Obama's SOTU: a huge contradiction & a collapsed soufflé

[UPDATE: Don't-Say-I-Didn't-Warn-You Department: The "answer to everything" link below delivers an oddly apt simulation of Washington DC as experienced by the average voter.]

Peggy Noonan spots the contradiction:
The central fact of the speech was the contradiction at its heart. It repeatedly asserted that Washington is the answer to everything. At the same time it painted a picture of Washington as a sick and broken place.
With her speechwriter's eye, she also picks up on subtle-but-telling indications that Obama has given up on the health care bill:
Waxing boring on the virtues of the [health care] bill was a rhetorical way to obscure the fact that it is dead. . . . The bill will now get lost in the mists and disappear. It is a collapsed soufflé in an unused kitchen in the back of an empty house.
For what it's worth, a poll on the non-partisan Open Congress website currently shows 78% of participants opposing the Senate version of the healthcare reform bill.


President Obama's first State of the Union address

Clive Crook of the Atlantic boils it down nicely :
[President Obama] conveyed almost no sense that the country was sending him a message and that he was paying attention.

"Standardization is the standard" at BCPS

That's what Superintendent Joe Hairston said on Tuesday. It struck me at the time as an oddball line from The Office. I'm having more and more moments like that when I listen to Dr. Hairston.

He made the comment at a BCPS school board meeting while he was singing the praises of the ISO 9000 program at BCPS.

I've been involved in a few corporate efforts similar to ISO 9000. There can be advantages for sure, but adopting such a program is no guarantee of success. It's a lot of work and there are plenty of pitfalls:

The standard is seen as especially prone to failure when a company is interested in certification before quality.[7]

UPDATE: More thoughts on problems that can come with standardization. As Ken Robinson puts it, schools can kill creativity:

And there are situations where looking for a single standard means you are asking the wrong question. Malcolm Gladwell on What we can learn from spaghetti sauce:


"That's a nice College of Education you have there Dr. Lorion..."

"...it would be such a shame if ..."

When Dr. Raymond Lorion*, Dean of Towson U's College of Education, testified last night at the BCPS school board meeting, Joe Hairston talked at some length about the close relationship between BCPS and Lorion's school. He described how BCPS hires 500-600 teachers each year and is a major employer of Towson ed school grads (perhaps the largest). He described what a privilege it is for BCPS to be part of the relationship.

As Hairston was talking, I kept thinking that he was really reminding Dr. Lorion how dependent Towson is on BCPS. Sort of the way a racketeer reminds the owner of a "protected" business.

At another point Lorion was equivocating about whether his committee was making "summary comments" or "recommendations". Dr. Hairston then made it very clear who was the boss. He interrupted and said, "I'll make the recommendations." Dr. Lorion quickly agreed.

What does this mean to BCPS parents and teachers?

Just this: We cannot view Dr. Lorion as an independent, objective third party when it comes to AIM. He and his program are too dependent on BCPS for their bread and butter.

*Strange. I couldn't find even a basic profile of Dr. Lorion on Towson's website. The closest thing is this message from the dean. A quick Google search didn't turn one up either.

Dr. Raymond Lorion: "An 'A' in what sense?"

At last night's BCPS meeting, a school board member asked a question about "A" grades. Dr. Lorion's* response drew a derisive laugh from the audience when he replied, "An 'A' in what sense?"
His response underscored the confusing nature of the Articulated Instruction Module. AIM, you see, has a three-letter grading scale where "A" is the lowest grade, not the highest.

You can't make this stuff up.

*Dean of Towson University's College of Education


"when all Democrats are indispensable, every Democrat can be an extortionist"

George Will, writing about the health care bill in the WaPo:
So there have been serial purchases of 60th votes for health legislation. This squalid commerce (special benefits tailored for Florida's Medicare Advantage clients, for Louisiana and Nebraska, and for union members) did almost as much as the legislation itself to discredit the entire sorry business.
George has been full of energy lately. I think the Obama administration has invigorated him.


Advice for President Obama

You've had a rough week.

My suggestion: invite President Clinton to lunch and pick his brain on the fine points of triangulation. It's time for some mid-course corrections.


