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January 30, 2010 [feather]
Waiting for Superman

Davis Guggenheim, director of An Inconvenient Truth, has made a documentary about the failures of our public K-12 schools--and the role the teachers' unions have played in it. The film premiered at Sundance last week--and has been picked up by Paramount.

From the the Risky Business blog:

More than a few Hollywood heads were scratched when Paramount annouced Thursday that it had picked up worldwide distribution rights to Davis Guggenheim's "Waiting for Superman," a documentary chronicling the sorry state of the U.S. public education system, in advance of its Sundance world premiere.

Sure, Guggenheim's "An Inconvenient Truth," released in 2006 by Paramount Vantage, grossed nearly $50 million, won two Oscars and made unlikely movie stars out of Al Gore and PowerPoint. But that film managed a unique feat among documentaries, riding a political and celebrity-fueled zeitgeist (in that case, liberal anger over the Bush administration's environmental policies) in a way that caused moviegoers to show up as much to support the cause as to be entertained by the content.

A studied expose of failing school systems probably won't enjoy the same buzz factor among Huffington Post readers or Prius-driving celebrities, so Paramount has its work cut out for it in making this wonky subject matter appealing to more than just policy nerds. But the film, which we caught Friday night at its premiere, could find an equally enthusiastic audience on the other side of the political spectrum: In many ways, "Superman" might be as much a conservative call to action on education reform as "Truth" was a rallying cry for Democrats on the environment.

The film takes an even-keeled look at the issue, and its subjects, from educators to frustrated parents to Bill Gates (who showed up for a post-screening Q&A), espouse no political leanings. But from our seat, at least, there is a clear villain in "Superman," and it's the various Democrat-supported teachers unions that the film presents as the most powerful and entrenched impedement to real education reform.

That's not a new argument. Lifetime tenure, lax oversight and the lack of a performance-based compensation system have for years been blamed on the stranglehold that powerful teachers unions maintain over elected officials, especially Democrats. But this film is as merciless in its characterization of the unions and their self-serving leaders as "Truth" was of the Bush administration's stance on global warming. And at least at the federal level, Democrats like Bill and Hillary Clinton are shown as examples of the unions' prime beneficiaries.

In fact, for all its focus on underprivileged, inner-city kids, sections of "Superman" feel like they could have been cut together by Bill O’Reilly. Slo-mo footage of union leader speeches opposing reform that could help problem schools. Hidden-cam video of a teacher reading a newspaper and checking his watch as his class goofs around. New York educators being paid millions to not teach. A major subject of the film, reform-minded DC schools chancellor Michelle Rhee, runs into a crippling teachers-union road block in her effort to shift pay structures to reward good teachers.

These aren't cut-and-dried Republican vs. Democrat issues, of course, and the film also discusses failed Republican-supported education policies like No Child Left Behind. But the connection of the villainous teachers unions to Democrats could spark interest in this film among the exact conservative talking-head class that so hated "Inconvenient Truth."

Introducing the film, Guggenheim thanked Paramount for having "the courage to see that a film about public education could actually make some money and could actually change the issue and (for thinking they) could try to do what they did with 'An Inconvenient Truth' again."

Maybe Paramount can pull it off. Political pundits and op-ed writers will certainly be interested in the film. But in taking "Superman" to the masses, the studio should consider courting conservatives in the same way the marketing for "Inconvenient Truth" spoke to liberals. "Superman" could even end up prompting political change, just as "Truth" energized the global warming movement.

If so, a major studio picking up a public-school documentary might not seem like such a head-scratcher.

This is simply an amazing development -- though not quite for the reasons laid out in the article. I suspect Guggenheim made the film not because he wanted to put out a calling card to the right -- but because he sees, rightly, that the sorry state of our educational system is an issue that should transcend partisan agendas and bickering. Within that, I am so encouraged that he identifies the unions as a major part of what has gone wrong with our K-12 system. As I've noted before on this blog, I see that as simply a fact that reveals itself if you look closely and dispassionately at the issues. I'm glad Guggenheim thinks so, too.

And I'm very glad Paramount is making an investment in this film--again, I am guessing that they didn't buy it because they thought they could release a winner for the right, but because they thought the film would have very broad, grassroots appeal, and could be marketed as a movie about an issue that affects and implicates us all.

Erin O'Connor, 9:37 AM | Permalink | TrackBack (0)

January 29, 2010 [feather]
Congress challenges MIT economist's ethics

We are still waiting to hear whether MIT will hold economist Jonathan Gruber--he of the $400K government grant to pose as an independent supporter of the health care bill--accountable for what looks an awful lot like research misconduct. Meanwhile, Senators Grassley and Enzi are demanding answers--and not getting them.

From Ed Morrissey:

When MIT economics professor Jonathan Gruber allowed himself to be quoted by numerous media outlets about his sunny analyses of ObamaCare, including a big push by Peter Orszag on his OMB site and in challenging reporters to use Gruber's conclusions, Gruber never bothered to mention that he was receiving money through HHS to provide consultation on health-care reform. After Gruber's exposure, he claimed that few bothered to ask whether he received compensation from the administration and didn't feel compelled to volunteer the information. Now two members of the Senate have demanded that kind of disclosure from Gruber.

In a letter sent earlier this week and given to Hot Air by a source in Washington, Charles Grassley (R-IA) and Michael Enzi (R-WY) demand answers to a long series of questions, including why Gruber never revealed this conflict of interest on three occasions when he testified before Congress on health-care reform. They first accuse Gruber of dishonesty:

We are writing in response to recent news reports that you received nearly $400,000 from HHS in exchange for providing technical assistance in evaluating various health care reform legislative proposals. During this same time, you have been actively promoting and defending the Administration's preferred health care reform policies both before Congress and in the media. This includes your participation in the Finance Committee's May 12, 2009, Roundtable Discussion entitled "Financing Comprehensive Health Care Reform"; the HELP Committee's June 11, 2009 hearing entitled "Healthcare Reform"; and the HELP Committee's Novembver 3, 2009 hearing entitled, "Increasing Health Costs Facing Small Businesses." On occasions such as these, it appears that you advanced the Administration's agenda without disclosing the fact that you were receiving federal remuneration. ...

When an academic leader comes before Congress to advocate a position, Congress should have confidence that the witness is both independent and objective and not being paid to assist the Administration in its efforts. In this case, we are concerned that neither you nor the Department chose to inform Congress of your substantial ties in advance of, during, or any time after, your testimony before the Finance and HELP Committees. In fact, the biography submitted for the Finance Committee's Roundtable Discussion makes no mention of these ties or affiliations.

After this, Grassley and Enzi take aim at HHS and the Obama administration for failing to answer questions about outside consultants--answers that would have exposed Gruber as a shill long before being outed:

In July, Senator Enzi write to HHS Secretary Sebelius requesting among other information, a list of all outside consultants with the Department and copies of their agreements. HHS was unresponsive to this request, which should have revealed your relationship with the Department. Senator Enzi recently wrote again to reiterate this request to HHS Secretary Sebelius and to ask for additional information concerning your relationship with the Department. Senator Grassley also wrote to Secretary Sebelis requesting that HHS require any individuals under contract with the Department to disclose that fact publicly prior to any testimony before Congress. Additionally, Senator Grassley requested that HHS provide a complete list of individuals who are currently under contract, or have been under contract at any point last year, to assist the Department in any aspect of the health care reform process.

So much for increased transparency! This is an angle that we hadn't yet seen. The Republicans on these panels must have had some suspicion that the White House was tossing ringers into these committee meetings and wanted a list of consultants from HHS to spot them. HHS refused--and now one of those consultants got exposed anyway.

Hopefully Grassley and Enzi will stay on top of this development and find out if HHS or any of the other federal agencies in the Obama administration have more paid shills acting as independent voices supporting their agenda, especially on ObamaCare.

Hopefully they will, indeed--because someone needs to be holding Gruber accountable, and the silence from MIT and from the academic community has been pretty deafening. Gruber's story hasn't even been covered by the Chronicle of Higher Ed or--apart from a very brief notice--Inside Higher Ed. It's the emperor's new clothes all around, it seems, and no one within academia wants to think about this issue on academic terms.

Academia has a responsibility to ensure its own ethical behavior--both institutions and disciplines should be self-policing when it comes to ethical training and to holding professors accountable to standards of ethical conduct. Not to do so is to erode the entire academic enterprise--and to make a powerful de facto argument against academic freedom.

