Sunday, March 20, 2011

Embarrassing, Indeed.

There was an “embarrassing” moment on the floor of the House of Representatives the other day. Congressman Dan Burton finished a speech and was ready to hand over his time to Representative Louie Gohmert… who was nowhere to be found. Rather than move on with the business of the House, or, horror of horrors, allow a Democrat to speak, Burton was, to use the term employed in virtually every story on this I’ve read, “forced” to ad lib, badly, for ten minutes.

Matt Schneider at Mediaite summarizes the episode thus:
Burton was clearly uncomfortable having to come up with ten minutes of material, but provided much humorous commentary as he admitted “this is embarrassing.” Given that Gohmert was so late, Burton wondered out loud, “oh it’s St. Patrick’s day, you don’t think he’s been having a little green libation do you?” Then he predicted what Gohmert might be speaking about and suggested he looks forward to the speech, “after I hit him in the nose for not being here on time.” In between a series of awkward silences, we also got to learn that Burton likes movies about Irish dancers, as he encouraged everyone to go see a new movie.
Afterwards, Burton promised that next time, he’ll have a litany of jokes to tell. Asked if Gohmert owed him a St. Patrick’s Day beer, Burton quipped (to use that term very loosely), that “I don’t think he can afford it; he’s from Texas.” (Note to Rep. Burton: Gohmert gets paid by the hated federal government; it’s the rest of us in East Texas who are struggling a little.)

A Gohmert spokesperson responded as follows:
Rep. Louie Gohmert was told by the time manager in the Republican cloakroom he could not have the Republican’s one-hour time slot because Rep. Burton wanted the entire Republican hour.

In addition to this, Rep Gohmert was informed Rep. Burton was going to use the entire hour and was going to yield to other speakers during this hour. The Congressman was also instructed that he would not have to report to the House floor until Rep. Burton was 45-50 minutes into his speech.

Our office received a frantic call from the Republican cloakroom saying Burton was not going to be using his full hour, finishing up 30 minutes earlier than expected. Congressman Gohmert was urged to rush to the floor.

In a meeting at the time, Rep. Gohmert did as he was directed and dropped everything to get to the House floor. He was not late for the time originally assigned to him.
Gentle Reader, I assure you that I would love to have this episode play out as a petty squabble between two Congressmen I consider among the biggest buffoons in a GOP particularly well stocked with that commodity. But it strikes me that there’s nothing really new here, and that is the problem.

This isn’t a Republican phenomenon. I can’t cite chapter and verse, but I’m willing to bet this sort of thing happens not infrequently, with the featured players from both sides of the aisle. Moreover, I suspect that this was one of those errors of communication that happen all the time. What bothers me is the whole matter-of-factness of it all.

Even the gloating left-leaning press used that word “forced.” Why? Who forced Burton to do anything? What would yielding the remainder of his time have meant? That the proceedings would move a little faster? That someone from the other side might get a few minutes more to blather than our side did because we screwed up? (Let’s face it, the GOP is going to win any vote they want in the House, so we’re not talking real results here.) No, what Burton was willing to make an utter ass of himself for was to ensure that Gohmert, who had already de facto agreed to give Burton all the time he wanted, still got face time.

Note also that Burton’s set-piece was so mistimed that he finished a half hour early! And this for “prepared remarks”! How long has he been doing this? (Answer to rhetorical question: 28 years, not counting his time in the state legislature.) And he misses by 50%? When I give a conference paper, I can tell you going in how long it will be to within 30 seconds. How? Well, I practice it, for one thing. For another, I have done a few of those presentations, and I’ve learned how to predict. For Burton to miss his anticipated time by that much is a sign of laziness at best.

As for Gohmert, well, where the hell was he? “In a meeting” could be literally true, or it could be a euphemism. It doesn’t matter. What strikes me about this is that he saw no need to hear Rep. Burton’s remarks, presumably on a topic on which he himself intended to speak. I suppose it’s better to ignore one’s allies than one’s opponents, but still… (I’m sure that neither Gohmert nor most of the rest of Congressional delegations from either party pay much attention to anyone but themselves.) And, of course, that means that nobody was going to listen to Gohmert, either. There’s something more than a little narcissistic about the whole venture. Those C-SPAN shots of grave-faced legislators solemnly urging their totally absent colleagues to support this bill or oppose that one take on a bit more piquancy.

The House of Representatives, then, is confirmed not to be a deliberative body where opposing viewpoints are contrasted, opinions shaped, and compromises broached. Rather, the House floor is nothing more or less than a site for cynical self-promotion. Representatives can’t be bothered to hear each other’s arguments, and taking only 30 minutes to say what could no doubt be said in 10 becomes a problem.

I assure you that I am not so naïve that I did not already know all of this. I know that the real work, when Congress actually deigns to do any, takes place in offices and committee rooms, and sometimes on the driving range. It is discouraging, however, to have a no doubt romanticized view of Congressional debate shown to be so clearly fictitious. More problematic to me is that Rep. Burton was embarrassed for himself and perhaps for his tardy colleague, but not for the sorry display of business-as-usual his little tap-dance number exemplified. After all, if he ever faces that situation again, he’ll be ready with jokes. Because shutting up and sitting down just isn’t an option.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

The College Board's Two-Pronged Attack on Excellence

Our old friend the SAT is back in the news again, with one of the prompts for an essay question worth 30% of the writing score on a recent exam coming under fire.

Here's the question:
Reality television programs, which feature real people engaged in real activities rather than professional actors performing scripted scenes, are increasingly popular. These shows depict ordinary people competing in everything from singing and dancing to losing weight, or just living their everyday lives. Most people believe that the reality these shows portray is authentic, but they are being misled. How authentic can these shows be when producers design challenges for the participants and then editors alter filmed scenes?

