August 21, 2010

Obama's family and CIA

For some time now, I've been pointing out that President Barack Obama's mother and father had more links to CIA (and affiliated American organizations of influence, such as the Ford Foundation) than, in all likelihood, your mom and dad had.* Obama's parents were exactly the kind of leftist -- but not Communist -- cosmopolitans and exotics whom CIA cultivated.

Now, conspiracy blogger Wayne Madsen exhaustively tallies up the Obama family links and possible connections to CIA, adding in his stepfather Lolo Soetoro and grandmother Madeleine Dunham, whose Honolulu bank supposedly handled the accounts of a CIA front company. (Not even Madsen, however, can come up with a world-historical role for the President's feckless furniture salesman grandfather Stan.) Here's his article on Obama's father's Kenyan CIA connections and here's his article on his mother's Asian CIA connections.

Madsen comes up with no smoking guns, and some of it's over the top and other parts are extremely tangential, but, all in all, it does make a decent case that Obama's parents traveled in CIA-related circles. Obama himself made clear in Dreams from My Father that his mother knew CIA agents when she worked at the US Embassy in Jakarta.

The notion of Obama as CIA's Manchurian Candidate is excessive. But if you conceive of CIA less as the Master Puppeteer and more as a well-funded part of the Global Favor Bank, then otherwise odd bits of the President's biography like his feeling like a "spy behind enemy lines" at Business International, a firm that had admittedly provided cover as business journalists for four CIA agents, make more sense.

* By the way, when I first started thinking about the Obama family's CIA connections, I thought, "Wow, his mom and dad had a lot more CIA connections than, say, my mom and dad did." But, then I got to thinking. Back in the 1940s, my mom became dear friends with another secretary at Lockheed, who went on to marry an engineer named Henry Combs. Henry became one of the chief designers of the CIA's U-2 spy plane (still in service) and was the head structural designer of the CIA's legendary SR-71 superplane. We used to go out to the Combs' ranch in Santa Clarita and I would play hide-and-go-seek with their six kids.

I also have in-laws based in the Virginia suburbs of D.C. who get assigned to odd, but strategically important, locations around the world, and you're not supposed to ask them what they do on the job.

In other words, the American intelligence apparatus is quite large, and lots of people have lots of connections of varying degrees with it.

August 20, 2010

Redshirting Redux

Pamela Paul writes in the NYT "The Littlest Redshirts Sit Out Kindergarten," giving the pros and cons of having your kid repeat preschool so he can start kindergatren at age 6 instead of age 5. I wrote about it in 2002 here, and it doesn't seem like much has changed in the arguments since then. Back then, I concluded:
Overall, Hyson feared that we were creating a vicious cycle. Kindergarten might continue getting more advanced, causing the average age of kindergarten students to go up in response, which in turn would allow the academic demands to be ratcheted up further. Eventually, after much turmoil, kindergarten might turn out to be simply first grade under a different name, with the same curriculum and the same age students as first grade traditionally had.

Whether or not it's good for society, it could be good (or bad) for your own kid. As for my own views on whether it would be a good idea in any particular case, I was pretty neutral in 2002. Now, I would probably be more likely to recommend redshirting, at least for boys. Developing an expectation of social dominance due to an artificial advantage in age might turn into a real long-term advantage in social dominance.

For example, watching Jimmy Clausen be the top high school football recruit in the Class of 2006 because he was a 19-year-old quarterback chewing up 17-year-old defenses was eye-opening. If he hadn't been red-shirted twice by his NCAA football-savvy parents, he would have been a young 17-year-old in the Class of 2004. Would he have gotten a scholarship to a high profile offensive college then?

Of course, your mileage may vary.

Unfortunately, we don't seem to know how true this theory behind redshirting is. It's hard for social scientists to find out anything very definitive about child-rearing practices because parents are constantly adjusting their decisions according to what they see as the specific (and often changing) needs of their children, which is good for their kids but bad for social science studies. Jim Manzi would recommend running a randomized experiment with a control group, but outside of welfare moms, it's hard to find parents who will sit back and passively let social scientists treat their children randomly.

Not making much progress, are we?

