Friday, July 31, 2009

TEST SCORES & TEACHER RATINGS

A central initiative of the Administration’s proposals to reform education is to tie student performance to teacher evaluation.

Both the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers oppose this initiative because it does not allow teachers to hide poor performance behind protestations of good intentions or complaints about parents and students. Their argument against this initiative is a simple and seemingly plausible one: student performance results from the combined work of many teachers.

However, using student performance to evaluate teachers is really something quite easy to do. Use student proficiency test scores as the measure of student performance. Match each student with all previous teachers. Rank the “strings” of students and teachers by test scores. Then analyze the distribution of teachers to identify which teachers are associated more frequently with higher test scores and which with lower ones. Final result: the distribution will identify the better and worse teachers.

Superintendents, principals, teachers, and union leaders know that such data used in this fashion could effectively be used to identify good, mediocre, and bad teachers; to focus staff-development efforts on those most in need; and to establish the basis for possible discharge if poor results continue. The obstacle to this initiative is not any unfairness—it is very fair—but embarrassment to bad teachers. For their sake, the public education of students suffers. Perhaps, with this initiative, among others, they will suffer less or no longer.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

REVIEW OF GENERATION ME

A friend recommended Generation Me to me for the few snippets which it might provide for columns on education or associated issues. So I bought a copy.

Books that receive rave reviews should always be suspect of shrewdly appealing to the zeitgeist of the times. A book as over-rated as Catch-22 is an example from yesteryear; Generation Me is one from today (or a few years ago). Of course, the standards for judging fiction vary enormously from those for judging non-fiction, but, in this case, Generation Me invites the reader to blur the distinction.

Not that Generation Me does not have lots of data and lots of instances. Unfortunately, almost all of them appear based on middle-class and upper-middle-class whites of both genders. And they get applied to both sides of any issue at all, just in different places.

What it does not have is much sense, like a lot of pop sociology. I do not expect such a book, even from an associate professor, to get heavy with its methodology. But I do expect it to provide some historical and cultural backgrounds which place even the sequence of Boomer and Gen-Me cohorts in a broader context.

I also expect it to be conceptually clear enough to be consistent. Instead, Generation Me collects data which prove almost anything at all. Gen-Me-ers have parents who focus on their demands and involve them in decisions affecting them, and they have parents who do not accept their demands in the decision-making process. They both disregard the opinions of others and seek fame (as well as fortune). They believe not only that they can be anything that they want to be, but also that they have no control over their lives. In short, the data in one place support one view, and data in another place support a contradictory view.

Make of such a book whatever you want. Generation Me is the perfect book for these times; it gives all readers something as they wish to receive it, without troubling them to think much about anything seriously—which may be the most widespread characteristic of Generation Me.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

BUCHANAN ON SOTOMAYOR (& OF THOMAS)

I rarely agree with Pat Buchanan, a former Nixon speechwriter, sometime Republican presidential candidate, and current television commentator—which is shorthand for saying that I never agree with him. But I do like to listen to him except when he is being rude in interrupting the person with whom he is paired to debate. He is smart man and worth attending; sometimes I learn something from him.

He has a past which can be fairly said to reveal a racist streak. But, in the case of Sonia Sotomayor, he is not racist; he is simply partisan, so partisan that he cannot avoid inconsistency. Just this week, he attacked Judge Sotomayor as being an “affirmative action baby." She is and admits to be such a beneficiary. Buchanan uses this fact to discredit her record of accomplishment as a student at Princeton and Yale, and as an editor of the Yale Law Review; and to imply that she was not qualified for the Supreme Court. He implies that she got her grades and her editorship because she was favored as a minority. He says nothing about her record as a prosecutor or, by virtue of two previous Senate confirmations, as a federal district or appellate judge.

Here’s the rub. Buchanan said nothing in criticism of Clarence Thomas, also an “affirmative action” beneficiary, appointed as such by George H. W. Bush to the Supreme Court, with no law review or judicial experience. Buchanan did not oppose him as an "affirmative action baby" unqualified to serve on the Supreme Court.

Why the inconsistency? Two reasons. One, Buchanan is a hard-core partisan. Two, Buchanan fears Sotomayor as another embodiment of the demographic change changing American from a white man’s preserve.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

RANDOM THOUGHTS

Thought 1. I offer a wild, even mad, speculation about the nature of the CIA program about which we have heard so much of late. The latest thinking is that its purpose was to kill Al Qaeda and other terrorist leaders and important agents in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and elsewhere. I have a problem with this thinking. First, it has been no secret that the U.S. intended to seek out and capture or kill such leaders and agents. President Bush and Vice President Cheney said so many times. Second, it does not explain why the Vice President, with no actual authority to do so, ordered the program not be reported to Congress if this was its purpose and scope. My speculation: the purpose and scope of this CIA program was to assassinate suspected leaders and agents residing in this country—in short, a program to create and deploy “death squads” in America. If so, I can understand trying to keep it a secret.

