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FISHER HAS A FEELING! Margaret Carlson had a feeling last week. On Sunday, a Post pundit did too: // link // print // previous // next //
MONDAY, JANUARY 12, 2009

Maureen Dowd joins little Alvin: Maybe it’s simply the best they can do! After all these years, the thought began to play in our heads as we watched Wolf Blitzer and John King say this, on yesterday’s Late Edition:

BLITZER (1/11/09): [Obama] is already saying, John—and you and I remember Bill Clinton had to scale back, after he was elected, some of those campaign pledges. He's already saying, You know what, I might not be able to do, right away, everything I promised during the campaign.

KING: A dramatic effort, and a smart effort, to lower expectations, because you're right. He promised so much during the campaign, health care reform right out of the box, these climate change initiatives, including the green jobs. And he realizes he has a huge economic problem, a hole of gigantic proportions that he has to fill in first. And it's going to take money, time, and political capital away from all those other things he promised. So he has these supporters out there, who have been waiting, now, nine of the 10 weeks since the election, saying, When he takes his hands off the Bible, what's going to change?

And he's trying to say, this is going to take a lot of time. He's also, by that "I'll take any idea," trying to bring some Republicans, Democrats into the table, too.

Really, that’s pitiful. Obama is “already”saying that? In fact, shortly after economic disaster hit on September 15, Obama began saying that he might have to slow the schedule on some of the programs he’d promised during the campaign. He said this all through the campaign’s last two months, from that mid-September point on. Indeed, Obama made this very point about his own past statements in his interview on yesterday’s This Week. But so what? Blitzer made it sound like Obama began saying he might have to “scale back” his promises only after November’s election. (And he made the obligatory comparison to Bill Clinton—a misleading comparison in this context.) Three pundits sat with him on the set. None of them noted this distinction.

This morning, the increasingly hapless Morning Joe gang opened their program with this same bungled point. Joe and Mika chuckled about the way Obama was now scaling back his promises. (Related question: What in the world has happened to the Scarborough in the past several months? He used to be massively smarter.)

But uh-oh! After these many years, the thought has finally started to enter our heads: This may be the best this cohort can do. After all, this embarrassing nonsense, from yesterday’s Meet the Press, seems to count as part of an “in-depth discussion” within this cohort’s culture:

BILL COSBY (1/11/09): I, I think we need to do some work with numbers. For instance, if in a city the— To educate a kid in public school, it would cost $8,000 per child. Let's use that figure. To incarcerate, keep that person, is 41,000.

DAVID GREGORY: Mm-hmm.

COSBY: All right. So if, if we know that the lack of education leads to a person's chances of committing crimes because they are not skilled at anything in particular, perhaps even illiterate or functionally illiterate, then why not try to educate all of our children, try to educate all of our children? So eight from 41,000 leaves you 33,000 left. I think we need to do the math on that and put more children in a position who are not doing well—

GREGORY: Mm-hmm.

COSBY: —to help them do well, because these children are not—you—some of them may be different, they learn differently. So instead of just moving little Alvin along, let's educate Alvin to move along so he can catch up with Bill.

If we understand that correctly, Cosby was suggesting that we should “try to educate all our children.” Gregory seemed to agree.

But then, this cohort’s intellectual standards have long been stunningly low. In part, that’s because they have always controlled the public discussion. In this post, Glenn Greenwald reviews Joe Klein’s latest flip—but such flips have long characterized the way these major pundits work. Human brains rot, then melt away, under such lazy regimens.

Political junkies have long been comfortable with analyses based on the corps’ alleged “biases.” Bias is a respectable analytical tool—but the sheer dumbness of this group’s culture is astounding. To cite an example, this is how a Pulitzer winner started yesterday’s column:

DOWD (1/11/09): In the past week, I’ve twice been close enough to Dick Cheney to kick him in the shins.

I didn’t. It’s probably a federal crime of some sort. But a girl can fantasize. I did, however, assume the Stay-away-from-me-you’ve-got-cooties stance that Jimmy Carter used when posing with Bill Clinton at the presidents’ powwow in the Oval.

When this “girl” described her recent behavior, she turned to “cooties” imagery. (In fairness, she may have broken up because Mousketeer Cheryl had died.)

Bias is a key analytical tool—but it’s the sheer dumbness of this palace world that is its most remarkable trait. Alas! To this day, many people are uncomfortable offering analyses of this dumbness. Within our culture, it’s considered rude to go there. This keeps us from discussing the truth.

These people love to decry the low standards we maintain for our low-income kids. They hate the way we “just move little Alvin along.” In the process, they fail to note an obvious fact: They’ve created a thoroughly brainless culture; it offers them the same service.

