Thursday, July 7, 2011

Passing the buck downwards

It's always the "bad apples" who do the bad things. That was the explanation of Abu Graib.

It wasn't the pressure from Donald Rumsfeld to extract the information he had already decided was correct. It wasn't the mid-level officers who told the prison guards and the interrogators to press harder to get the detainees to spill the beans. The Pentagon seniors already knew what they wanted to know; they just needed corroboration. Torture, if necessary, to get it.

And it certainly wasn't the Bush administration's insistence on covering it's ass for the huge blunder of going into Iraq in the first place.

No, it was the "bad apples" who did inconceivable, shameful things to the detainees. The privates and sergeants who stayed up nights guarding prisoners and assisting in interrogation tactics. Some bad apples are inevitable, you know? Tsk, tsk. How unfortunate. But Rummy wasn't to blame. Cheney wasn't to blame, Bush wasn't to blame.

And now, back home in Hotlanta and our very own scandal. It was the few unethical teachers and superintendents who were more concerned with their performance ratings than with the education of students. Atlanta Public Schools Superintendent Beverly Hall issued just such a statement before she left office last month. She was deeply disappointed and shocked that this had existed in the schools, and she had no information that cheating was going on.

A few isolated bad apples? Oh, yeah? Independent investigators confirmed cheating had taken place in 44 of the 56 school districts that they examined. The report, released yesterday by the governor, names 178 educators, including 38 principles, as participants in the cheating.

And in case anyone reading this hasn't been following the local news, this was not students cheating; this was educators altering students' test results to make it appear that they had done a better teaching job than they had.

So, Superintendent Hall. A few bad apples?

The independent investigators' report says the following:
We uncovered organized and systemic misconduct within the district as far back as 2001. Superintendent Beverly Hall and her senior staff knew, or should have known, that cheating and other offenses were occurring. Many of the accolades, and much of the praise, received by APS over the last decade were ill gotten.
Here it should be noted that Superintendent Hall was named National Superintendent of the Year for 2009, based largely on the increase in scores of the students on the national CRCT standardized tests. The report continues:
Dr. Hall and her administration received numerous reports of cheating at a number of schools. She ignored them, hid them or attempted to explain them away. . . . When an expert, hired by APS, produced a report which suggested that cheating could be one explanation for large score gains, Dr. Hall deleted that report from her computer. . . . .

APS became such a 'data-driven' system, with unreasonable and excessive pressure to meet targets, that Dr. Hall and her senior cabinet lost sight of conducting tests with integrity. The immense pressure to meet targets placed on principals was imposed upon classroom teachers. Meeting targets 'by any means necessary' became more important that actual student achievement.
This did not begin, and it cannot end, with a few bad apples. Dr. Hall herself must be held accountable, even though she has left the job. She is slated to collect a generous retirement from the state, and she retains her 2009 Superintendent of the Year award.

Under-performing students not only were cheated out of the remedial help they would have been entitled to, had their true scores been recognized. More wide-spread was the damage to the entire body of students who have now been given a model for cheating by the very ones who are supposed to guide their learning, which has to include basic ethical lessons about honesty and integrity. You don't cheat on exams. Teachers shouldn't do it either.

This is a black day for the APS. Dishonor reeks to the highest levels. I would even extend it to Bush's misguided No Child Left Behind program that put such emphasis on test scores and achievement, in the first place. You can't measure true education by quantitative tests. Teachers hated NCLB, it didn't work. They were forced to "teach to the test," whether it was helpful to students or not. And the Obama administration's improvements helped some, but may not have gone far enough.


Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Weary of Washington

I've become weary of the mess that's going on in Washington and on the campaign trail. I just want Obama to stand tough and, for once, make the Republicans back down on the debt ceiling and budget issues.

And the farce of the campaign for GOP nomination is a circus that seems to have little to do with a serious person being chosen to be President of the United States.

My attention today is more on the mess in the Atlanta Public Schools, and later I will be writing about the investigative report released today concerning the cheating on standardized tests.

Cheating, mind you, not by students, but by teachers and superintendents who were under so much pressure from above to show improvement in test scores that they resorted to changing answers on the students' test scoring sheets -- on a massive scale.

APS Superintendent Beverly Hall received the National Superintendent of the Year Award in 2009 that was based largely on the unprecedented "improvement" in test scores -- which now turn out to have been doctored and invalid.

It may be the biggest local scandal of the decade.

More later.


Tuesday, July 5, 2011

No thanks

Today I was in Office Depot to buy some supplies. Near the check-out counter was a bin of items on sale. Guess what I could have bought?

Tweeting for Dummies on sale for 99 cents.

