Sunday, April 30, 2006

What if Kristof Wanted To Teach Journalism?

Today, behind the NY Times firewall, Nicholas Kristof offers Teachers Without Pedigrees, a proposal that we should reduce or eliminate teacher certification requirements to increase the pool of candidates for public K-12 education. Kristof doesn't mention accelerated certification programs already available, perhaps because he deems an additional nine to fifteen months of schooling and student teaching to be too much of an impediment to somebody whose interest is more transitory.
Suppose Colin Powell tires of giving $100,000-a-pop speeches and wants to teach high school social studies. Suppose Meryl Streep has a hankering to teach drama.

Alas, they would be "unqualified" for a public school. Elite private schools would snap them up, of course, but public schools that are begging for teachers would have to turn them away because they don't have teacher certification.
Why are we dreaming up these hypotheticals, involving celebrities with no apparent interest in taking over a public school classroom? Why isn't Mr. Kristof describing his own desire to teach, and how he is unable to do so by virtue of his lack of a teaching certificate? Because that's the heart of the issue - the best teachers aren't people we wish were in the classroom due to their celebrity, but are people who want to be in the classroom. Kristof notes,
The other problem is that the quality of teachers is deteriorating, mostly because — fortunately! — women have more career options. A smart and ambitious woman graduating from college in 1970 often ended up as a third-grade teacher; today, she ends up as a surgeon or senator.
So the problem is that most people, given a choice between being a K-12 classroom teacher or a different career, choose a different career? And the solution to this is to make it easier for people who have chosen other career paths to dip their toes into the water of public education, without making any real commitment to that career path?

It's not that I'm enamored with teacher certification programs - I'm not. It's also not that I disagree with the idea that people who do not have teaching certificates should be able to experience what it is like to try to teach in a public school classroom - in fact, I've seen some people who wanted to be teachers find out during student teaching or their first year of teaching that they really don't want to be in a classroom or simply don't have the aptitude for classroom management. I wouldn't mind seeing more students get some classroom experience before they are accepted into public education programs, but suspect that such an initiative might in fact further reduce the pool of graduates from teaching colleges.

Kristof suggests giving principals the option of hiring highly qualified, thoroughly screened, but uncertified teachers:
That's the situation in some of America's most elite private high schools. Phillips Exeter Academy, for example, says that 85 percent of its faculty have advanced degrees but probably only a handful are certified. (Since it is private, it doesn't worry about certification or even keep track of which teachers are certified.)

At Exeter, for example, biology is taught by a former doctor. Japanese is taught by a former businessman who worked in Japan. And a history teacher arrived with no teaching experience but has published five books.
Hoo boy.... We're going to pretend that the experience of Phillips Exeter Academy, with day tuition and fees approaching $30,000 per year, would be shared by public schools? Why not make a comparison to parochial schools, which are also at liberty to hire uncertified teachers, but which often pay less and offer fewer benefits than public schools? Who knows? Maybe somewhere in the Catholic school system there's a former doctor teaching biology classes.

I have some personal experience from "way back when" working as a substitute teacher. (In most public school districts you can serve as a substitute teacher if you have a bachelor's degree, or possibly if you have completed certain undergraduate coursework.) I recall a subsequent law day when I gave a number of presentations in public schools (something that is, by the way, much easier than teaching) followed by a presentation in a Catholic middle school. The difference was striking - well-behaved, well-groomed kids, sitting quietly in their desks? It isn't that their teachers are paid more or are better qualified. It is that the kids' parents have a different attitude toward education, with different overall attitudes both to the teachers and to their own kids, and their school can decline to accept them back (or even expel them) if they fail to comport to expected standards of conduct.

Kick that same concept up to a level where the tuition is higher than most of those Catholic schoolkids' parents were taking home on an annual basis, and you're going to not only have a much more enjoyable teaching environment, but one which can pay teachers very well. Public school teachers aren't lining up to take a cut in pay or benefits to work in a private school, just as Meryl Streep, Colin Powell, and Nicholas Kristof aren't lining up to teach in public school, but I doubt that Exeter has any shortage of highly qualified applicants.

