Monthly Archives: October 2011

More Non-Fiction, Simplified Elementary School Math: How the Common Core Could Change the American Curriculum

Knob-creek-bourbonOn Saturday I attended a fascinating presentation on the new Common Core curriculum standards in English and math, which 47 states and territories have agreed to implement by the 2014-2015 school year. The speakers were journalist Peg Tyre; testing expert Laura Solver, who works for a consortium of states developing assessments based on the Common Core; and David Coleman, a lead author of the actual standards.

Coleman has become the face of the Common Core on the edu-wonk speaking circuit, and let me tell you: He's a real showman. A former school reform entrepreneur with a master's degree in Greek philosophy, he opened the panel discussion for reporters, hosted at the Columbia Journalism School, by asking, "Do you know what the root of 'symposium' is in Greek?" My friend Greg Toppo of USA Today got the right answer: "drinking together." Coleman then pulled a handle of Kentucky bourbon and a stack of green plastic cups out of a paper bag, circulating them around the room of twittering (and tweeting) journalists.

Past attempts to develop national curriculum guidelines became mired in culture war controversy, but this latest effort–led by the states, not the federal government–has a real shot at influencing teaching and learning at the classroom level, and hopefully fostering a more rigorous academic culture in American public schools. If administrators and teachers implement the new standards faithfully, how will the curriculum evolve? Let's first look at math.

Currently, American students are taught just a little bit about a whole lot of mathematical topics each year; we have a curriculum with tons of breadth, but not much depth. Check out this chart Coleman showed us from education researcher Bill Schmidt. It demonstrates that while typical first-graders in high-achieving Western European and Asian countries learn just three concepts–quantity, measurement, and addition/subtraction of whole numbers–American first-graders must learn 14 topics, including polygons, circles, how to use a compass, and how to estimate. 

MathThe American curriculum may appear more rigorous, but our six-year olds are actually being denied the opportunity to master the foundational skills upon which the rest of their mathematical education will be based. The problem, according to Coleman, is that American curriculum standards have traditionally been written by committees whose members advocate for their pet pedagogical theories, such as traditional vs. reform math. "The only way to end a committee meeting is to let everyone get their stuff in," Coleman said. The result is that teachers feel rushed each year to move through an enormous list of standards. "Students and teachers bear all the weight of this," Coleman pointed out. "The standard writers are removed from this." The goal of the Common Core is, for the first time, to move American math standards in the simplified direction of our international peers. 

That said, states have agreed only to use the Common Core as the starting point of their own curricula in math and English; states do have the option of adding additional topics. So it's certainly possible that many will ignore best practices and heap more topics onto the rubric. 

In English, the potentially most controversial recommendation of the Common Core is to reduce the proportion of the curriculum focused on fiction. Currently, according to Coleman, American students are reading about 80 percent fiction and 20 percent "informational texts;" he would like to shift that balance to 50/50, in order to better approximate the kinds of reading and writing students will be expected to do in college and eventually in their careers.

I've written in the past about the problem of American teens not reading and writing serious non-fiction, and plan to write a longer piece about it soon. In short, our educational culture reflects our popular literary culture in its obsession with memoir. We are constantly asking kids to reflect on their personal experiences, but we aren't expecting them to engage seriously, in writing, with news, political arguments, or historical debates.  

Consider this typical elementary school writing prompt, for New Jersey 3rd-5th graders:

Most people have a special activity or hobby that they enjoy. Some people collect things while others like to read or play games. What activity do you like to do? Write a composition describing what you enjoy doing. Explain why that activity is special to you.

The Common Core Appendix B contains suggested reading lists and writing prompts for children of all ages. These are written for teachers, not for kids, but you can see how different a prompt resulting from this standard would be:

Students describe the reasons behind Joyce Milton’s statement that bats are nocturnal in her Bats: Creatures of the Night, and how she supports the points she is making in the text.

Here's a 12th grade writing prompt from the NAEP test, which is currently considered the gold-standard American exam:

Who are our heroes? The media attention given to celebrities suggests that these people are today's heroes. Yet ordinary people perform extraordinary acts of courage every day that go virtually unnoticed. Are these people the real heroes? Write an essay in which you define heroism and argue who you think our heroes really are–mass media stars, ordinary people, or maybe both. Be sure to use examples of specific celebrities, other people you have heard or read about, or people from your own community to support your position.

