Quick hits (part II)

1) This nice post from the Economist on how females are out-classing males in education throughout the developed world has been sitting open in my browser deserving it’s own post for too long.  So, here it is.

2) Jamelle Bouie makes a good case that Patty Murray should be the next Democratic leader in the Senate.

3) Republicans of late have been suggesting they actually care about inequality. John Cassidy just says follow the money in their latest proposed budget:

As long as a Democrat occupies the White House, there’s practically no chance that G.O.P. spending cuts will be enacted, marking the Price budget as more of a political wish list than an actual funding bill. But wish lists matter, too, especially for a Party that is supposedly trying to change its public image. And in 2015, it seems, the most that the Republicans can hope for is to shower more gifts on the wealthiest households in America, while depriving poor families of health care, food stamps, and college tuition.

4) So apparently “the left” has a problem with Mark Kleiman’s great idea for prison reform.  I’m very much with Kleiman.  It’s good to have people suggesting we need to radically re-think our incarceration nation, but I’m not a big fan of letting the perfect be the enemy of the good.  And Kleiman’s proposals would be a very good improvement.

5) Back to John Cassidy as I enjoyed his take on Ted Cruz.   Also, I have to say that Cruz’s “imagine a world without the IRS” is just preposterous pandering to the most ignorant.  So, is that a world without any federal income tax (how does that work?) or a world where people get to cheat on their taxes with impunity (ask Greece how well that works out)?

6) I was just commenting in class the other day how the NFL is a model of socialism.

7) Philip Gourevetich sure knows how to write about tragedy (he wrote the definitive book on the Rwandan genocide), so he certainly has a thoughtful commentary on the recent horrible air crash tragedy.

8) As if our completely over-reliance on prison isn’t enough, we make life way too hard for former prisoners to get jobs.  Most importantly, we’re pretty stupid about what the statistics actually show:

Consider that over-reliance on background checks inevitably screens out qualified, trustworthy job applicants. More than one in four adults in America has a criminal record, and the vast majority of them currently pose no threat to public safety and will not go on to commit crimes in the future: Most recidivism occurs within three years of an arrest, and beyond that point, recidivism rates begin to decrease so dramatically that a criminal record no longer indicates that a person is more likely to be arrested than someone without a record. At the same time, some individuals who commit violent crimes—such as the San Francisco Uber driver charged with attacking a passenger with a hammer—have no prior criminal record that would show up on a background check.

9) America’s police kill way too many people. It doesn’t have to be this way.  And a great Vox interview with an enlightened police chief on how we need to change police training and culture so less people needlessly die.

10) With all the focus on the corrupting potential of money in campaigns, it’s easy to overlook the hugely distorting effects of all the money in lobbying.

If only we threatened public schools more!

It was education policy this week in Public Policy.  A nice reminder that so much of American education “reform” is based on vague notions of “running education like a business” and ignoring the fact that the dozens of nations that out-perform us do nothing of the sort.  Educating K-12 is very little like running a business.  Anyway, as further evidence, the latest proposal from (one of the most odious legislators) from here in NC gets an appropriately scathing review from Rob Schofield:

For the most recent example of this apparently irresistible tendency, check out the proposal in the North Carolina Senate to “bill” local schools for the cost of remediation courses that students take in Community College. As NC Policy Watch reporter Sarah Ovaska reported this morning, one of the bill’s key sponsors, Senator Tom Apodaca, thinks this will make a difference:

The desire, Apodaca said, is to make sure the state’s K-12 system is turning out graduates ready to jump into the higher levels of education.

“We’re sending a message to our schools that we want quality coming out,” Apodaca said.

You got that? The premise of the law — as with so many other conservative education proposals in recent years — is that North Carolina can wring better results out of its public schools through sheer force. Rather than addressing poverty, providing universal pre-K, lowering class sizes or investing the money that it would really take to hire the teachers and counselors and other professionals who could perform the miracle of preparing millions of kids for the insanely competitive 21st Century economy (half of whom come from families too poor to afford lunch), the Senate would propose to get better K-12 grads by threatening to take away more money from their schools… [emphasis mine]

After that, who knows where such an innovative idea might lead? Maybe North Carolina could enact a law that forces prisons to pay for the cost of recidivism or perhaps one that cuts the environmental protection budget each time there’s a coal ash spill. How about a law that docks legislators’ pay for poor state job growth? Yeah, that’s the ticket!

The in-all-seriousness bottom line: North Carolina is never going to make any progress in improving its public education system through a threat-based “big stick” model. The only real, long-term solution is to abandon such “divide and conquer” policies based on blame, recognize the complexity of situations like the issue of college remediation and move forward with the understanding that we are all responsible for educating our children and all in the public education business together.

