Archive

April 24th, 2016

Want to fix education? Just give a kid a tutor

    In 1974, physicist Richard Feynman derided education research as a form of pseudoscience:

    "I found [pseudoscientific] things that even more people believe, such as that we have some knowledge of how to educate. There are big schools of reading methods and mathematics methods, and so forth, but if you notice, you'll see the reading scores keep going down…There's a witch doctor remedy that doesn't work. It ought to be looked into: how do they know that their method should work?"

    Four decades later, social scientists might have found an answer to Feynman's question. That answer is field experiments. By applying education policies carefully, researchers can see the effect of those policies very clearly. In recent years, as concern over U.S. educational performance rose, more and more such experiments have been tried.

    Finally, we're getting some consistent results. Roland Fryer, a Harvard economist who specializes in education and racial issues, has collected the outcomes of 196 policy experiments, and found some consistent lessons.

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The Founding Fathers' mistake: They didn't give us a monarchy.

    Three years ago, I was giving tours of the nation's Capitol. It was a fantastic job that allowed me to become immersed in the nation's history. But there was one part of the tour that always struck me as odd: the fresco painting on the ceiling of the Capitol dome.

    "The Apotheosis of Washington," by Constantino Brumidi, hovers 180 feet above the bustling tour groups in the Capitol rotunda and depicts the afterlife of George Washington. Here, the nation's first president sits in the heavens, surrounded by Roman gods as he prepares to become a deity himself. The " Apotheosis" represents a fascinating facet of the American psyche: the yearning for a national monarchic symbol. Despite the government's foundational republican ideals, Americans still prop up their presidents -- both past and modern -- as icons of central power.

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Sticking it to the tax man still has a price

    Ever wanted to sue the tax man? Usually you can't -- but Gilbert Hyatt found a loophole, and the Supreme Court gave him a symbolic victory Tuesday while depriving him of most actual damages.

    Acting out the fantasies of anyone who's ever been audited, Hyatt sued the California tax authorities in a Nevada court and won a jury verdict of $388 million, later reduced to $1 million.

    The high court justices split 4-4 on whether his suit should've been permitted at all -- a tie that allowed Hyatt's moral victory to stand. But then they said the Constitution restricted his damages to $50,000, the maximum he could have gotten if he had sued a Nevada official in Nevada court.

    The case is fascinating, and not just because it's pleasurable to think about turning the tables on the auditors. At stake is the deep question of how states should be able to relate to other states, and the meaning of the full faith and credit clause of the Constitution.

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Ruling shouldn't hinge on immigrants' legal status

    The much-awaited immigration case challenging President Barack Obama's right to waive deportation for unauthorized immigrants was argued before the Supreme Court Monday. It looks as though the administration may have a path to win -- even if only on technicalities.

    The argument was dramatic. Justice Sonia Sotomayor took on the Texas solicitor general in an extended colloquy that made her seem almost like an advocate for immigrants rather than a justice. And U.S. Solicitor General Donald Verrilli said the administration was prepared to forget about granting official legal status to undocumented immigrants as long as they were protected from deportation -- a step that could nullify most objections to Obama's executive order.

    The two possible swing voters, Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Anthony Kennedy, started out being hard on Verrilli. But later in the argument, they hinted that they might be willing to find a legal mechanism to overturn the judgment of the appeals court that blocked the administration's plan.

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Out of Africa, Part II

    I am visiting Ndiamaguene village in the far northwest of Senegal. If I were giving you directions I’d tell you that it’s the last stop after the last stop — it’s the village after the highway ends, after the paved road ends, after the gravel road ends and after the desert track ends. Turn left at the last baobab tree.

    It’s worth the trek, though, if you’re looking for the headwaters of the immigration flood now flowing from Africa to Europe via Libya. It starts here.

    It begins with a trickle of migrants from a thousand little villages and towns across West Africa like Ndiamaguene, a five-hour drive from the capital, Dakar. I visited with a team working on the documentary “Years of Living Dangerously,” about the connection between climate change and human migration, which will appear this fall on the National Geographic Channel. The day we came, April 14, it was 113 degrees — far above the historical average for the day, a crazy level of extreme weather.