Erin O'Connor, 9:12 AM | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack (0)

Will Obama save the DC voucher program?

House Republican leader John Boehner and Senator John Lieberman are calling on President Obama to save the DC Opportunity Scholarship Program. Here's their letter to the President:

Dear Mr. President:

We are writing to you to urge you to save the District of Columbia Opportunity Scholarship Program (D.C. OSP).

The 111th Congress considered language before the end of the first legislative session that restricted D.C. OSP funding only to students already participating in the scholarship program, calling into question the future of the program. The D.C. OSP has been an effective educational alternative for more than 3,000 low-income students in the District of Columbia. Terminating the program will be devastating for many low-income families who are zoned for underachieving and often unsafe schools, most of whom will not be selected to attend one of the area’s charter schools. D.C. Chancellor Michelle Rhee told the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Financial Services and General Government that terminating the program will be a substantial burden for the D.C. public schools as they will need to absorb these opportunity scholarship recipients.

We ask for your leadership to prevent the termination of the program by including support for a reauthorization of the program, including allowing new students into the program as spaces become available, in your fiscal year 2010 budget.

In an education speech before the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce on March 10, 2009, you said you would direct Secretary of Education Arne Duncan to "use only one test when deciding what ideas to support with your precious tax dollars: It's not whether an idea is liberal or conservative, but whether it works." Mr. President, this program works. According to Patrick Wolf, the principal investigator for the study conducted under the auspices of the Department of Education's Institute of Education Sciences, this program has met a tough standard for efficacy. Dr. Wolf found that "the D.C. voucher program has proven to be the most effective education policy evaluated by the federal government's official education research arm so far." Using your stated criteria, this program should be reauthorized and additional students should be allowed to participate.

We agree that opportunity scholarships alone are not the sole solution to the problems that have long beset the troubled public school system in the District of Columbia. We fully support the efforts of Chancellor Rhee to turn around the public schools, and Congress has appropriated extra funding to the District to complement her efforts. However, as she has indicated, it will take many more years to turn around underachieving public schools in the District. In the meantime, young lives are at stake and young lives are being lost. We should not sacrifice these students to politics as we work to improve the public school system. At $7,500 per student, this program provides a quality education at less than half the cost of the per pupil expenditure for students in the D.C. public school system. And it is getting better results.

The D.C. OSP has the overwhelming support of D.C. residents, parents, D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty, Chancellor Rhee, former D.C. Mayor Anthony Williams and a majority of the D.C. City Council. As efforts are made to turn-around D.C.'s underachieving public schools we must reauthorize the D.C. OSP to ensure that low-income D.C. students have access to quality education today, and we need to ensure that the same number of students is able to participate as in recent years. We hope you will agree that there is no justifiable reason to end this program and that you will work with us to guarantee the future of the D.C. OSP program.


John A. Boehner
House Republican Leader

Joseph I. Lieberman
Senate Committee on Homeland Security & Governmental Affairs

Boehner spearheaded the creation of the program when he chaired the House Education & the Workforce Committee. Lieberman has long been a supporter of the program.

This isn't the first time President Obama has been asked to act on behalf of the DCOSP. Here's hoping it's the first time he responds.

Erin O'Connor, 8:11 AM | Permalink | TrackBack (0)

January 28, 2010 [feather]
Stating the obvious

The New York Times and other media outlets are having a field day with the recent arrest of James O'Keefe--producer-pimp in last fall's infamous ACORN videos--and several compatriots for allegedly interfering with the phones in Senator Mary Landrieu's office. Of particular interest to the Times is O'Keefe & Co.'s backgrounds in conservative campus journalism:

At least three of the men charged in the episode have backgrounds in campus journalism. Both Mr. O'Keefe, 25, a graduate of Rutgers, and Joseph Basel, 24, a graduate of the University of Minnesota-Morris, started conservative newspapers on their campuses, which they saw as counterweights in a liberal campus environment. (Mr. Basel actually called his paper The Counterweight.) Stan Dai, 24, was editor in chief of The GW Patriot, a conservative campus newspaper at George Washington University.


Mr. O'Keefe has long espoused a form of journalism that draws attention to itself. He has made prank calls to Planned Parenthood clinics and pulled off a Taxpayer’s Clearinghouse stunt--taxpayers were given large fake checks, only to be told the money was for the bank bailout--that would not be out of place in a movie by Michael Moore, the liberal gadfly.

In an interview with a Web site run by the Leadership Institute, which recruits and trains conservative leaders and helped Mr. O'Keefe and Mr. Basel start their campus newspapers, they espoused a mix of traditional investigation--"Follow the money trail"--and more provocative techniques, like recording professors' lectures and printing the transcripts in the newspaper.

This approach led to Mr. O'Keefe's most high-profile project, the Acorn tapes, made with an associate, Hannah Giles, who was dressed as a prostitute. The film damaged Acorn's reputation, and prompted a move by Congress to cut off some of its federal financing.

Also of great interest to the Times is the manner in which several prominent conservative journalists and media figures have distanced themselves from O'Keefe's latest endeavors:

Several commentators on the right have already begun to distance themselves from the misconduct charged by federal authorities. Glenn Beck, on his radio show, said that if it turned out that the group was trying to wiretap the office--which federal authorities have not alleged--it was "insanely stupid."

But others are going further, and cautioning fellow conservatives-- who often champion non-traditional approaches to journalism in contrast to a mainstream perceived as biased--about Mr. O'Keefe's techniques in principle.

Michelle Malkin, a prominent blogger who has been a strong critic of Acorn and a supporter of Mr. O'Keefe's undercover taping of Acorn employees, emphasized that it was too early to make a judgment. "But for now," she wrote, "let it be a lesson to aspiring young conservatives interested in investigative journalism: Know your limits. Know the law. Don't get carried away."

John Hood, on The National Review blog The Corner, speculated that the episode probably looked worse than it was. But he said Mr. O’Keefe's "publicity stunts" do a disservice to the growing ranks of investigative journalists at conservative organizations trying to expose government waste and corruption.

It's a weird little article. There is no actual new news about what O'Keefe was doing in Landrieu's office. The focus instead is on young conservatives behaving badly and older more established conservatives delivering journalistic etiquette lessons from their prominent perches in radio and the blogosphere. The news, in other words, is that young conservative activists are out of control, and need policing by their elders. Which isn't news, really--it's opinion dressed up to look otherwise. There is a bit of a gloating, "gotcha" tone in the article--it has a definite "look through this peephole at the crazies" feel to it that ironically undermines the article's focus on the damage partisan journalism can do. You don't see the Times performing prurient armchair anthropology on "liberals." It's too vulgar a category, too objectifying, means nothing, and is useful only for folks like Ann Coulter, who says it almost as often as our commander in chief says the word "I."

Anyway. As we all ought to know at this point, conservatives don't exactly have a lock on either agenda-driven, unethical journalism or twenty-something professional stupidity. O'Keefe and his friends did something really stupid. I am not defending them at all. But I don't think they did it because they are conservatives. I think they did it because they are young, inadequately prepared from a professional ethics standpoint, and, yes, willing to bend rules for a partisan gain. Unethical, partisan journalistic behavior is happening on both sides of the street these days--Ellie Light sent me an email just yesterday to say that FOX was unfairly censoring her--and, in fact, is being advocated by such exemplary figures as Harvard professor and Obama administrator Cass Sunstein. It's not a special problem of conservatives. And journalism that can't see that is part of the problem.

UPDATE 1/29: O'Keefe has released a statement. Excerpt: "It has been amazing to witness the journalistic malpractice committed by many of the organizations covering this story. MSNBC falsely claimed that I violated a non-existent 'gag order.' The Associated Press incorrectly reported that I 'broke in' to an office which is open to the public. The Washington Post has now had to print corrections in two stories on me. And these are just a few examples of inaccurate and false reporting. The public will judge whether reporters who can't get their facts straight have the credibility to question my integrity as a journalist."

More 2/1: The NYT went after O'Keefe again--and at greater length--yesterday. From Bernie Goldberg: "Acorn, after all, receives tens of millions of taxpayer dollars and has been repeatedly accused of trying to subvert our electoral process. That, the noble New York Times didn’t find all that interesting when the videos came out. O'Keefe at worst is a young guy who did something really dumb. But his tactics – and those of other young conservatives like him – the Times finds worthy of a very long story in its Sunday edition. Hmmm! So, the question one more time: Why does it find Mr. O'Keefe worthy of so much ink? Could it be because he's a conservative who got into trouble?"

