2011 - %3, January

Education Roundup: More Segregation, Science Fails, and the State of the Union

| Fri Jan. 28, 2011 3:00 PM EST

[UPDATEBlackAmericaWeb.com reports that Kelley Williams-Bolar will get to keep her public school assistant job, despite having two felonies on her record. Meanwhile, bloggers are asking whether Williams-Bolar is the "Rosa Parks" of education and a Change.org petition is demanding that Gov. John Kasich pardon her. What did Kelley do? Read on.] 

  • Would you lie to get your kids into a better school? Ohio mom Kelley Williams-Bolar did, and was jailed for nine days for using a false address to send her two daughters to a better school. Colorlines and HuffPo sum up the racist undertones of Kelley's case, and the public outrage that's resulted.
  • Also sparking some outrage is McCaskey East High School in Pennsylvania, which since mid-December, has segregated students by race and gender to boost academic results, according to Education News. The separation occurs for six minutes each day and 20 minutes twice a month and, it only applies to black students.
  • Those nationally-lauded New York City charter schools are spending more than public schools, receiving $10,000 per student from private donors, but they’re not getting better performance results, according to a study by the National Education Policy Center.
  • Hey, here's one reason why US students aren't learning science at internationally competitive rates: only 28 percent teachers in the US teach evolutionary biology in their classrooms, MoJo's Julia Whitty reported.
  • In his State of the Union speech this week, Obama devoted eight minutes to education, more than doubling the amount of air time US schools received last year. The US Department of Education's transcript of those minutes are here. Education Week analyzed what the edu-proposals Obama mentioned actually mean, while Eduflack's Patrick Riccards called the speech a "Chinese menu of education issues" that left average folks still scratching their heads about what to do to improve education. And author, blogger, and educator Diane Ravitch called out Obama’s plan to replace No Child Left Behind with a Race to the Top approach. Both programs, Ravitch says, miss the mark by focusing solely on reading and math test scores to evaluate what students know.
  • The president definitely got it right when he said, "The quality of our math and science lag behind many nations." On Tuesday, the Nation's Report Card on science dropped, and while 29 percent of white high school seniors scored below national basic proficiency, 71 percent of black students fell short. The reason? Check out The Hechinger Report's excellent investigation on the need for science education reforms. Here's a taste: No Child Left Behind left science behind by threatening to withhold funding from schools if only math and reading scores didn't improve. Also, US students are taught to memorize facts while international students learn foundational concepts.

 

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Closing the Achievement Gap, One 'A' at a Time

| Fri Jan. 28, 2011 3:00 PM EST

Editors' Note: This education dispatch is part of an ongoing series reported from Mission High School, where education writer Kristina Rizga is embedded for the year. Click here to see all of MoJo's recent education coverage, or follow Kristina's writing on Twitter or with this RSS Feed.

[Previous Mission High dispatch: When a kid suddenly pulls up his shirt to show you scars from a gang-related stabbing, what do you say?]

Early Friday morning Darrell* cracks open the classroom door for a second time here at Mission High. Darrell's nervous. He's been making progress and getting steady B's lately in Robert Roth's Honors History class, but today there's an hour and a half long history test. He's arranged to spend extra time with Mr. Roth this morning reviewing the material.

"Hi Darrell! I'm ready for you," says Roth, who hasn't yet had breakfast or coffee. Darrell nods and takes off his music headphones as he enters the room. Dressed in a Mission High T-shirt, he towers over his teacher. He takes his usual spot in the back of the class, gets his notebook out of the backpack, and looks for the right page.

"OK, what's the Monroe Doctrine?" Roth begins. "The US policy in early 19th century that established, hmm ... Latin America as its sphere of influence," Darrell responds in a calm voice. "That's exactly right!" Roth responds and smiles at Darrell. They keep going. "Who was Lili'uokalani?" asks Roth. "The Queen of Hawaii that was overthrown at the end of 19th century," Darrell replies. "You are going to ace this test!" Roth tells Darrell after an intense 15-minute drill.

The bell goes off and about 26 students shuffle into class. They pass by a white dry-erase board where Roth has written in large, blue letters: "There will be an essay. I didn't want it, but an evil spirit took control of me and made me do it!" As students take their seats, I realize that this is the most racially integrated class I've seen so far at Mission High.

As students take their seats, I realize that this is the most racially integrated class I've seen so far at Mission High.

Mikesha, a young student I met in Mr. Hankle's class last year, comes in with tears in her eyes. Roth puts his hand on her shoulder. "What's wrong?" he asks. "Do you want to go to the Wellness Center?" Mikesha wipes tears from her eyes. "No. I'm here today to take the test," she says. Roth walks Mikesha to her desk.

