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WEDNESDAY, FEBRUARY 9, 2011

Our elites can’t reason well either: The truth hurts—but it’s also true: At present, our journalistic elites aren’t smart enough to let us succeed in the world.

This gloomy thought was occasioned by this front-page report in Tuesday’s New York Times. Sharon Otterman’s murky report concerns graduation rates in New York State’s public schools—and a new “push” on the part of state officials to improve student performance.

From Otterman’s opening paragraphs, we can glean the few bits of semi-clear information she and her editors managed to provide:

OTTERMAN (2/8/11): New York State education officials released a new set of graduation statistics on Monday that show less than half of students in the state are leaving high school prepared for college and well-paying careers.

The new statistics, part of a push to realign state standards with college performance, show that only 23 percent of students in New York City graduated ready for college or careers in 2009, not counting special-education students. That is well under half the current graduation rate of 64 percent, a number often promoted by Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg as evidence that his education policies are working.

Huh! Less than half the students in the state are leaving high school “prepared for college and well-paying careers.” (Later, Otterman seems to place the number at 41 percent—although she introduces confusion through a change in her earlier wording.) In New York City, only “23 percent of students” meet this test—“not counting special-education students.”

(Later, Otterman explains how this statistic was gleaned; 23 percent of the city’s students achieved “a 75 on the English Regents [exam] and a 80 on the math Regents [exam].” According to the Board of Regents, these scores “roughly predicted that students would get at least a C in a college-level course.”)

In fairness to Otterman and her editors, they were merely reporting about a report—a new report by the state Board of Regents. But the Times ran this piece on its front page, giving it more than 1300 words. We were struck by how murky, confused, unenlightening it was—by how badly it bungled its topic.

What was wrong with Otterman’s report? Let’s start with a secondary bungle. Yesterday, Kevin Drum noticed the obvious problem lurking in this brief passage:

OTTERMAN: The data also cast new doubt on the ability of charter schools to outperform their traditional school peers. Statewide, only 10 percent of students at charters graduated in 2009 at college-ready standards, though 49 percent received diplomas. The state has not yet calculated results for every district and school.

Good God, that’s awful! Whatever you think of charter schools, Otterman has likely constructed an apples-to-oranges problem. To read Kevin’s post, just click here.

The other problems with Otterman’s report were more global. As everyone knows, graduation and drop-out rates are famously hard to compile and define. What does Otterman mean when she says that New York City’s “current graduation rate” is 64 percent—that the corresponding rate for the state is 77 percent? (“Statewide, 77 percent of students graduate from high school.”) To tell you the truth, we don’t know. Does this mean that 77 percent of high school seniors in 2009 ended up getting a diploma—in part by passing the state Regents exams with the required scores Otterman described? Does it mean that 77 percent of freshmen from 2005 ended up getting diplomas four years later? Presumably, this would make a large difference, since many freshmen will have dropped out before they reach that senior year. But Otterman cruises through 1300 words without explaining the basic statistic which drives her report. And she skips right over that early qualification, in which she says that these data don’t include special-education students.

How many students are thus excluded from these overall numbers? Are numbers the same all over the state? It didn’t occur to our greatest newspaper that they perhaps might ought to say.

Otterman’s report is larded with data—data which are hard to interpret or define. Even worse was her “what, me analyze?” approach to the Board’s overall report.

We have no idea why Otterman seems surprised to learn that many kids graduate from high school without being ready to do well in college. When did any school district ever claim that a high school diploma meant that its holder had been thus prepared? Putting that basic point to the side, the Board of Regents is apparently engaged in “a push to realign state standards with college performance”—a push to raise the percentage of high school graduates who are ready for college work. Incredibly, these are the ways the Board is apparently planning to do this:

OTTERMAN: One thing that is helping districts get over their shock, Dr. Tisch said, is the opening of a broad discussion about how to improve things. On their tour, which has visited Albany, Buffalo and Rochester and will visit New York City, Westchester County and Long Island in the coming weeks, officials are presenting a menu of options.

One idea is to simply report a college-ready graduation rate as an aspirational standard and leave it at that. Another is to impose tougher graduation standards—like requiring that all students in the state take four years of math and science, or permanently raising the passing score on high school Regents exams to 75 in English and 80 in math.

But they are also discussing increased flexibility for districts and students, so that they can spend more time on the subjects they are interested in. For example, students might be permitted to choose at least one of the Regents exams they must pass to graduate—currently all students have to pass math, English, science, global history and American history. Students might be able to substitute foreign language, economics or art for one of the five. Or students could replace one Regents [exam] with a vocational skills test in an area like carpentry or plumbing.