Erin O'Connor, 7:36 AM | Permalink | Comments (18) | TrackBack (0)

January 27, 2010 [feather]
School choice in Arizona

From the Arizona Daily Star

Nearly 900 eighth-graders have left the Sunnyside Unified School District since 2006 to attend private or charter schools - costing the district about $3 million in state funding.
And the Tucson Unified School District - the largest in the city - has lost about 8,300 students to charters over five years - some 3 percent of its enrollment. Such losses would have cost the district an estimated $36 million in state funding, although officials say some of the students have returned.

TUSD has tried for years to find ways to stop the hemorrhaging - bulking up its niche programs, studying who's leaving for where, and advertising its extracurriculars to parents and students. Last year, the district budgeted almost $420,000 for school-choice exploration. The initiative encourages schools to transform, offering a special focus or learning model that would draw in and retain students.
Now Sunnyside is thinking about how to stop the losses.

Administrators have come up with a $213,300 plan to keep eighth-graders from leaving by loaning laptops this summer to qualifying students and enrolling them in a college-prep program. Teachers will receive laptops and the district will begin an online learning program and look into providing area families free Internet service.

It's telling that the school district is looking at college prep as an afterthought and a stopgap. And it's sad that the loan of a laptop (over the summer! when it will mostly used for surfing and social networking!) is supposed to counteract the schools' failure to do their jobs during the school year. But the kids leaving the district schools aren't thinking about laptops or afterthoughts--they and their parents are looking for "smaller class sizes, innovative teaching and assurances that their children will become college graduates."

The article offers some telling quotes from kids who have made the switch. Here's one: "I like the environment. It is really positive, and I feel teachers here really care about their students. They are not here just because it is a job," said Tapia, who is enrolled in honors English, economics and chemistry. "At Desert View I just felt like I was just another student, another number. There are teachers there who care, but I feel I get more one-on-one time with the teachers Alta Vista." Tapia plays on the volleyball team, serves on the student council, and belongs to the National Honor Society.

Arizona's school choice movement is 15 years old, and it's going strong. One quarter of all the state's public schools are charter schools. These schools have had strong success in boosting the educational achievement of underprivileged kids.

The "hemorrhaging" cited above is often described as a bad thing for public education. But that's a stasist way of looking at things. The kids who have left the district schools are finding schools where they can succeed. The district schools themselves are now smaller--and should be working harder at finding cost-effective ways to meet the needs of the kids who stay in them.

Meanwhile, the district schools are getting important feedback about what works and what doesn't--about what kids in the area need and what their parents want for them. And they are getting funding to help them adjust. I question the heavy emphasis on laptops and technology--while these things are important, they are not a substitute for excellent teachers, challenging courses, and personal attention--but the charitable side of me says, "This is an attempt to respond to much-needed competition--and if it doesn't work, the schools will know it soon enough as more kids will vote with their feet."

Thanks to reader Tom G. for the link.

Erin O'Connor, 9:04 AM | Permalink | TrackBack (0)

January 26, 2010 [feather]
How not to do it

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
Obama Speaks to a Sixth-Grade Classroom
Daily Show
Full Episodes
Political HumorHealth Care Crisis

Delivering canned remarks doesn't work at any level of the educational system, for teachers or speakers. How hard would it have been to put the desks in a circle, perch on a chair or table, make eye contact, and casually shoot the breeze with the kids? You can inject an awful lot of substance in that format--while making a warm, genuine connection. What did the kids in that class learn? I hazard the guess that they learned the president is distant, stiff, guarded, and a bit pompous, standing in his blue carpet circle of authority. Sad.

Erin O'Connor, 7:50 AM | Permalink | TrackBack (0)

January 24, 2010 [feather]

From Thomas Friedman's column in this morning's New York Times:

Obama should bring together the country's leading innovators and ask them: "What legislation, what tax incentives, do we need right now to replicate you all a million times over" -- and make that his No. 1 priority. Inspiring, reviving and empowering Start-up America is his moon shot.

And to reignite his youth movement, he should make sure every American kid knows about two programs that he has already endorsed: The first is National Lab Day. Introduced last November by a coalition of educators and science and engineering associations, Lab Day aims to inspire a wave of future innovators, by pairing veteran scientists and engineers with students in grades K-12 to inspire thousands of hands-on science projects around the country.

Any teacher in America, explains the entrepreneur Jack Hidary, the chairman of N.L.D., can go to the Web site NationalLabDay.org and enter the science project he or she is interested in teaching, or get an idea for one. N.L.D. will match teachers with volunteer scientists and engineers in their areas for mentoring.

"As soon as you have a match, the scientists and the students communicate directly or via Skype and collaborate on a project," said Hidary. "We have a class in Chicago asking for civil engineers to teach them how to build a bridge. In Idaho, a class is asking for a scientist to help them build a working river delta inside their classroom."

The president should also vow to bring the Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship, or NFTE, to every low-income neighborhood in America. NFTE works with middle- and high-school teachers to help them teach entrepreneurship. The centerpiece of its program is a national contest for start-ups with 24,000 kids participating. Each student has to invent a product or service, write up a business plan and then do it. NFTE (www.NFTE.com) works only in low-income areas, so many of these new entrepreneurs are minority kids.

In November, a documentary movie -- "Ten9Eight" -- was released that tracked a dozen students all the way through to the finals of the NFTE competition. Obama should arrange for this movie to be shown in every classroom in America. It is the most inspirational, heartwarming film you will ever see. You can obtain details about it at www.ten9eight.com.

This year's three finalists, said Amy Rosen, the chief executive of NFTE, "were an immigrant's son who took a class from H&R Block and invented a company to do tax returns for high school students, a young woman who taught herself how to sew and designed custom-made dresses, and the winner was an African-American boy who manufactured socially meaningful T-shirts."

You want more good jobs, spawn more Steve Jobs. Obama should have focused on that from Day 1. He must focus on that for Year 2.

I've been lucky enough to see Ten9Eight--and it is indeed a wonderfully inspirational portrait of teens discovering the motivational power of entrepreneurship. Inner city kids in particular need to be able to envision ways out of poverty--and to be able to grasp what they can personally do to improve their lives and their prospects. The NFTE is doing amazing things in this regard. As the White House regroups after Tuesday's election, I hope this film--and the kid-centered approach to meaningful cultural change it documents--will be a big part of that.

Erin O'Connor, 9:39 AM | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack (0)

January 23, 2010 [feather]
Semi-annual George Eliot plug

From Middlemarch (1871-72), Eliot's greatest novel:

That element of tragedy which lies in the very fact of frequency, has not yet wrought itself into the coarse emotion of mankind; and perhaps our frames could hardly bear much of it. If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel's heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence. As it is, the quickest of us walk about well wadded with stupidity.

From Drexel English professor Paula Marantz Cohen:

In 1873, when George Eliot was at the height of her fame, she accepted an invitation to visit the critic F. W. H. Myers at Cambridge. He describes the most dramatic moment during their meeting as follows: "Taking as her text the three words which have been used so often as the inspiring trumpet-calls of men,--the words of God, Immorality, and Duty,--[she] pronounced, with terrible earnestness, how inconceivable was the first, how unbelievable the second, and yet how peremptory and absolute the third."

Although Eliot's successors, the Edwardians, would snicker at such "terrible earnestness," the statement goes to the heart of Eliot's greatness. Spiritual belief had begun to ebb during the Victorian era; what was there to replace it? Matthew Arnold in "Dover Beach" wistfully invokes love as the raft to cling to. But Eliot presents a more practical solution. Her novels explore how the cultivation of moral character can serve as a source of meaning, even in the absence of a belief in God.


ONE OF THE harshest indictments of contemporary society is that there seems to be no place in it for George Eliot's novels. The Edwardians rejected Eliot as a sensibility against which they needed to rebel; she was the antithesis of the experimental styles and iconoclastic politics of modernism. But our society has not rejected her on esthetic or ideological grounds. Her moral seriousness simply doesn't register on our cultural landscape; most people don't have the time or patience to read her "baggy monsters."

Ironically, she still appears in the one place she ought not to be: the high school curriculum, which often insists on assigning Silas Marner to 10th graders (when it is not performing the greater error of assigning Edith Wharton's Ethan Frome). As Virginia Woolf observed, Eliot wrote novels for grown-up people. Our society and our relationships would be saner and better if more grownups read her.

