When does life begin?

Just because it’s really interesting.  A student recently linked to this site in an on-line discussion about abortion.  The question of “when does human life begin” is quite complicated and in no way lends itself to any easy answers.   It is very worthwhile to note that religious and moral opinions on the matter have mattered greatly over time.  The concept of life beginning at conception is quite new to the debate.

A little more on teacher pay

Yglesias hits the same finding with a more thorough explanation of what I was only implicitly getting at:

As Pearlstein writes “presuming that merit pay alone would elevate student achievement makes sense if you assume teachers have a hidden trove of skills and effort they are not unloosing on their students only because they lack the proper incentives to do so.” I don’t think that was ever a very psychologically plausible account of what’s happening in American classrooms…

The idea here wouldn’t so much be to create an “incentive” as simply to ensure that the best teachers aren’t tempted to leave the profession while the worst teachers are encouraged to do so. If you want to do something through a bonus/incentive mechanism, what would make sense is to offer teachers extra money to take on challenging assignments in high poverty schools.

The point is that an absolutely flat salary structure makes no sense. Instead, we prefer to rely on proxies for quality. Currently, we use length of service and possession of a master’s degree as our proxies. But the evidence suggests that these are bad proxies and that value-added metrics, despite their flaws, are better.

Which I had said all that myself.  But, I suppose quoting Yglesias is close enough.

Quote of the day

From “New Rules” on the most recent Bill Maher:

Tea-baggers love the truth.  They just hate facts.

The whole segment is quite good:

Does teacher merit pay work?

No, says the latest rigorous study, but I think they are looking at the issue too narrowly.  First, the news:

The study, which the authors and other experts described as the first scientifically rigorous review of merit pay in the United States, measured the effect of financial incentives on teachers in Nashville public schools and found that better pay alone was not enough to inspire gains…

Central to such changes is the idea that teachers should be rewarded when their students achieve outsize gains on standardized tests. That is a major shift from the tradition of determining pay by seniority and credentials such as master’s or doctoral degrees…

On the whole, researchers found no significant difference between the test results from classes led by teachers eligible for bonuses and those led by teachers who were ineligible. Bonuses appeared to have some positive effect in the fifth grade, researchers said, but they discounted that finding in part because the difference faded out when students moved to the sixth grade.

A couple points.  First, even if potentially rewarding teachers for student performance does not appear to increase student performance, it’s still the right thing.  We should be compensating teachers based upon the achievement of their students (insert necessary caveats on the difficulty of doing this correctly and fairly) far more so than seniority or credentials which have been repeatedly shown to have no relationship to student performance.  Secondly, if there was performance pay pervasively throughout K-12 education, it seems to be reasonable to think that it might help to recruit more ambitious and motivated people into teaching and this short-term study has no way of measuring such effects.

Hack tank

One of the annoying things about think tanks is that some have genuine credibility and others are nothing but mendacious arms of the Republican party, but journalists tend to treat them all pretty much the same.  Just attaching a “left-leaning” to the intellectually credible Brookings Institution and “right-leaning” to the collection of books and hacks that justify the Republican party all times that is The Heritage Foundation.  Mark Kleiman does a great job at getting at this while eviscerating Heritage’s “research” on the legalization of marijuana:

With that as a warm-up, the Heritage folks invent an entirely new brand of pharmacology, in which cannabis is hideously dangerous but alcohol quite safe. (The trick is to compare data on moderate drinking with data on heavy cannabis smoking, and to simply ignore the facts about alcohol-related violence.)

What’s really scary is that the people running Heritage think they can produce this kind of crap and get away with it. It wouldn’t have been hard to run a draft report past any of a dozen actual experts hostile to cannabis legalization and have them spot the howlers. In the extreme, Heritage might have even gotten an expert to write the report in the first place.

What’s even scarier is that no doubt the executives at Heritage are basically correct: for an outfit that occupies the Heritage there’s simply no price to be paid for making sh*t up. People who look to Heritage for “research” have already opted for ideological reliability over quality and accuracy, and journalists either really can’t tell the difference between a real policy research outfit like RAND and a propaganda mill like Heritage or don’t think it would be “objective” to distinguish attempts to find the truth from efforts to fit arguments to pre-determined conclusions.

Even within the world of advocacy groups, there are differences in quality. I can’t imagine a comparable product coming out of, for example, the Center for American Progress. But how much does CAP benefit from the difference, given that journalists mostly won’t mention it, even if they perceive it?

I think this results from the misguided journalistic mantra to be balanced at all costs.  In truth, treating propaganda from Heritage the same as real research from Brookings only lets the liars win (as does much of he said, she said journalism).

Conservatives and the deficit

Anybody who actually thinks conservatives are serious about reducing the deficit (other than just using the idea as political posturing) is as delusional as Christine O’Donnell.  As if their insistence upon cutting taxes for America’s richest above all other priorities isn’t enough, Yglesias makes the nice point that pretty much all the havoc they want to wreak on health care reform would increase the deficit:

Neil King and Janet Adamy offer us the Republican plan of attack on the Affordable Care Act:

Republican congressional aides and advisers say their focus would including blocking funding to hire new Internal Revenue Service agents, who are needed to enforce the law’s tax increases. They also would consider barring spending for a new board that approves Medicare payment cuts as well as on research that compares the effectiveness of medical procedures.

Other potential targets include funds to pay for a long-term care insurance program and money to help states set up insurance exchanges where consumers will be able to use tax credits beginning in 2014.

There are a bunch of different ideas here. And since they’re all framed as reductions in spending, it’s easy to overlook the fact that virtually all of these measures would increase the budget deficit. Failure to hire new IRS agents would increase the deficit by reducing revenue. Failure to finance IMAC would increase the deficit by increasing overall spending. Failing to take in CLASS Act revenue would increase the deficit by reducing revenue.

And there’s more!

Republicans would also bring to a vote measures that attack the law’s least popular parts, including the requirement that most Americans carry health insurance and cuts to payments for privately run Medicare plans.

Eliminating the individual mandate will increase the deficit by increasing outlays on exchange subsidies. Eliminating the “Medicare Advantage” cuts will increase the deficit by increasing spending on Medicare advantage.

I’ll believe that Republicans want to reduce the deficit when they actually take actions to reduce the deficit.  Last time that happened, George H.W. Bush was drummed out of the conservative movement for breaking his “no new taxes” pledge.

Jumping the shark

I really like this essay in which the writer of the infamous Happy Days’ Fonzie jumps the shark on waterskis episode defends himself and the role this episode played in happy days.   I brought it up with my friends in the context of explaining how Entourage had gone horribly downhill (lazy and sloppy writing) with no true “jump the shark” moment.  Further conversation  as to what precisely the phrase “jumped the shark” means, led us to learn that the term is not nearly as universally known as I thought.  I polled my class, and only about a third of them knew.  Sad– it’s such a useful term in pop culture.  In case that’s you, you know what to do.  And, for the record, Fred Fox makes quite a compelling case that Happy Days did not “jump the shark” when Fonzie did.  Interesting how these things take on a life of their own.

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