CRF Blog

Why did crime plummet in the US?

by Bill Hayes

In 18 short cards, Vox explains Why did crime plummet in the US? Here is the first card:

There’s about half as much violent crime in the US as there was 25 years ago.

Violent crime in the US has dropped a stunning amount — nearly half — since the early 1990s. Why?

Some theories (like mass incarceration) seemed pretty solid in the ’90s, but have been called into question as more data has come in. Meanwhile, some new theories — like lead getting taken out of gasoline — have gotten popular. But everyone agrees there’s no one answer.

In February 2015, the Brennan Center for Justice published a report that attempted to quantify how much various factors had contributed to the drop in crime. Vox took that analysis and built on it — adding other experts’ perspectives, other evidence, and other theories it hadn’t addressed. [more]

The True Story of Lawrence of Arabia

by Bill Hayes

In The True Story of Lawrence of Arabia, Smithsonian magazine looks at the World War I hero and how he is viewed today.

Today, T.E. Lawrence remains one of the most iconic figures of the early 20th century. His life has been the subject of at least three movies — including one considered a masterpiece — over 70 biographies, several plays and innumerable articles, monographs and dissertations. His wartime memoir, Seven Pillars of Wisdom, translated into more than a dozen languages, remains in print nearly a full century after its first publication. As Gen. Edmund Allenby, chief British commander in the Middle East during World War I, noted, Lawrence was first among equals: “There is no other man I know,” he asserted, “who could have achieved what Lawrence did.”

Part of the enduring fascination has to do with the sheer improbability of Lawrence’s tale, of an unassuming young Briton who found himself the champion of a downtrodden people, thrust into events that changed the course of history. Added to this is the poignancy of his journey, so masterfully rendered in David Lean’s 1962 film, Lawrence of Arabia, of a man trapped by divided loyalties, torn between serving the empire whose uniform he wore and being true to those fighting and dying alongside him. It is this struggle that raises the Lawrence saga to the level of Shakespearean tragedy, as it ultimately ended badly for all concerned: for Lawrence, for the Arabs, for Britain, in the slow uncoiling of history, for the Western world at large. Loosely cloaked about the figure of T.E. Lawrence there lingers the wistful specter of what might have been if only he had been listened to.


For the past several years, Sheik al-Atoun has assisted archaeologists from Bristol University in England who are conducting an extensive survey of the war in Jordan, the Great Arab Revolt Project (GARP). One of the Bristol researchers, John Winterburn, recently discovered a forgotten British Army camp in the desert 18 miles from Mudowarra; untouched for nearly a century — Winterburn even collected old gin bottles — the find was touted in the British press as the discovery of “Lawrence’s Lost Camp.”

“We do know that Lawrence was at that camp,” Winterburn says, sitting at a Bristol University café. “But, as best we can tell, he probably stayed only a day or two. But all the men who were there much longer, none of them were Lawrence, so it becomes ‘Lawrence’s camp.’”

For most travelers, Highway 15, Jordan’s main north-south thoroughfare, offers a dull drive through a largely featureless desert connecting Amman to more interesting places: the ruins at Petra, the Red Sea beaches of Aqaba.

To GARP co-director Nicholas Saunders, however, Highway 15 is a treasure trove. “Most people have no idea that they’re traveling through one of the best-preserved battlefields in the world,” he explains, “that all around them are reminders of the pivotal role this region played in World War I.”

Saunders is at his desk in his cluttered office at Bristol, where scattered amid the stacks of papers and books are relics from his own explorations along Highway 15: bullet casings, cast-iron tent rings. Since 2006, Saunders has headed up some 20 GARP digs in southern Jordan, excavating everything from Turkish Army encampments and trenchworks, to Arab rebel campsites and old British Royal Flying Corps airstrips. What unites these disparate sites — indeed what led to their creation — is the single-track railway that runs alongside Highway 15 for some 250 miles: the old Hejaz Railway.

As first articulated by T.E. Lawrence, the goal wasn’t to permanently sever the Turks’ southern lifeline, but rather to keep it barely functioning. The Turks would have to constantly devote resources to its repair, while their garrisons, receiving just enough supplies to survive, would be stranded. Indications of this strategy are everywhere evident along Highway 15; while many of the original small bridges and culverts that the Ottomans constructed to navigate the region’s seasonal waterways are still in place — instantly recognizable by their ornate stonework arches — many more are of modern, steel-beam construction, denoting where the originals were blown up during the war. [more]

Freedom House’s Freedom Index

Infographic: The State Of Freedom Worldwide | Statista
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Russia’s Hottest American

by Bill Hayes

In Russia’s Hottest American, New York magazine profiles Odin Biron, the unlikely American star of a popular Russian sitcom.

