Election 2018

No results as I type this blog. I will take a pass until Friday. Will send out something then.

Ray Myers

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Did Facebook Learn Anything?

It’s been barely six months since Mark Zuckerberg appeared before Congress and promised lawmakers and the American public that he and Facebook, the company he founded and leads today, would do better. “This episode has clearly hurt us,” Mr. Zuckerberg said. “We have to do a lot of work about building trust back.”

The episode he was referring to was the revelation in March that Cambridge Analytica, a political consulting firm connected to the Trump campaign, had harvested the sensitive data of as many as 87 million Facebook users without their explicit permission. That scandal rocked Facebook, sending the company’s stock price spiraling. Mr. Zuckerberg himself lost nearly $11 billion.

Since Mr. Zuckerberg’s testimony, lawmakers have done little to nothing to better regulate technology platforms like Facebook and hold them more accountable for suspect practices. But there’s also little evidence that Facebook, and Mr. Zuckerberg, has taken his pledge to Congress as seriously as once hoped either: Facebook announced late last month the biggest data breach in its history, affecting nearly 50 million user accounts. In the same week, the news site Gizmodo published an investigation that found Facebook gave advertisers contact information harvested from the address books on their users’ cellphones.

Equally worrisome from Gizmodo’s report: Facebook is also giving advertisers phone numbers that users have provided solely for security reasons. Security experts generally advise users to add two-factor authentication to their accounts, which sometimes takes the form of providing a phone number to receive text messages containing log-in codes. It’s ironic — two-factor authentication is supposed to better safeguard privacy and security, but these phone numbers are wWhile the Cambridge Analytica scandal engulfed Facebook in a firestorm of controversy, this time the company effectively got a free pass from a nation fixated on Brett Kavanaugh and his turbulent Supreme Court confirmation. Still, with consequential midterms less than a month away, this latest string of Facebook privacy failures is a discouraging reminder of how much potential there is for things to go terribly wrong — again —  during those elections. It’s not just about user privacy, it’s a sign of how well Facebook is poised to handle sophisticated foreign disinformation campaigns, and where its priorities lie.

The seriousness of Facebook’s most recent data breach ranks it among one of the most egregious in the history of Silicon Valley. A weakness in Facebook’s code allowed hackers to gain access into other people’s accounts, and potentially control not only the Facebook profiles but any services that those users logged into using Facebook — Instagram, Spotify and Tinder, for example.

The breach originated from three bugs in Facebook’s code. At least one was introduced over a year ago; it’s still not clear when the other two became part of the code. Information security is a difficult problem: A company might do the right thing every time and still be successfully attacked. But one of the reasons Facebook’s breach is so concerning is the company’s footprint in the lives of so many people — 2.2 billion and counting. Facebook has sought to find ways into as many aspects of people’s lives as possible, becoming the recipient of a glut of data and the implicit trust of its users. The company has been careless with that trust — and is still being careless.

Speaking before Congress and in other public statements, Mr. Zuckerberg has been upfront about being caught unaware of the influence his company can have in ordinary people’s lives, whether that influence is in determining election outcomes or sparking real-life violence in places like Sri Lanka and Libya. And perhaps nobody fully understands that power — academics and experts are still piecing together the puzzle of how advertising systems honed on personal information can enable foreign propaganda campaigns, and to what extent this phenomenon affects democratic elections. It may be a long time before it all becomes clear. (In the meantime, falsehoods about Judge Kavanaugh’s accuser Christine Blasey Ford are going viral on Facebook). In response to such concerns, Facebook has set up a “war room” in its headquarters to monitor potential foreign influence campaigns during elections, winding up in the hands of advertisers.

But the latest disclosures are far from reassuring. In late September, the war room was still under construction. With less than a month to go before the American midterms, is Facebook really ready for its next big test?

