Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Family History on the Interwebs

My grandfather emigrated from Poland to the United States via Germany as a nine year-old boy aboard a ship called the Nieuw Amsterdam, the last major oceanliner built with masts as a backup should its steam engines fail.  Thanks to the 10,000 hamsters in a CalTech basement powering the www dot com, I was able to find an image of that ship in service:

I sense this internet thing is going to be big.  I guess I am not really alone, though.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Texas A&M and the Texas Public Policy Foundation's "Breakthrough" Solutions, Part II

This is the second part of my commentary on the Texas Public Policy Foundation's "Breakthrough Solutions" and their application to Texas A&M.  (The first part is here.)  This post deals with Solutions 1, 2, and 4, which propose a set of reforms to improve the quality of undergraduate teaching at public universities.

Without further ado:
Solution 1. Measure teaching efficiency and effectiveness.
Goal: Improve the quality of teaching by making use of a public measurement tool to evaluate faculty teaching performance that makes it possible to recognize excellent teachers.
This reform is a mix of some good and bad elements.
First, collecting and making public instructor-level data on teaching performance and grades is a great idea.  Current and prospective students should have access to information about who the best teachers are, which classes they teach, and how often those classes are taught.  I wouldn't buy a car without information on the relative quality of various makes and models.  Students shouldn't be forced to choose a college or plan a schedule without being able to compare the relative quality of the faculty who will be teaching their classes.

Data on teaching effectiveness could also be used by the university to more effectively direct resources to enhance undergraduate teaching.  For example, less strong teachers could be directed to support services. 

My only criticism of the evaluation and public information component of this solution is its exclusive reliance on student evaluations.  I am not a student evaluation alarmist, but I am certainly sensitive to some reasonable concerns about using them without supplementary assessment tools.  Though student evaluations are often useful indicators of an instructor's proficiency, there is some evidence of gender bias and bias against more demanding courses (i.e. those that require essay exams versus multiple choice exams), for example. Including peer evaluations, retrospective alumni evaluations, and other assessment tools along with student evaluations in a record of teaching effectiveness seems like a sensible way to augment student assessment data and maybe tap information about the prospects for long-run teaching value as opposed to short-run satisfaction.

Information on grade distributions by course is already public information at Texas A&M, so releasing the "average percentage of As and Bs awarded" isn't much of a reform.  Indeed, web resources like have already aggregated a pretty impressive array of information about instructors' grading history overall and for particular courses.  Combining information on teaching performance with grading information is also pretty harmless, since, my impression is that student evaluations, at least, are more associated with a course's "demandingness" in terms of work than its "difficulty" in terms of grades.  (Someone who is more in touch with research on student teaching evaluations is welcome to correct me.)

In any event, publicizing grading data would probably have a couple of positive consequences.  First, I think it would result in an informal harmonization of grades across various instructors teaching the same courses.  Few people want to be an outlier, and simply letting faculty know what other faculty could support a more fair aggregate grading scheme without the stricture of firm curves of targets.

Second, I think it would provide students with more reasonable expectations about their performance in college courses.  Most students who attend A&M were in the top 10% of their high school classes.  Many have never received a C as a grade for their work before.  Showing them historical data on class performance can help them form realistic expectations about how they are likely to perform and, perhaps, inspire individual students to perform at a higher level than they might have otherwise. 

On the bad side, the whole faculty cost per student hour computation is awful.  Awful.  Big (profitable) lecture courses have their place in higher education.  The instructor can transmit information and ideas to large numbers of students and be around as a resource to answer questions, advise, deal with current events, etc.  However, the size of those courses makes it impossible to provide much attention to individual students or their work.  Teaching a smaller course, I can meet with each student individually outside of class to discuss the readings and lectures, go over term paper ideas, review outlines and read drafts of written work, go over old exams, discuss prospective tests, etc.  That is physically impossible in a larger class.

The point is, larger classes offer higher numbers of less dense faculty-student interaction; smaller courses offer a smaller number of more dense interactions.  At the level of the student, much more teaching is packed into the average small course than the average large course. Lumping the high density teaching and low density teaching together in a faculty cost analysis is unreasonable and relies on an illusion created by the fact that the university charges students the same tuition for large courses and small courses.  We overcharge for big courses on a student-hour basis and undercharge for small courses.  In essence, the big courses subsidize the small courses.  If we unbundled the two, charging a lower rate for big courses and a higher rate for smaller courses, then the "value" of faculty who principally teach smaller courses would look much more like the "value" of faculty who principally teach large courses than it does with the lumped pricing structure in place.

