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Rethink the News

Perspective matters.

Reducing news to hard lines and side-taking leaves a lot of the story untold. Progress comes from challenging what we hear and considering different views.

2018
April
12
Thursday
Yvonne Zipp
Deputy Daily Editor

If you talk about sharing an apple in our house, prepare for chuckles. That’s because of Ramona Quimby, who once took one perfect bite out of every apple in the house and then tried to implicate her older sister, Beezus, by sharing her snack. (Side note: Has a literary character ever proffered apples with less-than-nefarious motives?)

Reading together is a cherished occupation – I have a picture of my husband, holding our newborn and reading him his first book. (There are so many books, and we didn’t want to waste any time.) Ramona and Ralph S. Mouse were beloved traveling companions and still hold places of honor on our son’s shelves.

Beverly Cleary, who turns 102 today, wanted boys to grow up reading. After one complained to the then-children’s librarian that he couldn’t find any books he related to, she invented Henry Huggins in 1950, then Beezus and Ramona – filling Klickitat Street with her characters.

In honor of her contributions to children’s literature, today is Drop Everything and Read Day (or, as it is known in the Zipp household, “Thursday.”)

Cleary was on to something profound. If you want children to succeed, multiple studies show, read to them. We’ve known for years that it helps their mental development, improves concentration, and builds empathy. But a recent study by the journal Pediatrics shows that reading together also helps parents. Story time strengthens parents’ bonds with their children and improves their relationships. It even can reduce parental stress and depression.

Cleary wanted to entertain children, not teach them to pass standardized tests. In fact, she was a late reader – not learning until third grade. After all, she had a mom to do it for her. “I liked to have her read to me,” she told The Washington Post in 2016. “So I thought, what’s the point in my having to do it myself?” 

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Here are our five stories of the day, showing the potential downside when both parties take a "me-first" attitude, the need for empathy, and a contemplative look at slime molds.

1. Real US-China dispute: over ownership of evolving trade era

When the world's two biggest economies take a me-first approach to trade policy, it can threaten a hard-won system of global rules.

Yvonne

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Both sides in the US-China trade dispute say they don’t want a trade war. President Xi Jinping of China even pledged this week to further open up China’s economy, which calmed stock markets even though it didn’t contain much in the way of new responses to US concerns. Behind all the rhetoric, however, is a heavyweight battle between the world’s top two economies, each seeking to bend the trading system to its own advantage, whether it’s President Trump’s “America first” goals or China’s efforts at rapid modernization. US hardball tactics have recently wrung concessions from another Asian nation, South Korea. But China, which last week pledged a “fierce counterstrike” if America imposes more tariffs on Chinese goods, is bigger and better able to absorb a blow to its exports. A trade war would harm both nations, but also would marginalize the global system of trade based on international principles for resolving disputes. “I think there is still room for both sides to negotiate a good deal,” says Lin Guijun, an expert in Beijing. But, he adds, “It’s time for the US to respond.”

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1. Real US-China dispute: over ownership of evolving trade era

If US-China trade talks were a TV show – “Game of Tariffs” or “The Good Trade Rep: Season 1” – the ratings would be off the charts. The Trump administration has single-handedly turned a tortuous legalistic process into must-see daytime drama.

The characters are compelling: Is the president a maniacal protectionist, ready to plunge the world into the abyss of a trade war – or a shrewd negotiator who uses unpredictability to keep his opponents off-balance? Is the Chinese premier a master manipulator who bends the world’s trade rules to his own advantage – or a misunderstood protector of the rule of law?

And the plot twists almost daily: Are we on the brink of a breakthrough – or a beggar-thy-neighbor trade war reminiscent of the Great Depression?

While these perceptions play into the almost daily swings of world markets as optimism about the trade talks ebbs and flows, the underlying reality isn't necessarily complicated. Both sides, trade experts say, are essentially pragmatic, and they actually share a common fear: that adhering to the current rules-based system – that boring legalistic process – puts their nation at a disadvantage. Thus, the real US-China contest is over reshaping the trading system for their own perceived betterment. 

“Both see trade as beneficial, but neither side wants to accept certain outcomes of competitive markets,” Mary Lovely, an economics professor at Syracuse University, writes in an email. “China wants to use industrial policies and state support to shape its economy. The Trump administration wants to use American market power to force our trading partners to adopt policies that help us shape our economy [such as tighter rules of origin for auto assembly in NAFTA partners Canada and Mexico]. Neither accepts the damage this behavior does to the rules-based system they both rely upon.”

And that poses a challenge to the whole world trading system. Indeed, should the conflict escalate, it will be the primacy of this rule-based system – even more than the US or Chinese economies – that will be the first casualty, trade experts say. And that is dangerous, they add, because without agreed-upon methods to solve trade disputes, unresolved economic tensions can easily spill over into other areas. 

Wide potential ripples

“It's hard to see how a trade confrontation between China and the United States can be contained within just the trade relationship,” says James Bacchus, a former US trade negotiator and congressman, founding member of the World Trade Organization (WTO) panel that hears trade disputes, and now professor of global affairs at the University of Central Florida. “Inevitably, there will be an overflow of frictions that affect other countries. And those other countries will in turn want to retaliate as well.”

President Trump’s frustration with the current WTO is understandable. With the stall in the latest round of multilateral talks, trade rules have not been updated to deal with the various tactics that China and others have used to try to catch up with developed economies. And even when the rules do apply, the process is tortuous.

Having campaigned on the premise that it was time Americans got a fair deal in international trade deals, Mr. Trump arrived on the scene promising to shake things up. He has followed through, acting like the proverbial “bad cop” after a series of WTO-abiding “good cop” administrations.

For example, the Obama administration had already initiated a WTO case against Chinese aluminum subsidies, but instead of following up, the Trump administration instead chose to slap aluminum and steel tariffs on a number of countries unilaterally. This violates WTO rules, Mr. Bacchus points out, because countries are first supposed to submit trade disputes to the WTO.

A US 'win' with South Korea

This pugnacious approach has borne fruit. Last month, facing the threat of 25 percent tariffs on steel, South Korea agreed to cut its steel exports to the US by 30 percent and double the number of US cars allowed into South Korea to 50,000 a year. (American cars aren’t particularly popular, however, and only 10,000 were imported last year.)

