The Odds

From this super-cool medical info-graphic.  You really should check out the whole thing.  This just happened to be my favorite part:

Any guesses as to what people are actually more scared of?

Undermining academic integrity in one easy step

Sorry for being such a bad blogger lately.  Let’s just blame it on the after-effects of Hurricane Irene.  So, today’s quick hit, NCSU’s new GPA calculation policy.  From the memo:

The main changes are:

1.) Undergraduate Grade Exclusion

Undergraduates can select up to two NC State courses with posted letter grades of C- or below to exclude from their GPA. Students no longer have to repeat a course to take advantage of grade exclusion and are no longer limited to 100 or 200 level courses taken in their first year of enrollment.

Got that?  NC State students can now drop any 2 course from their GPA calculation for any reason.  Freshmen forgiveness is one thing, but this strikes me as absurd (as it does to most colleagues I’ve discussed it with).  The rationale is not totally crazy:

The intention of this change is to provide greater flexibility for all undergraduates, especially new transfer students and new freshmen entering with lots of AP credit who were limited by the criteria of the First Year Course Repeat regulation.

Yet, if that’s the intention, there are much narrower fixes, e.g,. allow replacement for one lower-level course taken in your first semester actually at NCSU.  I seem to recall when this idea was first promulgated that it was mentioned that many other universities now have a similar policy.  To which I say, “and if all those other universities decided to jump off a bridge?”

Photo of the day

I did get lots of nice photos of the Maine coast before the Hurricane made things interesting.  This is my favorite lighthouse photo:

Chart of the day


Somebody needs to explain to Rick Perry what a Ponzi scheme is.  Actually, somebody needs to explain a lot of things to Rick Perry about how the world works outside of his head.  Ezra Klein bring us this awesome Venn Diagram:


Hurricanes and government

Nice story by Milbank yesterday about the reality of government response to the hurricane versus a Tea Party world that defunds NOAA:

More likely, however, Americans won’t have long to savor this new competence in government. NOAA has already been hit with budget cuts that will diminish its ability to track storms, and FEMA, like much of the federal government, will lose about a third of its funding over the next decade if Tea Party Republicans have their way.

In the spending compromise for this year worked out between congressional Republicans and the White House, NOAA’s budget was cut by about $140 million (House Republicans had sought much larger cuts) and money for new satellites was cut by more than $500 million from President Obama’s request. NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco warned in May, “we are likely looking at a period of time a few years down the road where we will not be able to do the severe storm warnings . . . that people have come to expect today.”

Congressional Democrats and the White House were somewhat more successful this year in resisting cuts to FEMA that Republicans had proposed. But under the House Republicans’ plan to freeze discretionary spending at 2008 levels over a decade, FEMA cuts are inevitable. According to an analysis by the Center for American Progress’s Scott Lilly that takes into account inflation and population, this amounts to a 31 percent cut in real per capita spending on discretionary functions such as FEMA.

I really don’t think there’s much to add to this; it pretty much speaks for itself.

Of hurricanes and eyewitness testimony

Okay, the hurricane is the reason for the slow blogging.  Instead of blogging yesterday, I spent 13.5 hours driving home from the wedding in Portland, Maine after United re-scheduled me for a Wednesday flight home.  Since, I’m not going to go a whole weekday without offering you something, here’s the bulk of an Adam Serwer post along the lines of one I would’ve done myself if I had more time.  Short version: eyewitness testimony is horribly unreliable, and at least New Jersey (and I drove the whole turnpike yesterday) has figured this out.  Hopefully, it will be catching.  The gist:

Eyewitness misidentification is a leading factor in wrongful convictions — according to the Innocence Project, more than 75 percent of DNA exonerations involved cases of eyewitness misidentification. In what the Innocence Project called a landmark ruling earlier this week, New Jersey Supreme Court Chief Justice Stuart J. Rabner wrote a long opinion holding that the legal standards for admissibility of eyewitness evidence should be modified…

It may seem shocking just how unreliable your eyes can be. The ruling cites studies that showed eyewitnesses picking the wrong person out of a lineup as often as they picked the right one, along with another study showing that even when witnesses are told the person might not be in the lineup, they’ll choose an innocent person about a third of the time. The reason is that our memories may seem vivid, they’re often not as accurate as we think they are. While lineups are constructed of similar looking individuals precisely to force the witness to think strongly about what they remember, this may result in witnesses unconsciously conforming their memory to the available choices.