Kristof also mentions a program which places college graduates in inner city classrooms,
One superb initiative for young college graduates is Teach for America, which last year had 17,000 applicants for 2,000 spots teaching in low-income schools. Among those who applied were 12 percent of Yale's senior class and 8 percent of Harvard's and Princeton's.
Sure. They make a two-year commitment to teach in the inner city. With the ability to reject 88% of the applicants the program should have no difficulty selecting applicants who have the necessary interest and aptitude to complete the program. Program participants come in with a new college graduate's energy and enthusiasm and are gone long before they burn out. Teach for America indicates that 60% of those who complete the program remain in education as "teachers, principals, education policy advisors and leaders and staff of education reform organizations", but provides no figure for how many remain in inner city schools.

For Kristof, the essence of teacher qualification isn't training or intelligence - "Maybe it helps to be brilliant and to have studied teaching, but mostly it is personality." So it is his own reflections on his personality which keeps "math geek" Kristof from teaching high school calculus?

You know what? We're not going to get a significantly increased pool of highly qualified teachers (with or without sparkling personalities) without making some changes to our attitudues toward teaching, without being willing to increase teacher pay, and while we continue to drive good teachers out of the profession with standardized testing requirements which drive the fun (and real learning) out of a good classroom.

Friday, April 28, 2006

A Bit Of Time (And A Lot Of Paper) Saved

If you hire a business firm to do your defense litigation work instead of a (mere) insurance defense firm, you might want to remind them to read the court rules. A couple of months ago, I wrote responses to a summary disposition motion. The plaintiff's counsel wanted to add material which pushed the motion and brief over the limit, so I told him to contact the judge's clerk to check their policy. Some judges are flexible, but this one wasn't - the attorney was informed that the judge would reject his answer and brief if they exceeded a combined twenty pages.

Fast forward to the latest summary disposition motion filed by the defense, which exceeded twenty pages between the motion and brief. I suggested that the plaintiff's counsel contact the court to see if it would still be entertaining the motion. Nope. It will have to be refiled in proper form by the plaintiff, and renoticed for hearing.

Once again, this is a mistake a second year associate at a (mere) insurance defense firm would have caught. I wonder if the business firm handling the case will refrain from billing the client for the time and costs associated with their mistake....

Some Things Just Shouldn't Be Sung In Translation....

Can you believe this? Wait until the President finds out.

Thursday, April 27, 2006

Restaurant Innovation and the Health Code

It sounds like New York has very stringent requirements for restaurant hygiene, and, as one would expect, that can interfere with innovative cooking techniques and the quality of food produced. A chef comments,
While the inspector is mandated to have a single-minded focus on the Department of Health's taste-killing rules, a good chef is driven by many concerns — the health and well-being of her customer paramount among them — and it is in her hands that I would rather entrust my eating experiences.
While I agree with the chef that "serious chefs are compulsively clean by nature" and Not one of us would serve a customer something that we ourselves would not relish to eat, and also with his observation that sanitarians would regulate a range of delicacies and specialty foods out of existence, the health code is not just about what happens inside the restaurant. No matter how carefully food is selected, there is a chance that it will have been contaminated prior to its introduction to the restaurant kitchen.

The temperature requirements imposed across this nation ensure that most bacteria are killed in the cooking process, and that hot food is maintained at a high enough temperature that it does not become a breeding ground for bacteria. It also prevents certain innovative food preparation techniques, and limits the ability of restaurants to preserve hot food in a palatable form. Under a heat lamp or on a warming tray, even the best of food is quickly reduced to cafeteria fare.

That said, I think that professional chefs should be able to experiment with innovations such as sous vide - but they should first propose a set of health regulations to govern the innovation and have them passed by the health department. The consumer should also be made aware of any additional danger posed by the food preparation technique. Warnings about raw and undercooked food haven't scared customers away from the sushi bar. After all, the greatest danger is not so much that the best chefs in the best restaurants, working with the highest quality and most carefully selected ingredients, will put their patrons at undue risk. The greatest danger is that the same cooking techniques will be applied by chefs and restaurants which don't act with such care. There's a reason that health regulations are aimed at the lowest common denominator.

The New Press Secretary - A Big Mistake

Other than the obvious "snow job" joke, was it a huge mistake for the Bush Administration to select Tony Snow as press secretary? With the number of opinions Snow has made on the record, we're already seeing this type of news coverage:
Tony Snow, the new White House press secretary, made that point last month in his previous role as a conservative polemicist: "A Republican president and a Republican Congress have lost control of the federal budget."
Just wait until he starts contradicting himself at press conferences....

"That was a prostitute?"

