A week that pathetically was: This has been a week that was within your hapless press corps. At this point in our nations 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 Fosers 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 Abcarians piece. You see, Joe Biden is already seen as pompousand, 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. Murdocks piece could hardly be dumberbut so what? Shuster opened with a standard jest about the way its 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, youve 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 its ever been bungled before (click here). Again, this was a stunningly basic factand Gregory still cant seem to master it, even while hosting his countrys most famous news program. But then, David Broder refers, in this mornings Post, to Social Securitys looming bankruptcy. Broder is the pundit corps deanand he simply cant 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? Weve wondered about that as weve watched our news orgs discussor pretend to discussthe 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 thats largely where Times efforts ended. Weve 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 publics understanding.
Consider todays 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 its all a big waste, something the Communicator in the Oval Office has not been very good at contradicting. Its 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 ideabut have those charts ever appeared in the Times? Wed 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 dont exist. Potent images emerge from those mediaimages your pseudo-journos are simply too tame to address.
For years now, weve tried to describe a cultural fact, one thats hard for some to process: At present, your public discourse is directed by a feckless, pseudo-journalistic elitean upper-class cohort which is simply unwilling or unable to examine ideas. Your discussion is run by a D-plus eliteby a group which just isnt up to the job. Indeed, heres 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 Daschles 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 youre like us, you have a limited grasp of whats really in that stimulus package. For the most part, voters are forced to choose among pandering proffers from several unhelpful clans.
Tomorrow, well give you an example (from this editorial) of something in the stimulus package wed never heard a word about. Meanwhile, will Obama make the speech Collins requested, presenting the charts her own newspaper wont? Will Obama address the idea that its all a big waste? We dont know, but we were stunned today by this part of E. J. Dionnes 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? Weve 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 3SHOW US THE MIRACLE: On its face, John McWhorters claim was a bit hard to believe. But his piece appeared in The New Republic, one of our most famous liberal journalsand 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: Weve always known how to erase the achievement gap. We just havent 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 sayquite remarkably. So snorted the Berkeley professor, in the well-known liberal journal. Along the way, McWhorter linked to evidence drawn from three citiesBaltimore, Houston and Milwaukee. He mentioned Richmond as well.
We knew very little about DI, and were willing to believe that almost anythings possible. Unfortunately, when we spent time clicking McWhorters links, we found the kind of pure/perfect bull-roar that has been so common, for so many years, when this nations major news orgs pretend to discuss low-income schools. Why did TNR wave this snorting piece into print? We dont have the slightest idea. But heres the first thing we observed when we checked the professors work:
McWhorters 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 Instructionand he describes a Baltimore school where the program is currently used. For the record, wed guess that this is an excellent schoolthat 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 Browns 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 teacherthat her children are lucky to have her.
That said, McWhorter had made remarkable claims about DIs effects. [A] solution for the reading gap was discovered four decades ago he wrote, snorting at ongoing efforts in New York Citys 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 dont 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 schools test scores to see if this cure has presented.
Lets say it again: Based on all we know about it, wed guess that Hampstead Hill Academy is a very good school whose children are lucky to go there. But to our eye, nothing in the schools 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; its possible that miracles happen at that level, then get washed away in the later years. (Barbash doesnt say whether the school uses DI in later grades.) But according to current Maryland test scores, Hampstead Hills black and Hispanic kids tend to perform somewhat less well than blacks and Hispanics in the state of Maryland as a wholeand Marylands white students do outperform the states black and Hispanic kids. Lets cherry-pick fifth grade reading, for instance. Here you see percentages of those who failed to pass the states reading test last yearof 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 cant learn much from Hampstead Hills data; were dealing with very small numbers here, and Hampstead Hills kids are lower-income than those in the state as a whole. But it doesnt seem that a miracle, of the kind described, has actually occurred at this schoola school we would guess is superb. For the past ten years, have kids been entering this schools kindergarten reading on the second grade level? We would guess that they have not. But that eye-catching image gave McWhorters snorts their biggest pop.
From what weve read about Hampstead Hill, wed assume that its an excellent school; we think Barbashs description of Stephanie Browns work with her preschool kids is inspiring. But McWhorter made extravagant, snorting claimsand The New Republic put them in print. And uh-oh! When we looked at the rest of McWhorters evidence, we thought his piece looked a good deal worse.
Next: A tale of three or four cities.