Category Archives: Politics

Data Visualization for US Politics

With the end of the primary season coming up this summer, I expect a resurgence of the talk about “red and blue states” that dominated the 2004 election as we approach the direct engagement of the Republican and Democratic parties. This morning, I stumbled on a great site by Michael Gastner, Cosma Shalizi, and Mark Newman from the University of Michigan that uses very nice cartographic representations of the last election results to better visualize the electorate.

Popular publications such as USA today published many maps of this sort showing the winner’s party by county.

But this graphical representation fails to take into account either the population density, electoral votes by county, or how close the vote was. If you process the map topology and scale each county to represent electoral votes, and color the vote results as a continuous scale from red to blue with even results represented as a mixed color of purple, the result is much more interesting.

Rather than the stark red/blue divide of the trivial map above, a more representative view of our nation deemphasizes sparsely-populated geographies with little economic impact and highlights those regions driving tomorrow’s economy. We also look like a much more homogeneous purple nation in this view.

Interestingly enough, in the economic-political view, the most politically homogeneous regions are the blue counties where economic development is the strongest.

Check out the whole site here.

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Filed under Graphics, Math, Politics

Most Children Left Behind

Just last week, I had a chance to hear a presentation by Alfie Kohn, one of the more (in)famous progressive education proponents, on the perils of emphasizing achievement and performance over engagement in a subject. Besides being an enthusiastic and engaging speaker, Alfie made a number of great points that really resonated with me regarding the damage a national obsession with standardized testing and assessment has wreaked on the quality of education at large. (We coincidentally follow most of Kohn’s recommendations in how we operate the WISE labs and programs…)

His central point on this topic was that by focusing so much school and parental attention on HOW students are doing instead of on WHAT they are doing and WHY, the very effort assessment has a now reasonably well proven effect of focusing the student’s attention on external validation from teachers and grades instead of on the actual subjects under study. The result, according to the many cited research articles, is that students lose intrinsic motivation and interest in the very subjects around which we really hope to instill a lifelong love of learning. It didn’t take much effort to extend the notions not only to grades and class rank, but even further to parenting techniques and practices as well.

And of course, the “No Child Left Behind” legislation, already the whipping boy of education Illuminati nationwide, took a severe beating in the process. One of my favorite moments in his talk was when he impersonated our current President and Senator Ted Kennedy complete with accents in their “misguided support in passing the law.” It didn’t take much looking around online to find pretty strong independent evidence in support of what Mr Kohn has been saying for years on this topic. My favorite articles came from Rice University and the NY Times.

The Rice/UT study was particularly sobering, not just for its striking revelations surrounding the duplicity of the Texas public school system’s reporting, but because it was this very public school system’s approach that was used to promote and establish the model for the national NCLB legislation. In the study entitled “Avoidable Losses: High Stakes Accountability and the Dropout Crisis” McNeil, Coppola, and Radigan of Rice University basically stripped the clothes right off the emperor.

Until recently, the GOP held out the “Texas Miracle” program as a model for national education reform with improving scores and an astonishingly low dropout rate of less than 3%. According to this paper, however, when researchers actually investigated how many high school students actually graduated within 5 years (not even the hoped for four-year tenure) the answer was a horrifyingly low 33%. Yes, 33%. I’ll say it again, because I didn’t believe it the first two times I read it either. Fewer than 33% percent of entering public high school students in Texas graduate within 5 years.

Needless to say, this doesn’t quite match up with the public accounting of dropout rates the state has been touting for the last few years. When challenged, the state sheepishly admitted,

“The discrepancy between the official dropout rates, in the 2 to 3 percent range, and the actual rates can be attributed to the state’s method of counting, which does not include students who drop out of school for reasons such as pregnancy or incarceration or declare intent to take the GED sometime in the future.”

Duh. As if they didn’t know that their purposefully and carefully chosen metric diverged so widely from the stated goals of the program. “Oh. You mean you want us to count ALL the dropouts?” And the real results?

“A new study by researchers at Rice University and the University of Texas-Austin finds that Texas’ public school accountability system, the model for the national No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), directly contributes to lower graduation rates. Each year Texas public high schools lose at least 135,000 youth prior to graduation — a disproportionate number of whom are African-American, Latino and English-as-a-second-language (ESL) students.

By analyzing data from more than 271,000 students, the study found that 60 percent of African-American students, 75 percent of Latino students and 80 percent of ESL students did not graduate within five years. The researchers found an overall graduation rate of only 33 percent.

“High-stakes, test-based accountability doesn’t lead to school improvement or equitable educational possibilities,” said Linda McSpadden McNeil, director of the Center for Education at Rice University. “It leads to avoidable losses of students. Inherently the system creates a dilemma for principals: comply or educate. Unfortunately we found that compliance means losing students.”

