2018
August
22
Wednesday

Is the #MeToo movement in trouble?

Probably not. It may have lost some moral high ground, given the revelations about Asia Argento. She was one of the first of 87 women to accuse Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein of sexual assault. She now faces similar allegations with a then 17-year-old boy, according to The New York Times.

Another leading figure in the movement, Rose McGowan, also faces criticism for using a double standard with Ms. Argento, a friend. She tweeted, “None of us know the truth of the situation and I’m sure more will be revealed. Be gentle.”

The tone and advice contradict what Ms. McGowan tweeted last November, which said in part, “1) Believe survivors 2) Apologize for putting your careers and wallets before what was right. 3) Grab a spine and denounce.”

But others are pointing out that #MeToo isn’t simply about stopping men preying on women. Its underlying message – about the need to expose sexual violence and the abuse of power by anyone or any institution – still stands. The movement has gone global and is only starting to change societal, corporate, and governmental norms about reporting such exploitation. Justice demands a reckoning when there’s an abuse of power by either sex.

Now to our stories, which include a look at the remarkable bull run of the US stock market, communities that have dramatically changed their practices to deal with wildfires, and new views of history in Canada. 

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1. One day after: The pain, and comfort, in Trump associates’ convictions

The conviction and plea deal of close Trump associates Tuesday sent heads spinning. But a presidential scholar points to the results as evidence that "the system works, and is built on the rule of law."

Amelia
Leah Millis/Reuters
President Trump acknowledges supporters during a rally at the Civic Center in Charleston, W.Va., Aug. 21. Hours earlier, the president's former campaign chairman was convicted of tax and bank fraud charges, and his former personal lawyer pleaded guilty to crimes including tax evasion and campaign finance violations.

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There’s no doubt that Aug. 21, 2018, will go down in history as an extraordinary moment in the Trump presidency – and for the American presidency, an office steeped in dignity and tradition but hardly immune to the foibles of its occupants, as many past presidents have shown. President Trump stands tarnished by the conviction Tuesday of his former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, and the plea deal announced within the same hour by Mr. Trump’s former personal lawyer, Michael Cohen; both men, guilty of financial misdeeds, face prison. Trump himself was implicated in the campaign finance violation Mr. Cohen pleaded guilty to. Still, it’s not hard to see Trump’s supporters sticking by him. Trump has given them the mental road map: The investigation that ensnared Mr. Manafort is part of the larger “witch hunt” aimed at the president, and Manafort’s fraudulent activity took place long before he joined the Trump campaign, the president says. For Americans disturbed by these legal developments, there’s more than one way to react. “It’s depressing that this president has surrounded himself with such rogues,” says Gil Troy, a presidential scholar at McGill University in Montreal. “But we’re also seeing that the system works.”

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One day after: The pain, and comfort, in Trump associates’ convictions

Even now, anybody who bets against President Trump is probably foolish.

Recall then-candidate Trump’s words in January 2016: “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody, and I wouldn’t lose any voters.”

That assessment of his supporters’ loyalty proved prophetic. Mr. Trump won the presidency, even after the infamous election-eve tape of him bragging crudely about grabbing women. Today, Trump stands tarnished by the conviction Tuesday of his former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, and the plea deal announced within the same hour by Trump’s former personal lawyer, Michael Cohen; both men, guilty of financial misdeeds, face prison. In the latter case, both Trump and his company were implicated in the campaign finance violation Mr. Cohen pleaded guilty to.  

For Americans disturbed by what these legal developments say about Trump, there’s more than one way to react.

“It’s depressing that this president has surrounded himself with such rogues,” says Gil Troy, a presidential scholar at McGill University in Montreal. “But we’re also seeing that the system works, and is built on the rule of law and checks and balances. The courts have tremendous power, as does Congress.”

As a political question, it’s not hard to see how Trump supporters stick by him. Trump himself has given them the mental road map: The investigation that ensnared Mr. Manafort is part of the larger “witch hunt” aimed at the president, and besides, Manafort’s fraudulent activity took place long before he joined the Trump campaign, the president says.

And, as Trump tweets with increasing frequency, the investigation led by special counsel Robert Mueller has so far failed to show “collusion” between Trump associates and Russia during the 2016 campaign. Though the investigation is ongoing, and the extent of the information that Mr. Mueller has amassed and may still get is unknown.

Still, there’s no doubt that Aug. 21, 2018, will go down in history as an extraordinary moment in the Trump presidency – and for the American presidency, an office steeped in dignity and tradition but hardly immune to the foibles of its occupants, as many past presidents have shown.

Mary Altaffer/AP
Michael Cohen leaves court, Aug. 21, 2018, in New York. Mr. Cohen pleaded guilty to charges including campaign finance violations stemming from hush money payments to porn actress Stormy Daniels and ex-Playboy model Karen McDougal.

For Trump, who brought to office a unique background in real estate and television – and no prior experience in politics, government, or the military – the presidency has been a constant process of discovery.

“When you’re running a [privately held] real estate empire, you do have tremendous latitude and the prerogatives of a king,” says Mr. Troy. “But the minute you take the oath of office, and you’re sitting in the Oval Office,... you’re part of a system that’s very resilient and has all kinds of ways of keeping you in line.”