Thought 2. The furor over cap-and-trade policy is reaching levels of dishonesty and hypocrisy which I have not known in most previous debates about a policy issue. (I do expect worse when it comes to national health insurance and to a consumer protection act. Consider yourself advised.) Critical is the idea that CO2, because it occurs in nature and supports flora, is not a pollutant and, thus, not a contributor to global warming. Ozone also occurs in nature, is benign in the ozone layer (it reduces UV radiation), is malign at the earth’s surfaces when it is concentrated, especially in heat inversions in urban areas. Location, concentration, and duration of exposure are everything. It is one thing for CO2 to occur as 3% of the atmosphere; it is another for it to reach 15% or more, as feared in the Apollo 13 mishap in space. Understandably, friends of fossil fuels use this bogus argument to advance their cause.

Thought 3. Obama’s idea that community colleges can help address the problems of the unemployed by retraining them for more skilled work and his budget to help those colleges deal with the needs of the unemployed will come a-cropper. I approve the effort, but I expect it to fail, even backfire. First, these colleges will offer the usual low-level of education for which they are known. Second, they will give easy work and award high grades—proof of their success, not that it will prove itself in actual assistance to the unemployed. Such is to be expected. But what will be learned and perhaps ill reported is that the education of no- or low-skilled workers has been so inadequate that they will lack sufficient skills to benefit from most instruction, good or bad. The fruits of anti-intellectualism, the disregard of public education, and, particularly, the Democratic Party refusal to deal with the unions which have refused reform may be recognized as primary causes of continued economic decline in America. Given the lead time of reform to take effect, even if it is undertaken and done right, the recognition required beforehand, if it occurs, will come too late for any amelioration for at least a quarter century. Tell your children and grandchildren to tighten their belts and open their books.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

DUNCE CAPS ON TRADE

I have noted four funny things about the local debate on the cap and trade legislation.

1. Residents of fossil fuel states oppose the cap and trade bill; residents in non fossil fuel states favor it. Funny how money buys people, who, at the first chance, turn around to complain about representatives who, they claim, sell out to special interests.

2. Opponents who think that members of the House and Senate actually read the bills which they vote on, or should be criticized for not doing so, have not a clue that they never have, never will, and should not. Staffers read it and advise accordingly.

3. Our pseudo-scientists who declare that CO2 is not a pollutant and does not contribute to global warming are Bushies who promote his idea of "best science," namely, the truth or untruth, whichever best serves corporate interests.

4. And GOP opponents suddenly declare their concern about poor people. Since when? They also espouse family values, then betray spouses and families. In both cases, I say zipper it up!

Saturday, July 11, 2009

ANTI-ABORTIONISM AS IDOLATRY

Years ago, a client asked me to review and edit an environmental impact statement on the disposal of large volumes of soil contaminated with low-level radioactive wastes. The preferred option was long-term, above-ground storage adjacent the runway of a major metropolitan airport. I no longer remember the numbers, but I did calculate the height of a straight-sided pile covering the entire available acreage for storage. The result was a pile so high that it created a hazard to departing and arriving flights. Obviously, the pile could not be set back from the boundaries and sloped according to standards, and still fit the designated area. So the preferred option was abandoned, mentioned only in the EIS to explain the reasons for dismissing it from consideration.

I have taken the same approach—look at the implications of the numbers—in the recent controversy over the killing of Dr. Tiller. Pro-life supporters assert that Dr. Tiller killed 60,000 babies or that he claimed to have performed 60,000 abortions. The math makes it implausible to the point of absurdity that he did or said anything of the sort. At the rate of one abortion an hour, eight hours a day, five days a week for fifty weeks, he would perform 2,000 abortions in one year. To perform 60,000 abortions would require 30 years.

Plainly, the number is not a fact and was never the basis of a claim. The number lends itself to characterizing Dr. Tiller or his practice by one or another ugly metaphor—say, babykiller or butcher shop—but such figurative and inflammatory language do not serve the truth and depart even farther from the realm of plausibility. No doubt, the number will continue to be bandied about because it is impressive in the service of ideology and politics. It lets pro-lifers justify the killing of Dr. Tiller, despite their pious protestations to the contrary, by the implied argument: one death as small retribution for 60,000 deaths.

