CRF Blog

Fixing the Best Schools in the World

by Bill Hayes

In Fixing the Best Schools in the World, a feature story, Bloomberg Businessweek looks at how the principal of  Qibao High School in Shanghai, Qiu Zhonghai, wants to reform his school.

The students treat Qiu like a celebrity in part because he is one. The walls of Qibao, which Qiu attended as a student and where he’s served as principal for almost 20 years, are lined with pictures of him shaking hands with President Xi Jinping and other Chinese dignitaries during their tours of Qibao’s campus, which is a model of Chinese education. Qiu, 65, presides over one of the five highest-ranked public high schools in Shanghai. Shanghai public schools placed first worldwide on the recent PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) exams, which are administered every three years by the Paris-based Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. The average scores of Shanghai students in reading, science, and mathematics were more than 10 percent higher than the scores of students in the legendary Finnish school system, which had been top-ranked until 2009, when Shanghai was first included in the testing, and about 25 percent higher than those of the U.S., which ranked 36th.

While some critics dispute the PISA rankings, arguing that U.S. schools are evaluated as a national collective, not city-by-city as Chinese schools are, most agree that China produces formidable test takers. The school system in Shanghai, the nation’s largest and wealthiest city, is widely accepted as the most rigorous education system in the world. But Qiu thinks it can do better. Throughout his career he has been pushing the system to improve and adapt alongside China’s fast-changing economy. Today, Qiu is an elder statesman among a growing number of younger, more radical pioneers who think the Chinese education system, for all its success, is archaic and in need of sweeping reform.

Qiu and the others believe that test scores alone aren’t a reliable predictor of long-term success — for students or the economy at large. Wang Jianjun, a professor and researcher at East China Normal, one of Shanghai’s top universities, worries that the long-term costs of the Chinese education system could outweigh the benefits. “Our schools produce exceptional results,” says Wang, who trains teachers in the city’s public schools, “but the burdens are severe.”

Suicide is the top cause of death among Chinese youth, and depression among students is widely attributed to stress around high-pressure examinations, especially the dreaded gaokao, which seniors take to determine what university, if any, they can attend. [more]

Why Aren’t Women Advancing At Work?

by Bill Hayes

In Why Aren’t Women Advancing At Work? for the New Republic, Jessica Nordell looks to the experiences of transgender people.

Ben Barres is a biologist at Stanford who lived and worked as Barbara Barres until he was in his forties. For most of his career, he experienced bias, but didn’t give much weight to it — seeing incidents as discrete events. (When he solved a tough math problem, for example, a professor said, “You must have had your boyfriend solve it.”) When he became Ben, however, he immediately noticed a difference in his everyday experience: “People who don’t know I am transgendered treat me with much more respect,” he says. He was more carefully listened to and his authority less frequently questioned. He stopped being interrupted in meetings. At one conference, another scientist said, “Ben gave a great seminar today — but then his work is so much better than his sister’s.” (The scientist didn’t know Ben and Barbara were the same person.) “This is why women are not breaking into academic jobs at any appreciable rate,” he wrote in response to Larry Summers’s famous gaffe implying women were less innately capable at the hard sciences. “Not childcare. Not family responsibilities,” he says. “I have had the thought a million times: I am taken more seriously.” [more]

The Evolution of Diet

by Bill Hayes

As part of an ongoing series on the future of food, National Geographic looks at The Evolution of Diet.

As we look to 2050, when we’ll need to feed two billion more people, the question of which diet is best has taken on new urgency. The foods we choose to eat in the coming decades will have dramatic ramifications for the planet. Simply put, a diet that revolves around meat and dairy, a way of eating that’s on the rise throughout the developing world, will take a greater toll on the world’s resources than one that revolves around unrefined grains, nuts, fruits, and vegetables.

Until agriculture was developed around 10,000 years ago, all humans got their food by hunting, gathering, and fishing. As farming emerged, nomadic hunter-gatherers gradually were pushed off prime farmland, and eventually they became limited to the forests of the Amazon, the arid grasslands of Africa, the remote islands of Southeast Asia, and the tundra of the Arctic. Today only a few scattered tribes of hunter-gatherers remain on the planet.

