Friday, June 26, 2009

John Roberts and Michael Jackson

I love the letters that John Roberts wrote while in the White House, urging President Reagan not to honor Michael Jackson. E.g.:
I hate to sound like one of Mr. Jackson’s records, constantly repeating the same refrain, but I recommend that we not approve this letter. Sometimes people need to be reminded of the obvious: whatever its status as a cultural phenomenon, the Jackson concert tour is a massive commercial undertaking. The tour will do quite well financially by coming to Washington, and there is no need for the President to applaud such enlightened self-interest. Frankly, I find the obsequious attitude of some members of the White House staff toward Mr. Jackson’s attendants, and the fawning posture they would have the President of the United States adopt, more than a little embarrassing.

It is also important to consider the precedent that would be set by such a letter. In today’s Post there were already reports that some youngsters were turning away from Mr. Jackson in favor of a newcomer who goes by the name “Prince,” and is apparently planning a Washington concert. Will he receive a Presidential letter? How will we decide which performers do and which do not?
Think what could have happened had Reagan gotten in the habit of congratulating popular musicians.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

The Reality of School Funding

In debates about education, you constantly hear the refrain that poor districts get less money than rich districts.

Although it's possible to cherry-pick exceptions, that claim is false. Here's a quote from Eric Hanushek & Alfred Lindseth, "Schoolhouses, Courthouses, and Statehouses" (Princeton Univ. Press, 2009):
It remains a common misperception that school districts with large numbers of poor children have significantly less money per pupil spent on them than other districts. While that may have been true at points in the past, for the last decade or more school districts serving the most disadvantaged populations, on average, have more to spend on each student than more economically advantaged districts. As shown in figure 3.6, by 2004 the poorest districts -- those in the highest 20 percent of the poverty distribution . . . -- spent as much on average as the wealthiest 20 percent of districts, and significantly more than those districts in the middle three quintiles.
From the National Center for Education Statistics, here's a useful chart (click to enlarge):


Monday, June 22, 2009

Musical Trickery

This post is a fascinating peek into the world of musical fakery, i.e., famous singers who have to rely on technology to project an image of being a competent singer.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Summer Vacation

I largely agree with Conor Clarke's argument that schools ought to get rid of "summer vacation." As a matter of equity, kids from less well-off families tend to fall behind when they have months in a row with little intellectual stimulation. Perhaps more cynically, one of the major purposes of schooling (society might as well admit it) is to provide a place for parents to stash their kids while they work, and a 2 or 3 month vacation makes things difficult for parents.

Eliminating summer vacation doesn't necessarily mean lengthening the school year, though. You could have a similar amount of vacation time interspersed throughout the year. Shorter vacations wouldn't allow kids to forget everything, nor would they be quite as difficult for scrambling parents to handle.

I'd be somewhat surprised, however, if the teachers unions go for it. I still remember how hard it was when I finally got out of school, and actually had to get a year-round job (I had always worked during the summers, but at least it was a complete change that provided some variety to the year.) About the end of May, I'd find myself thinking, "Wait, why am I having to keep working at this same job? This is no fun. I should be getting at least a few weeks off, and then transitioning to something different."

I eventually got used to working year-round at the same job, of course, but most teachers and administrators have never really had the experience of doing the exact same thing 12 months a year. Most of them have had summer vacation for their entire lives -- in elementary school, middle school, high school, college, and then their jobs. And even if they're doing some kind of work over the summer (say, professional development classes), it's a change of pace from what they've been doing during the school year.


Thursday, June 11, 2009

Shop Class as Soulcraft

There have been many gushing reviews of Matthew Crawford's new book Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work (see, e.g., here or here), a book that I'm sure I'll enjoy, given how much I liked the author's original New Atlantis article when it came out in 2006.

And yet . . . my own grandfather was a farmer, and he most certainly didn't have the same attitude towards manual labor vs. office work. In fact, he always used to tell me, "Get an education so that you can work indoors." And Tom Smith has some good points in his post titled "Manual work as sucking very much."

Perhaps everyone is prone to the "grass is greener" phenomenon? Those who spend a lifetime sweating in the sun look with envy on people who get to work sitting down in the cool, while those who work in cubicles look with envy on people who actually get to make or do something that seems more tangible and real.

Alternatively, perhaps there is widespread misallocation of human capital. By accident of birth or circumstances, there are many people who end up in blue-collar jobs who would have been much happier in an office job; and conversely there are many people who, by accident of birth or circumstances, find themselves slaving away in an investment bank or consulting firm, but who would have been much happier as a landscaper or plumber.

News from the World of Science

1. Researchers found out that dogs who have been set up (wrongfully accused of misbehavior) are then seen by their owners as having a "guilty look." In other words, a dog's "guilty look" is really because of the owner's scolding, not because of any psychological feelings of guilt.