Not for me, thanks. But now I wish I had thought to buy a copy to send to the pope. (see 6/28 blog about the pope tweeting.)


Paraprosdokians #4

We Americans have strange values:

1. We (usually) have two candidates to choose between for president; but invariably there are 50 contestants for Miss America.

2. We naively believe astronomers who say there are four billion stars. But have you ever noticed how people refuse to believe a "Wet Paint" sign?

3. We pay a pittance to our philosophers, poets, and teachers -- while we lavish obscene riches on celebrity athletes, movie stars, and the captains of commerce.

4. Why do politicians insist on fighting fire with fire, despite the Fire Department's preference for water?

Alas, nostalgia isn't what it used to be.


Monday, July 4, 2011

Cancel the parade; hide the flags

Hide the flags, cancel the parade, stop the fireworks -- unless you want your kids to grow up to be Republicans.

Harvard Kennedy School of Government has reported a study by academic researchers Adreas Madestam (Milan, Italy) and David Yanagizama-Drott (Harvard Kennedy School), whose title is: "Shaping the Nation: Estimating the Impact of Fourth of July Using a Natural Experiment."

Great credentials, but hard-to-believe conclusions:
• Fourth of July celebrations have a significant impact upon people’s political preferences;

• Attending one Fourth of July before age 18 increases the likelihood of identifying as a Republican by at least 2 percent and voting for the Republican candidate by 4 percent. It also increases voter turnout by 0.9 percent and boosts political campaign contributions by 3 percent.
This sounds like a really dumb conclusion to me -- there are so many other factors to consider in what shapes political sensibilities.
But these are serious academic researchers who think they've found a unique and easily measurable variable -- how often it rained on July 4th where you lived as a child. Just check the weather reports archives for the data.

Unlike all other holiday celebrations, July 4th festivities are always outdoors. Ergo, the more times it rained on July 4th where you lived, the fewer parades, etc. you would have attended. And since it rains on the Dem families as well as the Repubs, it cancels out the family factor in the equation.
But does it? They think it does. I vehemently don't. If it rains and the parade is cancelled, both Dem and Repub families stay home, so kids from both homes are affected equally as to number of parades attended.

But you're still left with who attends more, or is influenced more, when the sun shines and the parade goes on. Or am I missing something? Maybe it's a larger scale thing: areas of the country where it rains a lot might be more Dem, while arid regions more Repub? Think Seattle vs Tucson. But then you have the larger Hispanic populations in the Southwest, and they tend to vote Dem. See, it's still more complex than rain days, IMHO.

It seems to me that it comes down to whether there is any differential between Dem families and Repub families in choosing to participate in patriotic activities, as well as all kinds of factors that influence whether you genuinely whoop it up at the parade, or sit there disdaining the whole thing as hokey. Both are attending; one builds it up, the other tears it down. The kids notice.

I'd be willing to predict that having attended Woodstock correlates with being a Democrat (or an anarchist, non-voter) later in life. Not because of anything that happened at Woodstock but because of the self-selection in who chose to go. If Woodstock had been rained out, those who would have gone would still become Dems or non-voters; those who would not have gone would still become Republicans (by a statistical margin, of course, which is what they're saying, too).

My father's family had a big family reunion and barbecue every 4th of July at my uncle's farm. A pit would be dug in the ground and filled with coals for the all-night, slow cooking of the pig and goat, and the men and older boys stayed up all night to supervise. It was a time of male bonding. The next day it was the women's turn to show off their cooking skills and burnish reputations for the best this or that dish. I still drool at the memory of Aunt Easter's angel food cake (super-moist, super-sweet; the closest thing I've ever tasted was the Spanish tres leches cake).

The reunion was an all-day affair, with much talk of our country and the sacrifice of the uncles were away fighting in World War II, one severely wounded in battle. Before we could eat, even before the blessing, we all stood and recited the Pledge of Allegiance, hands over hearts and facing the American flag flying from the flagpole in the yard. In the evening, we had fireworks: sparklers and Roman candles, and hand-held "firecrackers" that you had to light and throw fast so as not to have them explode in your hand.

As a child, I saved aluminum foil from chewing gum wrappers and from cigarette packages I found discarded on the sidewalk; peeled them off the paper backing and crushed them into my ever-growing ball of aluminum foil, to be contributed to the war effort; and I bought a 25 cent savings stamp every week with my allowance, pasted them into a booklet to exchange for a $25 war bond when it got full.

There was no shortage of patriotism in my family. "The Fourth" was second only to Christmas as a highlight of the year. And it unquestionably was all about patriotism and how great our country was, and fighting to save the world for democracy -- with God on our side, of course.