Do people benefit from forms of entertainment that show so-called reality, or are such forms of entertainment harmful?
The problem, say critics, is that the question pre-supposes knowledge of trash-TV (that’s my term, not theirs). According to a piece by Jacques Steinberg in the New York Times, one student posted this on the College Confidential website: “This is one of those moments when I wish I actually watched TV…. I ended up talking about Jacob Riis and how any form of media cannot capture reality objectively…. I kinda want to cry right now.”

OK, so any high school kid who can invoke the name of Jacob Riis is probably going to be all right, anyway, but what if his score on the writing section suffers even a few points? Students at this level may need higher scores even more than their less accomplished colleagues do: the difference between a 420 and a 440 isn’t likely to be a significant determinant at the University of Northern South Dakota at Hoople, but the difference between a 680 and a 700 might at an Ivy League school. (Having said this, I acknowledge also that over half of the four-year schools in the country ignore the writing section of the SAT altogether.)

Defenders of the question, like Laurence Bunin, senior vice president of College Connection and Success (how pompous and edu-speak is that job title?) at the College Board, which owns the SAT, argue that
Questions raised about a recent SAT essay prompt miss [a] basic point and confuse the literal topic with the task of writing the essay. If presented with a topic about balancing the risk of climbing a mountain with the reward of reaching the summit, for example, a good writer could compose a strong essay without ever having reached the summit of Mount Everest. Using a popular culture reference is not only appropriate, but potentially even more engaging for students.
In that case, why not a choice of topics? But that would be an intelligent solution, and this is the SAT, after all.

Another College Board minion, Peter Kauffmann, the VP of Communications, asserts in that Times article that “everything you need to write the essay is in the essay prompt.” These are the people in charge of a primary determinant of whether students are admitted into colleges and universities? Really?

OK, let’s start with Mr. Bunin. I would point out that the people taking the test are a). high school kids, and b). under a lot of stress because they understand the consequences of doing well… or poorly. So how about we not get all smug about whether under those conditions a 17-year-old can get past the initial horror of reading a high-stakes “literal topic” to which s/he has no way of knowing how to respond. As Jack Marshall wrote over on Ethics Alarms, “Why did they panic? Because they had no idea what the question referred to… and that should be a good thing.”

More to the point, good writing is a function of weighing possible arguments, elaborating ideas, and providing examples. Bunin presents a false analogy (he’d lose points if I were grading his essay). A consideration of risks and rewards in mountain-climbing can be interpreted either literally or figuratively. The overwhelming majority of high school students aren’t mountain climbers, but they have basic knowledge of the kinds of risks that might become relevant: faulty equipment, exposure to the elements, avalanches, etc. Significantly, students will understand that they are not required to know a crampon from an ice axe to be able to answer the question.

Conversely, a significant percentage of students taking the SAT actually know who (or what) a Snooki is, even if they couldn’t pick the current Secretary of State out of a multiple-choice line-up. I, on the other hand, while I could construct hypothetical scenaria of what might happen on some reality TV series, don’t know, don’t care, and, most importantly, would be no less fit for university admission because of my ignorance. Some kid whose idea of intellectual stimulation is contemplating (shallowly) whom should be voted off the island, however, is likely to have at hand a litany of specific examples of when s/he was aware (or unaware) of the manipulation noted in the prompt. In other words, Mr. Kauffmann's claim that the question is self-contained is utter nonsense. Stated otherwise, while I would hope that my vocabulary, grammar, and reasoning might be superior to that hypothetical student’s, that doesn’t mean my essay would be better.

Or, rather, it wouldn’t be better by any real standard. By the standards of the SAT, however, who knows? The College Board’s apologists, whether company employees, alleged journalists like Lylah A. Alphonse, or high school kids commenting on an on-line article, all seem to be claiming the same thing: that a pro forma, unimaginatively constructed, essay without specific examples is just fine; don’t worry about it.


Mediocre writing is mediocre writing. If “Brittany,” commenting on Alphonse’s piece, is correct (and I fear she is), a student’s score is determined more by “play[ing] by the rules” than by merit. Here’s the first sentence of her commentary: “It's true, as long as you do the intro, three paragraph body, and conclusion, and try not to make spelling or grammar mistakes, you're set.” This is pretty standard adolescent thinking and pretty standard adolescent writing: nothing egregiously wrong, but it’s lazy, syntactically suspect, and, shall we say, dubiously punctuated. The real problem here is not that Brittany isn’t a better writer than she is (although that may point to larger issues), but that she got “an awesome score” simply by writing, competently but unspectacularly, to a formula. (Consummation devoutly to be wished: her idea of “awesome” is my idea of “not screaming into the night awful.”)

The College Board, in other words, has launched a two-pronged attack on excellence: they de facto encourage students to watch garbage on TV instead of reading a book (or watching PBS or a good movie, or going to play rehearsal, or...), and they structurally advocate an assembly-line approach to writing which, more likely than not, will find the hackneyed and prosaic superior to the inspired and unconventional.

I understand that bad questions sometimes find their way onto exams; I’ve written some of them. But, if I might use a Watergate analogy, there’s a sense here that the cover-up is worse than the crime. In defending a bad question, in other words, the College Board has made it clear that they aren’t really in the business of testing writing skills at all. To the extent that anyone places any faith at all in their enterprise, that is a far more serious circumstance than a single poorly-conceived essay prompt.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Further Follies of Frenetic Philistinism

One of the ways I’m spending my “time off” over spring break is reading scripts, looking for a show to do this summer. It is probably not giving too much away to say that I am probably looking for a play that qualifies as “summer fare” without being a kids’ show, a musical, or (necessarily) a comedy. In other words, I’m reading mostly horror stories and mysteries.

