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SHOW US THE MIRACLE! McWhorter described a miracle cure. At one school, it hasn’t happened: // link // print // previous // next //
THURSDAY, FEBRUARY 5, 2009

A week that pathetically was: This has been a week that was within your hapless “press corps.” At this point in our nation’s devolution, are we even dimly capable of conducting a serious public discussion? Simply put, are we smart enough to do that? Just consider these events, all in the past five days:

At the Los Angeles Times: Robin Abcarian devoted an entire “news report” to a deeply important question: Is Jill Biden being “pompous” when she calls herself “Dr. Biden?” (For Jamison Foser’s review, click here.) At a time of war and financial collapse, the Times devoted big space to this problem. (The reason for this is fairly clear from one part of Abcarian’s piece. You see, Joe Biden is already seen as pompous—and, within the modern press corps, narrative never dies.)

On MSNBC: David Shuster spent a segment interviewing Deroy Murdock about this gong-show newspaper column, in which Murdock reviewed the “evidence” suggesting that global warming is just a laughable scam. Murdock’s piece could hardly be dumber—but so what? Shuster opened with a standard jest about the way it’s been snowing in London, and he ended the nonsense with this: “It`s a great piece, Deroy. Even though a lot of people disagree with you, you’ve done enough reporting on this, stirring the pot, to be our Muckraker of the Day. Congratulations!” (Gruesome coda: One night later, Rachel Maddow enthusiastically told Shuster that his show “has been great recently.”)

On Meet the Press: David Gregory bungled a basic fact about Social Security, perhaps worse than it’s ever been bungled before (click here). Again, this was a stunningly basic fact—and Gregory still can’t seem to master it, even while hosting his country’s most famous news program. But then, David Broder refers, in this morning’s Post, to Social Security’s “looming bankruptcy.” Broder is the pundit corps’ dean—and he simply can’t stop using a word which is (at best) grossly, grotesquely misleading.

Our question: At this stage of its unraveling, is your country smart enough to conduct even the simplest discussions? We’ve wondered about that as we’ve watched our news orgs discuss—or pretend to discuss—the ongoing stimulus package. Attempts to discuss what the package contains have been, at best, lazy and halting. At the New York Times, this January 28 front-page report was a perfectly adequate first attempt to work through what the package contains. But that’s largely where Times efforts ended. We’ve seen very few serious efforts to sift through the package so citizens can have an informed understanding of its contents. And as usual, big news orgs have avoided the talking-points which are shaping the public’s understanding.

Consider today’s New York Times, for example. After you work through her masterful joking, Gail Collins correctly describes the way the bill is now seen by many voters:

COLLINS (2/5/09): By now, the public has gotten the idea that it’s all a big waste, something the Communicator in the Oval Office has not been very good at contradicting. It’s time for a presidential address to the nation, with charts and perhaps a little illustration of California dropping off into the ocean.

We assume that highlighted statement is accurate; many voters do have the idea that the bill is “all a big waste,” a hodge-podge of Christmas tree ornaments. But note where this idea takes Collins: Obama should made an address, she says; he should even show us some charts. That may be a good idea—but have those charts ever appeared in the Times? We’d have to say that they have not. Nor has the Times directly addressed the talking-points which have ruled the public discussion. But then, our big newspapers have acted, for decades, as if talk radio and cable TV don’t exist. Potent images emerge from those media—images your pseudo-journos are simply too tame to address.

For years now, we’ve tried to describe a cultural fact, one that’s hard for some to process: At present, your public discourse is directed by a feckless, pseudo-journalistic elite—an upper-class cohort which is simply unwilling or unable to examine ideas. Your discussion is run by a D-plus elite—by a group which just isn’t up to the job. Indeed, here’s one more example of how this group “thinks:” That January 28 overview of the stimulus package ran 1184 words in the Times. This morning, this Times report about Tom Daschle’s life-style rated 1543.