When I was in grad school, Bob Weisbuch (who was then chair of Michigan's English department, and who is now president of Drew University) observed that you should read Middlemarch every five years or so. Every time, he said, it's a different book, and an even more powerful one. I've been lucky enough to test his theory, as I read the novel first in college, again a time or two in grad school, and then taught it a number of times while I was at Penn. It does indeed get better and more powerful every time. And the power is its immense moral seriousness (which is not at all the same thing as humorlessness, prudishness, or conventionality--Eliot was very funny when she wanted to be, and after being raised in a small evangelical community, she made her own rules, abandoning the church, escaping to London, and eventually eloping with the married love of her life, George Henry Lewes; she paid dearly for these choices, but they also enabled and enrich her art).

Erin O'Connor, 6:31 PM | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack (0)

Beyond Obamanomics

In December, Reason's Nick Gillespie interviewed Timothy Carney about his new book Obamanomics--which looks to be in many ways an attempt to look past partisan takes on government and the economy, and toward a means of reclaiming the baseline procedural ethics so many people on both sides of the aisle urgently want. Check it out.

Erin O'Connor, 3:41 PM | Permalink | TrackBack (0)

The Lottery

Since we're talking about school choice--and the role of the teachers' unions not only in preventing needed reform, but in keeping parents from choosing to place their kids in good schools that are good fits for them--check out the trailer above.

The story of teachers' union intransigence when it comes to the extremely time-sensitive matter of kids' futures urgently needs to be told. And finally, with films like this one and like The Cartel (which attracted a nasty, tellingly defensive hit piece from the New Jersey Education Association), that story is beginning to be told.

In other news, the New York state legislature has killed the state's chance to get upwards of $700 million in federal money to open 200 new charter schools. The legislature had until Tuesday to raise the cap on how many charter schools there could be. But then the bickering about power began, and that was that.

Governor Paterson and Mayor Bloomberg kept their comments simple and to the point: it was a "sad day for children."

Erin O'Connor, 10:53 AM | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack (0)

January 22, 2010 [feather]
On the subject of civility

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
Special Comment - Keith Olbermann's Name-Calling
Daily Show
Full Episodes
Political HumorHealth Care Crisis

I heart Jon Stewart 4ever.

Erin O'Connor, 5:28 PM | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack (0)

January 21, 2010 [feather]
Cowboy professor consultants

From Inside Higher Ed:

A University of Maryland professor has pulled his institution into a heated labor debate in California, prompting a rebuke from administrators and inviting questions about his own conflicts of interest.

As a paid consultant for Service Employees International, the nation's fastest growing labor union, Fred Feinstein recently wrote a legal opinion suggesting that California health care workers could receive "less favorable" benefits if they left SEIU for another union. Feinstein penned his opinion on university letterhead, which was then photocopied and used by SEIU as campaign literature, urging workers to stay on as members.

Listing his credentials, Feinstein mentioned his status as a senior fellow and visiting professor in Maryland's School of Public Policy, along with detailing his prior service as general counsel to the National Labor Relations Board. What Feinstein did not mention, however, was that he's on the SEIU payroll and received about $240,000 from the union and one of its affiliates, Change to Win, in 2007 and 2008, according to federal filings.

Feinstein's letter prompted a harsh response from the National Union of Healthcare Workers, an independent union that has framed itself as the alternative to SEIU for workers in California. NUHW suggests that Feinstein exploited his position as a faculty member, portraying himself as a disinterested academician while taking a position favorable to an organization that compensates him.

"The University of Maryland is being thrust into the middle of this dispute in a way that not only compromises the University of Maryland, but calls into question the independence of academia in general," said John Borsos, vice president of NUHW. "Fred Feinstein, writing a letter on the University of Maryland's letterhead, certainly gave the impression of speaking with the authority of a university on the dispute."

William Powers, executive dean of Maryland's School of Public Policy, said Wednesday that Feinstein "violated university policy" with his actions.

"In writing and submitting the letter, Mr. Feinstein was not acting within his role as a university faculty member but in his personal capacity as an adviser to the union," Powers wrote in an e-mail to Inside Higher Ed. "It was thus a mistake for him to use university letterhead or in any other way to imply that the university was engaged in this matter or stood behind his opinions."

Powers went on to say that the university would be "firmly informing" Feinstein that he’d violated university policy, adding that Feinstein will need to tell recipients of the letter that he wasn't acting as a faculty member when he rendered the opinion.

While Powers affirms that university policy was violated by use of the letterhead, he would not say whether Feinstein violated conflict of interest policies that govern consulting or other outside work. Concerns about the strength of such policies have been raised in recent years across academe, mostly in connection with biomedical researchers with ties to pharmaceutical companies. Issues of conflict of interest, however, have most typically been raised about researchers writing in academic journals -- not something like Feinstein wrote, which was essentially a one-page legal opinion, rendered in plain speak and distributed as campaign literature.

I'm thinking it might be time to establish a Hall of Shame for academics who sell themselves--and their institution's good name--to the highest bidder. Feinstein can join MIT's Jonathan Gruber and the growing list of biomedical researchers referenced above.

Still no word on whether MIT is taking Gruber's errors as seriously as Maryland appears to be taking Feinstein's.

Erin O'Connor, 7:58 AM | Permalink | TrackBack (0)

January 20, 2010 [feather]
As long as we're talking about government...

An Inconvenient Tax - Official Trailer from Life Is My Movie Entertainment on Vimeo.

An Inconvenient Tax will be released this spring. Find out more at AnInconvenientTax.com.

Erin O'Connor, 12:37 PM | Permalink | TrackBack (0)

What he said

"The era of broken schools and broken streets and broken dreams in our cities has not worked. Too many urban school districts have failed despite massive spending per pupil."

That's new New Jersey governor Chris Christie, at his swearing-in yesterday. Christie has promised to promote charter schools and vouchers, and has already nominated Bret Schundler, former Jersey City mayor, to be a pro-school choice education commissioner. I hope Congress is watching--and while I don't imagine many of the people who voted to kill the DC voucher program have consciences, I hope those that do feel a twinge. If they are incapable of that, maybe they could try feeling some worry about their own professional well-being: the Scott Brown victory could help with that.

New Jersey is a textbook case of how massive per pupil spending has not meant major educational gains--but, rather, has translated into graft, corruption, and union empowerment at the expense of children's futures. Check out the new documentary film The Cartel for more on the sorry state of public education in New Jersey--and across the nation. (Full disclosure: I served as a post-production consultant for the film.)

Erin O'Connor, 7:23 AM | Permalink | Comments (10) | TrackBack (0)

January 18, 2010 [feather]
In bed with the Obama administration

From Glenn Greenwald's Salon column:

Cass Sunstein has long been one of Barack Obama's closest confidants. Often mentioned as a likely Obama nominee to the Supreme Court, Sunstein is currently Obama's head of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs where, among other things, he is responsible for "overseeing policies relating to privacy, information quality, and statistical programs." In 2008, while at Harvard Law School, Sunstein co-wrote a truly pernicious paper proposing that the U.S. Government employ teams of covert agents and pseudo-"independent" advocates to "cognitively infiltrate" online groups and websites -- as well as other activist groups -- which advocate views that Sunstein deems "false conspiracy theories" about the Government. This would be designed to increase citizens' faith in government officials and undermine the credibility of conspiracists. The paper's abstract can be read, and the full paper downloaded, here.

Sunstein advocates that the Government's stealth infiltration should be accomplished by sending covert agents into "chat rooms, online social networks, or even real-space groups." He also proposes that the Government make secret payments to so-called "independent" credible voices to bolster the Government's messaging (on the ground that those who don't believe government sources will be more inclined to listen to those who appear independent while secretly acting on behalf of the Government). This program would target those advocating false "conspiracy theories," which they define to mean: "an attempt to explain an event or practice by reference to the machinations of powerful people, who have also managed to conceal their role."


Consider the recent revelation that the Obama administration has been making very large, undisclosed payments to MIT Professor Jonathan Gruber to provide consultation on the President's health care plan. With this lucrative arrangement in place, Gruber spent the entire year offering public justifications for Obama's health care plan, typically without disclosing these payments, and far worse, was repeatedly held out by the White House -- falsely -- as an "independent" or "objective" authority. Obama allies in the media constantly cited Gruber's analysis to support their defenses of the President's plan, and the White House, in turn, then cited those media reports as proof that their plan would succeed. This created an infinite "feedback loop" in favor of Obama's health care plan which -- unbeknownst to the public -- was all being generated by someone who was receiving hundreds of thousands of dollars in secret from the administration (read this to see exactly how it worked).

