2005 - %3, November

Emulating Japanese Schools

| Mon Nov. 21, 2005 5:23 PM EST

Brent Staples has an interesting New York Times piece today that looks at one of the hidden strengths of the Japanese educational system—the fact that it actually takes the time to train and develop teachers:

[There is] growing interest in the Japanese teacher-development strategy in which teachers work cooperatively and intensively to improve their methods. This process, known as "lesson study," allows teachers to revise and refine lessons that are then shared with others, sometimes through video and sometimes at conventions. In addition to helping novices, this system builds a publicly accessible body of knowledge about what works in the classroom.

The lesson-study groups focus on refining methods that improve student understanding. In doing so, the groups go step by step, laying out successful strategies for teaching specific lessons. This reflects the Japanese view that successful teaching is the product of intensive teacher development and self-scrutiny. In America, by contrast, novice teachers are often presumed competent on Day One. They have few opportunities in their careers to watch successful colleagues in action. We also tend to believe that educational change would happen overnight - if only we could find the right formula. This often leaves us prey to fads that put schools on the wrong track. This seems so commonsensical that one wonders whether American schools really are so deficient in this regard. A Google search brings up an old Joanne Jacobs post with an excerpt from a subscriber-only Education Week piece that suggests, if I'm reading it right, that American teacher development too often focuses on "generic teaching techniques" rather than more valuable specifics—"what teachers must cover and [how] students think about that content." It goes on: "[R]esearchers also have a hunch that it's important for teachers to engage in learning sessions collectively—maybe with other teachers from the same department or grade—so that they can meet later to reflect on what they learned." Okay, so this probably doesn't go on.

This very short policy brief, meanwhile, points out some of the problems with the Japanese school system, including the oft-heard critique that Japanese schools turn their students into robots and stifles their creativity and individuality. Interestingly, in the 1990s, Japan's Ministry of Education adopted a "loose education" system, which trimmed textbooks, reduced workloads, and gave kids Saturdays off from school. But the country's test scores started slipping and pretty soon parents and teachers were rebelling, putting stricter standards back in place. Rote-intensive learning's making a comeback. So there seem to be serious trade-offs here.

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Base Politics

| Mon Nov. 21, 2005 3:23 PM EST

In Foreign Affairs this month, Alexander Cooley has a good piece on the politics of American basing agreements that's worth a read. He does make the good point that the U.S. often seeks out basing agreements with authoritarian regimes, apparently on the theory that these countries will be more reliable allies from a military standpoint. But in fact, dictatorships can be unreliable, as Uzbekistan showed a few months ago, and Cooley argues that the U.S. is less likely to criticize a non-democratic regime for bad behavior if it has bases there, making reform less likely. (On the other hand, one might argue that, unless the United States has some sort of working relationship with an authoritarian country, whether it be military or economic ties, there's no hope of encouraging any sort of reform in those countries.)

Cooley then argues that democracies are in fact much more reliable footholds for our vast basing empire, and since agreements are negotiated openly, those bases are less likely to aggravate extremists or provoke a backlash. And they're actually more stable, since opposition leaders are less likely to campaign against an American presence negotiated by an authoritarian regime, as is now happening in South Korea. From a strategic standpoint, that's valuable. It's true, bases in democracies get a bad name because Turkey wouldn't let itself be used as an invasion platform in 2003, but that was something of an exception.

So it's an interesting piece, but it's not clear how much this advice applies to the current American basing empire. The Pentagon controls at least 725 military bases in about 130 countries around the world, valued at some $118 billion and employing half a million people. From a foreign policy standpoint, some of the bases seem to serve good purposes, some of them serve dark purposes—the ring of bases in Central Asia certainly have an "it's all about oil (and gas)" feel to them—but most of them seem to exist just to exist, and grow, and expand, as all bureaucracies tend to do. In time they create their own rationale for being there.

And few people have really taken the time to figure out whether this basing madness is all necessary for foreign policy—whether we actually need listening stations and covert operations in every corner of the earth, or whether they just exist for their own sake, because the military and its intelligence agencies are, for lack of a better phrase, addicted to control, addicted to seeking military and intelligence solutions to every problem, addicted to expanding their budgets every year. I certainly don't know. (Donald Rumsfeld seems to believe that the footprint of the empire needs to be reduced, but not its omnipotence.) If that's the case, then democracy, non-democracy, whatever; policymakers won't much care where the bases go, just so long as they're pervasive. Indeed, Cooley's piece seems to be searching for the right basing arrangement to carry out a preferred foreign policy, but it seems just as plausible that the reverse is how things tend to work, and the bases end up driving foreign policy.