And this next paragraph is really key:

The most complex part of eyewitness misidentification, though, is the fact that people who wrongly identify someone are often really confident they’ve made the right choice — and that confidence is persuasive in court. The ruling notes that a previous ruling’s observation that while “there is almost nothing more convincing [to a jury] than a live human being who takes the stand, points a finger at the defendant, and says ‘That’s the one!’” the fact is that “accuracy and confidence may not be related to one another at all.” There’s not necessarily any malice in this — it’s simply an artifact of how our brains work.

I’ll throw in an obligatory plug for “Murder on a Sunday Morning” and the great 60 Minutes story on Ronald Cotton here.

College students and google

In what should come as absolutely no surprise to anyone who’s ever taught a college class, students have absolutely no idea how to use search engines to conduct research (much less an idea of the fact that they shouldn’t be using google in the first place when searching a specific topic).  Via Yahoo:

Researchers with the Ethnographic Research in Illinois Academic Libraries project watched 30 students at Illinois Wesleyan University try to search for different topics online and found that only seven of them were able to conduct “what a librarian might consider a reasonably well-executed search.”…

The researchers found that students did not know “how to build a search to narrow or expand results, how to use subject headings, and how various search engines (including Google) organize and display results.” That means that some students didn’t understand how to search only for news articles, or only for scholarly articles. Most only know how to punch in keywords and hope for the best.

Asher told The Lookout that “extremely few students could describe how Google works in conceptual terms with any degree of accuracy.” One sophomore in Biology told him: “I have no idea [how Google determines search results].  I’m just trusting Google to know what are the good resources.”

Not at all surprised.  It is absolutely amazing and depressing how often students end up citing marginally relevant and totally peripheral articles all because for some reason they came up high on google.  Typically, if I have an assignment where students are supposed to analyze a House campaign, they might just have 3 or 4 articles with titles like, “Rep Johnson presents $5 million check to local law enforcement” and be totally lacking in any larger strategic overviews of the race.  Some day I’m actually going to spend some real time in class on this stuff.  I feel like this should be someone else’s job (High School?  Freshman composition?) but many of them clearly aren’t getting it.

Teachers, Unions, Poverty, oh my

So, in a recent post where I tried to throw a lot of stuff out there, this bit about schools drew several comments:

  • Meta quote of the day.  I actually like Kevin Drum’s quote in response to Felix Salmon, better than Salmon’s:

As a general rule, anybody who thinks that anything about education reform is “simple and obvious” is wrong. (Salmon)

Words of wisdom. It’s not unions, it’s not teachers, it’s not the curriculum, it’s not funding, it’s not charter schools, it’s not poverty, it’s not testing, and it’s not poor parenting. It’s all those things. Anyone who gets too obsessed with only one or two pieces of the ed system is just guaranteeing that they’ll never understand what’s going on. (Drum)

In comments, John F insists its the poverty.  Mike B says, no, it’s not.  My turn.  They’re both right, but here’s my take.   Yes, it is the poverty more than anything else, but, we are talking about education policy.  Sure, alleviating concentrated poverty might very well be the single most effective way to improve education, but in the real world that’s simply never going to be feasible as education policy.  I would argue, that with education policy, we should do what we can to make our schools as good as possible, given that in many cases we are dealing with a lot of impoverished students.  In that case, education-wise, I think the evidence suggests the single most important thing we can do in the purview of education policy is to improve teacher quality.  As for as Steven Brill’s take goes (I’ve now read his Reuters essay and listened to a Dianne Rehm interview) I definitely strongly agree that we need to treat teachers more as professionals.  Quality teaching should be rewarded and poor teaching should lead to termination.  Sadly, that’s currently all-too-often not the case.  This also fits fairly well with the Gladwell take on teaching with regular readers are tired of me mentioning.  It should definitely be way easier to fire bad teachers and surely be easier to assess and reward the best teachers.  We should stop rewarding teachers for credentials that contribute nothing to better teaching.  That said, I think you could completely eliminate teacher’s unions and we’d still have a lot of the same problems.

When you get down to it, I really think that there’s some common-sense, empirically-based ideas that most of us who really care about this issue could probably agree upon.  We really need to pay good teachers more, do whatever it takes to make teaching a more attractive profession to high-quality college grads (see Finland and Korea), take the lessons we can from charter schools that are scalable and really work, while realizing that charter schools are definitely no panacea.   Can’t we all agree on that regardless of how central we thing poverty is to the overall state of education?  Maybe we could even agree that, to the degree that it’s possible, education policy should work to address they ways in which poverty specifically undermines student performance.

