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Does Justice Depend Upon Carbs & Diving Blood Sugar?

April 21st, 2011 by Celeste Fremon


Horrifyingly enough Discover magazine reports that a well-fed judge may dole out leniency for criminal defendants more often than a hungry jurist.

Israeli researcher Shai Danziger at Ben Gurion University of the Negev did a 10-month study that looked at more than 1100 applications for parole and found that the judges studied were more likely to grant parole at the start of the day, and after breaks for a morning snack and then again after lunch.

The ABA Journal reports:

The odds of a prisoner winning parole started off at 65 percent, then plummeted over a few hours, and returned to 65 percent after the breaks, before plummeting again, the magazine reports. The decisions weren’t entirely arbitrary, however. Prisoners deemed likely to commit another crime, or who weren’t part of a rehabilitation program, were still less likely to win parole.

Discovery Magazine writes that researcher Danziger felt he could easily explain the judges’ actions:

All repetitive decision-making tasks drain our mental resources. We start suffering from “choice overload” and we start opting for the easiest choice. For example, shoppers who have already made several decisions are more likely to go for the default offer, whether they’re buying a suit or a car. And when it comes to parole hearings, the default choice is to deny the prisoner’s request. The more decisions a judge has made, the more drained they are, and the more likely they are to make the default choice. Taking a break replenishes them.

There are several other ways of explaining this striking pattern but Danziger ruled all of them out. It wasn’t the case that a few individuals skewed the data, for the pattern was consistent across all the judges. The results weren’t due to discrimination, for the judges treated the prisoners equally regardless of their gender, ethnicity or the severity of their crime.

Read the rest.

And if you’re facing a criminal case, get your defense attorney to slip the bailiff some chips and jelly beans for the judge.

Posted in Courts, crime and punishment, criminal justice | No Comments »

Heartbreak: “Restrepo” Co-Director Tim Hetherington Killed Covering Libya

April 20th, 2011 by Celeste Fremon

“In it’s desire to sanitize war, society dehumanizes it….I’ve come to realize the war machine is, in fact, very human. Take a group of young men, train them together, put them on the side of a mountain and they will kill and be killed for each other.”

– Tim Hetherington, November 2010

The brave and brilliant photojournalist Tim Hetherington, who co-directed with Sebastian Junger the profoundly affecting and deeply humanizing war documentary, “Restrepo,” about U.S. soldiers in the Korengal Valley of Afghanistan, was killed Tuesday in Misrata, Libya.

This is terrible, terrible news.

Here are the details from Reuters.

Photojournalist Tim Hetherington, the co-director of Oscar-nominated war documentary “Restrepo,” died in the besieged Libyan town of Misrata on Wednesday, doctors said.

Getty photographer Chris Hondros was in critical condition in intensive care, doctors at the hospital where he was being treated said. He had suffered brain injuries.

The photographers were among a group caught by mortar fire on Tripoli Street, the main thoroughfare leading into the center of Misrata, the only major rebel-held town in western Libya and besieged by Muammar Gaddafi’s forces for more than seven weeks.

“It was quiet and we were trying to get away and then a mortar landed and we heard explosions,” Spanish photographer Guillermo Cervera said.

UPDATE: Chris Hondros has died of his injuries. Hondros was a finalist for the Pulitzer in 2004 for his photos of conflict in Liberia, and got the Robert Capa Gold Medal for photography in 2005 (among others) for this amazing set of images.

This is from the Human Rights Watch statement:

Hetherington was a brilliant photographer and videographer who covered many of the world’s most critical human rights stories: conflicts in Liberia, Afghanistan, Darfur, and now Libya. In every assignment, he demonstrated a remarkable sensitivity to his subjects, a tender insight into their human ordeals, and a keen sense of how visual imagery could be used to effect positive social change.

“Tim Hetherington was much more than a war reporter,” said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch. “He had an extraordinary talent for documenting, in compassionate and beautiful imagery, the human stories behind the headlines. We are saddened by his death and extend our deepest condolences to his family and countless friends.”

Roth reiterated Human Rights Watch’s call on the Libyan government to cease unlawful attacks against civilian areas in Misrata.