From an op-ed in today's New York Times:

HOW much evidence does the government need before trying something new in the troubled realm of public education? Should there be airtight proof that a pioneering program works before we commit federal money to it — or is it sometimes worth investing in promising but unproven innovations?

Last month, the Senate subcommittee that allocates federal education money weighed in on one such promising innovation, slicing, by more than 90 percent, the $210 million that President Obama requested for next year for his Promise Neighborhoods initiative.

Mr. Obama first proposed Promise Neighborhoods in the summer of 2007, pledging that, as president, he would help create in 20 cities across the country a new kind of support system for disadvantaged children, paid for with a mix of private and public money. In a single distressed neighborhood in each city, Mr. Obama explained, high-quality schools would be integrated into a network of early-childhood programs, parenting classes, health clinics and other social services, all focused on improving educational outcomes for poor children.

Promise Neighborhoods was inspired by the example of the Harlem Children’s Zone, which over the last decade has compiled a solid, though still incomplete, record of success in the 97 blocks of central Harlem where it operates. Students at the group’s two charter elementary schools, mostly low-income and almost all black or Hispanic, have achieved strong results on statewide tests, often exceeding average proficiency scores for white students. 

On tests that progressively got easier, the rigging of which which helped get Mayor Bloomberg re-elected as a successful gap-narrower. Sharon Otterman and Robert Gebeloff reported in the NYT on August 1 that when the test was made harder this year:
At the main campus of the Harlem Promise Academy, one of the city’s top-ranked charter schools, proficiency in third-grade math dropped from 100 percent to 56 percent.

Back to today's NYT op-ed:
... The central argument against fully financing the Promise Neighborhoods initiative, given voice in recent weeks by various policy groups, journalists and bloggers, is that despite such promising data, the Zone has not yet proved itself.

This case was made most forcefully in a report from the Brookings Institution that came out a week before the Senate committee’s vote. The report acknowledged that the charter schools at the heart of the Zone have, indeed, substantially raised test scores for the children enrolled in them.

But the report also argued that the scores are not as high as those at some other charter schools in Manhattan and the Bronx that don’t include the kind of coordinated system of early-childhood programs, family support and neighborhood improvements offered by the Harlem Children’s Zone. ...
Geoffrey Canada, the founder of the Harlem Children’s Zone, premised his organization on the idea that schools like KIPP’s, though needed, are not enough on their own. To solve the problem of academic underperformance by low-income children, he argues, we must surround great schools with an effective system of additional services for poor families.

These two strategies — call them the KIPP strategy and the Zone strategy — are not fully in opposition; they borrow ideas and tactics from each other. But they do represent distinct theories, both new, both promising and, at this point, both unproven.

So, at this moment of uncertainty and experimentation, should the federal government wait, as critics of Promise Neighborhoods suggest, until ironclad evidence for one big solution exists? ...

A certain skepticism with regard to innovation is always wise, especially in public education, where highly touted new programs often turn out to be disappointments. The problem is that for low-income and minority Americans, the status quo is a deepening calamity. The New York state test results released last month showed that the gap in reading scores between black and white elementary- and middle-school students grew from 22 percentage points in 2009 to 30 points in 2010, while the math gap grew from 17 points to 30 points. 

No, they just finally made the test harder (which automatically widened the percentile gap between the races) after years of it getting easier (which automatically made it narrower). Read your La Griffe du Lion, please. It's Normal Probability Distribution 101.
Pass-rate gaps, when measured by percentage point differences, can appear to change dramatically without any real change occurring in the difference between mean scores.

It's 2010. It's not really asking too much to hope that testing gaps be reported in standard deviations rather than in percentages. We've got computers to do the calculations for us. Just ask La Griffe du Lion to explain it to you.

Oh, wait, nobody knows whom La Griffe du Lion is. You see, he writes under a pseudonym to protect himself from all the people who would be angry at him for his knowing what he's talking about. In contrast, people who don't know what they are talking about when it comes to education, like Mayor Bloomberg and his schools supremo Joel Klein, are highly popular with the New York press, even though they are fools and/or frauds when it comes to the racial gap, which the New York press considers a huge issue.

This represents a general problem with thinking about education in 21st Century America: the best minds are driven underground or away from the topic entirely.