As an analogy, imagine that the owner of a McDonald's franchise performed the sort of analysis proposed by the breakthrough solution on the components of the Happy Meals it sold.  He'd take the total amount of money received for the Happy Meals, divide the revenues among the various components of the meals---hamburgers, fries, and Cokes---and then subtract the total cost of providing each element of the Happy Meals for the number of meals sold.  If he "force ranked" those components, he'd find that burgers are losers, fries are a wash, and sodas are big winners.  By the reasoning implicit in the TPPF solution, he'd conclude he needed to sell three Coke Happy Meals at the price he was charging for the burger, fries, and drink model.  This reasoning, though, completely ignores that the greatest part of the actual value in the meal comes from its most expensive components.

Any per student hour computation of faculty profitability is absolutely useless unless it corrects for the implicit under-pricing of high-density teaching in small classes (and the complementary over-pricing of low-density teaching in large classes).

A real "breakthrough" reform might be to actually unbundle tuition costs by class size and department (or the quality of the professor's teaching evaluations or even time of day and other factors that make different courses or sections more or less valuable to students).  Credit hours in large lecture courses in the humanities would be very cheap; credit hours in small laboratory courses would be more expensive.  Students could actually make more efficient consumer decisions about what kinds of courses they wanted to take based on a more informative pricing scheme, and the university and its departments could adjust course offerings and prices as a way of controlling demand for over-subscribed courses and enticing students into important but under-subscribed areas.

In any event, here's the second breakthrough solution:
Solution 2. Recognize and Reward Extraordinary Teachers
Goal: Breakthrough Solution #2 will offer voluntary cash bonuses to improve the effectiveness and efficiency of teaching on college and university campuses and attract the best teachers.
Bonuses will be widespread, significant and based on how well a course delivers on its learning objectives Since up to 25% of the faculty each semester will receive a teaching bonus, every faculty member will have an incentive to improve his or her teaching skills. The top awards will be up to $10,000 a class, so once a teacher receives a lower-level bonus, there will be a strong incentive to continue to improve.

Basing bonuses on how well students judge that a course delivered on its promises will encourage faculty to be as explicit as possible about the learning objectives for each course, making it easier for
administrators to judge the effectiveness of the curriculum and coordinate class offerings.

Finally, since the bonuses depend not only on the quality of teaching but on the number of students taught, the best teachers will have an incentive to teach even more students.
I have more-or-less the same orientation toward this solution as the previous one.  Recognizing outstanding teaching is a great idea in general.  Recognizing those faculty whom the students regard as the most outstanding teaching is a great idea in particular.  I am surprised there wasn't already a program in place to do so at Texas A&M.  (As a graduate student, I won exactly this kind of teaching award from the student body at the University of North Carolina---The Student Undergraduate Teaching and Staff Award.)  I am perplexed that anyone would object to this being only one of several ways that A&M recognizes great teaching.

I think the favoritism toward large classes is off-base, though, for the same reasons I mentioned above.  The implicit assumption that large class teaching is better and more valuable because it serves more students is wrong.  Large classes and small classes provide comparable amounts of per-student value, a fact obscured by the way the university prices its classes.

Solution 4 is more ambitious and more rightly controversial. 
Solution 4. Require evidence of teaching skill for tenure.
Goal: If universities are to serve students, parents, employers and taxpayers, a large number of the tenured faculty need to be good teachers as well as productive researchers.

This reform ensures that teaching will be considered as an important qualification for tenure by requiring evidence that a majority of those nominated for tenure have demonstrated the ability to teach well.
The principle is totally fine.  This is a public university with a public education mission.  High standards for teaching as well as research should be part of the tenure review here.  Reviewing and perhaps amending the mechanisms in place to ensure that faculty are given tenure only on the condition that they are effective teachers is a fine idea.

The devil (and the controversy) is in the details here.  These are the two items listed under "Carrying out the Reform."
1. Require evidence of teaching skill for tenure.

The majority of new tenure appointments (say 75%) will be granted to professors who have proven that they can teach well by having taught on average three classes per semester and thirty students per class for the seven or more years that a teacher is on the tenure track.

