TESTING THE TEACHERSBY DAVID BROOKSNEW YORK TIMESThere’s an atmosphere of grand fragility hanging over America’s colleges. The grandeur comes from the surging application rates, the international renown, the fancy new dining and athletic facilities. The fragility comes from the fact that colleges are charging more money, but it’s not clear how much actual benefit they are providing. Colleges are supposed to produce learning. But, in their landmark study, “Academically Adrift,” Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa found that, on average, students experienced a pathetic seven percentile point gain in skills during their first two years in college and a marginal gain in the two years after that. If you go to the Web page of the Association of American Colleges and Universities and click on “assessment,” you will find a dazzling array of experiments that institutions are running to figure out how to measure learning. The challenge is not getting educators to embrace the idea of assessment. It’s mobilizing them to actually enact it in a way that’s real and transparent to outsiders. The second challenge is deciding whether testing should be tied to federal dollars or more voluntary.
MONEY RULES IN WASHINGTON POLITICSEDITORIALNEW YORK TIMESDespite decades of money abuses and scandal, neither presidential candidate has shown any interest in reforming the system. Two-thirds of the president’s biggest fund-raisers in 2008 visited the White House at least once, as did three-fourths of those who gave $100,000 or more. Mr. Romney hasn’t even waited to be elected to begin selling access. One campaign e-mail message promises those who give $50,000 to the Romney Victory committee an invitation to meet with Mr. Romney in June, special access to the Republican National Convention in August and preferred status at a “presidential inaugural retreat” after the election, which seems cynical as well as premature. The candidate who truly wants to impress voters would put an end to special-access retreats for big donors and would promise not to check a donation list when granting White House access. Mr. Obama, in particular, promised in 2008 to fix a “broken” public financing system that allows oversize donations. He opted out of the system, and the country is still waiting for that promise to be fulfilled. REPUBLICAN RHETORIC OVER THE TOPEUGENE ROBINSONWASHINGTON POSTDelusional right-wing crazy talk — the kind of ranting we’ve heard recently from washed-up rock star Ted Nugent and Tea Party-backed Rep. Allen West (R-Fla.) — is a special kind of poison that cannot be safely ignored. I’m saying that the extreme language we hear from the far right is qualitatively different from the extreme language we hear from the far left — and far more damaging to the ties that bind us as a nation. Vile? Evil? America-hating? Nugent doesn’t just characterize those with different political views as misguided or wrong. He seeks to paint them as alien and anti-American — as enemies of this nation, rather than citizens with whom he disagrees. In a subsequent interview, Nugent called Nancy Pelosi a “sub-human scoundrel” and referred to liberals as cockroaches to “stomp” in November. This is what distinguishes the flame-throwers of the far right from those of the far left. Nugent and his ilk seek to deny their political opponents the very right to believe in a different philosophy. Agree with me, he says, or be stomped. DEMOCRATS BATTLE BACK AGAINST REPUBLICAN ‘WAR ON WOMEN’DANA MILBANKWASHINGTON POSTOn Wednesday, the White House staged an event to demand that Republicans stop blocking a renewal of the Violence Against Women Act — and Republicans suddenly found themselves on the wrong side of a title that only a fool or a lunatic would oppose. “The idea that we’re still fighting about this in the Congress, that this is even a debatable issue, is truly sad,” Vice President Biden said in an emotional performance on the White House grounds. It “should just be over in terms of the debate about it. . . . What are we arguing about?” Attorney General Eric Holder, speaking from the same stage, proclaimed himself equally distraught. “For the life of me, I can’t begin to understand why this is something that is a debate in Congress,” he lamented. “It is inconceivable to me — inconceivable to me — that we are in the process of debate about something that has been so effective.”In truth, a veto-proof majority already has been assembled in support of renewing the 1994 act, which means Senate passage is not in doubt. The objections a few Republicans have raised are over provisions that Democrats are trying to link to the law’s renewal, including protections they would add for same-sex couples and illegal immigrants who suffered abuse. FAREWELL, THE NEW FRONTIERCHARLES KRAUTHAMMERWASHINGTON POSTAs the space shuttle Discovery flew three times around Washington, a final salute before landing at Dulles airport for retirement in a museum, thousands on the ground gazed upward with marvel and pride. Yet what they were witnessing, for all its elegance, was a funeral march. Is there a better symbol of willed American decline? The pity is not Discovery’s retirement — beautiful as it was, the shuttle proved too expensive and risky to operate — but that it died without a successor. The planned follow-on — the Constellation rocket-capsule program to take humans back into orbit and from there to the moon — was suddenly canceled in 2010. And with that, control of manned spaceflight was gratuitously ceded to Russia and China. Who cares, you say? What is national greatness, scientific prestige or inspiring the young — legacies of NASA — when we are in economic distress? Okay. But if we’re talking jobs and growth, science and technology, R&D and innovation — what President Obama insists are the keys to “an economy built to last” — why on earth cancel an incomparably sophisticated, uniquely American technological enterprise? There are always excuses for putting off strenuous national endeavors: deficits, joblessness, poverty, whatever. But they shall always be with us. AMERICA’S CRISIS OF CHARACTERPEGGY NOONANWALL STREET JOURNALPeople in politics talk about the right track/wrong track numbers as an indicator of public mood. This week Gallup had a poll showing only 24% of Americans feel we're on the right track as a nation. That's a historic low. Now I'd go a step beyond that. I think more and more people are worried about the American character—who we are and what kind of adults we are raising. A tourist is beaten in Baltimore. Young people surround him and laugh. No one helps. They're too busy taping it on their smartphones. Also starring on YouTube this week was the sobbing woman. She's the poor traveler who began to cry great heaving sobs when a Transportation Security Administration agent at the Madison, Wis., airport either patted her down or felt her up, depending on your viewpoint and experience. There is the General Services Administration scandal. An agency devoted to efficiency is outed as an agency of mindless bread-and-circuses indulgence. There is the Secret Service scandal. That one broke through too. Finally, as this column goes to press, the journalistic story of the week, the Los Angeles Times's decision to publish pictures of U.S. troops in Afghanistan who smilingly posed with the bloody body parts of suicide bombers. The soldier who brought the pictures to the Times told their veteran war correspondent, David Zucchino, that he was, in Zucchino's words, "very concerned about what he said was a breakdown in . . . discipline and professionalism" among the troops. In isolation, these stories may sound like the usual sins and scandals, but in the aggregate they seem like something more disturbing, more laden with implication, don't they? And again, these are only from the past week.