This assignment at least asks students to back up an argument with evidence, but the prompt is pulled out of the ether of pop culture, instead of referring to a specific text or even movie or TV show. The Common Core would hold high school seniors to a much higher standard:

  • Students delineate and evaluate the argument that Thomas Paine makes in Common Sense. They assess the reasoning present in his analysis, including the premises and purposes of his essay.
  • Students analyze Thomas Jefferson’s "Declaration of Independence," identifying its purpose and evaluating rhetorical features such as the listing of grievances. Students compare and contrast the themes and argument found there to those of other U.S. documents of historical and literary significance, such as the Olive Branch Petition.
  • Students provide an objective summary of Henry David Thoreau’s Walden wherein they analyze how he articulates the central ideas of living simply and being self-reliant and how those ideas interact and build on one another (e.g., “According to Thoreau, how specifically does moving toward complexity in one’s life undermine self-reliance?”)

When it comes to fiction, the Common Core will expect students to engage directly with a text, instead of "talking around the text" by asking kids to reflect on a literary theme such as justice or personal growth. For third graders:

  • Students ask and answer questions regarding the plot of Patricia MacLachlan’s Sarah, Plain and Tall, explicitly referring to the book to form the basis for their answers.
  • When discussing E. B. White’s book Charlotte’s Web, students distinguish their own point of view regarding Wilbur the Pig from that of Fern Arable as well as from that of the narrator.

For 12th graders:

  • Students analyze the first impressions given of Mr. and Mrs. Bennet in the opening chapter of Pride and Prejudice based on the setting and how the characters are introduced. By comparing these first impressions with their later understanding based on how the action is ordered and the characters develop over the course of the novel, students understand the impact of Jane Austen’s choices in relating elements of a story.
  • Students compare and contrast how the protagonists of Herman Melville’s Billy Budd and Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter maintain their integrity when confronting authority, and they relate their analysis of that theme to other portrayals in nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century foundational works of American literature.

Before closing out, a few words on the nuts and bolts of the effort to implement the Common Core. The project is a partnership between a number of organizations, including the National Governor's Association; the Council of Chief State School Officers; Achieve, a non-profit testing group created by the governors; the ACT; the College Board; the State Higher Education Executive Officers; the American Association of School Administrators; and the Business Roundtable. The federal government is supporting the Common Core with about $350 million, most of which is dedicated to developing and implementing tests based on the new standards. Federal funds are also being used to create instructional materials and professional development sessions for teachers who will use the new curricula.

The other major supportor of the Common Core is the Gates Foundation, which expects to spend a total of $250 million "to develop next-generation instructional tools and assessments that will help states and school districts implement the standards."

If I'm skeptical of any part of this effort, it's probably the strong belief, voiced by advocates like Coleman and Solver, that high-quality assessments will drive states, schools, and teachers to faithfully implement these new standards. There's a long history in American education reform of believing that better tests will lead to better schools and deeper learning; as authors like Nick Lemann and Herbert Kliebard have demonstrated, that isn't usually the case. And there are some other looming issues around assessment: Common Core tests will be given on computers, and although Solver said real people will be grading essay questions when the program rolls out in 2014, it's clear that the partner organizations are intrigued by the possibility of developing computer technology to grade student writing. I mention that push in my recent piece on the testing industry for GOOD magazine, and hope to do more reporting on it soon.

In short, there is so much to follow-up on here, my head is spinning. The Common Core is one of the biggest stories in American education right now, and has been woefully undercovered in the press.

Check out My Very First Powerpoint…On Teacher Evaluation and Non-Traditional Testing

Here is the presentation I made this morning to the Columbia/New York Times conference for education reporters on testing. It details how I reported my April 2011 feature for The American Prospect, "The Test Generation," which is about two different models in Colorado for evaluating teachers and measuring student growth–one of which includes a controversial effort to administer pencil-and-paper tests in art, music, and physical education. I think you'll get the most out of the Powerpoint if you read the article first. Enjoy…and if you have questions about my reporting process or about teacher evaluation, please leave them in the comments section!

