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Daily Howler: Why do states back down from their threats? They know it don't come easy
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THREATENING CARROLL! Why do states back down from their threats? They know it don’t come easy: // link // print // previous // next //
THURSDAY, FEBRUARY 16, 2006

FEUDAL BROOKS: We suggest you buy today’s New York Times, then clip-and-save David Brooks’ column. Brooks displays something we’ve mentioned for years. Many members of your millionaire press corps live in the—what?—fourteenth century?

Brooks complains that DC insiders adopt assigned roles when reviewing a matter like the Dick Cheney shooting. But soon, we find him playing a role —a role from our antique past. We find him battering “liberals” for daring to ask the most obvious questions on the face of the earth. In a truly remarkable column, David Brooks stands to complain when we question our high lords and rulers:

BROOKS (2/16/06): [I]n the days following the Cheney-Whittington accident, liberal pundits had to live up to their responsibility to manufacture a series of unsubstantiated allegations while turning the episode into a Clifford Odets-style tale of plutocrats gone wild. ''Was he drunk? I mean, these are ultrarich Republicans, at a weekend, fun-time hunting,'' the pundit Lawrence O'Donnell wondered on MSNBC.

Meanwhile over at the blogosphere, the keyboard jockeys had a responsibility to sniff up vast conspiracies and get lost in creepy minutiae. ''The 50,000 acre Armstrong Ranch is in Kenedy County. So I figure the Armstrongs probably have a lot of pull in county government. So, just a question: how thorough was the investigation of what happened?'' the influential blogger Josh Marshall queried darkly.

“How thorough was the investigation of what happened?” Given the circumstances of the past several days, that may have been the most obvious question on the face of the whole bloomin’ earth! But for Brooks-to-the-feudal-manor born, such a blatantly obvious question is an attempt to “sniff up” a “vast conspiracy!” Only one conclusion can be drawn. When it seems that our lords and masters may have misbehaved, we serfs are instructed to gaze off politely. Brooks displays the impulses of a lost feudal world, in which a lord’s story, no matter how shaky, is simply accepted on face.

This is a remarkable column. It displays the pre-Enlightenment instincts we’ve ascribed to our “press corps” for the past several years. In paragraph 3, Brooks recites the Official Cheney Account—then name-calls those who don’t dumbly accept it. He ignores the strange conduct and open contradictions which have caused many obvious questions to be asked. In the world of this remarkable column, Sir Richard of Cheney is a high feudal lord. And David Brooks is on his face—in the dirt.

SEE IT IN FILM: But then, why not see this mind-set in film? A few weeks ago, Kevin Drum asked for comments about best-and-worst movies; many readers slammed Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut. We have a different take on that film, which we’d have to put on a list of our favorites. In our view, Eyes Wide Shut was less a study of sexual mores than a study of the hidden desires of our super-rich modern elites; in the seminal mansion scene, we see them engaged in a Secret Society, acting out pre-Enlightenment impulses and threatening to kill those who would stop them. We’ll have to admit it; when we first saw that scene in late 1999, we did think of the Washington press corps, a wealthy group whose actual conduct is endlessly hidden from view (although they conduct their work in plain sight). David Brooks and his feudal mind are on display in today’s New York Times. To see a similar mind-set examined on film, we suggest that you rent Eyes Wide Shut.

FAKE OUTRAGE, THY NAME IS MIKE KINSLEY (PART 4): How silly was Kinsley’s column, the one three big liberal bloggers saluted? In his piece, Kinsley dragged out the usual suspects to explain what has happened to Big Major Dems. Who has savaged Democrats for the past fifteen years? Of course! George Will has been doing it, Kinsley says—and the editors of the Wall Street Journal. He also named “talk-radio jockeys,” and he said that all these suspects are scripted by “the Republicans.” But Kinsley forgot to name the people who actually changed the world for Big Dems. He forgot to name his own colleagues and friends—the mainstream scribes who stampeded against Clinton and Gore, who pimp the dumbest RNC points right up to this very day.

