Monday, July 19, 2010

Either side of the fence is fine...

I'm a bit confused.

In this post Rep. Tim O'Brien went on a tirade against Wall Street and said, among other things, that we should be refocusing our spending on creating manufacturing jobs. I called him out in my last post for some of the deceptive tactics used in the graphic he selected as well as problems in his argument. But at least Mr. O'Brien was taking a stand on the issue. In his response to my last post he said

"[T]he loss of our manufacturing sector to a paper economy is the cause of our current economic troubles ... the sooner the policy-makers of our nation start acting on this truth, the sooner our country will be back on the right track economically."
Personally I disagree with his conclusion. Our GDP has continually grown from 1959 till today and we are by far the world leader.

But at least he has taken a stance!

At least that was until July 1, 2010 when he made this post. In which he calls for the state to spend the recently accrued budget surplus. Given his previous statements that the policy makers of our country have to spend change focus to manufacturing I expected he would have wanted the money to go to some type of plan to bring manufacturing back to Connecticut. However, he decided that now we need to focus on the service economy of education. He argues that "years of neglect by City Hall" (hopefully he's including his pals Michael Trueworthy, Phil Sherwood, and the democratic super-majority in that bunch) "left the local schools under already tenuous conditions."

Now the fact that O'Brien wants to put a focus on education is admirable, but what does that say about his previous position? Was he just beating up on Wall Street because they are the popular punching bag at the moment? It is not like we weren't aware of a surplus on June 2nd when he made his post decrying Wall Street. It just carries an air of political opportunism, saying what the crowd wants to hear, that bothers me. Maybe this Fall we can finally get a State Representative who will stand by his statements, even if they may be unpopular. I am an optimist enough to believe that we can.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

More games by O'Brien

Back during the Mayoral election I pointed out that O'Brien liked to play games with numbers. This included selectively creating graphs to make it appear that his point is valid while leaving out the rest of the information to give you a really accurate pictures. Well in a recent rant against Wall Street O'Brien is employing a new tactic. That is flooding a graph with additional information to obscure the overall picture.

In talking about the fact that Manufacturing as a percentage of GDP O'Brien notes that manufacturing has dropped from being over 25% of GDP to just under 13% of GDP since 1947. He notes that in the same time frame the financial sector went from around 10% to around 20%. He even includes a nice graph.

I don't know if O'Brien added the text to the graph, but if he did he is deliberately being misleading (and if he didn't he wasn't studious enough to review the graphic before using it.)

Here are a few problems, first what they call "Financial Sector" in the large text is actually listed in the legend of the graph as "Finance, insurance, real estate, rental, and leasing. It is FAR MORE than just the finance department. Also, the text at the bottom says "Most sectors stayed nearly the same" and this is a total lie. The problem with this graph is that it places a lot of lines at the bottom close together and while some of the lines do remain close to the same there are other lines that grow almost as much as the "Finance" line, namely Professional and Business Services and Educational services, Healthcare, and Social Assistance. And at the same time you also notice large decreases in agriculture and mining.

In fact - when you clear up the "noise" the graph looks completely different.

Why does someone do things like this? Because they can't make their argument without misleading people. Yes, far less of our GDP is made in manufacturing, but it still accounts for the third highest part of our economy. In fact, this chart had to lump Finance, Insurance, Real Estate, Rental, and Leasing all together in order to make it appear to contribute more to the economy. If O'Brien wants to make the case that we need to refocus our economy or that we should distrust Wall Street that is fine, but by using this graphic his intent is now to mislead people - and that is unforgivable.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

A bone to pick...

At the last Common Council meeting Phil Sherwood, during his 10 minute monologue, said one thing that made me physically laugh out loud. I tried to control myself, but I couldn't. It was a terrible breech of decorum, but in the face of such an ignorant statement I was unable to contain my laughter of shock and disgust. What had me simultaneously amused and upset? It was when Phil Sherwood said "and we all know that smaller class sizes improve student performance."

This bit of 'common wisdom' is one that people like to throw around constantly. It is assumed by a great deal of teacher and an even greater number of administrators and even more members of the public that the answer is simply to cut class sizes and our students will succeed. Teacher unions, for one, love this notion. The smaller you require class sizes to be the greater numbers of teachers you need. Administrators and politicians love this notions because it always gives them an easy educational scapegoat. In their minds if they don't have the money or  facilities to have smaller class sizes then they can be absolved of all blame.

There is one unfortunate problem with these assertions, and that is they are wrong. Much of the media buzz promoting strong connections between class size and student performance came out of the Project STAR report which was the findings of an experiment in Tennessee. There were a few problems with Project STAR. First, the students were assigned randomly, but no pre-instruction data was collected. That means that there is no way to tell if any student actually improved more in a smaller class size than they did in a larger class size. Second, the results of ProjectSTAR only showed modest gains among K-1 students. Other students showed no significant gains in performance. Third, the study is almost 30 years old and many of their conclusions have been repeatedly contradicted by further more modern research. Finally, the benefit of smaller class sizes only occurred when classes were reduced from 22-25 to fewer than 17 students in a classroom.

Since Project STAR several other research studies have been performed and published. Some show a modest gain in student performance in primary schools, some show no gains at all, some show that the gains are not persistent, other show that the gains are lifelong. In short, there is no conclusive evidence that classroom size reductions will have any measurable affect on student performance.

Cost vs. Reward
When we begin to look at making policy we have to look at the best way to spend our tax dollars. What Phil Sherwood is advocating for is putting all of our money into teacher jobs when it could be much better spent. Allow me to make a brief example. In order to reduce 4 classrooms of 25 students to 5 classrooms of 20 students you need the following: an extra teacher, a physical space, certain supplies such as a teacher desk, classroom library, big books, blackboard or SMART board, overhead projector, electricity and heating for that new room, carpets, bookshelves, etc. A conservative estimate would be that if you assumed a starting teacher that room would cost you $50-60k.

What could we do with $50-60k to better serve our students? One answer, informed by research, is professional development. Numerous studies have now shown that having highly trained and motivated teachers is far more important than small classroom sizes. Imagine the type of training you could have for a group of 4 teachers for $10k each, and you'd still be saving money. Teachers could be well versed on the latest educational techniques and trained in specific strategies to allow them to deliver effective content to their students. These types of changes in teacher training would allow our teachers to become some of the most quality educators in the practice.

Quality vs. Quantity
The negative side effect of having smaller classrooms, in addition to the cost, is the effect on teacher quality. All studies that have advocated for smaller classrooms assume equitable teacher quality. However, when you have to employ 400 teachers instead of 300 you can no longer be as picky. Furthermore, with greater numbers of teachers you can no longer oversee and review them with the same level of scrutiny and support. When an administrator has to review and oversee 40 teachers in a building instead of 30 then less time can be devoted to each educator.

The short of it
Phil Sherwood may have made this comment off the cuff, but he's made this assertion several times and it shows that he does not know what he is talking about. As someone who follows educational research closely as a matter of professional interest I find it insulting when people assert facts about which they know nothing. I hope that next year when the Board of Education and the Common Council come up for election we elect a slate of officials who actually do a bit of research to inform their policy decisions.