2013 - %3, February

Firing Bad Teachers Has Surprisingly Meager Effects

| Sat Feb. 23, 2013 10:34 PM PST

Dylan Matthews has an interview with Thomas Kane today about ways in which we can measure teacher performance in the classroom. This comes at the very end:

Dylan Matthews: Now, the three components you measure predict future performance on achievement tests. But a lot of people dismiss that, even though there's growing evidence that achievement test scores are correlated with all kinds of important real-life outcomes. Why do these scores matter?

Thomas Kane: So I'm really heartened — even asking that question means you're aware of that Chetty/Friedman/Rockoff study....What they found was that the teachers who appeared to have high value-added while the students were in their classrooms, their value-added was predictive of students' income later. I'm optimistic about it but based largely on Raj's study.

I remember reading this study when it first came out, and I had a very different reaction. Basically, the researchers looked at data on teachers and test scores starting around 1990, and linked it up with the incomes of students later in life. They had a big dataset and they did all the usual controls. Then they estimated the gains to income from firing a terrible teacher (one in the bottom 5 percent) and replacing him with an average teacher. Long story short, once you account for real-world frictions (namely that we can't perfectly identify the terrible teachers), they estimate that making this change in a single grade level produces an income gain among students of slightly more than 1 percent at age 28.

Now, the first thing to say about this is that a result this small, even if it's statistically significant, should be treated with extreme caution. There are just a ton of confounding variables that could be at play here, and even a small missing factor could swamp this study's findings.

But it's worse than that. Even if you assume these results are correct, they struck me not as optimistic, but as shockingly low. We're not talking about a small change in teacher quality here. We're talking about a huge change: an entire year spent with a perfectly acceptable teacher instead of one who's the worst of the worst. And even at that, it only made a difference of 1 percent in future income. That's it?

Now, you could argue that the effect would be bigger if we got rid of bad teachers in all the grades. Wouldn't that make a bigger difference? Sure, except that about half of all students never get any bottom-5-percent teachers in the first place; a little less than half get a bottom-five-percent teacher once in their school careers; and only a handful of the very unluckiest students get one for more than one year. So you're stuck with the basic result: averaged across all students, the value of firing all the terrible teachers will probably be a future income increase of less than 1 percent. For an average person, that's a few hundred dollars per year.

Am I the only one who finds that surprisingly meager? I'm all for getting rid of horrible teachers, but if anything, this study makes me put a lower priority on this than I used to—especially considering how difficult it would be to carry out a policy like this. I was surprised that this study got such a euphoric reception when it was published, and I still am.

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Study: Organic Tomatoes Are Better for You

| Sat Feb. 23, 2013 4:11 AM PST

Remember that Stanford research meta-analysis purporting to show that organic food offers no real health advantages? (I poked some holes in it here). Buried in the study (I have a full copy but can't post it for copyright reasons) is the finding that organic foods tend to have higher levels of phenols—compounds, naturally occurring in plants, widely believed to fight cancer and other degenerative diseases.

After the study's release, one of the study's authors, Dena Bravata, downplayed that result in a New York Times report :

While the difference [in total phenol levels between organic and conventional produce] was statistically significant, the size of the difference varied widely from study to study, and the data was based on the testing of small numbers of samples. "I interpret that result with caution," Dr. Bravata said.

A paper published Feb. 20 in PLOS One highlighted the link between organic agriculture and phenols. A team of researchers compared total phenol content in organic and conventional tomatoes grown in nearby plots in Brazil. By cultivating the tomatoes in the same microclimate and in similar soil, the researchers were able to control for environmental factors that might otherwise affect nutrient content.

Mother of God, Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson Made a Movie About Mandatory Minimum Sentencing Laws...

| Fri Feb. 22, 2013 10:19 PM PST

Snitch
Summit Entertainment
95 minutes

This may come as a huge shock to you: The movie industry frequently markets their product in dishonest ways in their efforts to make money. For instance, if you watched the trailer or any of the TV spots for the newly released Snitch, you'd think it was just another action movie with cars and guns starring The Rock:

In reality, there's roughly ten cumulative minutes of killing in the movie. Snitch, directed and co-written by ex-stuntman Ric Roman Waugh, is a family drama about a father (played by Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson) who reunites with his estranged son after the kid is thrown in prison due to Draconian mandatory minimum sentencing laws. The dad then does everything he can—including becoming a top informant for a federal prosecutor and the DEA—to get his first-time-offender son's sentence reduced from ten years to zero. (The AARP has declared that this Dwayne Johnson movie is "really about good parenting.") Things get even bleaker when his good-natured and once college-bound son starts getting routinely harassed and, as the film implies, raped by the tougher and larger inmates.