Now, I don’t actually think this absurd idea will become law (but who knows with this legislature), but the fact that this passes as education reform for one of the state’s more powerful legislators is scary enough and shows that the guys running this state either 1) don’t have a clue as to how to actually improve education, or 2) don’t actually care.  Sadly, I fear it’s both.

Campus liberalism amok

Well, damn, if this isn’t the stuff that gives academia and liberalism a bad name.  Somehow, there’s been an idea spreading among certain college campuses that you should never be made to feel “uncomfortable.”  Yikes.  Great piece from Judith Shulevitz in the NYT:

The safe space, Ms. Byron explained, was intended to give people who might find comments “troubling” or “triggering,” a place to recuperate. The room was equipped with cookies, coloring books, bubbles, Play-Doh, calming music, pillows, blankets and a video of frolicking puppies, as well as students and staff members trained to deal with trauma. Emma Hall, a junior, rape survivor and “sexual assault peer educator” who helped set up the room and worked in it during the debate, estimates that a couple of dozen people used it. At one point she went to the lecture hall — it was packed — but after a while, she had to return to the safe space. “I was feeling bombarded by a lot of viewpoints that really go against my dearly and closely held beliefs,” Ms. Hall said. [emphasis mine]

Safe spaces are an expression of the conviction, increasingly prevalent among college students, that their schools should keep them from being “bombarded” by discomfiting or distressing viewpoints. Think of the safe space as the live-action version of the better-known trigger warning, a notice put on top of a syllabus or an assigned reading to alert students to the presence of potentially disturbing material.

Yowza.  A college student forced to face viewpoints which challenge her closely held beliefs?!  What horrors are next?

But the notion that ticklish conversations must be scrubbed clean of controversy has a way of leaking out and spreading. Once you designate some spaces as safe, you imply that the rest are unsafe. It follows that they should be made safer…

I’m old enough to remember a time when college students objected to providing a platform to certain speakers because they were deemed politically unacceptable. Now students worry whether acts of speech or pieces of writing may put them in emotional peril…

But plenty of others at universities are willing to dignify students’ fears, citing threats to their stability as reasons to cancel debates, disinvite commencement speakers and apologize for so-called mistakes.

The piece is full of jaw-dropping example after example, so it’s hard to pick just one (really, read it), but this one is pretty representative:

Last fall, the president of Smith College, Kathleen McCartney, apologized for causing students and faculty to be “hurt” when she failed to object to a racial epithet uttered by a fellow panel member at an alumnae event in New York. The offender was the free-speech advocate Wendy Kaminer, who had been arguing against the use of the euphemism “the n-word” when teaching American history or “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.” In the uproar that followed, the Student Government Association wrote a letter declaring that “if Smith is unsafe for one student, it is unsafe for all students.”

“It’s amazing to me that they can’t distinguish between racist speech and speech about racist speech, between racism and discussions of racism,” Ms. Kaminer said in an email.

I love this take:

The confusion is telling, though. It shows that while keeping college-level discussions “safe” may feel good to the hypersensitive, it’s bad for them and for everyone else. People ought to go to college to sharpen their wits and broaden their field of vision. Shield them from unfamiliar ideas, and they’ll never learn the discipline of seeing the world as other people see it. They’ll be unprepared for the social and intellectual headwinds that will hit them as soon as they step off the campuses whose climates they have so carefully controlled. What will they do when they hear opinions they’ve learned to shrink from? If they want to change the world, how will they learn to persuade people to join them? [emphasis mine]

I’m not there to make my students feel safe or comfortable (not that I at all seek their fear or discomfort, mind you); my job is to help them learn to think critically and analytically.  And a big part of that is grappling with ideas you may disagree with in an intellectually honest manner.  That may be uncomfortable at times, but welcome to life and actually getting something meaningful out of your college education.  Those that would be subjective safety and comfort above all other values do a huge disservice to the actual mission of universities.

Quick hits (part I)

So, this was supposed to be last week’s quick hits part II and then I was going to do a mid-week quick hits, but whatever, here it is.

1) Are we teaching our children that there are no moral facts?

2) On a similar note, great Lawrence Krauss piece on the importance of teaching doubt and skepticism:

One thing is certain: if our educational system does not honestly and explicitly promote the central tenet of science—that nothing is sacred—then we encourage myth and prejudice to endure. We need to equip our children with tools to avoid the mistakes of the past while constructing a better, and more sustainable, world for themselves and future generations. We won’t do that by dodging inevitable and important questions about facts and faith. Instead of punting on those questions, we owe it to the next generation to plant the seeds of doubt.

