Oracles Do Not Exist

I never seriously considered the possibility that Donald Trump could be the next President of the United States.

I believed Hillary Clinton had a relatively easy electoral path to the White House, though I suspected that polls were not capturing the true level of Trump support, which suddenly made an appearance in secret ballots all across the country.

I didn’t want Clinton to win, and I didn’t vote for her, but I found her to be preferable to Trump.

I recap all this because as I go through the news, commentary and social media today, I find an overwhelming number of people who seem to know exactly what happened and why, and what will happen in the future, even though none of them predicted this outcome as recently as Tuesday morning.

I have no idea how this happened, or what will happen next. I’m reasonably certain neither do the teachers’ unions. The temptation is always great to predict the future, because there is status and glory in being proven right. So I’m going to make additional efforts from now on to report what has happened, rather than what I think will happen. At least, that’s my prediction.


From the Vault: January 21, 2003

AFT Auditors Say $5 Million Missing from DC Teachers Union. The American Federation of Teachers filed a racketeering lawsuit against former Washington Teachers Union (WTU) President Barbara Bullock and others in what the union now claims was an illegal diversion of at least $5 million in members’ dues. In support of its suit, AFT released the report of the forensic investigators it hired to follow the WTU money trail.

The Washington Post also reported that the AFT has begun the process of establishing an “administratorship” over WTU, which would place AFT in control of the local union’s day-to-day operations. At the same time, a rank-and-file proposal to dissolve the WTU executive board will be issued at the next board meeting on January 27. The Post editorial page called the new estimate of misappropriation “breathtaking” and asked the question on everyone’s mind: “How could such an allegedly massive misappropriation of union funds occur over such a long period of time and under the noses of so many people, including the union’s board of directors, the union’s members and the American Federation of Teachers, which is the parent organization?”

The AFT audit revealed details unmentioned even in the FBI affidavit:

* The $144 per member dues overcharge last summer – the event that led to the unraveling of the conspiracy – was an attempt by Bullock to pay off the delinquent AFT national dues WTU owed for at least two years. AFT reported receiving payment of the delinquent dues by July 2002. This also explains why Bullock proposed that the members apply the overcharge to future dues, rather than simply reimburse them… the money has already been sent to AFT.

* Interim WTU President Esther Hankerson’s name was apparently forged on several questionable checks. Hankerson says the bank notified her about one of these and she confronted Bullock (though she told the bank to honor the check). She says Bullock admitted to the deed and said she would reimburse the money, but Hankerson took no further action.

* The AFT audit suggests Bullock and Company may have had a confederate at the bank at which many of the checks were cashed, since scores of them had the names of legitimate payees crossed out and the name of Bullock’s chauffeur written in, yet the bank cashed each one without incident.

* Leroy Holmes, Bullock’s chauffeur, believed his salary to be $105,000, though this amount was greater than that received by any other WTU employee, except for Bullock.

* The auditors confirmed the obvious. The union’s LM-2 report to the U.S. Department of Labor “does not accurately depict the true nature and amount of the transactions that we discovered during our investigation.” Also, the accountant who helped prepare and file the report did so knowing they “were not accurate and, at a minimum, were grossly misleading.” The auditors could locate only one LM-2, though they are supposed to be filed annually.

* Two political contributions were made with WTU dues, a violation of federal law. One, of $9,000, went the Democratic National Committee, the other, of $2,000, went to Hillary Clinton’s 2000 election campaign. Both returned the money when informed of its origin by AFT.

AFT believes the WTU scandal to be an aberration, and it may well be. There may not be other local AFT officials with $13,000 plasma TVs and Tiffany silverware. But the lack of oversight, whistleblowing, accountability, or even routine reporting, displayed by union officials, staff, staff unions, and elected representatives over a six-year period cannot be dismissed as an aberration. It too often is standard operating procedure, making cases like that of WTU not only predictable, but likely.