(NYTImes editorial, 10/7/18)

Ray Myers

P.S. I will be taking a fall break and will blog again on Wednesday, 10/17)

Challenge to Designers: Keep Drivers Focused – Too Many Distractions, Technology Apps Too

By Eric A. Taub

Sept. 27, 2018, NY Times

The large rubber strip that I was speeding toward on the Ventura Freeway near. Los Angeles looked easy enough to avoid. I swerved, but not enough.

That strip was actually metal, however, and it ripped through my right front tire, which went spinning across four lanes of the freeway. Moments later, I was driving 80 miles an hour with one bare metal wheel, sparks flying. I pulled onto a median to await a tow truck, worried for our safety as cars screamed past.

I had been looking at my wife for about four seconds before glancing back at the road. Had I just become a victim of distracted driving? The National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration would probably say yes.

Drivers should never take their eyes off the road for more than two seconds at a time, the agency says. The Auto Alliance, a manufacturers’ trade group, agrees. “The odds of a crash double if your eyes are off the road for more than two seconds,” said Wade Newton, a spokesman.

(Excerpt from NYTimes article)

Ray Myers

Google Chief Executive Will Testify to Congress

WASHINGTON — Sundar Pichai, Google’s chief executive, toured the nation’s capital this week trying to assuage concerns from both parties about the company’s size and influence, and whether its search results have political bias.

Mr. Pichai, who had largely avoided meeting with lawmakers, will be coming back.

Representative Kevin McCarthy of California, who organized a meeting with Mr. Pichai on Friday, said he expected him to attend a congressional hearing later this year. The hearing will address questions of political bias, as well as Google’s potential plans to re-enter the Chinese market, said Mr. McCarthy, the House majority leader.

Mr. Pichai confirmed in a statement that he would testify in “due course.”

In addition, he has agreed to participate in a discussion with other tech industry leaders and President Trump, said Larry Kudlow, the director of the National Economic Council.

Google had declined to send Mr. Pichai to testify this month at a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing about foreign manipulation of social media. The absence upset many lawmakers, leading to his visit this week.

Mr. McCarthy has been one of the most vocal critics of Google, raising accusations that the search engine purposely suppresses conservative views in its results. He has accused Twitter and Facebook of similar bias, joined by other Republican lawmakers who point to the liberal leanings of Silicon Valley as motivation to skew the discovery of information.

The meeting on Friday with Mr. Pichai, which Mr. McCarthy and eight other Republican lawmakers attended, seemed to smooth over relations. But suspicions of political bias remained.

“I see a hearing right now looking at bias, looking at all the issues we talked about, from privacy to China,” Mr. McCarthy said after the meeting. He does not expect the hearing to focus on antitrust concerns and whether Google should be broken up, he added.

After avoiding much of the scrutiny heaped upon its internet rivals over the last year, Google has been thrust into the harsh spotlight in recent weeks. Conservatives have accused the company of using its dominance of online search to provide results slanted against Republicans — a charge the company denies.

Mr. Pichai’s no-show at the hearing this month — captured by images of an empty seat alongside executives from Facebook and Twitter — added to the rancor. Leaks of employee emails discussing ways to counter President Trump’s immigration policy, and video of a companywide meeting that showed executives lamenting his election victory, have also fueled the allegations of bias.

Mr. McCarthy said Mr. Pichai had explained how search worked and how Google’s algorithm, which the company keeps secret, changes over time. In the past, Google has said political ideology is not a factor in any aspect of its search results. It does not, according to the company, collect information about whether a user is conservative or liberal, or categorize web pages by political leanings.

On Thursday and Friday, Mr. Pichai also had meetings with Democratic lawmakers, including one with Representative Nancy Pelosi of California, the minority leader.

Mr. Pichai, in the statement, said the discussions over the two days “with a wide range of congressional leaders were constructive and informative.”

Cecilia Kang reported from Washington, and Daisuke Wakabayashi from San Francisco. (NYTImes,9/19/18)

Ray Myers

Republicans, Citing Bias, Give Google the Third Degree

WASHINGTON — Google executives, after months of mostly avoiding the harsh spotlight put on their internet peers, are being grilled in Washington this week by lawmakers questioning if the Silicon Valley giant is living up to its promise to be a neutral arbiter of online information.