The deal is proof, to some, that the “bad cop” approach can work.

“We have all learned by now that we have placed in the Oval Office a master negotiator,” Stephen Moore, a distinguished visiting fellow at the Heritage Foundation and an economic adviser to Trump during the campaign, wrote in an op-ed earlier this month. “Yes, this is a dangerous game Trump is playing for sure…. But Trump recognizes what many of the globalists don't: the enormous leverage America has on the world economic stage.”

This approach is also reminiscent of Trump’s US trade representative, Robert Lighthizer, who in the 1980s helped negotiate “voluntary restraint agreements” with Japan, which limited exports of cars and other Japanese products to the US.

Trump rethinks Trans-Pacific deal

At the same time, the administration is not ditching the rules entirely. It has announced it’s pursuing a WTO case against China for what the US alleges is a discriminatory licensing procedure. And on Thursday, Trump asked his advisers to look into rejoining the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a multilateral trade pact he roundly criticized during his campaign. The shift suggests that the administration is looking for additional leverage from Asian allies in its efforts to wring concessions from Beijing.

Although the administration’s moves have apparently baffled officials in Beijing, China has so far projected a confident stance in the escalating trade dispute, warning that it will fight back “at any cost.” Last week, a spokesman for the Ministry of Commerce said that the country was preparing to respond with a “fierce counterstrike” if the United States follows through on Trump’s threat to impose even more tariffs on Chinese goods.

Meanwhile, Chinese state media and government officials have seized on the dispute as an opportunity to portray China as a champion of free trade at a time when the US is turning inwards.

The People’s Daily, the official newspaper of the Communist Party, said in a commentary published on Monday that the US suffers from an “anxiety disorder” that stems from its decline on the global stage. The commentary reasserts what many Chinese officials appear to believe: that the Trump administration’s protectionist behavior is motivated by a fear of the rise of China.

China's opening for dialogue

Yet there appears to still be room for negotiations that would prevent an all-out trade war. On Tuesday, in a previously scheduled speech, President Xi Jinping pledged to open the country’s economy further by lowering import tariffs on cars and allowing foreign investors access to its finance industries. Mr. Xi also promised to improve intellectual property protection in China and narrow the country’s trade surplus, two things the Trump administration has long called for. About two-thirds of China’s $423 billion surplus last year was with the US.

“China does not seek a trade surplus,” Xi said in his speech. “We have a genuine desire to increase imports and achieve a greater balance of international payments.”

While US trade experts saw little new in the speech, Chinese analysts said it signaled a willingness to keep talks going.

“President Xi Jinping’s speech presents a good opportunity for negotiations,” says Lin Guijun, vice president of the University of International Business and Economics in Beijing. “He was sending a message to the Trump administration. It’s time for the US to respond.”

Even Trump’s sharpest critics say there is still a good chance the two sides can find grounds for an agreement. Despite all the bluster, both sides would prefer to avoid a trade war. A deal could give US companies a way to operate in China without being forced to hand over their technology to Chinese partners.

And from the Chinese side, the threat of the trade dispute gives the government more leverage to pursue desired economic reforms that have been stalled by state-owned enterprises, says Shen Dingli, a professor of international relations at Fudan University in Shanghai.

Risks of a protracted stand-off

But the danger of miscalculation has clearly risen, as both sides look at the same facts and draw different conclusions.

Drawing on their successes in Japan in the 1980s and now South Korea, Trump and Lighthizer may be overestimating the leverage they have in China. After all, Japan and South Korea are allies, who both depend at least in part on the US military for defense. China has no such dependency. And while it’s true that China sells far more to the US than it buys from the US, a trade war wouldn’t slow its large and fast-growing economy by much, economists say.

So China can afford to call Trump’s bluff. If it does, what then?

“Then I think we’re headed toward a scenario where we put our $50 billion worth of tariffs into effect, China does the same, and maybe we put investment restrictions into effect, too,” says Wendy Cutler, vice president of the Asia Society Policy Institute and a former trade negotiator. “Maybe that becomes the new normal. That’s a Plan B and I think it’s a dangerous plan, an unfortunate plan. And frankly, I think the Chinese will have the wherewithal to live through that world better than we will.”

China is capable of overplaying its hand, too. It also looks to Japan and South Korea for lessons in economic development. Both nations used government-directed initiatives, including trade restrictions, to bolster strategic industries. But it’s easy to forget that the US was often willing to overlook those moves, because both nations were key allies during the cold war. 

Now that the cold war is over, the US is far less patient on economic issues.

And Beijing is wrong if it assumes that only the US is angry over its trade practices. Despite Xi’s attempts to position his country as a defender of the current trade system, Europe and Japan are also deeply troubled by China’s practices, says Professor Lovely of Syracuse, even if they would prefer a negotiated settlement.

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2. Amid civilian toll in Gaza, security focus dampens compassion in Israel

Our next story investigates what happens when fear and suspicion overwhelm empathy.

Yvonne
Mohammed Salem/Reuters
Palestinian demonstrators shout during clashes April 6 with Israeli troops at the Israel-Gaza border east of Gaza City. In the first two Friday protests, 31 Palestinians have been killed and more than a thousand wounded by live Israeli fire.

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The idea was that thousands of unarmed Palestinians should march toward the border with Israel to call attention to their plight. The marches would highlight not just their demand to return to long-lost homes, but also the crisis in Gaza, where more than 2 million people live with shortages of everything from medical supplies to housing. A growing toll of dead and wounded civilians has sparked an outcry over Israeli soldiers’ use of lethal force against unarmed protesters. But few in Israel question the policy, pointing to reports that the hard-line Hamas movement that rules Gaza has at least co-opted the protests and sent instigators to precipitate violence. Some suggest security fears have suppressed Israelis’ compassion for Palestinian casualties, and also see a trap. “Hamas has been very clever … by creating a win-win situation for themselves,” says one analyst. “If Israel shoots people, that’s good for them, and if Israel lets them cut through the fence, that’s also good for them.” Political activist Gershon Baskin says shooting unarmed people is not justified. Israelis have empathy for Gazans whose lives they know are difficult, he says, but they say, “this is about Hamas.”

