Charter Schools Versus Public Schools

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Diane Ravitch, about whom I just posted, argues that charter schools are no better than public schools. Any evidence to the contrary is the product of charter schools gaming the system by omitting poorly performing students from the data, she claims. Ravitch is apparently right, but she need not worry about misleading evidence; the most recent evidence actually shows that, at least in cities like Milwaukee, charter schools are not doing as well as public schools. Of course, mere evidence does not persuade ideologically driven proponents of the anti-public school program. Here is the AP report, as published by the Oshkosh Northwestern-

MILWAUKEE — Supporters of a Milwaukee school-voucher program say they’re not deterred by test results showing that kids in those programs perform worse than students in public schools do.

The test results were released Tuesday by the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction. They show that voucher students are nowhere near their public school counterparts.

Gov. Scott Walker says the overall voucher program is “exceptional.” He says the priority should be to give more money to the top-performing schools.

State Rep. Robin Vos says the test scores don’t tell the whole story. The Rochester Republican says some of the students came from poor schools and are still catching up, and that graduation rates are a better measure.

The Wisconsin Association of School Boards says the state should stop investing in a program that yields “questionable results.”

Diane Ravitch: Republican Apostate On Education

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As Assistant Secretary of Education under George Bush Sr., Diane Ravitch wholeheartedly championed charter schools and the No Child Left Behind program, but she has since come out as a staunch opponent of such policies: her new book is entitled, “The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education“. In her view, which seems plausible to me, the main cause of poor student achievement in U.S. schools is poverty, not incompetent teachers. In her interview with Steve Paulson on WPR’s excellent weekly show/podcast, “To The Best Of Our Knowledge”, she also explains how charter schools can game the system to make it appear as if they are more effective than traditional public schools. Here’s that 10 minute segment, from the “Question Austerity” episode.



Saturday Night With Keith

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Some people love Keith Jarrett’s solo improvisations for their virtuosity. I’ve always most admired his rhythmic and melodic sensitivity, as amply demonstrated by this restrained rendition of Somewhere Over The Rainbow. Here’s to the possibility of better days to come-

Kitten & Bird

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A friend of mine recently emailed me a collection of cute animal photos, amongst which was this picture of inter-species bliss:

Now if only Democrats and Republicans could “just get along” as well…

Checks, Balances, and The Oshkosh Northwestern

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The Oshkosh Northwestern, a middle-of-the-road newspaper in a politically purple region, wrote a brief editorial yesterday advocating against voting for Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice David Prosser in the upcoming election April 5th. I think it’s noteworthy enough to reprint it here in its entirety-

One of the disturbing sidelights of the current political upheaval in Wisconsin is the erosion of the separation of powers doctrine that is occurring. It will be complete if voters re-elect Justice David Prosser to the state Supreme Court on April 5.

There can be no question that the majority of voters were demanding budget and tax reform when they elected a Republican, Scott Walker, as governor in November. Voters emphasized their demand for change by giving Republicans majorities in both houses of the legislature. And a victory by Prosser would maintain a 4-3 advantage held by judicial conservatives on the Supreme Court, giving Walker a clean sweep of all three branches of government.

If there is any doubt about the impending collapse of the “checks and balances” that three independent branches of government represent, consider this statement from Prosser’s campaign manager. “Our campaign efforts will include building an organization that will return Justice Prosser to the bench, protecting the conservative judicial majority and acting as a common sense complement to both the new (Republican) administration and legislature.

Prosser tried to new back away from that statement but cannot undo the very clear message his campaign was sending to voters. Nor can he hide is background as a Republican Speaker of the Assembly when Walker was also in the assembly.

In the legislature the budget repair bill demonstrated that the legislature had become a wholly owned subsidiary of the governor’s office. Sen. Scott Fitzgerald, the majority leader of the Senate, and his brother, Rep. Jeff Fitzgerald, speaker of the Assembly, have been unapologetic about serving as Walker’s minions to get the bill passed.

At one point, Scott Fitzgerald actually sought Walker’s permission to talk to the 14 Democratic senators who fled the state to block passage of the bill. Fitzgerald then acted as Walker’s personal valet in the strategy to pass the collective bargaining provisions of the bill separately. So much for the concept that the legislative branch acts independently of the executive branch.

