Friday, July 27, 2007

"Because They'll Run Government Like It's A Business"

Not that I want to beat up on David Brooks yet again, but he just doesn't stop....
The other flash I saw was at a Romney event at the Lincoln Financial Group in Concord. Romney had slipped away from the policy chunks of his stump speech and was talking about his success in business and in running the Olympics. He was talking about how you assemble a team of people with complementary skills. How you use data and analysis to replace opinion. How you set benchmarks and how often you should perform self-evaluation.

It wasn’t impassioned or angry (he doesn’t do anger). But it was Romney losing himself in something he really cares about, and it opened up a vista of how government might operate.
I am far from the first to observe that while Romney is happy to talk himself up as a great businessman, venture capitalist, near-omnipotent being, etc., he actually does have experience which seems directly relevant to how he would operate if he were in charge of a unit of government. Yes, folks, although he seems to have blacked out that portion of his résumé, Romney actually was Governor of Massachusetts. We don't need to look at abstract theories of what he might do, because we can look at his actual track record.

Brooks deems the Republicans as having an "Uphill Struggle", commenting on this and another "flash" in which John McCain expressed frustration that his party isn't deemed credible - "Nobody trusts us to do what we say we’re going to do!".
The McCain and Romney flashes weren’t about policy. They weren’t part of the normal Republican vs. Democratic dynamic. They were about leadership, honor and intelligence. If Republicans are going to have a chance, it’ll be because, by focusing on the state of American politics, they reshape the battleground under everyone’s feet.
To the extent that the McCain "flash" is about intelligence, it is perhaps the type of intelligence that Lincoln recognized. Bush ran on a platform claiming he "trusted" the American voters, yet his every action since has been illustrative of deep distrust of the voters. Much of his conduct in office, and that of his Vice President and advisors, has been contemptuous of the public's right to honest answers from government officials about even the most mundane of government matters. As for running government like a business? Some joke that Bush failed in every business venture in which he participated, save for his exceptionally profitable minor investment in the Texas Rangers, so perhaps taken literally he did run government in the same manner he would have run a business.

To pretend in the manner of Brooks that Romney's presentation shows that he "cares about" issues of organizational efficiency - an implicit argument that he'll "run government like a business" - without directly relating that claim to Romney's actual actions as Governor of Massachusetts, reflects either an astounding ignorance that Romney has been a governor or dishonesty.

The "flashes" were about leadership - the lack of it in the Republican Party and Bush White House. The "flashes" were about honor - again, the lack of it in the Republican Party and Bush White House. And the flashes were about intelligence - in McCain's case, a recognition of the consequence of trying to fool all of the people all of the time, and in the case of Romney and Brooks, the persistent belief that it remains possible.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

"Who Are You Going To Believe - David Brooks Or Your Lying Wallet"

Hacks like David Brooks invest a lot of energy spouting absolute nonsense designed to convince people that the economy is great for everybody. Another reality check for Brooks:
When it comes to the way Bush is handling the economy, 23% of registered voters approve of the way Bush is handling the economy and 72% disapprove.
Brooks, presumably, would attribute that to mass delusion... at least in public. I'll assume that, despite the content of his columns, he knows better.

Friday, July 20, 2007

They're Not Trying To Stop The War

In response to stuff like this - Republican Hypocrite Caucus Keeps George Bush's War Going - the Republican doubters of the war aren't trying to change policy. They're testing the waters in terms of how voters will react to a change of policy, and providing a foundation for a potential shift of policy in the event that's what it will take to avoid (or minimize) the loss of additional seats in Congress in the next election. Call them hypocrites if you want, but recognize that they have very different goals than you do.

Could It Be More Obvious That The White House Has Been Lying?

The U.S. Attorney firing scandal grew out of something that, if addressed in an honest manner, would perhaps have raised a few eyebrows but would likely have been dismissed as "politics as usual... at least under Bush." You know, "Sure, we fired U.S. Attorneys for political reasons, but that's our constitutional right and they're poliitical appointees anyway."

