Sunday, March 31, 2013

Teacher Quality: Roughly Like It Is At Any Job

Update: Dana Goldstein, who is an actual education reporter instead of a poor imitation of one, drops some knowledge. The most widely-used number is 5-10 percent of the teacher workforce. See this chapter from Eric Hanushek for more detail

The New York Times bemoans the results of recent teacher evaluation systems, which seem to give an overwhelming majority of teachers passing grades. The tone of the article seems to imply that this is a failing of the evaluation system; that principals do not have sufficient emotional detachment to rate teachers poorly; and that in general the efforts to deviate from more quantitative methods of teacher evaluation have stymied education reform. As a followup, it would be instructive if the  New York Times examined its own 2012 Performance Evaluations and published an article on how many employees were deemed ineffective.

The evaluation systems seem to place an extremely high number in the highest-two rating categories, and only identifying a handful of teachers--2-3% seems to be a common number--as ineffective. The reformers seem to have this hazy, not-very-well-thought-out view that perhaps 10, 20, or 50% of teachers (no one is willing to put a number on this) are inadequate to the task of teaching, which would be astonishing for any large enterprise. The 2% figure lines up roughly with the number of LAPD cops who averaged at least one excessive force complaint per year during the late '80s (keep in mind this covers allegations, not proven cases or even disciplinary actions). Over that same timeframe, 0.5% of officers averaged about 1.5 complaints per year, and a handful of cops were truly disastrous. Even if America's public schools were to have double or triple the number of bad apples as the LAPD, that would still mean the overwhelming majority of teachers are at least doing their jobs adequately.

The real problem is that inadequate teachers are more likely to be found in environments where their inadequacy hurts. If half a city or state's weak teachers are concentrated in high-poverty schools, then those schools are going to fit the mental picture that reformers seem to ascribe to the public school system writ large. And the students at those schools won't have the same growth opportunities outside the classroom that the children of middle-class parents have. If we can find a way to get high-quality teachers to take jobs in poor schools and stay there, it would probably result in a significant net boost in student outcomes.

The Center for American Progress has a decent writeup on America's teacher workforce if you're curious.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Being Naked On The Internet Should Be Okay

The latest Dear Prudence has a letter from a woman who's wondering whether to tell her family that she has a profitable side job doing online sex shows. Prudence's advice is unremarkable and, I suppose, prudent: "the idea that you can perform sex online and expect to keep that pussy cat in the box is ridiculous. Though your question is whether you tell your family you are a porn star, I think your concern about this coming out should give you pause about your line of work, no matter how lucrative. Someday you'll age out of this career, and you have to be aware what you've done can follow you for the rest of your life."

If this is good advice in your society, you have a problem. The fact that someone appeared naked on the internet says nothing negative about their ability to manage a business or work in a hospital or teach high school math. This is true of the whole spectrum of internet nakedness -- whether we're talking about acting in hardcore porn, or just having your college-age sexting appear on the internet. As far as I'm concerned, internet nakedness says nothing negative about them as a potential spouse, either. If we're disqualifying people for future opportunities because of stuff like this, we have an arbitrary prejudice that occasionally ruins people's careers while preventing us from taking advantage of people's talents in the way that best benefits us all. And in a digital age where pictures of everything are everywhere, the costs of this prejudice could be quite large.

Unfortunately, some institutions run by people who don't themselves have the prejudice I criticize here may still have reasons not to hire those who have appeared naked on the internet. That's because they may have to deal with prejudiced people outside the institution. Even if the people who hire math teachers realize that having done online sex shows in the past is entirely compatible with being a great math teacher, they may have to deal with parents who don't see things that way, even to the detriment of their children's math education. Social connections like this make prejudice hard to eradicate.

So it's important that we fight these kinds of prejudices publicly, through trying to show people how pointless and destructive they are. I would've liked it if Prudence had expressed the hope that in the next couple decades, people would come to accept her correspondent's previous occupation -- not even as a forgivable youthful indiscretion, but simply as an interesting and unusual past job. I hope this is the way things go in our society and the world, and I hope you share my hope.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Democrats' Gay Rights Investment Paying Off

From a narrowly partisan perspective, recent party-based poll numbers on gay rights issues look good for Democrats.

Same sex marriage has majority and increasing support among Democrats and independents, and low support among Republicans that's increasing more slowly. This is a dynamic in which Democrats should be able to pass equality-oriented legislation with some help from Republicans who are facing trouble in general elections and need to appeal to independents. Meanwhile, Republicans who have to win their primaries and don't worry so much about general elections will want to stick to conservative views. So things bode well for the Republican Party as a whole remaining on the wrong side of a high-salience public issue, while Democrats as a whole remain on the right side. 

Add in the age-related demographics, with young folks being more supportive of equality, and you've got a situation where having good views on gay rights draws people to the Democratic side who will still be voting decades from now. If this makes them more attentive to Democratic media sources, we may be able to gain their support on other issues and keep them for the long term. 

This is different from the way things used to be a decade ago, where the issue probably hurt Democrats more than it helped. But that cost has been paid, and it looks like a very good investment.  

Change We Can Believe In

Freed from having to run for re-election, the President is finally picking some underdogs in this years NCAA bracket. He's got a three seed making the final four and even #5 Wisconsin (!!) in the Elite Eight.

Due to family connections I root for Duke. No, I don't care if you think they're awful.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

A St. Patrick's Day Wish After The Steubenville Rape Case

The judge handed down a guilty verdict in the Ohio rape case today. The sentences are fairly short, as the perpetrators are juveniles. (The victim is as well.) It seems to me that justice was done.