And yet Trump has shown, regularly, that the norms and customs of the office are expendable, and that the president in fact has wide latitude under the US Constitution to wield executive power.

One day after the Manafort-Cohen bombshells, Republicans on Capitol Hill were already working to slow down the frenzied speculation about what might come next. Will Trump pardon either of his convicted former aides? Will calls for impeachment, popular only on the Democratic fringe in Congress, ramp up ahead of the Nov. 6 midterm elections?

Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, the No. 2 Republican in the Senate, echoed Trump in saying that “nothing we heard yesterday has anything to do with Russia or the reason why director Mueller was appointed special counsel.”

Senator Cornyn also defended Trump when asked about Cohen’s implication of the president in a crime over payments Cohen made to women, at Trump’s direction, to keep them quiet over alleged past sexual relationships with Trump. Cohen, he said, is someone whose “credibility is in tatters, because he’s basically been all over the map as to what his story is.”

Cohen’s lawyer, Lanny Davis, said Wednesday on NBC that Cohen would not accept a pardon from Trump, and didn’t expect one “from somebody who has acted so corruptly as president.” The statement was bracing, as Cohen had once said he would take a bullet for Trump.

As for Trump’s legal exposure in the Cohen case or anything that may come out of the Mueller probe, it is longstanding Justice Department policy that a sitting president cannot be indicted. Mueller is expected to write a report on the findings of his investigation, and then it’s up to the House to decide whether to launch impeachment proceedings. A majority of the House is required to impeach a president.

And so, at heart, the Mueller investigation points to a political outcome. That’s why Trump’s job approval rating is so important. As long as GOP voters stick by him, so will Republicans in Congress. For now, most Democrats in Congress are holding back on impeachment. House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi said Wednesday that impeaching Trump is “not a priority.”

In the Senate, where a two-thirds vote is required to oust an impeached president, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D) of Massachusetts said Wednesday on CNN that the priority now should be to avoid a constitutional crisis and shield Mueller.

“Protect Robert Mueller, let him finish his investigation, let him make a full and fair report to all of the American people,” Senator Warren said. “And when we’ve got that, then we can make a decision on what the appropriate next step is.”

Staff writer Francine Kiefer contributed to this report.

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2. A bull market plods into record-length territory. And now?

Sentiment moves markets. That’s why those trying to get a bead on stock market stability amid a long-running boom seek to get a handle on investor expectations, which in turn drive investing behavior. 

Amelia

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On the surface, investing can seem a little weird. When the stock market is going gangbusters, savvy investors often sell their shares. When all is doom and gloom, they’re the ones who buy. Such contrarian thinking can be quite profitable. Had an investor bought US stocks on March 9, 2009, in the depths of the Great Recession, she would have seen her investment more than quadruple during what is now the longest bull market in modern history. But such a rational approach is also rare. Instead, most investors – even the professionals – tend to be too optimistic when times are good and too pessimistic when times are bad. These shifts in investor sentiment are not only harmful for individual portfolios, they also sway markets. A growing number of behavioral economists are trying to quantify and analyze these shifts in thought as a way to get a better handle on market risk. The authors of a new economics book, called “A Crisis of Beliefs,” put it this way: “The fragility of the financial system here comes entirely from beliefs.”

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A bull market plods into record-length territory. And now?

It’s been called the most hated bull market in history. Naysayers have criticized it for being too plodding, too weak.

But on Wednesday, Aug. 22, the run-up earned some newfound respect.

It is now the longest bull market in US stocks since modern recordkeeping began. And it is the second-biggest winning streak as well. (See chart.)

As a result, investor expectations – the majority thought patterns that underlie all markets – once again are turning positive. And a bull market that once looked fragile has gathered a new head of steam, adding to the wealth of shareowners, reinforcing the expansive confidence of businesses, bankers, and consumers, and lending a prosperous sheen to the tenure of President Trump just as it did for the Obama administration before him.

Here’s the problem: High expectations of good times are precisely the kind of danger signal that those good times may be about to end. 

The correlations between investor sentiments and sea changes in the financial markets are messy – and hardly foolproof. By one measure, investor expectations were even more sky high in 2015, and yet the bull market has continued for another three years so far. And they lean heavily on how one defines bull and bear markets. (Not everyone believes this is the longest uptrend in modern history.) Nevertheless, increasingly skeptical of the long-held notion that investors act rationally, many economists are hard at work trying to figure out the connections between real-world investor expectations of future market performance and the sudden tipping points between bull and bear markets.

“There are many many people working on expectations now,” says Robin Greenwood, a behavioral economist at Harvard Business School. “That wasn’t true five years ago.”

It may sound perverse to say that confidence in good times leads to bad times and that expectations of bad times mean better times ahead. And after Wednesday, when the Standard & Poor’s 500 stock index closed at 2,861.82, near a record high, it may seem downright contrarian.