Hetherington lived in Monrovia, Liberia for eight years during the brutal civil war that engulfed Liberia and neighboring countries. The film that Hetherington co-directed, “Liberia: An Uncivil War,” and his book, “Long Story Bit by Bit: Liberia Retold,” did more than any other body of work to tell the complete story of the conflict, focusing on individual Liberians and allowing them to tell their own stories in their own words.

And here’s Hetherington in his own words in an OpEd from last year.

Posted in journalism, War | No Comments »

Teaching Gay History, Angry Judges & More

April 20th, 2011 by Celeste Fremon


The AP gets this story exactly right:

California conservatives were outraged in 1966 when the state Board of Education adopted a new junior high school history textbook. The book’s inclusive treatment of the civil rights movement and influential black Americans would indoctrinate students, undermine religious values and politicize the curriculum, they said.

Forty-five years later, gay rights advocates say similar arguments are being advanced to defeat a bill that would make the state the first to require the teaching of gay history in public schools. The California Senate approved the landmark measure last week, but it needs to clear the Democrat-controlled Assembly and Gov. Jerry Brown’s desk.

Yet the debate about what children should learn about sexual orientation mirrors earlier disputes over whether groups such as 20th Century German immigrants, women, Muslims and Jews would have a place for their heroes and heartbreaks in the history books.

The AP points out that, right now, California requires schools to teach about women, African Americans, Mexican Americans, entrepreneurs, Asian Americans, European Americans, American Indians and labor.

Advocates point to studies that suggest that bullying dramatically decreases in schools where gay history is added to the curriculum.


A new study by an Appalachian State University professor finds that the state’s death is expensive, ineffective and racially biased—and should therefore be repealed.

The Winston-Salem Journal has the story. Here’s a clip.

The study was done by Matthew Robinson, a professor of government and justice studies. Robinson analyzed data from more than 20 studies on the death penalty and released his findings Monday at a news conference in Raleigh.

“In the past six years, three states have abolished the death penalty: Illinois, New Mexico and New Jersey,” Robinson said in an interview after the news conference. “They did it for the same reason. They found racial bias, they found it to be costly, they found it to be ineffective and a threat to innocent people.”

Robinson said the studies he looked at were remarkably consistent in their conclusions — that the death penalty doesn’t deter crime, is racially biased and has led to people being wrongfully convicted.


A few weeks ago the radio show This American Life profiled a Georgia drug court program that, in the words of the producers, ” we believe is run differently from every other drug court in the country, doing some things that are contrary to the very philosophy of drug court. The result? People with offenses that would get minimal or no sentences elsewhere sometimes end up in the system five to ten years.”

The show, called Very Tough Love, reported by TAL’s host, Ira Glass was an excellent and very affecting piece of journalism that was very critical of Judge Amanda Williams who presides over the court and seemed, by all accounts, to misuse her power as a jurist.

Judge Williams didn’t take very kindly to Glass’s criticism and was very vocal about her displeasure. First she released a press release about her vexation. Now, most recently, through her lawyer, Williams has publicly accused Glass of libel, plus has threatened a lawsuit.

Listen to the story here. Then read the letter from Williams and company, and Ira Glass’s response.

Posted in Antonio Villaraigosa, Death Penalty, journalism, LGBT, media, Must Reads | No Comments »

Gay Kids Far More Likely to Try Suicide in Negative Social Environment

April 19th, 2011 by Celeste Fremon

If a gay teenager is living in a conservative community
where the majority of the residents feel that there is something fundamentally wrong with him because of his sexual orientation, is he likely to be at higher risk for suicide than gay or lesbian kids living in a more socially supportive environment?

In the past, studies have indicated that gay, lesbian and bisexual teenagers try suicide at a significantly higher rate than heterosexual kids.

Yet there was no major empirical study that quantified the question of whether certain elements in a teenager’s social environment measurably increased or lowered the risk of suicide for LGB kids.

Until now.

After the rash of suicides among gay young men last year, Dr. Mark L. Hatzenbuehler of Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health, with funding from the National Institute of Health (and others), decided it was time to find out what effects one’s social environment has on an LGB kid.

The results were published in Pediatrics Magazine on Monday.

Hatzenbuehler, who is a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Health and Society Scholar and the new study’s lead investigator, examined the responses 32,000 Oregon 11th grade students who filled out questionnaires in the state’s yearly Oregon HealthyTeens survey between 2006 –2008. (Around one-third of Oregon’s 11th graders took part in the survey.)