In the effort to improve scores, MOST children, 67% of them in fact, are being left behind. My personal belief has been for years that we KNOW there is a problem already, and more testing will not fix the problem. Further, it won’t even tell us anything we don’t already know. In reality, the effect is even more damaging than I could have possibly imagined.

This was exactly one of the key points Mr. Kohn was making writ large across an entire state with unforgivable effects on the lives of millions of children across the nation, particularly impacting minorities. Don’t take my word for it, and don’t think I have even begun to cover all the deleterious effects of the assessment obsession that Kohn describes with heartrending insight. Read the whole report here.

If all of the references on Alfie Kohn’s site and the Rice/UT report weren’t enough to really depress you, or if maybe the paper was a little too academic for you, check out last week’s article from the NY Times entitled, “State’s Data Obscure How Few Finish High School.” It basically exposes more of the same sort of accounting fraud. Here is the acompanying graphic from the article.

Graduation Discrepancies

This educational assessment disaster is yet another very good reason to strongly consider replacing the current republican administration so that we might quickly halt the spread of this cancer that is strangling our nation’s future.

Even more importantly, don’t be fooled that the testing is good for your own kids, much less for the minority kids down the street.

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Filed under Education, Politics

Abstinence-only Driver’s Ed

Don’t miss reading this link at McSweeny’s. Hilarious.

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Filed under Humor, Politics

Politicians Speaking in Code

Who says encryption is only for mathematicians, geeks, or credit card transactions?

Generally, I am used to politicians dodging questions they are asked while trying to “stay on message” to push their specific agenda. But there seems to be a new trend in political communication of sending “secret” messages to core constituent groups that are very strategically and specifically encoded or worded so as to not put-off others outside of that core group. Otherwise they might otherwise seek alternative candidates if directly confronted with an open message. And I really do mean code, as in encrypted messages that only those who have, or figure out, the appropriate key can understand. My favorite recent example was pointed out to me by Josh Marshal and his blog readers.

One of Mike Huckabee’s core campaign messages this season is that he thinks America needs “Vertical Politics” rather than “Horizontal Politics,” and a “Vertical Thinker” for its next President. Here are a couple of examples from his speeches and his web site.

Being reasonably well-informed politically, this sort of verbiage didn’t even register with me as anything unusual or even noteworthy. It didn’t appear to me as anything more than a typical no-content type positioning statement much like “We need change,” or “The urgency of now.” (More on this last code later).

But it turns out there was a very important message embedded in what sounded, at first blush, to be otherwise meaningless positioning verbiage. I, however, being outside of the core group of intended recipients, did not have the key to decrypt the secret message. If you happen to be an evangelical Christian, or a faithful church-going Baptist, you probably already know what Mr. Huckabee is talking about because you have the key to his secret code. “Vertical Thinking” has become part of the common evangelical vernacular (see here on “Vertical vs. Horizontal Thinking” and here at the “www.verticalthought.org” blog for explanations and the general philosophy).

The real message turns out to be a very clear statement to those “informed” that the US as a whole would be better off with a leader who holds God as the origin of all inspiration, morality, and, well, everything, and uses that to guide his leadership. This is in contrast to “Horizontal Thinking” wherein man figures things out without looking to God; it is this “Horizontal Thinking,” according to Huckabee, which has gotten the US into so much trouble.

Now it’s certainly true that Mr. Huckabee has been completely open about his history as Baptist minister, and I have to say that in the end, the message is completely consistent with his background. And I have nothing against any candidate who would clearly state a religious political agenda. But I find the wording that was so clearly calculated to pass innocuously beneath the notice of the unaligned moderates while still reassuring the faithful to be both a stroke of genius and rather insidious at the same time. It demonstrates a realization that if his agenda were completely out in the open, and the candidate were forced to speak clearly and openly without obfuscating their position in order to placate a conflicted constituency (i.e. the evangelical vs. fiscal republican bases) they could not actually garner winning support.

In all fairness, Huckabe isn’t the only politician speaking in code. Sean over at Cosmic Variance pointed out Obama’s “Urgency of Now” type code words taken straight from the civil rights movement.

My personal preference would be to support a candidate who is completely open in his communication, without depending on codes or secret messages decipherable only be specific constituent groups. I want to understand what other constituencies I might be supporting inadvertently by supporting someone like Huckabee, and where their agendas differ from my own.

I would also prefer that a candidate support such “horizontally” conceived issues such as stem cell research, family planning strategies based on real historical performance data and research, support for abatement of climate change. Lately, I have begun to contrast candidates who look backwards through tradition and religious adherence, and favor candidates who will openly accept the world as it is based on open scientific inquiry and look forward to how things might be. Is there such a visionary candidate?

