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Friday, December 31, 2010

FriTunes: New Years Eve, with a comments bleg

by folkbum

First, the bleg: For most of the first year of Echo comments, they appeared with the first comment at the top and later comments below. Something has changed and now the comments show up last first, and that bugs me. There is apparently a fix out there (one blogger notes), but no one has spelled it out. So if you know, please pass along the solution. Thanks. Now, tunes:

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Milwaukee: Safer than you think

by folkbum

I've had this open in a couple of tabs since yesterday, but Jim Rowen posted it this morning and so I thought I had better get to it as well. Carla Saulter at Grist writes about how the safest places to raise children tend to be big cities:
People, especially children, are most likely to be hurt or killed in an automobile crash, and, not surprisingly, automobile crashes are more prevalent in areas that require cars to get around. (Outer suburbs also tend to be dominated by two-lane roads, which are responsible for roughly 77 percent of automobile fatalities.) Even though the risk of homicide by a stranger (incidentally, a small percentage of all homicides) is slightly higher in central cities, the difference is not enough to overcome the significantly elevated risk in outer suburbs of a fatal car crash.

Of course, there's more to safety than staying alive. Most of us would also like to avoid being assaulted, harassed, or robbed. So what of the crime that does exist in cities? According to Skenazy, that's going down--and not just a little bit. We're talking historic lows. Crime rates have been falling in almost every category (including crimes against children) since the mid-90s, and are no higher today than they were in 1974.
Indeed, just this morning there's another story about violent crime rates being lower today than at any other point in my entire lifetime.

Saulter cites a 2002 University of Virginia study (pdf)--no doubt, with the continued decline in violent crime since then the results would be even stronger--suggesting that it is far more dangerous to live in isolated, car-heavy areas rather than in cities, a study I'd not seen before. (UVA repeated the study focusing just on VA itself in 2009 with the same results.) Milwaukee was one of nine metro areas (city plus surrounding counties) in the 2002 study; the city of Milwaukee was a safer place to live than 3/4 of the counties in the study, and safer than neighboring Washington County, where residents are more than twice as likely to die in traffic accidents than in Milwaukee. (Ozaukee and Waukesha Counties were slightly safer.) The safest of all was the inner-ring suburbs in Milwaukee County, where density and walkability are far higher than the outer-ring, exurban counties. (The City of Milwaukee was also listed as a safer place to live than any of the Wisconsin exurban counties of the Twin Cities metro region!)

Whatever you may think of life here in the urban hellhole that is Milwaukee, it's a lot safer than life in a lot of those exurban hellholes to the north and west of here.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

True colors

by folkbum

The Republican wave last month seemed predicated on two things: a distaste of corruption and insider politicking, and an absolute loathing of deficit spending.

In that spirit, you might expect that the newly-installed leadership of the Republicans in Congress would eschew lobbyist connections and tighten deficit spending rules. Instead, the opposite has happened:
Many incoming GOP lawmakers have hired registered lobbyists as senior aides. Several of the candidates won with strong support from the anti-establishment tea party movement.

These cases illustrate the endurance of Washington’s traditional power structure, even in the wake of an election dominated by insurgent rhetoric. In addition to hiring lobbyists, many newly elected House Republicans have begun holding big-dollar fundraisers in Washington to pay off debts and begin preparing for 2012.

The Republicans have a new plan to make it easier to rack up deficits: Looking ahead to controlling Congress, Republicans again propose to eliminate Paygo, as they did under Bush. But this time they propose to replace it with a different rule, Cutgo, which would require that new spending be offset with spending cuts. That would indeed be an effective way to limit new spending programs. Of course, it would retain the ability to pass tax cuts with no offsets whatsoever. The decision once again reflects the core Republican belief that tax revenues do not need to bear any relationship to expenditures.
Lobbyists gutting Wall Street regulation, deficits through the roof--it will be like 2002 all over again.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Friday, December 17, 2010

Study: American voters remarkably dumb; Republicans and FOX viewers moreso

by folkbum

A number of my comrades among the leftosphere are giddy that yet another study shows that Republicans and FOX News watchers are woefully misinformed about things, and hold beliefs that turn out to be the opposite of reality. BREAKING, as they say ironically, as that's not a surprise anymore.

But the new study in question (pdf), by the U of Maryland's, has, to my mind, a much scarier topline finding: Most American voters are misinformed.