At a time of war, with the economy dying, Abcarian wonders if Jill Biden is pompous. Shuster goes on the air to joke about the snow in London. And if you’re like us, you have a limited grasp of what’s really in that stimulus package. For the most part, voters are forced to choose among pandering proffers from several unhelpful clans.

Tomorrow, we’ll give you an example (from this editorial) of something in the stimulus package we’d never heard a word about. Meanwhile, will Obama make the speech Collins requested, presenting the charts her own newspaper won’t? Will Obama address “the idea that it’s all a big waste?” We don’t know, but we were stunned today by this part of E. J. Dionne’s column:

DIONNE (2/5/09): Daschle's withdrawal as the nominee for secretary of health and human services poses a long-term challenge to the administration's ambitious health-care plans because the former Senate majority leader was so crucial to the White House's strategy. But the battering that the stimulus has taken is an immediate problem.

Although Obama aides dismiss the media coverage as "cable chatter" important only inside the "Washington echo chamber," they acknowledge that Congress does its work inside that noisy hall and that the journalistic back-and-forth has tainted its key legislative objective. "We didn't give it as much air cover last week as we should" have, said one top adviser. "We lost a week."

Good God! Obama aides dismiss the media coverage as "cable chatter" important only inside the "Washington echo chamber?” We’ve been amazed, a time or two in the past, by the cluelessness of Big Major Dems. But could that possibly be any part of what these folk actually think?

Special report: Snorter McWhorter!

PART 3—SHOW US THE MIRACLE: On its face, John McWhorter’s claim was a bit hard to believe. But his piece appeared in The New Republic, one of our most famous “liberal” journals—and McWhorter was a Berkeley professor, albeit a linguistics prof. What had McWhorter so strikingly claimed? Here it is, in shortened form (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 2/3/09). Yes, he actually said it:

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

Yikes! According to McWhorter, the education world has known, since the late 1960s, that an instructional program named Direct Instruction (DI) can wipe away the achievement gap! Yet over the course of the past four decades, dumbkopfs in the public schools have cruelly refused to use it! If low-income preschoolers are taught with DI, they will enter kindergarten reading on second-grade level, he seemed to say—quite remarkably. So snorted the Berkeley professor, in the well-known liberal journal. Along the way, McWhorter linked to evidence drawn from three cities—Baltimore, Houston and Milwaukee. He mentioned Richmond as well.

We knew very little about DI, and we’re willing to believe that almost anything’s possible. Unfortunately, when we spent time clicking McWhorter’s links, we found the kind of pure/perfect bull-roar that has been so common, for so many years, when this nation’s major news orgs pretend to discuss low-income schools. Why did TNR wave this snorting piece into print? We don’t have the slightest idea. But here’s the first thing we observed when we checked the professor’s work:

McWhorter’s first link, in paragraph 5, takes readers to a detailed recent piece in the conservative-leaning City Journal (published by the Manhattan Institute). In his piece, Shepard Barbash discusses the promise and pitfalls of expanded preschool instruction. Soon, he too is praising Direct Instruction—and he describes a Baltimore school where the program is currently used. For the record, we’d guess that this is an excellent school—that its children are lucky to go there:

BARBASH (9/08): One site that has endured is Hampstead Hill Academy, a public charter school (pre-K to grade 8) operated by the Baltimore Curriculum Project, a nonprofit organization specializing in Direct Instruction. Stephanie Brown has taught DI math, reading, and language curricula there for ten years, the last five in all-day, state-funded pre-K. Eighty percent of her students come from poor homes, more than half are African-American or Latino, and one-third are immigrants still learning English. Many arrive not knowing how to hold a pair of scissors, use pronouns, speak in complete sentences, or follow simple directions. By the end of the school year, they have learned to sort objects into classes, identify opposites, recognize logical absurdities, use synonyms and if/then statements, create definitions for objects, read simple sentences, and do simple addition problems.