2. Customer (student) satisfaction ratings would be used to determine teaching effectiveness.

Average teaching ratings must be a minimum of 4.5 on a 5.0 scale. Limits may be placed on the number of A’s and B’s awarded if the efficacy of customer (student) satisfaction ratings are questioned.
The first problem here is that faculty don't pick and choose their own courses  We are assigned courses by our departments.  So, this whole reform misplaces responsibility for administrative-level decision on individual professors in the tenure process.

The second problem is the continued prominence of the production line mentality---more students in bigger classes is better.  More students in bigger classes is more profitable for the university under its current pricing scheme, but it does little for the overall quality of the education students receive, the value-added to students and graduates, or the value the university provides to the state by, among other things, enhancing the quality of its workforce.  Naively increasing the number of students and courses taught by most (say 75%) faculty members will decrease the average quantity and quality of faculty-student interactions.

Third, if tenure decisions are going to be made on the basis of firm cutpoints in teaching evaluations, you better have one heck of a valid and reliable instrument.  I am not confident we have one at Texas A&M currently, and I am not confident that one exists.

Fourth, the extended reform document also hinges on the severability of research and teaching.  Dealing with that point will be a focus of my next post, so I'll keep it short for now.  Suffice it to say that it is my belief and personal experience that research improves teaching.  As a student, my best teachers were always those who taught in the fields in which they were scholars or practitioners.  As a professor, I am at my best when I teach material that I know from personal experience as a scholar.  There is no substitute for active engagement with some topic for helping me constantly update my courses to reflect cutting-edge knowledge about my field. Again, I'll have more to say about this later.

Finally, I am also concerned about this reform because of how ad hoc it seems.  This is a major policy statement by a major policy research organization relating to one of the largest systems of higher education in the world.  Instead of providing concrete guidance about how to evaluate teaching in the tenure review process, it just says things.

Where does the "say 75%" figure come from?  Are we OK with having say 25% of the faculty be awful teachers? What about the 4.5 cutoff?  Where did that come from?  Is that just a roundish number or does it relate to some demonstrated distribution of teaching ability?  What instrument uses the 5 point scale?  What is the time frame under which teaching will be evaluated for tenure?  If this is supposed to be a statement of principals, why the precision?  If this is supposed to be a specific proposal, why the lack of detail?

It's sloppy policy work. This is a serious issue, and Texas A&M and TPPF are serious organizations.  The subject matter and the institutions involved deserve better.

Craftsmanship aside, I would like to repeat that I am sympathetic to teaching being a more highly weighted component of the tenure process.  Increasing teaching loads or inflating class sizes by themselves doesn't serve that goal.  Hiring good teachers, supporting teaching development, making teaching more important in the tenure and promotion processes, and providing a sensible balance of large-class (low density) and small class (high density) coursework along with experiential learning, like internships, seems like a more sensible set of targets for reforming teaching at Texas A&M.

For next time, Solutions 3 and 5.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Car Seats

The American Academy of Pediatrics now advises parents to keep children in rear facing cars seats until age 2.

I am sure that rear facing child seats are somewhat safer at the margins than forward facing car seats.  But, taking a quick look at the study mentioned in the article linked above, makes it clear that that margin is reasonably thin.  First, there's not much difference in the performance of front-facing seats compared to rear-facing seats in frontal crashes, by far the most common type of accident in the data (52% of all crashes).  The biggest difference in child seat performance is side impact crashes, the least common type of accident in the data (16.7% of all crashes).  The study also excludes cases in which child seats exhibited "significant misuse" or where there was no data collected on child seat use (together 31% of the observations). 

Finally, the study is based on---what seems to me---to be an odd compression of the data.  The dependent variables in the analysis is whether a child in an observed accident received a severe injury, defined an an injury receiving an Injury Severity Score (ISI) greater than 9.  I had no idea what an ISI is, but a quick bit of web searching reveals that it is an index ranging from 0 to 75 indicating the total severity of injuries a person has received to various parts of the body.  A person would receive a score of 9 or more if any region of their body has incurred a "serious" injury; he or she would automatically be given a score of 75 if they sustained a lethal injury.  I don't know if the data permit more nuanced analysis, but it seems a bit odd to collapse everything from compound fractures to spinal injuries to fatalities into one big analytic category.  

