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February 23, 2010 [feather]
Vouchers, Chicago, common cause

Chicago's got a new voucher movement--and it's being led by the Reverend James Meeks, a Democrat state senator who had had enough of watching poor blacks get shafted by a failing public education system that shows no serious signs of reforming any time soon.

From the Wall Street Journal:

'The voucher movement seems to have been born, or seems to have been started as a Republican idea. That's the way Democrats look at it. That's the way black lawmakers look at it. This is a Republican idea. This is what the Republicans want to push on us. . . . We don't seem to see public schools not working in your area."

The speaker was the Rev. James Meeks, explaining black resistance to vouchers. The venue was a sold-out lunch put on by the Illinois Policy Institute (IPI). The result? Something new in Windy City politics: a powerful black Democrat reaching out to a free-market think tank to force reform on the city's most hidebound institution--the Chicago public schools.

James T. Meeks does not fit the usual stereotype of a voucher advocate. To begin with, he is founder and senior pastor of Salem Baptist Church of Chicago, the largest African-American church in Illinois. He serves as executive vice-president for Jesse Jackson's Rainbow/PUSH Coalition. Oh, yes: He is a Democratic state senator who chairs both his chamber's education committee and the legislature's Black Caucus.

A few years back, Barack Obama named him someone he looked to for "spiritual counsel." Now the man they call "the Reverend Senator" has done the unthinkable: He's introduced a bill to provide vouchers for as many as 42,000 students now languishing in Chicago's worst public schools. He tells me he thinks he can get enough Democrats on his coalition to get it through.

"I'm banking on the difficulty Democrats will have telling these parents, 'No, you're not going to have choice. Your kids are locked into these failing schools.'"

Right now, national attention on Illinois is focused on the possibility that Republicans may take the U.S. Senate seat once held by Mr. Obama. But Collin Hitt, the IPI's director of education, notes Mr. Meeks may have the more far-reaching narrative.

"There is an irony that the highest-profile push for vouchers in America today is in Illinois, while the highest-profile opposition to vouchers is also from Illinois," says Mr. Hitt. The latter reference is to President Obama, Education Secretary Arne Duncan, and Sen. Richard Durbin, Illinois Democrats whose opposition pulled the plug on a popular, bipartisan voucher program in our nation's capital.

As his remarks make clear, Mr. Meeks appreciates the disincentives that make vouchers such a political orphan. Pro-voucher Republicans open themselves to a double whammy: opposition from suburban voters who are happy with their kids' public schools and equate vouchers with bringing blacks into those schools; and only tepid support from African-Americans who are wary of GOP intentions. Meanwhile, any Democrat who dares to back vouchers will immediately find himself at war with the most powerful and unforgiving special interest in his party: the teachers unions.

That's what Mr. Meeks meant when he spoke to IPI of the difficulty of Republicans using "our statistics"--that is, failure rates for inner-city public schools--to promote "a Republican idea" for largely black schools. He's also frank about why he's embraced that idea after years of banging the drum for more money. As he recently told one local TV interviewer, the money isn't there. With Illinois $13 billion in debt, parents do not have "ten years to wait for Democrats to fund schools."

Certainly he's not a man to hold his tongue. He speaks frankly about elected officials "owned by unions." About politicians who send their own kids to private schools--while opposing the choice for the less fortunate. In 2006, he gained notoriety for language in a fiery sermon that appeared directed at Chicago Mayor Richard Daley.

"We don't have slave masters," he said. "We got mayors. But they still the same white people who are presiding over systems where black people are not able . . . to be educated."

Whether this was fair to Mayor Daley, it's hard to contest the point about the school system. Even conceding there was progress during the years Mr. Duncan served as CEO of the Chicago public schools—especially on charters--half the students who make it to ninth grade still won't see a high school diploma. Mr. Meeks invokes an even more dispiriting statistic: Only eight out of 100 Chicago public school students will graduate from a four-year college.

"If the American Dream includes sending your kids to college," he asks, "what is Chicago saying to these parents?" Good question.

In the last presidential campaign, Americans responded to a candidate who spoke of a new politics of hope and promised to reach across the aisle. It hasn't turned out that way in Washington. But back in the city the president and his education secretary left behind, Mr. Meeks believes he has found a reform that will give Chicago school parents change they can believe in.


Erin O'Connor, 11:14 AM | Permalink | TrackBack (0)

A plea for self-policing

I've said many times on this blog that academe's accountability problem is reaching a tipping point--and I've echoed many folks within academe and without (mostly without), who have noted that if academics won't police themselves, it's going to get done for them, and it's not going to be pretty.

The latest addition to this growing choir of voices is Idaho State provost Gary Olson, whose column in the current Chronicle of Higher Ed hits all the big points. He notes the need for transparency, fiscal responsibility, and for administrators and supervisors to hold faculty and staff to established professional standards. He mentions that higher education exists to serve the public good, and must clearly honor its public compact. He observes that even as legislators and federal commissions call loudly for academic accountability, they should not, ideally, be the ones implementing it--academics should be. And he argues that academics are already voluntarily doing just that.

Olson asserts that "In recent years, colleges and universities, independent of external pressure, have begun to institute sweeping measures to hold themselves and their faculty and staff members accountable in a number of areas," and his column is aimed ultimately at drawing a contrast between academia's recent, lawless past (where he personally "witnessed" how "'good old boy' ... supervisors and department heads often would ignore infractions of university rules, or privately direct the transgressor to halt the offending behavior"; where "a shocking degree of laxity in such matters" led "department heads [to] dismiss unethical, unprofessional, or occasionally illegal behavior because, 'after all, we're all colleagues,' or because, as a former chair once told me, 'rocking the boat would cause more trouble than it's worth'") and a new academic order oriented around documentation, clarity, and transparency.

Olson doesn't provide much evidence for the shift he celebrates--mostly he's arguing by assertion, and the reader is as free to discount his claim that academia is cleaning up its act as s/he is free to discount the prior assertion--backed only, ultimately, by anecdote--that there were serious problems to begin with. There's something for everyone in a non-analysis of this sort--but nothing very much, in the end, for anyone.

Be that as it may, Olson does get one thing very right indeed, and that is what a serious commitment to accountability can do for academia's internal operations and for its tarnished reputation. Noting that an "increased commitment to accountability" leads to "more deliberate, defensible, and professional decision-making" and that it underscores "the necessity of making data-driven rather than seat-of-the-pants decisions, much less ideologically driven ones," Olson explains an obvious point that tends to get lost in the polarizing, distorted culture-war crucible that is the usual destination for debates about academic accountability:

Becoming genuinely accountable means being able to demonstrate that decisions derive from specific facts, not from anecdote, impression, gut feeling, personal agenda, or ideology. It entails fostering a culture of evidence within the institution, which has led, in turn, to the increased importance of involving information-technology and institutional-research departments in key decisions.

Recently I was invited to participate on a panel of experts in information technology and institutional research about the importance of data-driven decision making in strategic planning. The consensus was that having sufficient access to the right data enables universities to make more sophisticated, fine-grained decisions and to demonstrate the rationales behind them.

Clearly, "accountability" in academe can refer to a vast array of attempts to become transparent and open in decision-making processes. Whether it is an attempt by curricular programs to illustrate that they are truly delivering what they promised, or an effort by academic departments (or entire institutions) to demonstrate that their students really are acquiring the skills and knowledge demanded by their disciplines, or measures taken by institutions to tighten their fiscal controls, the answer to "Why accountability?" is this: Because we have a responsibility as public stewards to answer for the trust we have been given.

Too often, calls for accountability within academe are dismissed as ideological "assaults" on academic freedom, on tenure, on the intellectual life, etc. But that's shortsighted and self-defeating--even, perhaps especially, when such dismissals are coming from the AAUP or its officers. What gets lost in that maneuver is that accountability is not academia's enemy. It is, in fact, its lifeline--its key to securing a viable future where academic freedom survives strong and intact.

Erin O'Connor, 8:02 AM | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack (0)

February 22, 2010 [feather]
Voucher vs. public spending

When it comes to K-12 education, vouchers are often talked about as expenditures--and opponents of vouchers often want to know how we are supposed to pay for voucher programs. It seems logical on first blush. But in fact it's inside-out.

Here's John Stossel on just how inside-out it is.

... I said that Washington DC gives voucher schools $7,500 per student, but DC's public schools cost twice that much: $15,000.

The $15,000 number has been cited by congressmen and newspapers like the WSJ and the Denver Post. It comes from the the National Center for Education Statistics, and the Census.

Unfortunately, it's also wrong. Or at least very misleading, since it ignores major sources of spending. As CATO Education scholar Andrew Coulson explains:

DC also has a 'state' level bureaucracy that spends nearly $200 million annually on k-12 programs, and the city spends another $275 million or so on school construction, school facilities modernization, and other so-called 'capital' projects.

But those aren't included in the regular spending figures.

The $15,000 statistic is also misleading because it includes money for kids in charter schools, even though those schools are not guaranteed a student base and so are forced to be much more efficient than regular public schools.

The real figure? $26,000 for each student signed up at a DC public school. $28,000 for each student who actually attended. Some might say that's an unfair number because it includes special education students that the private schools supposedly won't take. But even if you drop the costs of special education students, DC still spends $23,000 per kid.

You know public education is a mess when hardly anyone can keep track of what schools really spend. As Coulson tells me:

School district budgets are so convoluted it's almost as if they're made to be confusing ... DC has split up its education spending into seven different budgets, all of which go to k-12 public education, but only one of which is called 'the DC Public School budget.'

Oh, and the $7,500 for voucher schools? Turns out that the average voucher school only charges $6,620 (many are catholic schools.) So they cost a quarter of what public schools do, but still they do better!

Stossel's show on school choice last week was excellent. See excerpt above.

Food for thought: top private day schools in the DC area don't charge all that much more than DC is spending on the nation's worst-performing public schools. Georgetown Day charges between $28K and $32K, depending on your grade level. Sidwell Friends charges about $30K. These are expensive private day schools, it should be noted; tuition there approaches what boarding schools elsewhere cost. I haven't looked at the numbers in a couple of years, but when I was actively looking for independent school jobs, good private day schools across the country were running about $20K a year, while boarding schools were running about $30-35K per year.

Also worth considering: kids in the DC voucher program may be able to cover their entire tuition at a private Catholic school with their voucher. But a number have also put their vouchers toward tuition at places like Georgetown Day, which makes up the difference in scholarship. Having choice makes so much possible.

Here's what DC is producing with its more-than-$20K per student:

--Tests show that in reading and math, the District's public school students score at the bottom among 11 major city school systems, even when poor children are compared only with other poor children. Thirty-three percent of poor fourth-graders across the nation lacked basic skills in math, but in the District, the figure was 62 percent. It was 74 percent for D.C. eighth-graders, compared with 49 percent nationally.

--The District spends $12,979 [or more--see above] per pupil each year, ranking it third-highest among the 100 largest districts in the nation. But most of that money does not get to the classroom. D.C. schools rank first in the share of the budget spent on administration, last in spending on teachers and instruction.

--Principals reporting dangerous conditions or urgently needed repairs in their buildings wait, on average, 379 days -- a year and two weeks -- for the problems to be fixed. Of 146 school buildings, 113 have a repair request pending for a leaking roof, a Washington Post analysis of school records shows.