Instead it's been an exercise in obfuscation, but one that has attempted to point fingers away from direct involvement by the White House. With Harriet Miers refusing to obey a subpoena to testify before Congress on a claim of executive privilege - a claim which of itself belies the idea that the White House was not involved in the firings - Bush is now asserting an "I'm completely above the law" concept of what executive privilege entails.
Bush administration officials unveiled a bold new assertion of executive authority yesterday in the dispute over the firing of nine U.S. attorneys, saying that the Justice Department will never be allowed to pursue contempt charges initiated by Congress against White House officials once the president has invoked executive privilege.
This will likely end up being resolved by the courts, and I'm sure Bush hopes that process is slow, but isn't it time to stop giving him the benefit of the doubt? If the White House were being even slightly honest about the firings, it wouldn't be necessary to throw up so many smokescreens, or so flagrantly flout the Constitution.

Friday, July 13, 2007

For Those Chasing The Almighty Dollar....

If you are looking for a graduate program that will better ensure a large salary, choose an MBA over law school.

The Enigma Of Harry Potter Movies

This review from the Guardian is correct in a big picture sense, although not enitrely correct in the details.

One thing that is obvious if you've seen a Harry Potter film without first reading the book is that there are plot details you are unlikely to notice, or which you may not understand, until after you read the book. This can significantly detract from viewer experience, to the point that many people I know who have not read the books wrote off the films after one or two installments. At one extreme you have Roger Ebert's shock that Harry Potter films are getting darker ("My hope, as we plow onward through "Potters" Nos. 6-7, is that the series will not grow darker still." Er... don't hold your breath, Roger.) But at another extreme you have observations like this,
But, yes, here is the film where Potter gets some serious romance, with fellow Hogwarts scholar Cho Chang, played by Katie Leung - though bafflingly, and rather ungallantly, her character is completely dumped from the action after the snog....
If you pay close attention to the film, you understand the cold shoulder (and even see some regret), but if you've read the book you know exactly what happened. This isn't Kubrick's 2001, A Space Oddysey or Peter Brook's Lord of the Flies, but it is a situation where you will almost certainly enjoy the film considerably more if you have read the books.

Although the critics don't seem to agree, in many senses this is the best film in the series. Despite the fact that this was, at least in my opinion, the most difficult book of the series to adapt to the screen, the script and pacing are better than some of the prior films, the young protagonists are more capable actors in each successive film, there's a good sense of "time and place" - of a world apart from our own, and the British character actors who play the teachers and villains continue to provide amusement. The reviewer writes,
The Harry Potter series has become famous, or faintly notorious, for giving work to almost every single British character actor in the Spotlight casting directory, with the exception of Stephen Fry, and he surely is lined up for something in the future.
Actually, he was a narrator in the fourth film, so perhaps they've already run out? Fortunately not, and it can be a treat seeing actors like Robert Hardy pop up in these films, or how well actors like Alan Rickman and Imelda Staunton can take ownership of Rowling's characters.

The film which appears to be the favorite of critics, the third in the series, was also the least faithful to Rowling's vision, with the critics describing that as a positive. Yates seems to have a respect for Rowling's vision more kin to that of Chris Columbus, but with a greater aptitude for filmmaking than was evident in the first two films. Many elements of the novel which seemed as if they would appear silly on the big screen are translated quite well, or are gently adapted to be both true to the original story and (beyond the necessary suspension of disbelief) credible. While the last two directors have quietly stepped aside after a single film, I can't say that I'm surprised that Yates was again picked to direct next year's installment.

The reviewer comments that there seems to be a lack of "development from film to film":
As I say, that's a relief, on balance. But every time I sit down to a new Harry Potter movie, I'm struck by how very, very similar it is to the previous one - and how forgettable, even disposable, the plot twists are.
Approaching these films as action fantasies or spectacles, that's no big deal. Who cares if there is development in the character of James Bond or John McClane? (Who would even expect it in a Jack Bauer?) But if the series is to truly offer more than a series of fungible thrills, it's up to Rowling in her final book to provide what she has at times promised - a conclusion which ties together elements from the prior novels that readers might have previously thought irrelevant or peripheral to the plot.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007


We know some of the reasons for not leaving....
  • He needs me. He'll fall apart without me.
  • I helped make him what he is.
  • Only I can make him better.
  • If I leave, he'll find me at my new address and attack me.
But why else won't Bush leave Iraq?