I remain a bit skeptical about the benefits of child seats and booster seats, especially for older children, and double especially in light of the huge amount of money spent on child seats themselves (and publicity and enforcement of child seats laws) that could be spent on child health and welfare in other ways.  (I am not alone on this point, FWIW.)

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Texas A&M and the Texas Public Policy Foundation's "Breakthrough" Solutions, Part I

The Texas Tribune reports that Robert Berdahl, president of the Association of American Universities---an invitation only association of leading research universities in the United States and Canada---sent a letter last fall to Mike McKinney, Chancellor of the Texas A&M University System, advising him to resist carrying out reforms supported by the Texas Public Policy Foundation (TPPF), a conservative think tank with close ties to Governor Rick Perry and several members of the A&M System's Board of Regents.  
In his letter... Berdahl urges McKinney to resist "ill-conceived calls for 'reform,'" ...Berdahl suggests that TPPF's seven proposed "solutions" for higher education, which include splitting research and teaching budgets, "demonstrates little or no understanding of the nature of graduate education."

He wrote, "...[S]eparating research from teaching and oversimplifying the evaluation of faculty does violence to the values that have produced the American universities that are envied and emulated across the globe. Moreover, these proposals directly contradict Texas' stated goal of building more research universities."
The Tribune further reports that McKinney responded to the AAU letter by defending the reforms already undertaken by the A&M system and its scholarly productivity.
In November, McKinney responded with a letter of his own, also just obtained by the Tribune, that opens, "I find it to be slightly ironic for you to send me a missive about research without first seeking to better understand the efforts and the objectives of the Texas A&M System." McKinney notes that "no one with any knowledge of the data or with any authority" ever suggested it be taken into account when considering faculty compensation. "I would welcome the opportunity to host you on a visit to our main campus in College Station," he concluded. "I know that you will be pleased and perhaps surprised by the scholarly works we produce on a daily basis."
Here are the seven "Breakthrough Solutions" proposed by TPPF:
1. Measure teaching efficiency and effectiveness.

2. Publicly recognize and reward extraordinary teachers.
3. Split research and teaching budgets to encourage excellence in both.

4. Require evidence of teaching skill for tenure.

5. Use “results-based” contracts with students to measure quality.

6. Put state funding directly in the hands of students.

7. Create results-based accrediting alternatives.
(A more complete description of each item is provided here.)

I admit that I am puzzled by the tenor and pitch of debate over these proposed reforms (from both sides).  These are serious ideas with a serious goal: to ensure that public resources for higher education are supporting high quality undergraduate teaching.  Neither reflexive criticism of the proposed reforms (or, more properly, ideas for proposed reforms) nor ignoring the legitimate concerns of those with some expertise and experience in higher education serves Texas or Texas A&M.  Likewise, neither an ornery attachment to the status quo nor a damn-the-torpedoes reform effort is likely to move the state or the university forward. 

I have in mind a three or four part set of posts on the specific reforms and some ideas for improving and implementing them, but I have a few general comments that I think are important to set out at the start.

First, Texas A&M is a public, land grant institution.  Serving Texas and educating Texans are critical elements, indeed the critical elements, of the university's mission.  Ensuring that public resources effectively serve these goals is an important task.  The propriety of creating tools to assess the extent to which the public mission of a public university is being achieved and structuring incentives within a public university to enhance the performance of its public duties are unassailable in principle, though, reasonable people may have serious disagreements about how these assessments and incentives should be undertaken and implemented in practice.

Second, I disagree with two implicit premises of TPPF's proposed reforms---one, as it applies to Texas A&M and the other as it applies to scholarly research more generally.

With respect to Texas A&M, the TPPF seems to be under the impression that undergraduate teaching is not important to individual faculty or to the institution.  This is untrue.  Individual members of the faculty---at least as far as I can observe---are excellent teachers in general, and they work very hard to design courses that offer students the chance to learn valuable skills and important information that will serve their professional, civic, and personal development.  Unless I am seriously mistaken, most any objective measurement of student learning or student satisfaction at Texas A&M is likely to indicate that the university is providing an education on par (at least) with the world's other top colleges and universities.