A Reality Check on Teen Sex

Even in liberal, cosmopolitan New York City, sex education is controversial—at least in the media.

Last week, the New York Post published a breathless article about the city’s new comprehensive sex ed curriculum, which will be rolled out this spring for middle and high-school students. According to the Post, some unspecified number of “parents” are feeling “furor” at the following “bawdy” homework assignments:

· High-school students go to stores and jot down condom brands, prices and features such as lubrication.

· Teens research a route from school to a clinic that provides birth control and STD tests, and write down its confidentiality policy.

· Kids ages 11 and 12 sort “risk cards” to rate the safety of various activities, including “intercourse using a condom and an oil-based lubricant,” mutual masturbation, French kissing, oral sex and anal sex.

Regarding this last assignment, an October 18 New York Times op-ed by two authors affiliated with the hard right American Principles Project borrowed the “parental rights” rhetoric of the Tea Party to claim that teaching seventh-graders that kissing and petting are less risky than oral sex or vaginal intercourse violates parents’ right to control what their children hear about “sensitive issues of morality.” Although the city plans to allow parents to opt their children out of lessons on how to use contraception, parents should be able to remove their kids from any part of the sex ed curriculum they choose, the authors argued.

The research consensus on sex ed is clear: the vast majority of abstinence-only programs, which tend to portray all premarital sexual activity as sinful and unhealthy, have no record of delaying sexual intercourse. The one abstinence program that does successfully delay sexual initiation has little in common with its peers; instead of portraying sex in a negative light, it focuses on teaching kids about sexually transmitted infections such as HIV and herpes. Meanwhile, students who receive comprehensive sex ed, which includes lessons on how to obtain and use contraception, are more likely to use protection when they do have sex, and less likely to become pregnant.

But the never-ending sex ed wars aren’t really about what “works” in terms of keeping kids healthy and preventing teen pregnancy. As sociologist Kristin Luker demonstrates in her excellent book When Sex Goes to School, a person’s position on sex ed is a proxy for a deeper set of questions: whether or not one supports the changes in gender and economic norms that have brought women into the workplace, delayed the average age at marriage and allowed couples to experience sex without the burden of pregnancy, through the use of hormonal birth control. “Abstinence-only education,” Luker writes, “rejects the core principle on which the harm-reduction model is based: that each individual should decide for himself or herself what is proper sexual behavior. Instead, it substitutes a single value for everyone, namely, no sex outside (heterosexual) marriage.”

The problem with this ideology is that it is based on a fantasy. Ninety-five percent of Americans have premarital sex, and the average age of sexual initiation is 16 for boys and 17 for girls. These numbers have remained remarkably consistent since the early 1960s. What has changed is the particular risks facing our inner-city youth. According to the Guttmacher Institute, since the 1980s, the number of urban, minority youth reporting sexual initiation before the age of 15 has increased. In one 2001 study, 31 percent of urban minority boys and 8 percent of urban minority girls reported having sex in seventh or eighth grade. By the end of tenth grade, a majority of both the girls and boys reported that they had sex.

It is exactly this population that the New York City sex ed curriculum was crafted to reach. And though teaching middle-schoolers about safe sex is eternally controversial, the evidence suggests that for a significant portion of our urban youth, seventh grade is actually too late to begin having these conversations, since they are already sexually active.

A sex ed curriculum based in reality acknowledges these risks and attempts to mitigate them. And since there’s no evidence at all that comprehensive sex-ed hastens children’s sexual initiation, there is little downside. After all, even the most progressive sex ed curriculum teaches kids that delaying sex is the only 100 percent effective method for preventing pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections.

cross-posted at The Nation

The “Policy” Books I Recommend Most Often

I've been asked a few times over the past year to recommend books for writers new to education or to social policy more broadly, and I thought it might be fun and useful to share this list on the blog. These are titles I turn back to constantly, both as references and as touchstones for my own thinking about education, public health, gender, race, and class. Interestingly, none of these books were written by policy wonks; rather, they are by journalists, sociologists, and historians with a strong grasp of how public policies operate in the real world. 

