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Daily Howler: The Post profiles the new superintendent--and once again skips his ideas
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NOT MUCH MORE ON DEASY! The Post profiles the new superintendent—and once again skips his ideas: // link // print // previous // next //

SOMETHING WE KEEP WITHHOLDING: Sunday’s Meet the Press roundtable was a real doozy—but it also was very instructive. Tomorrow, we’ll examine the carnage. One question for those who would work ahead: What is missing from this analysis of this gruesome outing?

THERE SHE WENT AGAIN: Maureen Dowd was left for dead by a sneering Mary Matalin during that Meet the Press session. Have we actually reached this point—where Dowd will now be presented as the voice of liberals? We actually like some of Dowd’s work, but she is plainly, completely not up to this task. Liberals ought to scream and complain about this absurd bit of booking.

Before being left for dead on Sunday, Dowd blundered typically in Saturday’s column. She engaged in her standard fatuous word-play—and made a typical factual error:

DOWD (2/18/06): It was at the end of his interview with Brit Hume, when Shooter [Dick Cheney] talked about Scooter, that his eagerness to share important facts with the press and public—a well-concealed trait in recent days, years and decades—burst forth. He pronounced himself a Great Declassifier.

Asked by the Fox News anchor if a vice president had the authority to declassify secrets, Mr. Cheney replied that there's an executive order giving him that power, adding: ''I've certainly advocated declassification and participated in declassification decisions.'' This neatly set up a defense for Scooter, who testified that ''superiors'' had authorized him to leak classified information on Valerie Plame.

But Libby has not “testified that ‘superiors’ had authorized him to leak classified information on Valerie Plame.” As was made clear in the news reporting on this matter, Libby testified that his superiors authorized him to discuss classified material from the National Intelligence Estimate. This did not involve Plame. Does Dowd ever know what she’s talking about? Does she ever bother with elementary background work? A person who is so undisciplined is unlikely to make a strong liberal spokesman—a fact that became amazingly clear when Dowd was devoured on Sunday.

Of course, it isn’t just Dowd who is making this error. Last Monday, Newsweek’s pompous parson, managing editor Jon Meacham, made this same misstatement on the Imus program. The week before, Chris Matthews implied that Libby made this statement during a session of Hardball. These people are paid gigantic salaries—and they’re too lazy to get basic facts straight. In Dowd’s case, the price we pay for this studied indolence became fairly clear Sunday morning.

Epilogue: That pledge to Charles Carroll!

(NOT MUCH) MORE ON DEASY: Last Friday, we discussed the front-page, lead story in the Washington Post—Nick Anderson’s report on the hiring of John Deasy to head the Prince George’s County (Maryland) schools. (Prince George’s is one of the nation’s largest majority-black school systems.) And we noted a problem with Anderson’s profile (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 2/17/06). According to Anderson’s report, Deasy has “pledged to close the black-white achievement gap that shadows schools in Prince George's”—but Anderson failed to say a single word about the way Deasy plans to do this. Deasy “is well versed in urban educational issues,” Anderson wrote. But he failed to say what those issues are—and he failed to say what Deasy thinks about them.

“We hope Anderson will push, in future reports, to learn about Deasy’s real ideas,” we wrote. Result? On Sunday, Anderson wrote a lengthy, follow-up profile of this important new superintendent. And uh-oh! Despite the benefit of a lengthy interview with Deasy, the Post reporter did it again! He failed to say a single word about Deasy’s educational ideas. He failed to say a single word about what Deasy wants to do in the classroom.

So it goes as the Washington Post fawns again to Prince George’s leaders (note below). So it goes as the Post lets us know it doesn’t give a flying flip about the future of low-income kids.

Go ahead—try to find a single word, in this lengthy profile, about Deasy’s actual ideas about classroom procedure. Anderson does go on, at length, about Deasy’s approached to raising revenue. But what are his ideas on education? We simply can’t find the first word.

Annoyingly, there are several false starts in this piece. At one point, a school board member gushes about Deasy’s performance in his current California district, the Santa Monica-Malibu schools:

ANDERSON (2/19/06): School board President Julia Brownley said Deasy was hired in 2001 on a unanimous vote and has kept his board "fundamentally unified" since then.