Back to the NYT op-ed:
... The declining prospects of the country’s poor and black students can’t be blamed on belt-tightening by Congress. In fact, the budgets for the two main federal programs designed to improve the performance of low-income children, Title I and Head Start, have risen steadily for the last 40 years, through Republican administrations and Democratic ones. According to a new report by Educational Testing Service, the combined Title I and Head Start budgets grew in inflation-adjusted dollars from $1.7 billion in 1970 to $13.8 billion in 2000. This year’s budget was $21.7 billion.

Head Start, which provides preschool programs to poor families, is a prime example of the Senate committee’s true attitude toward evidence-based decision-making. In January, the Health and Human Services Department released a study of Head Start’s overall impact. The conclusions were disturbing. By the end of first grade, the study found, Head Start graduates were doing no better than students who didn’t attend Head Start. “No significant impacts were found for math skills, pre-writing, children’s promotion, or teacher report of children’s school accomplishments or abilities in any year,” the report concluded.

And how did the Senate panel react to this dismal evidence? They set aside $8.2 billion for Head Start in 2011, almost a billion dollars more than in 2010. Of course, the fact that Congress spends billions of dollars each year on unproven programs does not itself argue that the government should start spending hundreds of millions of new dollars on new unproven programs. But it does undercut the argument that federal education dollars should be reserved only for conclusively proven initiatives. 

That's pretty funny when you stop and think about it. 

August 19, 2010

Untethered on press reaction to Omar Thornton

Dennis Dale writes
The grotesque irony of pursuing a homicidal bigot’s complaints of racial harassment is only noticed by the irrelevant (my hand’s raised). ... For the media the event worked like a brain-teaser, where habitual thinking leads one to miss plain meaning. You know:
one of the coins is a nickel; the doctor is the boy’s mother; the hateful murderer is the bigot.

No “but of course” moment is forthcoming. Here the press is like the ideal subject for a hypnotist’s lounge act: easily brought under, highly suggestible, shameless in its stupor, oblivious in retrospect.

This defamation of the dead isn‘t without its black comedy: the murderer was wearied, we’re told (by a callow girlfriend as oblivious to shame as the reporters encouraging her, reveling in the attention and enthusiastically adopting, as it were, the role usually reserved for a tearful mother), by the racism that just so happened to find him at every job. The chronically incompetent and stupid typically blame luck or a spiteful world for their misfortunes, and in Omar’s mind racism followed him like a personal storm cloud, manifested, I presume, in charges of tardiness, ineptitude, theft. Perhaps it is me who’s being naïve. After all, what a boundless reservoir of racism white America is!

The media’s appetite would not be sated before we were assured of the gentle nature of this man and his love for family, lovers, and handguns. One newspaper featured a photo spread of the widow (of the killer, not one of the killed), complete with an image of the tattoo consecrating her upper thigh to their love. ...

Once the guilt of the dead is confirmed by the standard of federal “civil rights law”—wherein the burden of proof is on the accused (here they can be said to be doubly disadvantaged, compelled by law to prove the negative in a voice rendered silent by their accuser; damn this teacher is strict!) ...

Obama inherits Bush spiritual adviser

From the New York Times: 

by Sheryl Ann Stollberg

Now comes fresh evidence of misperceptions about the president taking root in the public mind: a new poll by the Pew Research Center  finds a substantial rise in the percentage of Americans who believe, incorrectly, that Mr. Obama is Muslim. The president is Christian, but 18 percent now believe he is Muslim, up from 12 percent when he ran for the presidency and 11 percent after he was inaugurated.

The findings suggest that, nearly two years into Mr. Obama’s presidency, the White House is struggling with the perception of “otherness” that Candidate Obama sought so hard to overcome — in part because of an aggressive misinformation campaign by critics and in part, some Democratic allies say, because Mr. Obama is doing a poor job of communicating who he is and what he believes. ...

But Mr. Kohut also said the numbers reflected that Mr. Obama had “not made religion a part of his public persona” as much as he did during his presidential campaign — so much so that even his own supporters are confused.

Among Democrats, for example, just 46 percent said Mr. Obama was Christian, down from 55 percent in March 2009, two months after he took office. ...