And yes, I know some dog owners who need to be reminded of the fact that their dogs are not experiencing human emotions all the time.

2. A lot of sleep-related research: Interrupted sleep contributes to gestational diabetes; sleep helps regulate emotions; too little or too much sleep is linked to being fat; staying up late is linked to lower college GPA; lack of sleep is linked to high blood pressure and risk of death.

All of this is further evidence for my point that it's really weird that some occupations have developed a cultish attachment to bragging about one's willingness to forego sleep. It's as if you were to brag about hitting your own head with a hammer.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009


For all the talk about Sotomayor's "wise Latina" speech, Heather Mac Donald raises a point that few have mentioned: the speech is very poorly written. Back in 2005, I agreed with the concern that Harriet Miers' writing was simply inept, and Sotomayor's writing isn't that great either. To be sure, she's replacing someone who tended to annoy other Justices with all of his excess verbiage, so perhaps it's a wash in that regard.

What about the "wise Latina" line, though? Here's the full paragraph:
Whether born from experience or inherent physiological or cultural differences, a possibility I abhor less or discount less than my colleague Judge Cedarbaum, our gender and national origins may and will make a difference in our judging. Justice O'Connor has often been cited as saying that a wise old man and wise old woman will reach the same conclusion in deciding cases. I am not so sure Justice O'Connor is the author of that line since Professor Resnik attributes that line to Supreme Court Justice Coyle. I am also not so sure that I agree with the statement. First, as Professor Martha Minnow has noted, there can never be a universal definition of wise. Second, I would hope that a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn't lived that life.
On one reading, Sotomayor is simply making the commonplace point that the diverse experiences of judges will inevitably affect how they view certain types of cases. Although the "more often than not" is eye-opening, the surrounding paragraphs seem to limit the discussion to "race and sex discrimination," and it makes sense that someone from a minority background would see her own perspective as being relevant and helpful in such cases.

That said, it would be more consistent if she had said that a "wise Latina woman" might reach a "different" -- not "better" -- conclusion in such cases. After all, Sotomayor herself said that she agreed with a law professor's view that "there is no objective stance but only a series of perspectives -- no neutrality." On that view, a "wise Latina woman" can't make an objectively better decision in the first place.

In any event, I was rather more intrigued by a couple of other comments. First, earlier in the speech, she says, "Whatever the reasons why we may have different perspectives, either as some theorists suggest because of our cultural experiences or as others postulate because we have basic differences in logic and reasoning, are in many respects a small part of a larger practical question we as women and minority judges in society in general must address."

In the 1994 speech from which this is all copied, Sotomayor mentioned only gender -- and specifically cited Carol Gilligan, famous for difference theory. She followed up later with a sentence that was deleted from the later rendition of the speech, explaining that a "better" decision would be "a more compassionate, and caring conclusion." [The superfluous comma is hers.] So in that version of the speech, she is leading up to the common, although not uncontroversial, claim that women are more "compassionate and caring" than men. But here she seems to be suggesting that not just women, but also "minority judges" might have basic differences in logic and reasoning. Hmmm.

Second, note that the "wise Latina" paragraph begins with these words: "Whether born from experience or inherent physiological or cultural differences, a possibility I abhor less or discount less than my colleague Judge Cedarbaum, our gender and national origins may and will make a difference in our judging."
Now this may be just yet another example of sloppy writing (again, the 1994 speech mentioned only gender here), but she's suggesting that "national origins" could involve "inherent physiological . . . differences" that are relevant to judging, and that she gives more weight to this possibility than does her colleague.

Now as to gender, the inherent physiological ability to become pregnant could influence a judge's perspective in, say, cases under the Pregnancy Discrimination Act. But national origin? I'd be curious to know what such "inherent physiological" traits she has in mind there.

Monday, June 08, 2009

A Downside of Academic Testing

One downside of too much academic testing and school-level accountability is that schools are reluctant to let gifted kids skip a grade. I skipped third grade, and my oldest son could probably do that or more (his Lexile reading score as an 8 year old put him well into the top quartile of high school seniors).

But one principal told me that the policy now is never to let kids skip a grade. As I pushed for an explanation, it turned out that one motivation is that they're nervous that even if a child seems to be ahead right now, he might not do as well on the tests in a higher grade. My cynical interpretation: rather than thinking about how best to challenge a child intellectually, schools would rather hold him back so that they can be sure he'll keep acing the tests year after year, and thereby make the school look good.


Sunday, June 07, 2009

Muscles Cut Cancer

Lifting weights may be a good way to cut the risk of cancer (although this study, like so many medical studies, could suffer from selection effects or omitted variables bias).