Archive

February 17th, 2016

School choice lotteries fail to make a difference

    This is the kind of news that school- choice advocates and skeptics alike need to pay attention to: The Economist magazine reports that a team of academic economists found that students who won a lottery in Louisiana to receive vouchers to go to the public or private school of their choice did worse than students who didn't win the lottery.

    This outcome flies in the face of the predictions of many economists, who often tout school choice as a way to improve the U.S. educational system while also increasing equality of opportunity. Economists typically assume that people are rational and well-informed, and will make decisions that benefit them. If giving students and their parents more school choice hurts the students academically, then something is seriously wrong with the theory.

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School policy has gotten smarter

    A decade ago, U.S. education policies were a mess. It was the classic problem of good intentions gone awry.

    At the core of the good idea was the common-sense insight that if we want better and more equitable results from our education system, we should set clear expectations for student learning, measure whether our kids are meeting them and hold schools accountable for their outcomes, mainly gauged in terms of academic achievement.

    And sure enough, under the No Child Left Behind law, every state in the land mustered academic standards in (at least) reading and math, annual tests in grades three through eight and some sort of accountability system for their public schools.

    Unfortunately, those standards were mostly vague, shoddy or misguided; the tests were simplistic and their "proficiency" bar set too low; and the accountability systems encouraged all manner of dubious practices, such as focusing teacher effort on a small subset of students at risk of failing the exams rather than advancing every child's learning.

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Our failing response to a mental-health crisis

    America's public mental-health system is in a dangerous state of disrepair.

    President Obama sees this, as do candidates for president from both parties. Bernie Sanders wants "radical changes." Donald Trump complains that "too many politicians have ignored this problem for too long." Hillary Clinton sees a connection between the lack of funding for preventive interventions and our overstuffed prisons, noting that "over half of prison and jail inmates suffer from a mental-health problem." Jeb Bush says this is an area in which there's "a clear role" for government spending "so that people don't fall through the cracks" toward tragic outcomes.

    I couldn't agree more. Having spent six years exploring one young man's fall through the cracks of Washington state's public mental-health system, and the terrible events connected to this fall, I strongly believe we need to devote far greater resources and attention to this challenge. In failing to do so, we contribute to a wide array of social harm: homelessness, suicide, the heroin epidemic, poverty and, occasionally, horrific violence.

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Kim tries to rattle Japan

    North Korea aimed to rattle Japan's government with its announcement on Friday that it will dissolve its investigative committee on the abduction of Japanese nationals.

    By forcing the collapse of negotiations about the abducted Japanese - an issue to which the administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe gives top priority - North Korea meant to unsettle Japan, which has been working with the United States and South Korea to strengthen their encirclement of the North.

    When the administration of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un started negotiations about the abduction issue with Japan in 2014, it was a time of simultaneously deteriorating relations between Japan and South Korea and improving relations between China and South Korea.

    Kim seemed strongly displeased that China, which he believed should be a guardian of North Korea, had rapidly deepened friendly ties with South Korea, which North Korea regards as an enemy.

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Doctoring is a dying art

    For almost 40 years, I practiced general internal medicine and geriatrics in my own office. I had tens of thousands of face-to-face interactions with a group of folks who, with time, grew to trust me. I respected them as well; many I came to love - a term that I hesitate to use in this hypersensitive age. Given how geographically dispersed families are today, for many of my older patients I functioned as a surrogate son.

    There is no doubt that the kind of medicine I was fortunate to practice is disappearing. Most doctors are employed by large group practices, hospitals or insurance companies. Many want to have personal connections with their patients but have too little time. Young primary-care doctors are relegated to assembly-line clinics; their patients pass through as widgets, not as individuals with complex inner lives, wrought family structures, varied spiritual and cultural beliefs - not to mention their individual capacities to understand and deal with their medical symptoms, diagnoses and multiple medications, as well as their own hopes and fears.

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Are You a Toxic Waste Disposal Site?

    Even if you’re not in Flint, Michigan, there are toxic chemicals in your home. For that matter, in you.

