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  • Shedding Tears For An Elusive Unity

    by Ahmed Elzobier on November 3, 2010

    As anyone who has paid attention to the tragic history of Sudan knows, its internal conflict has been marked by extreme violence toward civilians. In the Darfur region of Northern Sudan, war-related killings, starvation and death from disease have been labeled “genocidal” by international human rights organizations, who have accused the Sudanese government, led by Omar al-Bashir, with attempting to wipe out the black African population of the region. In July, 2010, al-Bashir was charged by the International Criminal Court at the Hague with three counts of genocide in Darfur. He has also been charged with crimes against humanity and war crimes. For detailed background of this terrible conflict, readers are directed to sites here, here, here, and here. This article by a Sudan Star journalist mocks the sudden emotion over the prospect of Sudan’s partition by politicians, especially from a hitherto ruthless leader of north Sudan, Dr. Nafie Ali Nafie.  Dr. Nafie is known for torturing his teacher, for example, simply for teaching evolution.

    Tensions are mounting in Sudan, in the run-up to a January 2011 referendum in which Southern Sudan will vote on independence. The Sudanese conflict, which began in 1989, has been driven by historic animosities between the predominantly Arab north, and the black African animist and Christian population in the south.  At stake, from an economic perspective, are Sudan’s large oil reserves, most of which straddles the border between north and south.  The Sudan government and the Sudan Peoples’ Liberation Movement signed a peace agreement in 2005, and the government signed a framework peace agreement with Darfur region rebels in February, 2010.

     Ahmed Elzobier can be reached at ahmed.elzobir@gmail.com.

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  • Michelle Rhee's Testing Legacy: An Open Question

    by Matthew Di Carlo on November 1, 2010

    ** Also posted here on “Valerie Strauss’ Answer Sheet” in the Washington Post.

    Michelle Rhee’s resignation and departure have, predictably, provoked a flurry of conflicting reactions. Yet virtually all of them, from opponents and supporters alike, seem to assume that her tenure at the helm of the D.C. Public Schools (DCPS) helped to boost student test scores dramatically. She and D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty made similar claims themselves in the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) just last week.

    Hardly anybody, regardless of their opinion about Michelle Rhee, thinks that test scores alone are an adequate indicator of student success. But, in no small part because of her own emphasis on them, that is how this debate has unfolded. Her aim was to raise scores and, with few exceptions (also here and here), even those who objected to her “abrasive” style and controversial policies seem to believe that she succeeded wildly in the testing area.

    This conclusion is premature. A review of the record shows that Michelle Rhee’s test score “legacy” is an open question. 

    There are three main points to consider:

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  • How Deep Is The Teacher Bench?

    by Matthew Di Carlo on October 29, 2010

    On most sports teams, coaches assess players in part by considering who is available to replace them. Teams with “deep benches” have more leeway in making personnel changes, because quality replacements are available.

    The same goes for teaching. Those who aggressively wish to start firing larger numbers of teachers every year rely on an obvious but critical assumption (often unstated): that schools and districts can find better replacements.

    In other words, it is both counterproductive (and very expensive) to fire teachers if you can’t replace them with a more effective alternative. Even those few commentators who have addressed this matter sometimes ignore another important fact: The teacher labor market is about to change dramatically, with a massive wave of retirements lasting 5-10 years. Thus, most current assumptions about the stability and quality of the applicant pool over this period may be unsupportable.

    The numbers are a bit staggering.

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  • Who Pays For Education?

    by Matthew Di Carlo on October 28, 2010

    In education debates, especially these days, there is endless talk about spending – how to spend money, what programs to cut, and how to increase the bang-to-buck ratio. This is not surprising: In 2007-08 (the last year for which national U.S. Census data are available), we spent almost $600 billion. That’s quite a figure, and we all have an interest in spending that money wisely.