Maryland congressmen will face voters next on Sept. 14, 2010

Just sayin.

Ask for your high school's "AP Grade Report"

Jay Matthews makes this suggestion on his Class Struggle blog in the WaPo.
Ever seen the Advanced Placement Grade Report for your high school? I thought not. Most people don’t know it exists. That is why I have so much pleasure going over the reports. It is like reading the principal’s e-mails, full of intriguing innuendo and secrets that parents and students aren’t supposed to know.
Except that parents and students should know this type of thing. Here's why:

The AP Grade Report allows the public to see which AP courses at a school produce the most high grades, and the most low grades, on AP exams. You can gauge the skill of the teachers and the nature of the students who take various AP subjects.

One wonders why the BCPS spends so much time on systems like AIM for communicating with parents, but keeps useful information like Advanced Placement Grade Reports hidden away in the "top secret" drawer.


Stewart Brand's new book

The book is highly recommended by a friend who has a nose for finding the best, most insightful books on whatever topic interests him at the moment. The title:
Whole Earth Discipline: An Ecopragmatist Manifesto.
So far (three chapters in) it is excellent.

Excerpt from a 5-star review on Amazon (rated helpful by 48 of 48 people):
In these pages, Stewart Brand lays out a mind-blowing vision for the planet's salvation: migration to the cities, power generated by mini-nuclear reactors, healthier crops through genetic engineering.

This may well be the most important book I'll read this year. Certainly, it's the most aggressively optimistic book that's also closely reported --- Brand's a student who shows his work.
Also, the FT has a nice interview with Brand. I learned many new things about him: he served in the U.S. Army and also as one of Ken Kesey's Merry Pranksters. And he has gear-head tendencies too. A well-rounded guy!

Whenever a form asks for your race, do what I do: write "Other"

I've been doing it for years now, and I hope you'll join me.

Yay to this, from Joanne Jacobs:
More students refuse to state race.
Boo, hiss to this:
The U.S. Department of Education wants school officials to “eyeball” students who decline to state and check a box for them, reports McClatchy. In order to identify racial/ethnic achievement gaps, “the agency is pressing schools to identify all students by race in 2010-11 or face penalties.”
The "eyeballing" business is just plain creepy. I wonder if any BCPS schools have done this.

Most institutions (schools, governments, businesses, ...) spend way to much energy analyzing problems through the lens of race. It's time to get serious about building a post-racial society.

The first step is refusing to state your race.


When high school graduation is contingent on passing a state test, is it "high stakes" or "low stakes"?

RightWingProf objects to people who use the term "high stakes test."
Low stakes testing?

Something has bothered me for a long time: the use (and implications) of the term, “high stakes testing.” For some reason, I only see this term used to describe some sort of standardized exam administered external to the class.

Do you note that this implies that the exams teachers give in class aren’t “high stakes”?

He continues:
Every time I read some educator who uses that term, the usage says he doesn’t care much about education.
I couldn't agree more.

In the comments, Joanne Jacobs made an important distinction:
The tests are high stakes [only] for the school, which may look bad or be placed on the “needs improvement” list.
The stakes need to be high for the kids, else a high school diploma carries little value. On the other hand if the stakes are high for the educrats and not for kids, then the educrats will juke the stats to make themselves look better. And students will get little out of the deal.

I think this is an important, underdiscussed topic. Related thoughts on this later, with a fresh angle.


Still more videos against AIM from the 1/19/10 BCPS budget meeting

SW Balto County BCPS parent vs. AIM: "If it isn't broken, don't fix it."

BCPS teacher vs. AIM: It "corrupts goodwill" and "makes us look like idiots"

More video of BCPS teachers & parents vs. AIM

Music teacher vs. AIM: It was dropped on us "like Pearl Harbor".

PTA parent vs. AIM: "If the parent does not read the report card or show up for conferences, they're not going to read 50 pages [of AIM forms]."

AIM: "It's [already] dead. Cost = $35 million"

A BCPS psychology teacher vs. AIM:

Teachers & parents oppose AIM at BCPS budget hearing

Attendees waved anti-AIM placards earlier tonight at Loch Raven High School.