Hatzenbuehler chose Oregon as his study site because it is one of the few states that asks kids about their sexual orientation on these yearly statewide surveys.

The study found that LGB youth were more than five times as likely to have attempted suicide in the previous 12 months, as their heterosexual peers (21.5 percent–or 1 in 5 LGB kids— vs. 4.2 percent, a little over 4 out of 100).

So would those figures change in a more supportive environment?

Hatzenbuehler developed five measures of the social environment surrounding LGB youth that included: 1) proportion of schools in the county with anti-bullying policies specifically protecting LGB students; 2) proportion of schools with Gay-Straight Alliances; 3) proportion of schools with anti-discrimination policies that included sexual orientation; 4) proportion of same-sex couples residing in the county and 5) proportion of Democrats in the county. (“Democrats” were used as a surrogate measure for a more socially liberal environment.)

In order to more accurately isolate the affect of the social environment, Hatzenbuehler controlled for other known risk factors like depression, binge drinking, peer victimization, and physical abuse by an adult.

The results of the study showed that LGB kids living in a “supportive” social environment attempted suicide 20 percent less frequently than kids in an “unsupportive” environment.

The heterosexual kids were also affected, and tried suicide 9 percent less in the positive social environment.

“The results of this study are pretty compelling,” said Hatzenbuehler in a statement. “When communities support their gay young people, and schools adopt anti-bullying and anti-discrimination policies that specifically protect lesbian, gay, and bisexual youth, the risk of attempted suicide by all young people drops, especially for LGB youth.”

Put more simply: the words and attitudes of those with whom our kids come in contact matter bigtime. Those words and attitudes can, for some young men and women, mean the difference between life and death.

NOTE: When news of the study came out on Monday, various news outlets scurried to find out what other experts thought. Here are some of the responses:

The AP reported:

Michael Resnick, a professor of adolescent mental health at the University of Minnesota’s medical school, said the study “certainly affirms what we’ve come to understand about children and youth in general. They are both subtly and profoundly affected by what goes around them,” he said, including the social climate and perceived support. reported:

“While there are a small number of prior studies that have demonstrated that school climate makes a difference for LGB students, this study is important because it extends our understanding to the broader surroundings of the community in which students and schools are situated,” said Stephen T. Russell, a professor and director of the Frances McClelland Institute for Children, Youth and Families at the University of Arizona in Tucson.


Read the story here.

Posted in LGBT, Public Health | No Comments »

Congratulations to…….

April 19th, 2011 by Celeste Fremon


I believed and hoped that the Bell series would win. But one never knows. The committee can be quirky.

Barbara Davidson’s win for her strong and heartbreaking photos was a welcome surprise.

It was also nice to see that Jennifer Egan’s “A Visit From the Goon Squadwon for fiction, although it wasn’t a huge surprise since she already won the National Book Award, and one could feel the wind has been blowing her way, what with the Franzenfreude still running so hot and heavy that he didn’t even get shortlisted. But hers is a wonderful book. A satisfying winner.

However, speaking personally, I think the choice of Joseph Rago from the Wall Street Journal for editorial writing was a bit weird. But okay.

Here’s the full list.


The LA Review of Books is the first major book review to launch in the 21st century, and it’s an exciting prospect that you can read more about here. (I’m delighted to say that I’ve got something in the works for LARB myself.)

Ben Ehrenreich has written about The Death of the Book, for this soft launch moment.

Expect lots more great things soon!


You’ll remember writer Rodger for his essays
about struggling with homelessness.

His short story opens thusly:

“It’s the damnedest case of Bluebeard Syndrome I’ve ever seen.”

Detective Spellacy lit a cigarette and stared at the police psychologist for a beat through an acrid haze of blue smoke. “Doesn’t Bluebeard Syndrome have to do with matricide?”

Posted in American artists, art and culture, writers and writing | 6 Comments »

Monday Must Reads: Prison Guard Deals, School Board Rogues & More

April 18th, 2011 by Celeste Fremon


The drama of the hoped for “Parent Trigger” transformation of Compton’s McKinley Elementary School was covered quite well by Patrick Range McDonald at the LA Weekly late last year and early this year.