SOURCE: Standard & Poor's, Robert Shiller
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Jacob Turcotte and Laurent Belsie/Staff

Since sinking to 676.53 on March 9, 2009, in the depths of the Great Recession, the S&P has gone 3,453 days without a bear market (usually defined as a 20 percent plunge in stock prices). That eclipses by one day the 1990s boom. That runup remains the biggest bull market in history, with gains of 417 percent on the S&P, compared with the 323 percent gain so far of the current bull market.

But such cyclical thinking and contrarian logic permeate the investment world. “[B]e fearful when others are greedy, and be greedy when others are fearful,” investing superstar Warren Buffett famously said.

And various measures of investor sentiment reflect that contrarian thinking.

“High optimism is generally followed by underperforming markets,” says Charles Rotblut, editor of the AAII Journal, published by the American Association of Individual Investors, which tracks investor sentiment weekly. “Unusually low optimism tends to be followed by better than average markets.”

Where things get messy is if investors try to time when to get in and out of the market.

It’s not that the factors that eventually trigger a downturn are unknown. In the 1990s, for example, the sky-high valuations of the internet (or dotcom) stocks were widely acknowledged long before the bubble imploded. In 2008, the dangers of the runup in subprime mortgage debt was talked about.

The problem is that during good times investors underestimate the severity of those risks, argue Bocconi University (Italy) finance professor Nicola Gennaioli and Harvard Business School economist Andrei Shleifer in a new book, “A Crisis of Beliefs.”

Even professional investors take too exaggerated a view, the authors point out. In August 2005, for example, analysts at Lehman Brothers charted out five scenarios for home prices, including a “meltdown” in which they would decline by 5 percent for each of the following three years and then begin to rise again. The analysts assigned only a 5 percent probability to that scenario.

Instead, housing prices peaked less than a year later and dropped more than 30 percent. In 2008, Lehman collapsed, triggering an even more severe meltdown in the stock market.

“The fragility of the financial system here comes entirely from beliefs,” the authors write. Good economic news “leads investors to both overestimate average future conditions and to neglect the unrepresentative downside risk.” When good news stops coming, investors revise their expectations downward and, if the news is sufficiently bad, the sentiment tends to turn too pessimistic.

Currently, despite the S&P 500 being just a few points shy of its all-time high, investors don’t appear too overconfident. The share of bullish investors stands at 36.2 percent, according to the latest AAII reading, which is below the long-term average of 38.5 percent.

And the main threats facing the markets are well-known and not unlike those facing the 1990s boom: rising inflation, high stock valuations, and concerns about weakness in emerging markets, says Sara Johnson, executive director of global economics at IHS Markit, an economic research firm based in Andover, Mass.

And now that tax cuts have been priced into the market, “the opportunity for further gains has likely disappeared,” she says. “So the bottom line for corporate earnings is that margins could be squeezed and we’re likely to see either a leveling off of stock prices for the next several years or some correction.”

Unknown, of course, is whether inflation or some other unexpected development – a shift in oil prices, North Korean nuclear development, tariffs, a war in the Middle East – will trigger a downturn. And when investors’ perceptions shift again is anybody’s guess.

SOURCE: Standard & Poor's, Robert Shiller
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Jacob Turcotte and Laurent Belsie/Staff
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3. In Washington State, fighting fire with fire prevention

California communities seeking to limit wildfire destruction could look north to Washington, where one county is applying lessons from blazes in 2015 to reshape its land use policies.

Amelia

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Wildfires that ravaged the central Washington towns of Wenatchee and Chelan in 2015 scorched more than 100 homes and 93,000 acres. Rather than engage in the magical thinking that persuades communities across the West to rebuild after wildfires without regard for future calamities, residents instead advocated for stronger prevention measures. Officials enlisted the help of Community Planning Assistance for Wildfires, a national program funded by the US Forest Service and private foundations that works with cities to devise land use policies that lower wildfire risks. “When there’s a disaster or close call that brings the awareness of fire danger right to the forefront of people’s minds, you have to capture the momentum if you want change to happen,” says Mike Burnett, a district fire chief with Chelan County, which includes both towns. The prevention efforts in the two cities subsequently led county officials to collaborate with CPAW advisers on similar policies. Paul Hessburg, a Forest Service ecologist and wildfire expert who lives in Wenatchee, suggests that the progress in Chelan County offers hope as climate change magnifies the number and intensity of wildfires. “We’re in a new era,” he says. “We need to get real about the danger.”

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In Washington State, fighting fire with fire prevention

The wildfire that menaced the city of Wenatchee in central Washington three years ago delivered its destruction in less than a day. The Sleepy Hollow fire burned 3,000 acres and gutted more than 30 houses and businesses, forcing hundreds of residents to flee the town that bears the moniker “Apple Capital of the World.”

Later that summer, some 40 miles north near the resort town of Chelan, three fires merged into one and wrought devastation over a six-week period. The Chelan Complex fire scorched 90,000 acres and 85 homes, causing more than 1,600 people to evacuate an area best known for boasting the state’s largest natural lake.

In the aftermath, as both communities realized that only fate and firefighters averted a wider cataclysm, a new approach to land use planning sprouted from the charred landscape. The response could serve as an example to cities and counties in California, where fires this year have torched 1.1 million acres and thousands of structures, following the $12 billion in losses inflicted by fires in 2017.

