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Palko’s on a roll

I just wanted to interrupt our scheduled stream of posts to link to a bunch of recent material from Mark Palko:

At least we can all agree that ad hominem and overly general attacks are bad: A savvy critique of the way in which opposition of any sort can be dismissed as “ad hominem” attacks. As a frequent critic (and subject of criticism), I agree with Palko that this sort of dismissal is a bad thing.

Wondering where the numbers come from — Rotten Tomatoes: These numbers really are rotten. Palko writes:

This figure indicates a “Good” rating. How does that translate to “Rotten”? . . . this is pretty clearly a glitch and it’s a glitch in the easy part of review aggregation . . . This brings up one of my [Palko’s] problems with data-driven journalism. Reporters and bloggers are constantly barraging us with graphs and analyses and of course, narratives looking at things like Rotten Tomatoes rankings. All to often, though, their process starts with the data as given. They spend remarkably little time asking where the data came from or whether it’s worth bothering with.

I’ll just throw in the positive message that criticism can improve the numbers. After seeing this post, maybe the people at the website in question will be motivated to clean their data a bit.

Shifting alliances:

The education reform movement has never lent itself to the standard left/right axis. Not only was its support bipartisan; it was often the supporters on the left who were quickest to embrace privatization, deregulation and market-based solutions. Zephyr Teachout may be a sign that anomaly is ending.

I’d also be interested in seeing poll data on this (if it’s possible to get good data, given the low salience of this issue for many voters). My guess is that, even if many leaders on the left were supportive of privatization, etc., that these were not so popular among rank-and-file, lower-income left-leaning voters.

In any case, I’m fascinated by this topic for several reasons, including its inherent importance and the compelling stories of various education-reform scams and scandals (well relayed by Palko over the past few years). Also, from a political-sciene perspective, I’ve always been interested in issues that don’t line up with the usual partisan divide.

Driverless Cars and Uneasy Riders: Dramatic claims are being made about the potential fuel and economic-efficiency gains from the use of driverless cars. Palko (and I) are skeptical.

Another story that needs to be on our radar — ECOT: Yet another education reform scam that should be a scandal. Eternal vigilance etc.

I know I go on about ignoring Canada’s education system: Palko links to, and criticizes, a report that’s so bad in so many dimensions that it probably deserves its own post here or at the Monkey Cage.

Selection effects on steroids: I’m not such a fan of the expression “on steroids”—to me it’s a bit of journalism cliche that should’ve died along with the 80s—but the statistical, and policy, point is important. Selection bias is one of these things that we statisticians have known about and talked about forever, but even so we probably don’t talk about it enough. As a researcher and as a teacher, I feel the challenge is to go beyond criticism and move to adjustment. But criticism is often a necessary first step.

Support your local journalists: Yup.

I know I pick on Netflix a lot: “the way flacks and hacks force real stories into standard narratives”

The essential distinction between charter schools and charter school chains:

The charter school sector is highly diverse. It ranges from literal mom and pop operations to nation-wide corporations. The best of these schools get good results, genuinely care about their students and can fill an important educational niche. The worst aggressively cook data to conceal mediocre results and gouge the taxpayers.

If current trends hold, I think charter schools will be nearly as diverse and I’m not optimistic about who the winners will be.

As Steven Levitt would say, incentives matter.


  1. Steve Sailer says:

    The biggest chain of charter schools in America is the 140 or so run by the Gulen cult of Turkey out of Iman Gulen’s fortified compound in the Poconos where the CIA gave him exile in case his shadowy followers back home, who now dominate the police and the test prep business, ever succeed in overthrowing the government of Turkey. Of course, the Gulen charter schools won’t admit they are a chain. Yeah, I know this sounds like I’m making it up, but I’m not:

    As this example suggests, charter schools offer amazing moneymaking opportunities for people adept at byzantine machinations.

  2. Steve Sailer says:

    “I’m not such a fan of the expression “on steroids”—to me it’s a bit of journalism cliche that should’ve died along with the 80s”

    It should be remembered constantly, especially in regard to the complete failure of Bill James, Nate Silver, Michael Lewis, and most other proponents of advanced baseball statistics to publicly notice what was inflating baseball statistics back when most of the sluggers were On Steroids.

  3. Clyde Schechter says:

    Look, it is a generic principle that when government money is dispensed, there needs to be adequate auditing and controls over what is provided in return. Failure to do that is to invite failure. The scam here is that many states have basically allowed predatory firms in to set up chain charter schools with no oversight of how the money is spent, nor of the educational accomplishments. This would be considered criminal in any other context, and should be in this context too, indeed, even more so. The issue here is not the general validity of the claims of the education reform movement. The issue is one of proper governance and reflects the current headlong rush to deregulate everything and open up the public fisc to the worst predators society can come up with.

    • Steve Sailer says:

      Even if all the rules are being followed, handing giant facilities over to private operators without compensation is crazy.

      For example, the Birmingham Community Charter High School in the central San Fernando Valley has an 80 acre campus that is probably worth around $100 million in land alone, not counting the buildings. It went charter in a dispute over who gets to keep the considerable fees from all the movie and TV filming done on the campus: the charter school has two full time employees who do nothing but interface with film crews.

      The Gulen cultists from Turkey take in over a half billion dollars per year in U.S. taxpayer money to run over 100 charter schools in the U.S. Why do they come 5,000 miles? Even if they aren’t just plain old skimming, they have some lucrative reasons that I outlined here:

  4. Rahul says:

    Why the skepticism about driverless cars & Netflix?

    • Mark Palko says:

      I can’t speak for Andrew, but…

      1. Based on conversations I’ve had with engineers in the field, autonomous vehicle technology will be big but the picture of the future we get from tech reporters is overly optimistic in terms of reduction of congestion and fuel consumption (many of the numbers we hear seem to be upper bounds). More importantly, many of the scenarios we read about assume additional infrastructure such as dedicated lanes and a very high level of adoption in an unrealistically short period of time.

      2. With Netflix, the issue is less the company and more about the way that the press has converged on a narrative even when that narrative runs contrary to the facts. For example, many reporters apparently believe that Netflix owns “House of Cards” in the same sense that HBO owns “Game of Thrones.” We can go back and forth as to rather Netflix has a reasonable PE ratio, but it’s difficult to argue that the reporting hasn’t been highly selective and often just wrong.

      Here are some pertinent details

  5. Richard Penny says:

    One thing I have found when acessing Mark Palko’s blog at work is periodically access is blocked. For example, I could read it this moprning, but can’t now. The reason given is summarised as “Real-Time Hate”. He must be seriously annoying some part of the population.

  6. Rahul says:

    Regarding Charter Schools is the take home message Charter School Chains = Bad & the rest = good?

    • Mark Palko says:

      More that bad regulation + bad statistics + bad journalism = bad policy. There are huge incentives to cook data and no serious penalties either financial or reputational. These cooking methods are not only scalable; they actually work better the more students and schools you have. Add to that the fact that revenue is proportional to size and that the journalists covering education seldom understand concepts like selection effects, censoring, survivor bias and partitioning (think Simpson’s paradox), it’s not surprising the major chains all engage in this behavior to some degree.

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