That’s why scientists are intensifying efforts to learn what they can about an ancient diet and way of life before they disappear. “Hunter-gatherers are not living fossils,” says Alyssa Crittenden, a nutritional anthropologist at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, who studies the diet of Tanzania’s Hadza people, some of the last true hunter-gatherers. “That being said, we have a small handful of foraging populations that remain on the planet. We are running out of time. If we want to glean any information on what a nomadic, foraging lifestyle looks like, we need to capture their diet now.”

So far studies of foragers like the Tsimane, Arctic Inuit, and Hadza have found that these peoples traditionally didn’t develop high blood pressure, atherosclerosis, or cardiovascular disease. “A lot of people believe there is a discordance between what we eat today and what our ancestors evolved to eat,” says paleoanthropologist Peter Ungar of the University of Arkansas. The notion that we’re trapped in Stone Age bodies in a fast-food world is driving the current craze for Paleolithic diets. The popularity of these so-called caveman or Stone Age diets is based on the idea that modern humans evolved to eat the way hunter-gatherers did during the Paleolithic — the period from about 2.6 million years ago to the start of the agricultural revolution — and that our genes haven’t had enough time to adapt to farmed foods. [more]

Back to Basics

by Bill Hayes

In Back to Basics for Foreign Policy magazine, Christian Caryl argues that Berlin may offer a better model for governance than Washington.

As they set to work in the late 1940s, members of the assembly that drafted West Germany’s postwar constitution, the Basic Law, couldn’t help but reflect on the Nazi dictatorship and the turbulent (but democratic) Weimar Republic that preceded it. Both experiences had seared them. Nazi tyranny gave them a profound appreciation for the importance of fundamental human rights, and the framers of the Basic Law correspondingly gave a central place to the inviolability of individual freedoms: speech, assembly, protection against illegal search and seizure, gender and ethnic equality. At the same time, the trauma of Weimar — when the lax rules of German interwar democracy all too often sabotaged efforts toward economic and other national progress — left the assembly members with an equally strong concern for effective governance. From 1918 to 1933, opponents of democracy had repeatedly exploited the weaknesses of the Weimar political order. Vowing to prevent that from happening again, the framers of the Basic Law made sure to develop a political framework that created incentives for cooperation and stability and that preempted gridlock.

The result was a thoroughly federal system with a strong separation of powers, a chief executive whose authority comes directly from the parliamentary majority, and a constitutional court that monitors the legality of legislation at all levels. So far, so good. But the framers also added a few crucial innovations. [more]


by Bill Hayes

In Uncram for the New York Times Book Review, Dan Hurley reviews How We Learn: The Surprising Truth About When, Where, and Why It Happens by Benedict Carey.

The softer approach, which he jokingly refers to as “freeing the inner slacker,” worked well enough for him to eventually obtain degrees in mathematics and journalism before landing at The Times in 2004. Now he has devoted his considerable reporting chops to uncovering the scientific basis of how learning actually occurs, and how we can make the most of our brain’s natural proclivities: A nap is not just an hour or two of lost study time; sleep actually enhances learning. Daydreaming and distraction are good ways to generate creative solutions to difficult problems. Breaking up study times across days and weeks beats cramming, even when the total study time is the same. And mixing up your environment, by trying a new cafe or new music on your earphones, works better than serving time in a library carrel. [more]

Climate engineering ideas no longer considered pie in the sky

by Bill Hayes

The Los Angeles Times reports that Climate engineering ideas no longer considered pie in the sky.

Ships that spew salt into the air to block sunlight. Mirrored satellites designed to bounce solar rays back into space. Massive “reverse” power plants that would suck carbon from the atmosphere. These are among the ideas the National Academy of Sciences has charged a panel of some of the nation’s top climate thinkers to investigate. Several agencies requested the inquiry, including the CIA.

At the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in La Cañada Flintridge, scientists are modeling what such technologies might do to weather patterns. At the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Richland, Wash., a fund created by Microsoft founder Bill Gates — an enthusiast of research into climate engineering — helps bankroll another such effort.

“There is a level of seriousness about these strategies that didn’t exist a decade ago, when it was considered just a game,” said Ken Caldeira, a scientist with the Carnegie Institution at Stanford University, who sits on the National Academy of Sciences panel. “Attitudes have changed dramatically.”

Even as the research moves forward, many scientists and government officials worry about the risks of massive climate-control contraptions. [more]

Fair trade

by David De La Torre

In Good thing, of bad?, The Economist reviews The Fair Trade Scandal: Marketing Poverty to Benefit the Rich by Ndongo Sylla.