Is Withdrawal Inevitable?

| Mon Nov. 21, 2005 1:53 PM EST

Christopher Dickey, who seems to have a good ear for goings-on in the Middle East, has this twist on the debate over when and how the U.S. should withdraw from Iraq. Basically, he says, the United States is no longer in the driver's seat:

So topsy-turvy is the policy at this point that we're not going to imagine leaving until the Iraqi government demands that we go—and you can be sure the Iraqis who are now taking power will do just that. When? As soon as they and their Iranian allies have consolidated their hold on the southern three fourths of the country and its oil. [n.b. And not, as the Pentagon prefers, when a national Iraqi army can take over security.] ...

The Bush administration no longer sets the agenda in Iraq, in fact, and hasn't for at least two years. The watershed came in November 2003 when there was a dramatic spike in U.S. casualties and Washington suddenly scrambled together a policy for transferring sovereignty back to Iraqis instead of pocketing it indefinitely for the Pentagon and the oil companies, as originally intended. The American invasion, which was supposed to be proactive, has led to an occupation that is entirely reactive, and it's clear—or ought to be—that the castles in the air constructed by Wolfowitz and his friends have been blown away by facts on the ground.There's certainly evidence that that's the case. Ahmad Chalabi, who is almost certainly an Iranian ally of some sort—if only a temporary ally—and may well become prime minister in December elections, has already suggested a tentative deadline for withdrawal, telling Congress that 2006 should be a "period of significant transition" for the United States, echoing language in a recent Senate defense bill. Moqtada al-Sadr is uniting Sunni and Shiite radicals in Iraq in support of U.S. withdrawal. The Pentagon even has a plan to do so, if necessary, drawing down to about 80,000 troops by 2006. (On the other hand, maybe Chalabi won't be prime minister after all: polls show that Ibrahim Jaaferi, who seems to want the U.S. to stay, is still pretty popular.)

It's hard to say what the end result would be of a forced drawdown plus the pro-Iranian Shiites "consolidat[ing] their hold on the southern three fourths of the country." Chaos, probably. War, maybe. Ezra Klein argues that if the United States got out in front on this and pre-empted the Shiites by withdrawing before said consolidation happened, it would force Chalabi and his belligerent Shiite allies to play nice with the Sunni insurgency. That's certainly possible. On the other hand, a troop drawdown could just as easily spur each and every Iraqi party to panic, grab whatever gun or armed ally they can find, and make war more, rather than less, likely. Sabrina Tavernise reports today that already "20 cities and towns around Baghdad are segregating" by sect, an ominous sign. Trying to predict how Iraqis will react to our future American actions seems pretty dubious. It's much safer to predict that whenever the troop drawdown comes, it will be conducted no less incompetently than every other aspect of the war so far.

Poll shows people in Britain still believe rape victims "ask for it"

| Mon Nov. 21, 2005 11:07 AM EST

A poll commissioned by Amnesty International reveals that British attitudes toward women who are raped have not changed over several decades. One third of those responding to the poll believe that a woman is "partly or completely responsible" if she is raped after she has been flirtatious or if she is drunk. More than one quarter believe that she is partially responsible if she is wearing sexy or revealing clothing.

It doesn't get better. 20% believe that a woman is partly to blame for her rape if she has had several sexual partners, and more than a third believe she is responsible if she fails to "clearly" say "no." A little over 20% believe that if a woman is walking alone in a deserted area and is raped, she is partly to blame for the crime. Of the 1,095 Britons who took the survey, men were somewhat more inclined to blame women for being raped, except in the case of intoxication. In that case, more women were inclined to blame the victim.

Last year, 85% of rapes in Great Britain went unreported. Most Britons are unaware of the number of women who are raped each year, and in fact, most police are also unaware. 96% of poll respondents said they did not know how many recorded rapes were committed in 2004-2005, or they estimatd the number to be significantly lower than it was (almost 13,000).

There are 43 police forces in England and Wales, and fewer than 10 have dedicated rape investigation teams. The investigations move slowly, and police do not always use forensic kits to gather evidence.

Hispanic post-Katrina workers said to be living in terrible conditions and cheated out of pay

| Sat Nov. 19, 2005 3:13 PM EST

Hispanic workers who went to the Mississippi Gulf Coast to do hurricane recovery work after Katrina report that their employers sometimes disappear without paying them, that they sometimes have to wait a long time for a complex web of contractors to pay them, that their paychecks are sometimes smaller than promised, or that those paychecks never arrive at all.

Though the contractors are violating federal law, many of the workers do not know their rights, and they cannot afford attorneys. Mississippi, for some reason, does not have a department of labor, and nonpayment for work is not classified as a crime in the state. Because they have little or no money, Mississippi's Hispanic immigrant workers are living in tent cities which provide minimal protection from the elements, and now that the weather is getting cold, they are in trouble.