Snitch features a lot of somber music and family members, understandably, in tears. It's hyper critical of the War on Drugs and the real-life mandatory minimum penalties that foster a counterproductive culture of "snitching." When the promotional materials read that the film is "inspired by true events," what that means is the script was based on a 1999 episode of PBS' Frontline titled, "Snitch: How Informants Have Become a Key Part of Prosecutorial Strategy in the Drug War." The episode examines two cases in which minor offenders got severe sentences based on the testimony of "snitches" who received sentence reductions in return for cooperating with authorities. Unlike the movie, the episode of PBS' acclaimed investigative news program does not feature a climactic car chase involving a 9mm submachine gun and a big rig.

So just to recap: Dwayne Johnson—a man most famous for pantomime wrestling, acting next to massive explosions, and knowing about the outcome of the Bin Laden raid pretty much before the rest of the world did—just made a movie slamming mandatory minimums that serves as a $35-million companion piece to a PBS documentary.

This is something that happened.

But in all seriousness, Johnson is an adept actor who handles the heavier emotions and grittier sequences here with ease and gravity. And Snitch is The Rock's best critique of the War on Drugs since the satirical press-conference scene at the beginning of the 2010 Will Ferrell comedy The Other Guys—where New York cops played by The Rock and Samuel L. Jackson heartily defend inflicting $12 million worth of property damage in order to bust criminals carrying only a quarter-pound of weed.

Now check out this clip from the original Frontline documentary "Snitch":

Watch "It Tore the Whole Family Up" on PBS. See more from FRONTLINE.

Snitch gets a wide release on Friday, February 22. The film is rated PG-13 for drug content and sequences of violence. Click here for local showtimes and tickets.

Click here for more movie and TV coverage from Mother Jones.

To read more of Asawin's reviews, click here.

To listen to the weekly movie and pop-culture podcast that Asawin co-hosts with ThinkProgress critic Alyssa Rosenberg, click here.

BuzzFeed and the Future of Advertising

| Fri Feb. 22, 2013 5:51 PM PST

Andrew Sullivan had a long, "passionate" debate at BuzzFeed last night about their habit of creating advertising content that's hard to tell apart from editorial content. This is from an after-action report written this afternoon:

When an ad page is designed not even to be seen much on the site’s homepage — where the color shading helps maintain the distinction between ads and edit — and is deliberately purposed to be viral, to pop up alone on your screen with “Buzzfeed” at the top of the page and a layout identical to Buzzfeed’s, the deliberate attempt to deceive readers is impossible to miss.

Am I thinking readers are too dumb to notice the by-line? Aren’t they more sophisticated than that? No and yes, they’re sophisticated, but not the way an industry insider is.

Roger that. Here's a little story that might shed some light on this. Several years ago, a friend of mine came over and noticed a three-ring binder sitting on my desk. It was full of stories clipped from the LA Times. "Why did you save these?" he asked. I told him to take a closer look. "Do you notice anything similar about them?"

Nope. Finally I pointed at the bylines. They were all by me, written when I interned at the Times during college. The moral of the story is that people who don't inhale news simply don't notice bylines. They're practically invisible. It's possible this is different at BuzzFeed, where reporters develop a loyal following, but I doubt it. I'll bet 90 percent of their readers never even notice their bylines.

And I'm pretty certain the folks at BuzzFeed know this perfectly well. They do everything they can to make advertising look staff-written, including in tone, style, and format, but leave themselves an out by putting corporate bylines on the ads and pretending that everyone will notice them. Hey, it says Sony Entertainment Network at the top! What more do you want?

I imagine this is a glimpse of our future. You have been warned.

Good Riddance: 112th Congress Had Worst Environmental Record Ever

| Fri Feb. 22, 2013 5:26 PM PST
Climate villains.

 "The best that can be said about this session of the 112th Congress is that it's over," League of Conservation Voters President Gene Karpinski said this week.