David Tyack and Larry Cuban, Tinkering Toward Utopia

There are many interesting histories of American education, but this is a history of American education reform–the cyclical churn of philanthropists', politicians', academics', and business leaders' attempts to improve our public schools. From test-driven instruction to merit pay to small schools, what goes around in American education history truly does come around again, often despite poor track records for students. Why do so many American education reforms fail? Because they are deployed with little understanding of how schools and teachers work on-the-ground, relying too much on visionary ideas and too little on the practical knowledge of experienced educators.  Tyack and Cuban's classic offers a bracing reminder that when it comes to policy-making, realism and humility are just as important as "innovation" and "big ideas"

Kathryn Edin and Maria Kefalas, Promises I Can Keep

Two sociologists report from inner-city Philadelphia on how low-income women approach relationships, sex, pregnancy, childbirth, and parenting, finding that across racial lines, many unmarried mothers want and even actively plan their pregnancies. In part this is because in communities in which higher education and decent jobs remain largely out of reach, motherhood is viewed as the key marker of adult womanhood. The book challenges the Bush administration's emphasis on promoting marriage among the poor, demonstrating that many welfare moms choose not to live with or marry their children's fathers because those men are unemployed, abusive, addicted, or otherwise unable to fulfill the basic responsibilities of family life. In other words, marriage promotion won't work unless it is accompanied by real anti-poverty, pro-jobs measures that help poor men become more attractive mates. But some of my own pro-choice talking points were also challenged by Promises, which depicts abortion as an afterthought to these women, many of whom oppose the procedure for moral and religious reasons and wouldn't seriously consider it as an alternative to bearing children they are hard-pressed to support. When it comes to birth control, most of the women in Promises do know how to access and use it, but often abandon the Pill or condoms as a way to prove commitment and love to their male partner. The book serves as a reminder that poor single moms, like the rest of us, base their decisions on a complex mix of well-reasoned costs and benefits and messy human emotions. 

Paul Tough, Whatever it Takes

This is magazine journalist Paul Tough's admiring account of the various programs within the Harlem Children's Zone. In addition to making a powerful case for an education reform agenda that combines in-school efforts with out-of-school supports around health, nutrition, and childcare, Tough cogently reviews 50 years worth of academic thinking on the causes and effects of poverty, including the latest evidence on how poverty impacts cognitive development during early childhood and even in the womb. Best of all, he does all of this while building a page-turning narrative around the real lives of Harlem parents and children.

Annette Lareau, Unequal Childhoods

A groundbreaking sociological study that defined two fundamentally different American parenting styles: "concerted cultivation," generally practiced by middle-class, affluent, and college-educated parents; and "natural growth," generally practiced by poor and working class parents. Both styles have benefits and drawbacks. More affluent kids are better at challenging authority and talking to strangers, and also benefit from more athletic and artistic enrichment. Working class kids have less sibling rivalry, less stress, and tend to enjoy closer ties within their extended families and neighborhoods. When it comes to academic success, however, the deck is stacked against kids raised by "natural growth" parents, who are less likely to know how to deploy a school's resources in their child's favor. This book reminds us how "formed" children are by their home lives before they ever enter a classroom–and what a difficult job teachers face in tailoring instruction to a classroom of students who may come from very different kinds of families. 

Donna Foote, Relentless Pursuit

If you read one book about Teach for America, this should be the one. Foote shadows a group of TFA recruits as they undergo trial by fire in Los Angeles public schools, demonstrating these young people's extraordinary commitment, but also the program's limited ability to overcome the lack of resources, professional development support, and competent administration within many inner city schools. Foote also reveals the sometimes strange group think behind TFA's missionary zeal, and the way in which some recruits simply find the program–and high-poverty teaching itself–impossible to balance with a normal personal life.

The Drawbacks of a Technophobic Education

The Times reports from a Waldorf model private school in Silicon Valley, where the elementary school offspring of Google and Apple engineers are prevented from using cell phones, computers, and iPads, and instead encouraged to knit, bake, and write by hand.

I'm generally skeptical of technophilic education reform, since I believe curriculum and quality teaching are far more important than whizz-bang gadgetry. But I don't think technophobic classrooms would work nearly as well for a less priveleged student population. Consider this statement from Alan Eagle, a Waldorf parent and Google executive who brags that his fifth-grade daughter doesn't know how to perform a Google search.

