Inside the NC GOP Mind (more lies)

A while back, Bob A. forwarded me this constituent email from State Senator Neal Hunt.  It’s amazing in its mendacity.  Too choices– Hunt is either totally delusional and believes this; or totally evil and doesn’t mind bald-faced lies to his constituents.  Either is not pretty.

ESSE QUAM VIDERI

No words can describe the current General Assembly better than our own state motto, “Esse Quam Videri,” which is Latin for “To be rather than to seem.” The press has extensively covered the many protests we’ve had at the Legislative Building. You’ve probably seen or read the protestors chanting about the Republican “war on the poor” as you turn on the evening news or open a newspaper.

Here are the facts: The poorest in our state receive free medical care, free housing from Section 8, free food stamps, free child care, and almost $1 billion in other state grants.

When combining the funds provided by the federal and state government to North Carolina’s low income earners, more than $15 billion per year is spent on projects dedicated to assisting the poor, yet protestors are demanding us (not asking us) to do more?

The government didn’t invent that $15 billion; the government received that $15 billion from hardworking Americans. What the protestors fail to realize is there will ultimately come a point when individuals have no incentive to work; thinking that no matter how hard you work or don’t work, the government will always bail you out.

“Esse Quam Videri” – “To be rather than to seem.” To the protestors, we seem to be “waging a war on the poor.” To the protestors, we seem to be rewarding the richest North Carolinians at the expense of the working class. To the protestors, we seem to be out-of-touch with the needs of the average North Carolinian.

Rather, we are passing a budget that prioritizes state spending on programs benefitting the lowest income earners of our state more than any other budget in state history. We are reforming our state’s outdated tax code so that all individuals at all income levels can keep more of their hard-earned money while closing loopholes created to benefit special interest groups.  [emphasis mine]

And most importantly, we are striving to make sure that all of our citizens have the opportunity and skills for economic prosperity without a growing dependency on government largess.

As always, it is a pleasure to serve you in the North Carolina Senate. If you have any questions or concerns, please don’t hesitate to contact me.

Sincerely,

Prioritizes lowest income earners more than ever?!  Seriously?  And tax cuts for “all earners” that overwhelmingly benefit the richest North Carolinians.    Would be great if this all were true.  Alas.

Video of the day

Sunrise solar eclipse in Western Australia this past May.  Pretty cool indeed.

Childhood obesity and nudges

Perhaps you heard the good news that childhood obesity rates are going down.  Hooray!  Nobody is quite sure why, but there’s a number of theories.  The New Yorker’s Margaret Talbot weighs in (pun only semi-intended) on one policy-based explanation:

In 2009, the U.S.D.A. made a major revision in the list of foods that could be bought with coupons from the federal program known as W.I.C. (short for the Supplemental Nutritional Program for Women, Infants, and Children). The new package included more healthy items (fresh, frozen, and canned fruits and vegetables, whole-grain breads and cereals, and low-fat milk) and fewer dubious ones (sweetened juices, cereals and breads that are not whole-grain). This was significant not only because the changes were so purposefully aimed at improving nutrition for low-income Americans but because W.I.C. serves so many of them—fifty per cent of American infants, twenty-five per cent of children under five, and twenty-six per cent of postpartum women are enrolled in the program…

In many of the low-income neighborhoods where women and children rely heavily on W.I.C., supermarkets are few and far between. Residents with limited funds for transportation are often forced to shop at the kind of gas-station quick marts and dusty-shelved corner stores where they can find plenty of beef jerky, chips, and soda and, other than a bruised banana or two, not much in the way of produce. But when a team of researchers from Yale University’s Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity studied W.I.C.-authorized stores across Connecticut, they found that the stores had responded to the new rules by “improving the availability and variety of healthy foods.” The businesses “found a way,” as the researchers from Yale put it, to make room for low-fat milk on their shelves, and to stock fruits and vegetables and whole-grain breads and other products they had not sold before. In so doing, they revealed a previously unsatisfied consumer demand. The researchers found that nearby stores that did not accept W.I.C. also started offering healthier foods, either because they now had new supply chains to take advantage of, or because customers were now asking for them, or both.

Marlene Schwartz, the director of the Rudd Center, thinks the W.I.C. reforms surely played a role in the reduction of obesity reported this week. The sheer number of families affected is part of the reason. And for two- and three-year-olds, who don’t need as many calories, a relatively small change—a switch to low-fat milk, a dip in the amount of sweetened juice they’re chugging—“can be pretty significant.” …

Information and moral suasion—Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move campaign and the like—are important, but in the salty-sweet sea of temptation we all swim in, they’re not really enough. Big Junk Food, with its ubiquity and its advertising juggernaut, will always swamp earnest nutritional pamphlets and public-service announcements. Unless, that is, there are rules and money on the other side. The Republicans have, by and large, taken to treating public health as a private matter—as though we could all count calories in a self-actualizing vacuum. And that’s too bad, because when it comes to battling obesity, we all need some of the will power that only government can provide.

Writing about the broader idea of government “nudging” citizens towards their enlightened self interest through changing policy defaults, David Brooks comes down on the side of the nudgers (here’s what I’ve written on the matter in the past):

But this raises a philosophic question. Do we want government stepping in to protect us from our own mistakes? Many people argue no. This kind of soft paternalism will inevitably slide into a hard paternalism, with government elites manipulating us into doing the sorts of things they want us to do. Policy makers have their own cognitive biases, which will induce them to design imperfect interventions even if they mean well.

