) one.

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I’m sure that working class kids today read better than working class kids did in 1923, and that black kids today read MUCH better than their predecessors a century ago. The catch is, until they can outcompete middle class peers for jobs and university slots, they still wind up working retail, food service or construction.

Then there’s the fact that many adults, even ones with fancy degrees, don’t really like reading. My extended pickleball group contains a number of PhDs, MDs and University of Georgia graduates, yet I’m the only one of us who reads nonfiction for pleasure.

Better education might give us slightly more literate carpenters and clerks, but it rarely inspires adults to turn off the TV and pick up a book or play chess.

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Excellent point on reading. I doubt many folks read anything outside of what's required for work. My parents didn't, & both were MDs. My kids do, but then they grew up w/o TV and still don't have one.

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I think you’re underestimating the ubiquity of literacy. Did your md parents not read the newspaper, for example? Not to mention medical journals vel sim for their work??

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I read a lot. 1000 books on the kindle.

But probably 95% is fiction.

It's just more enjoyable

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That's not his claim, though. FDB says:

"Kids do learn at school. You send your kid, he can’t sing the alphabet song, a few days later he’s driving you nuts with it. Sixteen-year-olds learn to drive. We handily acquire skills that didn’t even exist ten years ago. Concerns about the Black-white academic performance gap can sometimes obscure the fact that Black children today handily outperform Black children from decades past. Everyone has been getting smarter all the time for at least a hundred years or so."

What he's saying isn't that learning doesn't happen or that schools do nothing. What he's saying is that big efforts to change the ways schools work in order to improve outcomes don't work.

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Yeah. Also that we can't get lower achieving children to perform at the level of high achieving ones, so the disparate outcomes we see even within the same classrooms in the same schools can be expected to persist and be completely immune to interventions

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FDB isn't saying that education doesn't work, he's saying that education-as-social-mobility doesn't work. (He pretty much admits this in his writing on the subject.) However, a) "education doesn't work" is a nice, pithy, headline, and b) the idea that education is a key driver of social mobility was a very very big part of the national debate on education for a long time - and IIRC school reformers often said stuff like this.

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Mar 7, 2023·edited Mar 7, 2023

I don't even think that goes far enough - by requiring an expensive credential at the expense of actual demonstrated skills, education actively prevents social mobility. If medieval Europe required a $100,000 ticket to identify as "middle class", everyone would recognize that as a self-interested scheme by the upper class to preserve the privilege of the nobility. Education should be viewed the same way until proven otherwise.*

*I realize education has real uses, as an MD (nurse practitioners could do my job, but some level of education is still required). But the credential-to-signal ratio is excessive in a way that only serves to preserve privilege.

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FdB takes pains to explain that levels of absolute learning have improved over time. But relative levels of learning between various demographic groups remain stubbornly immune to intervention.

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That depends on your demographic groups, though. Certainly not stable in all cases.

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The average Asian immigrant reads much better than her grandparents, who were probably peasants

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Mar 7, 2023·edited Mar 7, 2023

"If he had different, worse, teachers or they were using a worse curriculum he would know less reading & math than he does"

Unfortunately I seriously doubt this actually explains the vast discrepancies you see between schools. This is falling into the school reforming belief that changing the pedagogy will get you vastly different results, while I wager if you take a good performing student body and swap them into a crappy school, suddenly the crappy school will look much better going forward.

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Mar 7, 2023·edited Mar 7, 2023

Exactly. Schools matter just like doctors matter. Without them everyone would be worse off.

But the overwhelming determinant of outcomes are students and patients....not teachers and doctors

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Exactly rates and levels both matter. Even if the exact order of every student in America was fixed it would still be great to lift everyone up.

I also think we shouldn’t underestimate the ability of good teaching to improve outcomes. Plenty of smart rich people clearly think good teaching matters which is why they hire private tutors for the kids.

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I don't think FDBs view is teachers and schools are irrelevant but that we can't get the less talented kids to learn as well.and as fast as the more talented ones. And, if true, this does have enormous implications for what we should expect in educational outcomes.