On Friday, Sundar Pichai, Google’s chief executive, will meet with Representative Kevin McCarthy, of California, the Republican House majority leader and a vocal critic of Google, and more than two dozen Republicans to discuss complaints the company is trying to silence conservative voices.

“Google has a lot of questions to answer about reports of bias in its search results, violations of user privacy, anticompetitive behavior, and business dealings with repressive regimes like China,” Mr. McCarthy said in a statement.

The Friday meeting will cap a week of tech-related sessions in Washington in which Google — in the cross hairs of Silicon Valley’s conservative critics since late summer — has played a starring role.

At a gathering of the heads of the Justice Department and a dozen state attorneys general on Tuesday, Google was mentioned more than any other company when it came to concerns about antitrust enforcement and privacy practices, according to a person with knowledge of the meeting who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

At a Senate hearing discussing online privacy on Wednesday, Google’s chief privacy officer, Keith Enright, received the toughest and broadest array of questions from lawmakers who wanted to know about the company’s consideration of introducing search services in China. Google says it is not close to starting such a service.

In a letter to the Senate committee holding the hearing, a former employee, Jack Poulson, said Google’s building a search engine that would be acceptable to the government of China was a “catastrophic failure of the internal privacy review process.” He said this was part of a “broad pattern of unaccountable decision making.”

Senator Ted Cruz, Republican of Texas, also questioned Mr. Enright about claims of bias against conservatives in search results. “I can tell you that millions of Texans believe Google is actively censoring the speech of conservatives,” Mr. Cruz said.

On Thursday, Harmeet Dhillon, a lawyer and Republican Party official, is set to testify in the House about anti-conservative bias in tech. Ms. Dhillon represents several former employees in a lawsuit filed last year against Google that claims the company discriminated against them based on their political beliefs.

Google’s week in Washington comes three weeks after executives from Twitter and Facebook testified in a Senate hearing dedicated to Russian disinformation on social media. Jack Dorsey, Twitter’s chief executive, also spoke at a House hearing about claims of anti-conservative bias at Twitter.

Google executives did not attend the Senate hearing, though they were invited. The company offered to send Kent Walker, a senior vice president for global affairs who is also the company’s top lawyer. But urged on by Facebook officials, according to two people familiar with the matter, senators insisted on a more powerful executive. Google refused.

It was the “worst business decision of 2018,” said Scott Galloway, a founder of the business research firm Gartner L2 and a professor of marketing at New York University Stern School of Business. “It feels like the tide has turned substantially,” Mr. Galloway said. “They’ve sort of poked the bear.”

A Google spokeswoman said officials from the company had testified before Congress 22 times since 2008. “We’re happy to continue explaining our products and practices,” Becca Rutkoff, the Google spokeswoman, said in a statement.

For longtime Google critics and even some of its Silicon Valley peers, it is surprising that Google has avoided the spotlight for so long.

It has 90 percent of the global search market — a share so high that it has for years had to sidestep concerns that it is a dominant monopoly that needs to be regulated. Competitors have long claimed that Google is using its search dominance to advantage its own services and should be controlled by antitrust laws.

The Google-owned YouTube video service is also dominant, and has for several years faced questions about videos that show terrorist violence and disinformation, similar to issues that Facebook and Twitter have had to address in congressional hearings.

And Google has faced several claims of bias. A video of a staff meeting held shortly after Donald J. Trump was elected president, leaked two weeks ago, showed several senior Google executives, including Mr. Pichai, expressing their alarm.

Emails leaked last week showed lower-level Google employees discussing whether they could alter search results to counter President Trump’s travel ban on people from predominantly Muslim countries. Google is adamant that no one in a position to make such a change seriously considered it.

Employees are bracing for more embarrassing leaks. The company has long encouraged workers to speak their minds on internal message boards. That includes politics.

The conservative pressure on Google started to escalate in late summer. On Aug. 28, Mr. Trump, in a series of tweets, attacked Google for what he claimed was an effort to suppress conservative media that was favorable to his administration.