In case you don’t know, the so-called parent trigger gives parents the power to decide how to change or restructure failing California schools by petitioning the relevant school district to “trigger” one of four possible strategies: firing the school principle, shutting down the school altogether (allowing students to transfer to nearby school), starting over with a new staff, or converting the school into a charter.

Parents at Mckinley Elementary School in Compton petitioned to go the charter route. But the Compton school board was unwilling to relinquish control.

The LATimes Jim Newton is doing a series of op eds on education, and in Monday’s paper, he takes on the Compton/parent trigger fight, and does so with a fury. Here’s how it opens:

The struggle for equal educational opportunity is the great civil rights imperative of our time. It pits those who demand a decent education against an educational establishment that often blithely ignores them. The victims are overwhelmingly poor minorities, and the clash is nowhere more important than here in Los Angeles. Next week, I look forward to profiling some of the heroes of this struggle, the inspiring young women and men brought together by Teach for America; first, however, a look at the defenders of a corrupt status quo and the lengths to which they will resort to defend their position at the expense of poor children, most of them black or Latino.

This particular band of obstructionists is, in one sense, an unlikely group of civil rights villains: They are the members of the Compton Unified School District board, every one of whom is black. But they are rogues nonetheless, as witnessed by their stunning unwillingness to heed the call of parents who want nothing more than to improve the lives of their children.

The clash in Compton is between the board and the parents of McKinley Elementary School, a tragically underperforming school just off Rosecrans Avenue. At McKinley, parents, guided by the pro-charter reform group known as Parent Revolution, took advantage of the state’s so-called parent trigger law to try to help their children. Under that law, when a majority of parents at a school defined as “failing” sign a petition, a district is required to replace staff or teachers, close the school or give it over to a charter operator. In this case, the parents of 275 of McKinley’s 442 students signed petitions asking for a charter.

The Compton school board could have acknowledged the aspirations of those families and heeded their pleas, or it could have defensively retrenched. Guess which it did?


A Sunday editorial in the Sacramento Bee takes a very harsh and sobering look at Governor Jerry Brown’s proposed contract renewal with the state’s most powerful union— the CCPOA. If it is as the Sac Bee suggests, then Brown has some serious explaining to do, and the state legislature should separate this contract out for close review and refuse to let it move forward without huge changes.

Here’s how the editorial opens:

While he was governor, Gray Davis approved a plum contract for the state’s 30,000 prison guards that effectively gave the California Correctional Peace Officers Association management control over the state’s prison system.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger worked to wrest back control of the prisons from the CCPOA. But now that he is governor, Jerry Brown is reversing those hard-earned reforms on behalf of a major campaign contributor.

If this were a movie, we’d call it “Contract Giveaway: The Return of Gray,” starring Jerry Brown.

Given that the state’s corrections system is a major driver of state spending, the stakes are immense in any new contract for prison officers. Yet the Brown administration has released a 218-page proposed 2011-13 contract document that is loaded with barely legible handwritten notes and cross-outs. Whole swaths of the corrections system, such as parole, remain to be negotiated. Estimates of costs are woefully inadequate. The Legislative Analyst’s Office admits that its one-week review of this “extraordinarily complex” document is not enough to determine full costs to taxpayers.

Read the details here.


The proceedings in the removal of Jose Raul Cardenas from the United States began at 9:37 a.m. on Tuesday of last week in a Denver Immigration Court. it is an ordinary illegal immigration case that is duplicated many times over each day in Southern California immigration courts as well.

This time, however, Denver Post reporter Linda Griego was in the courtroom and found herself emotionally affected by the case.

Here are a couple of representative ‘graphs from her story:

About 30 supporters sit behind the family. Twenty are Unitarian Universalist Church clergy who left a retreat to attend the hearing. “People are in denial that our system could possibly be unfair,” one of the ministers tells me.

As I sit among them, I realize that in all the years I’ve been writing about immigration, I have never been in immigration court. I’ve never been witness to a decision that might separate a father from his children, a wife from her husband. For the life of me, I cannot see what such a thing has to do with justice.

Read the rest.

Posted in Edmund G. Brown, Jr. (Jerry), Education, immigration, Must Reads | 1 Comment »

The Pew Recidivism Report: How CA Can Cut $233 Million

April 15th, 2011 by Celeste Fremon

This week the Pew Center on the States delivered another of its large
and important reports on the state of incarceration in America.

it’s called State of Recidivism: The Revolving Door of American Prisons.