He named George Will—but forgot to name Russert! In this way, we libs remain deceived about the basic shape of our lives.

Has George Will been the one sliming Dems? Kinsley complained about one recent episode—the phony outrage which followed Hillary Clinton’s vile “plantation” remark. But uh-oh! Will criticized these complaints about Clinton, while mainstream TV hosts pimped up the volume (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 2/15/06). Why did Kinsley name George Will—but forget to name Tim Russert and Chris Matthews? Duh! They’re members of his class and his circle of friends. They and Kinsley have common owners. They all work for the same mainstream news orgs—the big orgs which went after Clinton (for still-unexplained reasons), then put George Bush in the White House.

Do conservatives peddle “formulaic” complaints about Big Democrats’ troubling character? On the same day that Russert pushed the “plantation” nonsense, he questioned Barack Obama about other remarks by Clinton. Try to believe that anyone could be “formulaic” enough to make the complaint which ends this segment:

RUSSERT (1/22/06): Let me turn to the political situation here at home. Your colleague Senator Hillary Clinton said some things that have been talked about all week long. Let's listen to that and come back and talk about it.

CLINTON (videotape): We have cronyism, we have incompetence. I predict to you that this administration will go down in history as one of the worst that has ever governed our country.

RUSSERT: Do you agree with Senator Clinton that the Bush administration will go down in history as one of the worst?

OBAMA: I agree with her remarks about cronyism and incompetence. I don't think that anybody who's been watching the news over the last year who's seen what happened in New Orleans, who's seen some of the botched planning that took place post-war in Iraq would not think that there is a competence issue when it comes to this administration. I think that with respect to cronyism, we have seen, I think, consistently, a tendency on the part of this administration to appoint people on the basis of their politics as opposed to their abilities and their merits, and that has real consequences for the American people. We saw that it had consequences with respect to Katrina. But it also has competence up and down the line in terms of how well we're regulating our environment. How well are we prosecuting all sorts of issues that have deep concerns to the American people?

RUSSERT: Will George Bush be considered one of the worst presidents in history?

OBAMA: Well, you know, that's a tough standard to meet. We've had some pretty bad ones. So, I, you know, I don't prognosticate in terms of where George Bush will place in American history.

RUSSERT: But in terms of the dialogue and the civility in Washington, is it appropriate to be talking in these terms?

What an amazing question! By now, many people think that this Admin will rank as one of history’s worst. But to Russert, saying this raises a point of “civility!” Should a senator say such a thing, even if she—and many others—believe it? In posing this remarkable question, Russert was taking those anti-Dem “formulas” to the ultimate degree. Meanwhile, on this very same day, Russert pounded Obama at length about remarks by Harry Belafonte. As everyone knows, Belafonte plays no role in our political discourse—except when his comments are used by hacks to raise concerns about feckless Dems. Why was Russert pimping Belafonte? Duh! Because O’Reilly had been doing so, for weeks! In fact, Belafonte’s remarks produced almost zero news coverage. They only became “news” when O’Reilly got active—and Russert, of course, followed suit.

How absurd was Kinsley’s column—a column three liberal bloggers saluted? Here is the utterly ludicrous passage in which he complains about Will:

KINSLEY (1/29/06): There is always a pickup game of Kick the Democrats going on somewhere....

How dire is it for the Democrats? George Will noted on TV the other day that they have lost five of the past seven presidential elections. This baseball-like statistic—"Democrats have lost X of the past Y elections"—has been one of Will's favorite tropes over the generations. But why now five out of seven? Two out of the past four would be equally accurate, and not nearly as grim. And then there is the election of 2000. We can argue forever (and will) about who won that election, but if the question is whose views attracted more voters, there is no dispute that the answer is the Democrats. Attributing 2000 to the Democrats means they have won two of the past three elections, three of the past four, and a non-apocalyptic three of the magic seven.