--The schools spent $25 million on a computer system to manage personnel that had to be discarded because there was no accurate list of employees to use as a starting point. The school system relies on paper records stacked in 200 cardboard boxes to keep track of its employees, and in some cases is five years behind in processing staff paperwork. It also lacks an accurate list of its 55,000-plus students, although it pays $900,000 to a consultant each year to keep count.

--Many students and teachers spend their days in an environment hostile to learning. Just over half of teenage students attend schools that meet the District's definition of "persistently dangerous" because of the number of violent crimes, according to an analysis of school reports. Across the city, nine violent incidents are reported on a typical day, including fights and attacks with weapons. Fire officials receive about one complaint a week of locked fire doors, and health inspections show that more than a third of schools have been infested by mice.

That's from am intensive 2007 WaPo report on DC schools. See the whole thing here.

Erin O'Connor, 8:20 AM | Permalink | TrackBack (0)

February 19, 2010 [feather]
Free Speech 101

On February 8, Israeli ambassador to the U.S. Michael Oren spoke at UC Irvine--or tried to. Muslim students shouted him down, in a pathetic display of ignorance and intolerance (see video above). The event made headlines. In response, Irvine law school dean Erwin Chemerinsky--whose hire was itself interrupted by inappropriate politicized maneuvering--delivers a short and searing master class on the First Amendment, free inquiry, and campus speech:

College campuses, especially at public universities, are places where all ideas should be expressed and debated. No speech ever should be stopped or punished because of the viewpoint expressed. Of course, there must be rules to regulate the time, place and manner of such expression to preserve order and even to make sure that speech can occur.

These general principles are unassailable, but their application to recent events at the University of California, Irvine, has attracted international attention. Israeli Ambassador to the United States Michael Oren was invited by several sponsors, including the law school (of which I am dean) and the political science department (of which I am a member) to speak at the university on Feb. 8.

Prior to this event, campus officials heard rumors that some members of the Muslim Student Union planned to disrupt the ambassador's speech by having a series of students yell so that he could not be heard. One after another they would rise and shout, so that as each was escorted away, another would be there to make sure that the ambassador did not get to speak. When asked, the officials of the Muslim Student Union denied any plans to do this.

Unfortunately, this is exactly what occurred. After the first disruptions, the audience was admonished that such behavior was not acceptable within the university and that those who engaged in such conduct would be arrested and face student disciplinary proceedings. Despite these warnings, 11 individuals rose and shouted so that the ambassador could not be heard. At one point he left the stage, but thankfully was persuaded to return and deliver his address.

Eleven individuals were arrested, and those who are UCI students are facing disciplinary action. In the last week, I have been deluged with messages from those saying the disruptive students did nothing wrong and deserve no punishment, and also from those saying that the students should be expelled and that others in the audience who cheered them on should be disciplined.

Both of these views are wrong. As to the former, there are now posters around campus referring to the unjust treatment of the "Irvine 11" and saying they were just engaging in speech themselves. However, freedom of speech never has been regarded as an absolute right to speak out at any time and in any manner. Long ago, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes explained that there was no right to falsely shout "fire" in a crowded theater.

The government, including public universities, always can impose time, place and manner restrictions on speech. A person who comes into my classroom and shouts so that I cannot teach surely can be punished without offending the 1st Amendment. Likewise, those who yelled to keep the ambassador from being heard were not engaged in constitutionally protected behavior.

Freedom of speech, on campuses and elsewhere, is rendered meaningless if speakers can be shouted down by those who disagree. The law is well established that the government can act to prevent a heckler's veto -- to prevent the reaction of the audience from silencing the speaker. There is simply no 1st Amendment right to go into an auditorium and prevent a speaker from being heard, no matter who the speaker is or how strongly one disagrees with his or her message.

The remedy for those who disagreed with the ambassador was to engage in speech of their own, but in a way that was not disruptive. They could have handed out leaflets, stood with picket signs, spoken during the question-and-answer session, held a demonstration elsewhere on campus or invited their own speakers.

At the same time, I also disagree with those who call for draconian sanctions against these students or of punishment for a larger group. Only the students who were actually disruptive should be punished. Whether there will be criminal prosecutions is up to the Orange County district attorney. Within the university, the punishment should be great enough to convey that the conduct was wrong and unacceptable, but it should not be so severe as to ruin these students' educational careers.

As a matter of 1st Amendment law, this is an easy case. It would be so no matter the identity or views of the speaker or of the demonstrators. Perhaps some good can come from this ugly incident if the university uses it as an occasion to help teach its students about the meaning of free speech and civil discourse.

Good for the LA Times for running this. Kudos also to the UC Irvine admins who spoke out forcefully during the disruptions, and for following through on disciplining the students who insisted on ruining the event, despite repeated warnings not to. Oren, for what it's worth, is the picture of grace throughout the shameful drama captured in the video above.

Erin O'Connor, 8:32 AM | Permalink | Comments (10) | TrackBack (0)

February 18, 2010 [feather]
Stossel on public education

John Stossel's column in the Examiner:

The government-school establishment has said the same thing for decades: Education is too important to leave to the competitive market. If we really want to help our kids, we must focus more resources on the government schools.

But despite this mantra, the focus is on something other than the kids. When The Washington Post asked George Parker, head of the Washington, D.C., teachers union, about the voucher program there, he said: "Parents are voting with their feet. ... As kids continue leaving the system, we will lose teachers. Our very survival depends on having kids in D.C. schools so we'll have teachers to represent."

How revealing is that?

Since 1980, government spending on education, adjusted for inflation, has nearly doubled. But test scores have been flat for decades.

Today we spend a stunning $11,000 a year per student--more than $200,000 per classroom. It's not working. So when will we permit competition and choice, which works great with everything else?

The people who test students internationally told us that two factors predict a country's educational success: Do the schools have the autonomy to experiment, and do parents have a choice?

Parents care about their kids and want them to learn and succeed--even poor parents. Thousands line up hoping to get their kids into one of the few hundred lottery-assigned slots at Harlem Success Academy, a highly ranked charter school in New York City. Kids and parents cry when they lose.

Yet the establishment is against choice. The union demonstrated outside Harlem Success the first day of school. And President Obama killed Washington, D.C.'s voucher program.

This is typical of elitists, who believe that parents, especially poor ones, can't make good choices about their kids' education.

Is that so? Ask James Tooley about that (http://tinyurl.com/ydgln9z). Tooley is a professor of education policy who spends most of every year in some of the poorest parts of Africa, India and China. For 10 years, he's studied how poor kids do in "free" government schools and — hold on — private schools. That's right. In the worst slums, private for-profit schools educate kids better than the government's schools do.

Tooley finds as many as six private schools in small villages. "The majority of (poor) schoolchildren are in private school, and these schools outperform government schools at a fraction of the teacher cost," he says.

Why do parents with meager resources pass up "free" government schools and sacrifice to send their children to private schools? Because, as one parent told the BBC, the private owner will do something that's virtually impossible in America's government schools: replace teachers who do not teach.

As in America, the elitist establishment in those countries scoffs at the private schools and the parents who choose them. A woman who runs government schools in Nigeria calls such parents "ignoramuses."
But that can't be true. Tooley tested kids in both kinds of schools, and the private-school students score better.

To give the establishment its best shot, consider Head Start, which politicians view as sacred. The $166 billion program is 45 years old, so it's had time to prove itself. But guess what: The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recently found no difference in first-grade test results between kids who went through Head Start and similar kids who didn't (http://tinyurl.com/ylcmb92). President Obama has repeatedly promised to "eliminate programs that don't work," but he wants to give Head Start a billion more dollars. The White House wouldn't explain this contradiction to me.

Andrew Coulson, head of the Cato Institute's Center for Educational Reform, said, "If Head Start (worked), we would expect now, after 45 years of this program, for graduation rates to have gone up; we would expect the gap between the kids of high school dropouts and the kids of college graduates to have shrunk; we would expect students to be learning more. None of that is true."

Choice works, and government monopolies don't. How much more evidence do we need?

Stossel takes on the teachers' unions at 8 and 11 p.m. tonight on the FOX Business Network.

Erin O'Connor, 8:38 AM | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack (0)

February 17, 2010 [feather]
What's it worth to you?

"The American public has sent a message, loud and clear: enough with never-ending tuition increases! ... This shows how truly concerned families are about costs. And they're right. Over the past 25 years, average college tuition and fees have risen nearly twice as fast as health care costs."

That's ACTA president Anne Neal, commenting on the latest Public Agenda report, Squeeze Play 2010: Continued Public Anxiety On Cost, Harsher Judgments On How Colleges Are Run. The accompanying article in Inside Higher Ed offers a good summary of the impasse between public perceptions of higher ed (essential but far too costly and, by implication, wasteful and inefficient) and higher ed's perception of higher ed (essential, but hampered by budget cuts and shortfalls).

Other intriguing comments:

Economist Rich Vedder observes that "Once colleges were revered as selfless institutions trying to educate our youth and serve the public good. Now, apparently, universities are viewed as being somewhat akin to used car dealers, trying to shake down their customers for as much money as possible. In the long run, that is going to hurt a sector dependent on third parties for support .... The bubble’s got to burst on this thing."

The American Council on Education's Terry Hartle says the survey shows that colleges and universities have a communication problem, rather than a spending problem: The results show that higher ed is not "doing enough to explain what we cost and what we're doing to maintain affordability."

And a commenter writes that higher ed "reminds me of the health care debate. Costs for health care are out of site, partially because insurance is paying for it, not the consumer. People tend to not pay attention to the cost of health care for that reason. If people were paying out of pocket prices would no doubt be lower. Financial aid works like insurance. If people were paying out of pocket for education instead of borrowing money to pay for it, prices would be lower. I think it is called a market system, you know, supply and demand. When a 3rd party is paying part of the cost, and not the consumer, people tend to not pay attention to the price. More aid means higher costs. When loan limits were increased, borrowing skyrocketed. Schools got all of that extra money, leaving the students to figure out how to pay it back down the road. Eventually, the bubble will burst. When no one can afford to buy your product, you have a big problem."

I tend to think the answer is in the middle. Colleges and universities, like all big bureaucracies, are wasteful and inefficient. Throwing more money at them--as many would like--is not going to make them more effective, but will instead make them even less motivated to spend a dollar wisely. They need to restructure, re-prioritize, focus on their missions, and cut the fat. The public in turn needs to recognize that a quality education is not something to be gotten on the cheap. It should and could be less expensive than it is--but doing it right does incur costs.

Just to take one example: One way colleges and universities have been cutting costs in recent years is by relying on temporary, part-time teachers to handle undergrad courses. According to some studies, upwards of 70 percent of college teachers in this country are non-tenure track, part-timers. Many are working for below minimum wage, when you factor in all the prep time and grading time involved in teaching; they have no benefits, no say in governance, and no academic freedom. They also have to take on a far heavier course load than tenure-track faculty do, just to make ends meet. This is cheaper for the school, but bad for students, who are being taught on the fly by people who have neither the time nor the security to focus on actually educating. It also doesn't translate into cost cutting for the students--your tuition rises regardless of who is teaching you. When confronted with this, schools often argue that they don't have the money to move away from cheap teaching piecework and toward more expensive but also more responsible full-time teaching positions.

Is the money really not there? Or is it there--but just somewhere else? One thinks of inflated administrative and executive salaries, of bureaucratic bloat, of millions going to subsidize athletics at the expense of academics, and so on.