(In the past, the Pew Center has looked at how many Americans are behind bars, and who those Americans were in terms of age and ethnicity.)

This time, Pew focused on the frequency with which those who are imprisoned and later released into American communities return to prison.

PEW broke out the figures state by state, in order to look at which states had the highest return rate.

The two winners—if you can call them that—are Minnesota and, of course, our own prison benighted state. But, while both Minnesota and California have return rates that hover around 60 percent, MN has a prison population of slightly over 5,000, we have close to 120,000 men and women behind bars.

Also, as Pew notes, the majority of those Californians who return to prison, don’t go back for a new crime, but for a technical violation of their parole.

It doesn’t help, said Adam Gelb, director of Pew’s Public Safety Performance Project, that many states, California among them, do not incentivize parolees making a successful transition from prison to becoming a productive community member.

Here’s what Gelb told CNN:

Right now, incentives are mostly backwards. When offenders are breaking rules, supervising agencies win by sending them back to prison and getting them off their caseloads. That needs to be flipped so agencies get rewarded with a share of savings when they reduce returns to prison,” Gelb said.


One of the things the PEW researchers looked at with this report is public safety. Are we safer because we send so many people back to prison over and over again? PEW says no. Those states like New York and Oregon that have worked to provide the kind of programs, interventions and alternative sentencing that decreases recidivism, have seen their crime rates drop.

And of course there is the money savings. According to PEW, if California cut its recidivism rate by 10 percent, it would save the state at least $233 million. (Likely the savings would be substantially more since PEWs was working with 2005 prison prices.)

Prisons are often the forgotten
element of the criminal justice
system until things go badly. Catching the
guy and prosecuting him is really important
work, but if we don’t do anything with that
individual after we’ve got him, then shame
on us. If all that effort goes to waste and
we just open the doors five years later, and
it’s the same guy walking out the door and
the same criminal thinking, we’ve failed in
our mission.”

Minnesota Commissioner of Corrections Tom Roy
April 7, 2011


The PEW study points to Oregon as being one the states that has been the most successful at intelligently addressing the recidivism problem. But can methods used in a less populous, less diverse state like Oregon be re-tailored to fit places like Florida and California?

If our lawmakers had the will it would be nice to find out. In any case, here’s an overview of Oregon’s strategy:

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in California budget, CDCR, prison, prison policy | 2 Comments »

Villaraigosa’s State of the City Speech Gambles on Education Reform

April 14th, 2011 by Celeste Fremon

On Wednesday at approximately 5 p.m. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa
gave his sixth state of the city speech. As anticipated, although AV talked about topics like the potential greening of LA, about the crime drop, and about filling more potholes, the speech’s centerpiece was about education reform, the one topic out of the list over which the mayor has exactly zip direct control.

Some of the potential candidates who hope to take his place after Villaraigosa terms out, tisk-tisked to LA times reporters about how AV should have instead addressed the city’s fiscal deficit, in that forming a workable city budget is a part of the LA mayor’s actual job description.

The critics made a fair point.…and yet….and yet…

In truth, Antonio did precisely the right thing with his speech. If we are to bounce back as a city and as a state nothing, and from there begin once again to thrive, nothing could possibly be more important than building on the fragile areas of growth and reform in the district, and blasting out of the road the calcified and obstructionist attitudes that have been so wrong-headed and ruinous to our schools and our kids for such a very long time.

Villaraigosa delivered the speech at Thomas Jefferson High, a school that six years ago—right after AV was first elected mayor—erupted in a series of huge and traumatizing riots on campus.

I was assigned to cover Jefferson’s riots for the LA Weekly, and so spent a lot of time at the school during the jittery days and weeks that followed.

In particular, I spent dozens of hours talking to teachers, administrators, kids, school police, parents, and others—all of whom were surprisingly eager to spill what they knew to somebody, anybody. They talked, not so much about the riots, but about a school that had a 31 percent graduation rate, where only 9% of Jeff’s students tested “proficient” in English, just over 1 % were proficient in math, and about the conditions on campus and at the district that made teaching and learning at Jefferson a discouraging daily swim upstream against an overwhelmingly strong current.

Worse, Jeff was merely one of many LAUSD high schools that had similarly ghastly stats and conditions.