The White House says the public — and the press — are not listening. Since taking office, Mr. Obama has given six speeches either from a church pulpit or addressing religion in public life — including an Easter prayer breakfast where he “offered a very personal and candid reflection of what the Resurrection means to him,” said Joshua DuBois, who runs the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships.

But the Easter address attracted scant attention in the news media. And the fact that the Obama family has not joined a church in Washington — the president has said his presence would be too disruptive — has not helped, because the public rarely sees images of them attending services.

Initially, Obama made a big deal about his belonging to Rev. Wright's church, until the public was finally clued in -- after 42 states had held their primaries -- as to what Rev. Wright's church was really like. James Edwards calls it a Black Muslim church in Christian drag, and the prominent left-of-center British man of letters Jonathan Raban visited Wright's church before the storm broke and came to roughly the same conclusion about Wright's church, and concluded that Obama appears to be an agnostic.

Obama officially renounced membership in Trinity around June 1, 2008, and more than two years later he still hasn't joined another church.

But that's all pretty boring. By this point we know that Obama will do what he has to do to win the big prize, but not much more -- he's not made out of energy, you know.

Here's what is interesting in this NYT article:
The White House says Mr. Obama prays daily, sometimes in person or over the telephone with a small circle of Christian pastors. One of them, the Rev. Kirbyjon Caldwell, who was also a spiritual adviser to former President George W. Bush, telephoned a reporter on Wednesday, at the White House’s behest. He said he was surprised that the number of Americans who say Mr. Obama is Muslim is growing. “I must say,” Mr. Caldwell said, “never in the history of modern-day presidential politics has a president confessed his faith in the Lord, and folks basically call him a liar.” 

Kirbyjon Caldwell? Where have I heard that name before?

Oh ... yeah ...

It's in George W. Bush's speech to the October 15, 2002 White House Conference on Increasing Minority Homeownership:
And then there's my friend Kirbyjon Caldwell. He not only provides counseling and job training, he actually decided to encourage a development of homes in the Houston area. People -- low-income people are going to be able to more afford a home in Texas because of Kirbyjon's vision and work. He's answered the call of faith to help people help themselves and to help them realize dreams.

The other thing Kirbyjon told me, which I really appreciate, is you don't have to have a lousy home for first-time home buyers. If you put your mind to it, the first-time home buyer, the low-income home buyer can have just as nice a house as anybody else. And I know Kirbyjon. He is what I call a social entrepreneur who is using his platform as a Methodist preacher to improve the neighborhood and the community in which he lives.
Kirbyjon Caldwell is a black Wharton MBA turned investment banker turned megachurch preacher turned Bush adviser turned author of The Gospel of Good Success turned real estate developer turned Obama supporter turned officiator at Jenna Bush's wedding turned Obama adviser.

Pastor Kirbyjon told Time Magazine in 2006, "It is unscriptural not to own land."

Whew, that's a relief! So we can rest easy knowing that Obama is turning for advice to the same minister who gave Bush such good advice on how first-time low-income homebuyers need zero downpayment mortgages so they can have just as nice a house as anybody else.

"Eat, Pray, Expend"

C. Van Carter of Across Difficult Country responds in the comments to my querulous jibe at Eat, Pray, Love:
"Will Liz hold out for a sequel in which she’s courted by Pitt and DiCaprio?"

How about a sequel where she's courted by the cast of The Expendables?

August 18, 2010

Upscale bilingual education

Here's an article "Looking for Baby Sitters: Foreign Language a Must" by Jenny Anderson in the NYT that starts off as the usual Bogus Trend story and goes off in an interesting direction:
Parents cite different reasons for hiring baby sitters and nannies to speak a second language with their children. Some struggled to pick up foreign languages and want to make life easier for their children. Some believe it makes them smarter. And naturally, this being the melting pot that is New York, many parents have a connection to another language and want to reinforce it...

One other reason is to discriminate against African-Americans when advertising for a nanny. Putting in a foreign language requirement is a legal way to state No African-Americans Need Apply.
Indeed, not long ago, many parents insisted that their foreign-language-speaking nannies refrain from using their native tongue and speak only English with their children, for fear that another language might muddle their English-language development....

In fact, research shows that learning a second language makes it easier to learn additional languages.

