Sunday, September 26, 2010

To the U.S. Constitution Worshipper.

Having a personal interest in national myths, I found this week's opinion column Lexington in the Economist totally right on. I wish more people had this perspective. Maybe something that can also help restore sanity....
The perils of constitution-worship : One of the guiding principles of the tea-party movement is based on a myth, from Lexington.

.... there is something infantile in the belief of the constitution-worshippers that the complex political arguments of today can be settled by simple fidelity to a document written in the 18th century.
The constitution is a thing of wonder, all the more miraculous for having been written when the rest of the world’s peoples were still under the boot of kings and emperors (with the magnificent exception of Britain’s constitutional monarchy, of course). But many of the tea-partiers have invented a strangely ahistorical version of it. For example, they say that the framers’ aim was to check the central government and protect the rights of the states. In fact the constitution of 1787 set out to do the opposite: to bolster the centre and weaken the power the states had briefly enjoyed under the new republic’s Articles of Confederation of 1777.

When history is turned into scripture and men into deities, truth is the victim. The framers were giants, visionaries and polymaths. But they were also aristocrats, creatures of their time fearful of what they considered the excessive democracy taking hold in the states in the 1780s. They did not believe that poor men, or any women, let alone slaves, should have the vote. Many of their decisions, such as giving every state two senators regardless of population, were the product not of Olympian sagacity but of grubby power-struggles and compromises—exactly the sort of backroom dealmaking, in fact, in which today’s Congress excels and which is now so much out of favour with the tea-partiers.

More to the point is that the constitution provides few answers to the hard questions thrown up by modern politics.


Pace Ms Bachmann, the constitution is for all Americans and does not belong to her party alone. Nor did Jefferson write a mission statement for the tea- partiers. They are going to have to write one for themselves.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

The Politics of Fear.

Should I feel ashamed of my country because my government does shameful things?
That's a question that both French and Americans can ask at different times. G. W. Bush gave a bad name to the U.S. just like Sarkozy is giving a bad name to France these days:

Following a riot of a few "Gypsies" against French gendarmes in the south of France, French president Nicolas Sarkozy decided not only to "severely punish" the rioters but also to expel all the (illegal) Romani gypsies from France.
The French government gave assurances that no ethnic group was singled out - which would be illegal under European law and a breach of the Charter of Fundamental Rights. But a leaked instruction from the Interior Minister to the Police showed that the "Romani" were indeed actually specifically targeted.
So it appears that France has actually violated a document which (oh the irony....!)President Nicolas Sarkozy pressured others (like Ireland or Poland) to sign up to the Lisbon treaty.
Faced with a wave of criticisms in Europe - which may even take the form of legal action against France by the European Commission - France's official position has remained defiant, thanks to Sarkozy's inflated ego. Condemnation was not limited to Europe, it went from the Pope to the United Nations, and marches against "hate and xenophobia" were organized throughout France (here).
The French president did not back down and his quick temper even turned the summit meeting of E.U. leaders that followed into a circus of mud-slinging and division.
This comes in a context of a French president weakened by one of the lowest presidential approval rates in the last 50 years - a mere 32% (not even close to Obama's at 42%) so he has been trying to revive his popularity by cracking down on crime and illegal immigrants which made him popular with his electorate in the past.

The interesting point is that just like the American right these days (i.e. the Tea Party), the French government has been using fear to regain popularity and votes. This politics of fear is nothing new but with it seems to be working really well with older white folks.
In the last few months, French Minister of the Interior Brice Hortefeux who smacks of racism has been keen on playing this dirty trick, blaming the immigrants, the Romani (and confusing Romanians with Romanis) or even the Judges (here) when new figures show the Sarkozy's crackdown on crime doesn't work (it has doubled in the last decade).
“Nationality should be stripped from anyone of foreign origin who deliberately endangers the life of a police officer, a soldier or a gendarme, or anyone else holding public office. We are suffering the consequences of 50 years of insufficiently regulated immigration which has led to a failure of integration,” said Sarkozy.
In addition, this government has been making all sorts of populist moves as attempts at diverting the French from recent political scandals and a bad economy. Examples abound : the ban on the full Muslim veil, the two-year jail sentences for the parents of minors convicted of crime, an unnecessary debate over national identity (with the implied idea that foreigners may be a threat to the French identity) a number of tough security laws, including laws to restrict the Internet (called Loppsi 2 which may potentially undermine freedom of expression), and the alleged attempt to stifle freedom of the press.

While comparing France's removal of Romani the plight of Gypsies during WWII and France to a fascist state is ridiculous.

Yes, like most French people I am sensitive to France's image in the world because it has repercussions on me when I travel or when I meet foreigners and no one likes to be given a bad name, but more importantly, there is a question of collective responsibility as I am associated with Sarkozy even if I didn't vote for him, but what can a citizen do? Vote him out, I guess, but takes another election... and the agreement of a few other million people.

As much as I may disagree with the right over the economy, there is room for discussion (I also disagree with the left), but what is unforgivable and non-negotiable is the tactic of fear and populism to get elected. Unfortunately, it seems that this is something very easy to do these days that the right both in France and in the U.S. is very good at. That tactic may take different forms, but it is basically the same strategy. Not only is it a morally wrong, it is also dangerous. One the best is out and has been fed, there may be no way to control it!

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Grading the Teachers.

The start of the school year holds a lot of similarities between France and the U.S. but it also underlines huge differences between our two countries in how they see the teaching profession - and no, I am not even talking about the French teachers' strikes -

When I was in California this summer, the Los Angeles Times came up with a series of article on education, but it was not about the grades of the students this time, it was about grading teachers. The series was about "exploring the effectiveness of public schools and individual teachers in the Los Angeles Unified School District.". LATimes.