A zealous Las Cruces pro-lifer makes this point clear: “As a mass terrorist that he was, he still should not have been killed by the nut job who pulled the trigger. But that’s what you get when people advocate pro choice policies.” The writer equates a doctor practicing according to law and making no effort to intimidate or terrify anyone with a “mass terrorist” who violates the law and uses violence to terrify people for political or religious ends. Worse, aside from the ill-concealed gloating over Tiller’s death, the writer maintains something even more twisted: a denial that the killer was pro-life and a view that pro-choice policies cause the killing of abortionists. This zealot writes that “This was not a pro life person…. From what I have read (media) it was a pro choice person who chose to murder Tiller the killer.” No source is give for this bizarre claim that pro-choice advocates are driven by their positions to kill pro-choice practitioners and thus are responsible for Dr. Tiller’s murder. On this issue, the misuse of numbers and language reflects the corruption of truth and ethics.

More, the self-justification for such misuse reveals that zealots are idolaters for whom their god is a fertilized egg worshipped by vituperative words and violent deeds against abortionists. In America, there is nothing democratic or Christian about such a position, and it is one reason why the kind of temperate discourse which Obama called for at Notre Dame—while protesters labeled him a babykiller for advocating a right to choose—is probably not possible. Anti-abortionists simply deny the ordinary political and religious standards and restraints which make reasoned and civil discourse possible.

KRAUTHAMMER RELIABLY UNRELIABLE AGAIN

Sometimes better, sometimes worse, we are not what we were. More than two decades ago, Charles Krauthammer received a Pulitzer Prize in journalism. That was then, when I read and admired his columns in The New Republic. This is now, when I read his columns in the local paper. As Hamlet might say of Krauthammer then and now, as he says of the comparison between Hamlet, Sr., and Claudius, “what a falling-off was there.”

Case in point, a recent column attacking Obama for missing the point on U.S.-Russian diplomacy. Crucial to Krauthammer’s entire argument is his view of the strategic balance of offensive and defensive missile capabilities, and what it means for American influence in our relations with an increasingly testy Russia.

According to Krauthammer, by linking offensive and defensive nuclear weapons, Obama gave away a huge strategic advantage enjoyed by the United States. He claims that we have a decisive “technological advantage in defensive weaponry. We can reliably shoot down an intercontinental ballistic missile. They cannot.”

The claim is nonsense, dangerous nonsense. After a long string of test failures, the U.S has a few successes in shooting down test missiles launched at a time and on a course known to our missile defenses. It is mendacity driven by anti-Obama madness to declare that we can “reliably” destroy incoming missiles launched at a time and from a place chosen by an enemy.

Worse, the claim rests on the idea that hostilities or, in the service of diplomacy, the threat of hostilities between Russia and the United States is likely to involve the resort to nuclear weapons. This Cold War thinking may have seemed or even been appropriate at the time when his writings won his Pulitzer, but such thinking makes no sense in the decades since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Worst of all, Krauthammer’s mistaken belief in American invincibility encourages reckless diplomacy. We have seen over and over since 1945 that a belief that America’s military superiority can muscle our way to our foreign policy objectives is mistaken. Indeed, it appears that the more we rely upon our military strength, even when the disparity between ours and our enemy’s is large, the greater the difficulty in achieving our objectives. If the day of white male conservative macho as the driving force of American diplomacy is not over—though there is a place for military strength as an adjunct to diplomacy—we cannot expect to deal effectively with our friends or our enemies.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

PELOSI VS. PANETTA

Republicans may deny the reality of CIA dishonesty in one form or another--it is their new modus vivendi--but Panetta has had to resort to the Clintonesque dodge, It depends on what you mean by "is." His admission that it is not the policy or practice of the CIA to mislead Congress is a covert admission that misleading Congress occurs as a matter of fact on occasion--or has in the past. No doubt, Panetta wants to protect his turf and his troops. But he ought to be able to support good agents and analysts without supporting the others. He ought to be able to deal with a "few bad apples," deal with them, and move on. Meanwhile, the agency has plainly gone rogue in the past eight years and needs Congressional oversight. That oversight cannot be provided by only the eight leaders in the House and Senate; they cannot discuss, much less prevent, CIA operations. Obama's threat to veto a bill with a provision for wider disclosure in Congress (to all members of House and Senate intelligence committees) is a measure of his retreat from "transparency" and of the likelihood of future abuses. The best approach: cut the CIA budget by funding only programs fully known to these committees.