When I think of those two genres of literature, the two names that immediately come to mind are Edgar Allen Poe and Arthur Conan Doyle. Poe’s short stories—“The Fall of the House of Usher,” “The Cask of Amontillado,” “The Pit and the Pendulum,” etc.—are unequalled in the horror category over a century and a half after they were written. And Doyle’s greatest creation, Sherlock Holmes, remains the fictional detective against whom all others are measured; not many literary characters inspire pilgrimages to their utterly fictitious lodgings. I confess I’ve dropped by the 200 block of Baker Street in London more than once, myself.

What fewer people remember is that Poe was, arguably, the first great detective writer (although the term “detective” hadn’t yet been invented): his character C. Auguste Dupin appeared in several short stories—“The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” “The Mystery of Marie Roget,” “The Purloined Letter”—and, by employing the process of “ratiocination,” became Holmes’s most significant literary predecessor. Nor should it be forgotten that Doyle was one of his era’s most prominent spiritualists. He might not have written fictional tales the like of “The Tell-Tale Heart,” but he certainly contributed to the public’s belief in spirits whose existence transcends our quotidian reality.

So, while Poe was an American and Doyle a Scotsman who wasn’t born until a decade after Poe’s death, they had a lot in common. Now, they share another similarity: both their homes are facing closure.

Poe’s house is currently a museum in Baltimore. But the estimated $80,000 a year it costs to run the place has apparently been deemed too high a price to pay. My personal guess is that the museum probably contributes that much to the city coffers every year, but only indirectly, through increases in tourism-related activity.

But let’s assume that the museum contributes literally nothing to the city’s bottom line. $80K? Really? These cretins are going to shut down the museum to the city’s greatest writer for a savings of almost exactly 10 cents a year per Baltimore County resident (the county has a population of a little over 805,000). By contrast, that same Baltimorian, as one of about 310 million Americans, has paid over $470 per year towards the $12.2 billion monthly cost of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. That Baltimore County resident will spend more in two hours on unpopular wars than s/he would spend in a year on preserving the legacy of one of the city’s greatest figures, literary or otherwise, and the latter is what qualifies as extravagant?

But politicians as a group are as stupid as they are arrogant, and this is precisely the sort of false economy that the right champions and the left is too pompous and cowardly to reject. The Baltimore Sun article linked above suggests that the greatest hope is a benefactor—the article suggests the Baltimore Ravens, who are, after all, named for Poe’s most famous poem, as a possibility. But Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti is only worth about a billion and a half. Let’s see… endowment managers generally figure that a well-managed portfolio will generate about 6% a year, conservatively speaking. To generate $80K a year in income, then, there would need to be a nest egg of about $1.35 million. That would represent a little less than 1/10 of 1% of Bisciotti’s net worth, or a little less than the weekly income from his portfolio. For a tax-deductible contribution to a good cause and a great promotional gimmick? Clearly too high a price.

There are fund-raisers afoot. An Amontillado wine-tasting event just happened, for example. And there’s a petition to sign. But, frankly, there has been far too little hue and cry. That petition has been around for months, and still falls short of its goal of 5000 signatures. My own efforts a couple of weeks ago generated a few dozen signatures, totaling perhaps 5% of my Facebook friends: hardly a significant accomplishment. And there are frighteningly few folks from Baltimore or environs on the list. We can tsk-tsk all we want, but ultimately this is on us: in the words of the great Arlo Guthrie, “if you want to stop war and stuff, you gotta sing loud.”

The fight over Doyle’s home, Undershaw, designed by Doyle himself for his wife, Louise, who suffered from tuberculosis, has been going on for several years. Undershaw was where the accomplished author wrote his greatest (in my mind, at least) full-length work, The Hound of the Baskervilles, as well as The Return of Sherlock Holmes. Among the guests entertained at Undershaw were such literary luminaries as Bram Stoker, J.M. Barrie, and Virginia Woolfe. (An article in the Daily Mail points out that Sherlock Holmes is the most filmed character in history; Stoker’s Count Dracula is second.)

After being widowed, Doyle wanted his son, Kingsley, to take over the property, but the young man died in the 1918 flu pandemic at the age of 25. Doyle sold the property (at a loss), and the house was converted into a hotel, which stayed in business until 2004. It was subsequently bought by a developer. According to the website,
Today, Undershaw stands sorrowfully empty, neglected and vandalised, Waverley Borough Council having granted the owners planning permission to carve up the literary, historic house into three flats, with five more homes built on its side.
Henry Chu of Los Angeles Times, in an article published last August, interviewed John Gibson, a retired surveyor who has taken the lead in trying to preserve the historic building. Chu’s paraphrases of Gibson’s comments: “You don't have to be Sherlock Holmes to deduce that a crime against Britain's literary heritage is in the offing”; the opposition to Gibson’s cause includes “a profit-driven developer, unsympathetic local officials and an incorrigible gang of cultural snobs.”

To clarify that trifecta: the developers, who bought Undershaw for £1.1 million and have done nothing to it but allow it to fall into disrepair (including allowing irreparable damage to the stained-glass windows, caused by vandals), reportedly would, as of last spring, “entertain offers” of £1.5 million. Decent of them. Asshats. The planning committee of the town council decided to endorse the developers’ project rather than, say, buying the property and converting it into a museum (which people like me would flock to). After all, they have to be “pragmatic and unemotional.” So much easier than thinking, don’t you think? And the “cultural snobs”? Well, it’s not like Conan Doyle were somebody important like Charles Dickens or Jane Austen, right? Arrgghhh.