It will be left to researchers and pollsters to determine if voters intended to eviscerate the separation of powers at the ballot box in Wisconsin. But recent history tells us that it was not healthy for the nation when President Obama and the U.S. Congress did it from 2009-2010 and it is not healthy for the state now. Nationally, voters recalibrated the scales of power in 2010 by electing a Republican majority in the House of Representatives. If will interesting to see if Wisconsin voters do the same thing in 2012 or if they are OK with a monopolistic state government with no checks and balances.

Note that while this editorial advocates against voting for Prosser, it falls well short of endorsing his opponent, JoAnne Kloppenburg; indeed, it doesn’t even mention her name. I suppose that’s not particularly objectionable, given the editorial’s implication that any competent alternative leftward of Prosser would do. However, it’s a mark of the paper’s recognition that its readership is evenly divided ideologically that it goes out of its way to draw a very weak analogy between the current condition of the Wisconsin State government and the first two years of the Obama administration. After all, no objective observer would say that the Roberts Supreme Court has been ideologically in tune with Obama’s views (recall the flap over the President’s remark about the Citizens United decision at his 2010 State of The Union address). I respect the position that the Oshkosh Northwestern has taken in this editorial; I could respect it more if it didn’t rely on fallacious reasoning to suggest “balance”.

Wisconsin Republican Educational Priorities

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Steve Kestell and Luther Olsen, the respective Chairs of the Wisconsin State Assembly and Senate Committees on Education, each voted to cut more than $800,000,000 in State aid to schools, and also to end the ability of teachers to collectively bargain on such work conditions as maximum class size – one of the most important factors relative to student success. Now these two powerful legislators have apparently decided that their most pressing priority is to make sure that teachers don’t view pornography on their work computers. Seriously. According to AP-

Viewing pornography on school district computers would be expressly listed as grounds for revocation of their license under a bill being circulated in the Wisconsin Legislature.

Republican Rep. Steve Kestell and Sen. Luther Olsen were accept cosponsors to the bill through Friday.

Under current law, the state Department of Public Instruction may revoke any license for incompetency or immoral conduct. Immoral conduct is defined as anything contrary to commonly accepted moral or ethical standards and that endangers the health, safety, welfare, or education of any pupil.

The bill would add the intentional viewing of pornography on a school district compute as immoral conduct.

The proposal also calls for posting the names of those whose licenses are revoked on the DPI web site.

So continues the Republican trend of treating teachers as if they were irresponsible adolescents, rather than serious, hard-working professionals that deserve respect.

Now, if there were any evidence that teachers actually are tending to view pornography on their work computers, I would have no objection to addressing that issue. But like so many of the issues Republicans are choosing to focus on these days, evidence seems to play very little (if any) role in their policy deliberations, and hence in how they choose to spend their time. Wouldn’t it be nice if these Education Committee Chairs actually focused on improving the public schools, instead of first undermining them and then focusing on hot-button non-issues?

Maybe these men simply have pornography on their minds…

Senator Johnson’s Bizarre Reasoning About Health Insurance Reform

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In Ron Johnson’s Wall Street Journal editorial yesterday, which marks the first anniversary of health insurance reform, the Senator focuses first on his young daughter’s life-saving heart surgery, a procedure he says was paid for by his “run-of-the-mill” health insurance policy. He then adds-

I don’t even want to think what might have happened if she had been born at a time and place where government defined the limits for most insurance policies and set precedents on what would be covered. Would the life-saving procedures that saved her have been deemed cost-effective by policy makers deciding where to spend increasingly scarce tax dollars?

What is bizarre about this comment is that “Obamacare” actually does away with the sorts of arbitrary policy limits that his health insurance company could have invoked to avoid paying for the procedure. The reform bill also makes health insurance available to about 36 million American citizens who otherwise would never be able to afford the sort of surgery for which Senator Johnson is (quite appropriately) so grateful. The “time and place” he is envisioning so fearfully no more exists than the mythical “death panels” of yore.

There may well be reasons to dislike the health insurance reform law, including the individual mandate that Obama originally was against (when he ran against Clinton), and the lack of a public option that might actually lower costs – both of which were likely insisted upon by the insurance companies that partially wrote the law. But Johnson’s concern is most definitely not one of them.

