Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Report: First two years of college show small gains

Nearly half of the nation's undergraduates show almost no gains in learning in their first two years of college, in large part because colleges don't make academics a priority, a new report shows.

Instructors tend to be more focused on their own faculty research than teaching younger students, who in turn are more tuned in to their social lives, according to the report, based on a book titled Academically Adrift:
Limited Learning on College Campuses. Findings are based on transcripts and surveys of more than 3,000 full-time traditional-age students on 29 campuses nationwide, along with their results on the Collegiate Learning Assessment, a standardized test that gauges students' critical thinking, analytic reasoning and writing skills.

After two years in college, 45% of students showed no significant gains in learning; after four years, 36% showed little change.

Students also spent 50% less time studying compared with students a few decades ago, the research shows.

"These are really kind of shocking, disturbing numbers," says New York University professor Richard Arum, lead author of the book, published by the University of Chicago Press.

He noted that students in the study, on average, earned a 3.2 grade-point average. "Students are able to navigate through the system quite well with little effort," Arum said.

The Department of Education and Congress in recent years have looked for ways to hold colleges and universities accountable for student learning, but researchers say that federal intervention would be counterproductive.

"We can hope that the (new research) encourages rather than discourages college faculty to learn more about what works in terms of fostering higher levels of student learning," said George Kuh of the Center for Postsecondary Research at Indiana University.

Charles Blaich, director of the Higher Education Data Sharing Consortium, used by 130 private colleges to improve education quality, said he thinks colleges are aware of the shortcomings but are trying to improve.

"I wouldn't want to create the impression that schools are blind to this," he said.

Other details in the research:

•35% of students report spending five or fewer hours per week studying alone. Yet, despite an "ever-growing emphasis" on study groups and collaborative projects, students who study in groups tend to have lower gains in learning.

•50% said they never took a class in a typical semester where they wrote more than 20 pages; 32% never took a course in a typical semester where they read more than 40 pages per week.

Mary Beth Marklein, USA TODAY

Half of people under 65 have preexisting conditions

As many as 129 million Americans under age 65 have medical problems that are red flags for health insurers, according to an analysis that marks the government's first attempt to quantify the number of people at risk of being rejected by insurance companies or paying more for coverage.

The secretary of health and human services released the study on Tuesday, hours before the House began considering a Republican bill that would repeal the new law to overhaul the health-care system.

A vote is expected Wednesday. With their new majority, House Republicans are widely expected to have enough votes to pass the repeal measure. The prospects are more remote in the Senate, where Democrats remain in control, and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has said he would not bring up the bill for a vote.

The report is part of the Obama administration's salesmanship to convince the public of the advantages of the law, which contains insurance protections for people with preexisting medical conditions.

The House's new GOP leaders plan to begin debate Tuesday on a bill that would repeal the health-care law in its entirety. The vote is set to conclude on Wednesday.

Republicans immediately disparaged the analysis as "public relations." An insurance industry spokesman acknowledged that sick people can have trouble buying insurance on their own but said the analysis overstates the problem.

The study found that one-fifth to one-half of non-elderly people in the United States have ailments that trigger rejection or higher prices in the individual insurance market. They range from cancer to chronic illnesses such as heart disease, asthma and high blood pressure.

The smaller estimate, by Health and Human Services Department researchers, is based on the number of Americans whose medical problems would make them eligible for states' high-risk pools - special coverage for people denied insurance because of their medical history. The researchers arrived at the larger figure by adding in other ailments that major insurers consider a basis to charge customers higher prices or to exclude coverage for some of the care they need.

Using those two definitions, the study took 2008 findings, the most recent available, from a large federal survey of medical expenditures to figure out how many people had reported that they were bothered by those health problems, had visited a doctor for them or had been at least temporarily disabled because of them.

The study is laced with reminders about provisions of the 2010 Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act - as the health-care law is formally known - that are designed to eliminate insurance problems for such people.

The most significant is scheduled to take effect in 2014, when the law will, for the first time, forbid insurers to charge sick patients more or reject sick applicants. Last year, two smaller changes took effect: a rule that insurers cannot reject sick children, and temporary subsidies until 2014 for a federal high-risk pool and new state ones. In their early months, the pools have not proved popular.

"Americans living with pre-existing conditions are being freed from discrimination in order to get the health coverage they need," HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said in a statement. Repealing the law, she argued, would leave such people unprotected.

Told about the new analysis, Robert Zirkelbach, a spokesman for America's Health Insurance Plans, the industry's main lobbying group, said: "Look, we've long supported reforming the individual insurance market so that everybody can have access to health-care coverage, regardless of their preexisting medical conditions. But this report exaggerates the number of people who are impacted."

Most of the Americans included in the figures, Zirkelbach said, currently have insurance. They would be at risk, he said, only if they needed to change coverage and buy it on their own. People who get insurance through their jobs are guaranteed coverage, he noted.