In recent years, a number of neuroscientists and psychologists have tried to untangle the impact of bilingualism on brain development. “It doesn’t make kids smarter,” said Ellen Bialystok, a professor of psychology at York University in Toronto and the author of “Bilingualism in Development: Language, Literacy and Cognition.”

“There are documented cognitive developments,” she said, “but whatever smarter means, it isn’t true.”

Ms. Bialystok’s research shows that bilingual children tend to have smaller vocabularies in English than their monolingual counterparts, and that the limited vocabulary tends to be words used at home (spatula and squash) rather than words used at school (astronaut, rectangle). The measurement of vocabulary is always in one language: a bilingual child’s collective vocabulary from both languages will probably be larger.

“Bilingualism carries a cost, and the cost is rapid access to words,” Ms. Bialystok said. In other words, children have to work harder to access the right word in the right language, which can slow them down — by milliseconds, but slower nonetheless.

At the same time, bilingual children do better at complex tasks like isolating information presented in confusing ways. In one test researchers frequently use, words like “red” and “green” flash across a screen, but the words actually appear in purple and yellow.

Bilingual children are faster at identifying what color the word is written in, a fact researchers attribute to a more developed prefrontal cortex (the part of the brain responsible for executive decision-making, like which language to use with certain people)....

One arena in which being bilingual does not seem to help is the highly competitive kindergarten admission process.

“It doesn’t give you a leg up on the admissions process,” said Victoria Goldman, author of the sixth edition of “The Manhattan Family Guide to Private Schools.” It is one piece of the bigger puzzle, which includes tests scores, interviews and the ability of a child to follow directions. “Speaking another language is indicative that you are verbal, but you have to be behaved.”

George P. Davison, head of school at Grace Church School, a competitive downtown school, said that bilingualism tended to suppress verbal and reading comprehension test scores by 20 to 30 percent for children younger than 12. “If anything, it can have a negative effect on admissions,” he said.

I love how politically incorrect the NYT is when it comes to providing Reader Service about the single most burning issue for NYT subscribers: getting your kid into an exclusive private kindergarten.

I researched this topic a decade ago for an article on Canada's experience with bilingualism. Being Anglo-French bilingual gives you huge advantages in getting to the top of the Canadian civil service pyramid (and Canadians love civil service jobs). Public schools that conduct half their classes in French and half their classes in English were very fashionable. One problem, though, was that boys often struggled, and wound up dropping out. But upper middle class girls tended to thrive in a dual immersion system.

And the extra cognitive demands of Anglo-French bilingualism tended to keep the working class kids out of these public schools, so that was all to the good from a Stuff White Canadian People Like perspective.

So, if you have a bright, highly chatty little girl, slowing her talking down a few milliseconds by having her learn a foreign language probably is a tradeoff worth taking. On the other hand, if you have a little boy who can't talk like Robert Downey Jr., well, it's something to watch out for.

In general, however, this whole discussion, which I remember having in 1972 with my parents when we had to choose a foreign language for me to study, seems to be getting less and less important for Americans. Americans speak English and English is ever more the world-dominant language. I don't know if that's such a great thing for the world, but it does make life more convenient for native English-speakers.

Omar Thornton's mom discusses racism on CNN

Commemorating the two-week anniversary of the massacre of nine middle-aged white men, Soledad O'Brien interviewed Omar Thornton's mom on CNN yesterday about racism and what a good boy Omar was: video.

August 17, 2010

"Eat, Pray, Love"

Four decades into the feminist era, the number one movie at the box office is Sylvester Stallone’s The Expendables, in which Eighties action heroes blow stuff up. Right behind is Julia Roberts’ Eat, Pray, Love, in which a divorcée expensively feels sorry for herself in Italy, India, and Indonesia. (Iowa, Indiana, and Idaho presumably being all booked up.)

I don’t think it’s too scandalous in 2010 to point out that these films are aimed at disparate audiences. Today, in fact, it’s hard to remember how nervous such observations made the bien-pensant as recently as the early 1990s, in the wake of the Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas brouhaha. Back then, it was almost mandatory to add after any subversive notice of sex differences, “But, of course, that’s all due to dressing baby boys in blue and baby girls in pink; if it weren’t for society, everybody would like the same things.”

