Category Archives: Communications

Don’t sacrifice the truth about charter schools in order to be agreeable

The New York Times just wrote a positive editorial about charter schools.

The editorial opened with this sentence [emphasis mine]:

“New York City is one of the rare places in the country where charter schools generally have made good on the promise to outperform conventional public schools in exchange for flexibility from the state that lets them lengthen the school day, alter the curriculum, do away with tenure and change how teachers are compensated.”

As a reminder, here’s the average effect of urban charter schools – from a study by the same researchers that the New York Times linked to in the above lead!

Screen Shot 2017-06-15 at 8.51.23 AM

So why did the New York Times write such a factually incorrect lead?

I think they probably did it to disarm those who might oppose them. By saying that most charter sectors have failed, they are aligning themselves with those suspicious of charter schools, which perhaps increases their ability to influence those on the fence.

This is a bad tactic. And it’s a habit I’ve been trying to kick: I too sometimes publicly hedge on the actual facts in order to relate to an audience.

This type of hedging is doubly dangerous.

First, it prizes short-term affiliation over the truth, which will eventually reduce your credibility when people find out what you really believe.

Second, you risk starting to believe yourself. It’s very difficult to maintain thoughtful and evidence driven policies under the best of circumstances. If you consistently say things you don’t really believe, you’ll soon forget what you really believe.

Here’s a better tactic: be expressive about values while you’re being direct about your beliefs.

Constantly talk about why you care about children, poverty, and the future of our country – at the same time you defend policies (like charter schools) that are controversial but impactful.

It’s good practice to expand the tent through shared values.

But don’t trade the truth for agreeableness.

It’s dishonest and counterproductive.

Where is all the good information?

Reflections on information seeking post Trump:

Where Good Information is Fleeing 

Twitter: Twitter has lost 10 IQ points since Trump’s election. I’m not sure that this is a bad thing; it’s just that calling out asinine political behavior doesn’t take that much intelligence. Given that people should be calling out Trump’s bad behavior – and that Twitter is a good place to call people out – the fact that Twitter has gotten worse just seems to be an unfortunate byproduct of Trump’s election. But, while Anti-Trump Twitter might be reasonable, it’s not particularly interesting. So I’m on Twitter much less now.

Short Blog Posts: I see less and less good information happening when smart people write 1-2 pithy paragraphs about complex subjects. I just don’t learn as much. Moreover, whenever these people write on issues I know a lot about, I see how grossly they err, which makes me trust their other pieces even less.

Facebook: Basically useless at this point. All I want is friends and cat videos, all I get is 3rd rate political pontification.

Where Good Information is Emerging 

Protests and Actions: Over the past few months, my willingness to march and protest has risen significantly. Given that the immigration marches seem to have had some social and political effect, I lump this into the category of “good information.” I sent good information by participating; moreover, I gain good information by understanding what people really care about and what politicians will listen to.

Long Blog Posts: I’ve been gravitating more and more towards long blog posts: think Stratechery and slatestarcodex. When smart people spend a few weeks thinking about something and then write 1-2K words on it, you very well might learn something. I’ve also tried to shift my blogging toward this direction, with the aim of being more intellectual rigorous in each post.

Work: I’ve tried to engage in more narrow and deeper intellectual explorations at work, with the aim of spending 2-3 months on a topic and going deep on the relevant research and experts. While I think blogs and Twitter are useful for having a broad surface understanding of many issues, I’ve found carving out space to go deep on areas of interest to be hugely beneficial. There is a lot of good information in the best books and research on a given topic.

Mentors: I’m spending more time in coffee / dinners / drinks with the smartest people I know. With best folks, signal to noise ratio is wonderful and I can really pressure ideas through curiosity and debate, rather than through retweets and comments.

In Sum

Trump has turned Twitter and short blog posts into tribal warfare. While there was always some of this on social media, it’s much worse now. Perhaps this is best for the country, perhaps not. But it’s surely not good for information seeking.

Given this, I’m devoting more time to learning through getting out into the world, working more, reading longer blog posts, and spending more time with mentors.

 

What I Learned from Watching Kaya Henderson Lead

kaya

After nearly 10 years working in the district, Kaya Henderson is stepping down from her post as the chancellor of D.C. Public Schools.

___

As the chancellor, Kaya consistently made the case that it is vital that the district thrive and provide a high-quality neighborhood option for students across the city.

As an outsider looking in, I did not agree. In Education Next, I made the case that D.C. should transition to an all charter school system. And, in the Washington Post, I argued that maintaining neighborhood schools in their most exclusionary form would increase historical inequities.

But you can learn a lot from people you disagree with.

And Kaya taught me much about how a superintendent can effectively execute an ambitious agenda.

___

If I had to sum up what I learned from Kaya, it would be this: communicate a clear agenda of apple pie and spinach, and make it clear that getting the apple pie is tied to eating the spinach.

Too often, reform superintendents lead with all spinach: teacher evaluations, school closures, budget cuts, accountability systems, etc.

They say: “the system needs to be fixed.”

Rarely do the put forth a crystal clear vision of what schooling should look like; rarely do they describe the rich educational opportunities that all children deserve.

They give families little to believe in.

___

Kaya consistently put forth a compelling vision of what DCPS could be.

Moreover, even when she had to make incredibly difficult decisions – such as when she closed 10% of schools in the entire city – she tied these decisions to providing broader educational experiences to children.