The Sleepy Hollow and Chelan Complex blazes demolished the kind of magical thinking that persuades communities ravaged by wildfires across the West to rebuild and even expand with apparent disregard for future calamities.

Residents in Wenatchee and Chelan instead advocated for stronger fire prevention measures, and within months, officials in both towns enlisted the help of Community Planning Assistance for Wildfire (CPAW). The national program, funded by the US Forest Service and private foundations, has provided support to more than two dozen cities to devise land use policies that lower wildfire risks, including San Diego and Mammoth Lakes, Calif.

Much of the work involves taming residential, commercial, and industrial growth in the wildland-urban interface (WUI), areas where development meets nature and where the potential for fire runs highest. Between 1990 and 2010, the number of new homes built within or bordering wildlands nationwide soared by 12.6 million to more than 43 million. During the same span, the WUI swelled by 47 million acres to 190 million acres, or about 10 percent of the continental United States.

The efforts of Wenatchee and Chelan to corral growth yielded an added benefit. Officials in Chelan County, which includes both cities, consulted with CPAW to discuss adopting a land use code to regulate wildfire building and safety standards across the entire county. The ripple effect shows the need for urgency after flames are doused, explains Mike Burnett, a district fire chief with the county.

“When there’s a disaster or close call that brings the awareness of fire danger right to the forefront of people’s minds, you have to capture the momentum if you want change to happen,” he says. “If you wait, memories fade, attention spans shrink, and communities remain at greater risk.”

Dean Rutz/The Seattle Times/AP
A utility crew sets out to replace cable that was destroyed inside the Broadview neighborhood by fire in Wenatchee, Wash., in 2015. After the Sleepy Hollow fire destroyed about 30 homes, Wenatchee and the surrounding county created land-use policies to protect against future blazes.

‘A teachable moment’

A light rainfall on the morning after the Sleepy Hollow fire began aided firefighters and spared Wenatchee further ruin. Paul Hessburg, a research landscape ecologist with the Forest Service and wildfire expert who lives in the town of 34,000 people, recalls the sense of relief and disbelief among residents at nature’s sudden turn of kindness.

“We just got lucky. We weren’t clever,” says Mr. Hessburg, who travels the country giving a TED-style lecture called “The Era of Megafires” that explores fire in the age of climate change. “People understood that, so they came to the table wanting to talk about what could be done.”

Wenatchee adopted a WUI code in 2011 that imposed restrictions on housing in undeveloped areas bordering natural vegetation. But the guidelines applied only to new homes, and the Sleepy Hollow blaze incinerated older houses along the city’s edge that lacked fire-resistant roofs, eaves, and exterior walls. High winds carried embers from burning homes that ignited fruit-packing warehouses in downtown more than a mile away.

The fire’s behavior exposed flaws in Wenatchee’s readiness strategy, and residents voiced strong support for upgrading policies to prevent a recurrence. Officials worked with CPAW to fortify the WUI code for existing and new housing, create a wildfire risk map, and integrate wildfire safety measures into the city’s comprehensive plan.

“The fire was a teachable moment, and it was evident we needed to do some things differently,” Mr. Burnett says. “We owed that to the community, and they wanted to know what could be done.”

The Sleepy Hollow blaze occurred near the start of Washington’s largest wildfire season on record. The Chelan Complex fire arrived six weeks later, and alarmed by its swath of destruction, residents urged city planners to curb future housing projects on a 2,000-foot-tall butte that looms above Chelan.

The lakeside town of 4,000 people relies on tourism to power its economy. Many feared that allowing developers to build high-density housing above the butte’s base would amount to inviting a wildfire to sweep down its face and into the city to level neighborhoods and the historic downtown.

Local officials sought CPAW’s guidance to establish a WUI code and wildfire protection plan to manage growth in vulnerable areas, and reacting to public concerns about increased fire risk, they nixed proposals for large-scale developments on the butte’s slope. Craig Gildroy, Chelan’s planning director, views the 2015 inferno as the firebreak between old and new attitudes on land use.

“People typically don’t want things to change and they don’t want the government telling them what to do,” he says. “So anytime you propose stricter regulations, you get pushback. But that didn’t happen this time. The fire was an eye-opener, and people want to protect the city.”

An ever-present risk

Wenatchee and Chelan lie in river valleys near the eastern foothills of the Cascade Range. The geography traps smoke from wildfires, and as several blazes burn across central Washington and the rest of the state this summer, ash smudges the skies above Chelan County.

Burnett has joined crews responding to a fire on national forestland northwest of Wenatchee that began July 28 with a lightning strike and since has blackened almost 40,000 acres. The haze offers acrid, inescapable evidence to residents of the proximity of the peril.

“We’ve had days this month where the visibility has been as low as a quarter-mile,” he says. “So even if people don’t have fresh memories of flames coming into the city, they’re always well aware we’re in a fire-prone area.”

The ubiquitous specter of fire, coupled with Wenatchee and Chelan working on WUI policies, prodded Chelan County officials to collaborate with CPAW advisers on conceiving a similar code for the county. The measure could restrict housing density in the interface, establish natural buffers between development and wilderness, and provide developers with a uniform set of wildfire building standards.