The Cost Of The War On Terror

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I’ve been a fan of Harper’s Magazine for about thirty years. One of my favorite features of their format is Harper’s Index, in which they suggestively juxtapose all sorts of interesting statistics. The March 2011 issue starts off with the following facts-

Estimated percentage change since 2000 in the U.S. defense budget, not including the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan: +80

Number of American civilians who died worldwide in terrorist attacks last year: 8

Minimum number who died after being struck by lightning: 29

Estimated spending by Afghans on bribes last year: $2,500,000,000

Portion of the country’s GDP to which this figure is equivalent: 1/4.

I know that statistics taken out of context can be misleading. I also tend to trust Obama’s relatively cautious judgment when it comes to foreign affairs. Still, it’s hard not to be troubled when confronted with numbers like these.

The American Federation For Children?

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I received a delightful robo-call today from a group calling itself the Amercian Federation For Children. The recording urged me not to sign any petition requesting a recall election of my Wisconsin State Senator Randy Hopper (too late; I already have). It said several times that the petition was being circulated by unnamed special interest groups from whom we must protect our children. Just how the bills that Senator Hopper supports are supposed to help children was left quite unclear. Those bills cut State support to schools by more than $800,000,000, prohibit local governments raising taxes to cover the difference, and effectively end the sort collective bargaining that might prevent class sizes from ballooning as a result.

Now, it is possible that such a robo-call could be funded by concerned citizens who are simply motivated by a dogmatically anti-government ideology. While in my view such an ideology would be misguided, at least it would be motivated by philosophical – rather than financial – concerns. Unfortunately, it appears that the American Federation For Children is led by folks who have a particular business model in mind for our public educational system.

Take, for instance, John Schilling, the group’s Chief Operating Officer. Schilling is also a member and adviser of the “Digital Learning Council”, a group that lobbies for publicly subsidized private online education. Check out just how much corporate welfare the Digital Learning Council would like for-profit online schools to receive from the government: taxpayers would subsidize privately owned online education by funding the technological infrastructure. Training for the teachers working online would include “alternative certification routes, including online instruction and performance-based certification”. In other words, the same corporations that run the online elementary and high schools could issue credentials to online teachers. The long-term goal seems to be to substitute semi-automated online instruction for hands-on teaching at brick and mortar public schools. The online schools would be “assessed digitally”, perhaps by evaluating test results. Of course, students would never cheat on online tests, would they?

Or consider Greg Brock, the American Federation For Children’s Executive Director, who just happens to also be Executive Director of a group called “All Children Matter”, which lobbies for vouchers: again, for public subsidies of private, for-profit education. Betsy Devos is at the head of “All Children Matter”; according to RightWingWatch.org, she once admitted that her financial support for politicians like Senator Hopper is motivated entirely by a quid pro quo:

“I know a little something about soft money, as my family is the largest single contributor of soft money to the national Republican Party. I have decided, however, to stop taking offense at the suggestion that we are buying influence. Now I simply concede the point. They are right. We do expect some things in return.” – Betsy DeVos (Roll Call, 1997)

Finally, it’s interesting to note that “All Children Matter” was apparently bankrolled back in 2004 by Wal-Mart heir John Walton. Just what we need: publicly funded but privately owned Wal-Marts of education! When that robo-call from the American Federation For Children today warned me about unnamed special interests that don’t have the welfare of children in mind, it was right.

The Law That Ensnared Gordon Hintz

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The Oshkosh Northwestern reports today that Wisconsin State Assemblyman Gordon Hintz, about whom I recently blogged, has pleaded no contest to a “sexual misconduct” charge in connection to a massage parlor visit-

“This was a bad decision in my personal life that was out of character for me,” Hintz said. “I deeply apologize and regret the disappointment my actions caused my community, family and friends. I take full responsibility for all of my actions and accept the consequences for these actions.”

Alright, well and good for Hintz to “man-up” and take responsibility for his actions. I’m not against all regulation of prostitution; at the very least, reasonable prostitution laws should guard against sexual slavery, and enforce rather stringent health and safety standards. (Ideally, I think, prostitutes should have a strong union). But, putting aside the appropriateness of the fine Hintz had to pay ($2,032.50) in this particular case, what caught my eye about his story was the disturbing breadth of the law he apparently broke-

The ordinance under which the 37-year-old Oshkosh Democrat was charged prohibits paying or receiving “a fee, directly or indirectly, or to offer or ask for anything of value, for touching or offering to touch the sexual parts of another.” [Italics added]

So, husbands and wives, when a headache strikes, be sure not to ask for (or offer) a neck-rub before indulging in previously scheduled conjugal activities; you might have to pay a hefty fine.