There is still a chance to save Undershaw, thanks to the dedication of people like Mr. Gibson and the high-profile support of folks like Stephen Fry. And there are things you can do: go to the Save Undershaw website and send a message of support. Follow the Undershaw Preservation Trust’s blog. “Like” their Facebook page. Buy a pin (even counting shipping, it’s well under $20 American). Write your own blog piece or letter to the editor. Oh, and if you’ve got a couple million pounds (or even dollars) you don’t know what to do with, you might drop Mr. Gibson a note.

These two stories, of course, are only the tip of the iceberg. History and culture are under-valued across the board and around the world. The examples from our side of the pond are too numerous to mention, but a short list would include threatened cuts or indeed elimination of the NEA, NEH, PBS, NPR, virtually every state arts commission, and most of the historical societies. Oh, and education. But I guess if no one can read, then losing the historic home of a writer doesn’t seem so bad.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

2nd Annual Fulminations of the Season

It’s mid-March again, time for the annual rant against the incompetence of the NCAA tournament selection committee. This year, I didn’t have time to work out “my” system, tracking every game by every team. And I couldn’t find a stat sheet showing each team’s record against top 50, top 100, and top 200 opposition. So here’s what I did: I tracked every team that made it to the NCAA tournament, got a vote in either the AP or coaches’ poll, or placed in the top 50 in RPI, the Sagarin ratings, or the Pomeroy ratings. I think those five systems are listed in increasing order of accuracy and provide a nice combination of the subjective (the polls) and the objective (the three computer-generated rankings). Moreover, the objective analyses include both disjunctive win/loss and more continuum-based analyses (a blowout is better than a squeaker). I took each school’s ranking in each area, multiplied it by 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5, respectively, and divided by 15. (For the two polls, anyone not getting any votes at all was given a 50.) The best a team could do, then, is 1; the worst somewhere in the mid-300s.

At the top, it all looks pretty good: the top three teams in order are Ohio State (1.20), Kansas (2.12), and Duke (2.87). After that it gets shakier. Teams that made the tournament and shouldn’t have: Georgia, UAB, Southern Cal, and Virginia Commonwealth: familiar faces, all. (At least three of the four were relegated to play-in games.) Those who should have got in and didn’t: Virginia Tech, New Mexico, St. Mary’s, Colorado. At least there wasn’t anything egregious this year, although Virginia Tech was better this year than eight teams with at-large bids, and a full dozen teams better than Virginia Commonwealth didn’t get in.

The biggest problems were the seedings within the field, however. Most abused was Utah State, who earned a 5 and got a 12. Really. They’d be a 4 according to their RPI, a 5 according to both polls and Pomeroy, a 6 according to Sagarin. Literally no one lists them below #21 in the country. So how’d they get dumped down to a 12 seed (numbers 45-48)? Allow me to quote myself from last year, when Utah State earned an 8 and got a 12 and UTEP earned a 9 and got a 12: “The crimes of these two teams? They’re from mid-major conferences, they aren’t Gonzaga or UNLV, and they don’t even have the decency to be from the Eastern or Central time zones. What do they expect?” And this year, those stupid Aggies are still located in Logan. They just won’t learn.

Next most under-valued: Belmont, whom Pomeroy actually lists as #18 in the country (a 5 seed), earned a 9 overall, and got a 13. They’re at least conscientious enough to have their campus in Nashville, but man, are they pushy. They seem to think that going 30-4, with all the losses on the road, three of them against tournament teams from the SEC, they should get a little respect. Sheesh.

Other teams seeded at least two rankings below what they deserve: Texas, Kentucky, UNLV, Gonzaga, Missouri, Richmond, Clemson. You know how I said “they aren’t Gonzaga or UNLV” last year? This year, those places get kicked around, too. Mizzou has at least had a strange season: they’ve played really well at home, horribly on the road. So at least I see the committee’s logic. (Besides, they’re Mizzou; don’t expect this loyal Jayhawk to weep much for them.) Clemson, however, earned a 9 (a 6 according to Pomeroy) but had to go to a play-in game. And besides, everyone knows the Big East is invincible, so those Big 12 and ACC teams are just delaying the inevitable. Don’t ask me about Kentucky; I got nothin’.

In the other direction, there’s Vanderbilt, Butler (hey, they were good last year), Michigan, UCLA, and Tennessee. Most over-rated: UCLA, who earned a 12 (a 13 from Pomeroy) and got a 7. No individual metric has them higher than a 9; none of the objective systems have them above an 11. Go figure. Plus, two teams from the SEC (not counting Georgia who shouldn’t be in the field at all and got a 10-seed) and one mediocrity from the Big 10 (deserved a play-in game, got an 8). No surprises there.

Of course, it’s not just the under-rated teams that suffer: in other words, not only should Utah State not have to play a 5-seed or Belmont a 4, but Kansas State and Wisconsin both deserve easier first-round games than the Aggies and the Bruins will provide. On the flip side, while Pitt is supposedly the overall 4th seed, no one familiar with the game thinks their bracket isn’t hands-down the easiest. The Panthers don’t deserve a top seed to begin with, yet they get a 2 who should be a 4, and a 3 who has two 18-point losses (one at home, one on a neutral site) in March. As the overall #4, they should have to face the overall #5 (or somebody who beats them) to make it to Houston. The best other team in their bracket is at #9 and fading fast.