A Republican House aide, speaking about the report on condition of anonymity because it had not yet been made public, said, "When a new analysis is released on the eve of a vote in Congress, it's hard to view it as anything but politics and public relations."

"Defenders of this law are setting up a false choice by implying we must choose between [the law] in its entirety or no benefits at all for individuals with preexisting conditions," the aide said. "Republicans have consistently advocated for coverage options for individuals with preexisting conditions."

Leading Republicans, including the party's 2008 presidential nominee, Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), have been proponents of high-risk insurance pools. It is less clear what the GOP position is on the part of the law that will end insurers' ability to deny coverage or charge more if people are sick. A GOP alternative last year to the Democratic legislation was silent on the issue.

Another Democratic analysis, released last fall by Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.), then the chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, said that between 2007 and 2009, the nation's four largest private health insurers denied coverage to about 650,000 people based on their medical history.

The new report says that, of those Americans who are uninsured, 17 percent to 46 percent have medical conditions, depending on the definition used.

Such health problems, the study found, are especially common among adults ages 55 to 64 - a group long recognized as a problem spot in the health-care system, because people of that age tend to have higher medical expenses but do not yet qualify for Medicare, the large federal insurance program for the elderly.

Amy Goldstein
Washington Post

Democrats didn't "do a good enough job" in selling health care overhaul

House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) acknowledged Tuesday that his party has not succeeded in selling the public on the benefits of the national health care overhaul, noting that polls indicate that opinion remains divided on the law.

"Apparently, none of us did a good enough job," Hoyer, the number-two House Democrat, said at his weekly pen-and-pad briefing when asked whether the White House had succeeded in selling one of its signature legislative agenda items.

Hoyer's remarks came as the House prepares to debate a Republican-led effort to repeal the health care law. A repeal bill is expected to pass the House on Wednesday but faces stiff odds in the Senate, where Democrats remain in the majority.

Hoyer said that he expects that lawmakers are going to be talking about health care "between now and the election" in 2012. He noted that while there's widespread agreement among the public on the need for access to affordable health care, consensus is lacking on how to achieve that goal.

In the wake of the shooting in Tucson that killed six and wounded 14, including Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.), Hoyer said that there's been no concerted effort among House Democratic leaders to rein in lawmakers' rhetoric, although he expects that members "will heed their own advice and the advice of others" and address issues such as health care repeal on the merits.

"Too much of the public debate, particularly in the media, is about incitement rather than informing," he said. "It's about making people angry; disrespecting the other point of view on the other side. This is unrelated to Arizona, but certainly Arizona has brought this into focus."

Hoyer also dismissed the idea that there might be any ill will between House Democrats and President Obama following a lame-duck session during which liberal House lawmakers were in open revolt over the tax-cut deal negotiated between the president and congressional Republicans. Obama is slated to address House Democrats at their annual retreat this weekend.

"I think the answer is no," Hoyer said when asked about the potential for any lingering bitterness, adding that tackling the issues facing the country "will require conscientious, principled cooperation between all of us who have been elected by the American people to address those problems."

Obama Orders Review of All Government Regulations

President Obama today is signing an executive order to start a government-wide review of federal regulations, in yet another overture to a business community that has been tepid in its support of the administration.

The president announced the regulatory overhaul in a Wall Street Journal op-ed in which he argues his administration has always strived to strike the right balance between enforcing commonsense regulations and allowing the free market to run efficiently. He acknowledged that some regulations are "placing unreasonable burdens on business" but also noted that a lack of regulation in the financial markets "nearly led to the collapse of the financial markets and a full-scale Depression."

The regulatory review will seek to eliminate rules that stifle job creation, are redundant, or are just "plain dumb," the president wrote. He gave the example of the recently-eliminated EPA rule that designated saccharin -- an artificial sweetener commonly added to coffee, considered safe by the FDA -- as a hazardous waste.

The review will also seek to add regulations that cover "obvious gaps," the president said, such as procedures to stop preventable infections in hospitals.

"We are seeking more affordable, less intrusive means to achieve the same ends--giving careful consideration to benefits and costs," Mr. Obama wrote. "This means writing rules with more input from experts, businesses and ordinary citizens. It means using disclosure as a tool to inform consumers of their choices, rather than restricting those choices. And it means making sure the government does more of its work online, just like companies are doing."

The executive order also directs federal agencies to do more to account for and reduce the burdens regulations may place on small businesses.

"Despite a lot of heated rhetoric, our efforts over the past two years to modernize our regulations have led to smarter--and in some cases tougher--rules to protect our health, safety and environment," Mr. Obama wrote. "Yet according to current estimates of their economic impact, the benefits of these regulations exceed their costs by billions of dollars. This is the lesson of our history: Our economy is not a zero-sum game."