How silly—how fake—is Kinsley’s complaint here? We can’t find a statement which matches the one he alleges, but Will did make a similar statement on the January 15 This Week. To all appearances, here’s the one outrageous comment Kinsley chose to feature. Here’s the comment which supposedly shows how “dire” it is for the Dems:
WILL (1/15/06): The Democrats have lost seven of the last ten presidential elections. As a result, 60 percent of the 165 members of the federal bench are Republican appointees. Nine of the 13 circuit appellate courts have Republican majorities.
Duh! In fact, Democrats have lost those elections—which has produced the result Will described. Will was making a blindingly obvious point, a point which Dems routinely make; the federal bench has moved to the right because of presidential elections. Try to believe that Kinsley picked this as the focus for his high indignation—the single statement he picked on by name. How long did Kinsley spend on this column? What, maybe five or six minutes?

We rolled our eyes at Kinsley’s column because it’s so fake and such formula. In it, he throws familiar sweet hay to the herd; he drags out the usual conservative suspects, blaming them for the fate of Big Dems. But our political history turned in Campaign 2000, the campaign which sent George Bush to the White House—a campaign in which the mainstream press corps waged a long War Against Gore. The Washington Post drove that War Against Gore (while Kinsley, so outraged today, remained silent)—but the Washington Post is Kinsley’s owner, and the people involved are Kinsley’s friends. Yep! The people who actually drove that war are Michael Kinsley’s colleagues and friends. So he pretends that “talk radio” did it—and treats you like fools as he does.

But then, members of Kinsley’s millionaire class have refused to discuss their Group Conduct for years. It was they who drove the War Against Gore, and they have no plans to explain why they did it. So they keep feeding you tired old formula—and liberal bloggers stand to say that it’s “genius.”

TOMORROW: In conclusion, back briefly to Chait

Special report—Threatening Carroll!

PART 3—THEY KNOW IT DON’T COME EASY: It’s something every new teacher is told: Don’t make a threat you can’t keep! But ironically, school boards (state and local) now do this quite often; Nick Anderson’s piece about Charles Carroll Middle School makes this fairly clear. “It has been eight years since Maryland told the Prince George's County school to shape up, or else,” he writes—and he lists the things the state can do when a school continues to flounder. But according to Anderson (and as we’ve all seen), departments of education tend to abandon their threats when they reach the moment of truth. “[O]fficials generally shy away from the strongest sanctions, charter conversions or takeovers,” Anderson writes, describing a recent study. The director of that research project told Anderson why they retreat:

ANDERSON (2/12/06): "All the Draconian measures don't make sense to educators when they have to deal with these problems," said Jack Jennings, president of [The Center on Education Policy] and a former Democratic congressional aide. "They opt for what they think will work rather than something showy."
“They opt for what they think will work?” The truth is actually more like this: None of their options are likely to work, so they opt for what is least jarring.

Yep! After all the “threats” and all the “demands”—after all the instruction to shape up “or else”—state superintendents know the obvious: They know it don’t come easy. They know there is no magic way to transform their low-scoring, low-income schools. According to Anderson, Charles Carroll’s new principal, 32-year-old Eric Ward, has changed the atmosphere at his struggling school. There are no more “stampedes” in the hallways; teachers and parents “credit him for bringing calm to a chaotic campus.” But that doesn’t mean that Carroll’s test scores will rise. What is Ward doing to change academic performance? With few details, Anderson describes a “turnaround” process which sounds preternaturally dreary:

ANDERSON: The typical Prince George's plan calls for a turnaround specialist from a regional office to work with a principal. Wood, 32, whose mother is also a Prince George's principal, consults with his specialist about 10 hours a week. He has after-school and Saturday enrichment programs for several dozen targeted students. And he has goodwill from teachers and parents who want him to succeed.
Of course, if Prince George’s has all these “turnaround specialists,” why don’t they just turn a few schools around? (The system continues to flounder. Note below.) Anderson doesn’t much say what this specialist does with Ward in the ten hours they share every week. We’d suggest there may be a reason for that; despite the honest desire to succeed, the specialist may not be telling Ward all that much. It just isn’t easy to turn schools around. It isn’t clear that we know how to do it.