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

They Hate Us - We Adhere To "Certain Principles"

Today we are blessed with having Richard Cohen explain why America is hated in some parts of the world:
But, in a way, America has little choice about being hated in some parts of the world. The United States is never going to be truly popular as long as it insists on adhering to certain principles. Russia, which is creeping back to totalitarianism, does not have this problem. China, which is already authoritarian and obstructionist on Darfur, does not have this problem. Cuba, which is authoritarian, obstructionist and vile, also does not have this problem. Many Serbs hate America for the NATO bombing of that country, but the bombing stopped the killing in the Balkans. Tell me that was the wrong thing to do.
Unfortunately, other than bombing Serbia - something that doesn't much distinguish the U.S. from any other NATO member nation - he doesn't inform us what those "principles" are. Perhaps in his next column?

Sunday, July 08, 2007

The End of Harry Potter

The New York Times presents four essays and an artwork addressing how the Harry Potter series might end. In one, the co-creator of Lost opines that Harry Potter should die, but won't.
We come to learn later that Harry has survived an assassination attempt ... both his parents had sacrificed their lives to spare his. The most rewarding ending would be one in which he performs a similar act of self-sacrifice. I would just about giggle with glee were I to get to the last chapter (I never peek ahead) and find it titled “The Boy Who Died.”

So yes. Sorry, kiddies. I hope Harry buys the farm. Even though I know he won’t.
My speculation is that Harry Potter will die, but in a Buffy the Vampire Slayer / Baywatch sense of "dying" - he'll die long enough to not be a "horcrux", then be resurrected. I'm prepared to be wrong, but as this alternate ending suggests, you wouldn't want to jeopardize the big "M".

Segregation As "Sad" But Inevitable?

David Brooks penned a column, The End of Integration which opens with the lament, ("Nothing is sadder than the waning dream of integration"), but (suprise, surprise) he's shedding crocodile tears. And, as is his wont, he relies on a child-like presentation of social anthropology to justify his actual position:
But it could be the dream of integration itself is the problem. It could be that it was like the dream of early communism — a nice dream, but not fit for the way people really are.

For hundreds of thousands of years our ancestors lived in small bands. Surviving meant being able to distinguish between us — the people who will protect you — and them — the people who will kill you. Even today, people have a powerful drive to distinguish between us and them.

As dozens of social-science experiments have made clear, if you separate people into different groups — no matter how arbitrary the basis of the distinction — they will quickly begin discriminating against others they deem unlike themselves. People say they want to live in diverse integrated communities, but what they really want to do is live in homogenous ones, filled with people like themselves.
So integration is analogous communism? (Did I miss his "Nothing is sadder than the fall of the Iron Curtain" column?)

When Brooks describes people who say they want to live in integrated communities but actually seek out segregation, I suspect he's speaking of himself. This supports any number of "shorter David Brooks" synopses of his column:
  • I live in a neighborhood that's primarily white, went to white majority schools, and I've never had a black friend, and I turned out okay.
  • Why are people carping about this racism stuff, when they should be addressing real problems like make-believe anti-Semitism?
  • I have a black neighbor - every Tuesday - and I would be saddened if he moved away.
I will concede in fairness that David Brooks contends that his comments about anti-semitism were a "joke", although (as with the factual errors that he reinvents as jokes) his delivery of the punch line was a bit off the mark.

The obvious point Brooks somehow overlooks is that whatever divisions may naturally flow between "us" and "them", race does not have to be a principle point of division, or even a significant point of division.
Maybe the health of a society is not measured by how integrated each institution within it is, but by how freely people can move between institutions. In a sick society, people are bound by one totalistic identity. In a healthy society, a person can live in a black neighborhood, send her kids to Catholic school, go to work in a lawyer’s office and meet every Wednesday with a feminist book club. Multiply your homogenous communities and be fulfilled.
Of his examples...
  • You can live in a "black neighborhood" or move out of a "black neighborhood" without regard to your race;
  • You can attend a Catholic school without regard for your race;
  • You can work for a lawyer, or even be a lawyer, without regard for your race (if we assume the lawyer doesn't discriminate when hiring you);
  • You can be a feminist without regard for your race; and
  • You can join or quit book clubs without regard for your race;
But you can't change your race. Hatred and division predicated on race is qualitatively different, because race is a status and not a choice.

There is no question that society can change its views on race and ethnicity. Many groups which were once subjected to active discrimination are now integrated into our society. Many people who are overtly racist nonetheless display extreme partisanship in favor of a local sports team which is largely black. The color of somebody's skin may present an easy basis for distinction between groups, but the fact that it is easy does not mean that it is desirable or even tolerable within a modern society.