According to state representative Jim Evans, the problem is not a new one in Mississippi--Katrina recovery has just magnified it. Evans wants the state attorney general to enforce laws that are already on the books--it is a crime to commit fraud and a crime to hire someone under false pretenses in Mississippi. Janet Murguia, president and CEO of the National Council of La Raza, the nation's largest Hispanic civil rights group, was in Gulfport Friday, investigating the workers' claims. She was joined by members of the Mississippi Immigrant Rights Alliance.

Day Care Capitalism

| Fri Nov. 18, 2005 10:38 PM EST

One big policy question that comes up now and again is whether the government should subsidize child care to a greater extent than it does—and if so, how? Gary Becker gives us a lecture on the virtues of so-called free markets:

I believe it would be a mistake for the US, Germany, or other countries to emulate the Swedish approach [which subsidizes day care for all working mothers]. For starters, middle class and rich families can pay for their own childcare services for young children, such as preschool programs, whether or not the mothers are working. … It is much more efficient to have better off families buy childcare services in a private competitive market than to spend tax revenue on preschool government-run programs for the children of these families. [But poorer families should get greater day-care subsidies, says Becker.]
Okay, but let's ask why Sweden has a government-run day care system while the United States has a "private competitive market." Because the Swedes love their socialism, and damn the consequences? No, it's because Swedish child-care workers are actually paid more than dirt—a substance that in turn makes more than American child-care workers—and hence, very few Swedes could actually afford day care in the private market. Child care workers make, on average, 66 percent of the median female wage in America; in Sweden it's 102 percent. If American child care workers were ever able to unionize or get paid a decent wage, the "free market" for day care in American would break down completely.

At any rate, my guess is that in the future, child care is going to become more and more unaffordable no matter what country we live in, since it's not an industry that will go through major productivity growth or cost reductions. The price will keep rising of its own accord—no matter how much immigration and American-style capitalism manage to slow wage growth in the sector, they can't stop it. So once child care becomes as unaffordable for the middle classes as it currently is for the lower classes, the government will be forced to step in and offer serious child care subsidies. (At the moment, families below the poverty line pay on average 28 percent of their income for child care; for middle-class families, it's 6.6 percent and rising.) It's inevitable, even in this country. Good, I say.

That won't necessarily mean complete socialism for child care; the government could always offer families vouchers and let them choose their own day care center or whatever, but the vouchers will have to be generous. Another clever innovation is to foster the private "family care" sector—i.e., those stay-at-home mothers taking care of other kids as well—which France has been trying to do in order to rein in public child-care spending. This wouldn't substitute for a publicly-funded child care system, but it could complement it. I'm too lazy to look up the details, though.

Personally, I've always liked ideas that put an actual price on "non-market" activities like informal child care. One nonprofit group, Time Dollar USA, has created "service banks" that allow community members to pay each other in "time dollars" for "volunteer" activities. Say Grandma Nellie looks after your kids each day, and you pay her in time dollars. Then she uses those dollars to get someone to take care of her if she ever gets ill. Or whatever. It's an interesting system, although "professional" social service agencies tend to look down on it, and I think in Florida back in the '80s a pilot program for service banking was looted by a skeptical legislature. But other than that...

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Votes on Withdrawal

| Fri Nov. 18, 2005 7:41 PM EST

Ah, Republicans. So Rep. John Murtha proposes an amendment getting the United States out of Iraq "at the earliest practicable date." The Republican leadership completely rewrites the amendment to declare that the occupation shall "be terminated immediately," and then brings it before the House for a vote, to force the Democrats to take a stand on the war. Except, of course, the GOP rewrite sounds much worse, and Democrats might end up splitting over whether to vote for it or not. Hey, it's a clever stunt. If Hastert and friends spent even half this much energy thinking about the actual mess in Iraq, we might actually get somewhere...

Oh, and this is wrong in so many ways.

Where's That Iraqi Army?

| Fri Nov. 18, 2005 1:47 PM EST

Yesterday, Dan Senor and Walter Slocombe, two former CPA officials, wrote a New York Times op-ed defending the Bush administration's decision to disband the Iraqi army in early 2003. It's a bit like having Oliver North write an essay on why using Iran to sell arms to the Contras was actually a pretty clever scheme (oh, hell, it's a bit like hiring Oliver North as a commenter for your news network), but in this case, these two are probably right. Had the U.S. kept Saddam's old army in place in Iraq, it could have very easily alienated the Shiites and Kurds, and in that alternate universe, who knows what kind of insurgency the U.S. may be facing right now.

But that's just to say that the prospects for success in Iraq always looked bleak, and the country isn't a mess now merely because the Bush administration botched the execution. The war hawks certainly did just that—especially when they didn't even bother to plan for the occupation—but even if the planners had done all their homework, "victory" was always a pretty remote possibility, and the real lesson in retrospect is that we should have only invaded if we had to, which we didn't.