Last year, Duke rode precisely this scenario, the overall #4 and by far the easiest bracket, to a national championship. It will be much harder for the Blue Devils this year, as their prospective 3rd and 4th round opponents are actually both under-rated. [EDIT: Apparently the NCAA has decided that the first game of the tournament for 60 of the 68 teams in the new format is now the 2nd round. It was the first round last year, but there are big-conference mediocrities in the play-in round this year, not just champions from less prestigious conferences, so of course we have to change the numbering system. Therefore, Duke's 4th and 5th round opponents are likely to be high-quality and under-rated teams. Sheesh.]

The real problem with the system is that teams like Utah State may well lose in the first round: they should be about evenly matched with Kansas State. And if KSU prevails, the talking heads will all babble about how USU wasn’t so good, after all. The point is, Utah State should have drawn Bucknell, not the Wildcats, who were rated #3 in the country at the beginning of the season. Similarly, significantly over-rated UCLA may win over (also over-rated, but less egregiously so) Michigan State; but they should have had to face Georgetown in the first round. (I'll also note that the Jayhawks might well face another second-round game against a team significantly better than their seed: hopefully, they won't play like they did last year.) Still, despite the structural advantage to being over-rated, I’ll predict a better tournament record for the teams I’ve identified as under-rated than those I’ve called over-rated, despite having to play higher-ranked opponents. Last year, they went 10-9 vs. 4-11, respectively.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Anti-Democratic is Fine; Anti-democratic, Not So Much

The fact that the Republican Party doesn’t really believe its own rhetoric about “getting government off people’s backs” has been demonstrated too many times to truly be in doubt. The GOP wants to intercede in our sex lives, our private medical conversations, and our most harrowing end-of-life decisions. But until recently, most of their promotion of local control rang true.

True, there has been more than a little hypocrisy about the horrors of federal spending from Republican governors who quietly accepted billions of dollars of stimulus money, balanced their books because of it, and now are cursed by having received what they pretended to wish for: a significant curtailment of federal spending programs. But while GOP disingenuousness may be a little more qualitatively outrageous than normal, it is not quantitatively abnormal: politicians lie. Often.

Moreover, while there has certainly always been a smack of selectivity in the right’s much-touted belief that local governments are “closer to the people” than the feds are—funny how the presidency and Congress weren’t such bad places to invest with power when the GOP was in control—there was also an apparently sincere invocation of the libertarian spirit that is indeed part of the American psyche. The fact that such local control tended to manifest itself in resistance to, say, civil rights legislation may have been less than a coincidence, but that isn’t an inherent indictment of Republican motives: it would be unfair even for one as cynical as I to pretend to know with certainty that arguments purporting to be grounded in states’ rights or local control are in fact hypocritical.

That said, it is impossible—not merely problematic, impossible—to reconcile many recent actions of the GOP with any real interest in localized control of the political process. One of the first indications of a sea-change came in the form of the totally cynical, totally phony furor over the Park51 project. Apart from the protestors’ utter disregard for the U.S. Constitution, a document which to them takes on the attributes described in Mark Twain’s definition of a “classic” as “a book which people praise and don’t read,” there was the completely disingenuous citation of national polls opposing the construction of the “Ground Zero Mosque,” which of course isn’t a mosque and isn’t even within sight of Ground Zero. As I pointed out in an August post, Manhattanites actually approved of the project; it was the folks in Gopher Gulch who didn’t like the idea. But you’d never have known that from listening to the right-wing media, or, frankly, the corporate media in general.

More interesting, to me at least, is what is going on in Texas, especially with respect to education. For some time there has been a mandated state curriculum, complete with assigned textbooks and high stakes standardized testing that structurally encourages teach-to-the-test strategies and memorization. But the new “standards” in social studies, rammed by a cabal of ideological storm-troopers through a state board of education whose arrogance is matched only by their ignorance, are a prime example of how not to conduct educational policy. The principal cause of the Civil War? Sectionalism (whatever the hell that is); slavery is third, behind states’ rights. See what I mean about arrogant and ignorant? And local school districts where people might actually care about real education are powerless to do their jobs in the face of state mandates to the contrary.

I’ve written about this at least twice before, in March and May of 2010. But let’s add on another layer. Governor Perry, in his State of the State address this year, euphemistically offered “to help school districts reduce their expenses in these tight budgetary times.” Translation: we’re unilaterally cutting your budgets. And that inevitably means firing teachers: in a good analysis by Peggy Fikac and Gary Scharrer of the Houston Chronicle, the authors point out that Texas schools could cut
every school superintendent, all principals and assistant principals, every school counselor, every librarian, every school nurse, all cafeteria workers, custodians and bus drivers—all 329,574 non-teacher jobs—and still not save the [mandated] $11.6 billion in public education cuts.
An AP article says that “Independent experts have estimated as many as a third of Texas school teachers could lose their jobs if lawmakers adopt the budget Republicans put forward with the support of Gov. Rick Perry.”

Perry, of course, wants to shift the blame for any layoffs to local school boards, while his proposed budget provides nearly $10 billion less in education funding than current formulas require. Given the fact that Texas is currently is well into the bottom third of states (as high as 36th or as low as 44th, depending on how you figure it) in terms of per pupil spending already, that’s not good news. The headline to an editorial in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram characterizes Perry’s assertion as originating in an “alternate reality.” But the fact remains that nothing that Perry could do budgetarily could have the huge negative impact that his short-sighted and pig-headed policies will in fact precipitate were it not for the fact that the state exercises enormous control over education funding, projected to be about 42%, down from over half just a couple of years ago.