The next day, the president posted a video that seemed to show that Google did not promote his State of the Union address on its home page as it had in the past for President Obama. He used the hashtag #StopTheBias. The video was incorrect. Google said that it didn’t promote Mr. Obama’s inaugural address, a joint statement to Congress but not technically a State of the Union address, in 2009 either.

Shortly after, other Republicans were calling for regulations and greater scrutiny. Senator Orrin Hatch, Republican of Utah, called for antitrust regulators to reopen an investigation into Google.

Some Google officials wonder if competitors are organizing a campaign to prompt regulatory scrutiny.

At the Senate hearing Google did not attend, lawmakers mentioned a report that had come out a day before from the Campaign for Accountability, a nonprofit watchdog group that often publishes research critical of Google. The group posed as Russian trolls to buy what it called politically divisive ads on Google’s systems, which failed to stop them.

Google called the report “a stunt” by its rivals and blamed the software maker Oracle for its release. Ken Glueck, a senior vice president at Oracle, said it had made a one-time financial contribution in 2016 to the Campaign for Accountability but denied that the company had any involvement in the report.

Google has many business opponents in Washington, including telecommunication giants like AT&T and Comcast. Oracle and News Corp. have put significant resources into funding third-party coalitions and public relations firms to place ads and to lobby lawmakers on Google’s dominance in search and on allegations it uses its power to unfairly harm publishers and other tech rivals.

But few companies have been as tenacious as Yelp, a midsize internet outfit with far fewer resources. It has waged a seven-year battle to get regulatory agencies around the world to investigate Google. Until recently, its calls have been largely ignored in the United States. The company claims Google prioritized its own reviews over others, making it much harder for competing reviews sites like Yelp to be discovered.

Early in September, a White House official received an email with an attachment from Luther Lowe, the senior vice president for policy for Yelp.

“Check out the attachment,” Mr. Lowe wrote in an email. “Tell me what you think.”

The attachment was a document called, “Executive Draft Order to Protect American Competition and Small Businesses From Bias in Online Platforms.” It was a draft presidential order instructing antitrust officials to recommend ways to protect competition and clamp down on content bias on internet search and social media sites.

Mr. Lowe said in an email that he did not know the origins of the document and that it had been forwarded to him.

Daisuke Wakabayashi and Cecelia Kang, NYTIMES 9/17/18

Ray Myers

Medicaid Work Requirements Kick Thousands Off of It – Make America Great Again?

The Trump administration argues that imposing work requirements for Medicaid is an incentive that can help lift people out of poverty. But a test program in Arkansas shows how hard it is merely to inform people about new incentives, let alone get them to act.

In the first month that it was possible for people to lose coverage for failing to comply, more than 4,300 people were kicked out of the program for the rest of the year. Thousands more are on track to lose health benefits in the coming months. You lose coverage if you fail to report three times, and the program, in effect for three months, is slowly phasing in more people.

Arkansas is the first state to test a work requirement, a policy that the administration has encouraged, and that several other states are hoping to copy. The demonstration project is testing whether a work requirement can help encourage more low-income people to work, volunteer or go to school and improve their financial prospects.

The early results suggest that the incentives may not work the way officials had hoped. Arkansas officials, trying to minimize coverage losses, effectively exempted two-thirds of the eligible people from having to report work hours.

Of the remaining third — about 20,000 people — 16,000 didn’t report qualifying activities to the state. Only 1,200 people, about 2 percent of those eligible for the requirement, told the state they had done enough of the required activities in August, according to state figures.

Seema Verma, the administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, which approved the project, offered an enthusiastic assessment of the results so far. “I’m excited by the partnerships that Arkansas has fostered to connect Medicaid beneficiaries to work and educational opportunities,” she wrote on Twitter. (Her office declined to offer any further statements on the Arkansas experience.)