Biron is one of the stars of Interns, a hit medical sitcom watched by 3.7 million people per episode and one of Gazprom-Media’s flagship programs. On the show, he plays Phil, a bright-eyed American doctor trying to negotiate life in Russia. Interns’ phenomenal success has turned the 30-year-old Minnesotan into an unlikely heartthrob and the de facto face of America in Russian pop culture at a time when relations between the two countries have deteriorated to their lowest point in recent memory.

The TV star makes his way into the darkened ballroom and finds a spot near the back where he can stand undisturbed. Enormous crystal chandeliers hang low over the heads of beefy, taciturn Gazprom executives. They are all facing the back wall, which is covered in ultrahigh–definition screens showing promotional segments for Gazprom-Media programming. Occasionally Vladimir Putin appears onscreen to profess support for the company. Suddenly, there’s Interns’ Phil, mugging innocently in the midst of some typically madcap hospital high jinks. Sipping his wine, Biron winces ever so slightly.

He, after all, is the kind of guy who exclaims “Oh my gosh!,” loves baking bread, and plays old-timey fiddle for fun. That is to say he could not be less suited to the excesses of Russian stardom — and yet here he is, in this mock-imperial ballroom with these Bond-villain executives, watching himself ham it up onscreen.

His Interns co-star Ivan Okhlobystin, standing across the ballroom, by contrast, is the kind of celebrity who could exist only in Moscow in 2015. A tattooed nationalist former Orthodox priest, he made international news last year when he said, in a weird bit of public performance art, that he would put all gays in an oven and burn them alive. Which puts Biron in a strange position, since neither Okhlobystin or the Russian viewing public knows that he’s gay. Oh, and there’s also the fact that, Okhlobystin, 48, has become one of Russia’s most vehement anti-American loudmouths, calling frequently for the U.S. to be bombed to oblivion. [more]

Inexcusable Absences

by Bill Hayes

In Inexcusable Absences for the New Republic, Dana Goldstein argues that harsh truancy laws are not the solution to truancy.

Absence from school is an undeniable problem. We know it is correlated with lower grades, with dropping out of high school, and with trouble with the law. What is less certain is if treating truancy as a crime addresses these underlying issues in an effective and reasonable way. Such interventions have not been proven to increase school attendance or decrease long-term criminal behavior. In fact, the criminalization of truancy often pushes students further away from school, and their families deeper into poverty.

Truancy has been understood as a scourge since the early nineteenth century. That’s when the common schools reform movement, led by educational figures like Horace Mann, introduced the idea of laws requiring parents to enroll their children in school, with the goal of creating a more educated and moral electorate. In 1852, Massachusetts became the first state to legislate compulsory education. Later, progressive reformers also argued for the threat of arrest as a stick to drive reluctant working-class parents, many of them recent immigrants, to keep their kids off the farm and streets or out of the factory. In 1889, the Chicago Board of Education argued, “We should rightfully have the power to arrest all these little beggars, loafers, and vagabonds that infest our city, take them from the streets and place them in schools where they are compelled to receive an education and learn moral principles.” (A quarter of the juveniles jailed at the Chicago House of Correction in 1898 were there for truancy.) By 1918, every state had a law making school attendance mandatory.

It was the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB) that required schools, for the first time, to report truancy data to the federal government, alongside annual test scores in reading and math, as well as high school graduation rates. NCLB passed Congress with bipartisan support. The law did not specifically punish schools for truancy, but it created a social and political link between absence and negative outcomes for students. And with its explicit threat to declare low-performing schools as “failing,” the law infected state-level lawmakers, prosecutors, and judges with a zeal to eradicate the perceived causes of low test scores—with truancy seen as among the worst. [more]

Cagle: Recent Political Cartoons

by Bill Hayes

See Cagle’s collection of recent political cartoons.

For how to use editorial cartoons in the classroom, see Teaching With Editorial Cartoons.

An Armistice, Not a Peace

by Bill Hayes

In An Armistice, Not a Peace for the New York Times Book Review, Harold Evans reviews To Hell and Back: Europe 1914–1949 by Ian Kershaw.

Why did Europe go mad? The four horsemen of the apocalypse Kershaw identifies in his nightmare history are a dramatic rise of ethnic-racist nationalism; angry, conflicting demands for territorial revisionism; acute class conflict that took on sharper focus by the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia; and a prolonged crisis of capitalism that many thought terminal. The turmoil of the interwar years would have tested a Bismarck, a Charlemagne. It troubles Kershaw, as it should all of us, that the seminal catastrophe of World War I could have been avoided, and the second war it bequeathed was as much the result of moral cowardice and political miscalculation in the West as in the rampant new imperialisms of Germany, Italy and Japan. Might we not blunder again? [more]

For a free classroom lesson with numerous activities on the beginning of World War I, see A Fire Waiting to Be Lit: The Origins of World War I from our Common Core Archive.