Erin O'Connor, 7:29 AM | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack (0)

February 15, 2010 [feather]
Bellesiles and Climategate

Yesterday, I drew a comparison between the Michael Bellesiles case and the emerging patterns of Climategate--and this morning, I see that University of Tennessee law professor Glenn Reynolds has been thinking along similar lines:

A HISTORICAL OBSERVATION ON CLIMATEGATE: As this scandal runs on, it's beginning to remind me of the Michael Bellesiles scandal. (Here's a thorough dissection by Jim Lindgren in the Yale Law Journal — it’s a PDF; here's a shorter summary from Wikipedia, and a thorough summary by Joyce Malcolm.)

Bellesiles, for those who don’t remember, was a historian at Emory who wrote a book making some, er, counterintuitive claims about guns in early America — in short, that they were much rarer than generally thought, and frequently owned and controlled by the government. Constitutional law scholars who expressed doubts about this were told to shut up by historians, who cited the importance of “peer review” as a guarantor of accuracy, and who wrapped themselves in claims of professional expertise.

Unfortunately, it turned out that Bellesiles had made it up. His work was based on probate records, and when people tried to find them, it turned out that many didn’t exist (one data set he claimed to have used turned out, on review, to have been destroyed in the 1906 San Francisco earthquake). It also turned out that Bellesiles hadn’t even visited some of the archives he claimed to have researched. When challenged to produce his data, he was unable to do so, and offered unpersuasive stories regarding why.

Bellesiles eventually lost his job at Emory (and his Bancroft Prize) over the fraud, but not until his critics had been called political hacks, McCarthyites, and worse. But what’s amazing, especially in retrospect, is how slow his defenders — and the media — were to engage the critics, or to look at the flaws in the data. Instead, they wrapped themselves in claims of authority, and attacked the critics as anti-intellectual hacks interested only in politics. Are we seeing something similar with regard to ClimateGate? It sure looks that way to me.

Great minds.

Meanwhile, the Washington Post begins the hitherto-neglected American MSM work of connecting the dots between the UEA scandal, the IPCC scandal, and US policies on climate. Finally.

Erin O'Connor, 8:48 AM | Permalink | TrackBack (0)

February 14, 2010 [feather]
Losing the decline

From the Daily Mail:

The academic at the centre of the 'Climategate' affair, whose raw data is crucial to the theory of climate change, has admitted that he has trouble 'keeping track' of the information.

Colleagues say that the reason Professor Phil Jones has refused Freedom of Information requests is that he may have actually lost the relevant papers.

Professor Jones told the BBC yesterday there was truth in the observations of colleagues that he lacked organisational skills, that his office was swamped with piles of paper and that his record keeping is 'not as good as it should be'.

The data is crucial to the famous 'hockey stick graph' used by climate change advocates to support the theory.

Professor Jones also conceded the possibility that the world was warmer in medieval times than now – suggesting global warming may not be a man-made phenomenon.

And he said that for the past 15 years there has been no 'statistically significant' warming.

The admissions will be seized on by sceptics as fresh evidence that there are serious flaws at the heart of the science of climate change and the orthodoxy that recent rises in temperature are largely man-made.

Professor Jones has been in the spotlight since he stepped down as director of the University of East Anglia's Climatic Research Unit after the leaking of emails that sceptics claim show scientists were manipulating data.

The raw data, collected from hundreds of weather stations around the world and analysed by his unit, has been used for years to bolster efforts by the United Nation's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change to press governments to cut carbon dioxide emissions.

Following the leak of the emails, Professor Jones has been accused of 'scientific fraud' for allegedly deliberately suppressing information and refusing to share vital data with critics.

Discussing the interview, the BBC's environmental analyst Roger Harrabin said he had spoken to colleagues of Professor Jones who had told him that his strengths included integrity and doggedness but not record-keeping and office tidying.

Mr Harrabin, who conducted the interview for the BBC's website, said the professor had been collating tens of thousands of pieces of data from around the world to produce a coherent record of temperature change.

That material has been used to produce the 'hockey stick graph' which is relatively flat for centuries before rising steeply in recent decades.

According to Mr Harrabin, colleagues of Professor Jones said 'his office is piled high with paper, fragments from over the years, tens of thousands of pieces of paper, and they suspect what happened was he took in the raw data to a central database and then let the pieces of paper go because he never realised that 20 years later he would be held to account over them'.

Asked by Mr Harrabin about these issues, Professor Jones admitted the lack of organisation in the system had contributed to his reluctance to share data with critics, which he regretted.

But he denied he had cheated over the data or unfairly influenced the scientific process, and said he still believed recent temperature rises were predominantly man-made.

Asked about whether he lost track of data, Professor Jones said: 'There is some truth in that. We do have a trail of where the weather stations have come from but it's probably not as good as it should be.

'There's a continual updating of the dataset. Keeping track of everything is difficult. Some countries will do lots of checking on their data then issue improved data, so it can be very difficult. We have improved but we have to improve more.'

He also agreed that there had been two periods which experienced similar warming, from 1910 to 1940 and from 1975 to 1998, but said these could be explained by natural phenomena whereas more recent warming could not.

He further admitted that in the last 15 years there had been no 'statistically significant' warming, although he argued this was a blip rather than the long-term trend.

And he said that the debate over whether the world could have been even warmer than now during the medieval period, when there is evidence of high temperatures in northern countries, was far from settled.

Sceptics believe there is strong evidence that the world was warmer between about 800 and 1300 AD than now because of evidence of high temperatures in northern countries.

But climate change advocates have dismissed this as false or only applying to the northern part of the world.

Professor Jones departed from this consensus when he said: 'There is much debate over whether the Medieval Warm Period was global in extent or not. The MWP is most clearly expressed in parts of North America, the North Atlantic and Europe and parts of Asia.

'For it to be global in extent, the MWP would need to be seen clearly in more records from the tropical regions and the Southern hemisphere. There are very few palaeoclimatic records for these latter two regions.

'Of course, if the MWP was shown to be global in extent and as warm or warmer than today, then obviously the late 20th Century warmth would not be unprecedented. On the other hand, if the MWP was global, but was less warm than today, then the current warmth would be unprecedented.'

Sceptics said this was the first time a senior scientist working with the IPCC had admitted to the possibility that the Medieval Warming Period could have been global, and therefore the world could have been hotter then than now.

Professor Jones criticised those who complained he had not shared his data with them, saying they could always collate their own from publicly available material in the US. And he said the climate had not cooled 'until recently – and then barely at all. The trend is a warming trend.'

Mr Harrabin told Radio 4's Today programme that, despite the controversies, there still appeared to be no fundamental flaws in the majority scientific view that climate change was largely man-made.

But Dr Benny Pieser, director of the sceptical Global Warming Policy Foundation, said Professor Jones’s 'excuses' for his failure to share data were hollow as he had shared it with colleagues and 'mates'.
He said that until all the data was released, sceptics could not test it to see if it supported the conclusions claimed by climate change advocates.

He added that the professor's concessions over medieval warming were 'significant' because they were his first public admission that the science was not settled.

So it's not fraud--but just incompetence?

I am reminded of former Emory historian Michael Bellesiles, who claimed not to be able to produce the research behind Arming America--an award-winning work that delighted gun control activists by seeming to offer a historical rationale for restrictive interpretations of the Second Amendment--because his notes had gotten wet. Bellesiles is a "former" Emory historian because of the scandal that arose about the integrity of his research. Bellesiles' research was spectacularly successful within the academic peer review system--but proved to be deeply flawed when examined by nonacademic historians. The concerns of these historians were brushed off by academics until the media got hold of the story. Only then did Emory hold Bellesiles accountable, conducting both an internal investigation and appointing an external review committee of outside scholars. Bellesiles was found guilty of research misconduct and resigned amid hollow-sounding claims that he had done nothing wrong.

A similar story seems to be unfolding with certain climate scientists--at least in the UK.

Penn State, are you watching?

Erin O'Connor, 10:21 AM | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack (0)

February 12, 2010 [feather]
Looking harder at climate scientists

The University of East Anglia has announced that it will expand its investigation of its climate science unit to include a study of how the scientists handled data. Crucially, UEA will be working with an external group--the Royal Society--to locate external auditors who can maintain impartiality. That's not what Penn State did with its preliminary look at Michael Mann--who has close ties with the UEA climate unit--nor is it what PSU plans to do with its follow-up inquiry. And PSU is taking considerable heat for it.

"It is in the interests of all concerned that there should be an additional assessment considering the science itself," said UEA's pro-vice chancellor for research Trevor Davies.

"It is important that people have the utmost confidence in the science of climate change," said the Royal Society's president Martin Rees.

Today, PSU students are holding a rally to demand that the university procure external oversight for its investigation of Mann.

Here's the press release announcing the event:

Students, residents and community leaders will join together on Friday, February 12, to demand a fair and independent investigation of Michael Mann and Climategate. The University has a conflict of interest, and should not conduct an internal investigation without external oversight. The Rally for Academic Integrity will take place in front of the Hetzel Union Building (HUB) on Penn State's University Park Campus (Pollock Road entrance) at 12:00. This Rally for Academic Integrity is jointly sponsored by PSU Young Americans for Freedom and The 9-12 Project of Central PA.


Penn State's internal inquiry into Michael Mann's alleged scientific misconduct concluded with the virtual exoneration of his behavior, and ignored key evidence in the Climategate scandal. As feared, this inquiry was little more than a whitewash--an assault on academic integrity.

First, the university's internal review consisted of three Penn State employees who have strong incentives to protect the school's reputation and the millions of dollars it receives from global warming research grants. There was no external oversight.

Second, the review consisted of looking at a mere 47 emails (out of thousands in question), interviewing Mann, analyzing materials he submitted, and asking only two biased sources about his credibility. Penn State hardly conducted a "thorough investigation" of alleged wrongdoing by Mann.

Consider the following extract:
--"He [Mann] explained that he had never falsified any data, nor had he had ever manipulated data to serve a given predetermined outcome;
--"He explained that he never used inappropriate influence in reviewing papers by other scientists who disagreed with the conclusions of his science;
--"He explained that he never deleted emails at the behest of any other scientist, specifically including Dr. Phil Jones, and that he never withheld data with the intention of obstructing science; and
--"He explained that he never engaged in activities or behaviors that were inconsistent with accepted academic practices."

In short, Mann's own claim of innocence is taken as proof of his innocence. Moreover, parts of the report are almost fawning in their description of Mann (e.g. "All were impressed by Dr. Mann's composure and his forthright responses"). "This type of language would be more appropriate in a letter of recommendation than in a serious investigation," commented Penn State sophomore, and YAF chair, Samuel Settle.

Third, Penn State's internal review ignored key passages in the emails under scrutiny. While the committee examined the use of the word "trick" in correspondence between Mann and colleague Phil Jones, it failed to explore the purpose of Mann's "trick" to "hide the decline [in global temperatures]," which clearly suggests a manipulation of the data.

Penn State's internal review of a few emails by vested interests inspires no confidence that Mann did not engage in scientific misconduct--which is precisely why an independent and external investigation of Michael Mann and Climategate is essential in order to reach a credible conclusion.