Of course, the ratio of state to local funding is in large part the result of a complex balancing act between ensuring adequate educational opportunities for students in poorer districts on the one hand with allowing local municipalities to spend their locally-collected revenues on whatever projects they like, including, of course, education. My purpose here is not to argue that the state’s role ought to be greater or lesser than it is, but rather simply to note that real local control doesn’t exist—not in Texas, at any rate.

But, for once, the ultimate inanity by a politician isn’t committed by a Texan (I should probably downplay this, lest they get any ideas… and it is certainly true that in any normal week our own Louis Gohmert would be a strong contender for Most Embarrassing Politician of the Week). Even Wisconsin’s ample supply of miscreants on both sides of the aisle can’t compare.

No, this week the most awesome, stupendous, outrageous case of political hubris comes from the great state of Michigan, where Governor Rick Snyder and the GOP-dominated legislature have colluded to expand the powers of appointed emergency financial managers (EMFs) to exercise a terrifying range of options, from voiding contracts to removing elected officials. EMFs would be appointed by the governor, and would not be answerable to local communities, only to the state legislature; even an amendment that would have limited their salaries to the $159K the governor himself makes failed after Lieutenant Governor Brian Calley broke a tie with a “no” vote.


Don’t get me wrong. I know that there are municipalities (and especially school systems) that have been mismanaged, but this is a colossal over-reach. Perhaps the stipulation that EMFs can only be appointed if other measures fail is sufficient to prevent abuse, but frankly, I doubt it. This certainly seems to be really frightening legislation. An unscrupulous governor and state legislature (as the incumbents sure as hell appear to be) could deny funds to struggling cities (this is, in fact, happening), force them into “financial martial law,” appoint the governor’s cronies at unlimited salaries (note that the rejected limit on EMF salaries was more than double the average income, including benefits, of those mercenary teachers that Fox News keeps yammering about), wipe out city councils, and basically turn Michigan into that socialist dystopia the GOP has been warning us about. All power, both political and economic, would then reside with the state.

All this, ladies and gentlemen, is brought to you from the party of local control. I understand that the Republicans are feeling their oats after considerable electoral success last November. But their unwillingness to adopt reasonable tax policies has left them with no possibility of intelligent or even ethical governance. Nietzsche’s conception of the will to power pales in comparison to Republican politicians, who are, needless to say, übermenschen only in their own minds. I try to stay clear of “slippery slope” arguments, but this power grab for the politically powerful and connected is more brazen and more audacious than anything any so-called “big government” Democrat has ever contemplated.

Last fall, Texas sued the US government because Rick Perry and his cronies used stimulus dollars earmarked for education on something else, and the feds don’t want to have them do it again, so they’re insisting that any future education funding be spent on, you know, education. As Representative Lloyd Doggett (D, Austin) says, “Federal aid to education should actually aid education in our local Texas schools. It is almost as if the Governor felt he was entitled to his own blank check federal bailout and now he has the lawsuit to prove it."

You see, according to the King of Texas wannabe, actually expecting a governor to obey the law represents an egregious manifestation of top-down interference. Ah, but you see that situation is about the bigger entity insisting that money it provides be used for its intended purpose. In Michigan, it’s about literally displacing the smaller government from above. That’s OK, you see, because… uh… the bigger government would be Republicans.

The Michigan bill has been described as an attack on unions. It no doubt is. But it is also an attack on teacher tenure, on anyone with government contracts, on the very notion of elected government. I have no problem with the Republicans being anti-Democratic, but this is actively anti-democratic. Capitalization matters.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

The Case of the Sex-Starved Cougar

Brigham Young’s men’s basketball team, ranked #3 in the nation at the time, lost the other night. Indeed, they were pretty much blown out at home by a decent but certainly not tremendous New Mexico squad. All anyone wanted to talk about, of course, was that this was the Cougars’ first game in the post-Brandon Davies era. Davies, who had started the majority of BYU’s games this year and was their leading rebounder, had recently been dismissed from the team for the remainder of the season (at least).

Team and university officials are being coy, saying only that Davies’s actions were not criminal in nature, but it certainly appears that the young man violated the university’s honor code by having sex with his girlfriend. Coach Dave Rose is widely quoted as saying that Davies’s “heart is in the right place.” The problem, apparently, is that other bodily organs weren’t.

OK, easy stuff first. 1). if BYU wasn’t the most over-rated team in the country, they were close, and 2). they’re not the only team to have to get by without a key player. Just ask Kansas, who Wednesday night played only their third game of the season with all of their top nine players in uniform, or Duke, who has played its last 22 games without Kyrie Irving, whom many regard(ed?) as the best collegiate player in the nation. Both of those teams are in the top 5 in the country, by the way.

That said, let’s move on to the more controversial elements. It is certainly true that BYU’s honor code is, well, rather quaint by today’s standards. Neither I as an undergraduate nor the overwhelming majority of my students, past or present, could (or at least would) last a week. In addition to the usual litany of unacceptable behaviors enumerated in most such policies (injunctions against illicit drugs, academic dishonesty, and the like) BYU’s code prohibits not merely pre-marital sex, but also obscene language, pornography, alcohol, caffeine, beards, skirts shorter than knee length, more than one piercing per ear for women, or any for men. Students must be re-endorsed annually as being compliant with the honor code.

