Chart/Map of the day

Executions by state since 1976 (via the Economist):

You will likely be unsurprised to see that Texas is in a league of it’s own when it comes to executing people (some of them, perhaps innocent).

Photo of the day

In honor of 4/20, Alan Taylor had a wide-ranging set of photos on the theme of marijuana.  This one is not particularly marijuana-related, but an awesome photo:

Young people smoke marijuana while watching the sunset in Brasilia, on May 12, 2011. (Reuters/Ueslei Marcelino)

Personally, didn’t know 4/20 was supposed to be anything special until I noticed the crowd around the block a few years ago at the “Kitsch” shop that sells marijuana paraphernalia.

College accountability and social science

David Brooks takes our universities to task for not doing a good enough job educating our students and especially for not having any accountability mechanisms like the standardized K-12 testing.   The column is based largely on Academically Adrift, which I’ve mentioned several times here.

Colleges are supposed to produce learning. But, in their landmark study, “Academically Adrift,” Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa found that, on average, students experienced a pathetic seven percentile point gain in skills during their first two years in college and a marginal gain in the two years after that. The exact numbers are disputed, but the study suggests that nearly half the students showed no significant gain in critical thinking, complex reasoning and writing skills during their first two years in college…

It’s not enough to just measure inputs, the way the U.S. News-style rankings mostly do. Colleges and universities have to be able to provide prospective parents with data that will give them some sense of how much their students learn.

There has to be some way to reward schools that actually do provide learning and punish schools that don’t. There has to be a better way to get data so schools themselves can figure out how they’re doing in comparison with their peers.

In 2006, the Spellings commission, led by then-Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings, recommended a serious accountability regime. Specifically, the commission recommended using a standardized test called the Collegiate Learning Assessment to provide accountability data. Colleges and grad schools use standardized achievement tests to measure students on the way in; why shouldn’t they use them to measure students on the way out?

Here’s the thing, K-12 standardized tests basically focus on reading and math.  That’s it.  We have fairly similar expectations about what all High School graduates should know.  I don’t think we can say the same about college graduates.  So long as we except that physics, computer science, accounting, business management, biomedical engineering, art history, and English literature, etc., are all appropriate college majors you show me a test that you honestly think can evaluate fairly, students across all these majors.

Check out the sample from the CLA.

That’s going to be a tough questions if your focus has been physics or chemistry or many other seriously hard majors where you obviously learn a lot of stuff during college.   The truth is, the CLA was created by social scientists and it has a huge bias towards measuring the things that social sciences value.  Now, heck, I’m a social scientist and I honestly think the ability to do a good job on the sample question is a valuable skill for any working adult in our society, but I don’t kid myself that answering questions like this means we are actually do a better job educating our students than faculty in disciplines that are very different from my own.

Not surprisingly, Brooks all too easily glides right over these difficulties in order to provide his platitudes about accountability.   I would be quite open to the idea of some sort of assessment to see how good a job we are doing educating our students.  But don’t kid yourself that this would be a simple and straightforward task.  As they say, the devil is in the details, and this strikes me as quite devilish.

Welfare, drug tests, and cost/benefit

You may have heard that a while back Florida decided that in order to receive welfare benefits people would first have to pass a drug test.  Can’t have the druggies taking state money to spend on meth instead of food, rent, etc. Results are preliminary, but it turns out that so far this seems to be costing Florida more money than it is saving:

Ushered in amid promises that it would save taxpayers money and deter drug users, a Florida law requiring drug tests for people who seek welfare benefits resulted in no direct savings, snared few drug users and had no effect on the number of applications, according to recently released state data…

From July through October in Florida — the four months when testing took place before Judge Scriven’s order [placing the policy on hold due to 4th amendment concerns] — 2.6 percent of the state’s cash assistance applicants failed the drug test, or 108 of 4,086, according to the figures from the state obtained by the group. The most common reason was marijuana use. An additional 40 people canceled the tests without taking them.

Because the Florida law requires that applicants who pass the test be reimbursed for the cost, an average of $30, the cost to the state was $118,140. This is more than would have been paid out in benefits to the people who failed the test, Mr. Newton said.

As a result, the testing cost the government an extra $45,780, he said.

And the testing did not have the effect some predicted. An internal document about Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or TANF, caseloads stated that the drug testing policy, at least from July through September, did not lead to fewer cases.

What was most amusing/annoying was the continued justifications for the law in light of this evidence:

But supporters of the law said four months of numbers did little to discredit an effort they said was based on common sense. Drug users, no matter their numbers, should not be allowed to use taxpayer money, they said.

“We had to stop allowing tax dollars for anybody to buy drugs with,” said State Representative Jimmie T. Smith, a Republican who sponsored the bill last year. Taxpayer savings also come in deterring those drug users who would otherwise apply for cash assistance but now think twice because of the law, some argued.

Chris Cinquemani, the vice president of the Foundation for Government Accountability, a Florida-based public policy group that advocates drug testing and recently made a presentation in Georgia, said more than saving money was at stake.

“The drug testing law was really meant to make sure that kids were protected,” he said, “that our money wasn’t going to addicts, that taxpayer generosity was being used on diapers and Wheaties and food and clothing.”

First, there’s nothing to make sure welfare benefits aren’t spent on alcohol or prostitutes or gambling or fine Bavarian herbal teas or any number of ways to waste your money that aren’t Huggies or Wheaties.  If you are going to simply give money to help out poor people (and I think you should) some of it is going to be wasted.  Welcome to dealing with human beings.

Second, this policy was sold for it’s cost-saving benefit, not just the morality.  And point one shows the failure of the morality angle.

Third, most of the violations were for marijuana.  Nothing about that suggests hard-core drug addicts who are buying marijuana instead of diapers (again, it could always go to alcohol with no testing).  I’m no big fan of marijuana, but we’re not exactly talking crackheads here.

Anyway, a bunch of other Republican-led legislatures are looking to pass similar laws.  I’m sure they won’t let a little empirical evidence get in the way of wasting their citizens money on a crusade to stop marijuana users from getting welfare benefits.

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