Rather than keep futilely trying to turn low achievers into high achievers, we should develop modes of education appropriate to each's ability.

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Math is mainly the game we’ve chosen to sort people into tracks in life. Very few students are learning to factor quadratics so that they will be able to factor quadratics. You do it to prove you are smart and deserve white collar employment.

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Mar 7, 2023·edited Mar 7, 2023

I think deBoer does a good job of arguing against education as a magical equity formula, but the point about relative position being rewarded economically is tragically flawed. DeBoer is too indoctrinated by his time in academia, which is largely based on relative position. Yes, if you want to go to graduate school at Harvard, relative position matters. If you want to be a nurse, contractor, software developer, or entrepreneur, absolute skills matter more than relative position. Raising the overall level of education is immensely helpful for society and for individual people, even if those individuals don't change their position in the overall distribution.

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These are excellent examples. My nurse friends say it literally makes no difference where you receive nursing training - they desperately need people with skills.

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This is where I want someone to study the 7,600 nurses who were given false credentials by several nursing schools in Florida. They basically paid for the degree and did nor coursework or clinical practicum. BUT they still had to pass the various nursing certification exams. This is an amazing natural experiment! Someone needs to trace their work history and see if they're crappy nurses compared with those who, presumably, had real degrees and real training.

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I'm not sure their work history was long enough to generate meaningful information. The whole scheme lasted about 5 years. Also I'd assume these weren't great applicants to begin with.

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You're missing the difference between degree and certification. You could slip the degree under their windshield, but not the certificates.

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if you are an entrepreneur, relative position is essential. if your relative position is in the bottom half, you are very unlikely to remain an entrepreneur

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Why is that?

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I’m still skeptical that someone who was not engaged early in school is going to be transformed by school into succeeding at one of those careers. There’s a hell of a lot of thinking and fiddling involved in being a software developer; if you don’t like thinking or fiddling, you’re in trouble. There’s a hell of a lot of content in nursing school. If you aren’t good at studying and taking tests, you’re in trouble.

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It's complicated, and people take lots of different paths. Plenty of people check out in school and then start paying attention when they have a great teacher or get excited about something or realize it's time to get serious about their lives. Or vice versa, some people lose interest in learning because school feels so pointless. Some people never figure it out. Organized education isn't a panacea, but it can certainly be better.

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I think this speaks to the need for more individual tailoring and tracking than anything else. We need to be able to maximize the ability of individuals within all bands of educational attainment rather than obsess over trying to somehow equalize overall cohorts.

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Mar 7, 2023·edited Mar 7, 2023

For some still unknown reason, the Democratic Party stopped focusing on individual attainment in favor of race-based equity around 2010. As a result, education reform fell by the wayside in favor of mandating equal outcomes by race.

For all their flaws, the Ivies are on the forefront of where social movements are going. Almost every Ivy League school has dropped SATs and many are eliminating grades at all. [Edit: the grade elimination was only during COVID time. My mistake]

There can be no racial disparities if we don't measure performance (big brain meme).

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Yes and could be what’s driving a decent portion of middle & upper middle class gen x parents to swing a little right. We’ve gone from trying to cultivate a culture of achievement and equality of opportunity for everyone (“the soft bigotry of low expectations” and “the civil rights issue of our time”) to ditching Honors and accelerated courses for intrinsically motivated students. The pivot has been one of the most striking turns in culture I’ve seen in my lifetime and you have to be middle aged to even notice the U-turn.

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That's really the awful truth of it. While the headlines about various debates on k-12 education are all about culture you don't have to dig too deeply to see that the heart of the matter is the adoption of a deeply anti-achievement, anti-educational excellence agenda.

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Interesting observation given that the origin of many magnet schools is as anti-white flight mechanisms. The evidence that G&T and magnet programs actually help students is shoddy (extraordinary students tend to be autodidacts anyway) but it's important in some ways that parents *think* they help students.

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This is the most depressing and upsetting thing to me out of all of it. "Progressive" to me used to or should mean that you can bust your ass and accomplish incredible things--that we all have different slopes to the ramp of greatness (that sucks and we should mitigate it, but it's life), but we all have that ramp.