“It’s supereasy. It’s like learning to use toothpaste,” Mr. Eagle said. “At Google and all these places, we make technology as brain-dead easy to use as possible. There’s no reason why kids can’t figure it out when they get older.”

While it's true that Googling a phrase, address, or phone number is simple, it isn't always easy or intuitive to interpret the results of a more complex search for information, whether you're looking for a good doctor, checking if your apartment is rent controlled, or researching a politician's record and platform. The Internet is filled with misinformation, as is talk radio, cable news, and just about every other media source with which Americans come into daily contact. 

We know from the work of sociologist Annette Lareau that college-educated parents are typically very good at introducing their children to the practices of asking questions, challenging authorities, and expressing doubt. Many working-class parents, on the other hand, emphasize deference to authority, and while that skill can be helpful in certain situations, it may not inculcate skepticism toward media sources–especially when you consider that working class and poor children are also less likely to be regularly exposed at home to newspapers, magazines, books, computers, high-speed Internet, and smartphones.

Media and information literacy are incredibly important, both for our civic health–we need informed voters–and for people's day-to-day ability to use technology to find the info they want and need. That's why I was impressed with a 10th grade social studies lesson I observed last spring in Providence, R.I. Jennifer Geller taught her students to fact-check their textbook using Google, but also explained to them how to sift the wheat from the chaff online, by understanding how Google and Wikipedia are programmed. 

We also know that women and minorities are grossly underepresented in computing jobs, and that early exposure to computers and video games is correlated with developing a professional interest in high-tech fields.

I'm all in favor of strictly limiting children's "screen time," both in and out of school. But given the frantic media culture our kids are exposed to from birth, it seems that young readers certainly should be learning the practices of smart, skeptical Internet use. I think the key is a balanced approach: an education that is neither technophobic nor technophilic. 

Making Sense of Michelle Rhee’s Legacy and Teacher “Churn and Burn”

If you haven't read it already, I highly recommend Washington Post reporter Bill Turque's analysis of Michelle Rhee's legacy one year after she left the D.C. public schools. Turque writes about the "churn and burn" in the D.C. teacher corps since the introduction of the controversial new IMPACT teacher evaluation and merit pay system: One-third of all teachers on the payroll in September 2007 no longer work for the district, and inexperienced teachers are more clustered than ever in low-income schools and neighborhoods. We know this is problematic because DC's own data shows that 22 percent of teachers with six to 10 years of experience are rated "highly effective," compared to just 12 percent of teachers with less than six years experience. 

That said, if inexperienced but minimally-competent teachers are replacing grossly incompetent ones, the high turnover might be a better option than leaving bad teachers in the classroom. In the case of D.C., is that what's happening? Democrats for Education Reform has a new report on IMPACT with some helpful charts that put the "one-third attrition" stat in context. First, let's take a look at how IMPACT evaluated DC's 4,000 teachers' union members during the 2010-2011 school year.

Screen shot 2011-10-18 at 10.55.00 PM

The small gray wedge represents the 2 percent of teachers who were rated "ineffective" and immediately terminated. Another 2 percent were rated "minimally effective" two years in a row and then terminated. These two groups account for about 200 teachers. The four-year turnover rate of one-third, therefore, is vastly larger than the 4 percent of "ineffective" teachers in the district. Even if every single teacher rated "minimally effective" for just one year had quit, these three problematic categories would account for only 17 percent of the teacher corps–about half the actual four-year attrition rate.

The comparison isn't perfect because these IMPACT figures are a snapshot from a single school year and, as Turque has reported, D.C. does not release its annual teacher attrition rate–the number of teachers who don't come back to work from spring to the following fall. But extrapolating from the available data, it seems clear that the majority of teachers leaving D.C. are currently "effective," or at least have the potential to become effective teachers over time. Indeed, the DFER report demonstrates that D.C. teachers rated "minimally effective" who stay in the district have a decent chance of improving under IMPACT.

