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Print view: Journalists have loved Rhee's miracle tale for at least the past forty-five years
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A MUCH-BELOVED, DECADES-OLD TALE! Journalists have loved Rhee’s miracle tale for at least the past forty-five years: // link // print // previous // next //

The liberal world has to do better, suffering Wisconsin edition: Paul Krugman discusses the big picture in this morning’s column. Increasingly, we live in an oligarchy, Krugman correctly writes.

Public unions aren’t always right, he notes. But those unions are “one of the few remaining checks on oligarchic influence.”

To most citizens, this notion will be quite unfamiliar, though that isn’t Krugman’s fault. For the most part, the liberal world has made little effort to put such basic ideas in front of regular people. That said, please note something Krugman says today about the Wisconsin budget. These remarks fly in the face of many things we liberals were told all last week:

KRUGMAN (2/21/11): Some background: Wisconsin is indeed facing a budget crunch, although its difficulties are less severe than those facing many other states. Revenue has fallen in the face of a weak economy, while stimulus funds, which helped close the gap in 2009 and 2010, have faded away.

In this situation, it makes sense to call for shared sacrifice, including monetary concessions from state workers. And union leaders have signaled that they are, in fact, willing to make such concessions.

Say what? Wisconsin is facing a budget crunch? It does make sense to call for monetary concessions from state workers? In a long string of major forums, liberals were told exactly the opposite in the past week. Rachel Maddow certainly wasn’t the biggest offender, but as usual she was more sure of herself than anyone else. Maddow voiced the standard misstatements at the start of last Thursday’s show:

MADDOW (2/17/11): And thanks to you at home for staying with us for the next hour.

I’m here to report that there is nothing wrong in the state of Wisconsin. Wisconsin is fine. Wisconsin is great, actually! Despite what you may have heard about Wisconsin’s finances, Wisconsin is on track to have a budget surplus this year.

I am not kidding. I’m quoting their own version of the Congressional Budget Office, the state’s own nonpartisan "assess the state’s finances" agency. That agency said the month that the new Republican governor of Wisconsin was sworn in, last month, that the state was on track to have a $120 million budget surplus this year.


The state is not bankrupt. Even though the state had started the year on track to have a budget surplus—now, there is, in fact, a $137 million budget shortfall. Republican Governor Scott Walker, coincidentally, has given away $140 million worth of business tax breaks since he came into office.

Hey, wait. That’s about exactly the size of the shortfall!

To see Politifact score these statements as flat-out “False,” go ahead—just click here.

In fairness, it isn’t exactly Maddow’s fault that she misstated so baldly—although she’s supposed to be the smart one. Last week, the whole liberal world was misstating basic facts about the Wisconsin budget. For our money, no one was quite as embarrassing as the hapless fact-free fumbler, Ed Schultz. But at least three major reliable liberals ended up retracting statements similar to Maddow’s—though no one overstated the situation as wildly as she did.

To see Ezra Klein’s twin retractions, click here—and scroll to “update.” After that, just click this. To see Andrew Leonard self-correct at Salon, just click this, and scroll to the bottom.

We’re glad Klein and Leonhard retracted and re-explained; we only wish that TPM and Benen would follow suit. Beyond that, we’d like to see a full review of how these errors occurred. In an oligarchic world, progressives can’t afford to be grossly wrong. Misstatements by power will be accepted and recited. Progressives won’t get that deal.

In our view, progressives are largely fighting uphill in this evolving struggle. For decades, the oligarchs have spread their messaging about those greedy unions. Citizens have heard few countervailing frameworks from our own hapless side, in which the interests of working people are consigned to millionaire hirelings like Maddow. For example: No one has trashed public unions more than Michelle Rhee and her billionaire colleagues—but Rhee has largely been given free rein by the corporate liberal world. Through years of union-trashing and public misstatement, Rhee’s name has never been mentioned on Maddow’s show—and it never was mentioned on Countdown. It has never been mentioned on the Ed Show. Rhee’s name has been mentioned only once on Hardball—when she appeared on the show last year, where she was heavily fawned over.

Even when NBC News staged a week-long wilding of public school teachers, none of these fiery “career liberals” spoke up. But when you’re getting paid millions of bucks, you know when it’s time to shut up.

No one has trashed public unions more; no one has received more deference. Citizens have heard endless union-trashing. In response, they’ve heard little from our own hapless side.

Special report: Michelle Rhee’s miracle tale!

EPILOGUE—A MUCH-BELOVED, DECADES-OLD TALE (permalink): Did Michelle Rhee engineer a miracle during her three-year teaching career? Did she take a bunch of deserving, low-income Baltimore kids from the bottom of the nation all the way to the top?

After two years of miracle teaching, did ninety percent of her low-scoring kids end up scoring “at the 90th percentile or higher?” Did Rhee thereby prove that low-income kids will score through the roof if their “shitty” teachers will get off their keisters and teach?

Everything remains semi-possible, even at this late date. But it’s very, very hard to believe that anything like that ever occurred during Rhee’s teaching career. But alas! Rhee has always claimed miracle deeds, climbing the ladder of fame and success on the backs of low-income third-graders. And credulous types in the national press have always been there to believe her.