Advocates for the poor, and the state officials in charge of the program, said the low compliance numbers suggested that many eligible people probably didn’t know the program existed. State officials said they worked hard to get the word out — mailing letters, sending emails, placing phone calls, briefing medical providers, putting posts on social media sites and distributing fliers where Medicaid patients might find them.

“I was literally taking fliers to the urgent care clinic when I was taking my kids to get tested for strep,” said Amy Webb, the chief communications and community engagement officer for the Arkansas Department of Human Services. “If there’s something we are not doing to reach people, if someone will tell us how to do that, we will do it.”

But it seems that not everyone opened or read their mail. Ray Hanley, the president of the Arkansas Foundation for Medical Care, which ran a call center for the state, told my colleague Robert Pear that many people never answered their phones. The state said the open rate on emails was between 20 and 30 percent.

It’s harder to measure how many people opened paper mail, but the state noted in its recent report that it knows that thousands of people in the program either move away from their recorded address or fail to answer other mail from the state. Housing instability and moves are more common among low-income Americans.

Jessica Greene, a professor of health policy at Baruch College in New York, visited three Arkansas counties last month and interviewed 18 Medicaid beneficiaries. Twelve of them were unaware of the work requirement, according to an article she published on the website of the journal Health Affairs.

That may not be entirely surprising. “I ignore mailings and calls from my health insurer — I get them all the time,” said Eliot Fishman, a senior director of health policy at Families USA, a consumer advocacy group.

Mr. Fishman oversaw Medicaid demonstration projects in the Obama administration. He said he learned that it was challenging to use health insurance as a vehicle to shape behavior, because most people don’t read the fine print of their health benefits.

Under Mr. Fishman’s watch, Indiana tested a program to get beneficiaries to take more responsibility for their health. Medicaid patients who made small monthly payments in special accounts, got a checkup or did other activities could earn more generous benefits. Ms. Verma, then a consultant, helped the state devise that program. In an evaluation, it turned out that only a minority of eligible people understood that the accounts existed.

Joan Alker, the executive director of the Georgetown Center for Children and Families, who opposes work requirements for Medicaid, said the state could have done more to get the word out — if it had been willing to spend more.

The Obama administration spent millions on advertising and in-person help when it rolled out Obamacare’s coverage expansion in 2014. Even then, it took several years before the uninsured rate among poor Americans stopped dropping. “You cannot have an incentive strategy that is allegedly designed to change people’s behavior if people are not aware of it,” she said.

The challenge goes beyond getting the message out. The state requires those eligible for the work requirement to report their work hours every month, and only online. Arkansas has one of the lowest rates of internet penetration in the country; estimates from the Urban Institute suggest that more than a quarter of eligible families are not online.

Advocates for the poor describe the state’s website as confusing to navigate, especially for people with limited computer skills and overall literacy. (Click on the site yourself and see if you can figure out how to report work hours.) The state has tried workarounds — like offering computer terminals in county offices, and training volunteers to help people log their hours.

But evidence from a range of social programs — including Medicaid — has repeatedly demonstrated that administrative hurdles can cause eligible people to lose benefits.

As the program is expanded to more people, awareness and compliance may spread over time. But the early results could mean the end of the program before we know for sure. A lawsuit challenging the work requirement will be reviewed soon by a federal judge who already knocked down a similar work rule in Kentucky. In that case, the judge, James Boasberg, said Kentucky had been insufficiently concerned about the people who might lose coverage because of the requirement. In Kentucky, those losses were theoretical. In Arkansas, they’re already real.

Margot Sanger-Katz is a domestic correspondent and writes about health care for The Upshot. She was previously a reporter at National Journal and The Concord Monitor and an editor at Legal Affairs and the Yale Alumni Magazine. @sangerkatzFacebook

Ray Myers

The Apps That Help Blind People Shop

For consumers who are blind or have low vision, a shopping trip can be rife with challenges. More than 8 million Americans reportedly have a vision impairment, but they can’t count on store staff to offer assistance or stores to have clutter-free aisles or easy-to-navigate layouts. Just entering or exiting some businesses can be difficult.