No, it isn’t clear that we know how to turn around schools. But as the “standards movement” has grown, that hasn’t stopped our state boards of ed from “demanding” that schools improve their test scores—every year! It hasn’t stopped them from “raising standards” and “demanding” that struggling schools meet the new goals. We’ve always been struck by the cynicism here—by the imperious aspect of these “threats” and “demands,” in which administrators, journalists and education experts “demand” that prole teachers produce progress. The cynicism suggested by this conduct is obvious. If we simply “demand” that schools improve—without actually telling the schools how to do so—then we’re suggesting that teachers know how to help their low-income kids, but are too lazy or indifferent to do so. (Decades ago, it was hip to imply that the teachers were too racist to do so.) In fact, it’s easy to “demand” that schools improve without ever telling them how to achieve it. But are these teachers refusing to teach? We don’t think so. Neither did an expert quoted in Abigail and Stephan Thernstrom’s instructive book, No Excuses:

THERNSTROM AND THERNSTROM (page 230): Richard Elsmore, professor of education at Harvard, is among the most thoughtful of these skeptics. His is also a resource argument, but the resource he has in mind is the capacity of teachers to meet the new expectations imposed on them by the state. “Low-performing schools, and the people who run them, don’t know what to do,” he argues. “If they did, they would be doing it already.”
That has been our general experience—which is why we find it so insulting when states “demand” that schools improve (and meet higher standards) while offering little advice as to how they’re supposed to do this. It’s easy to “raise standards” and issue “demands.” It’s quite hard to know how to meet them.

Indeed, this is the glaring conceptual problem with the whole “standards movement.” The Thernstroms plead, on every page, for the need “To Close the Racial Gap in Learning,” the subtitle of their informative book. But though they put their faith (on balance) in the standards movement, they rarely offer any ideas as to how real teachers should meet those high standards. In our view, this is the principal shortcoming of their otherwise fine book—and of the standards movement generally.

What happens after states make their threats? Fairly often, nothing happens, because those states just don’t know how to “turn around schools!” Indeed, how bad can it get inside some state systems—the systems which imperiously “demand” school improvement each year? Tomorrow, we’ll look at that stunning Virginia “school report card” and we’ll see how ungodly awful the work of a state ed department can be. Alas! Some folks are good at making “demands”—and worthless at everything else.

TOMORROW: High standards—for everyone else.

MRS. YOUNG TRIED TO TURN US AROUND: In no way do we mean to denigrate Eric Ward’s “turnaround specialist.” Until we hear otherwise, we’ll assume that he/she is a dedicated person, trying her best to help Carroll improve. But turning a school around isn’t easy. Indeed, we well remember our supervising teacher, Mrs. Elizabeth Young, in the days when we were new to the classroom. Mrs. Young had been assigned to get us on track—but in low-income schools, that too isn’t easy. “Mr. Somerby, you can write your own textbooks!” our ebullient helper assured us one day, suggesting how we could deal with a world in which students who were years below level couldn’t read the textbooks we had in our classroom. But no, in fact, we couldn’t do that—nor, for that matter, can anyone else. We’ll never forget the way those students hung on each word when Mrs. Young read them The Hundred Dresses, Eleanor Estes’ award-winning portrait of moral experience—the greatest such study we’ve ever encountered. But Mrs. Young, for all her good will, couldn’t solve the problem of textbooks which were years too hard for those glorious children. These are the kinds of structural problems which dog low-income classrooms today. (Note: These problems are largely correctable. But they can’t be corrected by individual teachers, or by “turnaround specialists.”)

Can Eric Ward’s “turnaround specialist” help? We’ll believe it when those scores go up—and given the history of the past forty years, we’ll be slow to believe it even then.

Final point: The struggling Prince George’s County Schools are seeking their latest new superintendent. You know what to do—just click here.