Saturday, November 30, 2013

Sorry, No, Pseudo-Conscription is Still a Bad Idea

Dana Milbank has jumped onto the bandwagon of those who think that the cure for "kids these days" is some form of conscription.
As I make my rounds each day in the capital, chronicling our leaders’ plentiful foibles, failings, screw-ups, inanities, outrages and overall dysfunction, I’m often asked if there’s anything that could clean up the mess....

But one change, over time, could reverse the problems that have built up over the past few decades: We should mandate military service for all Americans, men and women alike, when they turn 18. The idea is radical, unlikely and impractical — but it just might work.
But, even if we incorrectly assumed that the military wanted universal conscription, it's not even slightly realistic to have every 18-year-old serve in the military. While Milbank refers to Switzerland, in which "sons of bankers and farmers alike do basic training for several months and then are recalled to service for brief periods", none of the proponents of conscription are suggesting a similar approach. They instead prefer a period of a year or several years in which the young person is forced to participate in some sort of nebulous national work program that may (but probably won't) involve military service.

What we would end up with, at best, is what Milbank describes later in his editorial, based on his notion that "the structure is less important than the service itself",
My former colleague Tom Ricks proposes bringing back the draft in the United States but allowing for a civilian national service option — teaching, providing day care and the like — for those who don’t want to join the military.
Ricks' proposal was bad, as well, but at least he attempted to explain how it might function. The notion is that we are going to fix the nation's problems my making people take people away from their academic studies or jobs for a year or two, and compelling them to work in daycare centers or equivalent vocations? Seriously? And note the disdain for teaching as a profession - it's presented as something a random high school graduate can do, and roughly equivalent to working in a daycare center.

Milbank agrees with my past assessment that the cost of such a program would be huge. "Staggering" might be a better word. But he insists,
But so would the benefits: overcoming growing social inequality without redistributing wealth; making future leaders, unlike today’s “chicken hawks,” disinclined to send troops into combat without good reason; putting young Americans to work and giving them job and technology skills; and, above all, giving these young Americans a shared sense of patriotism and service to the country.
There is little reason to believe that Milbank's draft would overcome growing income inequality. The type of job skills that marginal high school graduates (or drop-outs) could develop through such a program would likely leave them qualified for low-paying jobs. Even for those who serve in the military, if you consider the difficulty that many veterans presently have finding employment, why does Milbank believe that those who are conscripted and serve for less time will fare better?

Without redistributing wealth? Sorry, but a program that takes a "huge" amount of government revenue and applies it to a year or two of national service would certainly be "redistributing wealth". There's also more than money at stake. For 18-year-olds who plan to attend college, you're delaying their entry into the workforce by at least a year (assuming the program is only a year long). For 18-year-olds who are employed, you're costing them their jobs. For 17-year-olds who would otherwise have job prospects, you're ensuring that employers won't consider them for anything more than temporary positions. That is, there's a tremendous opportunity cost imposed on the young people who are conscripted into the program - perhaps not wealth redistribution in the classic sense, but nonetheless imposing a genuine financial harm on those drafted into the program.

I'm not clear on why Milbank believes that this service, even if we pretend it could all be military service, will result in fewer military mobilizations. Milbank references "chicken hawks", the term applied to people like Dick Cheney who fastidiously avoided service during their youth but had no compunction about entangling the U.S. in wars. But where's the evidence that veterans, once in office, are any less hawkish than non-veterans? Veterans got us into the Korean War and Vietnam War, the first Iraq War, and any number of lesser conflicts. John McCain is a veteran, yet he's one of the most hawkish members of the Senate.

As for "putting young Americans to work and giving them job and technology skills", how would that work? Yes, the military involves a lot of job and technology skills, but often not the sort of skills that fit well with the modern civilian workplace. It's not clear how many of Milbank's conscripts would achieve similar skill sets, as their terms of service would be shorter. Beyond that, Milbank mentions... teaching and daycare. A young adult can already work in a daycare center straight out of high school, and in some cases before they even graduate. While it might be possible to create a small, focused program that allowed high school graduates to develop cutting edge skills, the sort of blunderbuss approach Milbank favors all-but-ensures that most participants will gain very few skills that would benefit them in a subsequent job, save perhaps at the bottom end of the job market.