On a related note, James Fallows has a good cover story in this month's Atlantic on why the U.S. still hasn't yet created a new army for Iraq yet. Basically, the task hasn't ever been a priority for the administration—it's not sexy enough, apparently, certainly not for Donald Rumsfeld—and for the most part it's not really a glamour job within the military, which means that top officers aren't usually assigned to the job. (Although Maj. Gen. David Petraeus, the guy who helped turn training around in 2004, became something of a mini-celebrity.) Things are going better now, but the training's still too sluggish and new insurgents are cropping up faster than new forces can be trained. As long as the army remains too small, and too unequipped, and too fractured by ethnic and sectarian divisions, there won't be order in Iraq.

So the U.S. needs to either 'magically' figure this problem out, or else it needs to start recognizing that "it has no orderly way out of Iraq, and prepare accordingly." That's the basic logic of it, not overly difficult to grasp, and it was pretty much John Murtha's point when he came out in favor of withdrawal yesterday, although the usual lunatics are accusing him of wanting to "retreat".

Remember Afghanistan?

| Thu Nov. 17, 2005 10:23 PM EST

Via Patriot Daily, a report from USA Today reveals that U.S. Special Forces soldiers say that a more organized enemy than they faced last year. The report of the 1st Batallion, 3rd Special Forces Group, is that includes the fact that this year in Afghanistan has been the bloodiest since 2001. 87 troops have died, and the insurgency is not about to collapse, as predicted by Army Lt. Gen. David Barno.

This week alone, there were three suicide bombings in Kabul, in which ten people were killed, including one U.S. soldier. U.S. forces are supposed to be significantly reduced next year, when they will be replaced by NATO forces. According to Afghanistan's defense minister, al Qaida has smuggled cash, weapons, and explosives into the country in preparation of an insurgency against the government. He also said that the recent suicide bombings in Afghanistan were done by foreigners.

Children at War

| Thu Nov. 17, 2005 7:21 PM EST

War is on the decline around the world, for the most part. The statistics are here. But that ignores the fact that the conflicts that do still exist are reaching new levels of general gruesomeness. Civilians are much more likely to die in today's wars, limbs are more likely to be hacked off, women are more likely to be raped. And, Caroline Moorehead writes, children are more likely to serve as soldiers

As P.W. Singer points out in his new study, Children at War, child soldiers, some of whom are no older than six, are to be found in three quarters of the world's current fifty or so conflicts. In Sierra Leone's Revolutionary United Front (RUF), 80 percent of the fighters were aged between seven and fourteen. Twenty thousand children are reported to have served in Liberia's protracted civil wars, and there were many children among Rwanda's génocidaires. As if to make their use more palatable, many of these children were given childlike names. The Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka had a Baby Brigade and called their girl soldiers "Birds of Freedom"; there were "Little Bells" and "Little Bees" in Colombia and "Brave Sprouts" in Myanmar. Saddam Hussein called his child warriors "Lion Cubs."….

If you have recruited and trained so many children —there are now veterans aged fourteen who have far more experience of soldiering than most Western soldiers do—what do you do with them when a conflict ends? Uneducated, lawless, violent, druggy, often infected by venereal disease, these young soldiers are, as one psychiatrist put it, "ticking time-bombs." Reeducation and rehabilitation programs are woefully underfunded and inadequate, and most former child soldiers, unable to go home, either because their home no longer exists or because, as killers, they are no longer welcome there, often have little choice but to live on the streets or seek employment with other rebel forces. Many emerge from these conflicts severely traumatized and suicidal, having been forced to witness and perform acts that they cannot afterward forget. "Some children sit and look at running water and just see blood," an aid worker reported to Human Rights Watch.

Singer estimates that there are some 300,000 child soldiers worldwide, although, as the 2005 Human Security Report notes, this number is over a decade old and has probably decreased somewhat during that time, given that the total number of conflicts has also decreased. Still, it's a problem. Note that it's already illegal to recruit child soldiers; the main problem is that the international community rarely enforces sanctions on countries where child soldiers are used, and doesn't prosecute it as a war crime. You'd think if anything could get people to act, it would be children with AK-47s, but not yet, apparently.

Meanwhile, Moorehead points out that child soldiers exist largely because the global arms trade in light weapons makes it so easy for children to wage war: "You no longer have to be rich enough or strong enough to carry a Kalashnikov: it weighs little more than a small dog and, in parts of Africa at least, costs about the same as a chicken." But there hasn't been much effort to clamp down on that trade, despite calls from Kofin Annan. It's easy to see why. Russia's military-industrial complex is in decline, still has massive excess capacity, and depends (partially) on continued light arms sales to sustain itself; not much interest in regulation there. The American arms industry has never shown much interest in regulating the arms trade either—even in the black market. Not surprisingly, Bush hasn't shown much interest either, but this is one of the major roots of the problem here.