The Achievement Gap Has Been Narrowing For 35 Years!

Here are a couple graphs that show the narrowing of the achievement gap since 1973. All the talk about the horrors of public schools, and teachers, and the rest is just manufactured hysteria. I am not saying that the gap is something we should be fine with; I have argued many times that we need to address the reasons for the gap because the gap is unacceptable. I have talked about ending poverty, and stuff like that. You know, stuff that could work, instead of finding a way to ruin public schools and teachers like we have apparently decided to do now.

Krugman On America's Soul

In case you haven't read it yet:
Reclaiming America’s Soul

“Nothing will be gained by spending our time and energy laying blame for the past.” So declared President Obama, after his commendable decision to release the legal memos that his predecessor used to justify torture. Some people in the political and media establishments have echoed his position. We need to look forward, not backward, they say. No prosecutions, please; no investigations; we’re just too busy.

And there are indeed immense challenges out there: an economic crisis, a health care crisis, an environmental crisis. Isn’t revisiting the abuses of the last eight years, no matter how bad they were, a luxury we can’t afford?

No, it isn’t, because America is more than a collection of policies. We are, or at least we used to be, a nation of moral ideals. In the past, our government has sometimes done an imperfect job of upholding those ideals. But never before have our leaders so utterly betrayed everything our nation stands for. “This government does not torture people,” declared former President Bush, but it did, and all the world knows it.

And the only way we can regain our moral compass, not just for the sake of our position in the world, but for the sake of our own national conscience, is to investigate how that happened, and, if necessary, to prosecute those responsible.

What about the argument that investigating the Bush administration’s abuses will impede efforts to deal with the crises of today? Even if that were true — even if truth and justice came at a high price — that would arguably be a price we must pay: laws aren’t supposed to be enforced only when convenient. But is there any real reason to believe that the nation would pay a high price for accountability?

For example, would investigating the crimes of the Bush era really divert time and energy needed elsewhere? Let’s be concrete: whose time and energy are we talking about?

Tim Geithner, the Treasury secretary, wouldn’t be called away from his efforts to rescue the economy. Peter Orszag, the budget director, wouldn’t be called away from his efforts to reform health care. Steven Chu, the energy secretary, wouldn’t be called away from his efforts to limit climate change. Even the president needn’t, and indeed shouldn’t, be involved. All he would have to do is let the Justice Department do its job — which he’s supposed to do in any case — and not get in the way of any Congressional investigations.

I don’t know about you, but I think America is capable of uncovering the truth and enforcing the law even while it goes about its other business.

Still, you might argue — and many do — that revisiting the abuses of the Bush years would undermine the political consensus the president needs to pursue his agenda.

But the answer to that is, what political consensus? There are still, alas, a significant number of people in our political life who stand on the side of the torturers. But these are the same people who have been relentless in their efforts to block President Obama’s attempt to deal with our economic crisis and will be equally relentless in their opposition when he endeavors to deal with health care and climate change. The president cannot lose their good will, because they never offered any.

That said, there are a lot of people in Washington who weren’t allied with the torturers but would nonetheless rather not revisit what happened in the Bush years.

Some of them probably just don’t want an ugly scene; my guess is that the president, who clearly prefers visions of uplift to confrontation, is in that group. But the ugliness is already there, and pretending it isn’t won’t make it go away.

Others, I suspect, would rather not revisit those years because they don’t want to be reminded of their own sins of omission.

For the fact is that officials in the Bush administration instituted torture as a policy, misled the nation into a war they wanted to fight and, probably, tortured people in the attempt to extract “confessions” that would justify that war. And during the march to war, most of the political and media establishment looked the other way.

It’s hard, then, not to be cynical when some of the people who should have spoken out against what was happening, but didn’t, now declare that we should forget the whole era — for the sake of the country, of course.

Sorry, but what we really should do for the sake of the country is have investigations both of torture and of the march to war. These investigations should, where appropriate, be followed by prosecutions — not out of vindictiveness, but because this is a nation of laws.

We need to do this for the sake of our future. For this isn’t about looking backward, it’s about looking forward — because it’s about reclaiming America’s soul.

Friday Cartoon Fun: American Piracy Edition


The Next Domino

The Great Credit Card Battle To Come

The next front in the banking wars will be over credit cards. Some of the nation's biggest bankers -- including representatives of Citigroup, JP Morgan Chase, and other recipients of billions of taxpayer dollars -- are meeting today with the President to ask him back off his move to reform credit-card lending practices.