Looking at reports of the Duke Cunningham bribery scandal, that the lubrication[1] of certain Members of Congress and their staffs[2] involved the provision of prostitutes, I can't help but think of Neil Bush....
The Bush divorce, completed in April after 23 years of marriage, was prompted in part by Bush's relationship with another woman. He admitted in the deposition that he previously had sex with several other women while on trips to Thailand and Hong Kong at least five years ago.

The women, he said, simply knocked on the door of his hotel room, entered and had sex with him. He said he did not know if they were prostitutes because they never asked for money and he did not pay them.

"Mr. Bush, you have to admit it's a pretty remarkable thing for a man just to go to a hotel room door and open it and have a woman standing there and have sex with her," Brown said.

"It was very unusual," Bush said.
One would hope that the defense contractors in the Duke case had their prostitutes wear some sort of ID, such that the people at the parties didn't suffer from similar confusion....


1. No pun intended.

2. No pun intended. Really. Why don't you believe me?

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

A Word About "BigLaw"

I recall reading some comments over at Even Schaeffer's Legal Underground where a former BigLaw associate huffed that businesses would do better to hire BigLaw to defend their cases instead of hiring (mere) insurance defense firms, purportedly because BigLaw would be more competent. This, of course, inspires the question of... at what point a law firm becomes a (mere) insurance defense firm, regardless of its size and sense of self-importance. And if they don't have enough work that they can truly specialize in defense litigation, is it really true that they will be more competent in serving their clients?

I am presently helping a plaintiff's lawyer with a case being defended by the self-insured defendant's business firm, rather than an insurance defense firm. Beyond the stunning ability to fell trees and produce ridiculous motions, I'm not clear on how the client is advantaged... unless paying much larger legal fees than necessary is deemed an advantage. It's great, I suppose, that this firm is able to produce novel interpretations of statutes and court rules that its lawyers haven't encountered before, but a second year associate at a (mere) defense firm would be able to set them straight about how a court is likely to resolve the motion.

Sunday, April 23, 2006

Nuclear Deterrence

Lawyers, Guns and Money points to an interesting blog post and article on the subject of nuclear deterrence - and how the U.S. military may no longer actually be deterred by the arsenals of other nuclear powers.

What? Australia's No Longer a Penal Colony?

New criminal law policy from the Blair government:
Tony Blair launches an unprecedented assault today on the legal and political establishment, accusing it of being 'out of touch' with the people - and pledges new moves to 'hassle, harry and hound' suspected criminals from Britain.

* * *

He outlines controversial new steps, ranging from seizing assets from suspected drug dealers - which could see anyone stopped with more than £1,000 having the money confiscated - to draconian new restrictions on the movements of those suspected of involvement in organised crime.
Will that include tourists?

A Note to the Educational Establishment

Hearing Rep. Rahm Emanuel argue in favor of "universal college education" reminded me of why undergraduate college degrees are diminishing in value, and why the culture of "it's cool to be dumb" is becoming prevalent on college campuses.

We pretend that everybody is equal in aptitude.

We simultaneously accept that everybody should have the opportunity to do well.

As a result we create a system which caters to the lowest common denominator. In high schools and increasingly in colleges, mediocrity not only earns a passing grade - it can earn an "A".

Our society should try to ensure that everybody has educational opportunity which helps them achieve their maximum potential. But we need to stop pretending that everybody is equal in their potential, or that vocational training is somehow less worthy than a college degree.

I'm not arguing for trying to force people into particular academic or vocational tracks based upon their aptitude. Individuals should still be able to choose the academic or training path they desire. But if somebody is unable or unwilling to do the work necessary to justify a passing grade based on merit, that person should receive a failing grade.

Failure can be stigmatizing, but we exaggerate that effect by creating a system in which virtually nobody fails. A system in which we pretend that if people try hard (even if we really know that most of them aren't really trying) almost everybody can earn an "A".

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Fixing Health Care... the Wal-Mart Way?

Wal-Mart, perhaps most famous in relation to the subject for offering little health coverage to its employees and their families, is apparently offering to apply its genius to fixing the nation's health care system.
Wal-Mart Stores Inc., at the center of debate over corporate responsibility for health care, said on Tuesday that it wants to use its cost-cutting expertise to help make the U.S. health care system more efficient.

* * *

Wal-Mart said health care is a national problem and required a joint effort from government, corporations and workers to find ways to make the system more efficient.

* * *

The retailer said the key is to figure out what is driving up health care costs -- just as Wal-Mart does with its vaunted supply chain network -- and then wring inefficiencies out of the system.

