2011 - %3, June

Love Symbols of the Suri

| Wed Jun. 29, 2011 7:39 PM EDT

This post courtesy BBC Earth. For more wildlife news, find BBC Earth on Facebook and Posterous.

Status symbols appear in different forms all over the world. From a crown, to a scar, to a family name: each visible denotation can be attributed to a significant event or an accomplishment, and especially when it comes to marriage.

However as symbols change over time, or differ as a response to the cultural environment. One thing remains the same, and it is mankind's want to remain conscious of and give example to its unique cultural values. For the Suri people of Southwest Ethiopia, it is the fierce competition for land and highly prized cattle that determines many of its traditions, and consequently, its status symbols.

Even in an unstable region such as the grasslands, these self-sufficient people have found a power and confidence in their own culture that has meant many ancient traditions have stayed at the forefront of their lives today. However as times change and individuals roles develop, sensitive changes are beginning to take place. For the Suri, each household is run by the female. She controls the sale of beer and grain, and it is only in her marriage that a family's most important symbol of status—cattle—can be obtained.

However the ingrained process by which marriage happens, is evolving. In the video below, we are given example of the changing attitudes to a status symbol that although has proved to still be incredibly significant to some… for others, is becoming something of the past.

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Back From the Big Apple

| Wed Jun. 29, 2011 7:34 PM EDT

So the Dodgers declared bankruptcy while I was gone, and I hear that President Obama grew a pair at his press conference this morning. Anything else happen that I should know about? Has the country followed the Dodgers into bankruptcy yet?

Big, big thanks to Nick Baumann and Andy Kroll for filling in for me while I was gone. I hope you liked their stuff. Regular blogging will resume tomorrow. In the meantime, in keeping with the Southern California sunset theme from last week, here's a picture of sunset over the Hudson, taken from the High Line Park last Saturday. Enjoy.

Ohio's Ambitious 'Heartbeat Bill' Passes House

| Wed Jun. 29, 2011 7:07 PM EDT
Fetus at 7 weeks, with detectable heartbeat

First, abortion opponents wanted to stop abortion after viability, which happens around 24 weeks. Then they wanted to stop it at the highly-contested point at which fetuses may be able to feel pain, around 20 weeks gestation. Now, the Ohio House has passed a bill (54 to 43) that would outlaw all abortions in the state, even in cases of rape and incest, after a fetal heartbeat can be detected, as early as 6 weeks after conception. The bill (HB 125) will now proceed to Ohio's Republican-led state Senate.

The bill, which I deconstructed thoroughly in a March blog post, is designed to be a direct challenge to Roe v. Wade and prevent some of the 88% of all abortions that occur before 12 weeks gestation. At 6 weeks, many women may not even know they're pregnant yet. And even if a woman did find out she was pregnant at, say, two weeks after conception, she would only have a month to make the life-changing decision on whether to abort, find a care provider, gather funds and transportation, and schedule the procedure. The law would also leave abortion access up to chance, since due to body fat, date of conception, an embryo's position in the uterus, and the type of ultrasound administered, one woman's fetus may show a heartbeat at six weeks while another's may not until 12 weeks.

The law is so extreme that even Ohio Right to Life cannot stand behind it. "There are not sufficient votes on the current U.S. Supreme Court to overturn Roe, regardless of what vehicle is used," the organization tells visitors to its website. "As a result, the 'heartbeat bill' will be yet another precedent setting decision by the U.S. Supreme Court we will have to overcome in the future." In addition, Ohio Right to Life points out, the bill would be expensive to defend in court and if it was struck down, the court would likely instruct defenders to pay Planned Parenthood's attorney's fees.

Village Voice Staffers Threaten Strike, Create Alternate Website

| Wed Jun. 29, 2011 6:11 PM EDT

In New York, unionized staffers at the Village Voice say they will strike if management doesn't address their demands for better health and retirement plans by tomorrow, when their current contract expires.

The Voice—the nation's oldest and largest alt-weekly newspaper—is among a handful of media outlets left with union representation. The paper renegotiates its contract with the United Auto Workers (which also reps Mother Jones) every three years, but while staffers have a history of threatening strikes they have never actually gone on one.

Since the last negotiation, a joint press release from the UAW and Pulitzer-finalist Voice reporter Graham Rayman says, "staff has been cut by an estimated 60%, and average annual salaries have markedly diminished." The statement is published on TheRealVoice.org, where staffers say they plan to continue writing in the event of a strike.