In other words, this arrangement was quite similar to the Armstrong Williams and Maggie Gallagher scandals which Democrats, in virtual lockstep, condemned. Paul Krugman, for instance, in 2005 angrily lambasted right-wing pundits and policy analysts who received secret, undisclosed payments, and said they lack "intellectual integrity"; he specifically cited the Armstrong Williams case. Yet the very same Paul Krugman last week attacked Marcy Wheeler for helping to uncover the Gruber payments by accusing her of being "just like the right-wingers with their endless supply of fake scandals." What is one key difference? Unlike Williams and Gallagher, Jonathan Gruber is a Good, Well-Intentioned Person with Good Views -- he favors health care -- and so massive, undisclosed payments from the same administration he's defending are dismissed as a "fake scandal."

Sunstein himself -- as part of his 2008 paper -- explicitly advocates that the Government should pay what he calls "credible independent experts" to advocate on the Government's behalf, a policy he says would be more effective because people don't trust the Government itself and would only listen to people they believe are "independent." In so arguing, Sunstein cites the Armstrong Williams scandal not as something that is wrong in itself, but as a potential risk of this tactic (i.e., that it might leak out), and thus suggests that "government can supply these independent experts with information and perhaps prod them into action from behind the scenes," but warns that "too close a connection will be self-defeating if it is exposed." In other words, Sunstein wants the Government to replicate the Armstrong Williams arrangement as a means of more credibly disseminating propaganda -- i.e., pretending that someone is an "independent" expert when they're actually being "prodded" and even paid "behind the scenes" by the Government -- but he wants to be more careful about how the arrangement is described (don't make the control explicit) so that embarrassment can be avoided if it ends up being exposed.

In this 2008 paper, then, Sunstein advocated, in essence, exactly what the Obama administration has been doing all year with Gruber: covertly paying people who can be falsely held up as "independent" analysts in order to more credibly promote the Government line. Most Democrats agreed this was a deceitful and dangerous act when Bush did it, but with Obama and some of his supporters, undisclosed arrangements of this sort seem to be different. Why? Because, as Sunstein puts it: we have "a well-motivated government" doing this so that "social welfare is improved." Thus, just like state secrets, indefinite detention, military commissions and covert, unauthorized wars, what was once deemed so pernicious during the Bush years -- coordinated government/media propaganda -- is instantaneously transformed into something Good.

Here you've got three high-powered academics--a Harvard professor (recently transplanted from the University of Chicago) who is now part of the Obama administration, an MIT economist who has taken hundreds of thousands of dollars from the White House to pose as an independent expert on health care costs, and a Nobel-Prize-winning, New-York-Times-blogging Princeton economist all engaged in highly pernicious and mutually enabling forms of professional dishonesty. Sunstein comes up what Timothy Burke calls a "consensus-politics liberal-leaning version of COINTELPRO," Gruber is the willing participant in the plan, and Krugman is the apologist.

Burke and Greenwald both make the point that this kind of behavior is egregiously wrong period--it doesn't matter what your politics are or what your agenda is, because the end really doesn't justify the means if you care about principle on any level. And we are after all trying to live in a nation that is founded on and maintained through principle, as much as we struggle with that. That's an obvious point, but a necessary one--and one that's necessary not just for government, not just for public affairs, but also for academia.

When professors rise as far as Sunstein, Gruber, and Krugman have, it can be hard to remember that this is what they are. They come to seem untouchable, exempt, even a little unreal. Their academic standing may seem somehow minor, or beside the point; to think of them as violating academic professional ethics--in the way of a Ward Churchill, for instance--may seem almost embarrassingly petty or inconsequential. But from the perspective of academia--which has a huge image problem, one that arises in no small part from the public perception that academia is a politicized free-for-all accountable to no one--it's a big deal.

The activities and ideas of these three respected academic figures should be discussed and parsed. It may well be, for instance, that the only kind of dishonesty Sunstein and Krugman are guilty of, from an academic standpoint, is intellectual dishonesty, while Gruber has crossed the line into professional misconduct. In other words, Gruber's the only one who has broken a rule. Still, intellectual dishonesty can and should be named, criticized, and ultimately tamed through strong criticism--the kind that comes attached to consequences in the form of reputation costs if you come to be seen as a shill or a fool. And that criticism has to come from professional and intellectual peers.

Academics are happy to perform this sort of self-policing when they deem the politics of the offender to be offensively wrong: remember John Yoo and Lawrence Summers? But self-policing can't be only a mechanism of political self-purification. It has to be principled, fair, and adherent to ethical norms that transcend personal agendas.

Erin O'Connor, 7:06 AM | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack (0)

January 15, 2010 [feather]
Back to the real issues

Earlier this week, I linked to a poorly written, politically telegraphic sociology exam that had been posted on the Manhattan Institute's Minding the Campus. Several commenters on this site raised questions about the exam's authenticity--which I then sought to allay by contacting John Leo, former U.S. News columnist and current editor of MTC. I reported in the comments that John had verified the authenticity of the exam--but did not feel at liberty to describe the specifics.

Now Leo details them himself:

Candace de Russy's January 7 post here, "Hate-America Sociology," understandably attracted a lot of attention. It cited a 10-question Soc 101 quiz at an unnamed eastern college, complete with accusatory leftish questions and some simple-minded answers by a student who drew a mark of 100 for agreeing with the politics of his professor.

A few readers, and many more at other sites that linked to us, asked if the test and answers are authentic. I am satisfied that they are. The material came with assurances from Dr. de Russy, a former professor and trustee at the State University of New York. I know the college involved and have a copy of the test with answers filled in. I talked with the source for the story, who cannot be identified because of privacy concerns and fear of retaliation.

The blog Progressive Scholar saw nothing wrong with the test ("I don't understand, what is the problem with this exam?") Dr. de Russy replied, stressing what she saw as the "unremitting bias" of the test. Its point of view, she wrote, is "entirely anti-capitalist, anti-white, anti-male. No other perspective is included, even as a hypothetical."

Readers who come across other politically loaded exams should send them to us at editor@campusmind.org or Minding the Campus, the Manhattan Institute, 52 Vanderbilt Avenue, New York, NY 10017.

Thanks, John.

In the comments to my original post, Swarthmore professor Timothy Burke wrote: "There's nothing impossible or implausible about the existence of an exam like this one, and if it existed, I'd make precisely the argument you cite above: grossly doctrinaire teaching is incompetent teaching, and the incompetence is the first and real issue, not the doctrine. (E.g., I've seen simplistic, dull-witted exams reflecting simplistic, dull-witted courses which were not particuarly political, and they share a lot in common with this purported exam). But really, I don't see any reason to see this supposed exam as evidence of anything until it's confirmed as part of a real course taught by a real person at a real institution."

I hope now we can have a conversation about what we are to make of exams such as this one--what they reveal about the quality of teaching on our campuses, what they tell us about the relationship of doctrinaire pedagogy to incompetence, and what ought to be done to ensure a higher overall standard (and accountability for same) for college teachers.

Erin O'Connor, 8:47 AM | Permalink | Comments (19) | TrackBack (0)

January 14, 2010 [feather]
Case study in academic ethics

There has been a lot of buzz lately about the ethics issues professors run into when they don't disclose their consulting relationships. Most of that buzz has centered on medical schools, where faculty relationships with drug companies have been shown to pose serious conflicts of interest. Med schools are under pressure now to clarify, tighten, and enforce their policies on same--and they should be. Margaret Soltan is doing a remarkable job of chronicling this unfolding piece of academic history over at University Diaries--and while I sometimes nudge her about painting her criticisms with too wide a brush (not all academic clinicians and medical research professors are in bed with the drug companies, and it's important to remember that a great many are profoundly ethical in their professional conduct), she's doing yeoman's service.

I thought of the this the other day when I ran across the story of MIT economist Jonathan Gruber. Here's Atlantic blogger Megan McArdle:

MIT economist Jonathan Gruber has become the go-to economist for fans of the health care reform wending its way through congress. He regularly produces analyses showing how great reform is going to be for people buying insurance in the individual market, and has been a vocal advocate for the excise tax.