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Mar 7, 2023·edited Mar 7, 2023

I’m not sure what’s cause vs effect here but the move from genuine progressivism to wokeism certainly fits with the realignment of the Dems towards the wealthier base. There is little doubt in my mind that the rejection of meritocracy serves the privileged and well connected (of all races) far better and screws over the middle and working classes (again, of all races !)

P.S.

To be clear though , the real problem isn’t that the Dems got worse is that even as the Dems got worse the GOP, rather than taking up that mantle, went totally off the rails into fascist-land, leaving the Dems with their light-racism and light-anti-intellectualism etc so unspeakably better that the sane electorate has a difficult time forcing them to improve !

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Eliminating grades? Evidence ?

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founding

Apologies: I re-checked my source and it was limited to semesters during Covid time.

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Even then I believe it was more about allowing people to choosing to *opt-in* for PDF (pass/D/F) , but details probably varied between school

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There was a kind of despair that set in in Obama II. Having tried every intervention conceivable, it turned out the one thing we hadn't tried--electing a black president who was an academic success--also didn't raise outcomes for black kids to narrow the achievement gap.

So now the education establishment has groped its way to the position that the whole concept of academic excellence is an artifact of whiteness and white supremacy which must be dismantled.

What actually happened is the education establishment has thrown in the towel and critical pedagogy provides a convenient rationalizing ideology for that.

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founding

Brown used to not have grades, and I think there is a lot to be said for that, though it only works to give written evaluations for small classes.

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I graduated from Brown in 1974. Grades were optional. Every student with a brain opted for grades.

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Brown is the ringo star of the ivies though 😜

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It is, beat the drums hard. Had a great time there before moving on to Stanford. Both great places you should be so lucky to enjoy.

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This is really the issue and where I think the school reform movement lost. I find FdB's position on this persuasive, in the sense that there probably is no way for public schools to close certain gaps that arise almost entirely from the inputs. Not in a manner that anyone would be able to look at and say 'there you go, problem solved!'

However the covid experience and total lack of effective adaptation has convinced me that the systems are sclerotic and dying for reform. We need new systems of tracking based on student ability and acceptance that different outcomes for different people are ok as long as the outcomes are positive. The unions unfortunately are a fundamentally anti-progress faction in this space and I'm not sure they can be changed. However I'm increasingly convinced that if we don't do something public schools are in for a slow death, or at least a decline to glorified public daycare centers for the poor and exodus by anyone who can get out. That would be both a shame and a net loss for the country.

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This just doesn’t scale - that’s the issue.

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Freddie is focused on bringing about the Marxist revolution, not on making capitalism work better. So he cares much more about relative ordering of people in society than the productivity of society as a whole.

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Freddie's ideology 90% poster, 10% Marxist.

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Freddie’s right in his key point that some kids have more aptitude than others. But as a Marxist, he seems singularly focused on their relative positioning. True, even a wonderful school is not going to put a kid in the 15th percentile into medical school. But that 15th percentile kid can still develop much more competence than he currently does in the American school system, and therefore have more options in his life. The absolute learning levels are pitiful in the US compared to our peer countries.

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Matt Hagy, thanks for sharing that great article. I do think that is accurate about most of what we've found on systemic interventions.

BUT TO BE CLEAR, that does not mean there are no good teachers or bad teachers, or that teacher quality cannot have a significant impact. Eric Hanushek has a lot of detail on this. But finding/developing individually excellent teachers is a hard day-to-day process, not "one simple fix" that we can scale everywhere as a "reform movement".

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Mar 7, 2023·edited Mar 7, 2023

Such a huge non sequitur here! Does he not realize that the top 1% in a bad school can still be learning less than the 50% in a good school and hence deprived of great opportunities in life ?

(Also- that beyond status in society there may be inherent benefits to better education per se?)

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The question is does that have much to do with the school?

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Absolutely. If your school doesn’t offer ap classes doesn’t teach you calculus or how to write an essay, it’s small comfort you’re top of the class!