Molly Mowery, founder of Wildfire Planning International, a policy consulting firm based in Colorado, has assisted the county and both cities for CPAW. She describes the county’s entry into the program as essential to reducing the area’s wildfire risk by extending safety practices outside Wenatchee and Chelan.

“This process isn’t sexy and there isn’t a ‘wow’ solution,” she says. “But the county’s willingness to work with the cities and come up with a WUI code can have an impact on more people.”

Wildfire poses a threat to an estimated 6.7 million homes in the West, and federal agencies spent almost $3 billion fighting blazes last year. Yet compared with suppression efforts, little coordination exists within or between states on prevention planning, and while a national strategy for managing wildfires remains in limbo, local officials are left to heed their own instincts on growth.

California’s surging population in remote areas and limits on prescribed burns compound its wildfire crisis, and the state lacks a growth management law akin to Washington’s that requires cities and counties to adhere to land use guidelines. As climate change magnifies the number and intensity of wildfires, Hessburg suggests that the progress in Chelan County shows communities can find a path through the smoke.

“These fires are something we take absolutely seriously because they hit close to home,” he says. “We’re in a new era. We need to get real about the danger.”

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4. ‘Positive engagement’: Schools enlist parents’ help on absenteeism

Getting chronically absent students to attend school has long been a challenge. Now, schools are finding some success by shifting from a mind-set of punishment to improving communication with parents.

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It may seem like an obvious solution to helping students succeed: Keep parents in the loop. But more emphasis is being placed on partnering with families by both researchers and the Every Student Succeeds Act. In particular, chronic absenteeism is now being tracked as never before, so schools are on the hunt for solutions. Chronic absenteeism is a stubborn problem, with about 8 million students in the United States missing more than 10 percent of school. Whether absences are excused, unexcused, or caused by suspensions, they add up to lower reading skills and higher dropout rates. Experiments with how best to tap families as a resource are starting to chip away at a longstanding tendency in education to address absences with stern warnings and even threats of court action. There’s now “a growing body of research that shows that punitive legalistic approaches aren’t how you get people to school,” says Hedy Nai-Lin Chang, executive director of Attendance Works, a national initiative to address chronic absence. “It’s positive engagement and problem-solving that gets kids to school.”

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‘Positive engagement’: Schools enlist parents’ help on absenteeism

When her son started missing school frequently as a fourth-grader, the school wasn’t too adamant about it and neither was Laurie Serrano. If he missed the bus, he stayed home, though she could have walked him.

“I didn’t have any education on the fact that that was keeping him behind,” she says.

Now schools are finding that one way to curb chronic absenteeism is rather simple: Communicate better with families.

New research shows that parents of high-absence students routinely underestimate the number of days their children miss. By letting them know, along with brief messages about how better attendance boosts achievement, schools can reap some cost-effective gains. 

It’s an “understandable bias that parents have,” says Todd Rogers, a professor at the Harvard Kennedy School, who has led the research. “By trying to empower parents with corrective information, we’re asking them to engage … as partners in our shared interest in the student succeeding.”

Chronic absenteeism is a stubborn problem, with about 8 million students in the United States missing more than 10 percent of school. Whether absences are excused, unexcused, or caused by suspensions, they add up to lower reading skills and higher dropout rates.

Schools are on the hunt for solutions, because chronic absence is now being tracked as never before. Under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, starting this year all states have to publicly report it. Additionally, 35 states plus the District of Columbia have opted to include chronic absence in school accountability plans.

Experiments with how best to tap families as a resource are starting to chip away at a longstanding tendency in education to address absences with stern warnings and even threats of court action.

In the face of this “truancy mindset,” there’s now “a growing body of research that shows that punitive legalistic approaches aren’t how you get people to school; it’s positive engagement and problem-solving that gets kids to school,” says Hedy Nai-Lin Chang, the executive director of Attendance Works, a national initiative to address chronic absence.

It’s part of a broader push in education to create more positive interactions with families. Most states mandate some degree of family engagement, and several, such as Massachusetts and New York, include it in their standards for educator evaluation.

In Los Angeles, Professor Rogers and Attendance Works changed the legalistic language of truancy letters to something friendlier and easier to read. The letters became 20 percent more effective, Rogers says, and have been recommended as a model for California.

In Rogers’ recent experiments, carefully crafted letters home have reduced chronic absenteeism by 10 percent or more in urban and suburban districts alike. The cost for each day of attendance gained has been about $5 to $10, a small fraction of the cost of intensive interventions that involve hiring mentors or social workers.  

“Finding ways to provide parents with useful actionable information to support their kids [brings] crazy high returns on investment,” Rogers says.

The letters target the low-hanging fruit, Rogers acknowledges, and they don’t replace the need for comprehensive measures to assist students who miss the most school.

But as part of the solution, they offer something rare: a successful intervention that’s not too difficult to scale up.

A pilot project with kindergartners in Pittsburgh reduced chronic absenteeism significantly by engaging parents through two-way text messaging.