3) Do parents create narcissists by praising too much?  Maybe.  I like how the research makes an important conceptual and measurement distinction between narcissism and self esteem:

Of course, self-esteem and narcissism are two very different things. The difference has to do with how you value yourself compared to other people. “Self-esteem basically means you’re a person of worth equal with other people,” Bushman tells Shots. “Narcissism means you think you’re better than other people.”

4) Josh Barro writes about Marco Rubio’s “puppies and rainbows” tax plan.  I think that about gets it.

5) Love the Vox guide to using science to win at rock, paper, scissors.

6) NYT and Deadspin on what’s wrong with the Blurred Lines copyright ruling.  After listening to the two songs, I’ve got to agree (unlike that guy where I was like, “he totally stole ‘Won’t back down’ and just made it slower.”

7) Pi, primes, and cryptography.

8) The world’s most painful insect sting.  No thanks.

9) Synthetic genes in place of vaccines?  Just maybe.

10) Somehow, I had missed John Oliver on Ayn Rand.  As good as you would expect.

11) The really cool part of Apple’s latest product announcement is actually their battery innovations.

12) Time to end the ethanol rip-off.  Indeed.

13) Companies are doing a lot less screening of employees for drug use because– surprise, surprise– it doesn’t really work in improving workplace safety or productivity.

14) So, all this oil we are now shipping throughout the country by railroad.  The infrastructure is simply not meant for it and it is thus a very dangerous and bad idea.  Of course, we’re doing a ton of it anyway.

15) Advice to the unmarried: don’t spend so damn much on your wedding.  It’s crazy how much Americans now spend on weddings.  You know what matters?  That you have a good enough party with your family, friends, loved ones about you.  Nobody remembers how fancy the venue or the food or whatever is.  Just have a good time and save  your money.

16) Yes, a movie with Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence did just go straight to video.  I had no idea.  That said, this is one of those rare books that I finished that I should have just given up on.

17) So, the estrogen replacement Premarin is still made from the urine of female horses.  It’s no fun for the horses, but this system makes the manufacturer way more money.

18) Safe to say if General Petraeus had been an enlisted soldier, he would not have gotten off so easily.

19) I gave up on Stephen Pinker’s The Better Angels of our Nature, in part, because I was pretty well persuaded by his case and felt like I was getting beaten over the head with it.  Sure you need good data, but you also need to make it a good story.  Anyway, according to this essay in the Guardian, Pinker is wrong and humans have not become dramatically less violent.

20) The case for free range parenting from a German parent who has moved to America.  Why do we have to be so uniquely dumb and paranoid in this country?!

21) A fascinating case of evolution in California Scrub Jays that calls into question just exactly what it means to be a species and our understandings of how speciation happens.  Good stuff.

Quick hits

Sorry to be a day late.  Went to the ACC tournament three days in a row and it really threw me off.  Anyway.

1) Forget critical thinking and fancy software, the key to success is Microsoft Excel.

2) Despite the fact that we have way too many people in prison, it was harder than I expected to cut the prison population 50% with this very cool interactive feature.

3) The evidence for the success of Obamacare just keeps accumulating.  The latest budget estimates look great.

4) Mentally ill black man with a knife, watch out.  But it’s an amazing what a white guy with a gun can get away with in a police confrontation.

5) Some evidence from the US Senate that the tide is turning on more sensible marijuana legislation.

6) Found this video on addiction featuring a kiwi bird really, really compelling.

7) I loved this essay on the awesomeness of Pi, for yesterday’s Pi day.

8) Did North Georgia fire a professor just for being rude?

9) You remember that awful USDA animal research facility in Nebraska.  Looks like there’s going to be some more oversight now.  Yeah, journalism!

10) Either computers are really good at writing poetry, or poetry is just too easy to imitate.  Interesting either way.

11) The state of New York has decided that any school in the bottom 5% is “failing” no matter what.  If you actually know math, you realize that’s nuts.  Might as well decide no schools will be below average.

12) Forget asteroids, apparently it’s the massive solar flares that may ruin things for all of us.

13) Pretty fascinated by this treatment to literally freeze your scalp to help prevent hair loss from chemo.

14) Some nice evidence on how welfare really matters.

15) Most people (including me) are not that impressed by the new Apple Watch.  Tim Lee points out that the first PC’s and smartphones received skeptical reviews.  (Of course, I’m sure that skepticism proved apt for many a product).

16) Loved Jon Stewart on the OU racist fraternity.  But especially on how Fox News somehow felt that even this they had to defend.

17) We should probably do a lot more to actually ensure that police know the laws they are supposed to be enforcing.

18) Really liked Amy Davidson’s take on Tom Cotton’s Iran letter.