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No Way to Elect a President

    With Donald Trump’s and Hillary Clinton’s victories in New York, we’re one furious contest closer to the end of this spectacle. But we’ve known for a while now where we’re headed, and it isn’t anyplace good.

     American voters are displeased with the candidates they’ve been given. They’re disengaged from the process that winnows the field.

    And that process disregards the political center, erodes common ground and leaves us with a government that can’t build the necessary consensus for, let alone implement, sensible action in regard to taxes, to infrastructure, to immigration, to guns, to just about anything.

    Make America great again? We need to start by making it functional.

    This election has certainly been extraordinary for its characters, but it’s equally remarkable for its context, one of profound, paralyzing sourness.

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I used to be a flight attendant. Dealing with passengers' racism is part of the job.

    It was during the boarding process on a flight from Fort Lauderdale to JFK in the fall of 2009. I had long since learned the key to a pleasant flight was to greet everyone as they boarded, so I stood in the front galley and said my hellos.

    Suddenly a middle-aged white woman leaned uncomfortably close to me and whispered, "There is man, four people behind me, in a green shirt, who is very suspicious."

    I whispered back, "OK. What's he doing?"

    "You'll see," she said, wide-eyed.

    I thought two things: This woman is probably racist. And I need to take her seriously.

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How powerful should our juries be?

    In 1986, Leroy Reed faced criminal charges he didn't understand. A mentally disabled ex-convict from Milwaukee, Reed was charged with illegally possessing a firearm after his parole office discovered that he had purchased a .22-caliber pistol to go with a mail-order private detective course. While it was obvious to everyone on the jury that he had committed a crime, it was less obvious that he should go back to prison for it. Did he know that what he was doing was wrong? Would a harsh sentence, such as reincarceration, be just?

    After hours of dramatic argument captured on film by PBS's "Frontline," the jury decided to find Reed not guilty. These citizens were practicing "jury nullification," a contentious aspect of our legal system whereby jurors can decide to ignore the law and not convict a person obviously guilty of a crime. Acting as a sort of community conscience, juries can decide that applying the letter of the law to a particular case would not be justified -- but it's not clear how much say a jury should have in deciding which laws to enforce.

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Google should stop fighting antitrust charges

    The European Commission looks poised to accuse Google of breaking competition rules with the contracts it offers mobile phone makers that use its Android operating system. Europe's competition commissioner, Margrethe Vestager, indicated as much in a speech on Monday. Just as with an earlier antitrust decision on Google, the bureaucrats are wrong: It's preposterous to accuse Google of stifling innovation. Yet Google shouldn't fight them: It's perfectly able to compete without trying to negotiate an unfair advantage.

    The commission started its investigation a year ago. Its gripe with Google is that the search giant is twisting phone manufacturers' arms to preinstall a package of basic apps, including e-mail and a suite of cloud-based office programs, and make Google the default search engine. Vestager said in her speech that Google's actions may be hurting other innovators:

    "Our concern is that, by requiring phone makers and operators to preload a set of Google apps, rather than letting them decide for themselves which apps to load, Google might have cut off one of the main ways that new apps can reach customers."

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As a trans man in North Carolina, I always felt safe - until this new law passed

    When I started college at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro two years ago, I did the kinds of things a lot of guys did. I made friends, joined a fraternity and started taking classes in business and accounting. I had a great time.

    North Carolina's new bill could change all that.

    The measure requires all state residents to use bathrooms that match the gender they were assigned at birth. And it strips away local protections that prohibit discrimination against LGTBQ people in housing, employment and public accommodations.

    This affects me because I'm trans. I started hormone replacement therapy at 18. My face, body and voice all changed substantially in the summer between high school and college. When I started at UNC, my peers were not aware that I was a transgender man until I or one of my close friends told them.

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