Well anyway, I have a couple new code keys now, and so do you. What other sorts of secret political codes can we winkle out? How would you construct a clever political code?

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Global Warming Update and More Political Science

I’ve been meaning to post an update on climate change for some time now, as I have refrained from opining since I saw Al Gore’s movie “An Inconvenient Truth” several months ago. At that time, I posted a story, “A Convenient Supposition” which called out that from the data available and collated at the time (and presented in the film) there was still a big difference between correlation and causality. Moreover, there was a long way between correlations in CO2 levels and global temperature fluctuations and the claim that one CAUSED the other. In fact, there was some considerable evidence that over the past few million years that it was the temperature changes that preceded the CO2 concentration changes, offering a strong indication that the chain of causation was reversed from what alarmists might otherwise prefer in their supporting data.

But since that time, additional evidence has been collected by Hansen and others that, to my mind, irrefutably demonstrates and validates the hypothesis that the industrial development and emission of greenhouse gases has contributed substantially to global temperature increases.

For a more detailed look at the most recent data compilations and analysis, check out the original scientific draft report from the International Panel on Climate Change, and the IPCC’s 4th assessment report. There’s a lot of good stuff in the latter, but my favorite chart from the presentation is the following.

spm4.png

FIGURE SPM-4. Comparison of observed continental- and global-scale changes in surface temperature with results simulated by climate models using natural and anthropogenic forcings. Decadal averages of observations are shown for the period 1906–2005 (black line) plotted against the centre of the decade and relative to the corresponding average for 1901–1950. Lines are dashed where spatial coverage is less than 50%. Blue shaded bands show the 5–95% range for 19 simulations from 5 climate models using only the natural forcings due to solar activity and volcanoes. Red shaded bands show the 5–95% range for 58 simulations from 14 climate models using both natural and anthropogenic forcings. {FAQ 9.2, Figure 1}

Some of you may have noted that the link to the latest assessment I offered above led to a draft marked “not for distribution.” This was on purpose, because what I have offered was the output of the scientific communities BEFORE the politicians insisted on editing the more “inflammatory” wording. I will let you draw your own conclusions as to the intent of said edits by also pointing you to the finally approved version available on the IPCC web site so you might make your own line-by-line comparisons.

For those too busy to track down the details, here is an example from the original draft page 2:

“Many natural systems, on all continents and in some oceans, are being affected by regional climate changes, particularly temperature increases [very high confidence].”

And in the final version:

“Observational evidence from all continents and most oceans shows that many natural systems are being affected by regional climate changes, particularly high temperatures.”

Subsequent edits are similar.

Does anyone else find it odd that Politicians are telling scientists that they should be LESS certain? Usually it’s the other way around. And when this particular cart is in front of the horse, the politicization of science seems very dangerous to me.

If you want more details on the political monkeying with the scientific reports, see these articles from:

The Associated Press:

“Several scientists objected to the editing of the final draft by government negotiators but in the end agreed to compromises. However, some scientists on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change vowed never to take part in the process again.”

“The authors lost,” said one participant. “A lot of authors are not going to engage in the IPCC process any more. I have had it with them,” he said on condition of anonymity because the proceedings were supposed to remain confidential. An Associated Press reporter, however, witnessed part of the final meeting.

and a more detailed report from the New York Times.

Which version do you all think the general public should be exposed to, the original scientific summary provided for policy-makers, or the watered-down version spun by the politicians?

I actually think it is important to show both, and not only get the proper technical and scientific message across, but also to expose the political maneuvering and agendas hampering action on important scientific issues.

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Filed under Global Warming, Politics

A Ruinous Culture in Public Education

I’ve heard and read many business aphorisms in my tenure running first MicroDisplay and now MobiTV. The single most important and accurate saying of the vast lot, the one principle which has the broadest and most significant impact on the success of any venture I could imagine, is:

“Hire slowly and fire fast.”

But this principle is now far out of reach for many public schools.

The “hire slowly” part is simply about exercising extreme care in who you hire, their qualifications, their work ethic, their standards of excellence, their record of past performance, and perhaps most importantly, their cultural fit and ability to maintain and foster the above attributes with a positive spirit even when severely overworked. I have found that A people really hire A People, and B People really do hire C People. Too much of that, and before you know it, despite a core group of well-intentioned and capable staff, the intrepid find themselves rapidly surrounded by a growing sea of mediocrity, or worse. This is a particularly pernicious problem when an enterprise is forced to grow quickly in an area with a limited pool of quality candidates.

With by-and-large miserable compensation packages, often dysfunctional administrations, and work loads with responsibility for so many students that the demands of the job become farcical, the pool of truly qualified K-12 teachers is woefully small. In such an environment, hiring mistakes are inevitable. Even with a perfect hiring record, teachers burn out, break down, or simply get distracted with other things. Once performance begins to flag for any reason, without IMMEDIATE attention, a horribly rotting disease begins to fester. This is where the “Fire fast” part comes in.

