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DO AS THEY SAY! Our scribes applaud high standards—for kids. For themselves and Ed Secs, not so much: // link // print // previous // next //
FRIDAY, JANUARY 16, 2009

How did she get on that team: We couldn’t help it! Involuntarily, we emitted low, mordant chuckles when Howard Kurtz wrote in the Washington Post about Obama’s meetings with journalists:

KURTZ (/1/5/09): Obama balanced the scales yesterday by sitting down with 11 liberal commentators, including The Washington Post's Eugene Robinson, syndicated columnist E.J. Dionne, Maureen Dowd and Frank Rich of the New York Times, MSNBC's Rachel Maddow, CNN's Roland Martin, and a conservative—Atlantic blogger Andrew Sullivan—who strongly supported his campaign. That meeting took place in the less intimate setting of Obama’s transition office, and lasted a little more than an hour.

But what makes Maureen Dowd a “liberal?” Whatever it is, it made her a “liberal” at Salon too! Indeed, Alex Koppelman made matters worse. He even put Dowd on “the left!”

KOPPELMAN (1/14/09): Barack Obama may have dined with conservative columnists Tuesday night, but that doesn't mean the president-elect is leaving the liberals out. Politico's Michael Calderone reports that Obama met Wednesday at his transition headquarters with a group of pundits from the left, including Frank Rich and Maureen Dowd of the New York Times, MSNBC's Rachel Maddow and the Washington Post's E.J. Dionne and Eugene Robinson. (Some moderates were included as well.)

Koppelman could have called her a “moderate.” But to him, she’s a gal of “the left!”

Why would anyone call Dowd a “liberal?” There’s nothing wrong with not being a liberal, of course; according to their self-descriptions, most Americans aren’t. But Dowd has little observable politics. She voices views on almost no issues. Instead, she dreams silly personality tales—and many of her silliest tales have been at the expense of Big Dems or their troubling wives. From 1997 through 2000, Gore’s bald spot nearly drove her insane. In 2004, the frumpy wardrobe of Howard Dean’s wife pretty much finished her off.

Ewww! And not only that! Dr. Steinberg was “blithely uncoiffed!”

So how did Dowd get on the “liberal” team? Kurtz knew Sullivan didn’t belong; Koppelman knew that some guests were just “mods.” But each saw Dowd as a fiery lib. Why do such listings continue?

DO AS THEY SAY: Margaret Spellings is all about The Cult of High Expectations. For the record, we too support high expectations. But then too, we’re wary of cults.

Last Tuesday, Spellings wrote a “Dear Arne” letter to Arne Duncan, Obama’s incoming Secretary of Education (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 1/14/09). At one point, she urged Duncan to defend No Child Left Behind against those who would try to “dismantle” it. (For the record: We think some parts of the law are constructive. Other parts? Not so much.) Later, she spoke for a coalition of “reformers”—and she recited a standard belief of a well-known modern cult:

SPELLINGS (1/13/09): You will need allies in this fight. And you will find them in the unique and growing nationwide coalition of reformers. These civil rights, business and community leaders understand that recovery on Wall Street and Main Street depends on reform in the classroom. They recognize, as do you and President-elect Obama, that when we raise expectations, we achieve results.

“When we raise expectations, we achieve results,” Spellings said, explaining what those “reformers” all know. Soon after that, she offered Duncan a murkier bit of advice:

SPELLINGS: You have said that "the ideas behind [the law] make a lot of sense." One of those ideas is that every student be taught to grade level in reading and math. Most parents would agree that that is not too much to ask.

According to Spellings, every student should be “taught to grade level in reading and math.” No, we’re not quite sure what that means; the lady’s syntax was a bit hard to parse. But it sounds like she wants to maintain those “high standards”—the high expectations which only naturally help us achieve results.

Again, let’s make it clear: We believe in high expectations (and “high standards”) for low-income school kids too. Many years ago—it would have been 1970 or 1971—we stood outside Dorothy Riddick’s classroom door and heard the demanding instrumental music teacher chewing her young blowhards out. “Yes, Mrs. Riddick will fuss,” she announced, in tough-talking tones. “Mrs. Riddick is going to fuss until she sees you doing this right.” We liked the way she used the third-person—and we liked the message she was sending. (And we began to copy her act.) These were low-income, low-scoring Baltimore kids—but Mrs. Riddick was going to fuss until they met her high standards. Indeed, we thought of Mrs. Riddick last week, when we read this passage from Marc Fisher’s piece, in the Washington Post, about Broad Acres Elementary:

FISHER (1/8/09): [T]he faculty gathers every Wednesday for hours of mentoring and brainstorming, creating plans for each child who is falling behind. In classrooms, bilingual or special education teachers slide in alongside the regular teacher, taking two or three children onto the floor to focus on computation or reading aloud.

The formula includes after-school activities, arts and music, and a mental health team that swoops in to examine the family crisis that may lie behind a classroom outburst. But teachers say it's not extra budget lines that make the difference; it's the conviction that nothing will stand in the way of achievement.

