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July 11, 2003, 5:30 P.M.

With the failure of a recent medical malpractice bill, medical societies are setting up tribunals to review the testimony of doctors who act as expert witnesses in medical malpractice cases. American Medical Association President-Elect Donald J. Palmisano, supports the idea of sanctions against doctors whose testimony does not “pass muster” according to the medical society tribunal. According to Palmisano, “the giving of expert medical testimony should be considered the practice of medicine, and it should be the subject of peer review.”

The purpose of this scrutiny is ostensibly to ensure integrity when a doctor offers expert testimony. However, others believe that the purpose is really to further limit the rights of injured patients. Robert Peck, President of the Center for Constitutional Litigation, says “not only does this appear to be a form of intimidation of witnesses that violates the federal civil rights act, but it is a sort of restraint of trade that could also be an antitrust violation.” Whatever these peer reviews are, the issue of accountability for doctors who commit professional negligence will remain on the front burner, despite the failure of protective legislation.

July 11, 2003, 5:10 P.M.

It turns out that Rod Paige’s “Texas miracle” is nothing more than accounting magic. You will recall that Paige was previously Houston’s Superintendent of Schools and responsible for instituting the changes in that district that serve as the model for No Child Left Behind, the federal government’s intrusion into local control and operation of public schools.

At the heart of Paige’s “school reform program” during his tenure as Houston’s Superintendent was the concept of school accountability. Schools were to be judged based on the performance of students on certain state wide achievement tests. Schools whose students‘ test scores did not improve were designated as “failing” schools. Schools in Texas are judged based on standardized test scores, attendance and dropout rates. Incentives in the form of cash bonuses and other perks are given to teachers and administrators in schools that perform well.

Houston’s high schools looked great in terms of their actual test scores, but they failed to accurately report their rather extraordinary dropout rates. What’s worse, it looks like Houston’s schools have been deliberately underreporting their dropout rates in an obvious attempt to make their schools look better under the standards set by the Texas Department of Education.

A recent audit conducted by the State of Texas found that the Houston School District had failed to report as many as 3,000 students who left their 16 middle and high schools. During the 2000-2001 school year (Rod Paige’s last year in the district) Houston schools reported that only 1.5% of its students had dropped out, and this number did not take into consideration students who left the district and did not transfer to other schools. In actuality, large numbers of students who dropped out were simply ignored when reports were made to the state.

As a result of the audit, the ranking of 14 of 16 schools surveyed will be lowered from best to worst according to the state’s standards. Houston is contesting this ranking, but their accounting practices would make Arthur Anderson proud. Diana Jean Schemo, in today's New York Times, reports that

“In a third of Houston's 30 high schools, scores on the standardized exams have risen as enrollment has shrunk. At Austin High, for example, 2,757 students were enrolled in the 1997-1998 school year, when only 65 percent passed the 10th grade math test, an important gauge of school success in Texas. Three years later, 99 percent of students passed the math exam, but enrollment shrank to 2,215 students.”
At the same time, the school reported that dropout figures, another important factor in determining school performance in Texas, had dropped from 4.1% in 1997-98 to 0.3% in 2000-01.

An excessive emphasis on test scores in Texas, rather than on multiple measures of student learning, has resulted in manipulation of dropout data and is creating a culture where at-risk students and students who might not perform well are encouraged to leave school, so that they don’t pull down test results. Houston school officials misreported (i.e., lied about) dropout figures reported to the State, and failed to enter proper codes on student records when students did not return to school. In one instance a Houston high school went from 1,000 freshmen to 300 seniors in four years and reported no dropouts. According to Dr. Robert Kimball, assistant principal at Sharpstown High School, within the Houston District, this was “amazing” given the fact that 74.7% of the population was identified as “at-risk.” Kimball’s comments, reported in the New York Times, come from a letter that Kimball wrote to Sharpstown principal Carol Wichmann warning her that the school was underreporting its dropout figures.

These developments come out in lights of tragic stories of Houston students who were pushed from their schools by administrators bent on getting good grades and bonuses for their schools, and not on teaching kids. No Child Left Behind will do nothing for at-risk students if the emphasis is solely on standardized test performance -- just ask those 3,000 kids that Rod Paige left behind in Houston.

July 11, 2003, 5:00 P.M.

It looks like someone is going to take the fall for President Bush’s use of inaccurate information about Iraq’s nuclear weapons program in his State of the Union speech last January. That someone will not be the President himself, naturally, but more a likely possibility is CIA Director George Tenet. Tenet came on board as CIA Director during the Clinton administration, and there are Republicans who would be happy to see him go, although President Bush has not been among them. Apparently, the administration is spinning out a story that says that Tenet never told the administration about misgivings the agency had about documents suggesting that Iraq was attempting to purchase uranium for nuclear weapons from Niger.