I've said it before, and I'll say it again: getting the science right is a non-partisan issue, and it should be treated that way. In England, there is a very strong understanding that serious independent investigation of the conduct of climate scientists has now become necessary--regardless of your politics and regardless of your position on climate change. Science has to be conducted with integrity--and there is far too much evidence at this point that climate science has become a multi-billion dollar venture that is closely wrapped up in global political gamesmanship. This is true regardless of whether the science underwriting theories of man-made climate change holds up. I hope Penn State figures that out soon--UEA's decision, perhaps more than the rally of a couple of conservative student groups, is a clear challenge to the university to start acting like a standard-bearer for academic integrity.

Erin O'Connor, 7:27 AM | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack (0)

February 11, 2010 [feather]
Never too young for Shakespeare

Via BoingBoing.

Erin O'Connor, 7:56 AM | Permalink | TrackBack (0)

February 9, 2010 [feather]
Doing what works

A staff editorial from Sunday's Wall Street Journal:

President Obama's fiscal 2011 budget calls for a 9% increase in federal education spending, and he has famously said that the money should go to "what works" in education. So he ought to take another look at Milwaukee, where the nation's oldest and largest publicly funded school voucher program is showing academic gains.

A report released last week by School Choice Wisconsin, an advocacy group, finds that between 2003 and 2008 students in the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program had a significantly higher graduation rate than students in Milwaukee Public Schools.

"Had MPS graduation rates equalled those for MPCP students in the classes of 2003 through 2008, the number of MPS graduates would have been about 18 percent higher," writes John Robert Warren of the University of Minnesota. "That higher rate would have resulted in 3,352 more MPS graduates during the 2003-2008 years."

In 2008 the graduation rate for voucher students was 77% versus 65% for the nonvoucher students, though the latter receives $14,000 per pupil in taxpayer support, or more than double the $6,400 per pupil that voucher students receive in public funding.

The Milwaukee voucher program serves more than 21,000 children in 111 private schools, so nearly 20% more graduates mean a lot fewer kids destined for failure without the credential of a high school diploma. The finding is all the more significant because students who receive vouchers must, by law, come from low-income families, while their counterparts in public schools come from a broader range of economic backgrounds.

Vouchers are of course taboo among most Democrats, and Mr. Obama has done nothing to stop Congress from killing the small but successful voucher program for poor families in Washington, D.C. The Milwaukee program has survived for 20 years despite ferocious political opposition, and it would have died long ago if parents didn't believe their children were better off for it.

Early challenges to voucher programs were often done using the argument that vouchers pose a problem for the separation of church and state when they are used to send kids to parochial schools. The Supreme Court struck down that argument and upheld the constitutionality of vouchers in 2002. But sometimes it seems as if that never happened--many of the arguments I see against vouchers are about exactly the issues that the Court settled eight years ago.

Erin O'Connor, 7:39 AM | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack (0)

February 8, 2010 [feather]
How not to do it

I like using that phrase. It reminds me of Little Dorrit, which contains a classic Dickensian description of the self-serving evils of bureaucracy. Chapter 10 is entitled "Containing the Whole Science of Government," and centers on the "most important Department under Government," the "Circumlocution Office":

No public business of any kind could possibly be done at any time without the acquiescence of the Circumlocution Office. Its finger was in the largest public pie, and in the smallest public tart. It was equally impossible to do the plainest right and to undo the plainest wrong without the express authority of the Circumlocution Office. If another Gunpowder Plot had been discovered half an hour before the lighting of the match, nobody would have been justified in saving the parliament until there had been half a score of boards, half a bushel of minutes, several sacks of official memoranda, and a family-vault full of ungrammatical correspondence, on the part of the Circumlocution Office.

This glorious establishment had been early in the field, when the one sublime principle involving the difficult art of governing a country, was first distinctly revealed to statesmen. It had been foremost to study that bright revelation and to carry its shining influence through the whole of the official proceedings. Whatever was required to be done, the Circumlocution Office was beforehand with all the public departments in the art of perceiving--HOW NOT TO DO IT.

Through this delicate perception, through the tact with which it invariably seized it, and through the genius with which it always acted on it, the Circumlocution Office had risen to overtop all the public departments; and the public condition had risen to be--what it was.

It is true that How not to do it was the great study and object of all public departments and professional politicians all round the Circumlocution Office. It is true that every new premier and every new government, coming in because they had upheld a certain thing as necessary to be done, were no sooner come in than they applied their utmost faculties to discovering How not to do it. It is true that from the moment when a general election was over, every returned man who had been raving on hustings because it hadn't been done, and who had been asking the friends of the honourable gentleman in the opposite interest on pain of impeachment to tell him why it hadn't been done, and who had been asserting that it must be done, and who had been pledging himself that it should be done, began to devise, How it was not to be done. It is true that the debates of both Houses of Parliament the whole session through, uniformly tended to the protracted deliberation, How not to do it. It is true that the royal speech at the opening of such session virtually said, My lords and gentlemen, you have a considerable stroke of work to do, and you will please to retire to your respective chambers, and discuss, How not to do it. It is true that the royal speech, at the close of such session, virtually said, My lords and gentlemen, you have through several laborious months been considering with great loyalty and patriotism, How not to do it, and you have found out; and with the blessing of Providence upon the harvest (natural, not political), I now dismiss you. All this is true, but the Circumlocution Office went beyond it.

Because the Circumlocution Office went on mechanically, every day, keeping this wonderful, all-sufficient wheel of statesmanship, How not to do it, in motion. Because the Circumlocution Office was down upon any ill-advised public servant who was going to do it, or who appeared to be by any surprising accident in remote danger of doing it, with a minute, and a memorandum, and a letter of instructions that extinguished him. It was this spirit of national efficiency in the Circumlocution Office that had gradually led to its having something to do with everything. Mechanicians, natural philosophers, soldiers, sailors, petitioners, memorialists, people with grievances, people who wanted to prevent grievances, people who wanted to redress grievances, jobbing people, jobbed people, people who couldn't get rewarded for merit, and people who couldn't get punished for demerit, were all indiscriminately tucked up under the foolscap paper of the Circumlocution Office.

Government's capacity to consume and paralyze everything was a subject Dickens hammered consistently during his career (which spanned the late 1830s until his death in 1870). His anger at "the system"--a phrase he uses often in Bleak House, and which I have seem him credited with inventing--never got stale, and never ceased to supply him with creative sparks. In Little Dorrit, Dickens is especially interested in how technocratic talk interferes with action--becoming an end in itself while also distorting the difference between getting things done and pontificating about getting things done. He's also deeply concerned with what this means for the lives of people far beyond the realms of power--with how "circumlocutions" at the government level can have immense knock-on effects, particularly for the poor and otherwise disenfranchised.

I thought of the Circumlocution Office this morning while reading this Guardian story about how the UK government is defining away academic standards in order to plump up its success rates--and is doing so at great cost to kids:

Pupils from deprived backgrounds are being conned into thinking they can advance in life by a system that hands out "worthless" qualifications, Harrow school's headteacher said today.

State schools risk producing students like "those girls in the first round of the X Factor" who tell the judges they want to be the next Britney Spears but cannot sing a note, Barnaby Lenon said.

Bright children from poor backgrounds are being short-changed by those who lead them to believe that "high grades in soft subjects" and going to "any old university to read any subject" were the route to prosperity, he told a conference of leading private and state school headteachers.

Meanwhile, at independent schools, pupils were being encouraged to take the toughest subjects, such as sciences and modern languages, and many were doing qualifications seen as more rigorous than regular GCSEs and A-levels, such as International GCSEs and the International Baccalaureate.

"Let us not deceive our children, especially children from poorer homes, with worthless qualifications, so they become like the citizens of Weimar Germany or Robert Mugabe's Zimbabwe, carrying their certificates around in a wheelbarrow," Lenon said.

Michael Gove, the shadow education secretary, backed Lenon. Media studies had seen a big increase in popularity in state schools, simply because it boosted their position in the league tables, he told the conference of the 100 Group discussing social mobility.

"More children who were eligible for free school meals sat GCSEs in media studies than in physics, chemistry and biology combined," Gove said.

The Tories are planning a return to more academically driven schooling, including setting by ability and traditional subject-based classes, if elected this year. At the moment, the only subjects students are required to take at GCSE are English and maths, after the requirement for them to study a language was dropped in 2004.

Earlier this week a report by CiLT, the national centre for languages, said language learning was in danger of becoming a "twilight" subject taken only by pupils prepared to stay on after school.

Last summer, just 41% of pupils from comprehensives took a language GCSE, compared with 81% of pupils in private schools. Last week research revealed that increasing numbers of independent schools are shunning GCSEs and A-levels to offer exams they believe are more academically testing, raising fears of a widening gulf between state and private schools.

Lenon said he believed that the UK's standard of education fell when CSE and O-level exams were abandoned in favour of GCSEs. "The road to social mobility is not a downhill stretch on an empty motorway, it is an agonisingly steep path up a mountain whose summit is never quite in view," he said.

In response, the government is circumlocuting: "These are pretty cheap and insulting comments," said a spokesman for the Department for Children, Schools and Families. "It's easy to make sweeping, rhetorical flourishes about so-called 'hard' and 'soft' subjects -- but it is wrong to ignore the hard work of tens of thousands of teachers and pupils and misrepresent the state of education in this country."

Erin O'Connor, 8:25 AM | Permalink | TrackBack (0)

Getting it right with high school

The New York Times profiles how early college high schools--five-year, free programs that allow students to complete high school plus two years of college credit--are doing exceptional things to revitalize and concentrate our baggy, inefficient standard educational model:

Until recently, most programs like this were aimed at affluent, overachieving students -- a way to keep them challenged and give them a head start on college work. But the goal is quite different at SandHoke, which enrolls only students whose parents do not have college degrees.

Here, and at North Carolina's other 70 early-college schools, the goal is to keep at-risk students in school by eliminating the divide between high school and college.

"We don't want the kids who will do well if you drop them in Timbuktu," said Lakisha Rice, the principal. "We want the ones who need our kind of small setting."

Results have been impressive. Not all students at North Carolina's early-college high schools earn two full years of college credit before they graduate -- but few drop out.

"Last year, half our early-college high schools had zero dropouts, and that's just unprecedented for North Carolina, where only 62 percent of our high school students graduate after four years," said Tony Habit, president of the North Carolina New Schools Project, the nonprofit group spearheading the state's high school reform.

In addition, North Carolina's early-college high school students are getting slightly better grades in their college courses than their older classmates.

While North Carolina leads the way in early-college high schools, the model is spreading in California, New York, Texas and elsewhere, where such schools are seen as a promising approach to reducing the high school dropout rate and increasing the share of degree holders -- two major goals of the Obama administration.

More than 200 of the schools are part of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation's Early College High School Initiative, and dozens of others, scattered throughout the nation, have sprung up as projects of individual school districts.

"As a nation, we just can't afford to have students spending four years or more getting through high school, when we all know senior year is a waste," said Hilary Pennington of the Gates Foundation, "then having this swirl between high school and college, when a lot more students get lost, then a two-year degree that takes three or four years, if the student ever completes it at all."

Most of the early college high schools are on college campuses, but some stand alone. Some are four years, some five. Most serve a low-income student body that is largely black or Latino. But all are small, and all offer free college credits as part of the high school program.

"In 27 years as a college president, this is just about the most exciting thing I’ve been involved in," said Rick Dempsey, the president of Sandhills. "We picked these kids out of eighth grade, kids who were academically representative at a school with very low performance. We didn't cherry-pick them. Their performance has been so startling that you see what high expectations can do."