What's happening to credit card lending is a smaller replay of what happened to mortgage lending. For years, banks used every gimmick possible to get the public to use their cards -- regardless of the credit worthiness of the customer. They lured borrowers with low "teaser" rates. They told borrowers they could get by paying minimum balances.

And now that tens of millions of Americans are poorer than they used to be, the credit-card bubble is bursting. Credit card delinquencies are soaring. At the Bank of America, the largest U.S. lender by assets, 7.8 percent of credit-card accounts were delinquent in February by more than 30 days, up from 5.9 percent last August. Yesterday, Bank of America reported a $1.8 billion first-quarter loss in its credit-card services unit.
As delinquencies mount and profits shrink, card lenders are raising fees and interest rates, including rates on existing balances. They're also charging higher fees when customers exceed their credit limits, and shortening the duration of the teaser rates. When a customer makes a payment in excess of what's owed, card companies now routinely apply the excess to balances with the lowest rates rather than those carrying the highest rates. And banks disclose very little of relevance: For example, most customers have no idea how long it will take them to pay off their balances if they make minimum repayments, or what interest they're actually paying on their balances.

As more and more Americans find themselves in the credit-card squeeze, they're complaining loudly. But the bankers have their own loud lobbyists on Capitol Hill, whose voices haven't been muzzled despite the giant bank bailout. Last month, the Senate Banking Committee reported a bill that bans rate increases for existing balances, among other things. But the vote was close -- 12 in favor, 11 opposed -- and its future in the Senate is uncertain. A House bill advanced yesterday, sponsored by Representative Carolyn Maloney, Democrat from New York, has only a fifty-fifty chance of succeeding. Meanwhile, the Fed is working on a set of watered-down reforms scheduled to go into effect a year from July, but that's way too far off to avoid the pending battle.

Enter Obama. The Treasury holds lots of cards given how dependent the big banks are on its solicitude. Meanwhile, the public has grown weary and suspicious of the bank bailouts. Knowing how unpopular the bailouts have become, the Administration is considering how to get additional capital to the banks without going back to Congress for the money. One big idea is to convert taxpayer-provided bank loans into bank equity -- even though the swap puts taxpayers at greater risk (after all, loans have to be repaid, but equity can continue to fall).

That's why getting tough on the banks' credit card lending practices has such appeal for the Administration, politically. It puts the White House on the side of the people rather than Wall Street, on an issue that the public is becoming more and more upset about. And the Administration's push could be enough to get reform legislation through Congress.

The bankers will tell Obama today that any new contraints on credit card lending will cause the banks to reduce the amount of credit card lending they do, which will hurt the economy. But it's a weak argument because it presupposes that any lending is good for the economy -- even lending to people who don't know what they're getting into and can't repay the loans. It's the same argument banks used two years ago, when precient observers warned that constraints had to be placed on mortgage lending practices. What may hurt the economy in the short term, we now know, may save it from even larger pitfalls to come.


Merit Pay: It Won't Work

Diane Ravitch on merit pay:
What's Wrong With Merit Pay

Dear Deborah,

Over time we have developed a very solid and smart community of readers who like to argue with us and with each other. That is as it should be. And of course we need to bridge differences—or disagree—with them, too, as we do with each other.

So the subject today is merit pay. This is an important topic because it has become clear that President Obama has decided to hang his hat on this idea. It has not yet been explained just what he means by merit pay. Does he mean that teachers should be paid more for teaching in what is euphemistically called “hard-to-staff” schools? Or paid more for teaching in areas where there are shortages, like certain kinds of special education or subjects such as math and science? Or paid more for mentoring other teachers? Or paid more for teaching longer days?

I would call such compensation “performance pay,” rather than “merit pay,” because teachers are paid more for doing more.

But I have a feeling that what the Obama administration has in mind is paying teachers more based on their students’ “value-added” test scores. So if their students see increases in their scores, they will get “merit pay” to reward their supposedly superior teaching.

I believe that this is the direction the administration is heading and that it is the purpose of the millions that will be spent on data warehouses in every state. And it is why Secretary Duncan has told the governors that they will get their stimulus money only if they collect and report data to the U.S. This was an odd request because some of the data he asked for is already available, such as the gap between state and NAEP scores (previously published in Education Week, for example, and no secret).

