April 24, 2009

dear internet

Today has been great so far. I have biked downtown, done small amounts of paid work, eaten soft pretzels and gelato, drunk espresso, done more paid work, biked to the south side of town, drunk two blood-orange margaritas outside, eaten some nachos, and biked to my girlfriend's office to wait for her to be done with work. Then we will bike home together.

IT'S SPRING!!! Could I be any more excited?

April 22, 2009

something short about education

The Economix blog at the NYT recently posted, describing the comparative inefficiency of the US educational system. Which, if you look at the graph, is true. But it's more complicated than that. (I posted a chunk of this as a comment on that blog.)

Two major issues: spending per student in the US is in fact very split between wealthy and poor districts. Philadelphia spends $11,000 per student per year, almost $10,000 less than nearby Lower Merion, and is constantly short of funds. Not that there isn’t waste in Philly’s system, but money certainly isn’t easy to come by for teachers.

Second, the other countries which do well tend to have strong, generous social support networks. My guess (as a former teacher) is that schools there don’t have to provide health care, counseling, food, etc to students who have trouble getting them at home. One huge difference between my experience going to school and my experience teaching was that, by and large, the kids I went to school with got glasses when they needed them, and if they fell way behind in reading or math, their parents noticed (were equipped to notice by their own educational success) and got them tutoring or other assistance (because they had either time or money with which to provide those things).

There are still huge problems within our educational system that are matters of educational policy rather than social policy more broadly defined: we lack a unified set of national standards, the standards we do have (especially in math, though this may also be true in other subjects where I know the debates less well) are less rigorous and more connected to rote memorization than the standards in other countries, and teachers have far less prep and development time than teachers in, for example, Japan.

I’m routinely astonished, though, by the number of non-educators (and sometimes educators) who think that failing students is somehow the key. This always, always comes up in comments on articles about education, and usually some version of this will also come up in a professional development workshop. Yes, students need accountability, and yes, it makes your job a lot harder when students don't know the earlier material. But making them repeat the same material in the same context without additional supports doesn’t help - it just leads to a bored, frustrated kid who thinks he or she has already learned this (and has, in the sense of having sat in a classroom while it was being taught). The evidence also just doesn't support a claim that making students repeat a grade improves their achievement - mostly it makes them more likely to drop out, and lowers over-all achievement. You can’t just keep doing the same thing and expect different results.

April 13, 2009

I still like the Iowa Supreme Court

In Iowa, as in California but not Massachusetts, Supreme Court justices face retention elections periodically - every 8 years in Iowa, every 12 years in California. This means that a justice who supported Varnum v. Brien, the same-sex marriage decision, is taking some actual risk that there will be an organized campaign to boot him or her. Per Nate Silver at FiveThirtyEight, support for same-sex marriage is increasing about 2 points a year. Nate's model claims that Iowans will vote for same-sex marriage in 2013. (Electoral outcomes would presumably be more positive for "a justice who supports same-sex marriage among other qualities" than "same-sex marriage," but if you know something about public opinion that contradicts this, you should feel free to jump in.) You might thus predict that the further away a justice's retention election, the easier it would be for that justice to support Varnum v. Brien. In fact, of the seven justices who unanimously voted for the decision, three have retention elections in 2010, including one who was only appointed in 2008. That suggests they were willing to risk their own positions on the court for same-sex marriage, which I just find very endearing. And brave.

April 3, 2009

Iowa rules, your state drools

Unless your state is Massachusetts or Connecticut.

"In a unanimous decision, the Iowa Supreme Court today held that the Iowa statute limiting civil marriage to a union between a man and a woman violates the equal protection clause of the Iowa Constitution."

The decision itself (PDF) is lovely. From the background facts:

"This lawsuit is a civil rights action by twelve individuals who reside in six communities across Iowa. Like most Iowans, they are responsible, caring, and productive individuals. They maintain important jobs, or are retired, and are contributing, benevolent members of their communities. They include a nurse, business manager, insurance analyst, bank agent, stay-at-home parent, church organist and piano teacher, museum director, federal employee, social worker, teacher, and two retired teachers. Like many Iowans, some have children and others hope to have children. Some are foster parents. Like all Iowans, they prize their liberties and live within the borders of this state with the expectation that their rights will be maintained and protected—a belief embraced by our state motto. Despite the commonality shared with other Iowans, the twelve plaintiffs are different from most in one way. They are sexually and romantically attracted to members of their own sex. The twelve plaintiffs comprise six same-sex couples who live in committed relationships. Each maintains a hope of getting married one day, an aspiration shared by many throughout Iowa.

"Unlike opposite-sex couples in Iowa, same-sex couples are not permitted to marry in Iowa. The Iowa legislature amended the marriage statute in 1998 to define marriage as a union between only a man and a woman. Despite this law, the six same-sex couples in this litigation asked the Polk County recorder to issue marriage licenses to them. The recorder, following the law, refused to issue the licenses, and the six couples have been unable to be married in this state. Except for the statutory restriction that defines marriage as a union between a man and a woman, the twelve plaintiffs met the legal requirements to marry in Iowa.

"As other Iowans have done in the past when faced with the enforcement of a law that prohibits them from engaging in an activity or achieving a status enjoyed by other Iowans, the twelve plaintiffs turned to the courts to challenge the statute. They seek to declare the marriage statute unconstitutional so they can obtain the array of benefits of marriage enjoyed by heterosexual couples, protect themselves and their children, and demonstrate to one another and to society their mutual commitment."

I love the rhetorical trick of describing plaintiffs in terms of their similarities to other (hypothetical and semi-mythologized) Iowans, a trick which of course tells you where the decision is going. And in fact, there it goes, after pausing to take stock of the evidence related to child-raising in same-sex households, the diversity of religious views on same-sex marriage, and the claim that gay and lesbian people can get married (to someone they're not interested in marrying): "The language in Iowa Code section 595.2 limiting civil marriage to a man and a woman must be stricken from the statute, and the remaining statutory language must be interpreted and applied in a manner allowing gay and lesbian people full access to the institution of civil marriage."

Nice work, Iowa Supreme Court.

p.s. I totally had a new media moment this morning: I knew the decision was due out at 8:30 and there was nothing on the Des Moines Register homepage, but there was a hash tag (#iagaymarriage) to search twitter with. So I sat around refreshing the twitter search until someone at the courthouse found out what the decision said, and twittered it. Nice work, new media.