Innovation. High expectations. Opportunity. Something that works. In a nutshell, that's the power of school choice. Notice, too, that these amazing schools are almost all privately funded. Whether it's charter schools, vouchers (which are essentially publicly funded scholarships), or privately funded initiatives like this one, the point is the same--kids in failing schools as well as kids who aren't thriving in traditional public schools (not always the same population) need the chance to be in a school that works for them, and that allows them to succeed.

"The first year, I didn't like it, because my friends at the regular high school were having pep rallies and actual fun, while I had all this homework," one student says. "But when I look back at my middle school friends, I see how many of them got pregnant or do drugs or dropped out. And now I'm excited, because I'm a year ahead."

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

February 6, 2010 [feather]
Dangerous combination

A new study from the Intercollegiate Studies Institute finds that colleges make students more liberal--while not making them any more knowledgeable about civics.

That's a dangerous combination--and I'd say the same thing if the finding were that college makes people more conservative without making them more knowledgeable about civics. Strengthening political leanings without deepening awareness about what those leanings mean, how they have been shaped by the course of American history, or how they fit into our governmental structure is a mechanism for producing ideologues, not informed, engaged, thoughtful, and independent citizens.

The full report is here. Its major findings are: 1) "While College fails to Adequately Transmit Civic Knowledge, It Influences Opinion on Polarizing Social Issues;" 2) "Compared to College, Civic Knowledge exerts a Broader and more Diverse Influence on the American mind;" and 3) "Civic Knowledge Increases a Person's Regard for America's Ideals and free Institutions." The study also has some interesting findings on beliefs most college teachers share.

More specifics: College grads are more likely to favor same-sex marriage and abortion on demand and less likely to "believe anyone can succeed in America with hard work and perseverance;" "favor teacher-led prayer in public schools;" and "believe the Bible is the Word of God." (Yes, I know -- the survey might have been stronger if it had not mixed apples and oranges by treating matters of opinion--which can be influenced by argument and facts--and matters of faith as if they were equivalent. They aren't. Onward.) The survey found that people who know more about civics are more likely to agree "that a person's evaluation of a nation improves with his understanding of it," that "prosperity depends on entrepreneurs and free markets," and "that the Ten Commandments remain relevant," while being "less likely to agree that legislatures should subsidize a college in proportion to its students learning about America," "that the free market brings about full employment," and "that the Bible is the Word of God." People with more civic knowledge are also "less likely to agree with the proposition that America corrupts otherwise good people," and "less likely to agree with the proposition that the Founding documents are obsolete." They are more likely to agree "that prosperity depends on entrepreneurs and free markets, and less likely to agree that global capitalism produces few winners and many losers, and that government regulation does more good than harm." They are also "less likely to agree that the Ten Commandments are irrelevant today."

On college teachers: More likely to agree that "America corrupts otherwise good people," that "the Ten Commandments are irrelevant
today," that "raising the minimum wage decreases employment," that "educators should instill more doubt in students and reject certainty," and that "homeschooling families neglect their community obligations." They are more likely to disagree that "legislators should subsidize a college in proportion to its students learning about America."

I wish the survey had assessed college teachers' knowledge of American history and civics.

Erin O'Connor, 8:12 AM | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack (0)

February 5, 2010 [feather]
Parliament investigates English climate scientists

When does the bad behavior of academic scientists become criminal liability? That's what Parliament is going to find out:

The potential criminality of the Climategate scandal is exactly the issue that is being investigated by authorities in Britain. The British Parliament has convened hearings to investigate East Anglia University and the Climate Research Unit to uncover unethical and illegal activities. As more information is revealed, the whole Climategate affair begins to take on the makings of a good mystery novel. Like any good mystery or crime plot, the web of involvement is widespread.

But in order for a reader to be drawn in, the author must establish the motive and opportunity for the crime to be believable. To understand Climategate, we must start at the center of the web. At the center is the now-discredited Dr. Phil Jones of East Anglia University and the work he orchestrated at the Climate Research Unit (CRU). This is exactly where the British Parliament has started its investigation for possible criminal wrongdoing.

The British investigation, headed up by Phil Willis, M.P., focuses on four areas: data manipulation, data suppression, violations of the Freedom of Information Act, and data integrity. Clearly, the recently uncovered e-mails will play a big role in this investigation. A new thread in this web has appeared recently concerning a separate investigation conducted by the European Law Enforcement Organization Cooperation (aka Europol). Investigators have found evidence of a complex carbon-trading scam on the European Climate Exchange. Just three short weeks ago, three British subjects were arrested in an apparent scam worth billions of dollars. Much of the criminal activity alleged involves tax evasion.

Trading on the European Climate Exchange is open to the world market, but the carbon credits only involve the European Union (EU) nations giving brokers the ability to hide trading activities in other countries and avoid paying taxes. This is known as a Carousel Fraud. Curiously, this thread of tax avoidance is also spun into the tangled web of e-mails from East Anglia University. In one of the e-mails dated 6 March 1996, two members of the Jones Gang, Stepan Shiyatov and Dr. Kieth Briffa, discuss how to avoid paying taxes in Russia:

Also, it is important for us if you can transfer the ADVANCE money on the personal accounts which we gave you earlier and the sum for one occasion transfer (for example, during one day) will not be more than 10,000 USD. Only in this case we can avoid big taxes and use money for our work as much as possible.

This is not an isolated e-mail concerning money. On 7 October 1997, Andrew Kerr of the World Wild Life Fund (WWF) sent an e-mail to essentially the entire global network of the Jones Gang expressing grave concerns that Kyoto would be a "flop" and fretted about the possible economic impact it might have:

It would also be very useful if progressive business groups would express their horror at the new economic opportunities which will be foregone if Kyoto is a flop.

The question is, why would the WWF be interested in "new economic opportunities" if the Kyoto Accord were to fail? Aren't they supposed to save panda bears? As they say in Washington, "follow the money." One of the major benefactors of the WWF is the global banking giant HSBC Holdings plc. HSBC is a major trader on the European Climate Exchange. The public stance on climate was voiced by Stephen Green, a Group Chairman at HSBC:

Finding the solutions to climate change requires a concerted international effort involving governments, NGOs, intergovernmental institutions, the public and, of course, the business community. The HSBC Climate Partnership is an example of how different types of organizations can work together and has already been a catalyst for change in how we do business.

"A catalyst for change in how we do business"? Is that a way of saying market manipulation? By "involving" all of these "communities," is this a collaborative effort or a conspiracy? Is the WWF a member of these "communities"? The question must be asked whether the WWF is a tool of market manipulation?

With $31 billion in carbon credits being traded on the European Climate Exchange, there is certainly an incentive to commit fraud. These trades are dominated by banks like HSBC and energy companies like British Petroleum (another benefactor to the WWF). But how is an opportunity for fraud established? Unlike other commodities, like wheat or coffee, you can't ship a boxcar-load of carbon dioxide to the purchaser. The trades are done strictly on paper. The intangible nature of carbon credits provides the perfect opportunity for international fraud.

I wonder what Al Gore--poised to be the world's first carbon billionaire--thinks of all this.

The American press and authorities are strikingly behind the curve on a scandal of almost unimaginably massive dimensions--and as the Michael Mann news this week reveals, there is a strong will to denial within academe and the media.

Erin O'Connor, 9:19 AM | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack (0)

"Ideology trumps evidence"

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That's how Joanne Jacobs characterizes the Obama administration's refusal to consider reauthorizing the DC voucher program. She's building off University of Arkansas education professor Jay P. Green's new City Journal piece, "So Much for the Evidence," which is closely aligned in tone--and far more detailed and hence damning--than the Washington Post staff editorial I linked to yesterday.

Here's Green:

In a major education address last March, President Obama declared that his administration would "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." Unfortunately, the test that seems to guide the Obama administration's education priorities is not whether a policy works, but whether it serves a political constituency. Nothing illustrates this disregard for evidence better than the administration's treatment of two federally funded programs: the D.C. voucher program, which it is helping to kill, and Head Start, on which it has bestowed billions more dollars. If the administration actually made its funding decisions based on results, its positions would be just the opposite.

How do we know that the D.C. voucher program works? Take a look at the rigorously designed studies released by the Obama administration itself. Last April, the Department of Education put out its official evaluation of the voucher program. The evaluation, which used a gold-standard, random-assignment research design, found that after three years, D.C. students who won the lottery to attend a private school with a voucher significantly outperformed students who lost the lottery. The gap between voucher and control students was the equivalent of about five months of extra instruction in reading. Rather than embracing what manifestly worked, however, the administration stood by as Congress worked to phase out the D.C. voucher program. "Big picture, I don't see vouchers as being the answer," Secretary of Education Arne Duncan told the Washington Post. They're certainly not the answer that the pathologically anti-voucher teachers' unions wanted him to embrace.

Meanwhile, the administration fully supports the government-operated Head Start preschool program, despite excellent evidence that the program doesn't work. Obama has said that Head Start is "the first pillar of reforming our schools . . . [and] that's why the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act that I signed into law invests $5 billion in growing Early Head Start and Head Start." He might have added that this would come on top of the more than $100 billion that taxpayers have spent on Head Start since 1965. But the Department of Health and Human Services' official evaluation of Head Start, released last week, confirms what several earlier studies have found: kids get no lasting benefits from participating in the program. By the end of kindergarten and first grade, students who had been in Head Start are no further ahead academically or behaviorally than students who lost the lottery to enter the program.

The way the administration released the two reports also spoke volumes. The D.C. voucher study was released after a key congressional vote that declined to reauthorize the program--and the study came out on a Friday, without an official press release to draw attention to it. The Head Start findings, on the other hand, were not released on a Friday and came with a press release--but the release contained false claims from administration officials about the program's effectiveness. It quoted Assistant Secretary for Children and Families Carmen Nazario saying that "Head Start has been changing lives for the better since its inception" and Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius declaring that "research clearly shows that Head Start positively impacts the school readiness of low-income children"--even as the study showed that Head Start had done no such things. Again, the ideological priority to expand union-backed federal programs trumped an official evaluation, conducted, as with the D.C. voucher study, using a gold-standard, random-assignment research design.

If the administration really wants to show that it's guided by evidence and not ideology, it might consider changing its policy positions when solid evidence contradicts them. Empirical evidence shows that D.C. vouchers work; that program should be expanded, not killed. The evidence also shows that Head Start is a long-running failure; that program should be wound down, not funded with new billions. Even diverting a few hundred million from Head Start into a reauthorized D.C. voucher program would go some way toward restoring the administration's credibility.

Just to compare: the DC Voucher program costs $14 million a year. Those dollars support private education for 1700 kids. These kids receive a voucher for half the amount of money the public school district would spend on them if they stayed in the failing schools. This program is not only effective--it saves money in the immediate short term. And, when you think of all the money down the road that doesn't have to get spent on kids who stay in school, don't get pregnant, don't wind up in jail, and don't end up on the dole, it saves a lot more money than that. When you add to that the contributions that these kids will make as productive, engaged, taxpaying citizens--it saves more than you can imagine.

On the subject of Obama's words coming back to bite him: I am reminded of a recent Jon Stewart sketch on the how the President needs to learn to make promises in such a way that no one can ever say he's not keeping them.