Magna Carta at 800

by David De La Torre

In The uses of history, The Economist looks at how a “failed treaty,” the Magna Carta, came to be seen as the foundation of liberty in the Anglo-American world.

Buried beneath the “scutage”, “novel disseisin” and “darrein presentment” there were, however, some grander notions, which many historians attribute to the new Archbishop of Canterbury, Stephen Langton, a theologian trained in Paris who later sided with the barons and was sacked by the pope. Certainly, there is evidence of a sharp intelligence at work, using a propitious moment to delineate more broadly the relations between a sovereign and his subjects. Scutage — a tax to pay for war — was to be levied only with “the general consent of the realm”. And chapter 39 in the original (29 in later versions) asserts that “no free man shall be seized or imprisoned, or stripped of his rights or possessions, or outlawed or exiled, or deprived of his standing in any other way, nor will we proceed with force against him, or send others to do so, except by the lawful judgment of his equals or by the law of the land.” That prohibition earned Magna Carta its place on the Supreme Court door.

This passage did not establish the right to trial by jury, for juries were already used extensively; nor is it clear what “the law of the land” meant, since there were no statutes, only customs. The language is not original — a similar phrase appeared in the Edict of Conrad II, the Holy Roman Emperor, in 1037, and another in the second Treaty of Constance between the Emperor Barbarossa and the Lombard League in 1183. But on the European mainland the phrase disappeared into the murk of the Middle Ages, whereas in the Anglo-Saxon world it survived, to be revived and revered by subsequent generations. Why? [more]

The 10 Countries Sentencing the Most People to Death in 2014

Infographic: The Countries Sentencing The Most People To Death | Statista

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Which Has More Bias? Wikipedia or the Encyclopædia Britannica

by Bill Hayes

Harvard Business School’s Working Knowledge looks into Which Has More Bias? Wikipedia or the Encyclopædia Britannica.

Zhu and Greenstein took a database of terms developed by University of Chicago economists Matthew Gentzkow and Jesse Shapiro to examine newspaper bias. Gentzkow and Shapiro studied speeches in the 2005 Congressional Record to scientifically identify the top 500 unique phrases used by Democrats (e.g., tax breaks, minimum wage, fuel efficiency) and Republicans (e.g., death tax, border security, war on terror), rating each according to political slant.

Zhu and Greenstein then identified some 4,000 articles that appeared in both Encyclopædia Britannica and Wikipedia, and determined how many of each of these code words were included, in an effort to determine overall bias and direction.

They found that in general, Wikipedia articles were more biased — with 73 percent of them containing code words, compared to just 34 percent in Britannica. [more]

Wealth Gap as Homeownership Dives

by Bill Hayes

In Wealth Gap as Homeownership Dives, Bloomberg Businessweek reports on the link between lower home ownership and growing inequality.

The share of Americans who own homes rose from the mid-1990s through the Internet bubble and peaked at 69.2 percent in 2004. It has steadily fallen ever since to 63.7 percent in the first quarter, the Census Bureau said Tuesday. In the aftermath of the housing crash, tougher lending standards, stagnant wages and rising home prices have posed obstacles to homebuyers.

Homeownership is the single most important buffer against rising inequality, said [New York University economist Edward] Wolff, who reviewed household wealth trends over more than five decades in a December NBER study, “What Happened Over the Great Recession?” Housing generated 63 percent of wealth in 2013 for middle-class families, defined as the middle three fifths, the research shows. That compares with just 8.7 percent for the top 1 percent and 28 percent for the next 19 percent. [more]

The Germinator

In The Germinator for the New York Times Book Review, Mark Kurlansky reviews The Triumph of Seeds: How Grains, Nuts, Kernels, Pulses, and Pips Conquered the Plant Kingdom and Shaped Human History by Thor Hanson.

Along the way we learn about rat-proof shells, the purpose of the hot taste of pepper, the role of caffeine in coffee beans, why fruit tastes so good (and why it doesn’t when the seeds aren’t ready for germination). We learn how to grow a seedless watermelon, and about seeds that crossed an ocean, and a seed that was dormant for two millenniums before sprouting — which brings us to the concept of dormancy. As Hanson puts it, “dormancy allows seeds to disperse through time.” [more]

Crash Course #30, U.S. History: America in World War I

by Bill Hayes

Part of a series: Crash Course #30, U.S. History: America in World War I.

There Will Never Be a Unified Theory of JFK

by Bill Hayes

In There Will Never Be a Unified Theory of JFK for the New Republic, Stephen Sestanovich reviews three books on Kennedy’s presidency: Camelot’s Court: Inside the Kennedy White House by Robert Dallek, JFK’s Last Hundred Days: The Transformation of a Man and the Emergence of a Great President by Thurston Clarke, and To Move the World: JFK’s Quest for Peace by Jeffrey D. Sachs.