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Amid civilian toll in Gaza, security focus dampens compassion in Israel

Dramatizing their demand for a “Right to Return” to long lost homes, tens of thousands of Gaza Strip residents have mobilized for what were billed as peaceful marches along the Palestinian territory’s heavily fortified border fence with Israel.

Yet the protests, which have also included acts of violence by some demonstrators, have been met the past two weeks with live fire from Israeli forces deployed along the border.

As both sides gird for a third round Friday, the marches’ toll has risen to 31 people killed and more than 1,000 wounded, sparking outrage at the highest number of Palestinian casualties in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict since the 2014 war between Israel and the hard-line Hamas movement that rules Gaza.

The wisdom of using live ammunition against civilians, both on moral and tactical grounds, has been the focus of debate internationally, but to a lesser extent among Israelis, whose concern for their own security and aversion to a Palestinian “Return” overshadows what compassion they may feel.

With the exception of members of Israel’s human rights community, left-wing Meretz party, and the Arab-Israeli political parties who have angrily protested the use of lethal force, most Israelis seem to have fallen in line behind the government stance that the country has responded appropriately in the face of a threat to breach its border.

In Tel Aviv, at an airy cafe, a group of retired men, some old enough that they fought for Israel’s independence in 1948, hold court each morning on the issues of the day at the same round table.

Recently the mass demonstrations demanding the Palestinians’ return to the homes their families lost when Israel was founded have been the subject of their discussion, and the men’s reactions echo those heard around the country:

“The people in Gaza know it’s dangerous to go close to the fence, they’ve been warned by the Israeli army that doing so endangers their own life. They know there will be live ammunition,” says Gadi Cohen, 82.

Most of the Palestinian demonstrators have been non-violent. But among them have been what the Israeli authorities refer to as violent, armed, Hamas-aligned “instigators,” and Israeli soldiers have opened fire.

Yet among those killed has also been a Palestinian journalist, and other journalists have been among the injured. That has added to criticism from human rights groups in Israel, Gaza, and abroad, that those being shot at appeared to be civilians not taking part in the violence, and that the open-fire policy is unlawful.

Israeli military officials reply that the violence has included the throwing of Molotov cocktails and explosive devices, and that they are abiding by rules of engagement. Other protesters, they say, have used thick black smoke from burning tires as cover to try to cut the fence and cross into Israel.

‘Hamas has been very clever’

The protests were originally the work of Gazans at the grassroots level who planned for a series of weekly marches leading up to May 15th, the 70th anniversary of Israel’s founding, an event Palestinians refer to as the Nakba, Arabic for “Disaster.”

The marches would highlight not just the demand for the “Right of Return,” but the humanitarian crisis in Gaza, where more than two million Palestinians, 70 percent of whom are from refugee families, live with shortages of everything from medical supplies and electricity to food and housing. But the protests have been at least partly co-opted and, some report, wholly organized now by Hamas, which has been engaged in bitter infighting with the Fatah faction that governs in the West Bank.

Jonathan Rynhold, a political science professor at Bar-Ilan University, says that by entering the picture Hamas, which is known for championing armed struggle, has created a near impossible situation for Israel.

“Hamas has been very clever,” he says. “They have deliberately mixed in to put Israel in a very difficult position by creating a win-win situation for themselves. If Israel shoots people, that’s good for them, and if Israel lets them cut through the fence, that’s also good for them.”

The role of Israel’s longtime foe in the clashes has seemed to harden public opinion. According to Israel, 12 of the 31 killed were Hamas activists.

Professor Rynhold sums up Israeli public opinion as: “Hamas deliberately did this; the ratio of terrorists to civilians [harmed] is better by miles than American actions in Iraq or anywhere else; so the [Israeli military] is clearly doing something right.”

Rynhold says Israelis acknowledge there are lots of wounded people, but would say, “They knew what they were getting into.”

Is there another way?

But he notes that some ask whether Israel could have avoided being goaded into this supposed Hamas “trap” again. Could the army employ a different strategy to disperse the protesters who did not pose an immediate threat to its soldiers – especially considering the army has imposed a buffer zone that extends hundreds of feet inside Gaza?

“Most Israelis are frustrated. They don’t want these clashes,” says Ben-Dror Yemini, a columnist for the Israeli daily Yediot Ahronot. “If Hamas said it would live peacefully alongside Israel, they would welcome them.”

Mr. Yemini’s newly published book, “Industry of Lies: Media, Academia, and the Israeli-Arab Conflict,” argues that Hamas’s actions need to be seen in the context of the global phenomenon of Jihadist ideologies.

“This is not an issue of left vs. right,” he says. “Are there arguments in the United States about American responses to ISIS or the Taliban? Likewise there is little argument here about how we in Israel respond to Hamas.”

Amira Halperin, a researcher at Hebrew University’s Harry S. Truman Research Institute for the Advancement of Peace, argues that the government messaging on Hamas’s role helps Israelis tune out compassion.

“Most people in the Israeli street want the government to take action against Hamas and do as much as it can to hurt Hamas.... Most are consuming Israeli media where they don’t learn about Palestinian life and their struggles,” says Halperin, author of “The Use of New Media by the Palestinian Diaspora in the United Kingdom.”

Criticism from within

There are critical voices as well within Israel, but among the Zionist political parties, only the left-wing Meretz party has spoken out and called for an investigation into the army’s response to the Gaza demonstrations. Tamar Zandberg, the new leader of Meretz, posted in social media, “We must not allow a ‘trigger-happy’ policy to lead to the loss of innocent lives.”

“You should not be allowed to fire live ammunition toward unarmed people. Period,” Mossi Raz, a Meretz lawmaker says. “If someone comes to the fence armed, then they can be shot at, but this is not what happened in most of the incidents.

“In Israel there are a large group of people who believe in the importance of human rights,” Raz says. “And the most important right is the right to live.”

Gershon Baskin, a columnist and political activist who favors a “two-states-for-two-peoples” solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, says Israelis have a sense of empathy and compassion for Gazans whose lives they know are difficult, but they say, “this is about Hamas.”

“My response is that it’s not justified. You don’t shoot unarmed people,” Mr. Baskin argues. “There is non-lethal ammunition at a lower caliber that can be used … you can use lethal force when there is a physical threat to the soldiers.”

He warns there is a danger of the number of dead surging and the situation then getting out of control, with a conflict moving beyond Gaza to the West Bank.