    What is sometimes surprising is how little we hear about how we get that money. Of course, we all know that our tax dollars fund our public schools, and most of us know that state and local revenue is the primary source of this funding (about 90 percent; on average, about half state and half local). Less commonly-known, however, is who pays these bills – who bears the largest share of the tax burden, relative to their income? At the federal level, taxation is largely progressive, which means that, on the whole, higher-income families pay a larger percentage of their earned income to the federal government than lower-income families. This is, very simply, due to the fact that higher income brackets are taxed at higher rates.

    But when it comes to state and local taxes, the picture is different. The poorest families pay far more of their income than the richest (i.e., taxes are regressive). In other words, the money that funds public education is a burden disproportionately borne by poor and middle-income Americans. And the lower your income, the more of it you pay. Given this situation, combined with a fiscal crisis that threatens to linger for several years, the best solution – raising revenue through a more equitable system – may be the only one not on the table.

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  • AMA To Nurses: Teamwork Means 'Just Follow Our Lead'

    by Randall Garton on October 26, 2010

    Why are some doctors so threatened by nurses?  One recent example of such physician angst can be found in the American Medical Association’s (AMA’s) response to a recent report on the future of nursing by the highly respected Institute of Medicine (IOM). Among the IOM’s recommendations are that “nurses should be full partners, with physicians and other health professionals, in redesigning health care in the United States."

    Being a “full partner”, the IOM report notes, “transcends all levels of the nursing profession and requires leadership skills and competencies that must be applied within the profession and in collaboration with other health professionals. It includes “care environments” (hospitals and medical offices) and the policy area. Nurses must “have a voice in health policy decision-making and be engaged in implementation efforts related to health care reform”, the report argues.  They must be “leaders throughout the system”. 

    What? Full partners?  The AMA was quick on the trigger: “A physician-led team approach to care —with each member of the team playing the role they are educated and trained to play—helps ensure patients get the high quality care and value…”

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  • Teacher Value-Added Scores: Publish And Perish

    by Matthew Di Carlo on October 22, 2010

    On the heels of the Los Angeles Times’ August decision to publish a database of teachers’ value-added scores, New York City newspapers are poised to do the same, with the hearing scheduled for late November.

    Here’s a proposition: Those who support the use of value-added models (VAM) for any purpose should be lobbying against the release of teachers’ names and value-added scores.

    The reason? Publishing the names directly compromises the accuracy of an already-compromised measure. Those who blindly advocate for publication – often saying things like “what’s the harm?" – betray their lack of knowledge about the importance of the models’ core assumptions, and the implications they carry for the accuracy of results. Indeed, the widespread publication of these databases may even threaten VAM’s future utility in public education.

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  • More On What "Superman" Left Out

    by Diane Ravitch on October 20, 2010

    Our guest author today is Diane Ravitch, Research Professor of Education at New York University and an historian of education. In addition, she is a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C..  Her latest book is The Death and Life of the Great American School System.

    In my recent article for the New York Review of Books about “Waiting for Superman," I praised the SEED Charter School in Washington, D.C. (one of the schools featured in the movie) for their high graduation and college acceptance rates.  I also pointed out, however, that they spend about $35,000 per student, three times as much as normal schools spend.  This fact was not mentioned in the movie.

    Nor was the school’s incredibly high attrition rate.  Take a quick look at the graph below (hat tip to Leigh Dingerson).  They start out with about 150 students in seventh grade, but their enrollment slowly declines to around 30 in grade twelve.  This level of attrition is alarming, and it makes any simple evaluation of SEED’s results impossible. 

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  • Waiting For Methodology Man

    by Matthew Di Carlo on October 18, 2010

    I finally saw the entire “Waiting for Superman” movie last weekend, in a mostly-empty Georgetown theatre. I went with my mother, not just because she’s a great public school teacher, but also because I needed someone to comfort me while I watched.

    We both had strong reactions to dozens of things about the film, and you almost have to admire the chutzpah. It is about education – with a primary focus on teachers – and includes sit-down interviews with superintendents, parents, students, businessmen, economists, and journalists, but not one teacher.