Now some tech companies are developing products to make shopping less of an ordeal for customers with blindness or low vision. A San Diego startup called Aira (Artificial Intelligence and Remote Assistance) has launched an app that allows people with vision impairment to connect with trained professionals who remotely provide visual assistance, and is partnering with retail stores and other businesses to integrate the technology.

Suman Kanuganti got the idea for Aira in 2015, after speaking to a blind communications professional about how Google Glass technology could be used to help the blind become more mobile. Aira has described the app as “OnStar for the blind.”

How it works: When users download the Aira app, they’re linked to an operator who accesses their smartphone camera to view their surroundings. (Users pay a monthly subscription fee and can also subscribe to a plan that comes with smart glasses and a camera accessible to Aira operators.)

At the grocery store chain Wegmans, for instance, which recently began offering Aira services at all its stores, blind and low-vision shoppers can activate the Aira app to connect them with professionals who help them move around the store, find what they want, and direct them to the shortest checkout lines. By speaking with these customers on the phone, the agents essentially act as a second pair of eyes for them.

Aira is available in some restaurants, college campuses, and airports, and is branching out to other places like AT&T stores. During a time when discussions about inclusion in retail have often focused on size, gender, or race, the emergence of technology like Aira underscores the importance of challenging ableism by making shopping more accessible for people with physical impairments.

Ray Myers

Americanization of Swedish Schoolsoi

In the last 15–20 years, Sweden has suffered a downturn in several important aspects of the elementary and secondary education system. To begin to illustrate the state of Sweden’s schools, we can make a comparison with the heavily criticized American education system. It is a common and understandable belief, in the U.S. and elsewhere, that Swedish schools compare favorably with American schools in terms of educational outcomes. But the weakest American students in 8th grade performed significantly better than the weakest Swedish 8th graders in the TIMSS Mathematics assessment in 2011, one of the international comparative tests that have existed since the 1990s. In the latest cycle of the TIMSS Mathematics assessment, conducted in 2015, the weakest U.S. and Swedish students performed identically, but American students outperformed Swedish students in all other percentiles.

In contrast, Swedish students outperformed their U.S. peers across the entire distribution in 1995. A similar negative development can be observed in Swedish students’ performance in the PISA. Swedish 9th graders performed above the international average in the first cycle of PISA in 2000, but then Sweden’s results steadily deteriorated in each of the three PISA core areas—reading, mathematics, and science—until a low point was reached in 2012. Another PISA assessment conducted in 2012 revealed shortcomings in creativity, critical thinking, curiosity, and perseverance, and ranked Sweden 20th out of 28 countries. The findings in the TIMSS and PISA assessments suggest that there has been a significant decline in knowledge among Swedish students in recent years.

Yet the average merit rating (based on grades) in the final year of Sweden’s elementary schools has markedly improved since the late 1990s, which is highly suspicious. Indeed, the disconnect between international assessments of Swedish students’ performance and their grades is compelling evidence of rampant grade inflation in Swedish elementary schools, and the same problem is showing in secondary education as well.

Furthermore, Sweden has one of the highest levels of absenteeism and late arrivals in the OECD. Depression and anxiety among children aged 10–17 also increased by more than 100 percent from 2006 to 2016. According to Sweden’s National Board of Health and Welfare, the reasons for this dramatic increase are most likely linked to schooling and the transition from school to adult life. Similarly, physicians have suggested that the soaring prescriptions for ADHD drugs in Sweden, where as many as nine percent of boys are medicated for ADHD in some counties, are related to factors within the school system.

Finally, there is a kind of malaise in the teaching profession. There is an acute shortage of teachers, mainly caused by a high dropout rate among students in education degree programs. A further crisis component is the selection of applicants. Today, only five percent of teachers deem their profession prestigious, and barely half of them would choose the same occupation again. This fall in teaching’s status is reflected in the sizable share of applicants with low grades from secondary school and who grew up in homes with less cultural capital. Moreover, teachers are one of the least satisfied groups in the Swedish labor market, even though teachers’ relative wages have increased sharply in recent years. A recent study showed that four out of ten active teachers are considering leaving the profession.