Rhode Island Gay Rights Advocates: No Civil Unions!

| Wed Jun. 29, 2011 6:02 PM EDT

Before New York became the sixth state to legalize same-sex marriage less than a week ago, state senators there carefully crafted religious exemptions to satisfy Republicans who proved key to the bill's final passage. Now, Rhode Island is engaged in a similar debate, only this time it's same-sex marriage advocates who oppose a civil unions bill that they say provides too many exemptions. But the bill's headed to the desk of Gov. Lincoln Chafee, who says he will sign it.

At issue is an amendment to the bill with language that says religious organizations "shall not be required" to conduct civil-union ceremonies or "treat as valid any civil union." Gay rights groups fear that would lead hospitals with religious affiliations to deny LGBT people the ability to make health care decisions for their partners. And they believe that other organizations, like schools and cemeteries, might also get away with refusing services to gay couples on religious grounds.

Map of the Day: States Banning Abortion Coverage

| Wed Jun. 29, 2011 4:57 PM EDT

Recently, GOP state legislators have come up with a number of, er, creative ways to attack abortion and reproductive health. There are the efforts to defund Planned Parenthood, the Nebraska copycat laws (which ban abortion after 20 weeks, and were enacted in five states in 2011), the TRAP laws, the "Heartbeat" law, the "personhood" debate, not to mention ongoing efforts to dole out misleading information to women seeking abortions. There's also been an incredible surge in state efforts to keep insurance companies from funding abortions—to date, 15 states have enacted some type of ban, and another 15 states have proposed bans this year.

"Taking away insurance coverage of abortion interferes in a woman's ability to make personal, private decisions with her doctor," says Ted Miller, spokesman for NARAL Pro-Choice America, which produced the map below. "We are concerned about women whose pregnancies experience complications because they could be forced to pay out of pocket for abortion, even if it's necessary to protect their health."

Below, bans "in exchange" (light purple) pertains to insurance plans mandated by federal health care reform, including private plans.

Map: NARAL Pro-Choice America FoundationMap: NARAL Pro-Choice America Foundation

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Jump Onboard Bachmann's Crazy Train

| Wed Jun. 29, 2011 4:00 PM EDT

My colleague Tim Murphy has an excellent rundown of some of GOP presidential contender Michele Bachmann's wackiest quotes. But via Grist, here's one of my favorites of the environmental variety, decrying federal investment in high-speed rail:

"It is a brand new, billion-dollar high speed train that is going to go from Disneyland up to Las Vegas...Harry Reid, the senator from Nevada, was behind this measure, and it makes us wonder, is he more interested in making sure kids start gambling at younger ages?"

(That's from a speech on the House floor in 2009, via TNR.)

Yet she seems to neglect the fact that the 185-mile, high-speed rail of debauchery only extends to Victorville, Calif., meaning the kiddos would first have to hitchhike the 81.8 miles from Anaheim before hopping on the fast-train to hussies and high-rollers.

Appeals Court Upholds Health Care Reform Law

| Wed Jun. 29, 2011 2:07 PM EDT

The Obama administration has chalked up a win in the first appellate court decision on the Affordable Care Act. On Wednesday, a three-judge panel of the US Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit ruled that the portion of the 2010 health reform law that requires Americans to obtain health insurance or pay a penalty is constitutional.

The decision came in response to an appeal by the conservative Thomas More Law Center in Michigan. A judge in the federal district court in Detroit ruled last October that the "mandate" portion of the law was, in fact, constitutional, but Thomas More appealed to the 6th Circuit.

There are still two decisions pending from other appeals courts regarding portions of the health care law: the 4th Circuit in Richmond and the 11th Circuit in Atlanta. It's expected that at least one of the suits will end up in front of the Supreme Court. The New York Times explains:

Lawyers on both sides of the case widely expect the Supreme Court to take one or more of the cases, perhaps as soon as its coming term, which starts in October. The speed of the Sixth Circuit ruling could help ensure that timing.
The Sixth Circuit opinion was the first on the merits that has not broken down strictly along seemingly partisan lines. Two of the judges on the panel were appointed by Republican presidents and one was appointed by a Democrat. At the lower District Court level, five judges have divided on the question, with three Democratic appointees ruling in favor of the law and two Republican appointees rejecting it.

The law might not fare as well in the other appeals courts, both of which are expected to rule soon. But the Department of Justice issued a statement cheering the news. "Throughout history, there have been similar challenges to other landmark legislation such as the Social Security Act, the Civil Rights Act, and the Voting Rights Act, and all of those challenges failed," said Tracy Schmaler, deputy director of the DOJ's Office of Public Affairs. "We believe these challenges to health reform will also fail."

What's the Best Way to Grade Teachers?

| Wed Jun. 29, 2011 1:35 PM EDT

Photo: Kristina RizgaPhoto: Kristina RizgaLast year, battles over charter schools dominated much of education coverage. This year, the controversy over "teacher evaluations" is poised to be the biggest fight among people with competing visions for improving public schools. For a primer on how these new teacher assessments work, don't miss Sam Dillon's recent piece in the New York Times. Reporting from Washington, DC, Dillon found that last year the city fired 165 teachers using a new teacher evaluation system; this year, the number will top 200.