    Given all the attention that has already been lavished on it, I’ll discuss just one other thing that struck me, one which I keep hearing elsewhere.  There is exactly one sentence in the whole film in which director Davis Guggenheim addresses the research on charter school effects beyond the anecdotal evidence that dominates his narrative.  He notes, “Only one in five charters is excellent," with the implication that these charters show that it can be done.

    He is presumably referring to the CREDO study released last year, which is the largest (15 states plus D.C.) and arguably the most overplayed charter analysis in history (for other multi-state studies showing no charter effects, see here, here, here, and here).  The CREDO authors understandably framed their results in a “media-friendly” manner – by reporting the percentage of charters that did better than comparable regular public schools (17 percent), along with the proportion that did worse (37 percent).

    My first point is that 17 percent is equivalent to one in six, not one in five. But beyond that, some charter advocates have taken the remarkable step of turning the finding that twice as many charters do worse than regular publics into “evidence” that the former should be expanded.  The rationale is, as Guggenheim puts it, that these “one in five” charters are “excellent," and if we can increase that proportion, we can fix our public education system. There is only one problem: That’s not what the study says. Guggenheim is either deliberately misleading his viewers or, more likely, just doesn’t know what he’s talking about.

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  • Bart Simpson: Worker Rights Activist

    by Burnie Bond on October 15, 2010

    If (like me) you’re not a regular viewer of The Simpsons show, you will have missed a controversial new opening sequence created by British graffiti artist Banksy, which aired this past weekend. The segment, which mocks the show for outsourcing much of its animation work through a South Korean company, began to go viral until yesterday, when Fox asking for the video to be pulled from YouTube and other venues (see here).

    The scene begins much like the regular opening, but with "Banksy" scrawled strategically across the town of Springfield. Bart is seen writing punishment lines on the school blackboard, as usual, but this time "I must not write all over the walls" covers every wall of the classroom. The sequence continues almost as usual until we see the family is seated on their couch.

    Suddenly, we shift to a dark, cavernous space where row upon row of sweatshop workers are seen to be laboring hard to produce this image. A small child ferries the film over to a vat of dangerous chemicals. We glimpse kittens being thrown into a woodchipper to make stuffing for Bart Simpson dolls. A shackled panda hauls a wagon loaded with the finished dolls, while a depleted unicorn is used to punch holes in the center of DVDs. The skeletons of expired workers litter the scene. It ends with a shot of the 20th Century Fox logo surrounded by barbed wire.

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  • Privatization's Dark Side

    by Randall Garton on October 14, 2010

    Privatization advocates argue that private sector workers deliver comparable services more cheaply than their public sector counterparts. The truth is that sometimes they can, but very often they can’t. And, as documented by a recently-released General Accountability Office (GAO) study on federal outsourcing, the savings can sometimes come at a very high price, including employees’ lives.

    The GAO reports that contractors have been awarded billions of dollars in federal contracts, despite having histories of federal safety, health and labor law violations. Some of violations have been extensive and serious. One food supplier was cited more than 100 times for health and safety infractions, including one instance in which a worker was "asphyxiated after falling into a pit containing poultry debris." This same employer was later ordered by a federal court to "properly compensate" more than 3,000 workers.

    Another contractor violated fair labor laws when it "coerced employees" and in another incident refused to rehire a worker due to "prior union involvement." This federal contractor has been ordered to pay $4.4 million in back wages to 2,100 employees since FY 2005. It also agreed to pay nearly $300,000 in back wages to African-American workers after a discrimination suit.

    The list goes on and on. GAO auditors found that half of the 50 largest fines levied by the Labor Department between fiscal 2005 and 2009 were aimed at 20 federal contractors. The DOL’s Wage and Hour Division which oversees federal minimum wage, overtime pay, and child labor requirements, assessed these contractors for more than $80 million in back wages. Despite these problems, in fiscal 2009, the government awarded these 20 worst companies more than $9 billion in contracts. None lost their right to bid for federal contracts, even temporarily.

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