Baskin, founder and co-chair of the think tank, Israel-Palestine: Creative Regional Initiatives, says several Palestinians have reached out to him in recent days, asking what slogans and gestures might be used that could appeal to the Israeli public.

“Perhaps more people asking that question will emerge,” he says. “That would be refreshing.”

 

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3. What makes students 'proficient'? Test results stir debate.

You've probably heard a lot this week about testing students. This next story is about testing the system.

Yvonne
Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Students studied reading comprehension at Muñoz Elementary School in Donna, Texas, in January. The main NAEP test, given every two years to fourth- and eighth-graders in reading and math, currently has three scoring levels: basic, proficient, and advanced. Some critics want to see those changed to low, intermediate, high, and advanced to more accurately reflect student capabilities.

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National test results were released this week, giving the United States another opportunity to evaluate how its students – and schools – are doing in math and reading. The trend line from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP, remained flat overall, but the results renewed confusion about the terminology used to determine student success. Society tends to use the test’s measure of "proficiency" to mean "on grade level." But critics – and NAEP administrators – say it is actually measuring something akin to high achievement. That distinction can cause confusion, but some observers say the fix lies in increasing the number of terms used, switching, for example, to low, intermediate, high, and advanced. “We have gotten an earful from our stakeholders about the confusion of the word 'proficient' as we use it,” says Peggy Carr, associate commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics, the federal agency that oversees NAEP. “We get it, and we are trying to communicate this discrepancy, but it's just not an easy task.”

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What makes students 'proficient'? Test results stir debate.

The word “proficient” is often used to mean suitable, apt, or at best, competent. An amateur cook, student driver, or French 101 student, for example, might describe his or her skills as proficient.

But the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) – the only national assessment in the United States since 1990, used as a barometer of student achievement – defines proficiency as “demonstrated competency over challenging subject matter,” which experts interpret as high achievement.

This mismatch in definitions causes a lot of confusion when it comes to analyzing scores from “The Nation’s Report Card” every two years. On Tuesday, for example, when NAEP’s 2017 scores were released, it was again evident that analysts and journalists use proficiency as the bar for success, citing that only 30 to 40 percent of 4th and 8th graders in the US are “proficient” in math and reading. 

Critics say NAEP’s far-reaching definition of “proficient” can directly impact students’ education through inflated standards in widely used curricula like Common Core, low morale among teachers and administrators, and unnecessary confusion and disappointment for average Americans. Students in the US are actually improving, say observers, especially over the long term, and NAEP’s nomenclature can shroud legitimate progress that has been made in education.

“We have gotten an earful from our stakeholders about the confusion of the word ‘proficient’ as we use it,” says Peggy Carr, associate commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), the federal agency that oversees NAEP. “We get it, and we are trying to communicate this discrepancy, but it’s just not an easy task.”

Understanding what 'proficient' means

NAEP sorts students’ scores into three achievement levels: basic, proficient, and advanced. And to understand how many US students are performing on grade level, says Dr. Carr, it is far more accurate to look at “basic” scores, rather than “proficient.”

If headlines took this adjustment into account, and used the “basic” category, this week’s news might have focused on results showing that among US 4th graders, 68 percent perform on grade level in reading, and 80 percent perform on grade level in math. For 8th graders, these rates are 76 and 70 percent, respectively. Overall, scores remained largely the same as they were in 2015, but there is some concern among experts about equity: the highest-performing students made gains in the past two years, while the lowest performing students did worse.

When proficiency rates are interpreted correctly, however, they tell a different story about long-term trends: national proficiency rates in 4th and 8th grade math have doubled and tripled respectively since the early 1990s, and reading proficiency for both grades has increased by half.

NAEP’s aspirational standards might have something to do with these gains, says Sarah Theule Lubienski, a professor of math education at Indiana University, where she focuses on testing equity. NAEP was partially responsible for a big reform movement in math education around 1990, says Dr. Lubienski, in which algebra, probability, and geometry were added to elementary classrooms.

“NAEP was really out ahead… pushing the envelope and saying, ‘This is what we think students should know,’ ” says Lubienski. “It’s all in the name of holding high standards for students, making sure there is plenty of room to grow, and that has been achieved.”

Proficiency levels began flatlining in 2009-2010 once curriculum changes from 1990 became mainstream, says Luienski, but today’s plateau shouldn’t overshadow “incredible gains” over the last two decades.

After all, says Tom Loveless, a former senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and an education policy analyst, “proficient” as NAEP defines it is an incredibly high standard to uphold. For an 8th grade student to reach NAEP’s math proficiency today he or she must master the same concepts as a 12th grader in 1990.

These statistics are often twisted to fit a “reformist” narrative, says Dr. Loveless, by those who feel that the US education system needs a total overhaul.

“There is a huge group of people who want to tell everyone, ‘Look how bad our schools are,’ and ‘Look how ignorant our kids are,’ and they seize on [NAEP proficiency] because it fits their argument,” says Loveless.  

Alternatives to current names

Carr says misconceptions about proficiency are not intentional on the part of NCES. NAEP’s terminology was decided back in 1988 – before the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) act, signed into law in 2002, used the term “proficient” to mean grade level performance, which then only muddled NAEP’s definition.

“The confusion really got started long after we released our naming convention,” says Carr.

Changing NAEP’s naming convention now would be a matter of policy for the National Assessment Governing Board, a group of 26 politicians, educators, and experts appointed by the Department of Education, who oversee achievement levels. And for a test whose reputation lies in reliable, direct year-over-year comparisons, changing names is extra tricky.

A January report by the National Superintendents Roundtable (NSR) and the Horace Mann League, titled “How High the Bar?,” recommends NAEP adopt benchmarks used by international education assessments, such as Progress in International Reading Literacy Survey (PIRLS) and Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS).

Their achievement levels of low, intermediate, high, and advanced would give more a neutral take on student scores, says James Harvey, executive director of NSR, without using the loaded words “basic” and “proficient.” And because NAEP informally uses the level “below basic,” Dr. Harvey says swapping in PIRLS and TIMSS’s four terms would be easy and allow NAEP to keep the scoring measures that give the test consistency. 