Individuals may be imperfect decision-makers, but they still possess more information than faraway government rule-makers. If government starts manipulating decision-making processes, then individuals won’t learn to think for themselves. Even just setting a default position reduces liberty and personal responsibility.

The pro-paternalists counter that government is inevitably setting contexts and default positions anyway, so they might as well be aligned with individual and social goals. There’s very little historical evidence that there is an inevitable slippery slope leading from soft paternalism to hard paternalism. If companies are going to trick people into spending more on, say, bank overdraft fees, shouldn’t government step in to prevent a psychological market failure?

I’d say the anti-paternalists win the debate in theory but the libertarian paternalists win it empirically. In theory, it is possible that gentle nudges will turn into intrusive diktats and the nanny state will drain individual responsibility.

But, in practice, it is hard to feel that my decision-making powers have been weakened because when I got my driver’s license enrolling in organ donation was the default option. It’s hard to feel that a cafeteria is insulting my liberty if it puts the healthy fruit in a prominent place and the unhealthy junk food in some faraway corner. It’s hard to feel manipulated if I sign up for a program in which I can make commitments today that automatically increase my charitable giving next year. The concrete benefits of these programs, which are empirically verifiable, should trump abstract theoretical objections.

Yep.  Not always happy with Brooks, but I think he gets this very much right.  When it comes to abstract theory versus empirical data, I’ll go with the actual data every time.   And the data suggest that policy “nudges” are a very sensible approach to public policy that do not inevitably lead down a slippery slope to tyranny (every now and then a slippery slope argument is actually right, but not usually in my experience).

Photo of the day

From the Telegraph’s photos of the day.  I’ve got a soft spot for cool bald eagle photos– is that wrong?

These two bald eagles fight over a fish in mid-flight as they both attempt to wrap their huge talons around the same prey. The pair of bald eagles tussled in mid-air, with neither of them giving any indication of relenting
These two bald eagles fight over a fish in mid-flight as they both attempt to wrap their huge talons around the same prey. The pair of bald eagles tussled in mid-air, with neither of them giving any indication of relentingPicture: Giulio Zanni/Photoshot/Solent News

Evaluating teachers

I started off by reading this interesting piece in the WSJ about how certain teachers in South Korea are basically super-rich teaching rockstars.  And while South Korea is right up there with Finland in overall education quality, it seems to come at a cost of completely crushing the life out of kids and parents.  No thanks.  I’ll take 17th internationally.

Anyway, part of the essay talked about how teachers are evaluated, in part, by student surveys– an approach extensively studied and advocated by the Gates Foundation.   In fact, I ended up taking a pretty thorough skim through this entire Gates Foundation policy brief on measuring effective teaching.

Here’s a key figure from the report:

fft

 

Basically, teacher observation (carefully structured and done multiple times, FFT is one particular model), combined with student surveys, combined with value-added on testing appears to be quite valid and quite reliable at determing who the best teachers are.  (And you can also see the minimal value of Master’s degrees in this chart).

Anyway, as one regularly subjected to student surveys, and given that the fact that they are far and away the most cost effective of these methods, I was pretty intrigued.   Turns out, I had overlooked a very nice Atlantic Magazine article on the subject this past Fall.  Anyway, what it comes down to is just a handful of student survey questions– which are not at all a popularity contest– are quite valid and reliable measures of effective teaching:

Of the 36 items included in the Gates Foundation study, the five that most correlated with student learning were very straightforward:

1. Students in this class treat the teacher with respect.

2. My classmates behave the way my teacher wants them to.

3. Our class stays busy and doesn’t waste time.

4. In this class, we learn a lot almost every day.

5. In this class, we learn to correct our mistakes.

When Ferguson and Kane shared these five statements at conferences, teachers were surprised. They had typically thought it most important to care about kids, but what mattered more, according to the study, was whether teachers had control over the classroom and made it a challenging place to be. As most of us remember from our own school days, those two conditions did not always coexist: some teachers had high levels of control, but low levels of rigor.

One of the reasons I’ve always felt that I am a much better college professor than I ever would be a HS teacher is the classroom management issue.  It is obviously really, really important.  And I know enough from substitute teaching and Sunday school teaching that it is a weakness of mine.  The good news for me is that classroom management is basically not an issue in college.

This also reminded me of an article I read in the Atlantic a couple years ago about Teach for America research showing that one of the best indicators of good teaching was simply time actually spent teaching.  If you can manage a classroom well, you’ll simply be spending more time teaching and less dealing with classroom management issues.

Now, if NC’s leaders really wanted to reform education in this state, I’d love to see them seriously consider these Gates recommendations.  But doing them well is hard work– especially the observations– compared to simply using test scores.  As the report points out, observations and student surveys can very much be used by teachers to improve going forward in a way that test score data cannot.  Presumably, we don’t just want to fire bad teachers but help all teachers improve.  Time to listen to the research.

Oh, and to finish back with South Korea for a second… Value teachers and compensate them like highly-trained, esteemed professionals and teaching quality will doubtless go way up and we won’t have to worry so much about all this other stuff.

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