    Scientists have identified more than 200 industrial chemicals — from pesticides, flame retardants, jet fuel — as well as neurotoxins like lead in the blood or breast milk of Americans, indeed, in people all over our planet.

    These have been linked to cancer, genital deformities, lower sperm count, obesity and diminished IQ. Medical organizations from the President’s Cancer Panel to the International Federation of Gynecology and Obstetrics have demanded tougher regulations or warned people to avoid them, and the cancer panel has warned that “to a disturbing extent, babies are born ‘pre-polluted.'”

    They have all been drowned out by chemical industry lobbyists.

    So we have a remarkable state of affairs:

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Why do my co-workers keep confusing me with other people? I'm Asian.

    "Hey," a co-worker said. "Did you ask IT for help?"

    "Yes," I said. "How did you know?"

    The IT guy had gone over to another co-worker's desk to coach her on commands in Excel - a request I had put in. Why had the IT guy confused me with Chunzi? For the same reason Chunzi's checks ended up on my desk, my mail ended up in her hands and an editor asked me about my trips to New York, which I never took but Chunzi did. It's because we're both young Asian women.

    We look nothing alike, of course. And it's not something that happens only to us. Recently two white male journalists mistook my friend Ruth, a fellow Asian American journalist, for me, even though I no longer live in the same city. Another time a publicist enthusiastically called Ruth by my name while she was wearing a name tag supplied by the publicist. And a few years ago, a waitress dropped off my check and credit card - except they belonged to another person with an Asian-sounding name.

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Who had the worst week in Washington? Marco Rubio

    Let's dispel with this fiction once and for all that Marco Rubio is a shoo-in to be the establishment choice in the Republican presidential race. Marco Rubio is not a shoo-in to be the establishment choice in the Republican presidential race.

    Politics can change in an instant. And that's what happened last Saturday night when Rubio repeatedly, um, repeated a stock line from his stump speech during a debate in New Hampshire. "Let's dispel once and for all with this fiction that Barack Obama doesn't know what he's doing. He knows exactly what he's doing. Barack Obama is undertaking a systematic effort to change this country," Rubio said. And said. And said.

    Chris Christie called him out: "There it is, the memorized 25-second speech," Christie joked.

    A rattled Rubio was still feeling the robotic rap on the campaign trail Monday. At an event in Nashua, he repeated a line about "how hard it's become to install our values in our kids instead of the values they try to ram down our throats" in about 10 seconds' time.

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Thursday's Democratic debate, abridged

    I keep watching these things so you don't have to. I wish someone else would watch them for me. I went into this election season a comparatively young woman, spry and filled with hope, and now I am a crippled and elderly crone typing this with one hand and shouting for metamucil.

    Here, however, is what transpired Thursday evening:

    Gwen Ifill: Hello and welcome to the Democratic debate, on PBS. First, because this is a good use of everyone's time: Hillary Clinton, why don't women like you?

    Clinton: I think it is less that women don't like me, Gwen, and more that people don't like me. And, again, if I knew what was causing this, you bet your life it would not be the case any longer.

    Judy Woodruff: Senator Clinton, is it true that women will go to hell if they don't support you?

    Clinton: For the last time, no, of course not. I would never put another woman through what I am going through right now.

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The man who said Einstein was wrong, and was right

    It takes a brave man to reject a scientific paper by Albert Einstein. But that's what the physicist Howard Percy Robertson did in 1936, as editor of the journal Physical Review. Einstein was so enraged that he never published there again.

    If Einstein were alive today, he might thank Robertson, who saved the great scientist from retracting the most far-reaching prediction of his theory of relativity - the existence of gravitational waves. The first direct detection of Einstein's waves was announced this week to much fanfare and celebration. Scientists say the waves emanated from the powerful collision of two black holes.

    The finding was hailed as a vindication, though Einstein was one of the biggest doubters of his own idea. He flip-flopped several times over the years, said physicist Daniel Kennefick, co-author of An Einstein Encyclopedia. The tale ended well, thanks to Einstein's wisdom in knowing when to be sure, when to have doubts, when to ignore his doubters and when to listen to them and regroup.

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