Indeed, there is ample evidence that Texas A&M is doing a great job of adding value to our students and the public sphere.  For example, the Wall Street Journal ranks Texas A&M as the second best university in the nation in terms of preparing students for employment (based on a survey of professional recruiters), and  Washington Monthly ranks Texas A&M second in the nation in terms of the university's service to the nation and the community (based on students' participation in ROTC, the Peace Corps, and community service)---not to mention Texas A&M's strong performance in reputation-based rankings like those reported by the NRC and US News and World Report.

With respect to scholarly research more generally, the TPPF's proposed reforms are hard to divorce from its publication of claims that academic research offers few tangible benefits to Texas.  As such, it is easy to read the "Breakthrough Reforms" as an effort to undermine scholarship rather than enhance teaching.  To the extent that this is accurate, the TPPF's position stands in stark contrast to the bulk of evidence about the critical role of research universities in generating economic growth in general and in catalyzing it in specific locations.  Indeed, Richard Florida, one of the world's leading authorities on the geography of economic development, writes:
Research universities increasingly function as a key hub institution of the knowledge economy – from Stanford University’s role in Silicon Valley to MIT’s role in greater Boston’s Route 128 high-technology complex, from the University of Texas in Austin to the rise of the North Carolina Research Triangle, not to mention Carnegie Mellon’s role in Pittsburgh’s regeneration.
It is difficult to read analyses of the relationship between the presence of research universities and patterns of economic development without concluding that Texas's prominent high-tech and creative economies are not intimately related to the state's outstanding public university systems.

Research universities support regional economic development in several ways.  Most directly, academic research translates into technologies and innovations in business practices that can be fed into private enterprise.  Outstanding public universities (and public education more generally) are also magnets for world-class professional talent in the private sector.  Most importantly, though least directly, universities are incubators of creativity.

Michael Dell sums up the relationship between his company and UT-Austin in the school's 2003 commencement address:
Though I left UT prior to the achievement that you’re all celebrating, this school has been a big part of my life in many ways: as a source of guidance and counsel for a young start-up company, as a constant resource of talent and support for a growing and established business, and as the foundation for a dream that this community has helped to build. 
Steve Jobs credits an esoteric course he took at Reed College with one of the major innovations of Macintosh desktop computing:
I decided to take a calligraphy class... I learned about serif and san serif typefaces, about varying the amount of space between different letter combinations, about what makes great typography great. It was beautiful, historical, artistically subtle in a way that science can't capture, and I found it fascinating.

None of this had even a hope of any practical application in my life. But ten years later, when we were designing the first Macintosh computer, it all came back to me. And we designed it all into the Mac. It was the first computer with beautiful typography. If I had never dropped in on that single course in college, the Mac would have never had multiple typefaces or proportionally spaced fonts. And since Windows just copied the Mac, it's likely that no personal computer would have them.
The expertise of research faculty can nurture the budding business ambitions of their students (and their dropouts).  Obscure research in typography (or literature, or psychology, or, or, or) can inspire critical business innovations.  By bringing creative (i.e. actively researching) faculty together from an array of fields---including humanities and social sciences with less direct links to private enterprise---into close geographical proximity, universities create opportunities for people inside and outside the university proper to learn, connect, and create something new. Universities are an important  part of the intellectual infrastructure for entrepreneurship and creative enterprise, which are increasingly the principal sources of economic growth, precisely because of their engagement with research rather than in spite of it.

Teaching, in the broadest sense, is enhanced by encouraging research and exposure to research in the undergraduate classroom and the larger community.  The key is to maximize the link between research and teaching and to expand the teaching platform from the lecture hall to the larger community.  Indeed, that is the premise that motivates my (still developing) thoughts about making the Breakthrough Reforms work most effectively. 

With all that in mind, I have in mind a (loose) plan to write about Reforms 1, 2, and 4 as a group, 3 and 5 together, and 6 and 7 in separate, shorter posts over the next couple weeks as time permits.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Random Thoughts from the Road

I spent all night driving from College Station to Nashville on the first leg of Baby Benjamin's meet his great-grandparents tour.  Here are the three (semi-professional) thoughts that cropped up somewhere in Arkansas between coffees 5 and 6.  I present them merely to memorialize my mental wanderings.

1. Has Social Security contributed to the rising divorce rate?  Before Social Security, many more adult children (proportionally) must have had to live with or near their parents to help take care of them in retirement.  Having grandparents nearby means a great deal of actual and moral support for parenthood, stronger family ties, and a handy source of disapproval if you get out of line.  Having grandparents at a distance, attenuates those things, and probably (indirectly) decreases the stability of marriages.  If Social Security's subsidies for elderly independence increase retirees' propensity to live away from adult children, and if the presence of nearby parents decreases the propensity of divorce, then it may be the case that Social Security has had the unintended consequence of contributing to higher divorce rates.