It soon became evident that the so-called riots were not the story at all, but a big, bad signpost that pointed to the real story—which was the catastrophic state of LA County’s education system. The riots were the canary in the coal mine.

Yet, as bad as things were, at a district level, those in charge seemed too paralyzed to make any substantive changes. Instead they would hire a one more string of very high priced independent consultants, who delivered high priced reports that generally came to nothing.

Six years later, as Antonio points out, some heartening progress has been made in some pockets. But not anywhere close to enough progress.

Villaraigosa clearly hopes to shove the reform efforts into high gear before his mayoral term is up.

“This is a pivotal moment for our schools and our City,” the mayor said, and reminded the those assembled that we have a new superintendent of schools, John Deasy, whom he likened to “Bill Bratton with a ruler,” and newly elected union leadership that appears to want to turn over some kind of new leaf.

Then Villaraigosa got down to specifics about the changes he sees as essential.

JIn her dead-on column about the speech for the LA Weekly, Jill Stewart laid out the heart of AV’s message:

He called for turning LAUSD into a network of local, independently controlled campuses, allowing “open enrollment beyond traditional neighborhood boundaries” to create parental choice, and for “protecting and expanding the use of the parent trigger” to give parents the power to convert failing schools.

Finally, he issued the hottest news:

“The teacher contract expires in June,” Villaraigosa said. “With the stars aligned, we have to seize the opportunity. Let’s (devise) a new contract … Let’s stop dictating at the district level and let local schools make the decisions” on such things as staffing, funding and curriculum.

“Let’s compensate teachers for demonstrated effectiveness — not just [for their] years of service and course credits …. and do away with the last-hired, first-fired seniority system.”

He said to loud applause: “When more than 99% of district teachers receive the same ‘satisfactory’ evaluation, it serves nobody.”

Finally, he added: “I know that these proposals will raise some concern and spark controversy. I could hear some of the people [protesting] outside. As a former union organizer, I understand your fear. I stood with you then, and I’ll stand with you now. Change is hard.”

But he added: “Our time is now. The nation is watching. L.A. must take the lead.”

(Read the rest of Stewart’s column. It’s a good one—so far about the best thing I’ve read on the speech.)

“We’ve had our differences with the mayor…” said the LA Times said in its own editorial on Villaraigosa’s SOC speech.

Yes, well, haven’t we all.

But this time Antonio was right on the mark.

“We can fulfill the promise of public education by agreeing to a new contract with ourselves—a promise to put aside the concerns of a few adults in the interest of all children,” he said.

And he sounded like he meant it.

Here’s the full text of the speech.

Photo by Gary Friedman for the Los Angeles Times

Posted in Antonio Villaraigosa, Education, LA city government, LAUSD | 6 Comments »

Wednesday: 5 Things You Should Know

April 13th, 2011 by Celeste Fremon


Homeboy Industries’ annual awards dinner and fundraiser “Lo Maximo” will take place on Saturday, April 30, at the JW Marriott in downtown LA.

As I said, it’s a fundraiser so tickets are a bit pricey. But, it’s honestly one of the most emotionally affecting nights Los Angeles has to offer.

And the cause is a very good one. Homeboy also happens to be an important part of the health of our city.

LAPD Chief Charlie Beck is one of the main honorees of the night , thus there will be plenty of law enforcement and LA city government types.

The award that is the night’s centerpiece will go to the 2011 Homeboy Hero, someone who has profoundly turned his life around. This year, however, the “homeboy” is a homegirl. Her name is Shayna Welcher, and she is very, very deserving.

Okay, that’s my pitch. If you go, you won’t be sorry. And if you do attend, please make sure you stop by and say hi.


My pal, Andrew Blankstein has this fabulously wild and woolly LA Story.
(This is why I love nonfiction.) Here’s now it opens:

He called himself the “supreme commander.”

From a storefront in Temple City decorated to look like a military recruiting center, David Deng raised an army of more than 100 Chinese nationals and claimed they were members of an elite U.S. special forces unit, authorities said.

Together, they marched in local Chinese New Year parades and even received a special military tour in uniform at the USS Midway museum in San Diego. Chinese-language newspapers ran photos of the troops with prominent community leaders.

But prosecutors on Tuesday charged that Deng’s “U.S. Army/Military Special Forces Reserve” was actually a huge immigration scam that preyed on Chinese immigrants in the San Gabriel Valley desperate to become citizens.