There are several reasons why it is a bad idea to pay teachers extra for raising student test scores:
  • First, it will create an incentive for teachers to teach only what is on the tests of reading and math. This will narrow the curriculum to only the subjects tested.
  • Second, it will encourage not only teaching to the test, but gaming the system (by such mechanisms as excluding low-performing students) and outright cheating.
  • Third, it ignores a wealth of studies that show that student test scores are subject to statistical errors, measurement errors, and random errors, and that the “noise” in these scores is multiplied when used to make high-stakes personnel decisions.
  • Fourth, it ignores the fact that most teachers in a school are not eligible for “merit” bonuses, only those who teach reading and math and only those for whom scores can be obtained in a previous year.
  • It ignores the fact that many factors play a role in student test scores, including student ability, student motivation, family support (or lack thereof), the weather, distractions on testing day, etc.
  • It ignores the fact that tests must be given at the beginning and the end of the year, not mid-year as is now the practice in many states. Otherwise, which teacher gets "credit," and a bonus for score gains, the one who taught the student in the spring of the previous year or the one who taught her in the fall?
I believe that our readers are right when they predict that merit pay of the stupidest kind is coming. I predict that it will do nothing to improve our schools. A few weeks ago, the conservative Manhattan Institute released a study showing that merit pay had no impact on test scores in 200 schools in New York City that are trying it. In fact, scores went down in larger schools that offered bonuses. This little experiment in schoolwide bonuses is costing taxpayers $20 million a year.

Now it is possible that scores may go up in later years; this is only the first year, after all. But what is most interesting is the subdued release of this study. When the Manhattan Institute releases a study, it often holds a press conference to announce the results. This study, however, had no fanfare; its study was quietly posted on MI's Web site; no press conference, no press release. Somehow I suspect that the study would have been released with bells and whistles if the scores had flown upward.

Here is my prediction: Merit pay of the kind I have described will not make education better, even if scores go up next year or the year after. Instead, it will make education worse, not only because some of the "gains" will be based on cheating and gaming the system, but because they will be obtained by scanting attention to history, geography, civics, the arts, science, literature, foreign languages, and all the other studies that are needed to develop smarter individuals, better citizens, and people who are prepared for the knowledge-based economy of the 21st Century. Nor will it identify better teachers; instead, it will reward those who use their time for low-level test preparation.

Is it possible to have an education system that mis-educates students while raising their test scores? Yes, I think it is. We may soon prove it.



Sunday Cartoon Fun: That's What Hunger Will Make You Do Edition

Sunday Cartoon Fun: Lessons Not Learned Edition

Impeach The Torturer

Please notice the petition at the bottom of the post...
"Congress should impeach him..."

by dday

The New York Times today called for the impeachment of Jay Bybee.
In one of the more nauseating passages, Jay Bybee, then an assistant attorney general and now a federal judge, wrote admiringly about a contraption for waterboarding that would lurch a prisoner upright if he stopped breathing while water was poured over his face. He praised the Central Intelligence Agency for having doctors ready to perform an emergency tracheotomy if necessary.

These memos are not an honest attempt to set the legal limits on interrogations, which was the authors’ statutory obligation. They were written to provide legal immunity for acts that are clearly illegal, immoral and a violation of this country’s most basic values [...]

At least Mr. Obama is not following Mr. Bush’s example of showy trials for the small fry — like Lynndie England of Abu Ghraib notoriety. But he has an obligation to pursue what is clear evidence of a government policy sanctioning the torture and abuse of prisoners — in violation of international law and the Constitution.

That investigation should start with the lawyers who wrote these sickening memos, including John Yoo, who now teaches law in California; Steven Bradbury, who was job-hunting when we last heard; and Mr. Bybee, who holds the lifetime seat on the federal appeals court that Mr. Bush rewarded him with.

These memos make it clear that Mr. Bybee is unfit for a job that requires legal judgment and a respect for the Constitution. Congress should impeach him. And if the administration will not conduct a thorough investigation of these issues, then Congress has a constitutional duty to hold the executive branch accountable. If that means putting Donald Rumsfeld and Alberto Gonzales on the stand, even Dick Cheney, we are sure Americans can handle it.
I'm not sure there can even be much argument about this. Jay Bybee's continued presence on the federal bench constitutes a moral outrage.

My petition to the California Democratic Party to pass a resolution of impeachment has as of 9am PT 684 signatures. Please sign it if you haven't already. We're going to have a lot more actions around this as the week progresses.

Prosecute The War Crimes

Since we all now know for sure that America tortured detainees, we need to prosecute the torturers. Remember, this is our country, not Bush's, Obama's, or Pelosi's. Its OURS!

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