[T]here is little evidence that fair trade has lifted many producers out of poverty, not least because most of the organisations that are certified tend to come from richer, more diversified developing countries, such as Mexico and South Africa, rather than the poorer ones that are mostly dependent on exporting one crop. And why the focus on agricultural produce, when a booming fair-trade manufacturing sector potentially would help far more countries? Moreover, most of the benefit from fair-trade produce seems to stay where it is consumed. According to Mr Sylla’s calculations, for each dollar paid by an American consumer for a fair-trade product, only three cents more are transferred to the country it came from than for the unlabelled alternative. [more]


by Bill Hayes

In Ebolanomics for the New Yorker, James Surowiecki looks at the economics behind the development of pharmaceuticals to treat tropical diseases.

When pharmaceutical companies are deciding where to direct their R. & D. money, they naturally assess the potential market for a drug candidate. That means that they have an incentive to target diseases that affect wealthier people (above all, people in the developed world), who can afford to pay a lot. They have an incentive to make drugs that many people will take. And they have an incentive to make drugs that people will take regularly for a long time — drugs like statins. [more]

How to Talk About Climate Change So People Will Listen

by Bill Hayes

In an essay for the Atlantic, Charles C. Mann explains How to Talk About Climate Change So People Will Listen.

As an issue, climate change was unlucky: when nonspecialists first became aware of it, in the 1990s, environmental attitudes had already become tribal political markers. As the Yale historian Paul Sabin makes clear in The Bet, it wasn’t always this way. The votes for the 1970 Clean Air Act, for example, were 374–1 in the House, 73–0 in the Senate. Sabin’s book takes off from a single event: a bet between the ecologist Paul R. Ehrlich and the economist Julian Simon a decade later. Ehrlich’s The Population Bomb (1968), which decried humankind’s rising numbers, was a foundational text in the environmental movement. Simon’s Ultimate Resource (1981) was its antimatter equivalent: a celebration of population growth, it awakened opposition to the same movement.

Ehrlich was moderately liberal in his politics but unrestrained in his rhetoric. The second sentence of The Population Bomb promised that “hundreds of millions of people” would starve to death within two decades, no matter what “crash programs” the world launched to feed them. A year later, Ehrlich gave even odds that “England will not exist in the year 2000.” In 1974, he told Congress that “a billion or more people” could starve in the 1980s “at the latest.” When the predictions didn’t pan out, he attacked his critics as “incompetent” and “ignorant,” “morons” and “idiots.”

Simon, who died in 1998, argued that “human resourcefulness and enterprise” will extricate us from our ecological dilemma. Moderately conservative in his politics, he was exuberantly uninhibited in his scorn for eco-alarmists. Humankind faces no serious environmental problems, he asserted. “All long-run trends point in exactly the opposite direction from the projections of the doomsayers.” (All? Really?) “There is no convincing economic reason why these trends toward a better life should not continue indefinitely.” Relishing his role as a spoiler, he gave speeches while wearing red plastic devil horns. Unsurprisingly, he attracted disagreement, to which he responded with as much bluster as Ehrlich. Critics, motivated by “blatant intellectual dishonesty” and indifference to the poor, were “corrupt,” their ideas “ignorant and wrongheaded.”

In 1980, the two men wagered $1,000 on the prices of five metals 10 years hence. If the prices rose, as Ehrlich predicted, it would imply that these resources were growing scarcer, as Homo sapiens plundered the planet. If the prices fell, this would be a sign that markets and human cleverness had made the metals relatively less scarce: progress was continuing. Prices dropped. Ehrlich paid up, insisting disingenuously that he had been “schnookered.”

Schnookered, no; unlucky, yes. In 2010, three Holy Cross economists simulated the bet for every decade from 1900 to 2007. Ehrlich would have won 61 percent of the time. The results, Sabin says, do not prove that these resources have grown scarcer. Rather, metal prices crashed after the First World War and spent most of a century struggling back to their 1918 levels. Ecological issues were almost irrelevant.

The bet demonstrated little about the environment but much about environmental politics. [more]

A New ‘L’Étranger’

by Bill Hayes

In A New ‘L’Étranger’ for the New York Review of Books, Claire Messud reviews The Outsider by Albert Camus, newly translated from the French by Sandra Smith.