DC relies on a relatively new evaluation system called Impact—a legacy of its former school chief Michelle Rhee, who noticed that, despite the district's low test scores, most teachers were getting nearly perfect evaluations. Rhee and the proponents of this new evaluation system feel that the old system relied too much on the subjective evaluations by the principal or a few experienced teachers. Opponents of the old system say these internal measurements are not data-driven or rigorous enough to allow principals and districts to identify struggling teachers who need assistance or to find the successful ones who deserve to be recognized and empowered. 

Impact or other new evaluation systems are currently being implemented in around 20 states. The basic idea to use performance-based evaluations that use external measures such as test scores in addition to the internal measures mentioned above. Sparked by President Obama's Race to the Top grants, these "value-added" evaluations rely heavily on kids' test scores in math and reading. Teachers whose subjects are not measured by test scores are observed in the classroom. For example, DC teachers get five yearly classroom observations, three by principals and two by "master educators" from other schools.

My reaction to these developments after nine months of reporting at San Francisco's Mission High School? Mission wasn't using value-added evaluations last year, but I talked to many teachers about testing, and saw firsthand that test scores don't show a lot of important stuff, such as students' critical-thinking or problem-solving skills. In many cases test scores simply showed that students could read, memorize, and follow directions. Teachers at Mission want less reliance on test scores and more reliance on multiple internal measures such as students' grades, attendance, and attrition rates; parent and student satisfaction surveys; and peer reviews. Many teachers believe that this local context measures a school's performance more authentically than standardized test scores.

This also reminds me of an illuminating debate I heard at the NewSchools and Aspen Institute education reform Summit I caught last month. Roxanna Elden, a public school teacher and author of See Me After Class: Advice for Teachers by Teacher, was asked to comment on current evaluation systems like Impact. "I don't want to evaluate teachers in reading and math based on test scores alone," Elden responded. "I'll give you an example: A fourth-grade teacher in Atlanta stopped tutoring third-grade kids because they won't advance as much as they enter her grade, and she could lose her job. That's value-added Impact for you." Relying too much on test scores can erode collaboration between teachers. "There should be a smarter balance between a review between the principal, peers, and external measures."

The trouble is that there is no agreement among teachers or education wonks on what the right balance between internal (grades, peer reviews, attendance) and external (test scores) measures should be, or even whether we should assess individual teachers or entire schools to discourage competitiveness between teachers. That doesn't mean we shouldn't try, because we do know that while poverty accounts for much of students' achievement gap, within a school, teachers make a bigger difference than any other variable.

But the proponents of the new "value-added" teacher evaluation often sound like they've confused the more advanced questions with the answer. Elden's suggests that education reformers spend more time talking with teachers to avoid unintended consequences like firing teachers who want to work with the most challenging students. Hire teachers from diverse backgrounds and varying viewpoints to develop these systems, not just policy wonks or teacher union reps, she says. "Realize that schools are deeply collaborative communities and setting up competition will not always be the best thing for the kids."

Scott Walker: Collective Bargaining Is An 'Expensive Entitlement.' Um, No.

| Wed Jun. 29, 2011 1:09 PM EDT

In an interview with the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Wisconsin Republican Gov. Scott Walker, the man who lit the fuse of 2011's nationwide union protests, made the not-so-shocking admission that his administration "had not built enough of the case" to slash collective bargaining rights for public workers. Talk about an understatement.

Walker's anti-union bill, which goes into effect today, was met with massive opposition, including more than 100,000 pro-union protesters who flooded the streets of Madison, the state capital. But the statement that really jumped out from Walker's interview is his own perception of the bargaining fight:

"They defined it as a rights issue. It's not a rights issue. It's an expensive entitlement."

Hmm. I'm pretty sure the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, passed by the UN after World War II (and drafted and adopted by the US), says that collective bargaining is in fact a human right. Oh, yes, there it is, in Article 23 of the Universal Declaration:

4. Everyone has the right to form and to join trade unions for the protection of his interests.

Then there's the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) here in the US, which "explicitly grants employees the right to collectively bargain and join trade unions," according to the scholars at Cornell University Law School. Or as the National Labor Relations Board's website puts it, the NLRA "protects employees' rights to act together, with or without a union, to improve working terms and conditions, including wages and benefits."

Memo to Scott Walker: Before launching an assault on a right like collective bargaining for workers, you'd be wise to fully understanding what exactly it is you are trying to eliminate. Wisconsin citizens deserve at least that much.