Erin O'Connor, 8:31 AM | Permalink | TrackBack (0)

February 4, 2010 [feather]
Problems with PSU investigation

Steve McIntyre has reviewed in depth Penn State's report on Michael Mann--and finds it very, very wanting. He is particularly strong on the selective quality of the investigators' inquiries and on how the report falls short of PSU's own stated policies for the standards such reports should maintain. Over at Big Government, Christopher Horner also finds the report to be lacking in thoroughness and transparency, designed to reach foregone conclusions, and rife with the appearance of conflict of interest. Horner speculates that Penn State is not going to come out of this one looking very good--and I am inclined to agree.

Meanwhile, the mainstream media is full of headlines such as the Philadelphia Inquirer 's misleading "Penn State climatologist cleared of misconduct" and the New York Times's similarly incomplete "Researcher on Climate Is Cleared in Inquiry." And Mann has declared victory: "Three of the four allegations have been dismissed completely," he told the NYT. "Even though no evidence to substantiate the fourth allegation was found, the University administrators thought it best to convene a separate committee of distinguished scientists to resolve any remaining questions about academic procedures. This is very much the vindication I expected since I am confident I have done nothing wrong."

Senator Imhofe is calling for an independent investigation "to reassure the American people that their tax dollars are supporting objective scientific research rather than political agendas." Imhofe, the NYT notes, is a climate change skeptic--and some might argue that it's his own agenda that is leading him to call for an independent investigation. But so what if it is? Independent investigations are the gold standard, and Penn State is hardly conducting one. Nor, arguably, could it ever rise above the level of conflict of interest--Mann, who has received over half a million dollars in stimulus funds for his research, is not the only PSU scientist who studies climate change or receives federal grant money, and many millions are at stake.

Erin O'Connor, 10:51 AM | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack (0)

WaPo supports DC voucher program

Staff editorial in today's Washington Post:

SENS. JOSEPH I. Lieberman (I-Conn.) and Susan Collins (R-Maine) haven't given up on their bid to save the federally funded voucher program that allows low-income families in the District to send their children to private schools. We would like to see them succeed, but it's clear that President Obama and the Democratic leadership in Congress have already written the epilogue to this worthy program. Their disregard for how vouchers have helped children is so complete that it seems that the best chance, perhaps the only chance, for the program's survival is for local officials to step in.

The latest evidence of the administration washing its hands of the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship program is seen in the 2011 budget proposal it unveiled this week. It targets $9 million for the program but specifies that this will be "the final request" for federal funding. Administration officials say that the money, combined with unspent reserves, is sufficient to fulfill the president's promise that students currently in the program will be able to graduate from high school. That's disputed by the nonprofit that runs the program, which estimates that at least an additional $7 million is needed, along with a legislative commitment requiring the program's continuation for families currently enrolled.

Adding to the uncertainty is the disappointing decision by the Washington Scholarship Fund to drop its administration of the program. No one -- not administration officials or those with the scholarship fund -- could tell us what will happen to the approximately 1,300 students if there is no one to handle their scholarships. Indeed, one has to wonder whether the administration is banking on the possibility that students will drop out of the program. What easier way to get rid of this pesky program that's so despised by the teachers unions and other traditional allies of the Democrats? It's troubling that an administration that supposedly prides itself on supporting "what works" is so willing to pull the plug on a program that, according to a rigorous scientific study, has proven to be effective.

The best solution, of course, is the one sought by a bipartisan coalition lead by Mr. Lieberman for Congress to reauthorize the program. He is set to announce plans Thursday to offer the reauthorization as an amendment to legislation moving in the Senate, and he's hoping for help from Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.), majority whip and chairman of the subcommittee that funds the program. Mr. Durbin gave lip service to his possible support but has been content for Congress to let the program go down the tubes.

Indeed, at one point, Mr. Durbin pretty much dared local officials to take over the program if they thought it was so important. The program is important to low-income families who see it as their children's only path to a good education. If the president and Congress won't see that, then we hope that Mayor Adrian M. Fenty and the D.C. Council will.

I note the tough and highly suggestive wording of this piece. Obama and Congressional Democrats have shown "complete ... disregard" for a "worthy program." The administration is "washing its hands" of the program--and may even be cynically "banking on the possibility that students will drop out" of a "pesky program" that the teachers' unions and other Democratic "allies" "despise." Finally, there is the strong insinuation of hypocrisy born of putting special interests ahead of the program's proven success in giving poor, inner-city kids a chance to get an education: "It's troubling that an administration that supposedly prides itself on supporting 'what works' is so willing to pull the plug on a program that, according to a rigorous scientific study, has proven to be effective." The Post would appear to be suggesting that the administration prides itself on no such thing--that this is just "lip service" used to cover over the callous ease with which kids' lives are being sacrificed to party politics, power brokering, and, of course, the dollars that go along with them.

A couple of weeks ago, in a post on this subject, I suggested that the folks opposing the DC Opportunity Scholarship Program lacked conscience. That attracted some very engaged knuckle-rapping from several commenters (at least two of whom are academics, and one of whom works in DC). How dare I do that!! And how self-discrediting I am to suggest that something besides pure motives animates the administration and Congress! My critics reminded me there are all sorts of good reasons to oppose a program like the DCOSP, and that the Washington folks who won't keep it alive are most probably in possession of them.

Well, I thought about that, and they are of course right. The thing about conscience is that it's not an internal moral arbiter of right and wrong (or, very rarely is it that). Mostly, it's the little thing inside us that starts buzzing when we need to rationalize our wrong-doing--or even define it away. Very few of us is capable of objective moral self-assessment--and of the recognition of major moral failings, and the humble work of change, that inevitably entails. We're very good at pointing out the failings of others--but we would not be able to live with ourselves if we were fully in touch (I mean fully in touch) with our own.

We might dabble in self-awareness, we might even make humility a personal value. But we still have big fat blind spots--and those are just as much the work of conscience as the proverbial twinges of awareness that conscience is said to deliver. We think of conscience as the thing that makes us feel guilty and ashamed when we are in the wrong--and that can make us do right. And it is that. But perhaps even more often, conscience is that thing that allows us to live with (even be blind to) the terrible things we do, think, and say.

To say "My conscience is clear" is to say nothing objectively about right and wrong--about real harm or damage one might have done. We can have a clear conscience and be totally in the wrong, blithely oblivious to the suffering we are causing or the principles we are violating. We are wired that way, I suspect, as a matter of basic survival. And so it is, I suspect, with President Obama, his administration, and the Congressional Democrats who, in the words of the Post, are so "willing to pull the plug" on an "effective" but "pesky" program that they "despise." They feel good about their choice--or are at least enjoying a nice, lotus-eating oblivion about the consequences of their choice for the lived lives of people with far fewer options in life than they have.

Years ago, I did some volunteer work for FIRE. It was an opportunity to look closely at their tactics for making colleges and universities eliminate their speech codes and treat people fairly. Their working motto was Justice Brandeis' comment that "Sunlight is the best disinfectant." The idea was that schools won't defend in public what they willingly do in private--and that they can essentially be shamed into doing the right thing when appeals to the law, their reason, and, yes, their conscience, don't work (shame being the attack on pride, rather than conscience per se). It's been a remarkably successful strategy for FIRE. And I find myself wondering whether we'll see a similar strategy in this increasingly desperate fight to keep the DCOSP alive.

UPDATE: In other news, Milwaukee reports that students receiving vouchers are 18 percent more likely to graduate from high school. The city's voucher program--which has endured major opposition from the unions since its inception--now supports 21,000 kids. Rock on, kids.

Erin O'Connor, 7:08 AM | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack (0)

February 3, 2010 [feather]
Climate science, corruption, peer review

The Guardian has posted examples of how climate scientists have been using the peer review process to control which science gets published--and to blackball journals that don't play along:

The Guardian's investigation into the emails stolen from the University of East Anglia reveals how climate scientists acted to keep research papers they did not like out of academic journals. One UEA scientist, Dr Keith Briffa, wrote to a colleague to ask him for help rejecting a paper from a journal which he edited. "Confidentially I now need a hard, and if required, extensive case for rejecting." The request apparently broke the convention that the review process should be independent and anonymous. Briffa was not able to comment because of an ongoing independent review into the stolen emails.

In another email, sent in March 2003, the leading US climate scientist Prof Michael Mann suggested ostracising a journal for publishing a paper that attacked his work.

"I think we have to stop considering Climate Research as a legitimate peer-reviewed journal. Perhaps we should encourage our colleagues … to no longer submit to, or cite papers in, this journal." Mann denies any attempt to "stifle legitimate sceptical views".

The emails also reveal that one of the most influential data sets in climate science – the "hockey stick" graph of temperature over the past 1,000 years – was controversial not just with sceptics but among climate scientists themselves. "I know there is pressure to present a nice tidy story [in the forthcoming IPCC report], but in reality the situation is not quite so simple," wrote Briffa in September 1999.

Notice the presence of PSU professor Michael Mann, currently under investigation for research misconduct.

There is more on this here:

The head of the CRU, Professor Phil Jones, as a top expert in his field, was regularly asked to review papers and he sometimes wrote critical reviews that may have had the effect of blackballing papers criticising his work.

Here is how it worked in one case.

A key component in the story of 20th-century warming is data from sparse weather stations in Siberia. This huge area appears to have seen exceptional warming of up to 2C in the past century. But in such a remote region, actual data is sparse. So how reliable is that data, and do scientists interpret it correctly?

In March 2004, Jones wrote to Professor Michael Mann, a leading climate scientist at Pennsylvania State University, saying that he had "recently rejected two papers [one for the Journal of Geophysical Research and one for Geophysical Research Letters] from people saying CRU has it wrong over Siberia. Went to town in both reviews, hopefully successfully. If either appears I will be very surprised".


Critics of Jones such as the prominent sceptical Stephen McIntyre, who runs the Climate Audit blog have long accused him of preventing critical research from having an airing. McIntyre wrote on his web site in December: "CRU's policies of obstructing critical articles in the peer-reviewed literature and withholding data from critics have unfortunately placed issues into play that might otherwise have been settled long ago." He also says obstructing publication undermine claims that all is well in scientific peer review.

Dr Myles Allen, a climate modeller at the University of Oxford and Professor Hans von Storch, a climate scientist at the Institute for Coastal Research, in Geesthacht, Germany signed a joint column in Nature when the email hacking story broke, in which they said that "no grounds have arisen to doubt the validity of the thermometer-based temperature record since it began in about 1850." But that argument is harder to make if such evidence, flawed though it might be, is actively being kept out of the journals.


in July 2004, Jones wrote an email to Mann about two papers recently published in Climate Research – the Soon and Balunias paper and another he identified as by "MM". This was almost certainly a paper from the Canadian economist Ross McKitrick and Michaels that returned to an old sceptics' theme. It claimed to find urbanisation dominating global warming trends on land. Jones called it "garbage".

More damagingly, he added in an email to Mann with the subject line "HIGHLY CONFIDENTIAL": "I can't see either of these papers being in the next IPCC report. Kevin [Trenberth] and I will keep them out somehow – even if we have to redefine what the peer review literature is!"

This has, rightly, become one of the most famous of the emails. And for once, it means what it seems to mean. Jones and Trenberth, of the National Centre for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado, had recently become joint lead authors for a key chapter in the next IPCC assessment report, called AR4.

They had considerable power over what went into those chapters, and to have ruled them out in such a manner would have been a clear abuse of the IPCC process.