Each translation is, perforce, a reenvisioning of the novel: a translator will determine which Meursault we encounter, and in what light we understand him. Sandra Smith — an American scholar and translator at Cambridge University, whose previous work includes the acclaimed translation of Irène Némirovsky’s Suite Française — published in the UK in 2012 an excellent and, in important ways, new version of L’Étranger.

To begin with, she has changed the book’s English title: no longer The Stranger, Smith’s version is called, rather, The Outsider. She explains in her introduction: “In French, étranger can be translated as “outsider,” “stranger” or “foreigner.” Our protagonist, Meursault, is all three, and the concept of an outsider encapsulates all these possible meanings: Meursault is a stranger to himself, an outsider to society and a foreigner because he is a Frenchman in Algeria.” [more]

The early thinking of Edmund Burke

by David De La Torre

In Freedom fighter, The Economist reviews The Intellectual Life of Edmund Burke: From the Sublime and Beautiful to American Independence by David Bromwich.

Burke continued to fight for liberty later on in life. He backed Americans in their campaign for freedom from British taxation. He supported Catholic freedoms and freer trade with Ireland, in spite of his constituents’ ire. He wanted more liberal laws on the punishment of debtors. He even pushed to curb the slave trade in 1780, a quarter of a century before it was abolished. “The most shameful trade that ever the hardened heart of man could bear”, he called it in a speech to the House of Commons in 1789. At a time of mass political rebellion and a flurry of pharisaic independent MPs, Edmund Burke seems an ideal role model: a backbencher for all ages. [more]

For a free classroom lesson on Burke, see Edmund Burke: The Father of Conservatism from our Bill of Rights in Action Archive.

Marks From the Base

by Bill Hayes

In Marks From the Base, the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press shows how each party’s base feels about how Congress has dealt with various issues.

As the current session of Congress comes to a close without significant action to address illegal immigration, neither Republicans nor Democrats are especially happy with the way their respective parties have dealt with the issue. [more]

Partisans Rate

Hong Kong’s unprecedented protests and police crackdown

by Bill Hayes

In Hong Kong’s unprecedented protests and police crackdown, Vox explains what is going on in the wealthy Chinese city.

The really important thing is what happened next: Hong Kong’s police cracked down with surprising force, fighting in the streets with protesters and eventually emerging with guns that, while likely filled with rubber bullets, look awfully militaristic. In response, outraged Hong Kong residents flooded into the streets to join the protesters, and on Sunday police blanketed Central with tear gas, which has been seen as a shocking and outrageous escalation. The Chinese central government issued a statement endorsing the police actions, as did Hong Kong’s pro-Beijing chief executive, a tacit signal that Beijing wishes for the protests to be cleared.

You have to remember that this is Hong Kong: an affluent and orderly place that prides itself on its civility and its freedom. Hong Kongers have a bit of a superiority complex when it comes to China, and see themselves as beyond the mainland’s authoritarianism and disorder. But there is also deep, deep anxiety that this could change, that Hong Kong could lose its special status, and this week’s events have hit on those anxieties to their core. [more]

His own words help bring down New Orleans prosecutor

by Bill Hayes

In His own words help bring down New Orleans prosecutor, the Los Angeles Times reports on a strange case of prosecutorial misconduct.

Sal Perricone always had something to prove. Growing up poor and Italian in a city dominated by Creoles and Anglos, Perricone found respect on the streets after high school by becoming a cop. He pulled graveyard shifts to put himself through college and eventually took night classes to earn a law degree while serving as a New Orleans police detective.

The law degree helped him jump to the FBI, where he was a special agent for five years. In 1991 he landed at the U.S. attorney’s office in New Orleans, crusading against fraud in a city as known for political corruption as it is for jazz. Over two decades, he went after the Mafia, cops, judges and even a former governor. He became one of New Orleans’ most feared prosecutors.

The people he put behind bars — the thugs, the high-power politicians — were intent on seeing Perricone fall. His enemies left a fake bomb and other death threats on his front porch. They never touched him. Instead, it was his own arrogance and a burning secret resentment toward the world of privilege and power that brought him down.

His prosecutorial misconduct was exposed by a pretentious writing style, particularly his fondness for obscure words found usually only on SAT exams or in the work of Victorian poet Robert Browning. [more]

Crash Course #16, U.S. History: Women in the 19th Century

by Bill Hayes

Part of a series: Crash Course #16, U.S. History: Women in the 19th Century.