Since I'm a teacher myself, it got my attention.

Here's how the assessment was made:
The reporters requested and received seven years of students’ English and math elementary-school test scores from the school district. The economist then used a statistical technique called value-added analysis to see how much progress students had made, from one year to the next, under different third- through fifth-grade teachers. NYTimes.
Or put it another way , "Value-added modeling"....
... looks at each student's past test performance and uses it to project his or her future performance. The difference between the child's actual and projected results is the estimated "value" that the teacher or school added (or subtracted) during the year. LA Times.

But that was not the end of it, the newspaper actually published a list of names of some of the teachers, along with their value-added performance, they be very good or very bad results, and they eventually released the rankings of all teachers and their rankings in the LA district. That's about 6,000 teachers.

The "value added" score is actually nothing really new, and a few states have even adopted legislation which mandates that teacher evaluation be linked to student test data.
Legislation adopted in states like Colorado, Louisiana and Kentucky and legislation vetoed in Florida follow a template of requiring that teacher evaluation for pay increase, for retaining tenure and ultimately for dismissal must be based 50% or 51% on student “value-added” or “growth” test scores alone. That is, student test score data could make or break a salary increase decision, but could also make or break a teacher’s ability to retain tenure. Schoolfinance.101
This may please a lot of parents with unquenchable worries about their kids' teachers and schools and it will give them a simple tool to measure their kids' teachers' performance but the problem is that it is precisely too simple to be true.

As Kevin Drum pointed out, assessing teachers' performance isn't just hard, it's even harder than any of other professions. I don't want to get too technical here but there are reports (see here or here) that have seriously questioned the methods used in this VA modeling :
VA modeling is not an exact enough methodology to justify identifying individual teachers as “effective” or “ineffective” based solely on a particular VA score. UCLA.
Any teacher will tell you that tests can easily be questionable and it is really hard to make a test that will reflect all the skills necessary in acquiring a certain competence :
While the math and reading California Standards Tests (CSTs) capture some math and reading skills, these tests do not measure the full range of skills, attitudes, and behaviors students should learn over the course of a school year.UCLA.
And I'm not even talking about teachers that may not be so good but may have good VA results because they're teaching to the test.

While I won't deny there is a problem of accountability in the teaching profession- a problem especially acute in France where teachers cannot be fired - assessing most teachers' true performance is impossible. You may have a good idea of the very bad ones, and in my opinion, those should be fired, but the average or even the very good ones are much harder to assess That is because teachers work with complex beings who are very sensitive to anything happening in their lives, including but not exclusively what happens in the classroom with the teachers but also with the other students.

Now of course in this day and age, it seems rather fashionable to model teachers' evaluations after what supposedly happens in the private sector, expect that... it does not :
In truth, although payment for professional employees in the private sector is sometimes related to various aspects of their performance, the measurement of this performance almost never depends on narrow quantitative measures analogous to test scores in education. Rather, private-sector managers almost always evaluate their professional and lower-management employees based on qualitative reviews by supervisors; quantitative indicators are used sparingly and in tandem with other evidence. Management experts warn against significant use of quantitative measures for making salary or bonus decisions. EPI Report.

Kevin Drums states the obvious: "teachers work alone in a classroom, and they're usually observed only briefly and by one person. And their output — well-educated students — is almost impossible to measure.".

The thing is that students, and especially children and teenagers cannot be reduced to commodities or mere products that one can fashion one way or the other. They are complex beings..... very complex.

I can't help feeling sorry for those teachers whose names were made public by the L.A. Times but this should not come as a surprise in a country that has so little regard for teachers anyway. I once considered teaching in the U.S. but I am now so glad I changed my mind. Between the pressure of the parents, the politics of school boards and their sometimes biased decisions, the neon-lit classrooms with no windows in many schools.... and the overall despise of many Americans, it is a very hard profession to have. Of course, this is no surprise in a country which values jobs according to the money you make. It is really too bad since after all, teachers play an important role, even if not exactly measurable, in the well-being of the next generations and the future of the country.

France still No. 1 for tourists

According to the UN’s World Tourism Organisation, just 25 million people travelled abroad for holidays in 1950. Today, the figure is more than 800 million, representing an annual growth rate of about 6.5%.
Just as it’s been for the past 15 years, France remains the world’s favourite destination, attracting just under 80 million visitors in 2008 (the most recent year for which full data is available). The United States is second, with about 58 million visitors from abroad, while Spain is third, with just over 57 million.

NOTE: France has more tourists -80 million - than its population - 65 million - .

Shrinking Sarkozy.

I love the cover of the Economist this week. Very well put. Sarkozy must hate it though - he has such a complex with his size. Funny, isn't it?

Here are extracts of their pretty good analysis of the French presidency:

The man who urged the French to reconcile themselves to globalisation later declared that “laissez-faire capitalism is finished”. The man who implored the French to stop knocking wealth creation then vowed to stop French carmakers building vehicles in low-cost countries for the French market. His own voters have been left thoroughly confused.
His failure to delegate has also created a clannish atmosphere at the Elysée, in which advisers hesitate to tell Mr Sarkozy, who has a fearsome temper, when he is wrong. “It’s very difficult to talk to him as an equal,” comments one old friend. This has led to some staggering errors of judgment.

The French did want a leader who would shake things up, he argues, but he went too far in the wrong places, touching sacred elements of the presidency: dignity in office, a respect for parliament and judicial independence, the separation of private and public life. The clubbish links between the Elysée, certain business and media bosses, even the judiciary, are troubling. In a country where public life has traditionally stopped at the bedroom door, many French people are dismayed to hear the president’s advisers comment publicly on the state of his marriage to Carla Bruni. Nobody wants a return to the hypocrisy of the past. But something of the solemnity of office has been damaged.