At the general budget hearing, roughly 95% of the comments dealt with opposition to AIM. After two hours and dozens of speakers, no one had spoken up to support AIM.

"Stop the two-hour snow delays"

From Jay Matthews at the WaPo:
It isn't the fault of the superintendents who make these decisions. They have to do what the district lawyers and insurance experts tell them. But those people should rethink their systems, and see if we can't avoid so many interruptions in what is already a pretty short school day.
I hadn't realized that insurance people were part of the problem. It's not just lawyers and school administrators.

How to save money on college textbooks

Rent them from the Netflix of college text book rentals, at a website called Chegg.com.


Speed cameras: Watch out for white Jeeps on the Baltimore Beltway

From the the Sun:
Maryland's drivers should be getting the hint right about now that speeding in highway construction zones will cost them.

Almost 8,800 drivers were given $40 tickets during a six-week period that began Nov. 16, when state officials started photographing vehicles exceeding the speed limit by 12 mph or more on three stretches of highway marked as work zones.

. . .

During the new program's first six weeks, the cameras led to 3,365 citations to vehicles traveling on Interstate 95 between White Marsh Boulevard and I-895; 4,790 around the Charles Street exit of Baltimore's Beltway; and 590 on I-95 in Prince George's County.
I'm very disappointed in Dels. Steve Lafferty and Sue Aumann for supporting the speed cameras. County Councilman Kevin Kamenetz gets a thumbs down too. But kudos to Del. Bill Frank and Sen. Jim Brochin for voting "No".

More from the article:
The cameras are installed in a pair of white Jeeps that rotate among the three locations. Motorists are alerted to the possible presence of the cameras by signs that say, "Speed Photo Enforced: Work Zone."

Why cardio exercise has diminishing returns after a few weeks

J.D. Johannes explains why it's so hard to lose weight by doing only distance running:
How can something so logical as burning more calories through cardiovascular exercise not result in sustained fat loss? The answer is in your body’s ability to adapt to exercise and the complex functions of the hormone cortisol.
To lose weight and firm up muscle tone, one apparently needs to mix in interval/sprint training:
you alternate between periods of high intensity and low intensity. . .
The primary advantage of [this], especially short sprints outdoors, is the recovery/repair signal sent to the muscles. A sprint is almost like a weight lifting set--a short burst of maximal effort involving the fast twitch muscle fibers--followed by a period of rest.
This reasoning matches my experience very well, and agrees nicely with a book I recommend highly, Run Less, Run Faster.

via Glenn


BCPS AIM controversy continues to grow - here's a summary

If you are a Baltimore County Public School parent, please go to Facebook and join the End AIM Now group. The group has grown like a rocket, acquiring almost 1,700 members in two weeks.

AIM stands for "Articulated Instruction Module". It's a pseudo-curriculum and tool for tracking student progress. A strange animal.

Here is my summary of the discussion that's happening on the End AIM Now page. But don't take my word for it. Check it out yourself.

- Untested
- Confusing - it's another grading system in which "A" is the worst grade
- Confusing - Too much jargon in the items
- Confusing - Items are not sequenced according to how they are taught
- Redundant with existing system
- Time consuming for teachers (high opportunity cost)
- Uneven quality of the content
- Infected w/some politically correct language
- Terrible computer/user interface
- Unintended consequence: many teachers are already planning to quit BCPS to teach in other counties if AIM passes.

- Secret
- No input from teachers & parents
- Dropped in our laps as a surprise in December

- Arrogance
- Not listening
- Mischaracterizing opposition to AIM
- Atmosphere of fear
- Conflict of interest (one BCPS employee who has a company on the side apparently owns copyrights to the material and stands to make money if BCPS implements AIM.)
- Creepy Kabuki theatre atmosphere of BCPS school board meetings (criticism disappears into the ether ... it's very rare for a citizen commenter to get any reaction or response to complaints made in the comment period. The board tends to sit expressionless. Then the open meeting ends, and they go back to their secret meetings.)