Alternatively, the state could grant flexibility to districts to give credits based not on how many hours students sit in a classroom—currently 54 hours per semester per credit—but on whether students show competency, based on examination or online course work.

The bulk of that is laughable nonsense; some of it seems to fly in the face of the basic goal which is being reported. “One idea is to simply report a college-ready graduation rate as an aspirational standard and leave it at that?” What kind of reporter is willing to describe that offering from this “menu of options” as an “idea?”

Who knows? Perhaps some students will study harder if they’re required to get a 75 on the Regents’ math exam (instead of the current 65). It truly might help if students were required to take four years of math, instead of the current unstated number. But if we think we’re discussing a serious problem, these “ideas” seem tiny—laughable even. And good God! Otterman didn’t bat an eye when the time came to tell us this:

OTTERMAN: [New York] City education officials said the 23 percent college-ready rate was not a fair measure of how the city would do if graduation requirements were raised to a higher standard, because students would work harder to meet that new bar.

While it has not gone so far as to calculate an alternative to graduation rates, the city has already begun tracking how each high school's students fare in college, and in 2012 it will begin holding principals accountable for it. ''Last year, well before the state announced this plan, we told schools we would begin including robust college readiness metrics in school progress reports,'' said Shael Polakow-Suransky, the chief academic officer.

Plainly, the lunacy will never end! It isn’t enough that principals are held accountable for the scores their students attain while actually in the principals’ schools. Now, principals will be held “accountable” for what their former students achieve in the years to come! (Might principals have their salaries dunned if former students get parking tickets?) Otterman then quotes New York City’s “chief academic officer,” who seems to have no academic ideas. That said, she records few ideas from the Regents, or from anyone else, about how instruction might actually be improved. But she describes this absurd extension of the current “pressure the teachers and principals” approach without even batting an eye.

Otterman’s front-page report is full of statistics, few of which she explains. She goes apples-to-oranges about charter schools; she fails to tell us what various rates would be if special ed kids were included. But more than anything else, this report stands out for the way the New York Times accept the vast cluelessness of the era.

How might this state’s schools improve instruction? No one seems to have any ideas. The Times doesn’t seem to notice.

Special report: Who are the people!

PART 2—AGREEING WITH DIGBY (permalink): We were pleased and surprised a few weeks ago when Digby took a slightly novel approach to this country’s pathetic political wars (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 2/8/11). For once in her life, she drew a distinction between two distinct groups—between average supporters of the Tea Party and the “hustlers” who fleece and mislead them:

DIGBY (1/26/11): If they weren't so nasty most of the time I'd start to feel sorry for the Tea Party. They are getting taken for such a ride by hucksters, snake oil salesmen and billionaire puppeteers that it's getting sort of pathetic.

[…]

I'm sure there are plenty of sincere Tea Partiers out there who are getting fleeced all the time by these types. And while it's tempting to say they deserve it, it still isn't right. They are just trying to exercise their democratic right to organize and they are being manipulated and conned by a bunch of billionaire media moguls and small time hustlers. I guess that's part of the bargain too, but it's distasteful to see it happening anyway.

We liberals get conned a fair amount too, but let’s put that to the side.

We assume Digby’s highlighted statement is accurate. We assume that many supporters of the Tea Party are “sincere” in their outlooks and their beliefs; we assume that many of these people have gotten “fleeced” and “conned” by a wide assortment of pseudo-conservative “types.” Many liberals find it hard to swallow such an outrageous notion, preferring to hold to the tribal view in which our tribe includes all The Very Good People and their tribe is composed of The Vile and The Bad. In such childish ways, we blind ourselves to the way the world works—and we make it extremely hard to spread progressive ideas.

Are sincere people getting “fleeced” and “conned” by pseudo-conservative leadership types? That’s true of people in the Tea Party—and of many others besides. Tomorrow, we will take a look at this report at TPM, a report which discusses the general public’s political knowledge—conservatives, moderates, liberals alike. (We’ll also review this front-page link to that report by a liberal intellectual leader.) But for today, we thought we might note an interesting fact: Several people have echoed the moral view expressed in Digby’s surprising post. They have expressed disgust with the way average people get conned by pseudo-conservative hustlers.