He shows up in the work of the left-half of the health care commentariat so often that if I tried to round up representative cites, this piece would be published sometime next month, and you'd die of old age before you made your way through it.

But he probably wouldn't have been cited with quite the same authority--particularly by mainstream media--if he'd been more upfront about the fact that he's being paid almost $300,000 by the Obama Administration for "special studies and analysis" of the health care bills, as a blogger on Firedoglake revealed last night. Ben Smith has the rundown; apparently most of the health care beat reporters were as unaware of the relationship as I was.

I certainly would not have written about him the same way, even though I am sure that what Gruber is saying comports with what he believes. My guess is that like me, most journalists would have treated him as an employee of the administration, with all the constraints that implies, rather than passing along his pronouncements as the thoughts of an independent academic. Christina Romer is a very, very fine economist. But her statements about administration policy are treated differently from statements by, say, her colleague Brad De Long.

Given how influential Professor Gruber's work has been during the health care debate, that's rather a large problem.

Gruber's explanation that "he disclosed this to reporters whenever they asked" is not very compelling. I don't see how anyone even tangentially connected to policy work could fail to realize that this was a material conflict of interest that should have been disclosed, and reporters cannot take up all their interview time going through all the sources who might have been paying or otherwise influencing their interviewee.

The standard is even higher for people who are taking public funds, and not only Professor Gruber, but the administration had a responsibility to disclose the relationship. Yet a post on the OMB blog signed by Peter Orszag cited Brownstein's Gruber quotes without mentioning the relationship.

To be clear, I'm sure that Jonathan Gruber is in favor of passing this health care bill, and thinks it will do a lot of genuine good. I don't think that funding automatically discredits the message; his work should stand on its own merits. But journalists and academics are granted a presumption of independence that is not given to most other professions, and that gives them a special duty to make it clear whenever there is a relationship that people might reasonably think has affected their views. Lefties were rightly furious when journalists turned out to have been taking money from the Bush administration, and I'm glad to see that at least some of them are holding Obama to the same standard.

I am very glad to see criticism coming from all sides on this one--because the issue of playing fast and dirty with the public's perception of your intellectual integrity is a big one, no matter which party, lobby, or administration is buying you off.

I'm also listening to a vacuum--one where I'd hope to hear some discussion of academic ethics and standards, not just for Gruber, not just at MIT, but generally. What Gruber did isn't cool--he sold the appearance of disinterested expertise to a highly partisan political effort to pass a hugely transformative and massively contested piece of legislation. And he lied about it. Contrary to Gruber's initial claims, he did not always disclose the relationship when asked--as the New York Times has since publicly stated: "Like other writers for the Op-Ed page," the Times noted Saturday, "Professor Gruber signed a contract that obligated him to tell editors of such a relationship. Had editors been aware of Professor Gruber's government ties, the Op-Ed page would have insisted on disclosure or not published the article."

There's no argument that Gruber made a hash of things from journalistic and legislative standpoints. Journalists and bloggers are stepping up right now to point that out and to do a little welcome self-policing. And on the Hill, Senator Grassley is demanding better transparency standards for people who are under government contract to opine on health care legislation.

But it's worth noting that Gruber's errors cut another way, too. He's violated academic professional standards in a really elemental way. And his behavior calls into question the ethical standards and working culture of his department, his discipline, and his university.

When asked if he thought his failures to disclose were a problem, Gruber told the Boston Globe that "I don't think it's an issue." But it is.

MIT requires faculty members to disclose to the university all outside professional activities, and to consult closely with administrators on how best to conduct those activities to ensure that conflicts of interest are minimized and that ethical standards are maintained. Did Gruber do that? If so, what advice did he get? If not, what mechanisms does MIT have in place for holding him accountable for his ethical lapses? Do these lapses fall under the category of research misconduct--which MIT takes very seriously? If so, what will MIT do from here? If not, why not?

Erin O'Connor, 8:23 AM | Permalink | TrackBack (0)

January 13, 2010 [feather]
Quote for the day

From Swarthmore history professor Timothy Burke:

For our own velvet revolution, for at least a possibility of moving the ball forward past this stagnant, curdled moment in American life, I think what we'll all have to do is take the risk of authenticity, to develop a grown-up taste for the rough edges and honest imperfections of lives as they are lived. In our politicians, in our public figures, in ourselves. To stop carrying water for liars or telling simplified fabulisms because we think that will serve some end that we deem necessary. To drop our deflector shields. Living and speaking within a world of acknowledged ambiguity, uncertainty, and imperfection is an end in and of itself.

To that I would only add a caveat: Recognizing and accepting the real ambiguities of life is not itself a warrant for moral relativism. It is, in fact, the precondition for what we so sorely need: a return to properly judicious and firm ethical thought and action at every level of our culture.

Erin O'Connor, 8:41 AM | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack (0)

Is the fix in?

From the Daily Caller:

It ultimately falls to one man to decide if we ever see headlines that shout: "Penn State Climate Prof Fudged Facts to Fetch Funding", or perhaps "Nittany Lyin': Penn State's Mann on the Street."

Henry "Hank" Foley, the new vice president for research and dean of the graduate school, will hold professor Michael Mann's academic future in his hands if an internal inquiry, now under way, sparks an investigation that finds Mann broke university policy.

But results of Penn State's internal Climategate probe may not come until Mann's part of the globe really warms up, in May or June. In addition, you may never learn what really happened between Mann and other leading lights in the global warming movement. That's because Penn State, like other universities, treats such inquiries as confidential personnel matters, protected by policy "to the maximum extent possible."

More surprising, the initial probe involves a committee of just three, all of whom are Penn State employees with a clear interest in preserving the reputation of a university ranked ninth in the nation in receiving government research and development grants. It may raise some eyebrows to know that no outsiders will monitor the proceedings.

The stakes couldn't be higher. The perception of integrity in the climate research community will likely determine whether trillions of dollars are pumped into less-developed nations in the form of virtual reparations to atone for 150 years of unequal occupation of the so-called "carbon space" by more prosperous nations.

Still, the public is asked to trust the findings of a secret probe conducted by the colleagues of the accused.

Michael Mann created the now-famous "hockey stick" graph, which Al Gore cited in "An Inconvenient Truth," his Oscar-winning Powerpoint presentation. Mann also received email from Phil Jones, director of the University of East Anglia's Climate Research Unit, in which Jones appeared to suggest he had used a "trick" to "hide the decline" in global average temperatures. Another Jones note asks Mann to delete emails that were the target of a Freedom Of Information Act request.

It's in the context of one of the biggest stories of the decade--a scandal that called into question the credibility of an entire scientific discipline--that Penn State launched its initial 60-day inquiry.

Ordinarily, the probe panel would include the dean of the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences. However, Dean William Easterling recused himself because he was one of the lead authors of the report from the United Nation's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Easterling and co-authors shared the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize with Al Gore.

So, the team consists of Foley, plus William Brune, Mann's boss, who has headed Penn State's meteorology department for about a decade, and Candice Yekel, director of the Office of Research Protections, who reports to Foley.

If the committee feels the allegations warrant further scrutiny, Foley will appoint another committee--this time five tenured professors who have "no conflicts of interest and are competent to evaluate the issues objectively."

The ad hoc panel has 120 days to "conduct a prompt and thorough investigation" to determine whether Mann violated university policy. If they think he did, he'll have 14 days to respond.

Hank Foley alone would determine whether to accept or reject the investigation committee's findings in whole or in part. Then he would tell Mann's boss, Bill Brune, what to do about it.

"This is quite a different case than we've had in the past," said university spokeswoman Lisa Powers. "We take any claims of misconduct very seriously...in some cases the people have been separated from the university." However, she added, "Sometimes allegations are brought forward that have no validity."

Funding agencies that channel public dollars to Mann's research would receive the report of the investigation committee’s findings and any disciplinary action, Powers said, but the circle of knowledge could end there.

Thus do confidentiality and internal procedure crash up against the public interest--and billions of dollars, and the future of domestic and foreign policy for the U.S. and many other nations. I'm struck by the difference between how this investigation is being handled and how the Ward Churchill investigation was handled. There was a lot less at stake in the latter--but the public's interest in the investigation was recognized, and the results were made public. One likewise recalls the Michael Bellesiles investigation--which offers some interesting parallels to the present case. Accountability in cases of research misconduct--particularly research misconduct arising from a discipline-wide ideological zeitgeist--only happens when proceedings aren't done behind closed doors.