- Make easy fixes to the existing system first.

- A dump-the-superintendent campaign or a dump-the-AIM creator campaign.
- Lobbying the governor to appoint anti-AIM board members
- A moral suasion campaign to get interested officials to pressure BCPS leadership (Jim Smith, county council, state legislators)
- Ridicule.

- How much teacher time has gone into the program?
- Where has this program been tested? Or are we the guinea pigs?

[See the Facebook group for dates, times and locations.]
- Estimates of budget impact
- Specific instances of shoddy quality (One instance: the Algebra part!! Not a single equation in the whole AIM module. Nary an x or a y or a z. It's not sequenced according to how it is taught. This module is abstract, full of jargon, and very hard for parents to understand.)
- Focused messages.

- Poor economy. Citizens, more than ever, are scrutinizing public servants and trying to figure out which ones to keep and which ones need to go.

At every opportunity, BCPS administrators seem to talk about the latest "Blue Ribbon" school, the number of BCPS schools on the Newsweek list of best high schools, Maryland's #1 ranking among public school systems.

But I've never heard any of them worry about this Forbes article: Best and Worst School Districts for the Buck. Baltimore county is in the bottom ten percent. I suspect that programs like AIM are the reason why.

In light of this, it rankles to hear the superintendent's frequent references to BCPS's "award-winning" budgeting and financial management program. When public servants talk too much about awards, it usually means they don't have much in the way of results to brag about.

The cow whisperer

Gary Jones gets inside the heads of cows that graze on the "perfect pasture".


Martha Coakley, the Amirault case, and the demonization of men in the 1980s.

Check out this article by Radley Balko of the libertarian Reason magazine:

This part stopped me short:

"Despite a parole board’s 5-0 recommendation to grant Gerald Amirault clemency and mounting doubts about the evidence against him, Coakley publicly and aggressively lobbied then-Gov. Jane Swift to deny Amirault relief. Amirault remained in prison."

This case was also known as the Fells Acre Day Care Center case. I remember it vividly from my time in Massachusetts. I remember it as a disaster of a case, marked by countless poor decisions by prosecutors throughout both the trial and its lonnnnng and painful aftermath.

I remember it as a milestone in the rise of day care sex abuse hysteria in the 1980s and think of it still as a tipping point in the demonization of men in our culture.

I remember it as the case that caused a generation of men to view interacting with other people's children as a risk.

It was the case that caused men to hesitate before volunteering at the Y, hesitate before helping out with the girl scout cookie drive, and hesitate before signing up to coach youth sports.

It was the case that caused men to think twice before watching a neighbor's kid, think twice about driving a child's teammate home from practice, and think twice about entering the teaching profession.

It's possible that Balko has somehow gotten it wrong.

But if I still lived in Massachusetts, I wouldn't pull the lever for Martha Coakley until I heard an explanation about her role in the clemency arguments of the Amirault case.


BCPS AIM controversy: Baltimore Sun drops ball, downplays number & passion of AIM opponents

Criticism at Baltimore County school board meetings tends to be muted and depersonalized. When teachers let their passion show in the comment period, the norm is to attack policies but not the integrity of the people behind them.

The striking thing about last night's meeting was the breech of this norm by the last speaker, BCPS math teacher James Beam.

Beam is the organizer of End AIM Now, a Facebook page that has attracted 1,600 members in 11 days. While criticizing AIM, here's what Beam said about Superintedent Joe Hairston:
With the dawn of the Articulated Instruction Module (AIM) we have seen Dr. Hairston ascend to his throne. He no longer works collaboratively with us. Cronies are allowed to make decisions in his absence and we are forced to accept that there is no check against this new found unbridled authority. New policy immediately displaces everything that we have come to believe and trust as best practices.

Meetings are now held in secret, to the point that we cannot find out who is attending them, let alone see a copy of their minutes. Our teachers and administrators are afraid to speak out against this because they fear losing the livelihood that feeds their family.

The outsider has become king. He rules with an iron fist, and we suffer.
The applause following Beam's comments was among the most enthusiastic and prolonged that I've heard at a board meeting.