The idea is not to fire someone as soon as the slightest frustration, slight, or lapse arises. What it means is that whoever is responsible for managing the effort has an obligation to quickly address deficiencies, help the troubled staff to overcome its difficulties, and make a QUICK and realistic assessment if there is a genuine chance of performance recovery on a timescale that will protect the business at hand. If the assessment is negative, quick action to remove the problem immediately (though it is my strong belief that this should be done in a manner that is fair and supportive of those leaving the organization in order to efficiently move them on to other opportunities where they are more likely to be successful), to “fire fast,” is imperative.

If performance problems are not addressed immediately, there is the obvious direct result that students who have no chance to “re-do” a critical and often foundational step in their educational chain will be in front of poor-performing teachers. But there is an even worse problem that results. In the absence of quick action, it becomes immediately obvious to all the other employees and teachers that problems are not addressed, and there is neither any penalty or consequence for failing to meet a high standard, nor (another problem) any advantage to extra-hard work in support of raising a standard.

A downward-spiraling effect springs forth almost immediately, where positive behaviors are not rewarded, and negative behaviors are reinforced to result in an ever-worsening culture of ever-lower standards. In effect, one rotten apple really does begin to spoil the whole bunch.

The ONLY palative is to aggressively remove the negative elements from the environment and support the positive ones before the rot sets in. But check out this “Firing Flowchart” from an organization that penetrated the NY City public school administration. (hat tip to Shelly Batts over at Retrospectacle) As she did, I reproduce the image snippet from her site because the full extent of the process WON’T EVEN FIT ON THE BLOG PAGE.

small%20chart.bmp

Do click on the above link if you want to see the complete and horrifying picture. A quick glance makes it immediately obvious why bad teachers almost never get fired. It’s simpler and far cheaper to just ignore the problems instead of investing the extensive efforts of multiple people for years in a likely fruitless effort to fire even a single problem employee. In my mind, realizing that this system has been in place for decades almost single-handedly explains the public education dilemma of miserable standards, lack of professionalism, innefective administration, and the moribund cultures in many schools. There is simply no mechanism that alows the administration to actually BE responsible.

How could this situation evolve? I have two words; “Teachers’ Unions.”

Their originally laudable intent to protect and advance the interests of teachers has resulted in an unparalleled beurocratic environment which almost guarantees a ruinous culture of reinforced mediocrity, and unsupported excellence, and that in an administrative environment that increasingly leaches away support for teaching with an increasing tax of burdensome under-performers that are impossible to remove.

For all other enterprises, California is an “At Will” employment state, meaning that employees can quit at any time for any reason, and companies can fire employees at any time for any reason. That might sound a little capricious, but in parallel, there have evolved very strong employee rights laws which force employers to be fair in the exercise of these rights and foster strong protections from discrimination, harassments, and so on. The law already does a pretty darn good job of protecting the interests and rights of employees. I wouldn’t expect any real education reform until an administration can expeditiously address any problem that might arise and protect and nurture a culture of excellence. Sadly, I fear that won’t happen in the public education system until these types of corrupting supports from well-intentioned but ultimately misguided unions are completely eliminated.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s not the idea of Teachers’ Unions themselves that is the problem, and I am not intrinsically anti-union. But it has become clear to me that many of the valuable opportunities to actually have a productive union support and train the best teachers have been undermined by the goal of supporting all the teachers, good or bad. Until that changes, the bad will continue to corrupt the good, and our children will suffer for it.

Do any of you have good union or school administration stories that are related? Please post your comments, as this is an issue near and dear to my heart.

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Filed under Education, Politics

Will Canada Become the World’s Breadbasket?

I couldn’t escape the grand political irony exposed in this recent story entitled “New Crops Needed to Avoid Famines” from the BBC on climate change. The basic thesis is that the expected increases in global temperature will shift the regions amenable to fertile crop production northward. Worse yet, in the absence of any replacement crops, or the adoption of massive farming infrastructure in the newly fertile regions, broad famines will ensue. The shift has reportedly already begun with rice yields in Asia declining 10% per degree of average annual temperature increase.

Then it struck me. The cornerstone of political support for the Republican party lies in America’s breadbasket, the Red States. The following map from the BBC article says it all.

BBC

One would think think that such a clear and present threat to their core constituency would get a little more attention. But sadly, the Republican platform is currently opposed to both efforts at mitigating global warming AND genetic engineering which could develop more climate-proof crops. It is almost as if they are trying to guarantee the economic ruin of their constituency (and the rest of the US with them) within a couple of generations. Liberals take heart!

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Filed under Global Warming, Politics