Brown breaks the rules of her profession. In the first months of school, she teaches her four-year-olds to sit at desks, work independently on exercises with pencil and paper, and concentrate for up to 30 minutes at a stretch (twice each morning) as she delivers the fast-paced DI lessons, one each for language and math. During DI time she breaks the class into three groups, arranged by skill level, to teach them more efficiently. She corrects mistakes quickly, firmly, and consistently.

“Read this,” Brown says, pointing at the “+2” written on the blackboard. “Everyone, get ready”...

Barbash goes on to offer a detailed description of Brown’s DI lessons. Barbash believes that DI (and DI-type programs) represent the way to go in preschool education. For ourselves, we think such important claims deserve to be carefully assessed. Beyond that, we assume Brown is a superlative teacher—that her children are lucky to have her.

That said, McWhorter had made remarkable claims about DI’s effects. “[A] solution for the reading gap was discovered four decades ago” he wrote, snorting at ongoing efforts in New York City’s schools to deal with this ongoing problem. (For the record: NAEP data suggest the gap is substantially smaller than it was four decades ago.) What type of miracle does DI deliver? In his most eye-popping passage, McWhorter suggests that preschoolers taught with DI will parade into kindergarten reading on second-grade level! Direct Instruction is “the answer to the problems people at forums like these find so challenging,” he snorts, referring to an education forum he attended in Gotham. And he mocks the efforts of those teachers and administrators who keep pretending that we don’t know how to erase the gap. (“It's as if you're listening to people discuss the merits of moving a two-ton load of grain into a barn by spreading the ground between the load and the barn with cooking grease and heaving-ho.”)

In his own more thoughtful piece, Barbash devotes a lot of space to Hampstead Hill, the Baltimore school which has used DI in preschool for (it seems) ten years. But Snorter McWhorter had seemed to say that DI offers miracle cures. We decided to look at that school’s test scores to see if this cure has presented.

Let’s say it again: Based on all we know about it, we’d guess that Hampstead Hill Academy is a very good school whose children are lucky to go there. But to our eye, nothing in the school’s current test scores suggests that a miracle cure has arrived after ten years of DI. In fairness, Barbash only says that Hampstead Hill uses DI in its pre-school; it’s possible that miracles happen at that level, then get washed away in the later years. (Barbash doesn’t say whether the school uses DI in later grades.) But according to current Maryland test scores, Hampstead Hill’s black and Hispanic kids tend to perform somewhat less well than blacks and Hispanics in the state of Maryland as a whole—and Maryland’s white students do outperform the state’s black and Hispanic kids. Let’s cherry-pick fifth grade reading, for instance. Here you see percentages of those who failed to pass the state’s reading test last year—of those scoring below proficient:

Percentage below proficient, fifth-graders, Maryland reading test, 2008:
Hampstead Hill, Hispanics: 22.2 percent
Maryland, statewide, Hispanics: 17.6 percent
Maryland, statewide, whites: 6.9 percent

Here we see similar data for black kids:

Percentage below proficient, fifth-graders, Maryland reading test, 2008:
Hampstead Hill, blacks: 30.8 percent
Maryland, statewide, blacks: 21.6 percent
Maryland, statewide, whites: 6.9 percent

You can’t learn much from Hampstead Hill’s data; we’re dealing with very small numbers here, and Hampstead Hill’s kids are lower-income than those in the state as a whole. But it doesn’t seem that a miracle, of the kind described, has actually occurred at this school—a school we would guess is superb. For the past ten years, have kids been entering this school’s kindergarten reading on the second grade level? We would guess that they have not. But that eye-catching image gave McWhorter’s snorts their biggest pop.

From what we’ve read about Hampstead Hill, we’d assume that it’s an excellent school; we think Barbash’s description of Stephanie Brown’s work with her preschool kids is inspiring. But McWhorter made extravagant, snorting claims—and The New Republic put them in print. And uh-oh! When we looked at the rest of McWhorter’s “evidence,” we thought his piece looked a good deal worse.

Next: A tale of three or four cities.