Am I wrong in believing that Brooks would not shrug off another person's dismissal of the segregation of Jews with, "This isn’t the integrated world many of us hoped for. But maybe it’s the only one available"? I suspect he would most likely accuse the speaker of being actively anti-Semitic, or at least of holding anti-Semitic sympathies. I suspect he would be correct. And yet that's his response to racial segregation.

Saturday, July 07, 2007

Look Around, And Imagine Your Future

Mike from Crime and Federalism brought my attention to this blog, the travails of a lawyer performing temporary document review assignments. That blogger's advice to a student at a third tier school:
I told her to take a good look around the courtroom we were in (King's Supreme). I told her to look at the unshaven slobs, blood-shot eyes, JC Penny wardrobe, beer guts, etc. Take a look at these clowns squinting to read the NY Post b/c their gutter firms have no eyeglass/optic plan. Look at the bad teeth from no dental insurance. Imagine riding 2 hours on the train from some aluminum-sided tract house in a ghetto and trying to explain to your children why they have to eat spaghetti and Ramen noodles for supper every nite. Take a good, hard look, because this is your future.
While the lawyers were dressed considerably better and apparently owned toothbrushes, and I wasn't envisioning a future of Ramen noodles and spaghetti, I do recall a moment in my career when I looked around a civil courtroom filled with some of the "most successful lawyers" in a particular county and saw not one happy face. I don't know how you can take in such a scene without wondering, "Is this what I want to be in twenty years." (For me, it wasn't and it won't be.) If you want to be a lawyer, try to find an area of practice that leaves you at least reasonably content. If you can't, at least from my perspective, you should be asking yourself if the money (or anticipated money) is worth the misery.
There is biglaw and there is nothing else. Law is as all or nothing as it gets- if law were the food industry you would have the Four Seasons and McDonald's with nothing in between.
There's a lot else, actually.

Friday, July 06, 2007

George Will's Solution For Racial Justice

All that's necessary to achieve racial justics is for (good?) men to do nothing. That's seems to be the essential message of George Will's latest missive, The Court Returns To Brown. I have heard a lot of criticisms of Brown which are legally creditable, but Will's is not among them.

Incredibly, Will describes Brown as prohibiting the consideration of race in the assignment of children to schools, or implicitly in any other state action. Incredibly, Will quotes Thurgood Marshall for this purpose. Obviously the quote is not representative of Marshall's position, nor is it actually from the Court's decision as Marshall's role was as a lawyer for the NAACP. The quote,
Distinctions by race are so evil, so arbitrary and invidious that a state bound to defend the equal protection of the laws must not invoke them in any public sphere,
appears to be a favorite of right-wingers who prefer an unrepresentative sound bite to substantive debate, and I can't find any presentation of that sentence within its greater context. I suspect that Will picked it up out of a book of quotations or somebody else's column. Is that the only sentence that those opposed to civil rights decisions like Brown can glean from Thurgood Marshall's entire body of written work?

Giving the devil his due, I am not personally a fan of K-12 integration programs offered as a substitute for improving the quality of schools. Even without any discriminatory intent, it can certainly be unseemly if a school district's best schools are largely white and its worst schools are largely minority. Many integration models seem designed to avoid that appearance, but with complacency setting in once the desired level of racial balance is achieved. A bad school is bad, regardless of the racial composition of its student body.

George Will presents what he no doubt believes to be a clever analogy, suggesting that "liberals" like diversity programs for elitist reasons.
Breyer said that last week's decision abandons "the promise of Brown." Actually, that promise -- a colorblind society -- has been traduced by the "diversity" exception to the equal protection clause. That exception allows white majorities to feel noble while treating blacks and certain other minorities as seasoning -- a sort of human oregano -- to be sprinkled across a student body to make the majority's educational experience more flavorful.
Let's start with this nonsense that Brown somehow dictates a "colorblind society". Even if you believe that to be desirable, you would have to be dishonest, ignorant, or deluded to believe that's the principal holding of Brown. You would have to have a similar grasp of history to not know that the insistence of people like Will for a "colorblind constitution" grew out of the civil rights era, and was part of an effort to roll it back. Find me one person like George Will who argued that the Constitution was "colorblind" back when Jim Crow laws were in full force and minority students were intentionally shuttled off to segregated, inferior schools.