"He has a spectacular relationship with the board," member Jose Escarce said. "He's remarkably visible in the community, knows everyone, is an incredibly knowledgeable and innovative educator. I don't think there's anything negative to be said.”

All right! According to Brownley, Deasy is “an incredibly knowledgeable and innovative educator.” But what exactly were his innovations? And what is he so knowledgeable about? Anderson doesn’t tell us. At another point, we read a comment from the head of the teachers union—and we get a glimpse of the “issues” Deasy considers important:
ANDERSON: Harry M. Keiley, president of the Santa Monica-Malibu Classroom Teachers Association, said in an interview that he had numerous differences with the superintendent.

"He likes to go 75 to 80 miles per hour on issues that are really important to him," Keiley said. "And we've had to slow him down."

At one point, Deasy supported a proposed public charter school. But the union was lukewarm to the idea, and it died at the school board. Deasy and the union also clashed over his plans for revising report cards and teacher evaluations. They compromised after taking more time than Deasy would have liked.

What exactly are the “issues that are really important to” Deasy? According to this part of Anderson’s report, he wanted to revise his district’s report cards! We’ll suggest that this will not fulfill the pledge Deasy made to Charles Carroll Middle (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 2/17/06). We’ll suggest that pursuit of such “important issues” will not “close the black-white achievement gap that shadows schools in Prince George's.”

It may be that Deasy does have good ideas—that he comes east prepared to tackle Prince George’s daunting problems. But if Deasy does have good ideas, you won’t hear about them in the Post! This is Anderson’s third report on this major new player. And it’s clear that Anderson has no interest in what will go on inside Prince George’s classrooms. Anderson shows no sign of caring about Deasy’s ideas—or about Prince George’s kids.

For the record, this is exactly how the Washington Post greeted Prince George’s previous superintendent—with uninquisitive, boosterist journalism. That superintendent took a fairly predictable fall (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 6/10/05). But you couldn’t predict that fall from reading the Post, because the Post had pandered in its reporting. The paper fawned to the county’s political leaders—and it simply played the fool with the lives of the county’s schoolchildren.

John Deasy may have superb ideas—but we won’t likely learn it from reading the Post. Anderson’s profile is a lazy puff piece. We’d have been better off without it.

BY CONTRAST: To see some brilliant education reporting, read this detailed work by Duke Helfand, in the January 30 Los Angeles Times. (We hope that Helfand will have to make room on his mantle for a Pulitzer Prize.) Tomorrow, we’ll start a five-part report on this piece—a piece which goes deep inside the Los Angeles schools and reports on what’s actually happening.

NO PSEUDO-ANALYSIS LEFT BEHIND: Does Deasy have a strong track record as he comes to the Prince George’s Schools? Last Friday, Anderson made a peculiar claim, as we noted:

ANDERSON (2/17/06): Deasy began his career as a biology and chemistry teacher and became superintendent of a small system in Coventry, R.I., in 1996. He has led Santa Monica-Malibu Unified since August 2001 and says he has raised achievement there significantly for Latino and black students, taking two high-poverty schools off a state watch list.
Deasy says he “raised achievement there significantly for Latino and black students?” Surely there must be data, we said. In Sunday’s profile, Anderson returns to this theme. Here’s his full—his woeful—analysis:
ANDERSON (2/19/06): Over breakfast, Deasy showed detailed student achievement statistics to support his claim that he knows what it takes to raise minority test scores in a system that is 10 times as large as the one he runs.

Evaluating test scores is difficult because they are heavily influenced by student demographics and academic standards that vary from state to state. But Deasy's system appears to measure up well under California's academic performance index. With a student population that is more than a third Latino and about one-tenth black, Santa Monica-Malibu Unified has posted solid and sustained gains in reading and math.

On a scale of 200 to 1,000, with the statewide target being 800, the system is rated at 806 on California's index. That is nearly 100 points ahead of the state as a whole. From 2002 to 2005, data show, Latino and black students in the system made larger gains than non-Hispanic white students.