Of course, for people of my generation, one of the first BYU alumni to come to mind would be former Chicago Bears quarterback Jim McMahon, who was, shall we say, not exactly the poster child for the restraint espoused by the honor code. Those of a cynical disposition (perish the thought) might note certain disparities between the treatment of the two athletes, remarking, perhaps, on the fact that McMahon was a). a great collegiate player in his sport, not merely a good one, b). a ground-breaker in that BYU had not previously been part of many national conversations about major athletic powers, and c). white. Ultimately, however, such snarkiness would be a little much, even for me.

And, frankly, even if a double standard did exist in McMahon’s case, that doesn’t mean it ought to apply more than a generation later to Davies. Indeed, the logical extension of that line of reasoning is that no violation of the honor code could ever be punished again just because McMahon was given a pass. (“Pass.” Get it? Quarterback joke. Yeah, I know… moving on.) This is clearly not a tenable position, either ethically or pragmatically.

OK, so the BYU honor code is pretty rigid. Facing disciplinary action for possessing coke is one thing; doing so for having a Coke is another. But the rules are, in fact, consistent with Mormon values, and while they may lead to sanctions for non-criminal behavior, they don’t violate civil rights (or, rather, they don’t do so more than, say, DADT does). Readers who recall the millions of dollars of funding the LDS Church poured into California’s Proposition 8 initiative may be surprised to learn that the BYU honor code states explicitly that while any expressions of same-sex intimacy are forbidden, a student’s “stated same-gender attraction is not an Honor Code issue.”

Moreover, as Coach Rose points out, “Everybody who comes to BYU, every student if they're an athlete or not an athlete, they make a commitment when they come…. A lot of people try to judge if this is right or wrong, but it's a commitment they make. It's not about right or wrong. It's about commitment.”

Years ago, I applied for a job at a Christian college. I got as far as a phone interview, at which I was asked about my thoughts on the college’s “declaration of faith,” required of all employees. I asked some questions about how certain passages were interpreted, and it soon became apparent that I wasn’t going to fit in there. I wished them good luck in their search (they actually hired a friend of mine), they wished me good luck with my career, and we moved on. Conversely, Brandon Davies went to BYU completely voluntarily. If he’s a good enough basketball player to start for the Cougars, he’s clearly good enough to play for a lot of other teams. In choosing to attend a Mormon university, he agreed to abide by their rules. It didn’t work out that way, and the fault is his, not theirs.

I attended a college with a strict honor code. It didn’t apply in most of the social ways BYU’s does—we weren’t forbidden access to tobacco, caffeine, or alcohol, for example (the drinking age was 18, so the specific problem of under-age drinking was less of a problem simply because virtually the entire student body was of age). But in academic terms, we were expected to maintain very high ethical standards. Professors left the room during exams, confident (generally with good cause) in students’ integrity. When that faith was misplaced, students could be (and sometimes were) punished not merely for cheating, but also for knowing someone else had done so and not reporting it.

The honor code worked. It didn’t necessarily create permanent ethical standards—some of my fellow alumni are utterly contemptible people—but it served a very significant purpose, indeed. We were treated as adults, with all the concomitant privileges and responsibilities. College is as much about growing up as anything else, and our honor code helped. And I suspect it also served as something of a recruiting tool. I’d be willing to bet that BYU’s version serves many of these functions, as well.

The fact is that any system of rules and regulations is going to have its violators, and if there is any sense of real justice, there will be a sliding scale of punishment based on a host of extrinsic factors that are not and probably should not be made public: mitigating circumstances, first offense vs. habitual conduct, a technical or accidental as opposed to willful violation, etc. We may speculate about whether Brandon Davies received preferential treatment as an athlete (would someone else have been suspended from the university for the same conduct?) or held to a higher standard because, willingly or not, he took on some of the responsibilities of role model by means of the fame generated by his skills on the hardwood. We might wonder if a white player, or a star player, or a player whose Daddy is worth a couple hundred million might have been suspended, say, through the conference tournament, returning just in time for the NCAAs.

There is no evidence that Brandon Davies was treated any differently than any other student would have been. BYU may deserve no special praise for actually enforcing its own policy, but neither should we lose sight of the fact that a major university did make a statement, whether they really believe it or not, that ethics trump athletics. Everyone directly concerned seems disappointed but not indignant: the university, the athletics department, the coach, the team-mates, Mr. Davies himself. I don’t see any reason the rest of us shouldn’t concur.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

The Fake "Controversy" over Class Size

Anyone who has paid any attention to the headlines of late knows that there will be a lot fewer jobs for teachers in the near-term future than in the present. That, in turn, means overcrowded classrooms and increased workload for the educators who do still have jobs. While it is perhaps a useful palliative to note, as Jon Stewart does, the utter insanity of what seems to have become the Fox News mantra on the subject (the national GOP was initially rather slow to respond to Rupert Murdoch’s marching orders on the topic, but they seem to be up to speed now), the reality is bleak indeed.

NBC reports, for example, that in order to comply with a state directive, “Detroit will have to close 70 of its 142 schools, shut down most bus service and eliminate individual school principals in favor of principals in charge of school ‘regions.’ An announcement is expected in April on how many hundreds of teachers would be laid off.” An AOL report says New York City alone is looking at about 4500 teacher layoffs; Texas may lose 100,000 school workers. Yes, you read that right, 100,000.

Part of the problem, of course, is that states were allowed to paper over real budget problems with federal stimulus dollars. Our own Rick Perry, for example, nothing if not mendacious, did a masterful job of howling about stimulus spending while covering up his own incompetence and cronyism with precisely those federal funds. But then, thanks in large part to all the Republican baying at the moon, the stimulus money ran out, and states had to do in reality what they’d been pretending to do: actually balance the books.

