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EVERY PUNDIT A KING! Uh-oh! A famous film-maker—and a famous professor—wasted time about low-income ed: // link // print // previous // next //
THURSDAY, JANUARY 22, 2009

EVERY PUNDIT A KING: In Wednesday’s Post, economics writer Steven Pearlstein discussed Obama’s alleged attempt to create a new economics debate. Pearlstein framed his presentation with a paraphrase of Obama’s ongoing message: “The reason we keep getting the wrong answers, he says, is that we keep asking the wrong questions, talking about them with the wrong language and limiting ourselves with false choices.”

Then, Pearlstein seemed to list the right answers. With apologies for the length of his list, we were especially struck by one alleged right answer:

PEARLSTEIN (1/21/09): How will we know if and when Obama has succeeded in reshaping the terms of the economic debate?

We'll know when AARP announces that it is willing to accept a gradual increase in the retirement age as part of a comprehensive reform of Social Security.

We'll know when the U.S. Chamber of Commerce agrees to increase taxes and tariffs to support an expanded program of income support, health insurance and retraining programs for displaced workers, and in response organized labor lifts its opposition to all trade treaties.

We'll know when a big-city teachers union trades tenure for higher pay and performance bonuses.

We'll know when big drug companies accept a cost-benefit test for drug prices as a condition for universal coverage.

We'll know when enough corporate tax loopholes are closed to lower the corporate tax rate to 25 percent.

We'll know when farmers agree to give up price supports and "emergency" drought relief for a simplified program of government-subsidized crop insurance.

We'll know when the first corporate chief executive is led away in handcuffs for cutting corners on worker safety and when the first executive has his pay cut by a vote of his shareholders.

We'll know when a new nuclear plant is licensed with the support of the local Sierra Club and the first gas drilling rig is licensed on the coastal waters off Florida.

We'll know when Congress agrees to a carbon tax.

Most of all, we'll know when more college seniors aspire to work in government than on Wall Street.

None of that will come easily or quickly, but for the first time in a very long time, it all seems possible...

Blessed day! For the record, we think it’s clear that Pearlstein is endorsing these choices. He seems to regard them as the types of “right answers” we’ll finally get when we stop “asking ourselves the wrong questions, talking about them with the wrong language and limiting ourselves with false choices.”

For ourselves, we’d be inclined to agree with some of Pearlstein’s “answers,” to disagree with others. But we were especially struck by the “answer” we have highlighted—the one which concerns public schools.

For the record, it would be OK with us if some teachers union decided to make that particular “trade.” We have no idea what would result; to the extent that such results could be determined, we’d be glad to find out. But Pearlstein is an economics writer, not a specialist in public schools. We were struck by his sense of certainty on this subject—a subject which lies outside his apparent areas of expertise.

But then, it has long been thus. If we might borrow the language of Huey Long:: In the world of public punditry, every man is a king—an educational expert—when it comes to low-income schools.

Every pundit a king! We thought of this when we watched the tape of Monday’s forum at Howard University concerning the public schools. For C-Span’s tape of this event, just click here. At Howard’s web site, click this.

Howard’s panel included the superintendents of five big-city school systems. (New York; Philadelphia; Baltimore; Washington; New Orleans.) Thrown in for good measure: The dean of Howard’s School of Education, and a man who’s involved with Native American schools. Some of the superintendents seemed woefully weak; they self-contradicted with great aplomb, often seeming unable to stick to a point. But other superintendents made striking points—points that screamed for further discussion. This brings us to the moderator for the event, Harvard professor Charles Ogletree.

Ogletree is a well-known person, of course; that may be why he was picked for this post by the event’s sponsor, film-maker Spike Lee. But Ogletree’s a well-known professor of law—and he showed absolutely no skill this day when it came to discussion of low-income schools. He failed to follow up on remarks that simply begged for further discussion. Instead, he hopscotched around with illogical questions, jumping from one exceptionally familiar topic to the next.

When superintendents made little apparent sense, Ogletree didn’t seem to notice. When superintendents raised provocative points, he blundered past those moments too.

But so it goes, when famous film-makers ask famous law professors to moderate events about low-income schools. The audience paid twenty bucks—for the chance to watch an uninformed celebrity host botch an important discussion.

Was the soft bigotry of low expectations at work—in Pearlstein’s column, in Ogletree’s selection? Why is every pundit a king when it comes to our low-income schools?

The roads not taken: We were struck by several fairly typical parts of the grinding discussion at Howard. Two examples:

At least three panelists improbably claimed that (paraphrasing) we already know everything we need to know about how to educate low-income kids. (For the first example, see Philadelphia’s Arlene Ackerman, at the 16-minute mark of the tape.) This strikes us as a ludicrous claim, but Ogletree kept letting it go. To his credit, New York’s Joel Klein seemed to go out of his way to disagree at the 51-minute mark. (“We ought to be humble about our ideas,” he said—and then he said more.) But so what? The celebrity moderator didn’t react to what Klein said either.

During the course of the ninety minutes, we were struck by the total lack of any discussion about instructional methods. The supers were asked all the ritual questions: About merit pay; about charters and vouchers; about expanding the pool of teachers. These are perfectly valid questions—but the supers were never asked a single question about instructional or curricular practice. Implied theory: If you scare or bribe your existing teachers enough, those teachers will know what to do. Instructional tools are in place.

But we were especially struck by something important which DC’s Michelle Rhee said. You can see her longer statement, starting around the 42-minute mark. But here’s the take-home comment:

RHEE (1/19/09): Here in DC, only eight percent of our eighth-graders are performing on grade level in math—eight percent!

If accurate, that’s a remarkable statement. But then, Klein was working in the same ball park at the 1:20 mark:

KLEIN (1/19/09): When I became chancellor [of the New York City schools], the thing that shocked me most, and continues to shock me, was kids in high school, ten years minimal in the system, who could not read. These are sharp kids who can’t read. What were they doing for ten years? And who is accountable for their performance?

By law, you’re required to say that those kids are all “sharp.” That said, those were both excellent questions—from Klein. But Ogletree ignored them completely. Instead, he robotically asked the next super in line to share her view about vouchers.

Rhee and Klein went where rubber meets road. And Klein presented two excellent questions—questions about how we get to that place. Some day, we’d like to see a moderator—not an unqualified celebrity, if that’s humanly possible—follow up with questions like these:

What kinds of math textbooks and math programs are in place, in the lower grades, for kids who are way behind in math? Do your system’s teachers have well-defined, published instructional programs for kids who are way behind?

What kinds of history textbooks are in place, in (let’s say) third grade, for kids who “can’t read”—perhaps more precisely, for kids can’t read at traditional grade level? Can your system’s teachers give textbooks to these kids which they can actually read?

What kinds of reading programs are in place in your system for lower-grade kids who are way behind? Do teachers have well-defined, published instructional programs specifically designed for those kids?

If third-graders are reading below traditional grade level, do they have a ton of interesting recreational books—books which are written on the level where they are actually reading?

There are a million such questions to ask in the city. But if Ogletree had droned for a year, he wouldn’t have asked even one.

Rhee and Klein went to an important place. But a celebrity film-maker was interrupting from the front row, and a celebrity professor was bumbling his way through an endlessly scattered discussion. But this is how it has worked, for decades, when the interests of low-income kids are at stake. Every celebrity is a king! Every professor—if he’s famous enough—is an educational expert.

For twenty bucks, the people at Howard got to see a few stars. And they saw the interests of low-income kids thrown on the junk heap of history again. To all appearances, Ogletree had no earthly business being cast in that role. But darlings! The man is well-known!

Final note: PepsiCo also “presented” this discussion. At least they didn’t speak.