"Any last-minute review questions?" Roth asks, as he passes out the tests. "Why was the crushing of the Philippines so brutal?" one student asks. "Great question! Anyone in the class wants to tackle that?" Roth asks. Many hands go up. "Remember: don't summarize, analyze," Roth reminds students, as the testing clock starts ticking. Students hunch over their papers; quiet scribbling takes over the room for a while.

Then the ear-piercing screech of an ambulance siren invades the room. A student next to me calmly stretches his wrists. A young man gets out of his chair, stretches out his slender frame, and walks over to the electric pencil sharpener. The sound of the pencil sharpener blocks out the siren, for a moment.

Vana has a question and raises her hand. Roth walks over and they talk in a low voice for a while. Jaime is scribbling something on the back of his classmate's chair. Roth spots him and walks over to him next. "Test taking is a tenuous process. Students can get stuck on little concepts or the spelling of a complicated word. If you completely disengage, they trip and fall, and many don't get up," Roth whispers into my ear. "I just have to work hard not to intervene too much. Not to mess it up."

"Test taking is a tenuous process. Students can get stuck on little concepts or the spelling of a complicated word. If you completely disengage, they trip and fall, and many don't get up."

Another ambulance flies down the street. Mikesha drums her pink-colored nails against the wooden desk, then lowers her head and keeps writing.

Vana finishes first, and proudly walks over to Roth with her test. "Congratulations," he says, as he staples the pages together. Vana is standing at the front, behind Roth's desk, quietly dancing and beaming at the other students.

The bell rings an end to this hour-and-a-half-long test. Some students get up and hand their tests to Vana to staple. The sound of quiet scribbling speeds up. "Mr. Roth, how do you spell Guantanamo?" Mikesha asks. Roth writes it on the board. A student gets out of his desk and jumps around in a quiet celebratory dance. "Mr. Roth, you need to make this test shorter next time," he says as he drops off his test.

"Will you have to grade these all weekend?" Vana asks. Roth responds. "I know! That's what I'm freaking out about right now," he says.

Twenty minutes past the bell, there are two students still left in the class scribbling furiously, occasionall shaking out their wrists. Roth takes a third bite from his morning bagel. "Mr. Roth! I wrote two pages for an essay and now I don't have time to conclude," Marco says, looking stressed out. "I often worry that I don't know enough, and so I write as much as possible to make up for that," he explains. "That's interesting," Roth says, as he make a note of that at the back of Marco's test. "That's OK. Let's talk about that soon."

Marco leaves class with his right hand raised in a salute. Darrell is the last student left in the room. "Can I have another piece of paper?" he asks Roth. "Darrell is going for the world record this time!" Roth tells me. "I think I'll do pretty well on this one," Darrell says, with a deadpan look on his face, and keeps writing.

*All student names are changed. P.S. Darrell got an A- on this test.

Is Corporate Tax Reform Still Possible?

| Fri Jan. 28, 2011 2:59 PM EST

The New York Times has a pretty good primer on corporate tax reform today, and it includes the chart on the right showing the different rates that various industries pay thanks to the tax breaks, subsidies, and loopholes that they've lobbied for over the years. Jon Chait comments:

Guess what? The interest of the companies benefiting from loopholes outweighs the interest of the companies that would like lower rates. If nothing else, loss aversion will drive the loophole beneficiaries to lobby harder than non-beneficiaries. My prediction: nothing happens.

He's probably right, and this is a profound demonstration of just how far right the Republican Party has moved over the past couple of decades and how much more power the business community has amassed. After all, as Bruce Bartlett reminds us today, the idea of lowering rates but eliminating loopholes in the corporate tax code managed to get bipartisan support as recently as 25 years ago during the administration of conservative hero Ronald Reagan. Today, though, it's a nonstarter:

Republicans claim they are for it, but they steadfastly refuse to name a single existing tax provision that is worth getting rid of; they are only for tax rate cuts and that is the sum total of their contribution to the tax reform debate....The other factor in Republicans’ thinking is just cynical politics....Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform and the man who, more than anyone else, lays down the Republican line on all tax issues, told me this when I asked him about coming up with offsets to pay for tax reform: “I recommend taking the corporate rate to 25 percent. The Dems can suggest tax hikes if they believe they need to ‘make up’ revenue. That is a bipartisan division of labor.”