The study seems to have asked 11 questions about current events that played out around and during the last election cycle plus the timeless chestnut of climate change*. Of the eleven, a majority of voting Americans got six wrong. Some were close--the question about whether the recession was over had 44% getting it right--but some were just stunningly wrong. Only 8% of voters, for example, knew the consensus view that the 2009 stimulus bill created or saved millions of jobs. (I would have answered all 11 correctly, but I pay way more attention than most people.)

To me, this is stunning, and it represents not merely a failure of partisan media (though MSNBC viewers did better than FOX viewers), but of media as a whole. Campaigns and candidates, too, seem to be failing (or succeeding, I suppose, if your aim is dissemblance), as well as political parties.

As for the partisan divide itself, Republicans are more likely to be wrong about five of the questions, Democrats three, and both on the remaining three. Heavy FOX News viewers were "significantly more likely to be wrong" about nine of them. 63% of daily FOX watchers think Barack Obama was not born in the US, or at least that the question isn't settled, for example.

To be fair, the choice of questions probably affected the results somewhat; I am sure that regular Fox & Friends viewers can tell you all about the latest wing specials from Hooters.

But I think there's nothing in this study for anyone to be proud of, regardless of one's political leanings or choice of news outlets. It's embarrassing, simply put.

* The climate change question asked respondents to say whether science was overwhelmingly on the side that changes are real or if it was evenly split. The loud (and, from where I sit, wrong) dissenters make up a tiny, tiny minority of voices on the issue--which even deniers ought to know to be true.

FriTunes: The Solstice is Coming Soon. I hope.

by folkbum

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

And the Difference Is...

By Keith R. Schmitz

The phrase makers that comprise the GOP are sirens of the first order, luring unsuspecting voters to eventually crash on the economic rocks. That is to be recognized for its art, but not admired because those who get seduced by this nonsense introduce needless complications into their lives, as we will see with the unfolding of the next two years.

Let's take the term "death tax." Stunning yet vapid. Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann scream about this fake issue at their bund rallies to great effect.

But let's look at the fact that taxes are paid by animated human bodies. Since that corpse decomposing in that hole in the ground or the pile of ashes in the urn has no use for the money and so a tax on what they left behind has no impact on them.

The dead as in "death" have no ability to pay taxes. As much as those who follow their Republican leaders will swallow a lot of fanciful stuff, it is doubtful they truly believe in zombies.

Nevertheless that money is left behind and it is used by someone or some entity. Used to be that the government took a sizable portion of these fortunes. As for the reason why, I agree with Teddy Roosevelt.

Our forefathers that the members of the tea party supposedly have a fetish for, fought to overthrow an aristocracy. Inherited wealth works to re-establish one. So Jim Demint, Mark Block, Rand Paul, Scott Walker and the lot. Are we to say to George Washington, et al, thanks for the effort, but we'd like to have an aristocracy back.

They had their House of Windsor. We have the House of Koch and on a smaller level, the House of Menard.

Is all of this Constitution worship a lot of hot air? Is there no understanding of what our founders wanted to set up?

But then there is the dubious argument about the double taxation. There is of course the reality that a lot of money that flows through our economy from which government from time to time will get a piece of the action.

This gets back to who really gets to use the money? So just wondering. Why shouldn't the heirs be subject to the same level of taxation as say winning the lottery or cleaning up the tables at HoChunk. The lucky gambler didn't really earn that money, neither did the heir.

So the question is, what's the difference?

I'll Have What They're Having

By Keith R. Schmitz

Next time the screamers on Talkradiostan throw up the usual cant about "Madison being an island surrounded by common sense" think about this, and think about our giant thought leaders in Milwaukee too gutless to stand up for the train expansion.

A nearly half a billion project, 10,000 jobs, shops, restaurants and homes. Yeah, tax cuts will solve everything.

I agree--remove them. But to where?

by folkbum

Because Milwaukee Ald. Bob Donovan never misses a chance to a) showboat and b) bash the Milwaukee Public Schools, an incident at Bradley Tech high school from last month has got the city's attention. Which is not to say that the incident wasn't serious--an outsider allegedly showed up, among a crowd gathering outside the school, with a shotgun. This is not something to be taken lightly, but the Milwaukee PD and Tech's administration did a great job of keeping students safe and resolving the matter.