What on earth is going on

Ray Myers

(Excerpted from “Post-Truth” Schooling and Marketized Education: Explaining the Decline in Sweden’s School Quality)

Cautious Tech Leaders

When Joe Barton, a Republican congressman from Texas, greeted Jack Dorsey at a congressional hearing last week, he sounded flummoxed.

“I don’t know what a Twitter C.E.O. should look like,” Mr. Barton said. “But you don’t look like what a C.E.O. of Twitter should look like.”

The congressman had a point. Mr. Dorsey — who sported a nose ring, a popped-collar shirt and a craggy Moses beard — looked more like a hipster version of a Civil War officer than a tech icon. Yet more striking than his look was his manner before skeptical lawmakers.

Faced with tough questions, Mr. Dorsey did not mount an aggressive defense of his company and his technology, as an earlier generation of tech leader might have. Instead, he demurred, conceded mistakes and generally engaged in a nuanced and seemingly heartfelt colloquy on the difficulties of managing tech in a complex world. Even in response to Mr. Barton’s comment about his look, Mr. Dorsey was solicitous. “My mom agrees with you,” he said.

Ray Myers

(Excerpted from NY Times, 9/13/18)

P.S.

The online Global Education Conference begins on Monday, September 17, please join in throughout the week.

https://www.eventbrite.com/e/the-2018-global-education-conference-registration-49538109820?aff=erelexpmlt

What’s Gender Got to Do With It?

Research shows that students, especially boys, benefit when teachers share their race or gender. Yet most teachers are white women.

By Claire Cain Miller

Sept. 10, 2018

283

Zara Gibbon helps a new sixth grader at Animo Westside Charter Middle School in Los Angeles. A majority of teachers in American schools are white women.

As students have returned to school, they have been greeted by teachers who, more likely than not, are white women. That means many students will be continuing to see teachers who are a different gender than they are, and a different skin color.

Does it matter? Yes, according to a significant body of research: Students tend to benefit from having teachers who look like them, especially nonwhite students.

The homogeneity of teachers is probably one of the contributors, the research suggests, to the stubborn gender and race gaps in student achievement: Over all, girls outperform boys, and white students outperform those who are black and Hispanic.

Where Boys Outperform Girls in Math: Rich, White and Suburban DistrictsJune 13, 2018

Yet the teacher work force is becoming more female: 77 percent of teachers in public and private elementary and high schools are women, up from 71 percent three decades ago. The teaching force has grown more racially diverse in that period, but it’s still 80 percent white, down from 87 percent.

(Excerpted from NY Times, 9 /11/18)

Ray Myers

Libraries to the Rescue – Bedrock of Civil Society

Is the public library obsolete?

A lot of powerful forces in society seem to think so. In recent years, declines in the circulation of bound books in some parts of the country have led prominent critics to argue that libraries are no longer serving their historical function. Countless elected officials insist that in the 21st century — when so many books are digitized, so much public culture exists online and so often people interact virtually — libraries no longer need the support they once commanded.

Libraries are already starved for resources. In some cities, even affluent ones like Atlanta, entire branches are being shut down. In San Jose, Calif., just down the road from Facebook, Google and Apple, the public library budget is so tight that users with overdue fees above $10 aren’t allowed to borrow books or use computers.

But the problem that libraries face today isn’t irrelevance. Indeed, in New York and many other cities, library circulation, program attendance and average hours spent visiting are up. The real problem that libraries face is that so many people are using them, and for such a wide variety of purposes, that library systems and their employees are overwhelmed. According to a 2016 survey conducted by the Pew Research Center, about half of all Americans ages 16 and over used a public library in the past year, and two-thirds say that closing their local branch would have a “major impact on their community.”

Libraries are being disparaged and neglected at precisely the moment when they are most valued and necessary. Why the disconnect? In part it’s because the founding principle of the public library — that all people deserve free, open access to our shared culture and heritage — is out of sync with the market logic that dominates our world. But it’s also because so few influential people understand the expansive role that libraries play in modern communities.