From the Vault: January 13, 2003

No Data? Just “Input” Your Own! If you are going to spend many months generating “the largest study ever on the issue” of high-stakes testing, why would you take the curious step of releasing it during the Christmas holiday? Could it be because people will be all the less likely to dig through hundreds of pages of tables and technical appendices, only to discover that the study lacks the data to support its conclusions?

Audrey Amrein and David Berliner of Arizona State University presented The Impact of High-Stakes Tests on Student Academic Performance: An Analysis of NAEP Results in States with High-Stakes Tests and ACT, SAT, and AP Test Results in States with High School Graduation Exams, funded by a consortium of National Education Association state affiliates, to a generally positive front-page review in the New York Times.

“Some call it ideological; I call it honest. Either way, the data speaks for itself,” Berliner told the Times. Indeed, they do. For while Amrein and Berliner desperately want to prove that high-stakes tests are bad for children and other living things, they can’t resist the temptation to hopelessly stack the deck, and then present their five aces as an honest hand.

First, let it be said that neither is there evidence to offer contrary conclusions: that high-stakes tests are in fact improving achievement in states that have them. But Amrein and Berliner’s effort was doomed from the start, because it takes 27 states, 18 tests, instituted at different times over a 12-year period, and compared them to totally different national samples of students taking no-stakes tests, given once every two to four years over a 10-year period. Some states instituted tests before the NAEP data begins in 1990. Other states instituted tests in-between NAEP tests. Others instituted tests after the last available NAEP tests in 2000. From this hodgepodge of scores, Amrein and Berliner still manage to generate their pre-ordained conclusions.

How? You have to wade your way through to the last footnote in the technical appendix to find out. It reads: “Because the NAEP math and reading tests are administered once every two to four years and some states implemented high-stakes tests between NAEP administrations, we inputted scores for the years for which data were not available. Imbedded in this is an assumption that growth in academic achievement from one year to the next is continuous which might not be the case for all states.” (emphasis added)

Yep, a number of Amrein and Berliner’s conclusions are based on scores that do not actually exist, but were interpolated from other scores. This method is reminiscent of a study NEA Research did on school construction and technology in May 2000, in which the union extrapolated Hawaii’s technology needs from South Carolina’s data.

Many of Amrein and Berliner’s conclusions are arguable, and better suited for the op-ed pages than in what purports to be an academic study, including the perplexing thesis that high-stakes testing leads to “higher numbers of teachers who leave their public school positions to teach in private schools, free of state testing mandates because state rules make them feel compromised as professionals.” No evidence is offered for this curious statement, probably because no evidence exists of an exodus of teachers from public to private schools – for any reason.

Nevertheless, Amrein and Berliner do reach one major conclusion that is probably true. “The data suggest that after the implementation of high stakes tests, not much happens,” they say. Insert the name of any major education reform in the place of “high stakes tests,” and that statement will usually remain true.


From the Vault: December 2, 2002

Next Argument for Anti-Test Crowd: High Scores Are Bad. The claims that standardized test scores are overemphasized and that the tests are being misapplied are arguable, but at least rational, responses to the latest emphasis on school accountability. But faced with an American public that seems to be committed to extensive use of standardized tests, opponents are introducing more radical arguments that cross into the irrational. For some reason, in the last week a number of columnists decided to take up the position that higher test scores are not only crowding out a deeper and more meaningful education, but that they are actually indicators of a decline in American education. The baldest statement of this idea appeared in my local newspaper.

In a special column for the Sacramento Bee, Anthony Ralston, professor emeritus of computer science and mathematics at the State University of New York at Buffalo, termed rising test scores the “next disaster in American education.” Ralston claims that higher scores reflect “the learning of particular skills, often unrelated to the further study of mathematics and often at the expense of a broader curriculum that would really prepare students for the further study of mathematics.” Worst of all, Ralston says, higher scores “give parents a false sense that the learning of their children is improving when it is not.”