Writing at Third Coast Digest, Patti Wenzel picks up it up from there, explaining one possible solution and lighting upon another:
The thought process is that now, students are transported on school buses to their campus but choose to skip classes. Instead of having the ability to get back on an MCTS bus and leave the area, the truants are forced to remain in the neighborhood (in this case Walker’s Point) and cause problems.

Are we as a community and taxpayers supposed to seriously consider returning to a more expensive transportation method for students, because it will allow truants to leave the area and take their mayhem and foolishness elsewhere?

Instead, we should implement Superintendent Dr. Gregory Thornton’s idea of removing troublemakers from the school.
“Everyone needs to be educated, but not everyone needs to be here,” Thornton said during the public meeting.
And I agree: At nearly every high school in MPS, there is a handful of students--some high schools have bigger handfuls than others--who are not suited for traditional education. This may be a symptom of a diagnosed disability, or it may be hard-headedness, gang activity, or addiction. Either way, I am sure that Tech would be a much better place for students and teachers if they could move one or three dozen of the worst of the worst out.

But where do these students go? They're not going to get dumped into some other specialty school, I assure you. Reagan and King, Arts, Riverside and Morse--all of these get special dispensation from the district already for their specialty programs. And while Wenzel says "MPS has schools set up for these students," the district really doesn't: There are small partnership schools that act as alternative settings, but they cannot accommodate every student in the district whose presence is a disruption. Schools like Lad Lake enroll, literally, less than a dozen kids at a time.

So what happens is, as always, the other high schools in the district get dumped on--Bay View, Madison, South Division, Vincent, Pulaski, Washington end up taking some other school's worst of the worst. And whaddyaknow, that looks an awful lot like the list of the state's worst-performing high schools from earlier this year. This is no coincidence.

So what to do? Clearly, MPS needs to invest in a significant alternative program for the district's most chronic disruptors. It needs multiple sites that can serve probably three or four hundred students. The sites cannot be located within other schools.

Is this a cheap and easy fix? No--and probably the most difficult part will be developing an enrollment protocol so these alternative sites don't simply become dumping grounds for thousands of immature students who can handle a regular program with adequate supervision and instruction. But these schools need to exist, because we can't keep letting Milwaukee's high schools get dragged down by students who simply can't handle a high-school environment.

Monday, December 13, 2010

RIP Richard Holbrooke

by folkbum

There are only a handful of people in the world who have done as much to stop genocides and make the world a better place as Amb. Holbrooke. He leaves a huge vacuum.

Sensationalism practiced right before your very eyes!

by folkbum

Compare these two screenshots, taken at approximately the same time earlier by an alert reader (click for larger, more legible versions):

The top screenshot is from jsonline, with a headline clearly indicating that the health care reform law has been ruled unconstitutional, and a subhead making that point even more clearly. But click through to the AP story that headline links to, and you find reality: "A federal judge rejected a key provision of the Obama administration's health care law as unconstitutional Monday" (my emphasis). Indeed, a few seconds of additional research found this bit in the judge's ruling:
"It would be virtually impossible within the present record to determine whether Congress would have passed this bill, encompassing a wide variety of topics related and unrelated to heath care, without Section 1501," Hudson ruled. Therefore, Hudson said the court would "sever with circumspection" the "problematic portions while leaving the remainder intact."
No wholesale unconstitutionality there at all.

Yet Journal Sentinel editors opted for a wrong, and sensationalistic, headline instead. Why?

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Politi"Fact" inconsistency mind-boggling, suggests nothing less than obvious bias against public employees

by folkbum

Two caveats before I dive in here: One, I count Bryan Kennedy as a friend and colleague, and he has had my support in many previous endeavors; and Two, I am a public employee.

That said, consider this: A couple of weeks ago, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel's Politi"Fact" column took a look at a statement by Milwaukee alderman Bob Donovan. After concluding that the very specific percentage he cited was false, they rated his statement "mostly true" because, and I quote, "his larger point--that MPS pays a lot more in benefits than other local governments pay--is on the money."

Today, the Politi"Fact" addresses a statement by Wisconsin AFT president Bryan Kennedy, that state employees earn 8% less than private-sector workers when you consider equivalent education and experience in equivalent positions. In full, Kennedy said, "Well, I think that there's been talking points used by those who don't like government to continually bash us and make us look as if we're the haves and we're really not. If you look across the board, we're averaging about 8 percent less than if we all worked in the private sector. Some of our people make half or a third as much as they could make if they worked in the private sector."