Libraries are an example of what I call “social infrastructure”: the physical spaces and organizations that shape the way people interact. Libraries don’t just provide free access to books and other cultural materials, they also offer things like companionship for older adults, de facto child care for busy parents, language instruction for immigrants and welcoming public spaces for the poor, the homeless and young people.

I recently spent a year doing ethnographic research in libraries in New York City. Again and again, I was reminded how essential libraries are, not only for a neighborhood’s vitality but also for helping to address all manner of personal problems.

For older people, especially widows, widowers and those who live alone, libraries are places for culture and company, through book clubs, movie nights, sewing circles and classes in art, current events and computing. For many, the library is the main place they interact with people from other generations.

For children and teenagers, libraries help instill an ethic of responsibility, to themselves and to their neighbors, by teaching them what it means to borrow and take care of something public, and to return it so others can have it too. For new parents, grandparents and caretakers who feel overwhelmed when watching an infant or a toddler by themselves, libraries are a godsend.

In many neighborhoods, particularly those where young people aren’t hyper-scheduled in formal after-school programs, libraries are highly popular among adolescents and teenagers who want to spend time with other people their age. One reason is that they’re open, accessible and free. Another is that the library staff members welcome them; in many branches, they even assign areas for teenagers to be with one another

To appreciate why this matters, compare the social space of the library with the social space of commercial establishments like Starbucks or McDonald’s. These are valuable parts of the social infrastructure, but not everyone can afford to frequent them, and not all paying customers are welcome to stay for long.

Older and poor people will often avoid Starbucks altogether, because the fare is too expensive and they feel that they don’t belong. The elderly library patrons I got to know in New York told me that they feel even less welcome in the trendy new coffee shops, bars and restaurants that are so common in the city’s gentrifying neighborhoods. Poor and homeless library patrons don’t even consider entering these places. They know from experience that simply standing outside a high-end eatery can prompt managers to call the police. But you rarely see a police officer in a library.

This is not to say that libraries are always peaceful and serene. During the time I spent doing research, I witnessed a handful of heated disputes, physical altercations and other uncomfortable situations, sometimes involving people who appeared to be mentally ill or under the influence of drugs. But such problems are inevitable in a public institution that’s dedicated to open access, especially when drug clinics, homeless shelters and food banks routinely turn away — and often refer to the library! — those who most need help. What’s remarkable is how rarely these disruptions happen, how civilly they are managed and how quickly a library regains its rhythm afterward.

The openness and diversity that flourish in neighborhood libraries were once a hallmark of urban culture. But that has changed. Though American cities are growing more ethnically, racially and culturally diverse, they too often remain divided and unequal, with some neighborhoods cutting themselves off from difference — sometimes intentionally, sometimes just by dint of rising costs — particularly when it comes to race and social class.

Libraries are the kinds of places where people with different backgrounds, passions and interests can take part in a living democratic culture. They are the kinds of places where the public, private and philanthropic sectors can work together to reach for something higher than the bottom line.

This summer, Forbes magazine published an article arguing that libraries no longer served a purpose and did not deserve public support. The author, an economist, suggested that Amazon replace libraries with its own retail outlets, and claimed that most Americans would prefer a free-market option. The public response — from librarians especially, but also public officials and ordinary citizens — was so overwhelmingly negative that Forbes deleted the article from its website.

We should take heed. Today, as cities and suburbs continue to reinvent themselves, and as cynics claim that government has nothing good to contribute to that process, it’s important that institutions like libraries get the recognition they deserve. It’s worth noting that “liber,” the Latin root of the word “library,” means both “book” and “free.” Libraries stand for and exemplify something that needs defending: the public institutions that — even in an age of atomization, polarization and inequality — serve as the bedrock of civil society.

If we have any chance of rebuilding a better society, social infrastructure like the library is precisely what we need. (NY Times, 8/9/18)

Ray Myers