Obviously, it cannot be said that the original text of the Constitution is "colorblind".
Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective Numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other Persons.
The idea then must be that the 14th Amendment rendered the Constitution "colorblind". That argument fails from the standpoint of originalism. So it is quickly reduced to a textualist sleight of hand - the "plain language" of the 14th Amendment is said to render the Constitution "colorblind" not because of the intent of those who drafted it, and not because of its application during the many decades between the Plessy and Brown decisions, but because "that's what the words mean". I don't mean to dismiss textualism as an approach to constitutional interpretation, but within this context the strongest advocates of textualism are choosing that approach solely as a means to reach their desired outcome, which has always been to roll back the remedial measures implemented in the Civil Rights era.

The "human oregano" comment is meant to be both clever and derisive of Will's primary nemesis, the "liberal". And sure enough, here's one of those nasty "liberals" discussing racial diversity as if it is a seasoning....
While superficial observers might focus on the greater diversity of the Democratic contenders (with one female, one black, and one Latino among them), the eight Dems and ten GOP’ers still showed a similarly disproportionate domination of dark-suited, white, middle-aged males – with a single seventy-something curmudgeon (John McCain for the GOP, Mike Gravel for the Dems) offering some feisty seasoning.
Oops, sorry, that was Michael Medved, and I guess it's white people who are truly "spicy".

Medved, though, represents the George Will school of thought on race - the fact that he regards head counts as indicative of diversity somehow means that everybody else does so, as well. So as much as the Republican right blasted Bill Clinton for having minorities they deemed unqualified in his cabinet, they had no problem demanding that George W. Bush get special credit for having even more minorities in his cabinet, and remain curiously silent when some of those people (most notably Alberto Gonzales) prove disastrously incompetent. (In fairness, incompetence in the Bush Administration is not a racial issue - it's endemic among Bush's appointees.) Beyond the use of less inflammatory language, there's not much to separate this type of "head counting" from that demonstrated by James Watt.

The Brown court's was describing mandatory segregation, but in a manner not irrelevant to the situation which would exist in many school districts in the absence of an integration plan:
Here, unlike Sweatt v. Painter, there are findings below that the Negro and white schools involved have been equalized, or are being equalized, with respect to buildings, curricula, qualifications and salaries of teachers, and other "tangible" factors. Our decision, therefore, cannot turn on merely a comparison of these tangible factors in the Negro and white schools involved in each of the cases. We must look instead to the effect of segregation itself on public education.

* * *

We come then to the question presented: Does segregation of children in public schools solely on the basis of race, even though the physical facilities and other "tangible" factors may be equal, deprive the children of the minority group of equal educational opportunities? We believe that it does.

* * *

Segregation of white and colored children in public schools has a detrimental effect upon the colored children. The impact is greater when it has the sanction of the law, for the policy of separating the races is usually interpreted as denoting the inferiority of the negro group. A sense of inferiority affects the motivation of a child to learn. Segregation with the sanction of law, therefore, has a tendency to [retard] the educational and mental development of negro children and to deprive them of some of the benefits they would receive in a racial[ly] integrated school system.
The current Supreme Court brushed off these concerns, apparently content that if you remove a single element from the facts of Brown, the mandatory nature of the segregation, all else becomes irrelevant. That's fine with the likes of George Will: If all of the minority students in a district are in failing schools and all of the white students are in quality schools, that's just demographics in action. But to pretend that this is the intent of Brown? To pretend that a decision which overtly speaks of the detrimental effect of segregation "upon the colored children" is color-blind?

Will also proves himself either ignorant of the facts of the Seattle integration program, or again mendacious. The Seattle program permitted students to select their preferred school, with race as a "tie-breaker" for students deemed equivalent under the school board's criteria. No student was forced to be "oregano" - minority students enrolled in schools outside of their neighborhoods by choice, and it is reasonable to believe that virtually all choices were driven by the desire to attend a stronger school, or one which offered programs not available at the local school. It remains the case that equality (or even superiority) of funding of a school does not automatically translate into superior schools, particularly in large urban school districts.