Politi"Fact" makes some calls and reads some studies and finds that 8% may not be exactly right: A report from the "Economic Policy Institute found that state workers across the country are paid 11 percent less than private-sector workers. The difference is 7.6 percent less, the report said, if pay plus benefits are considered," Politi"Fact" writes. Later, there's a stat about Wisconsin from a different study: "[A] second report [. . .] provide[d] one Wisconsin statistic: From 2000 to 2008, the wages of state employees was 6.2 percent less than for private-sector employees."

Knowing what we know about how Politi"Fact" treated Donovan's misstep in percentage-stating, it seems like Kennedy's statement ought to merit at least a "half true," to match Donovan, since you can certainly see that Kennedy's larger point--that public-sector employees are compensated less than private-sector ones--is on the money, which seems to be the deciding factor in these cases.

But, alas, no. Kennedy gets a "false" rating.

Nowwaitaminnit, you might be saying, you're leaving out the distinction made by Politi"Fact" that "Kennedy’s statement referred to pay." Um, where? Kennedy never said the words "pay" or "salary" or even "money." His statement did not make any clear distinction between salary and benefits, and so that 8% number is damned close to the 7.6% that Politi"Fact" cited. For Politi"Fact" to claim that Kennedy did make a distinction, and to call his statement false for it, is bogus. (And if they want to say pay only, Kennedy's 8% was still off by less than Donovan's stat.)

Nowwaitaminnit, you might be saying again, maybe these columns were written by two different authors and they haven't gotten the rules quite standardized yet. But you'd be wrong if you said that, as both of these items were written by Tom Kertscher and edited by Greg Borowski. Clearly, then, something is pushing these two to abandon the standard of "larger points" being "on the money" rating a "half true."

Could it be that it's because Kennedy is defending public employees from the onslaught of attacks by people like Donovan and Scott Walker? That Kertscher, who spends an inordinate amount of time in the Kennedy column perseverating on "benefits," has a bias against public employees, and prefers to side with those who attack them? That's the only logical conclusion--Kertscher and Borowski have a bug up their collective butts about public employees and use the imprimatur of Politi"Fact" to exercise it.

Friday, December 10, 2010

FriTunes: Before it's too late

by folkbum

Better watch this while you have the chance, before Scott Walker yanks it from the intertubes altogether:

Also on the chopping block: The kiddie train at Southridge, long wedding dresses, and Amy's Amiable--get to it before January 3.

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Quickly Noted

by folkbum

Further to the complexity of teacher evaluation.

What, you mean Patick McIlheran is a liar? I am shocked, just shocked.

Speaking of shocked: The Journal Sentinel's editorial board continues today with its series of disappointed editorials lamenting the fact that the candidates they endorsed are pursuing exactly the policies they promised to pursue. Buyer's remorse does not look good on you, guys.

Monday, December 06, 2010

Elizabeth was always my favorite Edwards

by folkbum

It sounds grim for her. She will be missed.

The $26,000 woman*; or, building a better teacher

by folkbum

I've been following with interest, for several reasons, the Journal Sentinel series on "building a better teacher." (The series seems not to have its own page, but here's part one, at which you can find links to all the parts published so far.)

The series is not done, and its last part--the part on the role of teachers unions in teacher evaluation and quality--promises to be perhaps its most contentious. We'll dive into that pool once it's full.

But I have a couple of reactions to share so far, with the series mostly done. One is from the part two Sundays ago by Alan Borsuk, about how difficult it is to get the best teachers to volunteer for the worst assignments. What you need to do, though, when reading that is read Borsuk's regular Sunday column from that same edition of the paper, where he writes about Florida's system of grading schools using A, B, C, D and F. Here's a bit from the latter:
There is a benefit to a school if it gets an A or gets a grade that is at least one letter higher than the previous year, namely that each school gets $85 per student from the state for the school to use as it chooses. Most of the money goes to bonuses for staff members.

And there are consequences for getting a low grade: The school doesn't lose any money, but the state takes extra steps to intervene in the school's academic program. And if the school gets Fs in two years out of four, students are allowed to transfer to high-performing public schools in that district. (Originally, they were allowed to transfer to private schools at public expense, but the Florida Supreme Court found that in violation of the state constitution in 2005.) [. . .]