19) What Obama got wrong in his Selma speech:

But he’s wrong if he thinks Ferguson doesn’t represent a larger “endemic” problem that is “sanctioned by law and custom.”

If there’s one takeaway from Ferguson—and the takeaways are legion—it is that the law is stacked against ordinary citizens. That police are largely shielded from liability when a life is taken. That the Supreme Court has a tendency to give law enforcement the benefit of the doubt. That prosecutors can use and abuse the grand jury processto fit their needs. That the bar for bringing a civil rights prosecution against a cop is almost insurmountable. That constitutional rights, in the face of state violence and oppression, are anything but enforceable.

20) NC Republicans like to brag about the huge tax cut they provided.  Yes, the state is taking in less dollars, but many taxpayers, especially elderly with significant medical expenses are paying more.  But hey, at least rich people can get more luxury options on their new Mercedes now.

Myths of Education

EdNC is a new non-profit focusing on Education policy in NC and from what I’ve seen so far, they’re doing really good work (I follow on FB).  Anyway, I really liked this 5 myths of the education budget as a couple of things that have always really bugged me, especially the “North Carolina Education Lottery.”  Back when the lottery was passed, a huge part of the pitch was that it would be important to funding education (as if money were not fungible).  From my perspective, it’s actually done real harm to support for education funding as there’s a widespread sentiment of the sort, “but don’t we have the lottery to fund education?”  As if:

Myth #3 – The NC Education Lottery should be able to solve all of North Carolina’s public school funding troubles.What do you think? In 2014, the lottery’s total revenue was $1.84 billion (which was used for prizes, operations, and education). Of that total, $489.1 million was distributed to education programs (49 percent for teachers, 22 percent for school construction/renovation, 17 percent for pre-school, 10 percent for scholarships/financial aid, and 2 percent for digital learning. Per legislation, school districts must use lottery money only for these specific spending categories). Also, while the amount of funding is substantial for classroom teachers and construction, it is important to note that the total lottery funds going to support public schools accounted for only 3.8 percent of the total $8.3 billion (FY 2013-14) annual state funding for K-12 public education.  [emphasis mine]

Also like their take on that traditional conservative bugaboo– too much bureaucracy and administration:

Myth #5 – There would be plenty of money for schools if North Carolina just cut out the education bureaucracy.What do you think? This idea sounds good because, let’s face it, who wants to advocate for more bureaucracy? In truth, public schools have a low percentage of bureaucracy or administration. In fact, if North Carolina eliminated the entire Department of Public Instruction, all local central office staff leading local school districts, all principals and assistant principals, this would total approximately 6 percent of all public school funding and would leave teachers to handle all administrative tasks for themselves, from payroll to school scheduling, purchasing and transporting students to and from school and more.   [emphasis mine]

I don’t doubt there’s some bureaucracy to be streamlined, but, as in most cases, this is a red herring for what really needs to be addressed to improve public education.

Higher education as we know it is doomed

Or, so says Kevin Carey.  I listened to a Fresh Air interview with him recently, but was not persuaded.   I’m not impressed that he took the same MIT course as MIT students (via MOOC) and got some shiny certificate.  Now, when MIT gives him credit as if he were an MIT student taking an MIT class, that’s different.  And we’re nowhere near that.  He does, however, address this issue in a recent Upshot post:

The failure of MOOCs to disrupt higher education has nothing to do with the quality of the courses themselves, many of which are quite good and getting better. Colleges are holding technology at bay because the only thing MOOCs provide is access to world-class professors at an unbeatable price. What they don’t offer are official college degrees, the kind that can get you a job. And that, it turns out, is mostly what college students are paying for. [emphasis mine]

Now information technology is poised to transform college degrees. When that happens, the economic foundations beneath the academy will truly begin to tremble.

Tremble?

Free online courses won’t revolutionize education until there is a parallel system of free or low-fee credentials, not controlled by traditional colleges, that leads to jobs. Now technological innovators are working on that, too.

Traditional institutions, including Michigan State and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, are experimenting with issuing badges. But so are organizations like the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, 4-H, the Smithsonian, the Dallas Museum of Art and the Y.M.C.A. of Greater New York.

The most important thing about badges is that they aren’t limited to what people learn in college. Nor are they controlled by colleges exclusively. People learn throughout their lives, at work, at home, in church, among their communities. The fact that colleges currently have a near-monopoly on degrees that lead to jobs goes a long way toward explaining how they can continue raising prices every year.

Badges?!  NC State is going to fall apart due to competition from badges?  Now, I’m quite sure technological innovation will bring about some serious changes to how universities work in the future, but I’m sorry, there’s just no replacing what a college degree represents (a lot more than just a particular set of knowledge!) with skill/knowledge certification badges.

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