It used to be that both political parties believed in education. Their priorities in terms of what programs merited support or where resources might best be allocated might have been different, but there was no question that the nations’ schools and public colleges and universities were a high priority for politicians of every ideological ilk. No more. The GOP has decided that the way to finance the obscene tax breaks demanded by their corporate masters for the wealthiest among us is to demonize, well, whoever happens to be in the way. This week it’s educators. But don’t worry, cops and firemen and nurses and toll-booth agents and secretaries in the DA’s office, your time will come.

The situation is aggravated by the usual cadre of nonsensical pseudo-experts. If, in other words, those who would slash funding for education would at least acknowledge the inevitable results of their actions, we might actually have a conversation. Whatever happened to those clichés about “mortgaging the future” that used to be as much a part of the rhetoric of the right as of the left?

Perhaps what I believe to be sacrificing an entire generation at the altar of the greed of a cabal of their elders really is the only way to prevent a greater disaster. (Perhaps Tony Hayward will win the Lifetime Achievement Award from Greenpeace, too…) But if the Scott Walkers and Michael Bloombergs of the world are unwilling to recognize reality, then we are truly lost.

It is reasonable for intelligent people to disagree about, say, the merits of a seniority system for teachers’ job security. Rational folks understand that the most experienced teachers aren’t necessarily the best ones, and that more money can be saved by laying off higher-salaried personnel than younger, (even) lower-paid staff. But they also have no trouble envisioning a scenario whereby, in the absence of an objective system, a principal or superintendent, neither of whom have the slightest idea what really goes on in a classroom, might use budget-cutting as a means of getting rid of that 30-year veteran teacher who not only sees but points out the flaws in the latest harebrained scheme that some other educationist who has never taught a class convinced them to implement.

What isn’t, or, rather, didn’t use to be, up for discussion is whether having 60 kids in a 3rd grade classroom is tenable. It is not. Next question. But the lobbyists and the politicos who are willing to abandon even a reasonable pretense of caring for the common weal as long as they get their tax cut, their no-bid contract, or their bridge to nowhere—these vermin have found willing allies in charlatans, intellectual whores, arrogant ideologues, and other “education experts” who are willing to say anything for a price.

One such person is Eric Hanushek, a Senior Fellow in Education at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. He is, according to his short bio on that think-tank’s website, “best known for introducing rigorous economic analysis into educational policy deliberations.” It is at this point that people like me, people who have been in a classroom a few thousand times, roll their eyes skyward and sigh, “oh, one of those.” It’s not that fundamentally stupid right-wing arguments are any worse than fundamentally stupid left-wing arguments, but right now they’re far more likely to do significant quantitative and qualitative harm.

Anyway, faced not only with common sense but also with a host of actual studies including from the Student Teacher Achievement Ratio (STAR) project of Health and Education Research Operative Services (those folks do like their acronyms), which spans over two decades and 11,500 students, and which concludes that “there's statistically significant evidence that smaller classes contribute to better grades, fewer discipline problems and higher enrollment in college,” Hanushek sniffed that whereas
your child could get better teaching and more attention in a small class…. The problem is the teachers don't change their behavior very much when you change the class size by a few children…. The evidence is very clear that the most important aspect of schools is having an effective teacher. An ineffective teacher is not helped by having a small class.
Really, that’s his argument. To be fair, his remarks may have been taken out of context (the name of Rehema Ellis, the lead reporter on this story, is seldom seen in the same sentence as the phrase “competent journalist” except by means of contrast), but if that’s really the best he’s got, the boy just needs to be slapped. Hard. Repeatedly.

Of course small classes don’t help bad teachers. But large classes hurt good ones. Put me one on one in a course on quantum mechanics, and I’m no damned good to anybody. But in a course I’m qualified to teach, there’s always an optimum number of students. In a college-level course which involves experiential interaction or simply group discussion, there’s often a critical mass of ten or a dozen students. Even assuming a low-enrollment class in such an area would “make,” it wouldn’t operate effectively: a beginning acting class with three or four students won’t operate as well as one with twelve students, especially if one of the enrollees is significantly more or less talented than his/her classmates.

But the real problem, obviously, comes in the other direction. That same acting course functions well at 16; the 17th and every additional student after that decreases the learning experience for all. The specific number I cite is from my own experience with that course; what matters isn’t that it might be 14 for someone and 20 for someone else, it’s that such a number exists, in very real terms, for every teacher, and for any acting course it’s well short of the 27 a former colleague found in one of her sections a few years ago. More to the point, that number is already being exceeded in a significant majority of public school classes: and that’s before the new draconian measures kick in.

Equally importantly, even classes that are currently being taught “well” would improve considerably with fewer students. It would be great to teach theatre history as more of a seminar, with close readings and discussion of texts, but with an average class size of 35, that’s not going to happen. I’d like to increase the minimum length of the research papers at the end of those courses by 25-50%, but with over 500 pages of student papers (plus final exams) to grade at the end of the semester already, adding to my workload is just an impossibility. I suspect that every teacher at every level has a similar story to tell about class size.

For all this, the corporate media is remarkably, offensively, timid. The NBC article cited above actually claims that “Research into whether smaller classes actually improve academic performance is extensive but contradictory.” No, it freaking isn’t. Even jackasses like Hanushek can’t bring themselves to say that; the best they can muster is “inconclusive,” which is still pretty much of a stretch. Indeed, if there’s anything you can take to the bank about improving educational quality, it’s that classes need to be smaller than they are. So people like Hanushek present us with a serious problem, to the extent that anyone pays them any mind. But we’re not quite sure what that problem is. It all depends on whether they actually believe the… erm… equine feces they’re spewing out.