Oh yes, and "above all", giving "young Americans a shared sense of patriotism and service to the country". I can't help but think of my uncle who, unlike many of the chicken hawks to whom Milbank alludes, insisted upon joining the military and upon combat duty despite a physical condition that would have allowed him to either avoid service or bide his time behind a desk. If anything, his patriotism was bated by his experiences, and the schisms within his unit made it anything but the sort of happy melting pot that Milbank seems to envision. Milbank's vision seems oddly in line with what you see in Vietnam, where conscripts may find themselves in a civilian uniform, working behind the front desk of an army-owned hotel... or cleaning the rooms. But there's little reason to believe that conscripts assigned to random, menial employment would feel much of a connection with those outside of the daycare center where they work, or that those who obtained more prestigious assignments or ranks would view them as equal. And last I checked, Vietnam's government was not one I envied.

Milbank later adds, "Gun-rights groups would cheer an armed citizenry", but where does that even come from? Milbank cannot seem to maintain a consistent thesis as to whether the conscripts would be performing military service, or whether they would be working in daycare centers. Perhaps he imagines that all conscripts will go through military basic training before being shipped off to work in daycare centers? It's hard to tell what he has in mind.

Milbank notes, "an article published by the libertarian Cato Institute argued that compulsory service 'can be a pillar of freedom,'" but fails to note the inherent tension between "libertarianism" and conscription, or for that matter between freedom and conscription. A libertarian might endorse bringing real meaning to the "unorganized militia", with the government providing broad opportunity for citizens to avail themselves of military training within that context, but let's not pretend that conscription is a libertarian ideal or that a libertarian with his head screwed on correctly would confuse it with "freedom".

I'm not particularly concerned that yet another pundit has endorsed a type of service he personally eschewed as a cure for the nation's ills, although I remain amused by arguments that boil down to, "The best way for young people to develop a set of values similar to my own is by being conscripted into a type of program that I, personally, avoided." There's no chance that universal conscription will become law. However, I do think that much of the hand-wringing about kids these days, and about how to provide better opportunities for young people who have more than their fair share of obstacles to overcome, could be channeled into a voluntary service program, a "bridge year" or two in which participants could be matched with suitable peer groups, and dispatched to communities where they could perform productive work and develop genuine job and leadership skills. But I guess that sort of idea isn't as fun to kick around. Besides, while conscription is something the government would have to impose, for somebody who is positioned to actually generate the necessary money and attention, proposing a "bridge year" program might invite the response, "Great idea, what are you doing to bring it to life?"

Don't Confuse High Stakes Testing With High Expectations

Frank Bruni recently expressed concern, in the usual hackneyed terms, that kids these days are "coddled". Some sports give trophies for participation, or end games early when the difference in score reaches a defined threshold. A middle school near Boston is concerned that kids' feelings might get hurt if they find out that they weren't invited to parties. Some kids get stressed by tests. Bruni complains that "Many kids at all grade levels are Bubble-Wrapped in a culture that praises effort nearly as much as it does accomplishment." As anybody, including Bruni, should know, people like Bruni have been writing this sort of column for generations.

All of Bruni's complaints are to set a context for his criticism of people who object to the high stakes standardized testing model imposed upon the nation's schools. Bruni conflates high stakes standardized tests with "tougher instruction [that should] not be rejected simply because it makes children feel inadequate, and that the impulse to coddle kids not eclipse the imperative to challenge them." While Bruni insists, that Common Core is "a laudable set of guidelines that emphasize analytical thinking over rote memorization", even he admits that "n instances its implementation has been flawed, and its accompanying emphasis on testing certainly warrants debate." Yet here he is, calling those who want to engage in the debate paranoiacs and whiners.
Then there’s the outcry, equally reflective of the times, from adults who assert that kids aren’t enjoying school as much; feel a level of stress that they shouldn’t have to; are being judged too narrowly; and doubt their own mettle.

Aren’t aspects of school supposed to be relatively mirthless? Isn’t stress an acceptable byproduct of reaching higher and digging deeper? Aren’t certain fixed judgments inevitable? And isn’t mettle established through hard work?
I don't mind at all the notion that school should be challenging. But what Bruni is overlooking is how standardized testing has displaced a lot of traditional classroom teaching and learning, or that the insistence that children master skills at earlier ages is not necessarily consistent with the students' cognitive development. After pushing more and more traditional first grade material into kindergarten, we're now hearing proposals to raise the age for kindergarten enrollment. If you end up with a kindergarten full of kids who, under the former system, would largely have been in first grade, what are you actually accomplishing?