Penn State really ought to be thinking about some transparency here.

Erin O'Connor, 8:11 AM | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack (0)

January 11, 2010 [feather]
In the mail

Rod Paige and Elaine Witty's The Black-White Achievement Gap: Why Closing It Is the Greatest Civil Rights Issue of Our Time and Mark Gilbert's Complicit: How Greed and Collusion Made the Credit Crisis Unstoppable.

Also in the mail--but this time because I paid for it at Amazon, rather than accepted an advance review copy--Gail Godwin's Unfinished Desires.

Excited about them all.

Erin O'Connor, 9:35 AM | Permalink | TrackBack (0)


Lucy Inglis' Georgian London has just been named Best Individual Blog and Best New Blog of 2009 by the history blog Cliopatria. The focus is, as the title suggests, all eighteenth-century London all the time, with occasional forays into the early years of the nineteenth--there were four Georges, and their reigns spanned the years 1714 - 1830 (for those who equate nineteenth-century England with Victorian England, think again--Victoria was not crowned until 1837).

You can never know too much history--and the more you know, the more wonderful it gets, at once more real and more fantastic. Currently highlighted at Georgian London are the menageries kept at the Tower, carnival fat man Daniel Lambert (about whom I wrote a bit once upon a time), and a very special little sex shop housed at Covent Garden (once, ironically, Convent Garden).

Check it out.

Erin O'Connor, 8:52 AM | Permalink | TrackBack (0)

January 8, 2010 [feather]
Call and response

From a sociology exam delivered at a public college in the eastern U.S.:

Question: How does the United States "steal" the resources of other (third world) [sic] countries?

Answer: We steal through exploitation. Our multinationals are aware that indigenous people in developing nations have been coaxed off their plots and forced into slums. Because it is lucrative, our multinationals offer them extremely low wage labor (sic) that cannot be turned down.

Question: Why is the U.S. on shaky moral ground when it comes to preventing illegal immigration?

Answer: Some say that it is wrong of the United States to prevent illegal immigration because the same people we are denying entry to, (sic) we have exploited for the purpose of keeping the American wheel spinning.

Question: Why is it necessary to examine the theory of cumulative advantage when it comes to affirmative action?

Answer: Because it is unfair to discredit the many members of minority groups that have (sic) been offered more life chances through the program.

Question: What is the interactionist approach to gender?

Answer: The majority of multi-gender encounters are male-dominated. for (sic) example, while involved in conversation, the male is much more likely to interrupt. Most likely because the male believes the female's expressed thoughts are inferior to his own.

Question: Please briefly explain the matrix of domination.

Answer: the (sic) belief that domination has more than one dimension. For example, Males (sic) are dominant over females, whites over blacks, and affluent over impoverished.

Grade received: 100%.

Your tax dollars at work.

Erin O'Connor, 8:30 AM | Permalink | Comments (16) | TrackBack (0)

It's about TIME

Good to see TIME covering the higher ed accountability problem. From an interview with Education Sector's Kevin Carey, who recently published a corker of an article on the subject:

You refer in your essay to a "veil of secrecy that has shrouded higher education" for a long time. What information don't colleges want people to have?
There's the information that exists that they don't want you to know about, and then there's the information that doesn't exist that they don't want to exist. In the latter category, no one knows how much students learn at a given college or university. No one knows. The entire process for assessing learning is completely idiosyncratic and course based. Now in some cases there's good reason for that. There may be courses where literally there is one professor somewhere who is the only person who teaches a certain subject a certain way. At the same time, there is also a great deal of commonality. If you look at the courses students tend to take, almost everyone who goes to college takes a psychology class and takes an English class and takes a math class and takes basic science classes. Virtually no college assesses how much students learn in any subject and publishes data in a way that would allow you to compare it with other colleges. That information simply does not exist.

Then there are other kinds of data that I mention in the article — things like the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE) and the Collegiate Learning Assessment. NSSE [pronounced Nessie] is a measure of teaching quality and student learning. The Collegiate Learning Assessment is a test of critical thinking, analytic reasoning and communication skills that is content nonspecific. You can give it to an engineering major and you can give it to an English major and learn the same thing. Hundreds of colleges and universities administer these surveys and tests to their students, but most of them don't publish the data. They keep it to themselves.

Why is that?
There's no upside for them. There have been a few cases where open-access colleges that don't have much to lose will try to get their data out there. A couple of years ago, I wrote a column about the University of Nebraska at Omaha -- there's the University of Nebraska, which is the one with the football team, and Omaha is the commuter campus. The Omaha campus administered the Collegiate Learning Assessment, and when they issued a press release saying, "We did really, really well," they were yelled at and condemned by a lot of people in higher ed for doing something that was inappropriate. There's this conviction that it's wrong to use any kind of standardized instrument to make any claims about learning.

Because all colleges believe they are each beautiful and unique snowflakes?
The thing about snowflakes is that they're all small, they're all white, and they're all cold. They're not actually all that different from one another. Sure, every college is different in some way from its peers, but I would defy anyone to explain to me the difference between Indiana University Southeast and Indiana University Northwest. They're like the same thing, basically. They all teach the same classes by and large — business, engineering, education. These are the classes that college students actually take. Very few people are studying 5th century Chinese calligraphy. So colleges are not as different from one another as they would like people to believe. The argument is basically "If I'm unique, I'm incomparable. And if I'm incomparable, I'm not accountable, because no one can judge me." Colleges have a vested interest in being in a position where no one can judge them, because then they can do whatever they want.

Are colleges given too much respect?
Universities definitely get too much of a free pass. We have not gotten in the habit of asking hard questions about whether or not universities are doing a good job of teaching their students. Some of them are. There are fantastic universities, fantastic departments, fantastic programs, but there are also terrible universities, terrible departments, terrible programs. And the great fiction is that there are none of the latter. Listen to the way that we talk to students about the admissions process. Even as they compete for the best students, schools say, "It's all about fit. It's not about finding the best university. It's about finding the university that's right for you." And so there's this polite fiction that every university is right for some student, and every student is right for some university. Well, that's just not true.

Three years ago, as you write, a Federal Government report noted that there is a "remarkable absence of accountability mechanisms to ensure that colleges succeed in educating students." What accountability mechanisms should there be?
I think we should start with the easy things. You should be accountable for graduating a reasonable percentage of your students compared with other universities that have similar students. Harvard has the highest graduation rate in the country, at 98%. That's probably too high. I'm pretty sure you'd have to shoot somebody not to graduate from Harvard. Not all colleges could reasonably be expected to have a 98% graduation rate. However, if you have a 40% graduation rate and your peers have a 60% graduation rate, it's reasonable to hold you accountable for improvement.

And who is going to hold these schools accountable?
State governments have to do it. A tricky thing about higher-ed policy formation is that for a long time, the Federal Government did nothing. States are the ones that actually pay for the operating costs of universities, and states are the ones that legally have authority over them. They really have to play a much stronger role in holding colleges and universities accountable.

Can't they hypothetically do that only with public universities, not private ones?
In theory, all those private colleges are chartered by the state. Sure, the privacy of private colleges should be respected. I do think, however, that it's reasonable to ask private colleges to disclose a lot more information. I do think that's a fair exchange for the public dollar. And private colleges do get a lot of money from the public. They don't pay taxes. And if you're sitting on a billion-dollar endowment and you're not paying taxes on capital gains, that's a pretty good deal.

Higher education is way behind K-12 in terms of public awareness. You can start almost any conversation in K-12 education policy with the premise that our schools aren't as good as they could be and need to get better. People will argue the method, but they won't really argue the point. They won't say, "Oh, there's nothing wrong with our K-12 schools. They're awesome. We just need to keep giving them more money and stay out of their business." But that's what a lot of people think about colleges. And colleges do more than anyone to perpetuate that myth. But it is a myth.

I'm a little wary of the argument that colleges and universities should graduate more of their students--that's just an incentive to dumb down the curriculum even more, especially when it comes without a push to raise admissions standards and to hold high schools accountable for preparing kids for college. If unprepared kids didn't get in--then the high schools would have to sharpen up. And when they found themselves having to do that, then the failure of the middle schools would become more visible--and so on down the line. Failures at the very earliest levels of schooling get passed along and passed along, so that each level of school is doing remediation for what didn't happen before. That has to change if higher ed is to graduate more people while still maintaining (or recovering) the meaning of the diploma.