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I think there's very different definitions of bad. A school were a large majority are being taught to state levels is probably a good school compared to overall performance. Whether they have students doing AP classes and higher level work probably makes it more of an elite level school on the grand scale.

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To me the measure of a good school overwhelmingly comes down to one question, "Are the students being effectively presented material that is appropriate to their personal proficiency level?" It matters just as much how well tailored the material for advanced students is as the remedial ones.

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Mar 7, 2023·edited Mar 7, 2023

It still speaks to whether school quality and content matters, no? The argument was that your relative position within the school is all that matters. I gave a simple example to refute that proposition.

I think I did so successfully no?

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Seems like a good point for me to plug a friend’s book, which offers a broad critique of decades of reform-minded instructional pedagogy:

“Education is Upside Down,” Eric Kalenze, 2014

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This is a good summary of the basic contours of the ed-reform "movement," spoken by someone who's entire career was in the heart of it (first in CA government under Schwarzenegger, then as policy director for major nonprofit funding charter schools, finally as founder of an ed-reform adjacent nonprofit organization to improve teacher training). Two points that may be worth exploring in future columns:

1. It's hard to have a movement if the majority of adults directly affected by it are hostile to your agenda. Ed reformers saw "unions" as the enemy but what they meant by that were the political representatives of unions at the federal and state level; rarely did they stop to think about the membership of said unions -- teachers -- and whether teachers were on board with the reforms they were promoting. (Narrator: They were not.)

2. Looking back, the almost surreal collapse of bipartisan support for something called "the Common Core" was a canary-in-the-coal-mine moment for our national political discussion. From 2010-2012, you had President Obama and Governor Jeb Bush, back when people thought he would be President, working together to create shared academic standards (what kids are supposed to learn). But in 2013, that coalition collapsed when -- seemingly out of nowhere -- Glenn Beck and Michele Malkin decided that the Common Core was the product of George Soros, the Rothchilds, and the Trilateral Commission. It foreshadowed QAnon and today's "Moms for Liberty" efforts in ways that haunt me still. What I still don't know is...how did it happen? Was it purely organic or was there some conference session at a Koch brothers event that led to the unraveling?

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I'm interested to see what Matt says about this, especially #2. I've mentioned it before in threads here, but I'll say it again. I don't think you can understand what's happening in schools now without understanding the way common core was rolled out and how it was received by teachers and families. Teachers lost autonomy. Parents lost a say in what their kids learned. Whether it was really a federal initiative, or a voluntary project put on by governors of nearly every state made little difference when mom and dad suddenly couldn't help their kids with math homework. What presaged so much of today is that they would go on facebook and complain about bad or confusing materials. The "woke math is 2+2=5" canard lived a prior life as a dig against common core math where it was supposedly fine for 2+2 to equal 5.

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No version of “common core math” suggested 2+2=5, for what it’s worth.

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Yes, that is why it's a canard.

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What about how it was rolled out caused the furious backlash do you think? I wasn't teaching back then. I still end up talking to friends and family with kids pretty frequently about this, usually along the lines of "its ok, if a 9 year old can learn it you can too." Or "no, learning number sense is a good idea, see how 3x3 is the same as 3+3+3?" I have tended to think that resistance to common core is a short to medium term problem, as kids learn it and become adults and have their own kids the learning curve eventually ends, and I definitely think it's a better way to teach math than straight memorize the standard algorithm all the time, but I hadn't drawn a cnxn between common core and our current education culture war bs until now.

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I'm ambivalent about the standards themselves. A lot of expertise went into the math standards especially. The ELA standards were mostly a switch to a skills-based view of what reading and writing are all about which was, I think, deleterious.

But a few things happened. On the teaching side, one day you were suddenly supposed to do everything differently. Were you given new books or helped to develop new curriculum? No. Did you get any training or even a preview of what teaching under these standards should look like? Also no. If you were lucky, maybe you got to have a state official show you some slides during one of the teacher prep days before the school year started. So, you were shitty at your job for a bit because everything changed, and you had to learn how the content and pedagogy had to look under the new regime. And you were shitty at your job for a bit because you had no materials aligned to the new standards, so you had to make them yourself. And you were shitty at your job for a bit because students also suddenly had to learn all this new stuff in a way that they hadn't experienced before. And you were shitty at your job because a lot more data collection was expected of you, but nobody told you what data counted so you kind of made it up until everyone figured out what they wanted from you.