The political trap is obvious. Any actual reform that would increase revenue will be relentlessly attacked by Republicans as a tax increase and they will quickly send out fundraising letters to whatever group or industry is affected, requesting campaign donations to prevent the Democrats from raising their taxes. No mention will be made by Republicans of the idea that the reforms would be coupled with tax rate reductions in a revenue-neutral manner that neither raises nor lowers net tax revenue in the aggregate. Unfortunately, this strategy will doom any hope of tax reform. No Democrat is going to put forward any revenue-raisers under these circumstances.

I've always been cautious about taking any lessons from the passage of corporate tax reform in 1986. It was, in some ways, sui generis, a sort of miraculous bipartisan stand against corporate interests that's just very, very rare. And yet: it happened. Twenty-five years ago conservative Republicans were willing to team up with Democrats to do something that was good for the country, and neither side backed down because of either corporate pressure or an unwillingness to allow the other side a victory. It was, in a way, an existence proof that this kind of thing was once possible.

In theory, there's no reason it couldn't happen again. Democrats are probably willing to go along, and base broadening is, officially anyway, something that conservatives favor. But in real life, Republicans are less willing to work across the aisle these days and Democrats are far more responsive to corporate pressure than they were in the 80s — which is, I suppose, just a longwinded way of saying that American politics is broken and big business reigns supreme. But it's a very concrete way of saying it, and it lends itself to an almost quantitative assessment. The fate of corporate tax reform is sort of a bellwether for the state of our political system, and I suspect our system is so broken that it will die without even getting a serious hearing.

The GOP and the Tea Party

| Fri Jan. 28, 2011 2:27 PM EST

Kathleen Hennessey of the LA Times reports that with the election safely out of the way, Republican senators are none too eager to associate themselves with the tea party movement:

The first meeting of the Senate Tea Party Caucus on Thursday attracted just four senators — out of 47 GOP members — willing to describe themselves as members. The event was as notable for who wasn't there as who was. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), once a tea party favorite, has for now declined to join the caucus, whose first meeting was organized by Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.). Sen. Ron Johnson, a Wisconsin Republican whose campaign sprung from the small-government movement, has said he's unsure if he'll join. Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) showed up to address the group of activists, but then hustled out of the room, ignoring reporters' questions about whether he was in or out.

Hennessey notes that there are institutional reasons that might explain some of this, but I suspect the real reason is simpler: it's one thing to be a tea partier in a congressional district, which might be small and ideologically extreme. But it's a lot harder to be one in a statewide office, where you have to appeal to a broader range of the electorate. As lots of analysts have noted, congressional districts have become more polarized over the past couple of decades — partly due to gerrymandering, partly due to geography, and partly due to people actively segregating themselves — and this provides fertile ground for hardcore activists on both sides. But it just doesn't scale up. Sarah Palin will never be president. Hell, Joe Miller couldn't even win a Senate seat with her backing. The tea party is having an impact, but it's mostly at the fringes and the leadership of the GOP will, eventually, swallow it up and spit it out. As I put it earlier this year:

As with the earlier incarnations [of right-wing extremism], its core identity will slowly fade away and become grist for CNN retrospectives, while its broader identity becomes subsumed by a Republican Party that's been headed down the path of ever less-tolerant conservatism for decades. In that sense, the tea party movement is merely an unusually flamboyant symptom of an illness that's been breeding for a long time.

That's already happening, I think.

Is Ban Ki Moon Backing Off Climate?

| Fri Jan. 28, 2011 2:09 PM EST

There was a fair bit of optimism on climate last month at the conclusion of the United Nations talks in Cancun, bolstering hopes that a long-stalled global climate treaty might be back on track. But it appears that the UN's secretary general that made global warming one of his top priorities is backing away from the issue.

The Guardian reports today that Ban Ki Moon is retreating from his close involvement with the climate negotiations, reflecting the realization that a global deal isn't happening any time soon:

The officials said the change in focus reflected Ban's realisation, after his deep involvement with the failed Copenhagen summit in 2009, that world leaders are not prepared to come together in a sweeping agreement on global warming – at least not for the next few years.
"It is very evident that there will not be a single grand deal at any point in the near future," said Robert Orr, UN assistant secretary general for strategic planning and a key adviser to Ban.
The view from UN headquarters will likely dismay developing countries who fought hard at Copenhagen and last year's summit at Cancún for countries to renew their commitments to the Kyoto protocol in just that type of grand deal.
UN officials say Ban will no longer be deeply involved in the negotiations leading up to the next big UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, meeting at Durban in December 2011.

Ban has called climate change "the greatest collective challenge we face as a human family." His office says he's still committed to the issue, but sees more value in working on finance for adaptation to climate rather than trying to get leaders to commit to deep emission cuts.