“We tried to make it clear that we don’t mind high standards, we just want them labeled correctly,” says Harvey. “If they would stop using ‘proficient’ and replace with ‘high,’ we would be quite happy.”

SOURCE: National Assessment of Educational Progress 2017 Mathematics Report Card and 2017 Reading Report Card
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Story Hinckley, Karen Norris, and Jacob Turcotte/Staff
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4. Near Moscow, landfill saga shows twin rise of consumerism, protest

Russia's conversion from communism to capitalism came with a cost: production of garbage at a massive rate. Authorities attempted to deal with the problem by burying it, literally, sickening towns. But the outcry is highlighting a positive nascent Russian phenomenon: civil society.

Yvonne

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The Yadrovo landfill, outside the Russian town of Volokolamsk, dominates the surrounding region. Originally designed to be a repository for local rubbish, it now receives floods of garbage from expanding Moscow, about 100 miles away. For some time, locals have been complaining of evil smells coming off the site. But one day last month, about 60 children, mostly from a village school, sought medical attention for a variety of symptoms, including nausea, dizziness, and nosebleeds. Few residents doubt that fumes from Yadrovo were to blame. To try and remedy the situation, the parents are doing something that may be a first in Russia: file a class-action suit on environmental grounds, seeking the dump's closure and damages for the harm it has done to locals. The effort – just part of the community's loud public campaign against the landfill – highlights Russia's growing space for civil society, and the willingness for Russians to demand more of their government. “People are starting to understand that they can struggle against such things and win,” says Sergei Davidis, a Moscow-based human rights lawyer. “This is civil society in action.”

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Near Moscow, landfill saga shows twin rise of consumerism, protest

It is early afternoon on Monday, and a dozen grim-faced locals are waiting outside the city court. Most of them are parents.

Their children go to school within a couple miles of an enormous mountain of garbage that hovers on the town's edge, ever-growing out of refuse created by Russia's young consumer culture and the rapid expansion of Moscow, some 100 miles away. The children have been getting sick. Few in Volokolamsk have any doubt that the two are connected.

To try to remedy the situation, the parents, with their lawyer, are doing something that may be a first in Russia: file a class action suit on environmental grounds, seeking the dump's closure and damages for the harm it has done to locals.

Despite the tragic circumstances, the effort – just part of the community's loud public campaign against the landfill – highlights Russia's growing space for civil society, and the willingness for Russians to demand more of their government.

“People are getting sick, children are poisoned, and we want that to stop,” says Inna Yeliseyeva, a lawyer representing a growing list of local residents. “People have tried protesting. The authorities didn't listen. There is still a long line of trucks hauling trash into that dump, and the threat to our health remains. So, we are suing the owners of the dump, which include the city authorities, to make them pay attention.”

Nausea and nosebleeds

The offending landfill is called Yadrovo, and it dominates the surrounding region, about two miles from the city limits of Volokolamsk, an ancient provincial town of about 25,000. Yadrovo was originally designed to be a repository for local rubbish.

But over the past few years Yadrovo has been receiving vast floods of untreated and unsorted garbage from the burgeoning metropolis of Moscow, about 100 miles away. The unending river of trash is simply laid down in layers, covered with sand, and mechanically pressed. For some time, locals have been complaining of evil smells coming off the site.

But one day last month, about 60 children, mostly from a village school located near Yadrovo, sought medical attention for a variety of symptoms, including nausea, dizziness, and nosebleeds. Eight were hospitalized. Few residents seem to doubt that the overpowering fumes wafting from Yadrovo were to blame, though doctors and some local authorities cite different explanations.

“In February my 11-year-old daughter and 12-year-old son fell ill, with nose, throat, and stomach complaints,” says Olga Yegarmina, whose kids go to a school within sight of Yadrovo. “The doctors said it looked like bronchitis, maybe gastritis, and treated them accordingly. But in March my daughter was taken to the hospital again. This time I have a medical document that says ‘intoxication with unknown etiology.’ In other words, she was poisoned. I want answers. That's why I decided to take part in this lawsuit.”

On March 21, a huge crowd gathered in Volokolamsk's central square to confront local officials and the governor of Moscow region, Andrei Vorobyov, who hastened to the scene. Things turned ugly. Officials were heckled, Mr. Vorobyov withdrew after being pelted with snowballs, and the head of the district administration, Yevgeny Gavrilov, tendered his resignation a couple days later. Protests continue, with another slated for Saturday. Efforts to discourage them, by arresting three local activists on what appear to be drummed-up pretexts, do not appear to be working.

Several other towns around Moscow face similar garbage overflow crises, including Klin, Troitsk, and Sergiev Posad, but so far only Volokolamsk has attracted much media notice, mainly because it is the one that erupted in an ongoing explosion of public rage. One possible difference in this town is that its elected mayor, Pyotr Lazarev, a Communist, has stoutly resisted pressure from above to stop granting permits for the demonstrations.

“I can't forbid people to gather in the streets, and I don't want to,” Mr. Lazarev says. “I live here too. I know everybody and his dog, and they all have my personal phone number. Let them protest until they get answers from the authorities who are responsible for this mess.”

The cost of consumer capitalism

This mess, which might be described as emblematic of late Putin-era Russia, has been brewing for some time and has multiple causes. Like many current problems, it stems as much from the country's economic successes as it does from systemic drawbacks like corruption, official indifference, unbridled business greed, and bad planning.

Consumer capitalism has taken off in Russia only in the past decade or so. With it has come a blizzard of refuse that Americans have long been familiar with, including plastic packaging for everything, aluminum cans, a multitude of disposable products; and a throw-away culture that didn't exist in the past. The rapid physical growth of Moscow also generates huge quantities of construction debris that has to go somewhere.

The resulting river of garbage has flowed outward, to regional repositories that only used to handle local refuse. The enormous rubbish tip in Yadrovo has expanded far beyond its original limits in the past few years and, like several others around the region, is no longer a problem that can be ignored.

“In Soviet times most waste was recycled. Bottles, metal scrap, newspapers, were all sorted. There was no such thing as plastic packaging, everything was wrapped in paper. Organic wastes were buried. There was a special organization, Gossnab, that supervised this,” says Alexander Shilov, an expert with the official Russian Presidential Academy of National Economy and Public Administration (RANEPA) in Moscow. “The amounts were much more manageable in those days, of course.”