Ultimately, perhaps George Will is the type of "colorblind" buffoon parodied by Steven Colbert. (If you pretend not to see it, at least outside the context of a Republican President's cabinet, it doesn't exist.) I wonder if he sees himself as a modern day George Wallace, standing up for the rights of an 'aggrieved minority'.

At the end of the day the vision of Brown is not fulfilled by pretending that in the absense of intent, de facto school segregation, in which minority students are vastly more likely to end up in weak or failing schools, is not an issue. It is also not fulfilled by shuffling students around between schools to create "racial balance" while doing nothing to improve weak and failing schools. If you gave every school child in a district the ability to go to the school of his or her choice, and the net result were that the vast majority chose their local school because it was "as good or better than" pretty much every other school in the district, the ethnic distribution of students should not be troubling. But we're a long way from that ideal, and (good?) men like Will seem intent on ensuring that we never reach it.

Thursday, July 05, 2007

Newt Gingrich Thinks Americans Need To Work Harder?

In his new Washington Post idiotorial, Newt Gingrich prattles,
Sarkozy had the courage to campaign on the theme that "the French will have to work harder." Imagine trying to get that past an American campaign consultant. In effect, he repudiated the French left's passion for income transfer and trumped it with a passion for pursuing happiness.
The obvious retort is that a political consultant will tell you, "No problem - as long as voters understand you to be talking about the need for other people to work more. Better yet, if it is understood as code directed at certain groups regarded as shiftless and lazy." (Contrary to Newt's apparent belief, they do have political consultants in France.)

But what does this comment really tell us... about Newt. It suggests that he truly believes that Americans need to work harder. It suggests that he has spent too much time hanging out with certain people who appear intent to break records for taking the most vacation, and doesn't have the first clue how much the average American actually works as compared to workers in other nations. (That "uniquely American" work experience....) It suggests that he has never worked a job where he was "on the clock", or at best did so as a teen with the income he earned being largely or entirely discretionary.

Come to think of it, wasn't it Newt's first wife who worked Newt's way through college? Nice reward she got.

How out-of-touch must Newt Gingrich be, to imply that Americans would have no right to object to a politician telling them that they need to "work harder"....

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Racial Balance As Window Dressing

Although it may be impolitic of me to suggest it, in looking at some of the school integration policies affected by the Supreme Court's dramatic narrowing of Brown, I can't help but wonder if the policies were not primarily about keeping up appearances. Juan Williams has listed some of the serious problems which continued despite school integration, as well as the limited effect of the decision:
Desegregation does not speak to dropout rates that hover near 50 percent for black and Hispanic high school students. It does not equip society to address the so-called achievement gap between black and white students that mocks Brown’s promise of equal educational opportunity.

And the fact is, during the last 20 years, with Brown in full force, America’s public schools have been growing more segregated — even as the nation has become more racially diverse. In 2001, the National Center for Education Statistics reported that the average white student attends a school that is 80 percent white, while 70 percent of black students attend schools where nearly two-thirds of students are black and Hispanic
Inner city school districts with very high minority enrollment are unlikely to appear integrated absent an inter-district integration plan. Meanwhile, in school districts which can engage in the balancing of minority populations through school busing, it seems that the central issue is not about equalizing school performance. Instead the primary goal seems to be to achieve ethnic balance when allocating space in the district's most desirable schools. Quality differences between schools don't appear to be much affected by this type of balancing.

Even accepting that having people from a variety of backgrounds and who hold divergent world views can enrich an academic environment, once you also accept race as the best measure of "diversity" you run into additional issues. If you ask random parents whether they believe integrated schools offer a better experience than segregated schools, many (perhaps most) will answer yes. If you then ask them which school they wish their own child to attend,
  • An average quality integrated school across town, requiring at least thirty minutes of transportation each way;
  • An average quality school which is poorly integrated, and in which their child will be in the ethnic majority, a two minute walk from home; or
  • A superlative school which is poorly integrated, and in which their child will be in the ethnic minority, fifteen minutes from home,
how many parents would choose the first option? If the answer were any significant number, Seattle wouldn't have had to impose its affirmative action program on its students.