I take Carey's point that right now you see too many colleges and universities admitting people they know aren't ready--and not taking responsibility for their atrocious attrition rates. There is a betrayal of youth happening there--false promises attached to a lot of money and also to a vital period in someone's life. At the same time, I think fewer people should be going to college, that college should be harder, and that means people are going to flunk out. We need to take on reforms that have that in mind--and that means, among other things, valuing vocational training much more, taking the trades seriously as viable career plans, and making the high school diploma mean something.

Erin O'Connor, 7:20 AM | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack (0)

January 7, 2010 [feather]

Over the holidays, I indulged my pent up need to read, read, and read. First, I reread Edith Wharton's bleak Berkshire novellas, Ethan Frome and Summer, and was just awed and depressed by her portraits of rural entrapment. Wharton is usually remembered as our great New York novelist, but she spent considerable time in the Berkshires (following Hawthorne and Melville) and some of her most powerful and claustrophobic work is set there.

Then I read William Trevor's latest novel, Love and Summer. Trevor is Ireland's greatest living tragedian. His work details the terrible effect of insular Irish village culture on lived lives, and does so with immense poetry. Over Christmas, I discovered that it also does so with a strong dose of Wharton--Love and Summer is in many ways the same story as Wharton's 1917 Summer, just set on another continent. Beautiful, small, and understated.

I was overdosed on narrow rural elegy by that point, so began Hilary Mantel's 2009 Booker Prize winner, Wolf Hall. I had my doubts about a historical novel centered on Thomas Cromwell, special assistant to Cardinal Wolsey and, eventually, Henry VIII's chief advisor. Would it be inaccessible? Mired in obscure political detail? Conversely, would it be precious and overdone, a potboiler aimed at twenty-first century sensibilities, at the expense of sixteenth-century verisimilitude? It's neither, and it's awesome. Very readable, very poetic, very well told, and it gives you just enough orientation that you can follow the intrigue without excessive reference to potted Internet histories of same.

Simultaneously, in honor of a new year: Atlas Shrugged. I've never read it--despite being continuously in possession of a copy ever since my mother presented me with one at the age of nine (along with Roots and Gone With the Wind, both of which I did read). I figure the time has come.


Erin O'Connor, 5:22 PM | Permalink | Comments (7) | TrackBack (0)

What he said

Erin O'Connor, 5:21 PM | Permalink | TrackBack (0)

January 3, 2010 [feather]
The Blind Side

On the subject of where private philanthropy can do things the state can't--check out The Blind Side. This is the true story of Michael Oher, once a homeless, nearly illiterate Memphis teen, now offensive tackle for the Baltimore Ravens. It's also the true story of the family that saw he was in need--and made him a part of their own family. There is talk of a Golden Globe--and maybe even an Oscar--for Sandra Bullock. It's a good film. And it's also one that just sneaks in a message about the failures of the state--and the potential of everyday people to make all the difference in one another's lives. Check it out if you haven't already. It sets a good tone for the new year.

Erin O'Connor, 9:55 AM | Permalink | TrackBack (0)

January 1, 2010 [feather]
Save DC kids

The folks who have led the fight for the DC Opportunity Scholarship Program have set up a blog chronicling their struggle--and are working the Black Alliance for Education Options to raise funds to continue to provide tuition scholarships for underprivileged DC kids.


The DC Opportunity Scholarship Program--the program that has helped 3,300 low-income, primarily African American and Latino students gain access to better schools works simply but wonderfully: it gives low-income parents the opportunity to send their children to some of the District's finest private schools using federal scholarships.

As a result of this program and their own drive to succeed, wonderful children like Tiffany Dunston have been able to overcome once-insurmountable personal obstacles and do great things. Tiffany went from fighting to learn in a failing public school to--with the help of an Opportunity Scholarship--becoming the valedictorian at Archbishop Carroll High School. Now, she's thriving at a great university. Killing the DC Opportunity Scholarship Program decreases the possibility that another child like Tiffany will truly rise to her own true potential.

President Obama's continued silence on the issue is a betrayal, pure and simple.

It is not simply a betrayal of the D.C. voters who invested in President Obama's campaign message with their votes--the same voters who overwhelmingly want the DC Opportunity Scholarship Program to continue for additional students. It is a betrayal of the president's own personal narrative--one that he invokes frequently--of understanding the needs and hopes and dreams of low-income families. It is a betrayal of the person Barack Obama claims to have been--and was--before he became a politician. Surely, no community organizer with low-income roots could so callously dispose of the dreams of low-income children without first having betrayed or forgotten his own roots.

Yes, President Obama has let us down and fundamentally so. Luckily for him, he has the time and the opportunity to change that. He can meaningfully save the DC Opportunity Scholarship Program and allow additional students to enter the program. That would provide real hope--the kind people have long wanted from leaders in Washington.

Those are the words of Virginia Walden Ford, founder of DC Parents for School Choice--and, back in the day, a single mom herself whose youngest son's life was transformed after he received a scholarship to attend a private school.

If you are moved to give, you can do it here.

Erin O'Connor, 3:46 PM | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack (0)

Should the DCOSP go private?

I've posted here a lot lately about how the Obama administration and Congressional Democrats have killed the DC Opportunity Scholarship program--with no concern whatsoever for the lives they are flushing down the tubes. The DC kids who benefit from the program are among the poorest in the nation--and without the voucher program, they are stuck in some of the nation's worst public schools. Those schools are not only failing academically--they are violent. It's beyond tragic, what politicians in bed with teachers' unions and other special interests are willing to do to kids.

Glenn Reynolds has been posting about the situation, and his readers are beginning to crystallize a question that has been rumbling vaguely in the back of my mind, too: If the government won't fund the program, could private philanthropy do it?

Here's one reader:

I keep thinking -hard- about what an amazing example the DC Voucher program could be... if it was really adopted as a cause celebre on the right. Not just as a punchline, but as a going concern.

There just aren't that many recipients, and there's a mighty strong overlap in DC between "underprivileged" and "permanent Democrat voters." And these identical voters are personally steamed. They can recognize being completely jobbed. If there's one spot to push to shatter this particular unholy alliance, it is precisely this spot.

Think of it as a reverse-ACORN. Scholarships are strictly need based – not race based. An endowment focused on K-12 instead of higher education.

I'm not quite sure the Glenn Reynolds DC Scholarship Fund has quite enough panache

But just think of the same idea with different marquee players:
The Ronald Reagan Scholarship Fund.
The Rush Limbaugh Scholarship Fund.
The Sarah Palin Scholarship fund.

Another writes:

I love this idea and wish it had been an option when doing my last minute year-end contributions last night! If you and/or others who may write you can get anything like this set up, I look forward to seeing links here to contribute. My guess is, the sooner it can be done, the better, so that some of these families can plan for the next school year with an idea of funds/funding available.

I'd offer to help but I don't know the first thing about setting up scholarship funds. I'll contribute, though!

If you work in the nonprofit world, as I do these days, you know first hand about the incredible work private philanthropy can do--and about its potential power to restore agency to a populace that has been betrayed by their elected leaders. Reynolds quotes Arnold Kling on this point: "The conflict between voluntary charity and progressive tax-funded spending is a very interesting potential battleground. Progressives want to shift away from charitable giving and toward taxes, while libertarians (or civil societarians) ought to be aiming for the reverse."

Finally, Reynolds asks a question that I will ask, too: Anybody know anything about setting up scholarship funds?

UPDATE: A reader writes to say that there already is a scholarship fund for DC kids. Find out more and, if you are moved to donate, do so online at WashingtonScholarshipFund.org. The Fund is in jeopardy now that the DCOSP is ending--most of its work was centered on administering the scholarships and it can now no longer afford to do so. But its smaller Signature Scholarship Program is privately funded, and now serves 320 kids. If you give, you can ensure that hundreds become thousands.

ANOTHER UPDATE: DC Parents for School Choice--the group that has fought for years for the DC voucher program--has partnered with the DC branch of Black Alliance for Educational Options to raise funds to continue the program through private donations. DC's kids are the nation's orphans--they don't have proper representation in Congress, and as such, they become the responsibility of those of us who do. If you don't like what Congress has done to the program--do let your elected reps know (I did!) and if you have anything to spare, please give to keep the program alive. Your gift could make the difference between a child having a chance in life--and not.

Erin O'Connor, 8:36 AM | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack (0)