Here's something it shouldn't take very long to figure out: When you tell a teacher, "Your ranking as a teacher, your ability to keep your job and the amount you are paid depends on how your students do on a series of standardized tests," the odds are that the teacher is going to devote a great deal of effort and classroom time to improving student performance on the test. Bruni ridicules a parent's complaint that as a result of that sort of focus on testing, his eight year old's class was left with "no room for imagination or play". Does Bruni not understand that children can be challenged academically, yet be encouraged in their imagination? Does Bruni not understand that children need breaks in their lessons during the course of a school day? That children can learn from play activities? It would seem not.

Bruni references David Coleman, "noe of the principal architects of the Common Core" as asserting that he favors self-esteem, but wants to "redefine self-esteem as something achieved through hard work". It's not that self-esteem cannot be derived from hard work, but that's not really what Coleman is talking about. In the schoolyard, self esteem is on the whole negatively correlated with academic performance. Bruni's ridicule of parents who are concerned about their parents feelings is, in a sense, more relevant than Coleman's goal, because Bruni's approach does not involve somehow changing human nature. When Coleman talks about how students "will not enjoy every step of it" but "if it takes them somewhere big and real, they’ll discover a satisfaction that redeems the sweat", he seems to be talking about the end of a very long process. If you don't find a way to let kids learn on an incremental basis that their hard work will be rewarded, you're not going to create an effective learning environment for most kids.

Bruni also references Marc Tucker of the National Center on Education and the Economy, who has stated, "ile American parents are pulling their kids out of tests because the results make the kids feel bad, parents in other countries are looking at the results and asking themselves how they can help their children do better." But that's not the actual issue. Although certain factions of school reformers like to point to nations that obsess over test scores, holding them out as a model for the nation, it's very clear that we don't have the sort of culture that will cause us to follow the lead of South Korea, with kids leaving school to head over to private academies where they spend additional hours being prepped for tests, and we don't really want to follow the lead of nations that produce kids who are very good at taking tests but not much good at thinking outside the margins of a carefully darkened oval.

If you want good public schools, you don't need to do much. You need to make the profession of teaching sufficiently well respected and remunerated that you attract above average students into the profession, you want to make the task of classroom teaching rewarding, and you want parents who will reinforce the need for their kids to attend school, study and do their homework, behave in class, and achieve academically. When you do that you don't need to obsess over test stores - you can use standardized tests in their traditional manner, to assess individual and group performance with an eye toward improvement, and with no need for teachers to "teach to the test" because the goal is to obtain an accurate assessment as opposed to an artificially inflated score that reflects intensive teaching to the test at the expense of a rich classroom experience.

Ah, but high-stakes standardized testing is so much easier for school administrators and politicians, the ones who have positioned themselves to get prizes for "participation" - a large, steady paycheck with no consequences at all for the failure of schools, teachers or students. And it's so much easier to point to a computer-generated list of scores and pretend that you have objectively evaluated a teacher or school than it is to work hard.

Monday, November 25, 2013

How New York City Views the World

I kid Fred Wilson, but I did see an element of the NYC-centered worldview in his comment,
A smartphone can get you a ride but a car can't get you a date.
I think it's safe to say that Mr. Wilson can afford a car that would be very helpful to his dating life, were he not happily married.

But heck, as removed from the singles scene as I am, maybe we are moving into an era where "Hey, babe, check out the productivity apps on my Galaxy" is an effective pickup line.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Reactions to the "Obamacare" Website

I am not particularly sympathetic to the finger-pointing by the contractors, that HHS should have left more time for testing the website before it went live, because they knew that there was a "drop dead" date by which the website had to go live. When I heard one of the contractors testify that their company didn't warn HHS of the need for a longer testing period, ostensibly because it wasn't their job, I had to roll my eyes. If you think it will take a month or two to integrate your work into website, and you know that the integration must be complete and tested inside of two weeks, it's your job to speak up - and to do so as soon as you realize that there's a problem.

I tried to use the website on day one. The site was clearly overwhelmed. My reaction to that? "I'll try again later." Yes, it would have been nice to get through the initial registration and set up an account, and it would have been nice had HHS anticipated the massive number of people who would try out the site when it went live, but this sort of thing happens.