These are very different books, all of them serious and interesting. No matter how much you think you know about the New Frontier, there is plenty to learn from them. As for the inevitable simplifications that occur when we try to neaten up the past — well, half a century after Dallas it is time to get beyond history’s first and second drafts. Perhaps a clearer picture of Kennedy’s aims and achievements would even hold some lessons for another young president who has struggled to develop a coherent foreign policy. If so, Barack Obama could use those lessons now, not fifty years down the road.

There are good reasons, then, to try to understand John Kennedy better. But it is hard to escape the feeling that the new view of him is really an old one. It is closer to Camelot than anything we have heard in years. America’s travails in the 1960s — especially the Vietnam War — seem about to become all Lyndon Johnson’s fault again. In the new view, even some of what went wrong while Kennedy was still president is not quite as much his fault as we used to think. Was his policy, at least in his early years, sometimes too belligerent or provocative? For this, the military and the CIA now take the blame. Was the process of reaching decisions sometimes too secretive, or disorderly, or inconclusive? This, too, can be traced to the president’s lack of confidence in those around him. If the administration often lacked clear direction, it was because Kennedy was trying to neutralize his more trigger-happy advisers.

In tidying up the story, we risk losing much of the New Frontier’s genuine contradictoriness, not to mention the complexity of America’s global role at the height of the cold war. It used to be, after all, that the Kennedy White House was seen as the source of hyperactive policy, not as a check on it. (That is why, shortly after his death, The New Yorker rhapsodized that “he did not fear the weather … but instead challenged the wind itself.”) Visiting 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue early in the administration, Adlai Stevenson complained about what he called “the damnedest bunch of boy commandos running around.” Kennedy insiders had similar qualms. Arthur Schlesinger Jr. labeled the “addiction of activism” as the “besetting sin of the New Frontier.” John and Robert Kennedy, he admitted, were “not planners” but “improvisers.” They were “impatient with systems.” Impulsive policymaking was the costly result. It left the president, Paul Nitze lamented, “in a perpetual state of reaction to one crisis after another rather than working toward long-term goals.”

Many of his own advisers considered the president personally responsible for this way of making policy. It was he, according to George Ball, the number-two man at the State Department, who would always interrupt a discussion of strategy by asking, “Let’s not worry about five years from now, what do we do tomorrow?” [more]

Brown vs. …

by Bill Hayes

In Brown vs. …, New York magazine looks at “how ex–news anchor Campbell Brown became the most controversial woman in school reform.”

Head-spinning data sets are the fluttering fans of both sides in the school-reform debate, concealing ideological motivation of the game’s players and the overwhelming complexity of measuring student performance, but plenty of experts disagree about how important teacher tenure really is. “Most people agree that Campbell Brown has identified an important problem: Poor kids are stuck with the worst teachers. But her approach of attacking tenure is barking up the wrong tree,” says Richard Kahlenberg, an author and senior fellow at the progressive Century Foundation, adding that polling shows tenure is so important to teachers you’d have to increase their salaries by half to make up for taking it away. (Weingarten, sworn enemy of Brown, points out that the states that have the best protections for teachers also have the best academic performance.) Low-income minority students have the weakest teachers because of economic segregation, Kahlenberg says, which suggests the solution is mixing and matching low- and -middle-income kids in individual schools (something, one imagines, that would cause an uproar in nice neighborhoods already endowed with good schools). “On the tactics, I have to give Campbell enormous credit,” Kahlenberg continues. “She’s taken what most educators believe is a peripheral issue and elevated it to the cover of Time magazine. So even if she loses her lawsuits, she’s changed the public conversation — in my view, in a negative way. But I think she’s highly effective.”

Brown becomes exercised at the suggestion that tenure is a peripheral issue. “I don’t think a single parent at P.S. 101 in Queens, a middle-class school where there was a physical and verbally abusive teacher, thinks this is a peripheral issue,” she says. She relishes the details that she knows are good for news, like the story of a teacher who suggested to a student she could be his “little sex slave” and could give him a “striptease” and still wasn’t fired (though he was suspended and retired shortly thereafter). There are, of course, outrageous cases. But at its core Brown’s crusade is less about disciplinary procedure (which she wants to take out of the hands of arbitrators whom the unions help choose) and more about those teachers whose students underperform on tests. As to what should be done about them, Brown insists she wants only incremental changes: Instead of being granted tenure in three years, as is the case in New York State now, she’d like it to happen after five years, and only if a teacher performs well, as well as an agreement that a teacher can lose tenure if he or she has two “ineffective” ratings (which does sound a bit like the meaningful end of tenure). [more]