Yesterday, we reviewed a post by conservative writer Richmond Ramsey, complaining about the way his parents have had their brains eaten by Glenn Beck. Today, let’s consider a similar post by another conservative writer, Conor Friedersdorf.

Friedersdorf’s post appeared at Andrew Sullivan’s Atlantic site. Before posting a chunk of what Friedersdorf said, let’s review a synopsis of his remarks—a synopsis offered by a writer at a liberal site. Over at the American Prospect, Mort Dinauer noticed what Friedersdorf wrote—and Dinauer said he agreed with Friedersdorf’s moral judgment:

DINAUER (2/7/11): Last week, Conor Friedersdorf observed of the conservative noise machine, "It is hard to think of anyone who disrespects and takes advantage of conservatives more than they do." Now, I'm not a conservative, but I happen to think this is a very big problem. When Rush Limbaugh dismisses as crazy the idea that Ronald Reagan raised taxes, this isn't just deception or propaganda. Limbaugh's listeners trust him. They believe him. And how does he reward this loyalty? By treating them like fools. I don't know how to solve this problem, and a mea culpa ("Sorry we had to exploit you for your money and your votes for the past couple of decades") is probably off the table.

Like Digby, Dinauer described the way hustlers like Limbaugh treat their listeners. “They believe him,” Dinauer said—and he “treats them like fools.”

This is a massive political problem—a problem we’ve been noting for years. But the liberal world has been ineffective in addressing this massive problem—in large part, because pseudo-liberals find it hard to see the injustice in this conduct. We simply love to hate The Other; Digby teaches this moral lesson in almost every post. It was a rare day when Digby expressed some sympathy for the average people who get deceived by people like Limbaugh. We thought Friederdorf described this moral problem more pointedly in his fuller post. He posted tape of a ludicrous rant by Beck, then offered this moral assessment:

FRIEDERSDORF (2/1/11): As I've said before, lots of Glenn Beck listeners aren't in on the joke. Unlike Roger Ailes, Jonah Goldberg, and every staffer at the Heritage Foundation happy hour, they don't realize that the Fox News Channel puts this man on the air fully understanding that large parts of his program are uninformed nonsense mixed with brazen bullshit. When a Fox News host tells these viewers, "I'm not going to treat you like you're a moron," playing on their insecurity about other media outlets talking down to or lying to them, they take it at face value. What sort of callous, immoral person allows these viewers to be played for fools?

Conjure in your mind a retired grandfather. He served in World War II, voted twice for Ronald Reagan, and supports the Tea Party. Awhile back, he started watching Glenn Beck—was it because that young man from National Review mentioned he would be on the program, or did he want to see Sarah Palin be interviewed? In any case, a lot of conservatives he trusted seemed happy to go on the show and never gave any indication that it wasn't a perfectly legitimate news program. Besides, Fox News generally seemed to share his ideological convictions. He even watched an interview with Roger Ailes once. The guy seemed reasonable enough. Certainly not the sort of person who would knowingly air the ravings of a known charlatan night after night.

[…]

"I'm going to treat you like you really do want to understand what's going on in the world," Beck tells this man. "We'll piece it together."

I appreciate that this is my hobbyhorse, and that others think that the faults of cable news networks are an unimportant matter. But the fact that Roger Ailes and his associates air this kind of nonsense—couched in these kinds of assurances!—is indefensible. It is hard to think of anyone who disrespects and takes advantage of conservatives more than they do. And although they make mounds of money, they ought to be objects of disgrace, akin to any other manipulative huckster who preys on the elderly.

Did these people never have grandparents?

Like Digby, Friedersdorf identifies Beck—and Ailes, and various others—as a gang of “manipulative hucksters.” Like Digby, he expresses moral outrage at the way they mislead and deceive average people. We’ll offer one criticism: Friedsersdorf focuses on older viewers, but younger people get fooled too. Indeed, tens of millions of Americans, of all ages and stripes, have been routinely deceived in the past, by a wide range of hucksters.

Digby will often take it upon herself to tell us which of these folk are “sincere.” In this way, the pseudo-liberal world has practiced to deceive itself—has practiced to flounder and fail.

We agree with what Digby said in that post; we agree with the moral perspective she stated. A few days later, Friedersdorf expressed a similar view, from the other side of the aisle—and Dinauer also signed on, complaining about the way average people get conned and misled by people like Beck. From a more accustomed perch, Digby said “it's tempting to say they deserve it.” But for once, she managed to say that “it still isn't right.”

That’s an important moral perspective. Tomorrow, more on this massive problem—this massive moral problem.