Wal-Mart tracks expenses so closely that cardboard boxes at its distribution centers bear a message reminding employees that each box costs the company 75 cents.

The retailer offered up its information technology expertise to help develop a system for keeping electronic medical records as another means of reducing costs.

Wal-Mart also said that lessons could be learned from health clinics it is opening in dozens of stores around the country, many of which serve uninsured patients who would otherwise go to the emergency room -- a major drain on health care resources.
Funny, I don't recall Wal-Mart suggesting that it needed help from the nation's workers, the government, or other coprorations to figure out how to run its own operations. Proposing electronic medical records, also, is far from an innovation.

Perhaps this is just a fancy press release for its planned in-store medical clinics (which presumably will also be the primary provider of medical care for its workers and their families under the next generation of Wal-Mart's employee health insurance plans).

Monday, April 17, 2006

Applying "The Bell Curve"

I'm personally not sure why, but from time to time people still post seeminlgy passionate defenses of The Bell Curve and its scholarship. This example left me wondering, though, why its advocates still press the issue so hard. The blog post suggests that a British university lecturer was disciplined for defending The Bell Curve in class - but if you read the linked article, he was a bit more extreme in his beliefs:
Dr Ellis gave an interview to the university’s student newspaper in which he described himself as “an unrepentant Powellite” who favoured repatriation if it were carried out “humanely”. He said that the British National Party was “a bit too socialist” for his liking.

He voiced support for the theory set out in The Bell Curve, a book published in 1994 by Richard J. Herrnstein and Charles Murray, that white people had higher average IQs than blacks. He said the study had “demonstrated to me beyond any reasonable doubt there is a persistent gap in average black and white average intelligence”.

Dr Ellis also told Leeds students that women did not have the same intellectual capacity as men and that feminism, along with multiculturalism, was “corroding” Britain.
Even Enoch Powell, who inadvertently gave his infamous "Rivers of Blood" speech on Hitler's birthday, was arguably a "repentant Powellite" at least insofar as that poor choice of date.

Let's assume for a moment that the criticisms of The Bell Curve are all 100% wrong - that it's the finest scholarship to ever grace the written page. What use does it have to those of us who are't "unrepentant Powellites", to the political right of the British National Party (which seeks to protect "the native British people" from immigrant populations), or in favor of booting dark-skinned minorities (save possibly Asians?) out of our nations?


"Nobody In The Nation Can Drive"

I've come to the conclusion that our nation is full of bad and inconsiderate drivers - it's just that you get used to the local version of inconderate, incompetent driving, such that it seems worse when you travel to other parts of the country.

Friday, April 07, 2006

... By The Skin Of Their Teeth

Had the U.S. Attorney's Office not backed off, this could have given a whole new meaning to "grilling" a suspect.
According to court documents and attorneys ... [the defendants] were told the government had a warrant to seize the grills from their mouths and that they were being taken to a dentist in Seattle for removal. ...

Grills, made popular by rappers such as Nelly, are customized teeth caps that are typically made of precious metals and jewels. The cost for a full set can run from hundreds to thousands of dollars. Some styles of grills can be snapped onto the teeth somewhat like an orthodontic retainer, while others are permanently bonded to the teeth. ...

Federal prosecutors, who presented the seizure warrant to a U.S. District Court judge on March 29, said they did not know that the grills were permanently bonded to the defendants' teeth.

Membership as Probable Cause

CrimProf Blog describes a recent 9th Circuit decision:
The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, in U.S. v. Gourde, No. 03-30262, ruled that mere membership in a pornographic website that contains both legal and illegal porn is enough to authorize the FBI to search a home computer.
I think the opinion can be read more narrowly - the court specifically references the affidavit in support of the search warrant, "The affidavit left little doubt that Gourde had paid to obtain unlimited access to images of child pornography knowingly and willingly, and not involuntary, unwittingly, or even passively", and the facts set forth in the affidavit make it exceptionally unlikely that Gourde would become and remain a member of the site without the intention of downloading images of minors. Still, it would be nice if the Court had been more explicit in its holding, for reasons Judge Kleinfeld describes in his dissent.
Is the holding of the majority opinion that if a person has subscribed to a site that has legal and illegal material, that suffices as probable cause for a search warrant? That if a person has paid money to look at material that is illegal to possess, he probably possesses it? If the holding is narrower than these formulations, everyone’s computer would be safer were the narrowing restrictions made clear. If it is not, the majority opinion is dangerous to everyone’s privacy.
It's a short step from "paid member" to "member" - broadly constructed, if you knowingly download P2P software, and know in using it that you can download pirated music files, software, copyrighted images, and probably also illegal pornography, would that be enough for a warrant? What if the authorities could also demonstrate that you had used the P2P software to access a hard drive which stores some unlawful material, had run searches which caused unlawful material to appear among your results (whether or not you downloaded it), or had downloaded illegal material (even though that might not have been apparent from the file name)? Even with paid membership, how much illegal content must be present on the site and how obvious must it be before you can potentially be the subject of a search warrant?