MARC FISHER HAS A FEELING: We were too impolite in last Friday’s post about Marc Fisher’s column in the Post—although the technical points we made were correct and important (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 1/9/09). Fisher wrote about Broad Acres Elementary School, a low-income Montgomery County (Maryland) school whose passing rates on Maryland state tests has substantially risen in the past six years. Fisher isn’t an education writer—and he showed little sign of knowing his brief in discussing this important topic. Why were we so impolite? Perhaps it was the weight of the years: We’ve reviewed this sort of know-nothing, mainstream education writing since the early 1970s. But we were much too abrasive on Friday. We wish we’d reined it in.

That said: On Sunday, Fisher offered the promised Part 2 in his series about low-income, minority schools. In this column, he visits a formerly low-scoring D.C. school, wondering if Michelle Rhee’s approach to low-income/minority schools might lead to success in the capital. In our view, Fisher’s lack of background was on display once again—although his column raised a number of basic points about low-income schools. (Generally, these points were raised unintentionally.) That aid, Fisher repeated last Wednesday’s technical blunder early on in Sunday’s column. If you care about low-income schools, it’s important to understand what’s missing from the pleasing passage which follows. Fisher is discussing DC’s maladroitly-named Truesdell Educational Center, the school on which this second column in his series is based:

FISHER (1/12/09): Truesdell, an overheated, underenrolled behemoth of a building just off Georgia Avenue NW in Petworth, is a crucible in Chancellor Michelle Rhee's hurried campaign to transform the city's schools. Its population—blacks and Hispanics, nearly all from families poor enough to qualify for subsidized meals—is demographically similar to that at Montgomery County's Broad Acres Elementary, which has moved from failure to remarkable achievement, as I reported in my last column.

Could a similar turnaround happen in a D.C. school—and does Rhee's more confrontational approach make that kind of change more or less likely?

Fisher asks an important question—but his “reporting” has moved ahead of his facts. Is it true? Has Broad Acres Elementary “moved from failure to remarkable achievement?” Has it achieved a “turnaround?” As we noted on Friday, you can’t really tell from the school’s passing rates in reading, which have jumped some 34 points in the past six years. Fisher reported that apparent good news in last Wednesday’s column, writing this: “Now those children are learning: 81 percent met reading proficiency standards this year, up from 47 percent in 2003.” He re-affirmed this upbeat judgment in Sunday’s follow-up piece.

But is it true? Does that change in passing rates really signal “remarkable achievement”—“a turnaround” at Broad Acres? In one sense, it’s abundantly clear that it doesn’t. As we noted, that change in passing rates was matched by black and Hispanic kids all over the state of Maryland in the six years under review. In this sense, the achievement at Broad Acres isn’t “remarkable” at all; it’s typical of the state as a whole, a point which Fisher should have noted in offering his assessment. In another sense, it just isn’t clear if that change in passing rates represents “remarkable achievement.” That change in passing rates doesn’t mean anything at all—unless the 2008 reading tests were as hard as those in 2003. But there’s no way of knowing if that is the case. Here at THE HOWLER, we don’t know if the current tests are as hard as the old ones—and Fisher doesn’t know either.

Have the kids at Broad Acres Elementary School really “moved from failure to remarkable achievement?” If they have, then black and Hispanic kids have done the same thing all over the state of Maryland. That’s a gigantic story, if true—a story Fisher and the Post should be telling their readers. But alas! Fisher brings very few understandings or tools to his discussion of low-income schools. For decades, this has been the norm when big newspapers discuss low-income/minority classrooms.

That said, Fisher’s second column provides a framework for pondering many basic questions. Unfortunately, Fisher skips right past most of these questions, presumably due to his lack of background. Even worse, he ends up offering this about Truesdell as he ends his piece:

FISHER: Test scores aren't in yet, and no one expects miracles. "We're not there," [principal Brearn] Wright says, "but we're getting there. Kids are learning." At Truesdell, in part because of the chancellor's confrontational ways and in part in spite of them, it feels like a revolution is brewing.

Last Wednesday, Margaret Carlson “had a feeling” (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 1/9/09). On Sunday, Fisher had one too. But did he know whereof he spoke? He showed few signs in his column.

Based on Fisher’s column, we’ll recommend the highest respect for Principal Wright—he’s just 36—and for Jackie Hines, a Truesdell kindergarten teacher and the school’s union rep. These people have worked in the fields; as reported, they make sensible statements to Fisher at various points in his column. But Fisher has little expertise to go along with the revolutionary feeling he offers. Sadly, this is the way big newspapers have approached urban schools for lo, these many years.

Often unintentionally, Fisher’s Sunday column raised significant questions. We’ll discuss some of those questions this week.