“But now all that experience is forgotten,” he adds. “Today everything is just buried, with minimal sorting, because it's cheap and avoids any responsibility. People pay for garbage removal, someone comes and takes it to a garbage dump, and it's profitable for all concerned. But the problem is reaching critical proportions. Solutions need to be found and tough decisions made.”

Russia's politics-as-usual, where Mr. Putin plays the role of universal Mr. Fixit, also contributed to the crisis in Volokolamsk. In one of his regular telethons last year, Putin promised a caller from the Moscow region town of Balashikha that a nearby garbage dump making residents' lives miserable would be shut down. Soon afterwards, it was.

That may have won points for Putin in Balashikha, but everyone acknowledges it only increased the pressure on other regional garbage dumps.

“Over the past three years or so, this crisis has grown to unmanageable proportions,” says Denis Kunaev, a lawyer and local activists. “Authorities didn't address the problems in any timely way. And much of what they did just made things worse, like closing down some dumps without opening new ones. So, one day here in Volokolamsk we realized that this stinking mountain of garbage was towering over our town and we had to do something about it.”

Another example of the delayed consequences of rapid, unregulated development coming home to roost with a vengeance was last month's tragic shopping mall fire in Kemerovo, Siberia, which killed 64 people, two-thirds of them children. Thousands of local people took to the streets, stunned by news that fire safety systems didn't work, doors of a cinema filled with children had been locked, and staff were not trained to deal with emergencies.

Unlike Soviet times – when any bad news was simply suppressed – Russian media covered the protests, allegations of official corruption, and malfeasance, along with the wave of public grief. Politicians were forced to respond. Putin himself came to the disaster scene and promised to punish the guilty. The local governor resigned. Promises were made to improve things.

‘This is civil society in action’

The readiness of the public to protest, and take to the courts for redress, is something new in Russia. It may not be the politicized anti-Kremlin upsurge many Western observers are looking for, but perhaps it's something more significant: the Russian version of NIMBY, the not-in-my-back-yard grassroots protest movements that constantly force Western politicians and corporations to find compromises in order to satisfy local communities.

Other recent Russian examples include protests against unregulated urban land uses, undemocratic housing policies, and prohibitive road taxes. Despite ongoing official pressures, non-political Russian civil society is beginning to flourish.

“If in the past, people were willing to tolerate these situations [like Yadrovo], now they are not,” says Sergei Davidis, a Moscow-based human rights lawyer. “People are starting to understand that they can struggle against such things and win. They get together, share experiences, organize themselves, and they feel hope. This is civil society in action.”

Russian officials insist they have a plan for dealing with the garbage crisis, which was meant to take effect in 2019. In light of the angry protests in Volokolamsk, it's being moved forward.

“There will be modern trash-sorting methods, facilities for turning organic wastes into compost, and recycling of many things that are now just buried,” says Mikhail Sylka, vice minister for ecology of the Moscow regional government. “All necessary regulations are in place. We've had pilot projects in several districts. People see how things are done in Europe, and they want this here. It's the task of authorities to implement these solutions.”

That does not, apparently, include closing the Yadrovo dump as local activists are demanding. In fact, an adjacent territory has already been selected to expand it.

“The lack of understanding we had in the past, and inadequate dialogue with the public, has now passed into the form of constructive cooperation,” Mr. Sylka insists. “We'll be consulting with people. Also actively working to remove the gases from Yadrovo, and resolve problems. Maybe the public will understand us better if there are no unpleasant smells irritating them.”

Local activists are not convinced.

“The thing that makes people most angry is not the situation, but the disinformation we keep getting from authorities,” says Mr. Kunaev. “They need to put an effective system in place to deal with trash, and it has to be comprehensive. They say they're going to do that, but for years they've done nothing as the problem grew. One has the impression that the main task of the politicians is just to talk about solutions, not make them happen.”

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5. What slime molds can teach us about thinking

I think, therefore I am ... slime mold? We're always interested in shifts in thought at the Monitor, but this next story examines one that may change scientists' understanding of thought itself.

Yvonne

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Examine a damp, decaying tree in nearly any temperate forest in the world, and you may notice that clinging to it are some lumps of ordinary yellow schmutz. But this is no ordinary yellow schmutz. It’s Physarum polycephalum, a plasmodial slime mold capable of some very non-schmutzlike behavior, such as storing memories, solving mazes, and anticipating future events. Scientists consider this behavior extraordinary because Physarum is not an animal; on the tree of life, slime molds are more closely related to humans than plants, but they lack the phylogenetic intimacy that we share with fungi. But studies of plants have shown that they, too, are able to learn and remember. The growing recognition that what we would normally describe as “intelligence” extends beyond the animal kingdom is prompting scientists to rethink what thinking is, a shift in thought that could be key to detecting intelligence beyond Earth.

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What slime molds can teach us about thinking

Visit this online directory of the nearly 200 faculty members at Hampshire College and you’ll find that, listed between a professor of communications and a visiting professor of video and film, is a petri dish of yellow schmutz.

The schmutz is a plasmodial slime mold, Physarum polycephalum, a glob of living cells that exhibits decidedly non-schmutzlike behavior, such as solving mazes and anticipating periodic events – so much so that in 2017 Hampshire, a private liberal arts school in Amherst, Mass., awarded it a position of “visiting non-human scholar.”

The abilities of non-animals to remember events, recognize patterns, and solve problems are prompting scientists and philosophers to rethink what thinking is. In the 20th century, science demolished the notion that humans are the only animals to exhibit complex thinking; in the 21st, biologists are beginning to see cognition in other biological kingdoms – not just slime molds, but also plants. This shift in thought could not only help scientists better understand cognition's workings and its origins, but it could also help in the search for intelligence beyond Earth.

“It seems like they can do some pretty smart things, things that we put in the intelligence column,” says Hampshire philosophy professor Laura Sizer of her gelatinous colleagues. “It's exciting because they certainly don't do it with any of the stuff that we use to do it. They don't have brains. They don't have nervous systems.”

Slime molds form their own branch on the tree of life alongside plants, animals, and fungi. They live on every continent, but, being neither useful for construction nor advisably edible, their presence has been largely overlooked by humans. A slime mold can live as a single-celled organism, or it can join with others into a plasmodium, a single giant cell a few inches in diameter, that contains many individual nuclei whose genomes are as unrelated to one another as are any two humans. 

