One difference between Playin’ Jazz and Policy Research: Comments on the Third Way “Middle Class” Reply

Posted on September 22, 2011



Occasionally on this blog, I slip in some jazz references. I often see commonalities between jazz improvisation and policy analysis. But I think I’ve finally found one thing that is very different.

A lot of jazz teachers will joke around with students about what to do when you’re improvising a solo over chord changes, perhaps to a standard tune, and you happen to land unintentionally on a dissonant note.  Somethin’ with a really sour sound!  The usual advice is if you hit such a note, play it even louder a few more times! Make it sound intentional. Of course, you eventually want to resolve the dissonance, not end on it. But work it until then.

Well, I’m not sure that this principle applies well to policy research. Here’s why. I just completed a review of a report by Third Way, a think tank I’d never heard of previously. Third Way released a report on what it called “Middle Class” schools, and argued that these schools aren’t making the grade. Methodologically, this report was about the most god-awful thing I’ve ever had to read.  Here is the abstract of my review:

Incomplete: How Middle Class Schools Aren’t Making the Grade is a new report from Third Way, a Washington, D.C.-based policy think tank. The report aims to convince parents, taxpayers and policymakers that they should be as concerned about middle-class schools not making the grade as they are about the failures of the nation’s large, poor, urban school districts. But, the report suffers from egregious methodological flaws invalidating nearly every bold conclusion drawn by its authors. First, the report classifies as middle class any school or district where the share of children qualifying for free or reduced-priced lunch falls between 25% and 75%. Seemingly unknown to the authors, this classification includes as middle class some of the poorest urban centers in the country, such as Detroit and Philadelphia. But, even setting aside the crude classification of middle class, none of the report’s major conclusions are actually supported by the data tables provided. The report concludes, for instance, that middle-class schools perform much less well than the general public, parents and taxpayers believe they do. But, the tables throughout the report invariably show that the schools they classify as “middle class” fall precisely where one would expect them to—in the middle—between higher- and lower-income schools.

http://nepc.colorado.edu/thinktank/review-middle-class

In short, the layers of problems with the report were baffling. Among those layers of problems was a truly absurd definition of “middle class” schools, which, when I went to some of the data sources cited in order to evaluate the membership of “middle class” schools, I found school districts including Detroit, Philadelphia and numerous other large poor urban centers. Yet, throughout, the authors suggested that they were characterizing stereotypical “middle class” schools.

So, here’s the fun part. In response to my critique, did the Third Way authors consider at all the possibility that they had not done a very methodologically strong report? That their definition of “middle class” districts might have a few problems? Hell no. What did they do with that dissonant note! They took the advice of jazz instructors, and decided to defend that note, and play it loudly a few more times!

In their own words:

Let us be clear: Our decision to use this criteria was a deliberate choice, grounded in established procedures and data. http://perspectives.thirdway.org/?p=1173

But really. Let’s be more clear. While you might claim to have played this sour note deliberately, or might be trying to convince us as much, it just doesn’t cut it in policy research. Maybe sometimes it doesn’t really work in Jazz that well either. I don’t really like to see people in the front row cringe while I’m playin’ or encourage them to cringe a few more times before I provide them relief.

Please, don’t make me cringe anymore by defending indefensible criteria and shoddy analyses.  It’s time to go back to the woodshed. Go home. Do some practicing. Learn the tunes. Learn the changes. It takes time and discipline and we all play those dissonant notes some time.  I’ve certainly played my share over time. Sometimes we make em’ work. A lot of the time it can’t be done. Perhaps in this way, the discipline of good policy analysis and the discipline of solid jazz improv are quite similar.

A related parable from Jazz history: http://www.guardian.co.uk/music/2011/jun/17/charlie-parker-cymbal-thrown

Oh, and a few more comments. The “middle class” definition issue is but one of many egregious flaws in the report. Among other things, the authors repeatedly refer to quartiles which are not in fact quartiles. The authors make repeated claims inferring that today’s middle class schools are only getting ¼ graduates through college by age 26, but a little detective work shows that this assumption is actually cited back to a source using data on the high school class of 1992 (20 freakin’ years ago). The report confuses individuals from middle class families with students who attended schools that, on average, are middle class (not the same). Finally, the report constantly notes that middle class schools do not meet expectations, while providing tables showing that the middle class students, on average, perform where? In the middle. Right where expected!