The school sent texts once a week in English or Spanish. Parents could then text back to a member of the AmeriCorps service group based at the elementary school, who would troubleshoot attendance barriers ranging from transportation to homelessness.

Before the experiment, nearly one-third of kindergartners had been missing more than 10 percent. By the end, only 13 percent were chronically absent. Rates at other schools in the district also declined, but to a much lower degree, Kenneth Smythe-Leistico and Lindsay Page reported in the Journal of Education for Students Placed at Risk.

Chronic absence rates have been so difficult to budge that educators celebrate progress in small increments.

At Earl Boyles Elementary in the David Douglas School District in Portland, Ore., students and families receive wraparound supports from community organizations. When principal Ericka Guynes arrived 10 years ago, 18 percent of students were chronically absent.

“Now it’s 16.4 percent, which I know doesn’t sound like a lot, but that’s a lot to shift,” she says. 

The school has conducted home visits, revamped family conferences, and worked with parents starting at the preschool level to build up a sense of trust.

The message about attendance can sometimes be as simple as a game.

Ms. Serrano, who moved near Earl Boyles recently and is sending her daughter, Liddy, there this fall, participated in an August kindergarten transition program for parents.

The facilitator handed her a red card, while two other parents standing next to her were given green and yellow cards. Serrano represented a student who missed more than nine days, and had to take many steps backward. The yellow-card holder took fewer steps back. That’s how much children would get behind in learning, the facilitator said.

“I was pretty far back. The parent who missed no school was way up there. It just clicked for me,” Serrano says. After understanding why her son fell behind, she says, “I’m not going to make the same mistake with my daughter.”

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5. At Canadian end of Underground Railroad, issues not all black and white

Canada has long been a haven for those in the United States seeking to avoid authorities' reach. But its role in the Underground Railroad reveals a complex history, and raises tough questions about morality and welcoming outsiders.

Amelia
Kim Smith/Niagara Falls Underground Railroad Heritage Center
Visitors at the Niagara Falls Underground Railroad Heritage Center in Niagara Falls, N.Y., learn of stories of escape from slavery to Canada. The museum's aim is to connect the past to the present so that visitors ask themselves who is a ‘freedom seeker’ today.

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Since as far back as the American Revolution, Canada has been a destination of choice for people fleeing the United States (and its colony forebears). Thousands of “freedom seekers” escaped northward on the Underground Railroad during the pre-Civil War era. Decades later, so too did those opposed to the draft and the Vietnam War. And today, immigrants are crossing from the US into Canada over fear of persecution. But while Canada's reputation as a safe harbor is well established, the reality is not so simple. Many new arrivals, including those who escaped slavery, met with a mixed reception. Some Canadians feared opening the floodgates to newcomers. Others resented smuggling in the new arrivals to avoid US law. “I think it’s important not to depict either the history of people coming to Canada or the present in overly simplistic terms,” says Jodi Giesbrecht of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights in Winnipeg, Manitoba. “When we see Canada as unquestionably welcoming, we fail to see the hardships and discrimination a lot of people really face. And everyone has a role to play in making Canada a more equitable society.”

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At Canadian end of Underground Railroad, issues not all black and white

Deirdre Reynolds guides a group of 12- and 13-year-old boys from Buffalo to a recreated suspension bridge that once spanned the Niagara River.

“What does that say?” she asks before they cross in a single file. “Freedom, Canada. Slavery, United States.”

One boy asks if he should run. “We are not going to run anywhere here, because it’s a museum,” she responds.

But the boy is right to ask: They are in the Niagara Falls Underground Railroad Heritage Center, an experiential space that allows visitors to retrace the steps of enslaved black Americans fleeing the United States for their life to Canada.

They regroup at a window that looks across the international border – a Canadian flag fluttering across the gorge – where American abolitionist Harriet Tubman herself crossed. The history lesson is fully focused on the thousands of “freedom seekers” and black abolitionists who aided their escape, especially in the years leading up to the American Civil War. It’s particularly important this month: August 23 is the International Day for the Remembrance of the Slave Trade and its Abolition.

But the group is also treading a centuries-long path to Canada that continues to the present, with thousands of asylum seekers crossing the northern border. And Ally Spongr, the center’s director and curator, says their aim is to connect the past to the present to inspire visitors to contemplate the reasons behind the need to escape, the complicated reality of welcome, and the morality of the roles that the players assume.

“Who is a freedom seeker today?’ she says. Too many don’t take the time to consider it.

Even at this border, Americans may be well versed in what happens at the Mexican border, she says, without realizing that foreigners are also crossing here to leave the US. The number of asylum seekers intercepted at unofficial points of entry into Canada – to avoid being sent back to the US under an agreement between the two nations – spiked last year. But they continue to arrive. By the end of July, 12,378 had been intercepted by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, the vast majority at Quebec’s frontier with New York.

“Some are saying, ‘I’m afraid. I need to leave the US,’ ” says Ms. Spongr, whose center opened in May and is connected to a train station that shares space, perhaps fittingly for the experience, with United States Customs and Border Protection. “And I think it’s a powerful and really important thing to think about, and the public to realize.”