This all seems strange since the CIA attempted to persuade the British government as early as September 2002 that it should not rely on reports of Iraq’s attempts to purchase uranium in Africa. At the time the CIA was conducting an analysis of Iraqi WMD programs, and according to Walter Pincus in today’s Washington Post, the CIA’s official report questioned the accuracy of those reports. Despite this report, and warnings to the US and British government concerning the authenticity of the reports and supporting documents, both Tony Blair and George Bush relied on the faulty information in advocating for an invasion of Iraq.

At some point the Bush administration decided that it was going to war with Iraq. The UN resolution, the vote in Congress and the State of the Union speech were all based on misinformation, inaccurate data and were intended to lead the US to war. It seems that to this President and to his advisors that the ends always justify the means. Unfortunately, Bush’s war is not over and according to General Tommy Franks it could last for as many as four more years. Will voters allow Bush 43, “the Great Prevaricator,” to stick around to see how it ends?

July 11, 2003, 9:00 A.M.

Good story in Salon this morning on the Howard Dean/George McGovern comparison. Take a look.

July 11, 2003, 8:45 A.M.

My jaw dropped when I read this story in this morning’s New York Times. So much for the vaunted Houston school district that Secretary Paige has been rubbing our faces in, and the Texas model that No Child Left Behind was based on. More on this story to follow soon.

July 7, 2003, 5:30 P.M.

On May 1, 2003 President Bush declared the official end of major hostilities in Iraq. From May 1 to July 4, 25 U.S. soldiers have been killed and 177 wounded. Three more American soldiers were killed this past weekend. The most recent killings have included assassination by lone gunmen, demonstrating the enemy’s clear understanding of how to attack a soldier wearing body armor.

At least with respect to those 200 Americans killed and wounded, as well as another number of British killed and wounded, there are still major hostilities in the Iraqi theater of operations. Coupled with the release of a recent audiotape, which the CIA has determined is “most likely” Saddam Hussein’s voice, it seems that the President’s irresponsible “Bring ‘Em On” speech has provoked a lethal response.

Escalating violence against U.S. and British troops and the apparent emergence of Saddam fosters an atmosphere of fear and uncertainty in Iraq. In his most recent address to the Iraqi people, U.S. civil administrator Paul Bremer acknowledged that until the whereabouts of Hussein and his supporters are known, “. . .their names will continue to cast a shadow of fear over this country.” The sentiment was amplified by Sen. Susan Collins of Maine who admits that “there’s a pervasive climate of fear that is impeding the recovery, particularly in central and southern Iraq.” She adds that “there is a fear that he will return, that he will come back.” If you couple this very destabilizing uncertainty with the ability of some apparently well organized guerilla fighters to pick off well equipped and well trained troops at will, I’d say we have a real crisis on our hands. I’d also say that the recent announcement of a $25 million bounty for Saddam is no coincidence. Certainly someone believes that there is a link between Saddam and the attacks and it is obvious to me that such a link exists.

Whatever the current strategy is for dealing with the terrorist threat, it appears to be inadequate. We invaded Afghanistan to get Osama bin Laden: we didn’t. We invaded Iraq to topple Saddam. Here again it appears that we didn’t. The recently released audio tape describes the fall of Baghdad as nothing more than a strategic retreat. Now we are offering money for information leading to the capture of both bin Laden and Saddam. With our inability, despite an enormous effort so far, to locate or capture either of these notorious thugs, how can we expect that a reward of money will do what an invasion and occupation could not?

What’s more, we are not wanted in Iraq (or Afghanistan or Liberia for that matter) and the attacks on Americans and British must be viewed in the context of almost continuous demonstrations against our presence in Iraq. Despite Secretary Rumsfeld’s views to the contrary, we are now facing a situation analogous to the program of pacification undertaken in Viet Nam after the Tet offensive. That program called for American troops to occupy villages, to befriend, organize and defend villagers, to feed and defend the inhabitants, and to “convince” the people that the U.S. had their best interests at heart. The problem was that the Viet Cong lived in those villages, too. The message conveyed by the American “visitors” never stuck because the people knew that the Americans would leave, and that when they did the villagers would be left to deal with the Viet Cong. In the case of Iraq, it is clear that there is an organized resistance to the U.S. and British presence. The efficiency of the resistance suggests clear communication, articulation of goals and objectives and methods and means of carrying out objectives. Coupled with the fact that the resistance is on its home court, this obvious condition makes “bring ‘em on” a stupid and irresponsible thing to say.

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