On the parent side, you saw a dramatic rise in days spent preparing for tests and administering tests. You saw science, social studies, and the arts, and even recess disappear from younger grades because there were no common core standards for those subjects, and they did not appear on the tests that schools were held accountable to. You saw your kid's homework change in ways that appeared inscrutable and when your kid struggled, you couldn't always help them. And you got to thinking about how nobody ran this by you or other parents. There were no school board hearings where you could say no or request changes or gain more information. This was top down. School boards had no say. Education experts, state government, and federal "incentive" money made the decision for you.

What I think lasted wasn't so much the standards themselves causing problems but the complete lack of buy-in. Hell, it's not even clear anyone at the top cared about buy-in to begin with and little was done to sell the public or teachers on the changes until the backlash was already rolling. That sense of a top-down imposition poisoned the well, convincing teachers and parents that nobody cared what they thought or sought their input for important decisions. A sentiment that animates parental activism and teacher attrition today.

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Strong like for point 1 - the disconnect between people working at the macro level making policy for states, counties and districts and people on the ground in the classrooms working with students is a wide gulf. It can be very frustrating.

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On #2, I think this would suggest it was both organic and organized: https://www.thedailybeast.com/the-wingnut-war-on-common-core-is-a-plot-to-destroy-public-schools

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America has over 3,000 counties, most of which have their own school systems. If there were a highly effective reform agenda that produced great, quantifiable results, some system would have stumbled on it. The absence of any outstanding model of excellence in such a vast country suggests reform isn’t that helpful.

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Rarely is the question asked, is our children learning?

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Mar 7, 2023·edited Mar 7, 2023

The reformers were and are fundamentally correct. School should be more than just jumped up daycare and that means meaningfully assessing both students and teachers. As far as I can tell we mostly don't do either of those things. It's a system that, as constituted, functions largely to funnel funding to Dem affiliated cultural institutions and special interests.

Where a high school diploma ought to be a thing of real economic value and signifier of meaningful competence, it has instead been almost entirely marginalized in the name of selling more student loans.

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Assessment of teachers and students is VERY common but, to your point, probably low quality in most cases. But being low quality doesn't mean it's not happening or that we haven't spent nearly two decades using assessments to drive teacher pay, school management, curriculum, etc.

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Mar 7, 2023·edited Mar 7, 2023

What does high quality mean, and is that achievable? If we've spent two decades working on it, what do we think is possible that we haven't done?

I'm not necessarily opposed to measurement, but we also have to take into account that it means more testing, more teaching to the test, and ultimately a more boring and stressful experience for teachers and students. No one ever takes the intangible costs of measurement seriously.

It would be interesting to try to make school more interesting and self-directed for students and see what happens. Trying to build a better assembly line hasn't really worked for the average student, with the notable exception of some charter schools that are willing to make students work a lot harder and have parent support.

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Mar 7, 2023·edited Mar 7, 2023

Yes, it seems like success at this always involved threading the needle between testing as a useful feedback mechanism to improving teaching, and testing (along with teaching to the test) as a way to remove all color, joy, and nuance from teaching and learning.

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Mar 7, 2023·edited Mar 7, 2023

I think the issue with assessments, at least in my area, is less about the individual student experience, which they can mostly manage, it's that it produces really uneven data that policy then gets made on. In CA we are preparing for 11th grade CAASPPs in math and English. Some will do well, some will know the content and skills but be unable to show it on the test, some will be hopelessly lost because the test assesses standards they didn't learn, and some will click through or blow it off or opt out. Then, CA will turn around and appropriate millions of dollars to the districts based on whether the results show year over year growth among certain demographic groups. In aggregate the edges are supposed to even out, but more is hidden than revealed in the data imo.