“At least on this planet,” says Jonathon Keats, a conceptual artist and experimental philosopher who worked with Hampshire to create the non-human visiting faculty position and an interdisciplinary Plasmodium Symposium in March, “it seems that the stage that leads toward life is one of separation, and the one that leads toward intelligence is one of aggregation.”

E pluribus plasmodium

“The slime mold is really fascinating because it is simultaneously one and many,” says Megan Dobro, a Hampshire biology professor who participated in the symposium. “There are all these individuals who are committed to acting towards the best interest of the community.”

A plasmodium of Physarum nuclei moves by oscillating its cytoplasm back and forth every 50 seconds, shifting its center of gravity to move at a little more than a third of an inch an hour. When food is nearby, the plasmodium forms a network of slender tubules that branch out in search of it, eventually finding the optimal path.

Courtesy of Andrew Hart/Hampshire College
Hampshire College awarded a plasmodial slime mold a post as 'visiting non-human scholar' in 2017. Physarum Polycephalum resides in an office at the Cole Science Center on the college's campus in Amherst, Mass.

Mathematicians and computer scientists have taken interest in slime molds’ ability to solve optimization problems in geometry and information delivery. In a 2010 study, Japanese scientists arranged oat flakes in the pattern of cities near Tokyo around a Physarum plasmodium, and within 26 hours the slime mold had formed a network that was strikingly similar to the Tokyo rail system. Similar experiments have been conducted with the motorways of Britain, Canada, Spain, and ancient Rome.

Scientists have shown that slime molds also exhibit rudimentary learning behavior. Shock a plasmodium at regular intervals, and it will alter its behavior in anticipation of the next one. Expose a plasmodium to a repellent but harmless stimuli, and it will eventually ignore it. Some scientists suggest that slime mold behavior may even shed light on the origins of intelligence.  

Under some conditions, a plasmodium will produce a stalk that disperses cells to become new slime molds, but to do so, some individual cells within the stalk must sacrifice themselves for the good of future generations.

“This is behavior that humans don't seem to do,” Professor Dobro says. “And I mean not just the self-sacrifice for future generations, but even the thinking about future generations.”

Thinking fast and slow

Slime mold cognition has been overlooked for so many years in part because, on a human time scale, they appear inert, their behavior apparent only to those with time-lapse cameras or exceptional attention spans.

But there does exist at least one example of non-animal cognition that acts in what humans call “real” time: the Mimosa pudica plant, also known as the shameplant or touch-me-not.

Scientists have long known that Mimosa, whose leaves curl up in response to a touch, can become habituated to repeated stimuli. In 2014, Monica Gagliano, an evolutionary ecologist at the University of Western Australia in Perth, found that Mimosa plants can retain their habituation for at least a month. 

In 2016, Professor Gagliano and her colleagues demonstrated that pea plants display associative learning. By pairing air flow from a fan with light, the researchers “trained” the plants to grow toward the source of the air even when there was no light present.

“Of course that plant is not that stupid,” says Gagliano. “It wouldn't be surviving all the way to this time if it couldn't learn from its environment and associate different cues so that it can prepare itself for what's coming in the future.”

Some trees can live for thousands of years. Other plants, such as the Venus flytrap and the bunchberry dogwood, move at speeds far faster than any vertebrate.

“We seem to always take the human as the main golden standard which everything else gets compared to,” she says. “In general [plants] do things at such a different time scale that for us it's inconceivable. How conceivable it is for a human to think in hundreds of years? We don't.”

A space oddity?

These biases may pose a challenge to understanding – or even detecting – intelligence beyond Earth.

“Every case of life that we know on Earth is related,” says Susan Schneider, a professor of philosophy and cognitive science at the University of Connecticut in Storrs. “But for all we know, we could be an outlier case of life relative to the bulk of other forms of life out in the universe."

Similarly, she says, human intelligence could be an outlier. “Up until recently, the only form of intelligence which we knew was the brain and the nervous system.”

Plants and slime molds, while they don’t exhibit what Professor Schneider and other cognitive scientists call “domain-general” intelligence, may lead science toward a conception of thinking that does not does not place humans, Earthlings, or even biology at its center.

“The Copernican revolution never happened outside of science,” says Mr. Keats, who is currently at the University of North Carolina in Asheville assembling a “Copernican” orchestra to use sound, light, and gravitational waves to produce “music that is potentially accessible to any being anywhere in the universe.”

Keats, who has also produced gourmet cuisine and films for plants and designed a welcome mat for aliens, says he doesn’t know if aliens capable of contacting humans exist. But if there are, he says “we may have a deeper connection, even if they're non carbon-based, than we have with animals that are close at hand.”

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The Monitor's View

Did Ryan leave them rolling in the aisles?

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Paul Ryan announced Wednesday that he will retire as speaker of the House in January, and his legacy is already being judged on his legislative wins and losses, or his support, silence, and criticism concerning the behavior of President Trump. Many on both the right and left are either mocking or belittling his legacy (or his near-term prospects). He did style himself as a policy wonk, a master of issues like the budget process and the tax code. Yet little is being said about whether he lived up to his own promises, made in 2015 when he took the post, of bringing civility to Congress. A reading of his speeches shows he often triggered a bipartisan chuckle over a partisan issue. But at the heart of Ryan’s promises was a call to pray. In an early speech to the House he asked this of all members: “[I]f you ever pray, pray for each other – Republicans for Democrats, Democrats for Republicans. And I don’t mean pray for a conversion. Pray for a deeper understanding, because … whatever you believe, we are all in the same boat.” Years from now, his legacy may be less about what the House did during his time than what he did for the House. Did he improve on its civility? That would be a civil way to judge his legacy.

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Did Ryan leave them rolling in the aisles?

But did he help members of Congress laugh together?

That may be an odd question to ask about Paul Ryan after his surprise announcement April 11 that he will retire as speaker of the House in January. As a senior leader of his party and second in line to succeed the president, so much of Mr. Ryan’s legacy is now being judged on his legislative wins and losses, or his support, silence, and criticism concerning the behavior of President Trump. Many on both the right and left are either mocking or belittling his legacy (or his prospects over the next nine months).