Authorities allege that Deng charged members of his “army” $300 to $450 to join plus an annual $120 renewal fee. He told them that joining the group would increase their chances of becoming U.S. citizens, according to court papers. The more money they donated to the organization, he allegedly told them, the better their chances of becoming citizens.

Read on. (Who can resist?)


Jeff Bercovicci at Forbes has the story:

Huffington Post bloggers who think they ought to get paid for their volunteer writing have been litigating their case in the court of public opinion. Now they’re taking it to a real one.

Today [Tuesday], a group of bloggers led by union organizer and journalist Jonathan Tasini filed a class-action suit against the Huffington Post, founder Arianna Huffington, and AOL, which acquired the news-and-blogs site in February.

Okay, so let me get this straight: the bloggers who agreed—and in most cases even volunteered—to blog for free for the Huffington Post, mainly because they decided of their own free will it was beneficial to them to have their work posted on one of the most popular news websites in the world, now are pissed off that the news site’s creator—namely Arianna—made a bunch of money selling her creation, so want a share of her profits.

“We are going to make Arianna Huffington a pariah in the progressive community,” Tasini vowed. “No one will blog for her. She’ll never [be invited to] speak. We will picket her home. We’re going to make it clear that, until you do justice here, your life is going to be a living hell.”

Yeah, good luck with that one, buddy.


And Tango Makes Three,” an award-winning children’s book about the true story of two male Emperor Penguins hatching and parenting an orphaned baby chick at New York’s Central Park Zoo.

Boy, I’m sure glad those vigilant book banners are on top of that book about the evil emperor penguin dads…. who might be (gasp) GAY. (Remember, people, this is a true story about real penguins parenting a real orphaned chick in the real NY Central Park Zoo. But, no! We can’t have that!)
The rest of the list, compiled yearly by the American Library Association is here.

Number 2 is Sherman Alexie’s “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian”—a young adult book that’s actually brilliant. Moreover, it is a book that has frequently inspired teenagers to find the courage to succeed despite difficult home circumstances. And it’s won a bunch of awards. But, yeah, some of the teenage characters swear. So by all means let’s ban the thing.

Number 3 is Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World,” is the only classic on this year’s list, which usually includes choices like last year’s three classics, JD Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, Alice Walker’s The Color Purple and Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird.

This year’s weirdest pick was Number 8, “Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By In America” by Barbara Ehrenreich. The reasons given were “Drugs, Inaccurate, Offensive Language, Political Viewpoint, Religious Viewpoint”—to which I would like to reply: Huh????? Drugs? Religion? WTF?

As someone who has not only read and reviewed the book, but also taught it, I’m entirely baffled by these objections. Okay, “Political viewpoint,” maybe. Yeah, it’s possible it has one. Ehrenreich found out that people working for minimum wage, unless they have some other form of support, generally can’t really make it. And she says so in print. But she makes that economic lesson engaging and stimulating.

Note to book banning crazies: The next time you want to ban a book, try reading it first.

Anyway, so there you have it for one more year. Carolyn Kellogg at the LA Times Jacket copy has more.

(And in a Jacket Copy from Tuesday afternoon Kellogg rightly express concern that Tom Hanks is being cast in one of the leads rolls in the film version of David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas. Tom Hanks is a very winning actor, but I just can’t see him in Mitchell’s strange and amazing book.)


Audrey Salas, a 17-year old, very skillful writer interviews homeless 19 and 20 year olds about what it’s like to be homeless and young.

The result is an informative and thoughtful story. Go Audrey!

You can find the story in LA Youth.

Posted in Must Reads | 3 Comments »

Value Added: The Brave New World of the Test Generation

April 12th, 2011 by Celeste Fremon

Dana Goldstein has written a truly excellent, and urgent story for The American Prospect about education reform
and the intensifying world of standardized testing and value-added teacher evaluation.

Goldstein’s story is called The Test Generation and it asks: What happens in the classroom when a state begins to evaluate all teachers, at every grade level, based on how well they “grow” their students’ test scores? Colorado is about to find out.

Here’s how it begins:

On exam day in Sabina Trombetta’s Colorado Springs first-grade art class, the 6-year-olds were shown a slide of Picasso’s “Weeping Woman,” a 1937 cubist portrait of the artist’s lover, Dora Maar, with tears streaming down her face. It is painted in vibrant — almost neon — greens, bluish purples, and yellows. Explaining the painting, Picasso once said, “Women are suffering machines.”