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Low validity and low reliability. States just aren't equipped to create evaluations that can generate meaningful information about student learning or teacher performance. There's been some attempts with forming big testing consortia and standardizing tests across states but states really hate making their requirements the same as other states. Plus, so many kids (their parents, really) are opting out of these tests in some places that fewer than half of students are evaluated at all.

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Mar 7, 2023·edited Mar 7, 2023

I guess my question that you might have insight into is, what exactly is being assessed? Are we meaningfully looking at the year over year improvement of individual students vs expectations? Can you tell if your students are progressing faster or slower than other comparable classrooms? Are we meaningfully tailoring the material presented to students to their assessed proficiency? Or are students being advanced regardless of their proficiency level? Are GPAs well calibrated to assessed proficiency levels?

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To me there are basically 2 questions that meaningful assessment needs to speak to:

1. Is this student being presented material appropriate to their proficiency level?

2. Is the teacher presenting that material effectively relative to the expect value against replacement of a teacher?

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Mar 7, 2023·edited Mar 7, 2023

So, just as far as those examples I'd suggest pacing falls under "appropriate material" and classroom management is the "jumped up daycare" baseline that we need to be better than, though some schools are surely failing even that.

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Mar 7, 2023·edited Mar 7, 2023

I have absolutely zero connection to public schools but yours was my understanding of the outcome of that educational reform which was really led by the Bush administration in a previous generation’s right wing attack on public education.

They insisted that “no child left behind” meant taking curriculum decisions from local authorities and individual teachers, instead issuing never ending assessments, which to my understanding have substantially hollowed out public education curriculum. Funding is based on performance, “teaching to the test” becomes everything.

I remember my little brother from the big brother big sister program relate to me that his Philly public middle school stopped its regular curriculum for two months in order to directly teach to the test.

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Very much not well versed in American education reforms, but it has been a live issue in the UK, with the transformation of English school management* being probably the most far ranging institutional change that this Conservative government has made over the last decade.

To grossly oversimplify, they hugely advanced a push to make schools independent of Local Educational Authorities [LEA], either as independent Academies or as part of 'Trusts'. The result is distinctly mixed, with some improvements but also associated scandals (the head of an Academy Trust managing six schools can earn much more than the head of a LEA school managing 400 etc). They have also allowed parents to set up 'free schools' completely independent of any authority but central government. Results have generally improved but again difficult to distangle from cohort effects etc. The UK Education Secretary also has vast powers to reshape English education at will, down to the curriculum, so is not directly comparable to anywhere in the US.

*education is devolved, so the Scottish Welsh and Northern Irish governments have their own systems

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Interesting. When I visited UK schools back around 2008-12, the UK system seemed at an inflection point between a focus on LEAs doing a lot of comprehensive education/family support work (I remember Tower Hamlets being a model here) and the growth of the academy model. It sounds from your comment like the academy/trust model really accelerated since then.

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Well it's a political issue - the last Labour government used Academies for failing schools, as part of a transformation package (give the school a new governing structure, new leadership, new buildings, new uniforms etc), but when the Tories won the 2010 election the emphasis changed. The Conservatives just didn't want local authorities in control of schools, so sped up Academisation as well as bringing in Free Schools

In relation to Tower Hamlets - that was part of the 'London Challenge' , a specific government push to improve schools in the capital. Tower Hamlets IIRC went from having some of the worst Schools in the country to the best - very impressive

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I disagree with the education nihilists (i.e. nothing works or is any better than any other thing). Kids learn a lot in school and there must be things that work and things that don’t work, it is just that the effect sizes are small and hard to measure. Difficulty in measurement should not convince us that the thing we are studying does not exist. Looking forward to the next installment!

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It is interesting from this vantage point how fundamentally "neoliberal" the education reform was, in that it really focused on using competition and markets for the purpose of improving government services. I think part of its death is that this approach no longer seems so attractive.

The problem is that the obvious other model, which is that US education should be high quality the way the US army is high quality, is difficult or impossible because of decentralization of education in the US. That's in addition to the problems that beset any project of improving how the government is run as we see in the "how do we make transit function well" space.

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