Republicans Contra Science

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It’s one thing to disagree about what to do about global warming, and even about the exact causes of global warming, but every single Republican on the House Energy and Commerce Committee voted against a simple statement of the scientifically uncontroversial fact that global warming is occurring! As reported by The Hill-

Committee ranking Democrat Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) offered an amendment Tuesday that called on Congress to agree that climate change is occurring. The amendment failed on a party-line vote of 20-31. No Republicans voted for the amendment.

The amendment says that “Congress accepts the scientific finding of the Environmental Protection Agency that ‘warming of the climate system is unequivocal, as is now evident from observations of increases in global average air and ocean temperatures, widespread melting of snow and ice, and rising global average sea level.'”

“This finding is so obviously correct that there should be no need to offer the amendment,” Waxman said.

Waxman is right. Denying that global warming is occurring is like denying that the Earth is (roughly) spherical. These Republicans seem to be concerned that admitting a fact might trap them into agreeing to a policy they would find unpalatable, but reality never dictates policy (just as facts don’t dictate values). Perhaps they are denying the facts in order to avoid revealing their true values…

Who’s Got How Much?

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I’ve been calculating just how big a hit my paycheck is about to take thanks to Governor Walker’s decision to balance the Wisconsin State budget largely on the backs of public workers (including teachers and university professors), the poor (via medicaid and “badgercare” cuts), and school children (who will undoubtedly see the quality of their educations diminish). As it turns out, I’m going to be taking home significantly less, especially for the next couple of months when the cuts are combined with so-called “furlough days” (days off without pay, but not days off from teaching; a sort of catch-22 that renders them simple pay cuts for educators). The bottom line is that I think I’ll be netting around 10% less. I’ll update that figure once I see the actual damages.

Like most citizens, I’m willing to make financial sacrifices for the common good. But in the last few days I’ve heard a couple of statements suggesting that balancing the budget entirely on the backs of people like me (and those significantly less well-off) might not be, well, the fairest policy in the world. They are the following:

(1) In 2007, “the top 1 percent of all income earners in the United States made 23.5 percent of all income,” which is “more than the entire bottom 50 percent.” (Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders in a Senate floor speech on Tuesday, November 30th, 2010).

(2) “Just 400 Americans — 400 — have more wealth than half of all Americans combined.” (Michael Moore in a speech to protesters in Madison, Wisconsin, on Saturday, March 5th, 2011)

Being skeptical by nature, and being fully aware that both Sanders and Moore are piñatas for the right wing pundits, I wanted to make sure that these statements were accurate before further publicizing them here. The most reliable site I’ve found on the web for vetting statements like these is Politifact. And, according to Politifact, both (1) and (2) are, indeed, TRUE.

I don’t know how many of those fortunate few live in Wisconsin, although my guess is that at least a few of the 1% of highest income earners do. Maybe… just maybe… they could afford to be taxed at a slightly higher rate than the one they’ve been suffering under while accumulating their huge fortunes, and thereby take some of the pressure off of folks like teachers, garbage collectors and janitors…

Nuclear Reactors, Control Rods, and Meltdowns

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So… I was wondering how an earthquake could possibly cause a meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear facility in Japan, given that the plant operators had been able to fully insert the control rods into the core. I had to search for a few minutes to find an explanation by someone who actually knew what they were talking about – in this case, Alexey Petrov, an Associate Professor at the Department of Physics and Astronomy at Wayne State University. Here is an informative excerpt from his post, which can be found here-

Diagram of a BWR-type nuclear reactor

Here is the scheme of BWR-type reactor, taken from the Wikipedia page on BWR. The physics here is very simple. Fission reaction in the uranium fuel assemblies (2) heat water (blue stuff, 7), which turns into steam (red stuff, 6) in the reactor vessel (1). The steam exits the vessel and spins the turbine (8 and 9) that generates electricity. That steam is cooled down and returned into the reactor vessel and the process begins again.