Mr. Obama's executive order, as well as the corresponding Wall Street Journal op-ed, give another indicator that the president is seeking to repair his relationship with the business community, which has been at times hostile to his administration, especially in the wake of health care reform.

The president will be speaking at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce next month, and he recently named William Daley, a bank executive with a solid reputation in the business community, to be his chief of staff.

Regardless of whether the president had signed this executive order, government regulations were expected to come under new scrutiny this year in the House Oversight and Government Reform committee, under the leadership of Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.).
Today Issa praised the president's call for a government-wide regulatory review.

"I applaud President Obama for joining what must be an effort that stretches beyond ideological entrenchments to identify the regulatory impediments that have prevented real and sustained job growth in the private sector," Issa said in a statement. "The anti-business policies of the past have hurt job creators, small and large.
It's in the interest of every American that we create a modern, regulatory environment that fosters economic growth and makes U.S. companies globally competitive. I look forward to providing the President with insights gained from our current effort to hear directly from job creators about what they perceive as barriers standing in the way of their ability to create jobs."

Chamber of Commerce President Thomas Donohue released his own statement calling the president's executive order a "positive first step."

It's Time To Bid Goodbye To Sarah Palin's Presidential Ambitions

I think we can probably bid goodbye to Sarah Palin's presidential possibilities.

Ten angry minutes into last night's live interview with Sean Hannity it was abundantly clear that Palin had not devoted any part the last eight days to even the tiniest bit of introspection about where she fits in the national landscape.

Nor does she have any interest in speaking to constituents outside her small fervent base -- arguably the most basic requirement of anyone running for national office.

Naturally, everything that has happened to her in the last eight days was the fault of the "lamestream" media (yes, she used the term).

It was, to say the least, a disappointing showing. Because even if you don't agree with her political platforms there is always the hope that at some point she will display a depth worthy of all the attention she has received in the last two years.

The Palin that showed up last night, however, was typically both angry and victimized. But also, for the first time maybe, scared. This was no smirking former governor contemptuously brushing aside criticism, this appeared to be a woman shook to the core (and understandably so) after being widely associated with a mass murder.

Alas, for Palin that core-shaking has apparently not lead her to any greater conclusions about herself or the nation.

Despite her few protestations that we should keep in mind this wasn't about Palin, it was of course about Palin: She will not be made to sit down. She will not be silenced.

The problem of course is that what one wants to see from their leaders in moments such as these is a person who will stand up to the occasion, and who will speak up to the entire nation. Not someone who cowers behind Facebook videos and holds fast to their base whilst attacking everyone else.

Perhaps more troublesome -- at least where her political ambitions are concerned -- is that she seems to have entirely missed the subtle (admittedly probably temporary) national shift that took place last week where the country turned, just a little bit, away from the exhausting hateful rhetoric.

Roger Ailes didn't miss it -- he at least gave it lip service. Glenn Beck didn't miss it -- he's sent out some ridiculous non-violent letter to Congress and has called on his viewers to reject partisanship. Obama certainly didn't miss it. Even Congress is making the superficial gesture of sitting together at the State of the Union.

But Sarah Palin has. In the last eight days she has apparently failed to take the temperature of the nation outside her base. And subsequently she has missed her opportunity to prove that she is bigger than the moment. Or seriousness enough to deal with serious events.

Look no further than the third segment of the interview when the subject of 'blood libel' came up.

Presumably this is a question she should have anticipated. But not since Palin's infamous interview with Katie Couric can I remember seeing her so out of her depth. And flustered!

I don't know how the heck they would or wouldn't know if I knew the term blood libel -- no one's ever asked me. Blood libel obviously means being falsely accused of having blood on your hands. In this case, that's exactly what was going on. And yes the historical knowledge that people have of the term blood libel it goes back to the Jewish who were falsely accused back in medieval European times of using the blood of children...

Then she left off and tried to segue to policies like START. But Hannity, to his credit and to Palin's discomfort did not let it go. And that is worth noting because I got the sense even Sean Hannity was not willing to make this too easy on Palin. Hannity: "But what did you think about the criticism of the term from some members of the Jewish community?"

I think the critics again were using anything they could gather out of that statement and you could [some stumbling here] spin up anything out of anyone's statement that were released and use them against the person that is using the statement....and people being falsely accused of having blood on their hands that is what blood libel means [not really]. And just two days before, an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal had that term in its title. And that term has been used for eons.

Indeed. Now try to imagine her answering that question to a slightly less sympathetic interviewer. Whether or not Palin was justified in using the term -- and a number of people including Alan Dershowitz has said she was -- a nod to the fact many people, including prominent Jewish groups, found it entirely offensive would not have been out of line. But no. To Palin admitting wrong is the equivalent of admitting defeat.

Glynnis MacNicol Business Insider