When a kindergartner keeps falling asleep in class, a teacher goes to see the parent. Problem identified: The family has one twin mattress for four children. Solution: The school gets the child a bed.

There was more, but you get the (inspiring) idea. In our view, you can’t say enough for the kind of hard work public school teachers like these expend on behalf of their low-income students. Four days later, Fisher described similar efforts at DC’s Truesdell Educational Center. There too, he saw teachers going the extra mile on behalf of their low-income kids.

You can’t say enough for what Fisher saw—but was the reported judgment at Broad Acres correct? Is it true? Does “the conviction that nothing will stand in the way of achievement” really “make the difference?” Writing about Truesdell, Fisher attributed a similar outlook to the school’s admirable principal, 36-year-old Brearn Wright:

FISHER (1/11/09): As at Broad Acres, Wright believes half the battle is persuading teachers that kids from dysfunctional backgrounds must be held to high standards. He screened inspirational scenes from the movie "Miracle," about the 1980 U.S. Olympic ice hockey team. But when Wright asked teachers to mark down what percentage of Truesdell kids should be making the proficient grade in reading, only a few dared to write 100. Most wrote numbers such as 55, 65, 68 or 69.

But is it true? Are high standards really “half the battle?” And if so, what’s the other half? Like so many upper-end journalists, Fisher made little real attempt to answer either one of these questions. But then, it’s been this way for decades now when it comes to public school journalism. Journalists recommend high standards for low-income kids—and maintain a low bar for themselves.

In his piece about Broad Acres, Fisher displayed a severe lack of skill when it came to interpreting test scores (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 1/13/09). But statistical illiteracy has long been the norm when journalists assess low-income schools. Our question: Has Broad Acres’ admirable faculty really moved the school “from failure to remarkable achievement,” as Fisher claimed in Sunday’s piece? In fairness, there’s no real way to answer that question from the test scores Fisher cited—and if Broad Acres has really done that, it looks like a similar story has played out all over Maryland. But Fisher didn’t seem to know these things. And by the way: When Wright “asked teachers to mark down what percentage of Truesdell kids should be making the proficient grade in reading,” what answer were they supposed to give? “[O]nly a few dared to write 100,” Fisher wrote—implying that only these few brave souls got it right. But is it obvious that’s the right answer? (Is it even clear what that paraphrased question meant?) If you’re writing a novel, it is. And that’s what journalists have typically done, for decades now, when they take their limited skills for a drop-by at low-income schools.

Or when they let Ed Secs write open letters, in which they make politicized statements in support of their signature programs.

In her “Dear Arne” letter to Duncan, Spellings implied that test scores have risen to “record highs” due to her baby, No Child Left Behind. But whatever you think of this federal program (we think some parts of the program are good), it just isn’t clear that that’s really the case. Nor is it clear that we automatically “achieve results” just because “we raise expectations”—whatever that is taken to mean. Nor is it clear that “every student [should] be taught to grade level in reading and math”—whatever that murky statement might mean. But this is the kind of murky discussion that has long been accepted from people like Spellings. (The rules were the same for Bill Clinton’s Ed Sec.) You know the rules inside the palace! Low-income kids should be held to high standards. Big hacky Ed Secs? Maybe not.

But then, silly, novelized, feel-good discussions have driven our education journalism for decades. Journalists show up at low-income schools without any technical skill at all; they mill around for an hour or so, then go home and type whatever narrative is currently current. In the present environment, it’s chic to sing the praise of teachers maintaining “high expectations/high standards.” But what do such pleasing mantras mean? What kinds of achievement are these notions producing? Fisher didn’t sem to know how to approach those Maryland test scores. And the Post didn’t make Spellings explain what she actually meant when she said we should “teach to grade level.”

But then, it’s been this way for decades now, at least since the early 1970s. Talk about the bigotry of low expectations! Journalists applaud high standards—for low-income kids. For themselves and Ed Secs? Not so much.

For extra credit: For extra credit, we recommend this somewhat implausible piece by John McWhorter at The New Republic. (Shorter McWhorter: We’ve known for decades how to erase the achievement gap!) At one point, McWhorter drives his piece with third-grade test scores from two Virginia school districts—scores from 2005. But Virginia’s grade-school test scores were utterly bogus at that time, as the head of the state school board correctly acknowledged in March 2006 (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 3/23/06). Did McWhorter know that? Are his data good? We don’t know, but we plan to ask.

Please note: McWhorter’s larger claim could be true even if these data are bad. But we couldn’t help noting this possible problem. (Why not compare these two school districts now? Nothing relevant has changed, and their scores are now much more similar.)

By the way: When the state acknowledged that its data were bad, the Washington Post didn’t report it. In a rational world, this was obvious news. But the Post, applauding high standards for kids, seemed to maintain a very low standard for the affairs of the state.

(Today, when Virginia reports its test scores, it starts with 2006. Just click here, then pick any school.)