The test asked the first-graders to look at “Weeping Woman” and “write three colors Picasso used to show feeling or emotion.” (Acceptable answers: blue, green, purple, and yellow.) Another question asked, “In each box below, draw three different shapes that Picasso used to show feeling or emotion.” (Acceptable drawings: triangles, ovals, and rectangles.) A separate section of the exam asked students to write a full paragraph about a Matisse painting.

Trombetta, 38, a 10-year teaching veteran and winner of distinguished teaching awards from both her school district, Harrison District 2, and Pikes Peak County, would have rather been handing out glue sticks and finger paints. The kids would have preferred that, too. But the test wasn’t really about them. It was about their teacher.

Trombetta and her students, 87 percent of whom come from poor families, are part of one of the most aggressive education-reform experiments in the country: a soon-to-be state-mandated attempt to evaluate all teachers — even those in art, music, and physical education — according to how much they “grow” student achievement. In order to assess Trombetta, the district will require her Chamberlin Elementary School first-graders to sit for seven pencil-and-paper tests in art this school year. To prepare them for those exams, Trombetta lectures her students on art elements such as color, line, and shape — bullet points on Colorado’s new fine-art curriculum standards.

All of this left Trombetta pretty frustrated, and on a November afternoon, she really wanted to talk. As she ate lunch (a frozen TV dinner) in her cheery, deserted classroom plastered with bright posters, she recounted the events of the past week. She liked the idea of exposing her young students, many of whom had never visited a museum, to great works of art. But, Trombetta complained, preparing the children for the exam meant teaching them reductive half-truths about art — that dark colors signify sadness and bright colors happiness, for example. “To bombard these kids with words and concepts instead of the experience of art? I really struggle with that,” she said. “It’s kind of hard when they come to me and say, ‘What are we going to make today?’ and I have to say, ‘Well, we’re going to write about art.’”


Admittedly, the scene of the Picasso-analyzing 1st graders seems slightly absurd.

Yet, in the minds of most education watchers—or families with school age children—there is a strong push for some kind of merit-based method, other than seniority, to retain and promote public school teachers.

The hottest merit-based method right now is what is called value added, which—in the very simplest of terms—measures how kids in a given teacher’s class improved their scores on standardized tests from one year to the next. This movement in scores is presumed to be directly attributable to “value-added” elements provided by the skill of the teacher.

Most value-added models attempt to improve accuracy by employing one of a number of elaborate algorithms that control for different variables that might also affect the rise or drop in a student’s scores.

The LA Times controversial series about teacher ratings used one value-added model.

New York City schools have been fiddling with another one. Colorado has its own model.

Yet, even advocates admit that any value-added model based on student performance on standardized tests cannot help but have considerable flaws.

As Goldstein writes:

In the social sciences, there is an oft-repeated aphorism called Campbell’s Law, named after Donald Campbell, the psychologist who pioneered the study of human creativity: “The more any quantitative social indicator is used for social decision-making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor.” In short, incentives corrupt. Daniel Koretz, the Harvard education professor recognized as the country’s leading expert on academic testing, writes in his book Measuring Up that Campbell’s Law is especially applicable to education; there is a preponderance of evidence showing that high-stakes tests lead to a narrowed curriculum, score inflation, and even outright cheating among those tasked with scoring exams.

And there is this:

Rival groups of education researchers interpret the reliability of value-added differently but even the technique’s defenders have urged caution, as have the Educational Testing Service and the Department of Education’s own Institute for Education Sciences. Experts raise a number of powerful objections: that value-added measurements are often based on poorly designed, unsophisticated standardized tests; that the ratings are particularly volatile (a teacher who scores very well or very poorly using value-added has only a one-third chance of getting a similar score the following year, and it takes about 10 years of data to reduce the value-added error rate to 12 percent for any individual teacher); and that the technique gives the impression that the teacher is the only factor in student achievement, ignoring parental involvement, after-school tutoring, and other “inputs” that research shows account for up to 80 percent of a student’s achievement outcomes.

Goldstein’s story contains lots more in the way of interesting angles and information on the subject.
Thus I really urge you to read the whole thing.

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