That “analysis” is pleasing, but woeful. Here are a few reasons why:

Statement: Santa Monica-Malibu “appears to measure up well under California's academic performance index.” But that is hardly surprising. Anderson seeks to impress us with those data about the district’s minority students—but those numbers are low by Golden State standards. Is Santa Monica-Malibu “more than a third Latino?” In the 2003-04 school year, the corresponding statewide number was 46.7 percent! You wouldn’t know this from Anderson’s presentation, but you’d expect Santa Monica-Malibu to exceed state averages based on these demographics. By the way: We’d guess that this district is substantially wealthier, on average, than the typical California district. Those numbers are harder to find, but Anderson doesn’t even consider this basic variable.

Statement: “Santa Monica-Malibu Unified has posted solid and sustained gains in reading and math.” But we’re given no numbers, and a quick perusal suggests that the system’s recent score gains tend to match those of the state as a whole. There is no way to tell if these scores represent real gains in achievement, or if they are merely artefacts of easier statewide tests. Consider fifth-grade reading, for example. In 2002, 58 percent of Santa Monica-Malibu fifth graders scored “advanced” or “proficient” on the state’s reading test. By 2005, that had risen to 68 percent. But this gain roughly matched that of the state as a whole; statewide, the rate went from 31 percent in 2002 to 43 percent last year. In each year, Santa Monica-Malibu outperformed the state, as one would expect. But are those numbers improving because of real gains in achievement? Or are the state’s tests just getting easier? Without laborious analysis, there’s no way to say. Did achievement levels rise under Deasy? It’s hard to say. Test scores rose—but they seem to have risen at roughly the rate observed statewide. This hardly establishes Deasy’s genius. If this is the standard, the typical California superintendent could have been hired for Prince George’s schools. (By the way: In 2001, before Deasy arrived, Santa Monica-Malibu exceeded the state on this measure by a comparably wide margin—54 percent to 28,)

Statement: “On a scale of 200 to 1,000, with the statewide target being 800, the system is rated at 806 on California's index. That is nearly 100 points ahead of the state as a whole.” Again, this doesn’t seem surprising. Deasy’s district has fewer minorities than the average California district, and it’s most likely more wealthy. You’d expect this district to score better than the state as a whole.

Statement: “From 2002 to 2005, data show, Latino and black students in the system made larger gains than non-Hispanic white students.” This is the only claim that is relevant to Deasy’s pledge—the pledge “to close the black-white achievement gap that shadows schools in Prince George's.” And this claim is offered as an afterthought. What data show these larger gains? And how much larger were the minority gains? This is the matter which ought to be studied. But in Anderson’s report, it’s buried under several layers of irrelevant and misleading claims.

Last fall, we saw these same facile types of “analysis” throughout a two-hour PBS special, Making Schools Work. Alas! It’s fairly easy to make schools (seem to) work—and the nation’s big new orgs seem to love providing the service.

Did Deasy have real success at this previous post? Does he know how to help minority kids? We don’t have the slightest idea. But if the Post really cared about Prince George’s kids, it would make a real attempt to find out—and it would examine Deasy’s actual ideas about “urban educational issues.”

A LOW, MORDANT CHUCKLE: Can Deasy raise minority achievement in Prince George’s, as he allegedly did in California? We had to laugh when Anderson continued his analysis:

ANDERSON: On a scale of 200 to 1,000, with the statewide target being 800, the system is rated at 806 on California's index. That is nearly 100 points ahead of the state as a whole. From 2002 to 2005, data show, Latino and black students in the system made larger gains than non-Hispanic white students.

Whether he can replicate that in the 133,000-student Prince George's system is an open question. There are plenty of operational challenges in the county that Deasy does not face [in Santa Monica-Malibu]. For instance, his system does not provide bus service for most students. In Prince George's, more than 90,000 students ride buses every day—a major operation that the schools chief must monitor closely. In Prince George's, the annual schools budget is $1.4 billion. Here, it's about $100 million.

Can Deasy boost minority achievement in Prince George’s, the way he did in Santa Monica? Maybe not—he’ll have to keep track of all those buses! Try to believe that this is how the Post reviews those “urban educational issues.”