Monday, October 25, 2010

Is this Political Discourse?

I know I shouldn't be surprised, but the latest attempt by to sway voters is so insulting and so over the top it is insane. They launched a video at this address, and while the video is clever and makes good use of technology it is so utterly inane that it is offensive to the political process. Is this what our nation has devolved to? That we go out and vote because some outside political action group tells us to vote a certain way using actors and silly future time travel movie plots?

Where is the content in this political advertisement? Where is the reasoned discourse and discussion of the issues? To use a food analogy, this ad is all sizzle and no steak.

I urge you to get out and vote, and I won't resort to cheap movie tricks to do so. Your vote matters as part of the democratic process. In fact it is far too important a part to trivialize with cheap cinematic sensationalism. I won't even tell you who to vote for or why you should vote for them, I will merely tell you to familiarize yourself with the candidates, with the issues important to you, and vote accordingly.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

An interesting read...

Check this out, a PDF is available here. It was written back in 2006 and gives an interesting perspective on Mr. Blumenthal's history as the Attorney General of Connecticut. As always, consider the source, the group is obviously picking out some of the problem cases of his career. However, it fits perfectly with the way the man portrays himself today, as an egotistical self inflated politician with little motivation beyond winning the next election.

I severely hope that the people of Connecticut send him packing, now that he has given up his post as AG to run for Senate we can finally rid ourselves of him. If he doesn't win a seat in the Senate it is my prediction that he will wither up and expire from lack of a spotlight and soapbox.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Don't Blame Islam

There is currently a huge debate over the "Ground Zero" mosque. I am sorry to say that on this issue the Republicans who are speaking out against it are so solidly in the wrong it hurts. The allegations that building this mosque is "gloating" or that they are being "disrespectful" to hallowed ground is nothing more than religious prejudice in the worst sense. As Americans we need to understand and respect the difference between Muslims and Terrorists. To assume that all mosques are recruitment and training facilities for terrorists is like assuming all Protestant and Catholic churches are recruitment grounds for the IRA.

Let us not forget that there were Muslims in the World Trade Center on the day of the terrorist attack. They died right alongside their fellow Christian Americans. Let us not forget the Iraqi Muslims who have served alongside our military in liberating and defending their own country from the same terrorists who attack our country. Let us not forget the Muslim Afghans who are serving and training with our military in Afghanistan to help fight terrorism in their own country. Al-Qaeda has killed far more Muslims than they have Christians.

Instead of opposing the building of this Mosque we have an opportunity to come together as a nation and deliver a solid message to the Muslims of the world that we understand as a country that there is a difference between Islam and Terrorism. We have a chance to show, once again, that our nation is a shining beacon of freedom. We have a chance to show that we are a nation of religious tolerance and understanding. Lets not squander this chance to be at our best by being at our worst.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Either side of the fence is fine...

I'm a bit confused.

In this post Rep. Tim O'Brien went on a tirade against Wall Street and said, among other things, that we should be refocusing our spending on creating manufacturing jobs. I called him out in my last post for some of the deceptive tactics used in the graphic he selected as well as problems in his argument. But at least Mr. O'Brien was taking a stand on the issue. In his response to my last post he said

"[T]he loss of our manufacturing sector to a paper economy is the cause of our current economic troubles ... the sooner the policy-makers of our nation start acting on this truth, the sooner our country will be back on the right track economically."
Personally I disagree with his conclusion. Our GDP has continually grown from 1959 till today and we are by far the world leader.

But at least he has taken a stance!

At least that was until July 1, 2010 when he made this post. In which he calls for the state to spend the recently accrued budget surplus. Given his previous statements that the policy makers of our country have to spend change focus to manufacturing I expected he would have wanted the money to go to some type of plan to bring manufacturing back to Connecticut. However, he decided that now we need to focus on the service economy of education. He argues that "years of neglect by City Hall" (hopefully he's including his pals Michael Trueworthy, Phil Sherwood, and the democratic super-majority in that bunch) "left the local schools under already tenuous conditions."

Now the fact that O'Brien wants to put a focus on education is admirable, but what does that say about his previous position? Was he just beating up on Wall Street because they are the popular punching bag at the moment? It is not like we weren't aware of a surplus on June 2nd when he made his post decrying Wall Street. It just carries an air of political opportunism, saying what the crowd wants to hear, that bothers me. Maybe this Fall we can finally get a State Representative who will stand by his statements, even if they may be unpopular. I am an optimist enough to believe that we can.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

More games by O'Brien

Back during the Mayoral election I pointed out that O'Brien liked to play games with numbers. This included selectively creating graphs to make it appear that his point is valid while leaving out the rest of the information to give you a really accurate pictures. Well in a recent rant against Wall Street O'Brien is employing a new tactic. That is flooding a graph with additional information to obscure the overall picture.

In talking about the fact that Manufacturing as a percentage of GDP O'Brien notes that manufacturing has dropped from being over 25% of GDP to just under 13% of GDP since 1947. He notes that in the same time frame the financial sector went from around 10% to around 20%. He even includes a nice graph.

I don't know if O'Brien added the text to the graph, but if he did he is deliberately being misleading (and if he didn't he wasn't studious enough to review the graphic before using it.)

Here are a few problems, first what they call "Financial Sector" in the large text is actually listed in the legend of the graph as "Finance, insurance, real estate, rental, and leasing. It is FAR MORE than just the finance department. Also, the text at the bottom says "Most sectors stayed nearly the same" and this is a total lie. The problem with this graph is that it places a lot of lines at the bottom close together and while some of the lines do remain close to the same there are other lines that grow almost as much as the "Finance" line, namely Professional and Business Services and Educational services, Healthcare, and Social Assistance. And at the same time you also notice large decreases in agriculture and mining.

