We’re All Mad Here

“Who in the world am I? Ah, that’s the great puzzle.”

Philanthropists Laura and John Arnold recently pledged $10 million to help Head Start centers caught up in the government shutdown – so they could stay open, operating, and serving low-income youngsters.  In education this gesture, of course, makes you a bad person. Education activist Diane Ravitch went after the Arnolds on her blog saying that John Arnold,

Arnold was an Enron trader who left with $3 billion before the Enron scam collapsed, destroying the pensions of everyone who worked there. Other Enron executives went to jail, but Arnold got out before the collapse and is now using his fortune to advance privatization of public schools and to attack pensions of public sector employees nationally.

In fact, his biggest bonus at Enron was $8 million and while he certainly didn’t get poor working there, he made most of his money (billions) through the hedge fund he subsequently founded with that money.  He was a very data-driven and good energy trader, to put it mildly. And while some executives at Enron obviously deserved to go to jail, like most of the company’s employees Arnold was never even accused of wrongdoing and he was never part of senior management.  Here’s a solid and sober look at the Arnold’s giving strategy from the WSJ.  And here are their principles for retirement sustainability (pdf), which are hardly draconian and are a sensible call to get in front of this issue before retirees are hurt by the collapse of unsustainable systems (Bellwether’s work on educator retirement issues is funded in part by the Arnold Foundation).

I thought of this approach to discussing the issues while reading a Slate article last week by a Tulane professor who won’t recommend her students for Teach For America and urges her colleagues to do the same.  Other than the usual tortured look at the research on TFA she writes that,

Every year, TFA installs thousands of unprepared 22-year-olds, the majority of whom are from economically and culturally privileged backgrounds, into disadvantaged public schools.

TFA has its challenges with diversity – as does pretty much every organization in the educator sector whether it’s a teachers union or a reform organization or something in between – but there are also some facts here.  The TFA Corps is 62 percent white, 23 percent of corps members are first in family to attend college and 35 percent are Pell Grant recipients. Regardless of your views on TFA overall, we should be able to agree those are noteworthy numbers in the context of higher education graduates as well as in the context of TFA’s selectivity and outcomes.  Want to know an example of an institution that is not as diverse?  Here’s one…Tulane.  13 percent of students there are Pell Grant recipients, more are white, and one in five are not first in family college-going.

The point here is not that TFA has it all figured out – they don’t. Nor that the Arnold’s are above criticism. It’s simply that the education debate has become so unhinged from reality and context that it’s hard to figure out what people are really arguing for anyway.  The casual approach to the facts coupled with the venom makes for good political theater but an entirely unproductive conversation.

“You would have to be half mad to dream me up.” Indeed.

11 thoughts on “We’re All Mad Here

  1. LewArcher

    The highlights from the AEI link:

    Rolling Stone – my subscription to which lapsed in the 11th grade – has a long and conspiratorial article by Matt Taibbi arguing that funding problems for public employee pensions – as well as the drive to reform these plans – are intimately connected with public plans’ growing holdings of “alternative investments,” namely hedge funds and private equity.

    Taibbi’s article is apparently intended for the (presumably small) intersection of readers who both are interested in pension financing yet also drawn to Taibbi’s use of the F-word (edgy!) and his juvenile insults, such as referring to think tank-funder John Arnold as “a lipless, eager little jerk with the jug-eared face of a Division III women’s basketball coach,” and Curt Schilling as a “Christ-humping ex-Red Sox pitcher.”

  2. PhillipMarlowe

    So, according to Eduwonk, it is wrong when Diane Ravitch (top of NYT best sellers, btw) does it, but it is OK for him and The Soup Lady to do it to teachers and their union when they accuse them of protecting teachers who are accused of abusing child.

    Classy.
    Is this the ethics taught at Arlington County elementary schools?

  3. PhillipMarlowe

    Interesting fact for the day? Did you know that Pre-K is 1412% more effective than Teach For America? This and other interesting information and research about TFA will be released soon in the new 2013 NEPC TFA brief. For the 2010 NEPC TFA brief see the post Teach For America: A review of the evidence (The research that TFA loves to hate…)

  4. Bill Jones

    IF one wishes to be called a skilled trader and very smart, then there is NO EXCUSE in working for ENRON and having taken money at the expense of employees and gullible investors.

    THe Nuremberg trials certainly made THAT distinction.

  5. Bill Jones

    The point here is not that TFA has it all figured out – they don’t. Nor that the Arnold’s are above criticism. It’s simply that the education debate has become so unhinged from reality and context that it’s hard to figure out what people are really arguing for anyway. The casual approach to the facts coupled with the venom makes for good political theater but an entirely unproductive conversation.

    The condescension of that paragraph is unimaginable. I would like to turn you lose in a physics lab where people of value could intellectually humble your for your dishonest and malicious puffery.

  6. Bill Jones

    The entire education policy body of knowledge (nonsense) operates in a world unknown to honest intellectuals. Our disciplines force a BRUTAL, HUMBLING reality upon our intellectual endeavors. We are HUMBLED daily. We find our mistakes often with no soft landing and no weasel words. Our wrong hypotheses are crammed down our throats, and we are peer reviewed until we lie lifeless on the floor. My wife is a research meteorologist and when her articles are reviewed there are no holds barred. One reviewer said that some of her conclusions were filled with weasel words much akin to education policy and economics.

    In education policy circles, blatant, malicious mistakes are called innovation. It is a mutual admiration society with NO SELF POLICING MECHANISM. It is the most refined corruption of the human intellectual process to date. It is a threat to honest intellectual endeavour and threatens our very existence.

    IF we taught physics and practiced it in the same manner as education policy, THE HUMAN RACE WOULD BE EXTINCT.

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