UPDATE: Speaking at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland on Friday, Ban refuted the idea that he is backing away from his focus on climate change and emphasized its importance:

To any who might argue that time and effort spent on climate change is wasted, I would respectfully beg to differ. A climate agreement among all nations is both necessary and possible. It may not be easy, but things worth doing seldom are. I will continue to engage world leaders, just as I have here in Davos, to advance climate negotiations and to make concrete progress on the ground. This is integral to our overall sustainable development agenda. As I told President Zuma yesterday, I look forward to attending COP 17 in Durban this December and will do all I can to build upon recent success in Cancun. I also had a meeting with President Calderon of Mexico, and we will work in concert together to achieve progress in the climate change process.

Egypt

| Fri Jan. 28, 2011 1:46 PM EST

This is probably obvious to everyone already, but just for the record: I don't have anything personally to add about events in Egypt, and I assume that you can follow the basic news from mainstream sources just fine without links from me. So I won't be posting much about this, even though it's plainly important stuff. If I run across some especially interesting commentary somewhere, I'll post about it, but that's about it.

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The Pork Man Cometh

| Fri Jan. 28, 2011 1:14 PM EST

The Republicans have declared war on earmarks and government spending as a signature issue for their newly empowered ranks in Congress. But it's becoming increasingly clear that not everyone is on board. On Thursday, the Senate GOP announced that six freshmen Republicans would be appointed to the Senate Appropriations Committee—including Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), the former House member whose love for earmarks has led critics to dub him "the Pork-Meister."

Despite criticism from his own Republican colleagues, Blunt has unapologetically embraced earmarks and shot down attempts to curb them. In fiscal year 2010, for example, Blunt personally requested some $153 million in earmarks, and he steadfastly opposed the Senate Republicans' attempt to prohibit earmarks in November. During his run for Senate, his reputation for larding up bills led his Democratic opponent, Robin Carnahan, to cast him as a "prodigious pork-meister" that cost taxpayers "$20 billion a year," contradicting his own calls for fiscal austerity.

The attacks didn't ultimately stick with voters, but that didn't stop the Wall Street Journal from dubbing the Missouri Republican "Senator Earmark" shortly after he was elected. Blunt hasn't let up on his defense of pork since he's taken office, either. After this week's State of the Union address, Blunt slammed Obama's vow to veto any bill with earmarks as a "power grab" that would "give the president too much power," arguing that the Constitution gave Congress the expiclit authority to dictate how spending would be apportioned. Blunt's pork-loving ways have drawn fire from the GOP's tea party right, who've already been infuriated with his House vote to support the Troubled Asset Relief Program, among other government spending bills.

Other Senate GOP newcomers—including Rand Paul (R-Ky.)—have gone squishy on earmarks as well. But Blunt's exceptionally staunch defense of earmarks could prove to be one of the biggest thorns in the GOP's side when it comes to the party's war on pork.

My Problem With the Kindle

| Fri Jan. 28, 2011 1:07 PM EST

Last night I finally caved in and downloaded Tyler Cowen's e-booklet, "The Great Stagnation." I'll have a substantive review on Monday, but for now I'd like to whine a bit about the business model behind the thing.

Here it is: if you want to read TGS, you pay Amazon $4 and download it to your Kindle. The problem with this is that the Kindle sucks at rendering tables and charts. The screen cap on the right, for example, shows a chart from Tyler's book. As Kindle charts go, it's actually not too bad. But what's on the X-axis? It appears to start with 1455, and obviously the numbers go up. I get the idea. But the actual details are completely lost. Later in the book there's another table so badly rendered that I can't make it out at all.

In the case of "The Great Stagnation," this isn't too big a deal. I know what the chart above is getting at, and the table at the end is one I've seen before. But other nonfiction books don't fare so well. Gregory Clark's Farewell to Alms, for example, relies heavily on lots and lots of fairly complex charts and tables, and they're rendered so badly (unreadable graphs, table columns that don't line up, etc.) and placed so haphazardly that they made the book almost impossible to absorb properly. To this day, I'm not sure if my disagreements with his thesis are real, or mere artifacts of the fact that the e-version of the book was really hard to follow. In any case, that was the book that made me give up on the Kindle entirely for nonfiction. Until now.

I'd happily buy an iPad, or maybe even a bigger Kindle, if I thought that graphical elements would be properly rendered with a little more screen real estate. But I have a feeling they aren't, and I don't feel like examining nonfiction books closely before I buy them to see if they rely on graphical elements and should be purchased in paper form or are primarily text and can be safely read on the Kindle.