Ralston even embraces the internal logic of his own thesis: “Interestingly, just as rising test scores are sure to mask deepening problems in American education, falling test scores may be a good thing although few will recognize this.”

He’s got that right. But among those few are the kids themselves, who will be sure to try out Ralston’s theory when they get an “F” on their next math test. “Really, Mom, it means I’m getting a broad curriculum that will really prepare me for the further study of mathematics.” Mom will readily accept this reasoning and enroll Junior in the DC Public Schools, whose abominably low test scores must indicate a veritable Renaissance of true learning. As Junior considers Harvard, he will attend weekend seminars to learn techniques of lowering his SAT scores. One method will be to read 30 Days to a More Limited Vocabulary (Publishers’ Weekly calls it “double-plus good!”).

Ralston’s Law (as it will be later enshrined in college textbooks) will catch on in other aspects of American life. The Postal Service will hire only those who can’t remember zip codes on its standardized test. The FBI will hire only those who can’t identify suspects on its standardized test. The state will instead certify lawyers who fail the bar exam. Knowing the location of molars will disqualify dentists. Contractors’ licenses will be given to those who think “roof” is something a dog says.

The New American Order will culminate in the endowment of the Ralston Chair for Applied Mathematics at the State University of New York at Bizarro. Me so happy, me want to cry.


From the Vault: September 30, 2002

Why “No Strike” Laws Are a Waste of Paper. Traditionally, in order to overcome opposition to the establishment of collective bargaining laws, unions have often agreed to include provisions that make teacher strikes illegal, subject to heavy sanctions including fines and imprisonment. These provisions may act as a psychological deterrent to teachers contemplating a strike vote, but the difficulties of enforcement make the whole exercise pointless.

Teachers in the Issaquah School District in Washington reached a last-minute contract agreement last week that defused a showdown between the teachers’ union and the county superior court. Judge Joan DuBuque issued a back-to-work order that teachers voted to defy by a more than 2 to 1 margin. The briefing Issaquah teachers received on the consequences of their decision by a Washington Education Association attorney illustrates why “no strike” laws are no guarantee of anything.

According to the Seattle Times, WEA lawyer Kathy O’Toole informed teachers they could be sent to jail, but that “the judge’s calendar is not big enough to hold 850 contempt hearings.” Besides, she said, the jails themselves are overcrowded. “They are not going to put 850 of you away,” she said. O’Toole told them they could be fined, but also that “no teacher has ever paid a fine in the 18 years I have been with the Washington Education Association.”

Asked if teachers could be fired for not appearing for work, O’Toole said that the district would not undertake hundreds of discharge hearings because they can cost up to $80,000 each. Besides, Issaquah Education Association President Kathy Linderman told them, the burden was on the court to prove that individual teachers were defying the order. “Linderman said teachers could say they were sick, or that a parent was sick,” reported the Times. “The district can’t prove otherwise.”

The message was clear. While the school district and the court had a host of remedies on paper, as a practical matter they would not fine, jail, fire, discipline, or even investigate teachers who defied the court order. Should a district overcome its qualms, as happened in Middletown, New Jersey, it faces the prospect of forever being known as the folks who jailed hundreds of weeping members of the community.


From the Vault: September 3, 2002

Back in 1995, the principal at John Kelley School in Thermal, California, hired as a full-time teacher someone who was merely inquiring about a substitute teaching job. The candidate had a doctorate and was fluent in Spanish, but lacked a California teaching credential. He applied for and received an emergency credential and for the next two years taught math and science full-time while working on his credential after school. In 1997, now teaching social studies, language arts and PE, he was selected as Teacher of the Year by the Coachella Valley Unified School District. He didn’t receive his credential until 1998.

This teacher went on to be honored at the White House, the NEA Representative Assembly, and dozens of other venues as the 2002 National Teacher of the Year: Chauncey Veatch.