The Roughton Family was about as patriotic and as Democratic as you can get. Uncle Harvey was a state legislator, and my father was mayor of the town during World War II. Democrats, of course. The South was solidly Democratic during my growing up years -- for a long time, I puzzled over what the "general election" was. I thought we had already had "the election" when the Democratic primary was over. There was no Republican primary.

And yet I can't recall that it ever rained on the 4th. At most, a passing shower that didn't dampen the patriotic spirit in the least. That was then. Now I have a few cousins and nephews who have turned Republican. But that has nothing to do with rain and everything to do with changing social mores in the South.

The civil rights struggled flipped the Solid South to the Republican camp. But that was all about the Dems' support for racial equality, so people switched parties in droves, local politicians leading the run. Rain had nothing to do with it.

I admit that my mind glazes over when I read such research reports, and I get lost in the statistics. So I could be missing something. But, for now, anyway, my common sense about this study, even if it is from Harvard, permits only one comment:

"Bah, humbug !!!" And, for good measure, I'll add: "Balderdash !!!"


Sunday, July 3, 2011

Deal's deals

Campaigning for governor, Nathan Deal promised to create jobs. That's one promise he seems to be keeping.

Not that Georgia's jobless statistics have improved much. But he has "created" lots of jobs for his family and cronies. Working the system seems to be his biggest talent.

Early on came the announcement that twice-bankrupt son-in-law Clinton Wilder had accepted a high position with the Georgia Nursing Home Association, a group that lobbies heavily for nursing home owners. It's just coincidence, of course, that the governor must oversee the billions of dollars that nursing homes receive from the state each year for the indigent elderly in their care.

PS: Nothing in Wilder's work history suggests that he has any qualifications to work in such a position; but Gov. Deal assured us all (I'm so relieved) that Wilder will have nothing to do with lobbying the office of the governor. Yes, but who lobbied to get him the much-needed job, so the governor doesn't continue to have to bail him out?

But the latest is this, discussed by Charlie Harper in today's AJC: Several weeks ago, Deal claimed that the state budget was so tight that it was necessary for the Director of the State Ethics Commission to take a 30% pay cut, from $120,000 to $85,000 (that's $35,000, please note). Her alternative was to resign, which she did -- and which was obviously Deal's intent. No connection, of course, to the fact that she had prepared subpoenas to investigate ethics complaints against Gov. Nathan Deal. That was "just an unfortunate coincidence."

What makes this so bald-faced outrageous is that now, just weeks later, Deal has appointed the girl friend of his deputy chief of staff to the position of state mental health ombudsman and, in the process, increased the salary for that position by $25,000. Well, I guess he would brag about saving the state $10,000.

But why the increase? The last person who had the ombudsman job at $82,000 had a master's degree in psychology. Deputy Chief of Staff's Girl Friend has a bachelor's degree in communications from Valdosta State College and no experience in mental health. What warrants increasing the job's remuneration by $25,000? No explanation offered.

Never mind. Her new salary ($107,000) will suddenly double the $53,000 she earned as Gov. Sonny Purdue's scheduler. Deal's office defends the appointment, saying she knows how state government works. I think in the Deal lexicon that means she knows how to pull deals for Deal. But, predictably, Deal's office was "adamant" that her dating relationship had nothing whatsoever to do with her appointment to this position.

Yes, but can she type?

Trying to research this on the internet, I came upon the liberal blog PoliticsUSA, which has a pretty obvious slant; but here's what they had to say about our governor back during the campaign:
The little shifty devil running for Governor in Georgia, Nathan Deal, has one more scandal to add to his seemingly endless financial scandal rap sheet. Nathan is running as a fiscal conservative. Naturally, this means he is good at grifting money from you and me and the government and manipulating the system to take advantage of loopholes and get no bid contracts for companies in which he has a financial interest. Please, you’re supposed to focus on his churchiness, people. And how handsome of a grandpa he is. The picture of gentility!

Remember Deal was already found guilty by The Office of Congressional Ethics of violating house rules for using his office to push policy that would benefit his family’s auto salvage company and earning too much outside income. He departed Congress in an act of “early retirement” before the ruling could impact him. Now, months later, he’s running for Governor of Georgia, long out of the reach of the disciplinary jurisdiction of the ethics committee. Convenient, eh?
As I've said before about our governor, I knew his mother as the other second grade teacher across the hall from my class in Sandersville Elementary School. And I know that she would spank Nathan if she knew about all this.

And this doesn't even include the contemptible, vile anti-gay smears he used against his opponent for the Republican nomination.