Simply speaking, fission reaction happens when a slow (thermal) neutron is absorbed by uranium (U-235) nucleus, which then splits into several (two) lighter daughter nuclei, neutrons (about 3) releasing energy that is converted into heat. In order to have sustained nuclear reaction one needs to slow down those produced neutrons so that they could be absorbed by other U235 nuclei to initiate fission reaction. Different reactor designs use different moderators to do that: water (BWR, PWR), graphite (RBMK), etc.

This simple excursion into nuclear physics tells us that the rate of power generation can regulated by controlling the flux of thermal neutrons. This is indeed what is done by the control rods (3) that are usually made of a material (boron) that absorbs neutrons.

What happens in case of an earthquake? Well, the automatic control systems first and foremost would kill the sustained fission reaction that is going in the fuel elements. This was done at the Fukushima plant immediately by inserting the control rods (notice that the control rods are inserted from below). So, what’s the problem then? Why is the water vapor’s pressure is rising?

The problem is that during the fission reaction one also produces a lot of short-lived nuclear isotopes. Normally, if you would like to shut down a reactor (say, to refuel), you need some time (several days) for those isotopes to decay. During this time, the water is still being circulated through the reactor core in order to take away the heat produced in the decays of those short-lived isotopes. This is done via pumps that are operated via (1) power grid or (2) diesel generators or (3) batteries. After the earthquake the grid was knocked out and the diesel generators damaged. The pumps are now running on the batteries and the water vapor pressure inside the reactor vessel is rising — by the way, the normal operating pressure there is about 75 atmospheres!!! TEPCo [Tokyo Electric Power Company, the plant’s owner – ed.] reports that the pressure there rose twice that, so the plant operators decided to release steam from the vessel. Now, to cool down the reactor (until those short-lived isotopes decay) they decided to flood the containment vessel with sea water.

So, as you see, the Chernobyl-type of explosion is highly unlikely at the Fukushima plant.

Well, that’s a relief… But (UPDATE 3/15) that doesn’t mean we’re not in for a disaster, according to the New York Times-

“We are on the brink. We are now facing the worst-case scenario,” said Hiroaki Koide, a senior reactor engineering specialist at the Research Reactor Institute of Kyoto University. “We can assume that the containment vessel at Reactor No. 2 is already breached. If there is heavy melting inside the reactor, large amounts of radiation will most definitely be released.”

Another executive said the chain of events at Daiichi suggested that it would be difficult to maintain emergency seawater cooling operations for an extended period if the containment vessel at one reactor had been compromised because radiation levels could threaten the health of workers nearby. If all workers do in fact leave the plant, the nuclear fuel in all three reactors is likely to melt down, which would lead to wholesale releases of radioactive material — by far the largest accident of its kind since the Chernobyl.

Friday Night With Bill Evans

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Before Keith Jarrett, there was Bill Evans, who passed away at the all-too-young age of 51 in 1980. Here’s a 1979 live performance of “My Romance”, recorded in glorious Mono, with Marc Johnson on bass and Joe Labarbera brushing the drums-

If you’d like to hear more of this trio (in Stereo, no less), check out “Turn Out The Stars” on iTunes. This is a collection of three live sets recorded at the Village Vanguard only a few weeks before Evans died. He was going to pick the best versions of each song for a single album, but didn’t live long enough. By selling the tracks singly, iTunes has given each of us a chance to finish the job for him.

An Open Letter To UNLV Administrators

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Dear President Smatresk, Provost Bowers, and Dean Hudgins-

A communication from the American Philosophical Association recently informed me that you are contemplating totally eliminating UNLV’s philosophy department. As a philosophy professor myself, I’m writing to express my sincere hope that this will not be necessary. It is not just the weight of tradition that has made philosophy one of the oldest academic disciplines (traceable back at least to Plato’s Academy, 387 B.C.). It has survived so long in Western higher education because, more than any other discipline, it specializes in teaching critical reasoning skills that can be used by anyone, both during and after their formal studies. And no other discipline hones those skills while considering questions that are of interest to anyone with an inquiring mind, no matter what their professional focus. In short, philosophy is the glue that holds together a liberal arts education. Surely you can find a way to balance your budget by “sharing the pain” more equitably with other departments, and thereby leave open an invaluable option for your students.

Thank you for your consideration-

Dr. Larry A. Herzberg
Associate Professor of Philosophy
University of Wisconsin – Oshkosh