He did, after all, style himself as a policy wonk, a master of issues like the budget process and the tax code. Yet little is being said about whether he lived up to his own promises, made in 2015 when he took the post, of bringing civility to Congress.

Collective laughter is only one way to help dry up the venom in today’s politics and restore a culture of trust. A reading of his speeches shows he did often trigger a bipartisan chuckle over a partisan issue or party division. As philosopher William James advised Americans in 1899, “One hearty laugh together will bring enemies into a closer communion of heart than hours spent on both sides in inward wrestling with the mental demon of uncharitable feeling.”

But at the heart of Ryan’s promises was a call to pray. In a speech to the House as the new speaker, he asked this of all members:

“A lot is on our shoulders. So if you ever pray, pray for each other – Republicans for Democrats, Democrats for Republicans. And I don’t mean pray for a conversion. Pray for a deeper understanding, because – when you’re up here, you see it so clearly – wherever you come from, whatever you believe, we are all in the same boat.”

Another promise was to let all members contribute to a debate in hopes either side might change its tune.

“A neglected minority will gum up the works. A respected minority will work in good faith. Instead of trying to stop the majority, they might try to become the majority,” he said.

He also offered to lessen the fear of “honest differences” if they are honestly stated. In other words, let’s be clear about the core of a debate rather than rely on power plays and personal attacks. “I believe a greater clarity between us can lead to a greater charity among us,” he said.

Ryan is the first speaker to be leaving on his own terms in more than 30 years, a sign of his integrity. Other recent House speakers were either tainted or lost support. He says he simply needs to spend more time with his three children. Years from now, his legacy may be less about what the House did during his time than what he did for the House. Did he improve on its civility, perhaps even leave a tradition of laughter?

That would be a civil way to judge his legacy.

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A Christian Science Perspective

About this feature

Each weekday, the Monitor includes one clearly labeled religious article offering spiritual insight on contemporary issues, including the news. The publication – in its various forms – is produced for anyone who cares about the progress of the human endeavor around the world and seeks news reported with compassion, intelligence, and an essentially constructive lens. For many, that caring has religious roots. For many, it does not. The Monitor has always embraced both audiences. The Monitor is owned by a church – The First Church of Christ, Scientist, in Boston – whose founder was concerned with both the state of the world and the quality of available news.

Rising above adversity

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Today’s contributor shares how a friend overcame a life-threatening disease through an increasing spiritual conviction of God’s healing power.

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Rising above adversity

Today's Christian Science Perspective audio edition
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When we’re facing adversity – whether in the form of injustice, resentment, lack, betrayal, or illness – we may feel that we’re completely on our own. I certainly have felt that way!

Yet at times like that I’ve found encouragement in the Bible’s book of Psalms, where it says, “Blessed is the man whose strength is in You” (84:5, New King James Version). The “You” in that verse is God, whose love and goodness are without limit, always here and available to us. When we let the consciousness of this divine Love well up in us, we feel more cared for and confident. We come to see that the strength needed to succeed over adversity is actually always present because its source is God. This doesn’t mean the path is always easy, but step by step we can experience the power of these ideas to heal and uplift.

A friend of mine found this when she was diagnosed with a disease that threatened her life. For a while, she felt alone each day – alone with the symptoms. But she found herself praying with all her heart. Each day she asked God for an inspiring thought, and she would get one. She might discover such an idea as she studied the Bible or as she read the writings of Mary Baker Eddy, who founded The Christian Science Monitor. Or sometimes inspiration would just come to her as she quietly prayed.

These were spiritual ideas she was glimpsing, reminding her of everyone’s inherent strength and wholeness as the spiritual creation of God, divine Spirit. All day long, no matter what she was doing, she would keep whatever idea that had come to mind close to her heart, pondering it, loving it, and loving God, too.

Mary Baker Eddy herself faced and overcame remarkable adversity through her understanding of Spirit’s infinite goodness. Her book “Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures” encourages readers: “Rise in the strength of Spirit to resist all that is unlike good. God has made man capable of this, and nothing can vitiate the ability and power divinely bestowed on man” (p. 393).

Mrs. Eddy’s example for this was Christ Jesus, who understood better than anyone what it means to rise in the strength of God, enabling him to express that strength in healing others. Not just for a few, but for every single one of us, this strength is divinely bestowed. When we really hunger to know God as Spirit and ourselves as His completely spiritual creation, we find that divine strength naturally empowers and lifts us.

After a few weeks of praying with ideas like this, my friend could feel herself rising up, confident in God’s power. She came to know that she wasn’t alone, wasn’t simply a mortal facing the adversity of disease. Each day, as she turned to divine Spirit, her perspective was changed a little bit for the better. She realized more clearly that health and strength have their source in God and therefore can never run out. Ultimately, she was permanently healed and went into a career where she could be of great service to others.

Planes rise more quickly if they take off not with the wind, but against it. Similarly, by bravely turning and facing adverse winds, we can rise, and rise confidently, in the strength of Spirit. When we pray to see that we are at one with God as His spiritual expression, we see more clearly that adversity actually cannot thwart us – that divine energy and strength are ours to express in victory over adversity. This lifts us to love God and our fellow men and women more fully. We experience healing. And we find a more natural joy and a deeper peace.

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Viewfinder

Marching to remember

Kacper Pempel/Reuters
Holocaust survivor Edward Mosberg holds a Torah as he arrives to take part in the annual 'March of the Living' to commemorate the Holocaust at the former Nazi death camp Auschwitz, in Oswiecim, Poland, April 12, Holocaust Remembrance Day. Historians are concerned about a persisting trend toward revisionism: A new survey by The Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, or Claims Conference, indicated that a third of Americans believe 'substantially less' than 6 million Jews were killed in the Holocaust.
( The illustrations in today's Monitor Daily are by Jacob Turcotte. )
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In Our Next Issue

( April 13th, 2018 )

Yvonne Zipp
Deputy Daily Editor

Thanks for spending time with us. Come back tomorrow. We'll have the first installment in a yearlong project. Following up on his cover story, "A billionaire wages war on poverty in Oklahoma," reporter Simon Montlake decided to investigate the effect of child-focused philanthropy on the lives of several families.

Monitor Daily Podcast

April 12, 2018
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