[F]or teachers in schools that earn the high-grade bonuses, the grades can mean $500 to $1,000 extra a year.
I can't tell if Borsuk is endorsing the grading or not--the column's title ("State could learn a thing or two from Florida's school grading system") may not have been his and was ambiguous at best, and there's no clear "We oughtta do this here" line in the piece. But the column does make clear that something like this could be coming to Wisconsin under Scott Walker and his enablers in the legislature.

Which is why the piece a few pages over on pushing teachers to high-needs schools is a frustrating companion. Borsuk gives star status in the column to MPS principal James Sonnenberg:
West Side Academy's Sonnenberg has been outspoken in recent years about how difficult it has been to fill teaching jobs in his school, which serves poor minorities, a large number of whom are transient students from troubled homes in a high-crime area.

"If you've got openings that nobody wants, you're going to get a struggling teacher," Sonnenberg said. He praised the teaching staff overall, but said the joke in his building is, if you show up for a job interview, you get the job--unlike some suburban situations, where there can be hundreds of applicants for each opening.
While we currently do not grade schools (A, B, C, and so on), there's little question what schools would get what grades if we did; it's not a big secret. And if we adopted Florida's model, which offers $1000 bonuses to A-scoring schools, the incentive gets that much stronger for the best teachers to avoid schools like West Side Academy that will get an F.

Even if Wisconsin offered bonuses to schools that improve, there is no incentive to leave an easy-A school for an F school, because how can any great teacher be certain that the rest of the teachers would be just as good and just as focused on improvement?

A second reaction to these stories is that the comment sections are, well, insane. By that I mean the high proportion of people commenting who seem to have learned everything they know about schools from talk radio. Yesterday's story on teacher training programs, for example, attracted this comment:
You want good, dedicated, and very capable teachers?

FIRST: You eliminate the Federal Department of Education! Since Carter created this bureaucratic behemoth, the UNIONS have controlled the schools!

SECOND: You eliminate ALL University Schools of Educations, which are very little about teaching; and, all about leftist ideology and indoctrination!!

THIRD: You legislate strict limits on Teacher Union influence on curriculum and teacher continuing education!
This poor fellow's keyboard apparently doesn't have a working period, at the same time he doesn't have the faintest bit of working knowledge about schools or schools of education. The US Department of Eduction (not a Carter construct, by the way) is the smallest department by employment and a wee 3% of the federal budget; hardly a behemoth. (It is bureaucratic, and if I met Arne Duncan in a dark alley, I'd take him for coffee and explain the error of his ways.) The unions do not control the schools, and have little to no influence on things like curriculum, the structure of training programs, requirements for license maintenance and continuing education, or even teachers' placement in schools and districts once they're hired. While unions have influence over compensation and, to a lesser extent, working conditions, none of those other things are the subjects of collective bargaining agreements.

But you can find comments like that throughout the threads on all these stories: Blah blah UNION BAD blah blah. It's disheartening and not a little concerning that this is what passes for rational discourse about the complicated and nuanced subject of teacher preparation, evaluation, and retention these days. I cannot imagine what the comments will look like on next Sunday's story specifically about the unions.

Finally, I want to link to my most recent Bay View Compass column, which is about teacher evaluation in MPS, but it's not online yet. When it is, it will be at the top of the page here. Here's a bit of it, to whet your appetite::
Two things bother me about the current set-up, one personal and one systemic. Personally, I haven’t had a full-on formal classroom observation by a principal in nearly a decade. As a professional who takes my job seriously, I actually like feedback, and I miss it.

Systemically, there is no consistency to teacher evaluation--here, we’re a system of principals, not a school system. And, when far less than one percent of all evaluated teachers rate “unsatisfactory,” I have no confidence in how seriously the process is run.

So first, let’s take principals out of the evaluator role. I haven’t had a formal observation in forever not because my principals have been bad at their jobs; rather, principals have a thousand other jobs to do. Instead, keep principals--and give them district-level support--focused on helping teachers improve classroom practice without the pressure of putting a label on the teachers they’re helping. Teachers will be more receptive to principal interventions, even those based on sensitive data like test scores, when they know they’re non-evaluative.
There's more, including my suggestion for where the evaluator role should be if not in the hands of principals. If you can get a paper copy, it's there; it should be online any time now.

Update: Also.

* Title: The average starting salary in Wisconsin, and the fact that this profession is still attracts more women than men--cause and effect?