When depressed about the intellectual flaccidity of the 21st Century, I cheer myself up by noting that nobody wholly subscribes to feminist orthodoxy anymore. Most people can now admit that social conditioning isn’t what differentiates the sexes; instead, it’s the only hope of their ever getting along civilly. When allowed to indulge their inner fantasies, however, as incarnated in movies such as The Expendables and Eat, Pray, Love, the sexes barely seem to inhabit the same planet.

Eat, Pray, Love is faithfully adapted from magazine writer Elizabeth Gilbert’s 2006 memoir/self-help book, which sold nine million copies. ...  It embodies Oprahlosophy so cunningly that I might suspect it of being another hoax, like Oprah’s earlier autobiographical fave, A Million Little Pieces. Yet, trying to discern which events Gilbert might have concocted is pointless, because there are practically no events in the movie.

Read the whole thing at Taki's and comment upon it below.

Dog breeds barely differ at all genetically

Some of the most prevalent Dumb Ideas about Race that crystallized as conventional wisdom around the time of Bill Clinton's celebration ceremony for the Human Genome Project revolve around the idea that genetic differences couldn't possibly cause differing behavioral tendencies among the races because we're all 99.999% (insert as many "9s" as you feel necessary to make the point) the same!

From the New York Times:
Wide Variety of Breeds Born of Few Genes

Spaniels have notably floppy ears, basset hounds have extremely short legs, and St. Bernards are large and big boned. Not to mention Chihuahuas.

Humans have bred dogs to produce tremendous variety. But a new study reports that the physical variance among dog breeds is determined by differences in only about seven genetic regions.

These seven locations in the dog genome explain about 80 percent of the differences in height and weight among breeds, said Carlos Bustamante, a geneticist at Stanford University and one of the study’s authors. The findings, published in Public Library of Science-Biology, are a result of what is the largest genotyping of dogs to date, involving more than 1,000 dogs and 80 breeds.

So, in the big picture, Labrador retrievers and pit bulls don't actually differ very much genetically. They do differ genetically on a very small number of genes. But some of those few genes that differ are related to biting. Labs tend to retract their teeth and gum whatever they're handling with their mouths, while pit bulls tend to bite down and, more unusually, not let go while they whip their heads back and forth. So, that tiny, tiny fraction of the dog genome is important when deciding which breed of dog to buy depending on your needs -- e.g., pet for your toddlers or guard dog for your crack stash.

By the way, here's Malcolm Gladwell in 2006 arguing that opposition to pit bulls is racial profiling and therefore immoral and ineffective, just like racial profiling of humans must, therefore, be.

The great thing about Malcolm is that he lacks the Uh-Oh-Let's-Not-Go-There gene that makes most spouters of the conventional wisdom prudently change the subject when they find that the logic of their argument has carried them to the edge of reductio ad absurdum.

The MyFace Age

El Matador State Beach in the far reaches of Malibu is likely the most photogenic beach in Los Angeles County. (In general, Southern California beaches aren't quite world class in aesthetics because the ocean off LA is a sort of grayish greenish blue, whereas the Mediterranean, say, is a much brighter blue. I've never understood why oceans differ in color. Aren't they all connected?)

I've been visiting El Matador every few years for about three decades. Usually, it was fairly empty except for a few strollers (swimming is dangerous due to all the rocks) and one or two professional photographers with assistants shooting fashion models. I went there with my mother in 1997, the year before she died, and we watched a whale the size of a school bus and a couple of dolphins feast on a school of fish just about 75-100 yards offshore.

On Sunday, I dropped by El Matador just before sunset, for the first time in a few years, and now it is wall-to-wall amateur models and photographers with huge telephoto lenses.

Perhaps I'm overgeneralizing from a small sample size, but I'm guessing that the spread of social media like MyFace has made getting your picture taken a much bigger to-do than it was just a decade ago.

August 16, 2010

"Triumph Fades on Racial Gap in City Schools"

From the New York Times:
Triumph Fades on Racial Gap in City Schools

Two years ago, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg and his schools chancellor, Joel I. Klein, testified before Congress about the city’s impressive progress in closing the gulf in performance between minority and white children. The gains were historic, all but unheard of in recent decades.