In fact - when you clear up the "noise" the graph looks completely different.

Why does someone do things like this? Because they can't make their argument without misleading people. Yes, far less of our GDP is made in manufacturing, but it still accounts for the third highest part of our economy. In fact, this chart had to lump Finance, Insurance, Real Estate, Rental, and Leasing all together in order to make it appear to contribute more to the economy. If O'Brien wants to make the case that we need to refocus our economy or that we should distrust Wall Street that is fine, but by using this graphic his intent is now to mislead people - and that is unforgivable.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

A bone to pick...

At the last Common Council meeting Phil Sherwood, during his 10 minute monologue, said one thing that made me physically laugh out loud. I tried to control myself, but I couldn't. It was a terrible breech of decorum, but in the face of such an ignorant statement I was unable to contain my laughter of shock and disgust. What had me simultaneously amused and upset? It was when Phil Sherwood said "and we all know that smaller class sizes improve student performance."

This bit of 'common wisdom' is one that people like to throw around constantly. It is assumed by a great deal of teacher and an even greater number of administrators and even more members of the public that the answer is simply to cut class sizes and our students will succeed. Teacher unions, for one, love this notion. The smaller you require class sizes to be the greater numbers of teachers you need. Administrators and politicians love this notions because it always gives them an easy educational scapegoat. In their minds if they don't have the money or  facilities to have smaller class sizes then they can be absolved of all blame.

There is one unfortunate problem with these assertions, and that is they are wrong. Much of the media buzz promoting strong connections between class size and student performance came out of the Project STAR report which was the findings of an experiment in Tennessee. There were a few problems with Project STAR. First, the students were assigned randomly, but no pre-instruction data was collected. That means that there is no way to tell if any student actually improved more in a smaller class size than they did in a larger class size. Second, the results of ProjectSTAR only showed modest gains among K-1 students. Other students showed no significant gains in performance. Third, the study is almost 30 years old and many of their conclusions have been repeatedly contradicted by further more modern research. Finally, the benefit of smaller class sizes only occurred when classes were reduced from 22-25 to fewer than 17 students in a classroom.

Since Project STAR several other research studies have been performed and published. Some show a modest gain in student performance in primary schools, some show no gains at all, some show that the gains are not persistent, other show that the gains are lifelong. In short, there is no conclusive evidence that classroom size reductions will have any measurable affect on student performance.

Cost vs. Reward
When we begin to look at making policy we have to look at the best way to spend our tax dollars. What Phil Sherwood is advocating for is putting all of our money into teacher jobs when it could be much better spent. Allow me to make a brief example. In order to reduce 4 classrooms of 25 students to 5 classrooms of 20 students you need the following: an extra teacher, a physical space, certain supplies such as a teacher desk, classroom library, big books, blackboard or SMART board, overhead projector, electricity and heating for that new room, carpets, bookshelves, etc. A conservative estimate would be that if you assumed a starting teacher that room would cost you $50-60k.

What could we do with $50-60k to better serve our students? One answer, informed by research, is professional development. Numerous studies have now shown that having highly trained and motivated teachers is far more important than small classroom sizes. Imagine the type of training you could have for a group of 4 teachers for $10k each, and you'd still be saving money. Teachers could be well versed on the latest educational techniques and trained in specific strategies to allow them to deliver effective content to their students. These types of changes in teacher training would allow our teachers to become some of the most quality educators in the practice.

Quality vs. Quantity
The negative side effect of having smaller classrooms, in addition to the cost, is the effect on teacher quality. All studies that have advocated for smaller classrooms assume equitable teacher quality. However, when you have to employ 400 teachers instead of 300 you can no longer be as picky. Furthermore, with greater numbers of teachers you can no longer oversee and review them with the same level of scrutiny and support. When an administrator has to review and oversee 40 teachers in a building instead of 30 then less time can be devoted to each educator.

The short of it
Phil Sherwood may have made this comment off the cuff, but he's made this assertion several times and it shows that he does not know what he is talking about. As someone who follows educational research closely as a matter of professional interest I find it insulting when people assert facts about which they know nothing. I hope that next year when the Board of Education and the Common Council come up for election we elect a slate of officials who actually do a bit of research to inform their policy decisions.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Standing up for their rights

The New Britain Herald recently ran an article about a group of students standing up for their right to carry firearms. CCSU, like many colleges and universities, maintains that they are a 'gun free zone'. This is allegedly a way to keep down gun related violence in certain areas. Unfortunately this practice does not work out as planned. The vast majority of shootings that have occurred in the past decade or so, such as the Columbine massacre or the more recent shooting at Virginia Tech have happened in 'gun free zones.' One student in the article referred to gun free zones as "disarmed victim zones" and he was unfortunately correct.

In the wake of the Virginia Tech shooting several students who owned firearms said that they wish they had been carrying that day, despite the ban. Add that to the numerous cases where a would be gunman was thwarted by an armed civilian before the police could respond and you have a compelling argument. A friend of mine in college was fond of saying "an armed society is a polite society." I don't necessarily agree, but an armed society that is respectful of guns and their use is a safer society. How many accidental shootings occur every year in homes? How many of those victims were taught to respect firearms and handle them safely? It is not the mere presence of the guns that causes the accidents, it is the lack of respect and knowledge. In St. Lawrence County of New York, which once boasted the highest gun per capita ratio in the state, gun related violence and injuries were lower than anywhere else.

As long as we are society which permits the private ownership of guns, gun free zones will not work. We can not isolate ourselves in imaginary bubbles to try to keep out the rest of society. All we do is create an are where potential gunmen know they will find little to no resistance. I applaud the bravery of these students to take a stance for what they believe in, especially when it runs so contrary to popular opinion.