As the Washington Post detailed:

Henderson’s proposed closures also triggered opposition, but she is widely seen to have handled community relations more deftly than her predecessor, sponsoring a series of public meetings throughout the city and inviting parents and activists to help refine the closure plan.

The savings will be plowed back into schools to improve programming, including into libraries and arts and foreign language offerings, Henderson said, adding that the public will get a detailed view when school-by-school budgets are released in the coming months.

About 140 staff positions will be lost, but given normal attrition through resignations and retirements, Henderson said, “we actually feel like the loss will be minimal.” She said she does not expect any teacher evaluated “effective” to be out of a job.

Most superintendents avoid closing schools, or if they do close schools they do so in a manner that alienates communities.

But Kaya rightfully connected these hard decisions to a better future, and most importantly, she followed through on expanding educational programming.

___

The best superintendents are populists, not technocrats.

They put forth a compelling educational vision that inspires the public.

But populists are not all the same. Some put forth a beautiful vision that is grounded in pragmatism, while others put forth a beautiful vision that is pure fantasy.

Kaya, I think, was a pragmatic populist.

And she taught me that this is likely the most effective way in which to lead a school system.

I don’t think I could every lead a public system as effectively as she did; but if I ever find myself in this position, I will strive to live out the lessons that I learned from her.

Why is this Argument Against Charter Schools so Sticky?

sticky

One of the most common arguments I hear against expanding charter school goes something like this: “charter schools were meant to be laboratories of innovation, but now they’re taking over public schools.”

My response generally goes something like this: “if something is working for poor and minority students, why wouldn’t you want to expand it?”

My response aside, it’s worth considering why this argument against charter schools is so sticky.

Some guesses:

Status Quo Bias: People react negatively to major changes; this seems especially true for public schooling.

Union Support: If you view teachers unions as a major positive force in society, you might be ok with charters serving 10% of students (as a method for increasing innovation), but you might be worried that significantly increasing charter schools would take too big of a toll on union membership.

Inequity: If you believe that charters skim for the highest performing students, you might be worried that increasing charter market share would also increase inequitable practices (of course, if charters hit 100% market share, it would be impossible for them to skim).

Anything else I’m missing?

My guess is that, for your average person, status quo bias is the main rationale.

For people more familiar with education, union membership and inequity are also major reasons.

Moving forward, I may try to proactively raise this issue in my speeches and writings, as it is an argument that generally arises very early in discussion.

Diane Ravitch is Good at Speaking to the Tribe

ravitch

Diane Ravitch had a piece in this week’s NYRB: The Lost Purpose of School Reform.

I found Ravitch’s tone to be subdued and her claims to be relatively measured, especially in comparison to her blog.

For example, on charters, Ravitch writes in the NYRB:

Charter schools have a spotty record; a few charter chains post high test scores, but most charters perform no better—and often much worse—than public schools.

This is an incomplete take: Ravitch does not mention how urban charter schools are consistently outperforming their traditional peers. But her analysis is surely not outlandish, and the tone is professional.

Yet here is Ravitch talking about New Orleans on her blog:

…yet the media continue to spout the same claims from the advocates of privatization: wipe out public education, fire all the teachers, welcome privately managed charters, staff the schools with Teach for America, and–Voila!–everyone succeeds, no child left behind, an excellent education for all children! The actions are true: the public schools were closed, the teachers were fired, the charters sprouted in every part of New Orleans. But the results didn’t happen. New Orleans is today one of the lowest performing districts in the state. We leave it to students of mass psychology and the media to explain why the national media falls for the narrative repeatedly. Maybe because it is a good story, even if it is not true. Maybe they want to believe in miracles.

Not exactly the most nuanced take.

Clearly, Ravitch knows she is speaking to different audiences when she writes for the NYRB and when she writes on her blog.

When writing in the NYRB, she uses historical and policy analysis to speak to the left’s elite.

When writing on her blog, she uses hyperbole to speak to her base.

Ravitch’s ability to speak to the tribe is one of the many reasons that she is a skilled communicator.

Speak to the Tribe

birds

I just read this Mark Suster post on PR, which I got me thinking about the subject.

Here’s some additional advice that, I think, especially applies to public sector work:

1. Public Sector Communication is Mostly About Overcoming Tribal Affiliation, Not Information Gaps

If you are correct on the merits, and you are trying to convince someone who disagrees with you, it’s best to assume that this disagreement stems from tribal affiliation rather than data. Why? Because that’s how humans work, especially with regards to politics. People listen to your message as members of tribes, and if someone doesn’t agree with you it’s likely in part because their tribe doesn’t agree with you.

2. The Best Way to Overcome Tribal Affiliation is to Tell Stories in Their Tribe’s Language

Basically, you’re trying to convince people that you’re really part of their tribe, even if it might appear to them that you’re not. The best way to do this is to tell stories in their language. Politically speaking, if you’re talking to conservatives talk about the continuation of our country’s history; if you’re talking to liberals talk about fighting for the oppressed; if you’re talking to libertarians talk about freedom. The hard part about this is you have to be authentic: you have to tell your story in their language in a way that rings true, and, substantively speaking, is true.

3. When in Doubt, Use the Story -> Data -> Story Method

Start with a story, then deliver the data (simply!), then end with a story. To the extent the people in the audience care about the data, you will have given it to them. To the extent the people in the audience are like most people in most audiences, you’ll have at least told two stories in their language.

None to the is very novel, but I’m amazed at how tone deaf people are when they are speaking to tribes that aren’t their own. Pay attention to this stuff!