The sentiment comes in reaction to the League's 2012 Congressional Scorecard, released on Wednesday, which showed that in a year that saw record breaking heat waves, drought, wildfires, Hurricane Sandy, and other climate-change fueled disasters, the Republican-led House of Representatives came out with the worst environmental record ever.

The League tallies its scores by looking at each member of congress' votes on laws that have major environmental implications. Last year, the House put forth more than 100 bills, riders, and amendments related to the environment and public health, mostly with harmful effects. On top of that, House Republicans' proposals sought to trample on virtually every area related to the environment, from rolling back EPA safeguards for waterways and wildlife that stand in the way of the pursuit of coal, to limiting the president's power to preserve land as National Monuments. Not even the sea turtles were safe. Rep. Jeff Landry (R-La.) offered an amendment to a bill that would prohibit the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration from enforcing a rule that prohibits fishermen from snaring the endangered reptiles in their nets. (The amendment was later dropped.)

The league credited the Senate and the Obama Administration for batting down many of the most appalling affronts to the environment, but a few slipped through. What is striking in the data is how starkly the scores fell along party lines. House Democrats had an average score of 82, while their Senate counterparts scored 89. House Republicans had a score of 10, while GOP Senators' average was 17.

League of Conservation Voters 2012 Scores By Party

The divide is also reflected in the scores of party leadership. Democrats Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Majority Whip Dick Durbin were both deemed environmental champions by LCV with perfect scores of 100, while Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and Minority Whip Jon Kyl both had dismal scores of 7, only voting for two eco-friendly measures that also concerned subsidies for farmers.

In the House, Democratic Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi scored 94 and Minority Whip Steny Hoyer scored 91 for their attempts to stem the deluge of environmentally corrosive laws. Republican Majority Leader Eric Cantor scored 3, voting against or abstaining on everything except flood insurance reform, and Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy scored 6, voting against the protection of the water supply in his home state of California. (Speaker of the House John Boehner got a pass because the speaker votes at his own discretion.)

"These issues have traditionally been bipartisan," Jeff Gohringer, spokesperson for the League, said. "Now members of Congress are standing up for the polluter agenda over the desires of their constituents. It's been taken to a whole new level in terms of the extreme leadership in the Republican Party in the House. They've cemented their position as the worst House ever in the face of historic extreme weather all across the country."

Tea Party Group Behind Saturday's Gun Rallies Under Fire

| Fri Feb. 22, 2013 2:50 PM PST

On Saturday, gun rights advocates will be organizing at least 121 rallies across the country in a "day of resistance" to President Obama's gun violence prevention proposals. But some tea party activists are questioning the credentials of the group organizing the rallies, a Mesa, Arizona-based outfit called TheTeaParty.net that's been criticized as a data-harvesting operation designed to vacuum up contact information and credit card numbers from unsuspecting and largely clueless conservative activists. They've complained that the group raises tons of money under the tea party name but doesn't spend much to further the movement, and they're skeptical of its move into the gun debate.

Robin Stublen, a Florida tea party activist and gun owner, is suspicious of the Day of Resistance event. "All my life I have been around guns of some sort," he says. "Some are truly works of art. I respect them. I would never think of using them as the next political toy to make a fast buck. I seriously doubt if any of these so-called 'leaders' could tell the business end of a gun, let alone take them apart and clean them. They are opportunists and should be ignored."

TheTeaPary.net was founded by Todd Cefaratti, an Arizona man who is the CEO of a "lead generation" company for the reverse-mortgage industry and who has inserted himself into tea party politics in recent years. In 2011, TheTeaParty.net sponsored a truck at NASCAR's Camping World Truck Series, and it made a big splash by sponsoring a tea party "unity rally" at the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Florida, last year. It's been a sponsor of the Conservative Political Action Conference in DC this year and last, raising its profile among conservative activists.

Originally called Stop This Insanity Inc., Cefaratti's outfit has gone through a series of iterations and spinoffs, variously advertising under the name  JointheTeaParty.us, the Tea Party News Network, and recently, its leadership fund has been advertising on TV as Tea Party Demand, complete with an 800-number:

 

Now, it's hosting the Day of Resistance website. And the group has had an ever-changing cast of characters associated with it, including Judson Phillips, the founder of the Tea Party Nation, who's come under fire for making racist comments and for his efforts to make a buck off the movement by scoring an appearance by Sarah Palin at a for-profit tea party convention. Donna Wiesner Keene, the wife of NRA president David Keene, also worked briefly for the group. 