Screen shot 2011-10-18 at 11.31.40 PM

 

I think the longterm question on IMPACT and other new evaluation plans is whether promising teachers choose to stick around to work under these systems. Of course, some teacher attrition is inevitable, since teachers retire, move away, and go on maternity leave. But the average yearly teacher attrition rate in a low-poverty American public school is 12.9 percent, compared to 20 percent in a high-poverty school. Since unwanted teacher attrition costs the typical urban school district tens of millions of dollars annually–and disporportionately affects low-income kids–a good test of any teacher quality reform is whether it improves the retention of effective teachers, not just whether it results in the firing of ineffective ones.

The evidence from DC is mixed, since many more teachers are leaving the District than have been deemed ineffective or unlikely to improve. At the same time, those who choose to stay despite the challenges and tumult seem to be gaining some professional development benefits. 

Read More:

The DFER report contains testimonies from teachers who felt IMPACT improved their practice

Jay Matthews' column on one well-regarded DC teacher who found the system unhelpful

Jay Matthews' column on a DC princpal who dislikes IMPACT

Meet the Teachers’ Union Contract of the Future

This post has been updated and corrected with more details on the contract, provided by the UFT

On Friday Geoff Decker of GothamSchools reported on the renegotiated contract between New York's United Federation of Teachers and Green Dot, the California-based charter school operator whose schools are all unionized. Two years after the first Green Dot/UFT agreement was drafted, the union agreed once again to a contract that lacks both traditional tenure and seniority-based layoffs. The new contract also pays veteran Green Dot teachers a $2,000 bonus as a reward for raising test scores, and a base salary 20 percent higher than their traditional school counterparts.

New York state exempts charter schools from tenure law, so one of the union's goals in a contract negotiation like this one is to build back in some job security. In the case of Green Dot, teachers actually have a shorter probationary period than in a traditional public schools–just one year, compared to three–but they also agree to a system in which administrators have more say over layoffs of non-probationary teachers. Instead of seniority-based layoffs, as in the traditional school contract, the union and administration will meet at the bargaining table in the event of layoffs to determine what "equitable criteria" should be used. 

Green Dot teachers will be evaluated according to the principles enshrined in New York State's Race to the Top application: 20 percent of the evaluation score will be based on student standardized test scores for grades and subjects in which they are available, 20 percent on other "local" measures of student academic growth, and 60 percent on classroom observation. 

When a teacher is ineffective, Green Dot administrators must prove "just cause" before firing him or her, the same standard practiced within many non-unionized companies in order to avoid wrongful termination lawsuits–and the same standard called for to remove a tenured teacher in the traditional school contract. The difference is that at Green Dot, there is a streamlined, approximately 90-day grievance and arbitration process in which the union can appeal a dismissal, which negotiators expect to be less cumbersome and less likely to involve attorneys than the traditional Department of Education process. 

After their first-year in the school, teachers grieve a discipline or dismissal decision to an indepdendent arbitrator. First-year teachers have no job security protections whatsoever The grievances of first-year teachers are ruled upon not by the arbitrator, but by the school's board of trustees. 

 The teachers' union contracts of the future may look a lot like this one–if we start making much-needed improvements in teacher preparation and allow teachers to get more actively involved in the administration of their schools. (Big "ifs," I know.) When I had lunch with AFT President Randi Weingarten in August, we discussed the future of tenure, and she told me she could absolutely envision an entire urban district organized around the same principles as the Green Dot contract–in other words, without teacher "seniority" as we know it today. "The question," she said, "is how do you create an environment that is mission-driven and has a culture of fairness to it?" 

Indeed, the Green Dot model calls for teams of teachers to be actively involved in hiring their peers; this is a highly-vetted workforce operating in an environment that emphasizes collegiality and professionalism. Without such healthy school environments, unions and teachers will have a hard time giving up the protections they've won because of a very real history of adminstrative overreach. 

On “Ides of March,” Politics, Sex, and Morality

Ides-of-march-evan-rachel-wood-ryan-gosling
Evan Rachel Wood and Ryan Gosling in "Ides of March."

MAJOR SPOILER ALERT. SERIOUSLY. DON'T READ THIS IF YOU HAVEN'T SEEN THE MOVIE YET.

Tonight I saw "Ides of March," the George Clooney film in which a sex scandal is grafted onto a presidential campaign based loosely on both Obama '08 and Dean '04. 