“Over the past six years, we’ve done everything possible to narrow the achievement gap — and we have,” Mr. Bloomberg testified. “In some cases, we’ve reduced it by half.”

“We are closing the shameful achievement gap faster than ever,” the mayor said again in 2009, as city reading scores — now acknowledged as the height of a test score bubble — showed nearly 70 percent of children had met state standards.

When results from the 2010 tests, which state officials said presented a more accurate portrayal of students’ abilities, were released last month, they came as a blow to the legacy of the mayor and the chancellor, as passing rates dropped by more than 25 percentage points on most tests. But the most painful part might well have been the evaporation of one of their signature accomplishments: the closing of the racial achievement gap.

Among the students in the city’s third through eighth grades, 40 percent of black students and 46 percent of Hispanic students met state standards in math, compared with 75 percent of white students and 82 percent of Asian students. In English, 33 percent of black students and 34 percent of Hispanic students are now proficient, compared with 64 percent among whites and Asians.

“The claims were based on some bad information,” said Michael J. Petrilli, a vice president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a research group that studies education policy. “On achievement, the story in New York City is of some modest progress, but not the miracle that the mayor and the chancellor would like to claim.”

Reducing racial gaps in educational performance has been a national preoccupation for decades. But after substantial progress in the 1970s and ’80s, the effort has largely stalled, except for a brief period from 1999 to 2004, where there were some gains, particularly in reading, according to a report released this month by the Educational Testing Service, which develops standardized tests used across the country.

The achievement gap was also the main thrust of the No Child Left Behind law, which mandated annual testing for all students in grades three through eight and required school systems to track the performance of each racial and ethnic group, with the goal of bringing all children to proficiency by 2014.

New York City’s progress in closing its achievement gap on those tests drew national attention as a possible model for other urban school districts. It won praise from President George W. Bush as evidence that No Child Left Behind was working. In 2007, the city won a prestigious urban education prize from the Broad Foundation, which cited the city’s progress in narrowing the racial achievement gap.

But the latest state math and English tests show that the proficiency gap between minority and white students has returned to about the same level as when the mayor arrived. In 2002, 31 percent of black students were considered proficient in math, for example, while 65 percent of white students met that standard.

La Griffe du Lion explained how politicians and educators can scam the media over racial gaps in test passing rates a decade ago. Let's think about it using a stylized example with made up numbers. Say, you start off with a test in 2002 that 50 percent of black students pass and 84 percent of white students pass. You announce that there's a terrible 34 percentile point racial gap and that Something Must Be Done About It. By 2006, the passing rates rise to 84 percent for blacks and 98 percent for whites. Now, you announce, Our Brilliant Leader has cut the racial gap by 20 percentile points. High fives!

Then, in 2010 some killjoy has a crisis of conscience and the next time the test is given, blacks pass only 50 percent of the time and whites 84 percent of the time. Horrors, the racial gap has expanded from 14 percentage points to 34 percentage points!

Now, if you'd read La Griffe, you'd know that, through all the tumult and press releases and award ceremonies and accusatory articles, nothing actually happened to the racial gap. The authorities and the media just used an innumerate way to measure the racial gap -- percentile differences -- one that creates false senses of change whenever overall test scores go up or down.

They should have used standard deviations. In this example, the racial gap was one standard deviation in 2002, one standard deviation in 2006, and one standard deviation in 2010.

Why did the passing rates change over time? There could be lots of reasons: the test got easier, then harder; cheating was encouraged, then cracked down upon; the students learned more, then learned less; the teacher got better, then got worse; all sorts of things could have happened to drive up and down the passing rates. But the key overlooked fact is that changes in overall passing rates make it look like the racial gap is changing even when it's not.

It's like how to get around the EEOC's Four-Fifths Rule for sniffing out disparate impact in firemen hiring tests, cities like Chicago have made the test so easy that 96% of whites pass. The racial gap stays around one standard deviation, but the racial gap as measured in percentiles declines because most people pass.

This isn't the whole story in NYC, but it's a big, big part of the story.

Finally, may I just reiterate that a much more feasible and pragmatic goal than the current goal of trying to raise Non-Asian Minority performance by one standard deviation while preventing whites and Asians from improving is to try to raise all four groups' performance by half a standard deviation?