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Friday Cat Blogging - 22 February 2013

| Fri Feb. 22, 2013 1:02 PM PST

Blogging occasionally halts around here when I get jerked away by a high-priority interrupt. The interrupt service routine, typically written in Felix, usually involves the remote manipulation of digital sensory probes and feline auditory feedback. All other interrupts are inhibited during this activity. The photo below was taken nanoseconds before a recent instantiation of this maximum-priority ISR.

Quote of the Day: Defining "Politically Plausible" Down

| Fri Feb. 22, 2013 12:18 PM PST

From David Brooks, in a Q&A with Ezra Klein about his column today, in which he wrote (inaccurately) that the White House doesn't have a proposal to avert the sequester, "let alone one that is politically plausible":

What would be far enough, in your view? What would you like to see them offer?

My fantasy package, and I'm not running for office, would include a progressive consumption tax, and it would have chained CPI, and it would have a pretty big means-test of Medicare. I'd direct you to Yuval Levin's piece in the Times a few days ago, which seemed sensible.

I guess I shouldn't complain about this. I mean, props to Brooks for admitting that he went overboard, and props for being willing to talk to Ezra about it in a good natured way. Still, I have to chuckle when he complains about Obama not proposing a "politically plausible" plan, and then offers up an alternative that includes a progressive consumption tax, something that Republicans have been unrelentingly opposed to for decades in any reasonable form. Democrats aren't all that keen on the idea either. I think we really need to have a little chat about just what "politically plausible" really means.

Why Tea Party Gov. Rick Scott Flip-Flopped on Obamacare

| Fri Feb. 22, 2013 12:08 PM PST
Florida Governor Rick Scott on the campaign trail.

Florida Gov. Rick Scott was elected in 2010 almost entirely thanks to his activism opposing the Affordable Care Act, better known as Obamacare. Scott spent $20 million of his own considerable fortune attacking the law, and the Republican backed the state's lawsuit challenging its constitutionality all the way to the Supreme Court. Scott had declared last summer that Florida would implement the law basically over his dead body, including the optional part that would provide federal funding to expand Medicaid to people making up to 138 percent of the poverty line.

So it was a bit of a surprise Wednesday when he announced suddenly that he had changed his mind: Florida should embrace the Medicaid expansion. We'd like to think that this article might have had something to do with his decision; Scott himself claims that mother's death inspired his change of heart. But it's more likely that the decision was a direct result of the US Department of Health and Human Services agreeing to grant Florida a waiver that would allow it to move more Medicaid recipients into private managed-care plans—many of which are part of huge corporate insurance companies waiting to cash in on the latest installment of Obamacare. (The Medicaid expansion is expected to send $66 billion in federal funds to Florida in the next decade.)

Scott has been saying for months that if HHS approved Florida's waiver request, he might be more willing to take the Medicaid expansion. He was in DC in January meeting with HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius over the issue. But HHS's decision to grant the waiver was somewhat surprising, given that the state was asking to expand a very troubled pilot project going back to the Bush era. The pilot project, which also required a waiver from HHS, allowed the state to put Medicaid recipients in five counties into private, HMO-type health plans rather than the traditional government health plan for the poor and disabled. Scott has championed the pilot as an innovative way of keeping government spending in check. Health care advocates, though, saw the program as a major disaster.

Who's Saying What About Gerrymandering?

| Fri Feb. 22, 2013 11:53 AM PST

After rounding up a few comments from GOP members of Congress who are back in their districts this week talking about the sequester, Dave Weigel suggests that they're more likely to be realistic about things if they represent a swing district. Then this:

I enjoy the new, #slatepitchy argument that gerrymandering is overrated as an issue, and that it doesn't influence whether members moderate their votes or not, but sequestration's putting that to a test.

Hold on a second. Who's saying that? The argument I've heard making the rounds lately is that gerrymandering is probably responsible for a fairly modest change in the number of House seats Republicans won last year. The best guess seems to be around six or seven seats, which is nothing to sneeze at, but also a far cry from being solely responsible for the GOP's current majority. But who's been saying that gerrymandering has no effect on whether members feel any need to moderate their votes or their rhetoric? What have I missed?

UPDATE: Steve Randy Waldman suggests Weigel may have been referring to this post a few weeks ago from John Sides.