What I didn't anticipate, when I went back to use the site, was an experience that suggested not only that the programmers didn't care about serve load, but that they built elements of the website that seemed to frequently and unnecessarily load the server. Oh, I'm sure lots of stuff is going on in the background, but when you're simply entering your personal information... why? And why so inefficiently? If the website is overwhelmed, it would make more sense to collect the information without doing all of the back-end data crunching and, when the basic information was collected, tell applicants, "It will take approximately X hours to process your application. We will notify you by email when your application has been processed. If you would like a text message, please enter your email address or cell phone number below."

When I went back to the site, I was able to complete the registration process, but received server error messages telling me to log back in later three times over that relatively short process. To the site's credit, I only lost data one time. One minor annoyance was having to enter the same information several times, with no ability to simply click a "same as last time"-type option to pull in the data already entered. Another was with the editing process. You have to enter SSNs for people who will be part of your application. For security reasons, the SSNs are obfuscated, with the last six numbers replaced by asterisks, when you edit the personal information for any person who is part of your application. But if you don't delete those asterisks and re-enter the SSN you will get an error message. That's the sort of inattention to detail that can make a website less pleasant to use - I wonder what percentage of applicants think that the asterisks reflect the website's retention of the data, such that it doesn't have to be re-entered, only to get that error message. If you have to enter the SSN anyway, don't populate the field with asterisks. Leave it blank, perhaps with an explanation, "For security reasons your SSN is not displayed on this page. Please re-enter the number before you proceed."

Another oddity is the navigation of the various steps of the application process. The site displays the steps you must take, and those you have not yet completed, but there's no "click here to continue" type prompt. You have to guess where to click. It's not that it's difficult to guess, but I've heard from a person who I would have thought would have figured it out and he was stymied.

When available plans are displayed, you can compare plans. You can select as many as you want to compare, but the comparison page only shows three plans at a time. The comparison page is decent, with the plan broken down into areas of coverage with subheadings for the elements of coverage within a given area. The problem is, if you choose the option to delete the plan in the first column, those subheadings go away making it e difficult to compare plans. They do not reappear even if you go to the next page of plans selected for comparison - for the subheadings to reappear you need to restart the comparison process.

Finally, when selecting a plan I received a large warning that the plan did not include dental coverage for minors. It did. The problem suggests that the data about each plan and its components is included in redundant fields, as if the plan can properly display the coverage it provides there is no reason why the verification algorithm would get it wrong.

Mistakes like these aren't just indicative of limited testing by HHS. They are indicative of limited testing by the contractors who developed the UI for the website, and more than that they suggest to me that the programmers were largely indifferent to the user experience. The delays in processing data suggest that programmers were largely, perhaps, completely, indifferent to server load.

I used the online chat service to verify that I could rely upon the plan description despite the warning message. Response time was prompt and the person providing support was professional and efficient.

If I were the programmer responsible for any of the problems on this site, I wouldn't be pointing fingers. I would be apologizing and redoubling my efforts to fix it. With Republican demagoguery on the law and now on the website, it's easy to point fingers but really - based upon the types of problems and issues I experienced, the programmers bear the lion's share of responsibility for the problems with the site they programmed.

If you want to browse basic pricing information for the sites included in, but don't want to register yet, unofficial information is available courtesy of Stephen P. Morse.

Monday, November 11, 2013

A Fourth Year of Law School?

Cardozo Law Professor Edward Zelinsky is taking some well-deserved ribbing for his suggestion that law school should be expanded to a four year program. Critics of his piece have noted the tension between his argument that law school should be longer and should be more affordable,
The most serious argument against a fourth year of law school is the additional cost it would entail. Legal education is already too expensive. Adding a fourth year would impart even greater urgency to task of controlling the expense of law school, just as there is currently great urgency to the task of controlling the costs of undergraduate education.
As if it makes sense to increase the cost and duration of law school by a third, and only then address the urgent need to make law school more affordable. But I also take issue with this claim,
An ancillary benefit of a fourth year of legal education would, in the short run, be a reduction in the supply of law school graduates.
Let's say that starting in 2014, every new law school student were enrolled in a four-year program instead of a three-year program. In 2017, very few law school students would graduate. In 2018, assuming prospective law school students didn't turn away from the additional burden in droves, the market would return to "business as usual". So there would be a whopping single year in which a shortage of law school graduates would significantly affect the legal job market, which may help lawyers you graduated a year, perhaps two years before, but would be of little help to anybody who graduated earlier and of no help to anybody who graduates later. Still, not to damn his point with faint praise, it's not the weakest of his arguments.