The Mayor and the Mosque

In the mid-1990s, Judge Richard Posner admitted that he hadn't thought much of Tom Wolfe's 1987 novel The Bonfire of the Vanities. But, then, he changed his mind:
"The book was written before Michael Milken was convicted and Clark Clifford indicted; before investment bankers and securities brokers were dragged, crying, in handcuffs from their offices on charges of criminal fraud that often turned out to be unsubstantiated; before courthouses became scenes of violence; before the Tawana Brawley fraud; before the trials of the police who beat up Rodney King; before the Los Angeles riots that followed the acquittal in the first of those trials; before the trial of the rioters; before the indictment of O.J. Simpson. American legal justice today seems often to be found at a bizarre intersection of race, money, and violence, an intersection nowhere better depicted than in The Bonfire of the Vanities even thought the book was written before the intersection had come into view."

Twenty-three years later, Bonfire is the gift that keeps giving. When I read august commentators assert:
"Of course the Mayor of New York couldn't possibly interfere in a religious construction project. That's unthinkable. That would be a violation of Church and State!" 

I open up my copy of Bonfire to Chapter 27, which is about, mutatis mutandis, the Mayor of New York, a religious group, and whether or not a downtown building would receive landmark status.

The Episcopal bishop of New York, who is black, wants the mayor to keep the Landmarks Commission from landmarking a church in a neighborhood with no Episcopalians left, which would keep the Episcopalian Diocese from having it torn down and replaced with an office tower. The Mayor immediately agrees and has a phone call placed to the Landmarks Commissioner:
"Mort? ... You know St. Timothy's Church? ... Right. Exactly ... Mort -- LAY OFF!"

The Mayor then asks the Bishop for a little quid pro quo: serve on a special blue-ribbon commission to investigate crime in New York. But as a Rising Black Leader, the bishop can't afford to be associated with the Jewish Mayor, so he demurs. The mayor politely ushers the bishop out, then calls Mort again:
"Mort? You know that church, St. Timothy's? ... Right ... LANDMARK THE SON OF A BITCH!"

August 15, 2010


From my new column:
The psychological concept of “projection” explains much about modern political rhetoric. It’s a process by which accusations often reflect the accuser rather than the accused.

For example, have you noticed how the Southern Poverty Law Center relentlessly rages against an ever-expanding circle of what it demonizes as “hate groups”? Why did the SPLC rant so furiously about even such a mild and thoughtful a gentleman as Richard Lamm, the environmentalist hero who served three terms as a Democratic governor of Colorado?

Because the SPLC itself is America’s foremost hate group. 

Similarly, Democrats instantly accuse the GOP of being “divisive” on those rare occasions when Republicans stumble upon an issue that unites a broad majority of voters.

Thus, a Google search (August 15, 2010) finds the words “immigration” and “divisive” showing up together on 2,490,000 webpages. (Talk about a worn-out cliché!) Yet immigration is perhaps the least divisive major topic in American politics today.

But here’s a new table from Gallup showing President Obama’s approval ratings for 13 issues:
In other words, the public is less divided over Obama’s handling of immigration than it is over any other topic. What the Democrats are projecting is their own visceral hostility to any criticism of immigration.

Moreover, Democrats are always accusing Republicans of trying to racialize the immigration issue—when, of course, that is the Democrats’ chief strategy. They’ve put untold efforts over the decades into whipping Hispanics into a racial frenzy over immigration.

As it happens, they’ve enjoyed only modest direct results. But the indirect benefit to the Democrats, though, has been enormous. This repeated accusation has succeeded in scaring many Republican politicians away from their best issues. The GOP brain trust doesn’t much understand the concept of projection, so it repeatedly falls for Democrat concern trolling.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who got punched in the head a lot as an amateur boxer (and not surprisingly, given projection politics, is campaigning for re-election against Sharron Angle primarily by calling her “wacky”) is not always the most artful at this traditional Democratic tactic. Last week, he orated to a Latino gathering:
"I don't know how anyone of Hispanic heritage could be a Republican, OK. Do I need to say more?"

No, Harry, you don't. That expresses the Democrats’ full depth of thinking on immigration quite nicely.

 Read the rest there and comment upon it below.