The Guardian is also chronicling how the IPCC has been caught using non-peer reviewed sources to make elaborate, urgent claims about the speed and extent of global warming. Those claims have figured largely in policy debates and spending initiatives on national and global levels.

Erin O'Connor, 1:44 PM | Permalink | TrackBack (0)

Penn State finishes Mann investigation

The Penn State Collegian reports that the university has completed its preliminary investigation of meteorology professor Michael Mann, and will release the results later this week (good call--it was not always certain that they would do so). But the manner of the investigation is still disputed:

A panel of Penn State faculty and staff concluded the inquiry of Penn State meteorology professor Michael Mann this weekend and is slated to release its "Climategate" findings later in the week, university officials said.

The end of the two-month inquiry marks a major point in the worldwide climate debate. Penn State's inquiry began after hundreds of illegally obtained e-mails were leaked last November from a private server in the Climate Research Unit at the University of East Anglia in England, containing comments critics say suggest Mann and his colleagues may have distorted climate change evidence.

The inquiry's findings will determine if the university will further investigate Mann's work. Penn State President Graham Spanier addressed the inquiry and the panel's work during the Board of Trustees meeting on Jan. 22.

"I know they've taken the time and spent hundreds of hours studying documents and interviewing people and looking at issues from all sides," Spanier said.

But conservative groups are already mobilizing to respond to the university's findings. Young Americans for Freedom (YAF) -- a Penn State student group working to "advance the principles of individual and economic freedom, limited government and traditional values" -- has taken an interest in the Mann inquiry.

On Feb. 12, YAF will host a demonstration in front of the HUB to protest what the group feels is a violation of academic integrity, YAF member Samuel Settle said. The 9-12 Project of Central PA, a conservative group, will join the demonstration.

Settle (sophomore-political science and history) said the university's handling of the inquiry unsettles him.

"What the university has done is they've taken three Penn State employees and assigned them to deciding whether or not Mann violated university policy," he said. "That's an awful lot of power in the hands of three with no external oversight."

So is it the case that only campus conservatives are concerned about the manner of the investigation? Or is that the unfortunate spin that the Collegian is placing on it? For what it's worth, in England, the sheer stench of the scandal is turning this into a remarkably non-partisan issue. Whether you read the conservative Times or the liberal Guardian, you'll find strong coverage with a focus on ethics, facts, and getting to the bottom of the whole mess.

As for the question of oversight and accountability--it's a big one. It's the lack thereof that has produced this mess, after all. And for what it's worth, Steve McIntyre--who was among the first to raise questions about the validity of the science being done by Mann and friends--reports that "They didn't contact me. ... Nor have any [Climate Audit] readers notified me that they've been contacted by the Penn State inquiry. I wonder who they interviewed. I wonder what they meant about 'looking at issues from all sides.'" McIntyre goes on to offer a list of questions he hopes the Penn State report addresses.

UPDATE: Penn State has announced that it will proceed with an investigation of Mann for research misconduct:

The recommended investigation will focus on determining if Mann 'engaged in, directly or indirectly, any actions that seriously deviated from accepted practices within the academic community for proposing, conducting or reporting research or other scholarly activities.'


In the investigatory phase, as in the inquiry phase, the committee will not address the science of global climate change, a matter more appropriately left to the profession. The committee is charged with looking at the ethical behavior of the scientist and determining whether he violated professional standards in the course of his work.

The investigatory committee will consist of five tenured full professor faculty members who will assess the evidence in the case and make a determination on Mann's conduct.

PSU says it has determined that there is no evidence that Mann manipulated his data, and is focussing its investigation on other matters. That is a huge exoneration, and I would expect to see that challenged. I'm glad at least that PSU is being transparent about its findings. Let the debates begin.

Read the full report here.

Erin O'Connor, 10:41 AM | Permalink | TrackBack (0)

A great day for ROTC

Finally, there is movement on repealing "don't ask, don't tell." It's high time--and when it's done, it will reverberate very interestingly indeed in higher ed, where a great many private colleges and universities don't allow ROTC on campus because of DADT. The thing is, those campuses for the most part have not allowed ROTC on campus since the Vietnam era -- when the issue wasn't gays serving in the military, but the military itself. Since the 1990s, though, faculties and admins at Columbia and Harvard, among others, have been quite explicit that they don't want campus-based ROTC units because they don't like the military's discriminatory policies. With DADT repealed, those campuses will be challenged to be as good as their words--and will be pressed to bring ROTC back.

Erin O'Connor, 7:00 AM | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack (0)

February 2, 2010 [feather]
Peer review and conflicts of interest

Two stories on this today, one about climate change and one about stem cell research.

From The Guardian:

Scientists sometimes like to portray what they do as divorced from the everyday jealousies, rivalries and tribalism of human relationships. What makes science special is that data and results that can be replicated are what matters and the scientific truth will out in the end.

But a close reading of the emails hacked from the University of East Anglia in November exposes the real process of everyday science in lurid detail.

Many of the emails reveal strenuous efforts by the mainstream climate scientists to do what outside observers would regard as censoring their critics. And the correspondence raises awkward questions about the effectiveness of peer review – the supposed gold standard of scientific merit – and the operation of the UN's top climate body, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

The scientists involved disagree. They say they were engaged not in suppressing dissent but in upholding scientific standards by keeping bad science out of peer-reviewed journals. Either way, when passing judgment on papers that directly attack their own work, they were mired in conflicts of interest that would not be allowed in most professions.

The article goes on to give details and examples of some pretty dirty dealing behind the scenes. Occupying a starring role in these is none other than Penn State professor Michael Mann (he of the famous hockey stick graph), who is currently being investigated for possible research conduct, but not in an open transparent manner that inspires confidence. (Aside: there is so much news coming out about problems in climate science, in the IPCC's handling of same, and in the way global debate and policy are being manipulated as a result. But it's not being reported in the major higher ed journals nor can you find it being covered in the American MSM. If you look at English newspapers--left- and right-leaning--you'll get an eyeful, though.)

Similar rumblings are afoot in the realm of stem cell research. From BBC News:

Stem cell experts say they believe a small group of scientists is effectively vetoing high quality science from publication in journals.

In some cases they say it might be done to deliberately stifle research that is in competition with their own.

It has also emerged that 14 leading stem cell researchers have written an open letter to journal editors in order to highlight their dissatisfaction.

Billions of pounds of public money is spent on funding stem cell research.

The article gives elaborate detail.

Without ethical peer review processes in place there is no such thing as free inquiry, and there is no meaningful argument for the scholarly independence secured by the concept academic freedom. As I have said too many times to count on this blog, academic freedom is not a system of rights; it is a system of reciprocal duties and privileges that together comprise a standard of professionalism for academics. To the extent that professors are not ensuring their own ethical behavior--within disciplines and within institutions--they are helping to kill academic freedom and tenure.

UPDATE: Britain's Wellcome Trust--a major research funder--is arguing that "Expert referees who validate scientific findings should have their reports published to make science more transparent and accountable." Love it. And I'd gladly see that expanded beyond the sciences. Sunlight, as FIRE loves to say, is the best disinfectant.

Erin O'Connor, 4:02 PM | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack (0)

Case study in academic ethics

The Chronicle of Higher Education's Ms. Mentor advises an adjunct professor to overlook a case of plagiarism:

Question (from "Lydia"): I teach a course (call it "Hittites and Kurds") at a local community college. My department supervisor's wife, "Superette," is enrolled in it this semester. She got a D on her first test. They're all essay tests, so there's some subjectivity, but she obviously hadn't studied and didn't know the material, so I felt that was the grade she deserved. (In general, the class did very poorly, and there were many D's.)

Now the students have turned in their first two-page writing assignment, and I planned to read Superette's essay carefully, with judicious comments and corrections, knowing that her husband would read my remarks. However, by the time I got to the second paragraph, I knew—without a doubt—that she hadn't written it. Her husband ("Dr. Supe") had. It's smooth, eloquent, professional, and way beyond the scope of a first-year student, especially one who got a D on her first test and has never correctly answered anything in class. My course has been canceled for next semester, due to budget cuts, so this won't directly affect my future at the college, but I would like to get a good letter of recommendation from Dr. Supe. What should I do?

Answer: Ms. Mentor imagines you on a white steed, pennants flying, galloping off to right all wrongs and singlehandedly saving academic integrity—by falling on your own sword.

Ms. Mentor trusts your assessment that Superette did not write her paper. Faculty members often find it ridiculously easy to recognize borrowed essays. They're much better written than the student's regular output, and often with off-the-wall curlicues ("akin to Madame Blavatsky's esotericism"). They erupt into high-toned academic discourse ("hegemony," "hybridity"). They never misuse "its" and "it's." They even use "whom" correctly.

The problem is what to do about it.

Was it indeed written by Dr. Supe, for instance? What would it take to prove that? If the paper was simply lifted from the Web ("the paradise of plagiarism"), it will be findable through such sites as Turnitin.com. If it's lifted from a published source, you can give Google.com one of the odder sentences and be wafted to the original.

If Dr. Supe wrote it, you could devote hours to teaching yourself a stylistic analysis program (such as ManyEyes, WordTree, Word Stat, or Digital Research Tools) to show that Superette's new syntax and diction are too much like his to be coincidental. And then you could turn them both in to whatever campus board handles academic dishonesty. Superette would fail the paper or maybe the course; Dr. Supe would be furious; and who would be punished?

And that's the problem, much as Ms. Mentor would like to plump for moral purity over all. The world of academe, like the real world, is not always ready for righteousness. You're not apt to get a good recommendation from Dr. Supe ("She taught my cheatin' wife a lesson. Oh, goody."). He may, in fact, decline to write one at all ("conflict of interest" or "I don't have time for this nonsense"). Or he might write a scathing one. He's unlikely to write that you showed impeccable honesty and decency and are a credit to your profession, and that Hittites and Kurds everywhere would be proud of you.

You can survive, or you can be a martyr.

On the one hand, Ms. Mentor is right--this teacher would most likely suffer substantial career damage if she came forward. On the other hand, she's very wrong indeed--it's this sort of "not my problem, save my own ass" attitude that lies at the root of the widespread problems academia is having with establishing and maintaining ethical standards. Neil Hamilton talks about this at length in his The Future of the Professoriate: Academic Freedom, Peer Review, and Self-Governance, citing studies that show most academics don't feel a personal responsibility to speak up when they become aware of wrong-doing in a colleague--and also that most academics have never had any training in what professional ethics means within academe (part of what it means is making peer review meaningful, which means speaking up when you catch someone behaving badly--and part of what it means is modeling ethics for your students, which means, of course, holding them accountable). Unfortunately, the paper--which academics badly need to read--costs $15 and is only available from the AAC&U (bad call, guys, if you actually want people to read your publications). But you can read a summary of Hamilton's argument--if not his citations and his statistics--at InsideHigherEd. In that essay, Hamilton points out that today, discussions of academic freedom tend increasingly to be centered on securing rights for faculty members--and to go very lightly indeed on any concept of responsibility conferred by those rights. He's right about that--just look at the AAUP's activities and statements from recent years. I suspect he's also right about the way that focus erodes the very thing it purports to uphold--academic freedom and tenure. In some very palpable ways, academics are engaged in a profession-wide effort to shoot themselves in the professional foot. And, to mix metaphors, they are at a tipping point right about now.