One thing that mystifies me is the blandness of the Sun's coverage. Here's the bowdlerized soundbite from Beam that Liz Bowie and her editors chose to include:
James Beam, a math teacher from Parkville High School, praised Hairston for some of his previous initiatives. But he said with AIM, "He no longer works collaboratively with us." Beam said the AIM progress reports "should be taken off the table."
Don't they want to sell newspapers?

Ann Miller did a much better job in the Examiner.

It seems to me that Dr. Hairston continues to underestimate the breadth and depth of opposition to AIM.
Hairston blamed the outcry on some ill-informed teachers who he said were blowing the issue out of proportion and wanting to create a controversy where there was none.

"These people are creating the crisis out there," he said.
It's time for him to wake up and smell the coffee.

This BCPS parent thinks James Beam's aim is right on target.

Like so many other states, Maryland seems to have a huge pension problem

Hayley Peterson worries about Maryland's pension problem in the Examiner:

Maryland's $2 billion budget shortfall is chump change compared with the $8 billion in state pension funding lost last year, some lawmakers say.

"The budget problem is completely eclipsed by our state pension system," said Del. Roger Manno, D-Silver Spring. "The numbers are horrific. They are terrifying."

The numbers:

[Maryland's] pension system [is] underfunded by $19 billion . . .

[Maryland has] 350,000 current and retired state workers . . .

The state's pensions are only 65 percent funded

For more on the burgeoning problem of unsustainable government worker pensions, check out Steven Greenhut's new book Plunder: How Public Employee Unions are Raiding Treasuries, Controlling Our Lives and Bankrupting the Nation.

Greenhut was talking about the book on on C-SPAN recently.

via Pension Tsunami

"Capitalism" and "crony capitalism" are not the same thing

John Stossel explains the difference.


Juking* the stats: Maryland educrats reduce suspensions . . . and probably make schools more dangerous

Liz Bowie, education reporter for the Sun wrote two weeks ago:
I thought I would leave this good news item for everyone . . . school suspensions [in Maryland have] dropped significantly . . . by 12 percent from the prior year and fell to the lowest point in more than a decade
Unfortunately, Ms. Bowie buried the lede:

school superintendents, such as Andres Alonso in the city, have simply ordered principals to lower suspensions for certain offenses. School systems have stopped suspending students for being truant, for instance.

She should have put scare quotes around the word "trend" in her headline. Redefining criteria for suspensions does not signify a change in student behavior. If this story reveals any trend, it is a rise in the credulousness of Sun paper reporters.

The story also hints at another likely trend: Maryland schools are probably becoming more dangerous because of stat-juking educrats trying to make their suspension statistics look "good".

UPDATE: Ordinary parents and teachers don't seem to be fooled. Here are reader reactions from the first four comments to Bowie's post:
Do any of these agencies expect anyone to accept these statistics at face value?

Actually, what I have noticed in Harford County is that children are not getting reprimanded for things that should be.. Like young boys assaulting young girls both verbally and physically and nothing being done about it.

I've seen some administrators take offenses that are hand book - suspension offenses and provide a slap on the wrist, even when the child has a series of such bad behaviors.

Does anybody believe this crap? Suspensions are down because principals and asst principals are under intense scrutiny and suspension stats happen to be a HUGE topic of discussion during evaluation conferences.
*Cedric Daniels, the virtuous police officer from "The Wire", puts the term in context.


How the GOP can start fixing itself

Step #1: "Admit it screwed up."

Jonah Goldberg lays it out:
For too long Republicans confused supporting big business with supporting free markets, when big business is often the biggest impediment to fair competition. Other fresh new ingredients would almost surely include pro-family tax policies and the de-linking of legal and illegal immigration as interchangeable terms.

But first, the GOP needs to admit it screwed up.
UPDATE: John Stossel underscores Jonah's point about big business:
[businessmen] are not natural friends of free markets. They are often first in line for privileges bestowed by the state. That's called "crony capitalism"


The non-profit bubble (continued)

From Deanna Isaacs, writing at ChicagoReader:
. . . former NEA director Bill Ivey [is warning] leaders of nonprofit arts organizations about rampant overgrowth in their field [that] probably can't be sustained. Citing national figures from Americans for the Arts, he noted that their number has mushroomed in the last 40 years, from about 7,700 to more than 40,000. [. . .] He offered some hard-nosed advice on how to deal with it: Abort start-ups and put down the weak sisters, pronto.