In respect to the argument that education is improved through ethnic diversity, consider a school district with three schools, with highly simplified demographics:
  • School 1: 90% White; 9% African American; 1% Hispanic
  • School 2: 85% White; 11% African American; 4% Hispanic
  • School 3: 8% White; 85% African American; 7% Hispanic
Are we to assume that the first school is somehow more attractive than the third, simply by virtue of which race is in the overwhelming majority? If so, at least in the modern era, perhaps the problem is not that we can bus kids around such that the races are balanced in each school at 61:35:4, but that equality of funding does not automatically translate into either equality of opportunity or equality of outcome. Integration that does not elevate the quality of the bottom schools is a fig leaf - the population of students in bad schools may be more ethnically balanced, but their total number is not reduced.

Given equality of funding, there are not any easy answers to the question of how to improve lower quality schools. Some proposals, such as forcing the best teachers into the worst schools, are silly. Proponents of such measures often complain that teachers unions prevent this from happening. It would be more accurate to say that teachers' individual preference prevents it from happening, and that union contracts require school boards to give considerable weight to that preference. There is little which would prevent a school board from offering an incentive program to try to encourage teachers to accept positions at struggling schools, save perhaps for a lack of money to fund such measures.

Even if we were to assume that the parents whose children attend the best schools in town, and who are statistically most likely to both vote and to attend school board meetings, would tolerate their children's teachers being dispatched to other schools, such tolerance would likely end if, as this argument inevitably requires, those teachers were replaced with average quality and substandard teachers from other schools. This argument is also insulting to good teachers who have already chosen to work in troubled schools. The assumption that all student bodies are created equal is not correct. An excellent teacher may be able to achieve outstanding results in an academic magnet school, but excellent teaching skills are not of themselves sufficient to guarantee that outcome.

That argument also assumes that a skill set which makes a teacher outstanding within a high performing school will automatically translate into success within a failing school. Wrong. In a failing school, classroom management skills may prove to be more important to maintaining an appropriate learning environment than a teacher's ability to teach once the classroom is orderly. A few years ago I gave "law day" lectures at several middle schools. The students in the high SES school were reasonably well behaved. The students in the low socio-economic status (SES) school were significantly less well-behaved. The easiest environment by far, however, was a Catholic middle school in which the worst behavior I encountered was a boy who wore his winter gloves in class. (What's so bad about that behavior, you ask? Nothing, really.) I had similar experience substitute teaching - in some classrooms most of my time was spent maintaining order, while in others it was never even an issue. I can't draw racial inferences from that experience, as the school district was overwhelmingly white. SES was a highly significant factor.

I am not going to cheerlead "teach to the test" measures like "No Child Left Behind", and I find "mandatory homework" rules to be silly. While legislators don't pay attention to this, or perhaps don't care, such measures can also make it much less enjoyable to teach. But giving the devil its due, NCLB requires some amount of focus on the performance of individual students. I suspect that extra help and tutoring directed at struggling students will, on the whole, have a measurable positive effect on their performance. Forgive my skepticism of the American taxpayer, but I don't think school boards would get much voter support for proposals which overtly fund failing schools at a substantially higher level than average or quality schools, even if that funding is for programs and resources which are absolutely necessary to remedying the imbalance of performance. By moving the focus from the school to the student, you can avoid some of the issues which would emerge if you were to propose, for example, greater per student funding of failing schools. This would make the funding similar to special education, shifting the funding to a different budget such that additional resources could be applied to individual students without making it appear that other schools in the district are underfunded, even if the effect is the same.

You might argue that much of this is window dressing, and that the core of the problem is our society's misconception that public schools should cure all that ails our nation's youth. You might argue that a huge factor in student performance is parental attitudes toward education, parental support for their child's education, and the parents' own level of educational achievement. It would be hard to argue with that, save for observing that those factors are vastly harder to remedy than the problems of the public schools, and the hope is that by making schools better for the current generation you will improve those outside factors for future generations. We'll get better results, though, if we focus on curing the actual problems which underly failing schools.

Sunday, July 01, 2007

Turning Justice Roberts Into An Advocate For The Poor

Responding to Chief Justice Roberts' insistence that federal judges need a big pay increase, the Washington Post opines,
Still, Congress is right to reconsider how judicial pay works, since it's far from a flawless system. Judicial pay should be unlinked to congressional pay, for one. It should also be adjusted for cost of living annually (so real income doesn't fluctuate greatly from year to year) and regionally (so a judge in New York isn't earning the same pay as a judge in Little Rock). A real pay raise -- though not 50 percent -- is called for.
Hey - how about tying judicial salaries to increases in the minimum wage?