The movie features riveting acting and smart dialogue; my favorite scenes were those between Ryan Gosling, who plays an idealistic communications staffer, and Marissa Tomei, a journalist covering the race for the New York Times. Of course, it goes without saying that Philip Seymour Hoffman and Paul Giamatti were fantastic. But I found the film far more problematic than believable, particularly in the way it deals with sex and gender.

The female lead is Evan Rachel Wood, who plays Molly, a 20-year old campaign intern and daughter of the Democratic National Committee chairman. She gets pregnant after a one-night stand with the candidate, Gov. Mike Morris (Clooney), whose judgement apparently slips as he is riding the high of his Iowa caucus win.

Sexually forward and whip-smart, Molly later seduces Gosling's character, who learns of her tryst with Morris and fires her, but not before helping her obtain a $900 abortion. Alone in her hotel room after the procedure, Molly kills herself by overdosing on painkillers and alcohol–either because she is worried that her affairs with both men will ruin their careers and the Democratic Party's chance to regain the White House or, perhaps because she is intentionally exacting revenge on the men who've wronged her. (The movie does not make Molly's intentions clear.)

Allow me to deconstruct this. First of all, the average cost of an abortion at a clinic like the one Molly visits in the film is $350, not $900. It is unlikely that an affluent, educated young woman like Molly would need to beg for help in acquiring this amount of money. More disturbingly, given that Molly's character is portrayed as neither depressed nor unstable before the abortion–indeed, she seems happy, ambitious, and hard-working–her suicide in the procedure's aftermath perpetuates the myth of "post-abortion syndrome:" the unsubstantiated belief, which has nevertheless crept into real-life anti-choice legislation and court decisions, that women are particularly suspectible to mental, emotional, and physical illness after an abortion.

The film also harkens back to the age-old pop culture tradition of female characters being "punished" for promiscuous sex and abortions with either sickness or death. 

In short: This is all highly unrealistic and dated. What's more, none of it convinced me to feel particularly cynical about politics–at least not for the reasons presented in the film. Clooney's character, the candidate, is actually the most sympathetic person in "Ides of March." Although he is an adulterer, the governor at least tends to resist the temptation to moderate his policy positions on the death penalty and foreign wars, to pander to the religious right, and to trade cabinet positions for endorsements. His staffers, on the other hand, are all-too-quick to forget their principles in service of either a political win or personal career advancement.

So while you wouldn't want to be married to Gov. Mike Morris, there's no reason, as the movie seems to suggest in its final scene, to feel that voting or working for him would be futile, or that either act lacks basic integrity. As cynical as I get about the filibuster, the electoral college, voters' lack of policy knowledge, and all the other terrible aspects of the American political system, I still believe it really does matter who gets elected president. Wars are launched. Judges are appointed. Regulations are made.

Reducing politics to a hackneyed sexual morality play might make for fun entertainment, but it is a fundamentally inadequate lens through which to view American campaigns, elections, and government–except to say that our political system (and political media) ought to be far less focused on politicians' (and American women's) sex lives. 

Jerry Brown Borrows a Line from Randi Weingarten

On Friday, California governor Jerry Brown vetoed SB547, a bill that would have changed the state's school accountability law to encompass high school drop-out rates, graduation rates, participation in career and technical education programs, and student achievement data for subjects and grades that are currently un-tested, such as art, music, and physical education. 

The bill would have likely led to the creation of additional standardized tests–but it also would have counted test scores for only 40 percent of a high school's accountability score, while the current system relies 100 percent on test scores. Nevertheless, Brown's veto statement, which is getting a lot of attention in the education blogosphere, argued that the collection of additional data would indicate the "siren song of school reform." He wrote:

Over the last 50 years, academic “experts” have subjected California to unceasing pedagogical change and experimentation. The current fashion is to collect endless quantitative data to populate ever-changing indicators of performance to distinguish the educational “good” from the educational “bad.” Instead of recognizing that perhaps we have reached testing nirvana, editorialists and academics alike call for ever more measurement “visions and revisions."

The California Teachers' Association didn't take a position on the bill, but union leaders will likely cheer Brown's embrace of data-skepticism. I noticed that he ended his veto message with an Albert Einstein quote that American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten likes to cite: "Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts."