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Daily Howler: McWhorter made a remarkable claim--and TNR put it in print
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AN UNUSUAL SNORT! McWhorter made a remarkable claim–and TNR put it in print: // link // print // previous // next //
TUESDAY, FEBRUARY 3, 2009

Columnists don’t seem to need it: Those Wall Street tycoons should stop dishing out bonuses! This has to be the easiest—and least instructive—column a pundit could proffer these days. We chortled when Maureen Dowd typed this high-minded piece from inside Dear Jack’s former Georgetown crib. We snorted today when the Post’s Gene Robinson typed up the very same column.

These columns offer us little instruction, at a time when we need a whole lot of same. But for a pure/perfect know-nothing column, we recommend the twenty-minute wonder typed today by the Post’s Richard Cohen.

For some reason, Cohen has gotten it into his head that the pending (emergency) stimulus package would provide the perfect way to drive education “reform.” Of course, Cohen knows nothing about such issues, except what he hears at cocktail parties. As you can see from his column, his ideas reflect “an emerging consensus”—and by this phrase, he actually means “whatever Joel Klein and Michelle Rhee have said in the past few weeks.” In our view, Klein and Rhee’s ideas are well worth considering, though we think they paint from a limited pallette. But to Cohen, Klein and Rhee are the final word. He starts to describe that “emerging consensus” in this know-little graf:

COHEN (2/3/09): Do your reading on education and you will find an emerging consensus. Abolish tenure. There are other ways to ensure that teachers are fairly treated without guaranteeing the jobs of the inept. (Cops don't have tenure, and neither do columnists.) Ensure that the best teachers teach at the most challenging schools and ensure also that they get paid lavishly for doing so.

“Abolish tenure,” Cohen advises, assuring us that columnists lack it. In fact, Cohen has lasted so long at the Post, through so many comical blunders, that his career seems to stand as clear proof that big pundits simply don’t need it. “Ensure that teachers teach at the most challenging schools,” he further lectures Obama—without explaining how we can “ensure” such a thing, especially once we’ve removed their tenure. After all: For decades, “the best teachers” have been leaving urban systems in favor of suburban districts. Question: Might that exodus increase if these “best teachers” are forced to teach in schools they’d rather avoid? Further question: Could Obama possibly deal with a problem like that as part of an emergency measure, one he hopes to complete in two weeks? And by the way: Are “the best teachers” in one school setting necessarily “the best teachers” somewhere else? If Teacher X is great in an upper-end AP program, will he necessarily be “the best” when it comes to teaching low-income kids who are years below grade level? Such questions have never occurred to Cohen—yet he somehow thinks they can be addressed as part of the two-week stimulus effort. Just a guess: Because his columns take fifteen minutes, he may believe that quandries like this can be settled by this time next week.

Things don’t get better as Cohen proceeds. Here are a few more “reforms” we can work out by Valentine’s Day:

COHEN (continuing directly): How about extending the school day, maybe for an hour or so? How about extending the school year? How about tinkering with the No Child Left Behind law but insisting that testing—accountability—be maintained? How about doing something about the sad fact that teachers aren't what they used to be? Now that women and minorities have more opportunities in almost every field, the best of them have abandoned teaching. The pay is lousy, and the work can be hard. Can $100 billion do something about that? Could be.

None of this is exactly radical. It is more or less the program advocated by such reforming big-city school chiefs as Washington's Michelle Rhee and New York's Joel Klein...

Extend the school day? Extend the school year? Those are perfectly valid ideas—and Cohen has heard that Klein and Rhee “more or less” advocate them. But: While such ideas aren’t “exactly radical,” there would be a giant eruption if Obama suddenly required such changes before a school district could receive federal revenue from the stimulus program. Beyond that, we’ll guess that Cohen knows nothing at all about the benefits—and pitfalls—of annual testing, as is mandated by NCLB. For ourselves, we strongly favor annual testing; school districts can tell the world that down-is-up without something resembling an objective measure. But the architects of NCLB didn’t seem to foresee the unfortunate things some states might do if forced to establish such programs. (Example: Absent oversight, states can make their reading tests easier, artificially inflating their statewide “passing rates.”) Presumably, Cohen doesn’t know such things. But he did know he had a column due, and he gave it a good fifteen minutes.

The weakness of this morning’s column highlights a wonderful irony. Cohen is a very poor spokesman for dumping weak performers by killing their tenure. During Campaign 2000, he authored two of the most ridiculous errors ever seen in the annals of typing; a few years later, he rushed into a long line of pundits, eager to say tell us how wonderful Powell had been in his UN performance. Here’s paragraph 2 from that masterwork. History hangs from this blunder:

COHEN (2/7/03): The evidence he presented to the United Nations—some of it circumstantial, some of it absolutely bone-chilling in its detail—had to prove to anyone that Iraq not only hasn't accounted for its weapons of mass destruction but without a doubt still retains them. Only a fool—or possibly a Frenchman—could conclude otherwise.

Je ne possess tenure, Cohen explains. His work makes it clear: Some don’t need it.

Our favorite Cohenism: Uh-oh! Just as a simple matter of fact, Candidate Bush had actually said it. But Bush had said it to B’nai B’rith; perhaps for that reason, Cohen got it into his head that Candidate Lieberman was the one who had said it! So Cohen spent an entire column trashing Al Gore’s running-mate for something Bush himself had said! (Lieberman’s statements were “preposterously false” and “downright repugnant,” Cohen thundered. A well-masked “correction” appeared the next week.) By the way: Bush’s actual statement was nowhere near as kooky as Cohen had made it sound. In accordance with standard pundit procedures, the non-tenured gentleman doctored the statement before he dumped it off on poor Joe.

And yes, this really did occur. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 9/7/00.

Nine years later, Cohen’s still here, arguing that strong performers simply don’t need no stinkin’ tenure. The irony ran all through today’s column. The analysts said: “Let it be heard.”

Special report: Snorter McWhorter!

PART 2—AN UNUSUAL SNORT: To the best of our recollection, erasing the “achievement gap” became a familiar national goal during the civil rights/Great Society era, in the late 1960s. In 1967, Jonathan Kozol published Death at an Early Age, the story of a year he had spent teaching in a minority school in Boston. (The book won a National Book Award.) That same year, Herbert Kohl published 36 Children, the story of two years he’d spent teaching sixth grade in Harlem; it too was widely read and discussed. (Kohl had taught in a different New York City school for most of the previous year.)

In the first of the two school years described in 36 Children, Kohl said he was assigned “6-1,” the top sixth-grade class in a very large public school. (The school seems to have had at least seven sixth-grade classes, perhaps as many as ten.) Early on, Kohl described what he found at the start of the year. In this passage, he describes the second day of school in a Harlem sixth grade in September 1962:

KOHL (page 19): The books arrived the next morning before class. There were twenty-five arithmetic books from one publisher and twelve from another, but in the entire school there was no complete set of sixth-grade arithmetic books. A few days spent checking the first day’s arithmetic assignment showed me that it wouldn’t have mattered if a full set had existed, since half the class had barely mastered multiplication and only one child, Grace, who had turned in a perfect paper, was actually ready for sixth-grade arithmetic...

The situation was almost as bad in reading—the top class of the sixth grade had more than half its members reading on fourth-grade level and only five or six children actually able to read through a sixth-grade book.

“[M]ore than half the class had to be forced to use books they couldn’t read,” Kohl wrote, a few pages later, describing the way this school year began. Again, Kohl was describing the highest-achieving sixth-grade class in what was a very large New York City grade school. (Note: The data suggest that things have improved in schools like this since those inglorious days—though a gap persists.)

Back to our hazy recollections: During that period—in part because of those widely-read books—the liberal world began to buzz about the problem described in that passage. (Although the familiar phrase, “achievement gap,” wasn’t in wide use at the time.) Within a decade or so, it became fairly clear that erasing this gap wasn’t going to be as easy as some had assumed at the start; at that point, we’d have to say that the liberal world began to walk away from low-income schools, and from the children inside them.

Kohl described a sorry state of affairs—a gap with which many teachers have struggled, with an apparent degree of success. And yet, a recent piece in The New Republic makes a rather peculiar claim about that punishing, much-discussed gap. The piece was written by John McWhorter, a conservative-leaning Berkeley linguistics professor.

McWhorter’s basic claim is implausible on its face—but no, we wouldn’t call it impossible. As he starts to lay out his claim, he describes a recent New York City Schools forum about that lingering gap. And good grief! A solution was discovered long ago, he explains. We just haven’t bothered to use it:

MCWHORTER (1/14/09): The forum was a typical one on race and education, as ritualized as a religious service...

Yet a solution for the reading gap was discovered four decades ago. Starting in the late 1960s, Siegfried Engelmann led a government-sponsored investigation, Project Follow Through, that compared nine teaching methods and tracked their results in more than 75,000 children from kindergarten through third grade. It found that the Direct Instruction (DI) method of teaching reading was vastly more effective than any of the others for (drum roll, please) poor kids, including black ones. DI isn't exactly complicated: Students are taught to sound out words rather than told to get the hang of recognizing words whole, and they are taught according to scripted drills that emphasize repetition and frequent student participation.

In a half-day preschool in Champaign-Urbana they founded, Engelmann and associates found that DI teaches four-year-olds to understand sounds, syllables, and rhyming. Its students went on to kindergarten reading at a second-grade level, with their mean IQ having jumped 25 points. In the 70s and 80s, similar results came from nine other sites nationwide, and since then, the evidence of DI's effectiveness has been overwhelming, raising students' reading scores in schools in Baltimore, Houston, Milwaukee and other districts. A search for an occasion where DI was instituted and failed to improve students' reading performance would be distinctly frustrating.

We wouldn’t call those claims impossible—but on their face, they’re truly remarkable. According to McWhorter,a solution for the reading gap was discovered four decades ago,” around the time Kozol and Kohl were struggling in those low-income schools. That solution—the “solution to the reading gap”—is the instructional program known as Direct Instruction. According to McWhorter’s clear suggestion, the use of Direct Instruction sends low-income, four-year-old preschoolers “on to kindergarten reading at a second-grade level.” It first did so in the late 1960s. Educators have always known this. Since the 1980s, there has been “overwhelming evidence” of this program’s effectiveness, in the three cities McWhorter names and in other districts besides.

If you read McWhorter’s piece on-line, you’ll see that he links to studies from the three big cities he has named—studies which are supposed to support his remarkable claims. (Example: For the “evidence” from Houston, you can click right here—though you’ll see it’s eleven years old.) Presumably, these studies show that Direction Instruction still works its miracle cures, even after all these long years.

Shorter McWhorter: We’ve always known how to erase the gap. We just haven’t chosen to do it.

We’ve referred to those claims as “Shorter McWhorter,” but you might call their author Snorter McWhorter. As he continues along in his piece, McWhorter snorts at the very idea that erasing that gap is perplexing or hard. He explains why schools have refused to erase it; he links to this intriguing piece from the conservative-leaning Manhattan Institute. (The piece makes some claims which strike us as strange—others which sadly do not.) But sitting right there, for all to see, is McWhorter’s remarkable snort: We’ve always known how to erase the gap. We just haven’t chosen to do it.

Truly, that’s a remarkable claim. It’s stunning if it’s actually true; in some ways, it’s equally stunning if not. Wasting our time as we constantly do, we clicked and clicked on McWhorter’s links, examining the proof he’d compiled.

So is it true, what McWhorter said? Is it true that we’ve always known how to erase the achievement gap? With all due respect to the fiery lads who wander the halls at The New Republic, we thought we found a familiar old tale—after we’d wasted a lot of our time trudging off where McWhorter’s links led.

Tomorrow: A tale of three cities.