Courtesy of Niagara Falls Underground Railroad Heritage Center
The Niagara Falls Underground Railroad Heritage Center opened in May, adjacent to the Niagara Falls Amtrak Station and US Customs and Border Protection. The center faces the former site of a suspension bridge that spanned the Niagara River and was part of the Underground Railroad in the 19th century.

Canada has served as a refuge for Americans since the founding of the US, when colonists loyal to the British Crown fled before and after the American Revolution. In the 1960s and ’70s, those opposed to the Vietnam War and the draft found a haven in Canada. When President Trump won the 2016 presidential election, liberal Americans lit up social media with ideas about emigrating north.

That’s often allowed Canada to take the moral high ground against American politics, from the underground railroad to today’s refugee policies.

“The idea of the underground railroad, and being the terminus of the underground railroad, was quite popular,” says Karolyn Smardz Frost, a Canadian historian and author of “Steal Away Home,” about an enslaved woman’s escape north and return home. “It was one-upping the Americans to some extent. We still do it. We are the people with the open-door policy with blankets around refugees as opposed to putting them in handcuffs.”

She says the reality, of course, is far more complicated.

Most of the help that “freedom seekers” received came not from the government, but from those in the Canadian community of black immigrants, many of whom had escaped slavery, and life was hard. After the Fugitive Slave Act was put into place in 1850, support for the abolitionist movement waned in some corners, giving way to fears of a massive migration of black refugees from the US. Not unlike today, many helped, while others resented the smuggling in of “freedom seekers” to escape American policy.

Jodi Giesbrecht, the manager of research and curation at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights in Winnipeg, Manitoba, says Canada’s role in the underground railroad has often tended toward romanticism. “I don’t think people necessarily understand the depth of racism and discrimination that existed here and that escaped slaves continued to face,” she says.

Their exhibit on it, part of the Canadian Journeys gallery, attempts to challenge people’s assumptions about Canada. “I think it’s important not to depict either the history of people coming to Canada or the present in overly simplistic terms,” she says. “When we see Canada as unquestionably welcoming, we fail to see the hardships and discrimination a lot of people really face. And everyone has a role to play in making Canada a more equitable society.”

That is what Ms. Reynolds seeks to teach her school-age group on a recent day. After learning of a slaver who offers cash to help arrest an escaped woman in Niagara Falls named Martha in 1853, she asks the boys if they would take the money, the equivalent today of $3,000. None says he would.

“But people did. And even more people just watched all this happen,” she says, imparting a lesson that applies just as much today as in the 19th century. “People think you were either for slavery or you were against it. But a lot of people just didn’t do anything at all.”

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The Monitor's View

A plea deal’s spotlight on Trump – and campaign finance law

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In pleading guilty Tuesday to violating campaign finance law, President Trump’s former personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, claimed, under oath, that then-candidate Trump directed him to make payments to two women who claimed to have had affairs with Mr. Trump. Mr. Cohen’s assertion, if proved true at possible impeachment hearings in Congress, could be a political game changer – not only for the president but perhaps for the many rules and laws governing the role of money in campaigns. Prosecutors had good reason to opt for a plea rather than risk a trial. Juries are often reluctant to convict people under oft-changing campaign-spending regulations. Jurors must often perceive the intent of the accused or find a connection between campaign money and a political outcome. And there’s an unease about imposing strict campaign rules that’s tied to the Constitution’s protection of free speech. Cohen’s assertion may yet be tested in Congress, or perhaps by a court. Breaking a law on campaign finance with provable intent deserves punishment. Yet beyond the accusations in this case is the deeper question of how those laws see American voters – as intelligent and reliable or as easily manipulated.

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A plea deal’s spotlight on Trump – and campaign finance law

President Trump’s former personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, pleaded guilty Tuesday to violating campaign finance law. He admitted to paying two women who claimed to have had affairs with Mr. Trump in order to silence them before the 2016 election. Yet the big news was that Mr. Cohen also claimed, under oath, that then-candidate Trump directed him to make the payments.

His assertion, if proved true at a possible impeachment hearing in Congress, could be a political game changer – not only for the president but perhaps for the many rules and laws governing the role of money in campaigns.

Prosecutors had good reason to opt for a plea from Cohen rather than risk a trial. Juries are often reluctant to convict people under current campaign-spending regulations, which keep changing because of court rulings, new federal rules, or new laws. Jurors must often perceive the intent of the accused or find a connection between campaign money and a political outcome.

That could be why most campaign finance violations trigger only a small fine. Even serious charges of violations are often found wanting. In a 2012 trial, a jury failed to convict former Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards on charges he used about $1 million in campaign money to conceal an extramarital affair during his 2008 run for the White House. In 2017, a jury deadlocked over charges against Sen. Bob Menendez of New Jersey that he did official favors in return for campaign donations.

The Supreme Court, too, keeps chipping away at campaign finance laws passed since the 1970s, such as the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002. Or their rulings shift depending on the leanings of each new justice. In a 2006 decision, the high court set a very high bar for prosecutors who try to link campaign money to “corruption.” Prosecutors must show the “pro” between the “quid” and the “quo.”