2. Is my bodyweight an integrated or autoregressive time series?  Logically, it must be integrated.  If I lose a pound between time t and time t+1, then to be one pound heavier at time t+2 than I was at t, I need to have gained two pounds.  Any pound gain or lost is an enduring change in the time series.  The series *must* have a permanent memory (though not necessarily a trend), like a batting average.  Yet, my experience is that my weight is autoregressive--at least in the short run.  If I somehow manage to cut a few pounds, they reappear; if I pack on a few pounds, they usually drop off without much fuss.  The deviations from my equilibrium weight seem to decay over time.  What I am I missing?

3. What is the relationship between the performance of a university's athletic programs and the reputation of its academic programs?  Positive?  Maybe, winning teams draw students, entice potential donors, and actually produce better academic programs increasing evaluations of those programs.  Maybe excellence in athletics rubs off an impressionistic evaluations of other areas.  Negative?  Maybe scholars and academics regard sports-centric schools as fundamentally unserious institutions.  Maybe winning on the field casts the school as an institution built around dumb jocks.  No effect?  People are good at separating the academic reputation of schools from other factors.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011


From Letters to a Young Poet, Letter #4.  The emphases are added.
My dear Mr. Kappus: I have left a letter from you unanswered for a long time; not because I had forgotten it - on the contrary: it is the kind that one reads again when one finds it among other letters, and I recognize you in it as if you were very near. It is your letter of May second, and I am sure you remember it.
As I read it now, in the great silence of these distances, I am touched by your beautiful anxiety about life, even more than when I was in Paris, where everything echoes and fades away differently because of the excessive noise that makes Things tremble. Here, where I am surrounded by an enormous landscape, which the winds move across as they come from the seas, here I feel that there is no one anywhere who can answer for you those questions and feelings which, in their depths, have a life of their own; for even the most articulate people are unable to help, since what words point to is so very delicate, is almost unsayable. But even so, I think that you will not have to remain without a solution if you trust in Things that are like the ones my eyes are now resting upon. If you trust in Nature, in what is simple in Nature, in the small Things that hardly anyone sees and that can so suddenly become huge, immeasurable; if you have this love for what is humble and try very simply, as someone who serves, to win the confidence of what seems poor: then everything will become easier for you, more coherent and somehow more reconciling, not in your conscious mind perhaps, which stays behind, astonished, but in your innermost awareness, awakeness, and knowledge.
You are so young, so much before all beginning, and I would like to beg you, dear Sir, as well as I can, to have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don't search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer. 

GOP Strategy on Fiscal Discipline?

Getting rid of a $1.3 trillion dollar deficit---to say nothing of the $14 trillion national debt---is going to take some *serious* reductions in spending on Social Security, Medicaid, Medicare, and defense.  Cutting nondefense discretionary spending just isn't going to solve the fiscal problems---eliminating all federal spending except for the four horsemen mentioned above and interest on the debt would only reduce the deficit by half.  That's just the way it is.

So, my question is, what's the GOP House Leadership's political calculation about picking a fight over $100 billion in nondefense discretionary spending in the continuing resolution?

A hundred billion dollars isn't nothing, but it's less than 10% of the deficit.  Granted, proposing the cuts was a campaign promise, and it is a signal about being serious about bringing overall spending down.  That said, these cuts are taking a lot of political capital to push through, even on a short-term basis, and they open up the party to all kinds of attacks about lost support for all kinds of popular and relatively inexpensive budget items, like medical research.  That seems like a high price to pay for just the opening act to, I presume, *big* fights about changing the retirement age, means testing, reimbursement rates, copays, and rationing that will inevitably be part of the debate over reducing entitlement spending over the long run.

Does the leadership expect that the discretionary cuts will make passing the entitlement cuts easier somehow?   Are they trying to take these cuts while they can because the fear the entitlement reforms will fail?  Do they value the short-run payoff of "winning" the continuing resolution over the long-run payoff of actually balancing the budget?  Are they just position-taking to force the President to augment his record of fiscal irresponsibility?  Something else?