[That was more original thought than you get for a blog post.  Enjoy it– I’m off to Portland, Maine  ahead of Irene to attend a wedding.]

Optical Illusion of the day

This image is really not actually moving at all.  Very cool:

This Is Not A GIF

And, here’s a link to a whole bunch more of these.  With explanations in Japanese to boot!

New Yorker-esque cartoons of the day

I’m a big fan of New Yorker cartoons (Kim always goes straight to the last page to check out the caption contest when the new issue comes), so I really enjoyed this piece in Slate about what it takes to get a cartoon in the New Yorker.  The author, James Sturm,  includes several of his submissions that certainly fit the style, but didn’t make the grade.  These are my favorites:


The Texas economy

There’s been plenty of stuff making the rounds of the liberal blogosphere explaining Texas’ economic success since Rick Perry’s entrance to the race.  What I thought worth posting here, comes from the liberal blogosphere, but is Drum excerpting a Goldman Sachs analysis of the Texas economy, i.e,. not some whiny liberal bloggers, but Wall Street types.  The key excerpt:

The report concludes that three factors are overwhelmingly responsible for good employment performance over the past three years:

  • Lack of a housing bubble. Texas really does have something to teach us on this score — namely that sensible government regulation of the mortgage market is a pretty good idea — but this is not exactly something Perry is eager to preach about. (And he wasn’t responsible for it anyway.)
  • An oil industry. ‘Nuff said. Lucky is lucky.
  • Lots of high-end services and technology. Actually, I suspect Texas has done fairly well on this score over the past decade, but it’s still not a leader of the pack. Texas-wise, housing and oil are the big story here.

And what wasn’t responsible for strong employment performance? Here’s the list:

  • State income tax rates
  • State property tax rates
  • State spending as a share of the economy

Goldman analyst Zach Pandl’s conclusion:

For the national economy we see two main lessons. First, because housing and mortgage credit are central to the weakness around the country, these issues should probably continue to receive attention from policymakers. Second, because the outperformance of a few states is closely related to natural resource exposure it is not easily replicable elsewhere.

Just remember stuff whenever people try and argue we need to follow the Texas model.  You cannot exactly replicate oil reserves and prevent a housing bubble that already happened.  What we can do to replicate Texas is increase regulation of mortgages.  Also, if lame state services and low taxes were the key, MS, AL, LA, etc., would all be booming and people would actually want to live there.

Stuff I wanted to blog about today and didn’t

Busy day today.  Worst part is, out over $400 for a new washing machine.  Plus, $75 to find out that our washing machine would be so expensive to repair that we just needed to buy a new one.  Anyway, lots of stuff I really wanted to blog about today and realize I’ll probably never get around to, as the next few days look quite busy as well.

  • Making the rounds throughout the liberal blogosphere, this chart that shows what incredible folly it would be to raise the Medicare eligibility age.  Just dumb, anyway you look at it.  I hate that Obama was willing to bargain on this.  Also shows what a moron Joe Lieberman is for pushing it.  Here’s Drum’s post on it.
  • Steven Pearlstein on the absurdity that is our patent system.  Just read it.  Seriously.  He also links to the absolutely fabulous This American life on the topic.
  • Meta quote of the day.  I actually like Kevin Drum’s quote in response to Felix Salmon, better than Salmon’s:

As a general rule, anybody who thinks that anything about education reform is “simple and obvious” is wrong.

Words of wisdom. It’s not unions, it’s not teachers, it’s not the curriculum, it’s not funding, it’s not charter schools, it’s not poverty, it’s not testing, and it’s not poor parenting. It’s all those things. Anyone who gets too obsessed with only one or two pieces of the ed system is just guaranteeing that they’ll never understand what’s going on.

  • Yes, Virigina, the stimulus really did work.  It’s old news, but Jon Cohn has a nice post emphasizing this very essential point.  It’s not liberal economists who say so, it’s Wall Street economists.
  • Okay, just read the Felix Salmon piece Drum quotes from.  Really nice summary of the issues of school quality and Brill’s new book that I’m going to write a longer blog post about some day.  Read it.

Now back to your regularly scheduled blogging.  Maybe.

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