So what should the poor, benighted adjunct who caught the chair's wife plagiarizing do? It may be that she can't do anything without jeopardizing her career. But it is also the case that schools can and should be working harder to tackle plagiarism and other ethical lapses--and that means that they should have clear procedures and policies for reporting same and for ensuring that no one shoots the messenger, especially if that messenger lacks the protections of tenure. And those policies should actually be enforced. Cheating is increasingly common among students--and many of those students are on their way to becoming professors. Hamilton cites a 2002-04 study that found that 56% of business grad students, 50% of physical sciences grad students, 43% of arts grad students, and 39% of humanities and social science grad students admitted to one more more significant cheating events within the past year. This is the big picture within which Ms. Mentor's advice takes shape.

Imagine a campus that took plagiarism seriously (many don't--I've known more than one person who tried to pursue a plagiarism case and encountered absolute lack of support at the department and college levels; you don't have to be catching the boss's wife to be pressured to look the other way). Imagine that this same campus also took professional ethics seriously--offering training for grad students, and continuing education for faculty. Imagine that the school cultivated a local culture in which adhering to the highest standards of integrity was a matter of pride--and mutual responsibility. Imagine what that would mean for the quality of research produced and also for the morale of departments and colleges. Imagine, too, that this pride translated into classrooms where hard work and honest effort were rewarded--and where plagiarism, cheating, and slacking were not. Imagine what that would mean for learning--not just about subject matter and skills, but also about what it feels like to work hard, to be honest, and to bank your future on your merits, rather than on your ability to game the system. Imagine that.

Erin O'Connor, 6:31 AM | Permalink | Comments (10) | TrackBack (0)

February 1, 2010 [feather]
Core curriculum for civic literacy

Emeritus Cal Poly English professor Donald Lazere proposes a collegiate core curriculum that aims to transcend ideological differences--and to break old, dysfunctional stalemates. I'm reproducing the whole thing here:

The past few years have seen an outpouring of books and reports deploring Americans' civic ignorance, with titles like Just How Stupid Are We?, The Dumbest Generation, The Age of American Unreason, and Tuned Out: Why Americans Under 40 Don't Follow the News. This is a problem that everyone seems to complain about but no one tries to solve through any coordinated, nationwide effort.

National organizations have recently been formed, including the Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools, the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching's Political Engagement Project, and Campus Compact and its Research University Civic Engagement Network. These organizations have published important interdisciplinary books, such as Educating for Democracy, by Anne Colby et al. (Jossey-Bass, 2007), and Civic Engagement in Higher Education, by Barbara Jacoby et al. (Jossey-Bass, 2009).

Many campus programs have also been exemplary, as surveyed in Charles Muscatine's Fixing College Education (University of Virginia Press, 2009). In The Assault on Reason (Penguin Press, 2007), Al Gore praised the American Political Science Association for starting a Task Force on Civic Education. That should prompt similar task forces in the Modern Language Association (my discipline) and other professional associations, along with a unifying interdisciplinary organization for secondary and postsecondary education, a National Commission on Civic Education. Liberal and conservative educators and politicians should collaborate in hammering out their differences on what should constitute a core curriculum for civic literacy. We can hope for sponsorship in this effort by both conservative and liberal foundations, as well as for support from the U.S. Department of Education and National Endowment for the Humanities.

One way to prompt deliberation here is to spin E.D. Hirsch's much-debated agenda for what every American needs to know to be culturally literate: What does every American need to know to be a civically literate, critically conscious, responsible citizen? And, as a corollary, what role should the humanities play in a renewal of education for civic literacy?

My agenda would give priority to the factual knowledge and analytic skills that students need to make reasoned judgments about the partisan screaming matches and special-interest prop aganda that permeate political disputes. One source for such knowledge and skills can be the disciplines of critical thinking and argumentative rhetoric. Unfortunately, few high schools or colleges require courses with that focus, which was also shamefully ignored by No Child Left Behind.

We have all by necessity been thinking a lot lately about one particular branch of civic literacy: economic knowledge. How many among us understand how or why our personal economic fates—mortgages, retirement pensions, and our colleges' financing and endowments—are captive to booms and busts in the stock market and the occult realm of national and international high finance? In the prophetic words of the "corporate cosmology" revealed by the arch-capitalist Arthur Jensen in Paddy Chayefsky's 1976 film, Network, "The totality of life on this planet" is now determined by "one vast and immane, interwoven, interacting, multivariate, multinational dominion of dollars."

What a tragic gulf lies between most citizens' understanding of economic forces and their power over each of our daily lives and livelihoods. And what an enormous hole there is, in both K-12 and college curricula, in teaching about those forces as an integral part of general education. I am not talking about courses in formal economics, but in thinking critically about the rhetoric of economic issues at the everyday level of political debates and news and opinion—although those studies would identify oversimplifications at that level that could certainly be pursued in economics classes.

The term "core curriculum" has sadly become a culture-war wedge issue, with conservatives pre-empting it in the cause of Eurocentric tradition and American patriotism, thus provoking intransigent opposition from progressive champions of cultural pluralism and identity politics. Surely, however, we should urge the opposing sides to seek common ground in a core curriculum for critical citizenship that transcends—or encompasses—ideological partisanship.

My own immodest proposal models a core curriculum that centrally includes critical thinking about, and analysis and practice of, public rhetoric, at the local, national, and international levels. Far from being a radical proposal, it is a conservative one in returning to something like the 18th-century rhetoric-based curriculum in American education.

That curriculum, as the historian of rhetoric S. Michael Halloran describes it, "address[ed] students as political beings, as members of a body politic in which they have a responsibility to form judgments and influence the judgments of others on public issues." Halloran and other historians have lamented the modern diffusion of studies in forensics, literature, composition, and other humanistic fields, as a result of the hegemony of disciplines and departments oriented toward specialized faculty research, which have become the tail that wags the curricular dog. Those forces and a depressing array of others have caused the study of political rhetoric to fall between the cracks of most current curricula, almost to the disappearing point.

So let's envision how a revived curriculum for civic literacy might be embodied in a sequence of undergraduate courses that would supplement, not supplant, basic courses in history, government, literature, and other humanist staples. These could be interdisciplinary offerings, with at least a partial component of English studies. Within English, they would follow, not replace, first-year writing—which in recent decades has focused on generating students' personal writing rather than critical analyses of readings or public rhetoric—and a second term in critical thinking and written and oral argumentative rhetoric.

The following headings correspond to chapters in my textbook for such a second-term course, but my own and other instructors' experience in using the book is that for any single course or textbook to "cover" what really demands a full curriculum is an impossible expectation. So I will break that material down, more appropriately, into four courses:

Course 1: Thinking Critically About Political and Economic Rhetoric. This would begin with a survey of semantic issues in defining terms like left wing, right wing, liberal, conservative, radical, moderate, freedom, democracy, patriotism, capitalism, socialism, communism, Marxism, fascism, and plutocracy. It would explore their denotative complexity and the ways in which they are oversimplified or connotatively slanted in public usage.

Study would then focus on defining ideological differences between and within the left and right, nationally and internationally, and on understanding the relativity of political viewpoints on the spectrum from left to right. For example, The New York Times is liberal in relation to Fox News but conservative in relation to The Nation; the Democratic Party is liberal in relation to the Republicans but conservative in relation to European social-democratic parties. Principles of argumentative rhetoric would then be applied to "reading the news" on political and economic issues in a range of journalistic and scholarly sources and from a variety of ideological viewpoints, with emphasis on identifying the predictable patterns of partisan rhetoric in opposing sources.

Course 2: Thinking Critically About Mass Media. Key questions would include: Do the media give people what they want, or condition what they want? Are news media objective and neutral, and should they be? The debate over liberal versus conservative bias in media would be approached through weighing the diverse influences of employees (editors, producers, writers, newscasters, performers); owners, executives, and advertisers; external pressure groups; and audiences. Research on the cognitive effects of mass culture would be applied to such issues as the impact of electronic media on reading, writing, and political consciousness. Implicit political ideology in news and entertainment media would be studied through images of corporations, workers, and unions; the rich, poor, and middle class; gender roles, ethnic minorities, and gays; military forces and war; and immigrants, foreigners, other parts of the world, and Americans' international presence. A final topic of study would be how the Internet has altered all of those issues.

Course 3: Propaganda Analysis and Deception Detection. Study here would begin with problems in defining and evaluating prop aganda. A survey of its sources would include government and the military, political parties, lobbies, advertising, public relations, foundations, and sponsored research in think tanks and elsewhere. The role of special interests, conflicts of interest, and special pleading in political and economic rhetoric would be examined, along with propagators' frequent resort to deceptive modes of argument or outright lying—especially with statistics. This course (or another entire one) would include topics in critical consumer education: reading the fine print in contracts, like those for student loans, credit cards, rental agreements, and mortgages; examining health and environmental issues in consumer products; and seeking out the often hidden facts of the production and marketing of food and pharmaceuticals.

Course 4: Civic Literacy in Practice. This would connect these academic studies with service learning, community or national activism, or work in government or community organizations, journalism, and elsewhere.

Two possible objections:

"What you are proposing is that English and other humanities courses take on the impossible burden of remediation for the failures of the entire American education system in civic literacy."

You betcha. It's a dirty job, but someone has to do it, and I don't see any likelier disciplines jumping into the breach, especially ones with courses that are conventionally general education and breadth requirements. (Some communication and speech departments are in schools of liberal arts, but others are not; many offer courses in political rhetoric and media criticism, but those are mostly advanced ones for majors.) An ideal solution would be for these to be offered as interdisciplinary core courses, in which humanities faculty members would collaborate with those in the social sciences, communication, and so on. If civic education at the secondary level ever picks up the slack that it should, the college humanities involvement in such instruction can be phased out.

"Mightn't your proposals just be a Trojan horse for dragging in the academic left's same old agenda and biases?"

The courses could be conceived in their specifics and taught by instructors with varying ideological viewpoints—or best of all, through team teaching by liberal and conservative instructors. In principle, this framework would "teach the conflicts," on Gerald Graff's model, not through advocacy or the monologic perspective of any teacher's own beliefs, but through enabling students to identify and compare a full range of opposing ideological perspectives (including those of the instructor and the students), their points of opposition, and the partisan patterns and biases of their rhetoric. I have found it easy to grade students on the basis of their skill in articulating those points, without regard to my political viewpoints or theirs.

To be sure, this conception runs up against the near impossibility of anyone's even defining terms and points of opposition between, say, the left and right with complete objectivity and without injecting value judgments. That problem itself, however, can become a subject of study within these courses and in advanced scholarly inquiry. Indeed, the courses could prompt a wealth of related research and theoretical explorations, creating a fruitful arena for bridging the gap between advanced scholarship and undergraduate teaching.

There is much to be admired here (I've harped many times on economics and financial literacy myself, not to mention the importance of core curricula and civic education to undergraduate training). I will confess, though, that as much as I like the idea that core courses should be team taught by liberal and conservative professors, I find myself wondering where Lazere thinks those conservatives are going to be found. But that just underscores the need for comprehensive changes, not only at the curricular level, but at the level of faculty attitude and outlook. You can mandate the first, and you can't mandate the second. But in changing the one, you can begin to create the conditions for cultural shifts within academe that would ultimately be to the benefit of all.

Erin O'Connor, 7:21 AM | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack (0)