An early look at redistricting in Maryland

At RedMaryland.

If you want more-responsive legislators and less polarization in politics--in both the US Congress and the Maryland General Assembly, please tell Governor O'Malley and your state legislators to stop the gerrymandering. It's in their hands.


I never had a name for my eating habits. But now I do, thanks to Gary Jones at Muck & Mystery. I guess I'm a flexitarian.

He's a big fan of grass-fed beef for both health and environmental reasons. I wonder what premium you pay over regular old grain-fed beef. and whether you can buy it at a regular supermarket. Or do you have to go to Whole Foods?

And, can you get grass-fed hamburger too?


A non-profit bubble?

When I googled the phrase "non-profit bubble" in quotes recently, I found an article by Gara LaMarche of The Atlantic Philanthropies, writing last year:
Now we are learning that there has been a "nonprofit bubble," too [. . . and it] has burst . . . Most foundations are working hard just to meet their existing commitments, and many are eliminating staff jobs and trimming other expenses to do so . . .
Gara's prescription for dealing with the situation:
First, foundations must be more rigorous in scrutinizing their own operations and the management and budgets of the groups they support. . .

Second, small groups should consider merging with other like-minded organizations. . .

Third, large nonprofit groups should streamline their operations.
The Nation picked up on her article. And then GrantsPlus picked up on The Nation's article.

Of course, Instapundit was on the case even earlier in 2008.
I think that the "nonprofit" sector has grown out of all proportion because of its tax-exempt status, and we ought to consider eliminating tax exemptions for nonprofits entirely. Failing that, we ought to limit them to organizations that provide direct services to those in need, and only to the extent of such services. The rest is a big subsidy that has created a nonprofit bubble in the economy.
One of Glenn's reader's, Doug Levene, chimed in with a comparison to pre-modern China:
Your comments on the growth of the non profit sector as a refuge from taxation are very important.

As part of my East Asian Studies M.A. at Yale many years ago, I studied a lot of pre-modern Chinese history and one fact that struck me then was the growth of tax-free "religious" institutions to the point where the tax base was severely eroded. Indeed, that was one of the major problems for the Chinese central government, such as it was. I wonder if that is happening in the US generally today? It obviously does happen locally - consider what percentage of the property in Cambridge, Massachusetts is tax exempt. What is the impact nationally? Have any economists or tax lawyers looked at this?
Any thoughts from the economists and tax lawyers out there?

Ellen Sauerbrey's formula for health care reform

Here's her list, from an article she wrote for RedMaryland:
  1. Tort reform
  2. A tax break for those without employer-based health insurance (e.g. waitresses) that equals the tax break given to those with employer-based insurance (e.g. corporate executives).
  3. Allow Maryland citizens to buy health insurance policies in other states (including stripped-down ultra-basic policies that (1) don't cover small, foreseeable expenses, and (2) don't force consumers to pay for the many, many extras mandated by the Maryland General Assembly)
  4. Fix the problems in Medicare and Medicaid before expanding them rather than after.
It's a good list.


Recommended by Christopher Hitchens as "the great book" on the American Revolution

In an online interview, Hitchens is asked:
what historical figures, events, movements, or books do you feel have been ignored, or under emphasized, in the public education of young people?
His answer:
The founding of the United States and its emergence as "the world's first and only secular democratic federal republic" is terribly understudied these days.
He goes on:
the great book to read [on the topic] would be Theodore Draper's book Struggle for Power
via Reddit.com


Baltimore County pensions may be a big campaign issue

From the Sun:
Even if the Baltimore County Council revises a generous pension policy that allows officials to retire at full salary after 20 years' service, reformers will continue to demand sweeping changes and the issue will likely dominate the campaign next year, political watchers say.
via Maryland items in Pension Tsunmai