This unease about imposing strict campaign rules is tied to the Constitution’s protection of free speech, even the free speech of organizations such as unions or corporations. Citizens are not only entitled to hear competing views, they must also be seen as capable of self-governance. They are not gullible dupes of TV ads, campaign tweets, or leaflets handed out on street corners. Citizens are responsible for their thoughts and actions. Under the Constitution, as Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg has stated, the people are “the font of governmental power.”

In the 2016 presidential race, Hillary Clinton far outspent Trump but lost. In many races, voters speak louder than big money, an affirmation that elections rely on the integrity and discernment of citizens.

Cohen’s assertion against the president may yet be tested in Congress or perhaps a court. Clearly breaking a law on campaign finance with provable intent deserves punishment. Yet beyond the accusations in this case is the deeper question of how those laws see American voters – as intelligent and reliable or as easily manipulated. 

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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.

Free of resentment

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After today’s contributor lost all her assets trying to save her company, a sense that she was “owed” something dissolved as she discovered the deeper value of the spiritual lessons she was learning.

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Free of resentment

Today's Christian Science Perspective audio edition
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Have you ever felt that you were owed some kind of a payback after a bad situation?

At one time I had a successful business, but an economic downturn and some poor management decisions by others forced me to close the doors. In trying to save the company, I had invested all my assets, so my future looked pretty bleak. An employment opportunity eventually came that met my needs. But for many years I carried around a resentful feeling that I was “owed” something, as I felt that much had been taken from me.

I have found that praying deeply each day with the weekly Bible Lesson published by The Christian Science Publishing Society, which also publishes this newspaper, helps me see more of God’s goodness. One day during this study a Bible verse leapt off the page at me. The Amplified Bible puts it this way: “I know that whatever God does, it endures forever; nothing can be added to it nor can anything be taken from it” (Ecclesiastes 3:14).

I thought, “Is my life part of God’s work or not?” Christian Science teaches that God is Life itself. I understood that His work, or creation, is spiritual, complete, and lasting; it cannot have any good taken from it.

If, by contrast, I looked to material things to assuage the lingering hurt, I realized that I would be disappointed. Permanent freedom can’t be found there, because material things are always changeable and vulnerable, as the Bible points out (see Matthew 6:19-21). But it seemed that I had lost so much! Nevertheless, I did not want to carry this hurt feeling around with me any longer. I recognized a deep need to change my way of thinking.

The seminal work “Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures,” by Monitor founder Mary Baker Eddy, brings out how life can only be truly understood from a spiritual standpoint, in which we realize that we are each an expression of God, His beloved child. Talking of this divine sonship and daughterhood, Science and Health says: “In divine Science, man is sustained by God, the divine Principle of being” (p. 530). Reading that, I could see that God’s tender love and care includes a complete and satisfying plan for each of us that isn’t subject to the inconsistencies of material economics. God’s work is eternal.

Science and Health also offers many ways to be aware of, and to counter, the material sense of things that constantly seems to be vying for our attention. One way that has been helpful to me is to consider six aspects that relate to the spiritual sense inherent in everyone. Science and Health says, “Spiritual sense, contradicting the material senses, involves intuition, hope, faith, understanding, fruition, reality” (p. 298).

As I prayerfully considered this, I felt something real about each of these words that made the concept of spiritual sense as a whole more meaningful to me. I saw that each of us really is capable of perceiving the true sense of God and our relation to Him.

Considering intuition helped me see that even if it seems we’re lacking something, our security and supply are still maintained – based on the abundance God has for all at every moment, supplying our needs. The idea of hope led me to look forward with trust in the unfoldment of God’s goodness. Thinking about faith encouraged confidence in the idea that God, good, loves and cares for us; therefore good cannot be incomplete or taken away.

Being grateful for understanding led me to discern the good that God had always been providing. It was like a light was shining on all the ways God had been lovingly caring for me over the years. I became humbly appreciative.

Fruition, I could see, was the realization of my prayers. Over the weeks devoted to this study, I became completely free of the hurt and the restrictive feeling that I was “owed” anything. And in terms of the last aspect of spiritual sense included in that quote, I felt I was seeing evidence of the reality of God’s care for me and everyone. I knew in my heart that there is never a fluctuation in His love.

This was a great opportunity for spiritual growth for me. Not only did I no longer have that feeling hanging over me that I was owed anything, but I felt completely fulfilled and free of resentment.

God’s work is always complete, and we are all included in that completeness. This is a strong foundation for prayer that lifts us out of bitterness or distress, enabling us to move forward with inspiration and peace.

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Celebrating away from home

Altaf Qadri/AP
Rohingya children enjoy a ride on a merry-go-round during Eid al Adha celebrations Aug. 22 at Kutupalong refugee camp in Bangladesh. Hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees in Bangladeshi camps are celebrating Eid amid confusion over whether they will ever be able to return to Myanmar, from which they fled amid violence.
( The illustrations in today's Monitor Daily are by Karen Norris. )
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In Our Next Issue

( August 23rd, 2018 )

Thanks for reading the Monitor Daily today. Tomorrow, join us as reporter Richard Mertens visits Angelica, Wis., where robots may play a role in saving the family farm.

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