This assertion by the majority also raises my eyebrow:
Thanks to the long memory of computers, any evidence of a crime was almost certainly still on his computer, even if he had tried to delete the images. FBI computer experts, cited in the affidavit, stated that “even if . . . graphic image files[ ] have been deleted . . . these files can easily be restored.”
Is the FBI agent assuming an unsophisticated computer user who thinks that dragging icons into the trash "deletes" the associated file? Is that a reasonable assumption? And to say "easily" seems glib. I know a law firm which could have used that FBI agent a while back, when they accidentally deleted a large folder of documents from their server and somehow rendered the files unrecoverable (short of pulling the hard drive and submitting it to a data recovery service).

Back to Boot Camp

The Times states,
Now Apple has announced Boot Camp, which will allow some versions of Windows to run more or less natively on an Apple machine. ...

So the prospect of Boot Camp raises two very different scenarios. Windows users will buy Apple machines to run Windows. Or they may try out Apple's operating system just for the fun of it and get hooked.
Or maybe Mac users who want to be able to run some PC programs will find Boot Camp convenient, and far superior "Virtual PC" emulator software. Or maybe it will help convince people who want to transition away from Windows, which is substantially inferior to Mac OS X, but want relative certainty that they will be able to access their old files in the new system.

Thursday, April 06, 2006

Telemarketers Are So Special....

I don't think I've gone a day this week without being hit by a telemarketer offering online promotion of my legal practice. The latest one said that they have a special technique which gets their clients' sites listed above all the other listings in Google. (Because AdWords is such a big secret.)

If these companies are so good at online promotion, why are they using telemarketers? And if these companies are so good at law firm promotion, why do they have so many practice areas available in my "territory"? "You want personal injury? No? How about family law? Criminal defense? Employment discrimination?" Well, no, I really don't.

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Insults Between Academics

Prof. David Bernstein writes of an insult once uttered by one of his law professors:
When I was a student at Yale, one of my professors, the author of eminently forgettable and inconsequential works on law and economics, referred to Prof. Siegan as "that nut from San Diego, what's his name?"
Calling another academic a "nut from San Diego"? How inappropriate.

Declining NetFlix Service

(I'm not talking about their intentionally slow service for people whom they deem to be returning movies too quickly. I'm also not speaking of their seemingly chronic problem with ordering too few copies of newly released films to reasonably satisfy customer demand.)

Over the past two months my experience with NetFlix has involved repeated problems with movies being lost (and ultimately found) in the mail. They made an unexplained mistake in shipping one of the movies on my queue which, as a result, shows a "Shipped" date of "3/06/06" and a "Est. Arrival" date of "3/28/06" - twenty-two days! I have had two other movies "lost" in shipment to me, one due to an envelope coming apart in the mail (I received the portion of the envelope with my address on it - the part you tear off and discard before returning the movie) and another that simply didn't arrive (but was later found by NetFlix).

The processing time for returns is often much longer than it used to be, and now often seems to be three or four business days, and I don't believe that the USPS is responsible. It also seems to be more common for them to mail the new movie one or two business days after their receipt of a return.

I will grant that this could just be bad luck - a statistical anomaly which is unfortunately affecting my account. Are other Netflix subscribers having a better experience?

Saturday, April 01, 2006

Moments from April Fool's Day History

Google's April Fool's Day joke reminds me of a similar joke from many years back, in the dark ages where the Internet was largely text-based. A clever prankster wrote a personality quiz which he promised would allow him to make highly promising romantic matches between those who took the quiz. In fact all matches that he made were random - yet some nonetheless developed into long-term relationships.

(Had he patented that joke as a business model, might he be able to extract licensing fees from eHarmony? Just a question....)