Besides, a pretty good business model already exists for pieces like Tyler's: sell it to a magazine. It's a little long, maybe, but I'll bet it could have been sweated down into a long magazine piece, especially since chapters 3 and 4 could profitably have been reduced to a few hundred words each. The advantages for Tyler would have been (a) great graphics designed by a pro and (b) a guaranteed wide audience. The advantages for me would have been (a) excellent readability and (b) I probably could have read it for free, increasing my consumer surplus by $4. This would have been a pareto-optimal state for all of us.

Anybody else have the same problem with the Kindle? Is the bigger version better? How about the iPad? I don't care about fiction. That already works fine. I just care about whether complex nonfiction renders nicely. What say ye, commentariat?

UPDATE: In case you're wondering how I got a screen cap of a Kindle book, I didn't. I just put the Kindle on my flatbed scanner and scanned the whole thing. Photoshop did the rest. I'm not really sure if there's a better way of doing it.

The Power of Fox

| Fri Jan. 28, 2011 12:18 PM EST

Conor Friedersdorf suggests that we give Fox News too much credit:

Yes, among a certain demographic, Fox News is a huge ratings success. So is Rush Limbaugh. But where is the evidence that this rating success has translated into electoral victories or a friendlier policy environment for conservatives? There is none.

This is true as far as it goes. The actual number of people who watch Fox is relatively small. But I think it misses the bigger picture.

First, Fox has agenda setting power. When they — along with Rush/Drudge/etc. — push a topic hard, it goes mainstream. And that affects the political atmosphere dramatically. Last summer I'm sure Democrats would have preferred that we talk about the glories of healthcare reform or the need to create jobs. Instead we were talking about the New Black Panthers, the Ground Zero mosque, anchor babies, and other conservative hot buttons. You can largely thank Fox for that.

Second, Fox's main influence, I'd say, isn't to win elections for Republicans or to influence who wins Republican primaries. It's to push the entire Republican Party further to the right. Fox certainly hasn't done this by itself, but there's really not much doubt that it's had a huge influence on this project over the past decade of its existence.

My guess is that Fox has very modest persuasive power. It has a bit just by virtue of its agenda setting power, but that's about it. After all, its viewers are already conservative. But that said, the power to push Republicans to the right is a huge one. Not only does this act indirectly to push the entire country to the right,  but it also makes it nearly impossible for liberals to pass compromise legislation. That's why the next dozen years or so are going to be grim ones for liberals. We're not going to get 60 votes in the Senate again for a long time, and in the era of Fox News Republicans just flatly won't work together on anything that isn't a hard right priority. I figure that it's 2024 at the earliest before liberals will get anything big done again, and Fox can take a lot of credit for that. Looking narrowly at their viewership misses their real influence.

UPDATE: Here's a paper suggesting the the power of Fox is actually more direct than either Conor or I gave it credit for. The authors measured voting behavior between 1996 and 2000 in towns where Fox News was introduced vs. towns where it wasn't introduced:

We find a significant effect of the introduction of Fox News on the vote share in Presidential elections between 1996 and 2000. Republicans gained 0.4 to 0.7 percentage points in the towns that broadcast Fox News. Fox News also affected voter turnout and the Republican vote share in the Senate. Our estimates imply that Fox News convinced 3 to 28 percent of its viewers to vote Republican, depending on the audience measure. The Fox News effect could be a temporary learning effect for rational voters, or a permanent effect for nonrational voters subject to persuasion.

Thanks to Philip Klinkner for the pointer.

Gingrich Warns Of "Job-Killing Nature of the EPA"

| Fri Jan. 28, 2011 11:16 AM EST

Following up on his call to abolish the Environmental Protection Agency in a speech in Iowa this week, former House Speaker and potential GOP presidential candidate Newt Gingrich outlined on Friday his plans to eliminate the EPA in an email to supporters. The former House speaker warns of the "job-killing nature of the EPA" and calls on his fans to "get the word out."

He also notes Obama's call in the State of the Union to streamline government, arguing that whether or not the president backs his plan to abolish the EPA will be a "very clear test case for whether President Obama is really serious about rebuilding the people's faith in the institutions of government."

He goes on to write:

Of all the government agencies that have become barriers to job creation and economic growth, the Environmental Protection Agency is the worst offender.
Since its founding 40 years ago, the EPA has transformed from an agency with the original noble mission of protecting the environment into a job-killing, centralizing engine of ideological litigation and regulation that blocks economic progress.
The EPA should therefore be replaced with a new and improved agency dedicated to bringing together science, technology, entrepreneurs, incentives, and local creativity to create a cleaner environment with a stronger economy that generates more American jobs and more American energy.

More on Gingrich's plan on the blog of his group American Solutions for Winning the Future. This is what passes for serious conservative talking points on the environment these days, folks.