As far as I can tell, the basic issues in this case aren't at all complicated. If I get drunk and pass out, and someone takes away my money without my consent, that's theft. If I get drunk and pass out, and someone has sex with me without my consent, that's rape. Perhaps I was foolish to expose myself to crime. But it's still crime, and that the people who commit it are criminals. What they did is exactly what the law should punish.

Here is my St. Patrick's Day wish. I want to live in a world where someone who gets drunk and passes out -- at a party, on the street, or anywhere else -- won't have to fear theft or rape. Certainly it'll still be inadvisable to get so drunk and pass out there for a variety of reasons. Outdoors one has to fear animals and the elements, and one shouldn't make oneself a nuisance to others. But in a just society, one shouldn't have to fear other people. A world where we can expect our fellow humans not to harm us, even when we're vulnerable, is the kind of world that the law is supposed to provide.

Friday, March 15, 2013

The Game of Change

Today in "the past is another country" news ...

Today's the fiftieth anniversary of an NCAA tournament game between Mississippi State and Loyola of Chicago. Not surprisingly, at the time MSU featured an all-white team while Loyola had four African-American players. The governor of Mississippi attempted to prevent the basketball team from leaving the state so as to preserve their unbroken streak of playing against only all-white teams.

Several players who were in this game are still alive today. Obviously racism is alive and well today, but sometimes it's worth looking back to see just how far we've come.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Knives on Planes

I think the best reason for allowing knives on planes is that passengers are now conditioned to confront any attempt to commandeer the airplane. Prior to 9/11, conventional wisdom was that if you're caught in a hostage situation, you should not try to be a hero, and instead calmly get the plane on the ground, at which point the SAS or Delta Force or whoever it is can handle the situation professionally. That thinking went out the window once attackers no longer needed to land the plane. But now that people know that their plane might land, they'll just try to overpower anyone who does anything suspicious.

Chuck Schumer should let sleeping dogs lie on this one. Let people have their pocketknives; they're no longer a viable way to take over a plane.

Still waiting for the day I can leave my shoes on. At this point I'm guessing we'll have to wait until after Christmas travel in 2016.

Friday, March 8, 2013

No, the Labor Market is Not That Healthy

Everyone is dancing a jig over this month's jobs report, but we have yet to really recover from the Great Recession, nor are we particularly close.

This chart shows the employment-to-population ratio—the number of adults with jobs divided by the number of working-age adults—over the past 20 years. Keep in mind that even in 1993, prevailing social norms were more likely to keep women out of the workforce than they are today. Thus, despite a rise in the number of working women, we have a smaller share of adults working today. And keep in mind that in early '93, Bill Clinton took office and people thought the economy was in pretty bad shape. Compared to today, however, things look pretty good! If we had the same share of adults working today as we did 20 years ago, roughly three million more Americans would have jobs. If we have another twenty-one months of job growth on par with last month, we will finally get back to a somewhat healthy emp-pop ratio.

Friday Obama Caption Contest and Kitsch Cover

Original caption: "President Barack Obama works on his inaugural address with Jon Favreau, Director of Speechwriting, not pictured, in the Oval Office, Jan. 16, 2013."

Today's kitsch cover is Ellie Goulding performing Elton John's "Your Song":

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Good People

If we post New York Times links here, does it run you into the paywall? Might as well ask that test question now, because Ta-Nehisi Coates is writing some amazing things that just hurt. 

Arkansas Republicans for Birth Defects & Genetic Diseases

Sarah Kliff's piece here isn't phrased this way, but that's the net impact of the state legislature's veto override on a bill outlawing all abortions after 12 weeks of gestation, by defining fetal "viability" as "when the fetus has a heartbeat", a definition which has no basis in the science of anything.

Let's set aside entirely the fact that a decent number of pregnant women don't even confirm that they're pregnant before week 12. The most accurate form of prenatal screening for birth defects or genetic diseases can't be completed until week 14 or 15. But even the best screening still has a 5-10% false positive rate. Given the rates, this means roughly 5 out of every 6 fetuses that have a positive screen do not actually have any defect or disease. So if the it comes back positive, you have to perform an invasive followup test, usually an amniocentesis or CVS, that has something much closer to perfect accuracy. Amniocentesis also cannot be performed until week 15. After that, you have to wait for the test results, and if those come back positive, you have to make a decision about the quality of life your family and the child would have. Some of the defects that are screened for, such as trisonomy 18 (that's the genetic defect that ails Rick Santorum's daughter), result in extremely shortened lifespans or extremely low quality of life. The Arkansas bill would effectively require expectant mothers whose fetus has a defect like this to carry it to term, irrespective of their family, financial, and mental tolerance for the strain this would put on them.

Under current Supreme Court jurisprudence, the Arkansas bill is unconstitutional on its face. The state legislature is not empowered to define viability by judicial fiat, and even if they were, a demand from the government that women carry a pregnancy even if the fetus would barely survive outside the womb to term almost certainly violates the "undue burden" test, if those words are to have any meaning at all. But to enact such a law under any circumstances shows an utter callousness to the on-the-ground realities of childbearing & childrearing decisions.

Friday, March 1, 2013

The Divine Comic Sans

The Vatican has put up an online book commemorating the outgoing Pope Benedict. While the cover makes an effort at Pope-appropriate fonts, having the text inside the book all be written in Comic Sans was a surprising design choice