The true believers have always believed; many will continue to do so. But uh-oh! Just within the past few weeks, a high-profile study from 1995 has come to wide public attention—and even Jay Mathews has renounced Rhee’s self-glorying tales. Whether for good or for ill, Jay tends to give the benefit of the doubt to glory claims by “education reformers.” But after reviewing that high-profile study, Jay offered this judgment about Rhee’s claims at his Washington Post web site:

MATHEWS (2/8/11): G.F. Brandenburg, a retired D.C. math teacher with an irresistible blog, has done it again…He has found the missing test score data from former D.C. schools chancellor's early years as a classroom teacher, something I did not think was possible.

He has proved that Rhee's results weren't nearly as good as she said they were.

In fact, the study Brandenburg brought to light had always been available. The Washington Times discussed the study, and noted its findings, when Rhee first arrived in DC (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 7/9/07); journalists at the Washington Post just didn’t bother pursuing the matter. But on February 8, Mathews threw Rhee’s famous claims under the bus—and he repeated this judgment several more times as the week continued. Rhee’s ballyhooed test scores “weren't nearly as good as she said they were,” he now judged.

Weren’t nearly as good, Mathews said. The claims on which Rhee based her career weren’t even close to accurate. (Last night, at a Washington book event, Rhee sycophant Richard Whitmire made a similar admission, though we won’t be able to give quotations until C-Span airs the event. Whitmire’s new book about Rhee, The Bee Eater, may be the most sycophantic text we have ever reviewed.)

Rhee's results “weren't nearly as good” as she has always said! But the data on which Mathews based this judgment were first reported four years ago. Why then have so many journalists, Jay included, seemed eager to suspend disbelief about Rhee’s ballyhooed claims?

The answer to that question takes us back many years. For whatever reason, journalists and other elites have always loved improbable claims about educational miracles in low-income schools.

For us, this story dates to Herbert Kohl’s influential 1967 book, 36 Children. In his widely-read book, Kohl described his experience as a new teacher in a large Harlem elementary school.

In his opening paragraphs, Kohl gave voice to the high ideals emerging in the liberal world as the civil rights revolution focused attention on the plight of deserving black children in our inner-city schools. Kohl described the start of his year as a sixth-grade teacher in Harlem:

KOHL: I was handed a roll book with thirty-six names and thirty-six cumulative record cards, years of judgments already passed upon the children, their official personalities. I read through the names, twenty girls and sixteen boys, the 6-1 class…Then I locked the record cards away in the closet. The children would tell me who they were. Each child, each new school year, is potentially many things, only one of which the cumulative record card documents. It is amazing how “emotional” problems can disappear, how the dullest child can be transformed into one of the keenest and the brightest into the most ordinary when the prefabricated judgment of other teachers are forgotten.

Or not! In this, the fourth paragraph of his book, Kohl expressed the zeitgeist of a hopeful liberal era. The regular teachers were corruptingly wrong (i.e., the teachers who didn’t go to Harvard with Kohl). According to Kohl, it was “amazing” to see how “the dullest child can be transformed into one of the keenest and the brightest” if a teacher simply ignored the previous judgments of those child-hating rubes.

In fairness, Kohl also said that “the brightest” child could turn out to be “the most ordinary.” In this, he conveyed another standard notion of the era: Bourgeois teachers loved the compliant children, who were in fact worthless and dull.

For what it’s worth, Kohl had been assigned “the 6-1 class,” the highest-achieving sixth-grade class in a very large New York City school. (From Kohl’s text, it is clear that there were at least seven sixth-grade classes in his school, perhaps as many as ten.) This fact should perhaps have been kept in mind as he described the vast success he achieved with his 36 children; they went on to write novels under his tutelage and to perform other miracle tasks. Kohl’s book helped establish an understandable but naïve belief, a belief which took hold in much of the liberal and mainstream worlds. Since black and white children are just alike, the only thing holding our black children back was the hatred, or the ineptitude, of their miserable teachers.

In some minds, a similar notion may have emerged from Jonathan Kozol’s brilliant Death at An Early Age, the 1967 book which chronicled Kozol’s year of teaching in a Boston elementary school. (Quite deservedly, Kozol’s book won the National Book Award.) Kozol never claimed that he achieved academic success with his struggling students, who were far behind traditional “grade level;” but his book focused heavily on the racial hatred directed at these deserving children by his fellow teachers. It was easy to think, from reading this book, that the deserving children Kozol described were suffering their academic struggles because of the racism they had experienced, every day, in their school.

Two years after Kozol’s book appeared, we ourselves began teaching a fifth-grade class in a Baltimore public school. But uh-oh! This was a Baltimore public school in which all the other teachers were black! Whatever explained the academic problems of the lovely kids in that public school, it wasn’t the racism of their white teachers. No white teachers had been in this school.

(Historically, Baltimore had run a “dual” school system. As late as 1969, it wasn’t unusual for elementary schools to have teaching staffs which were all, or almost all, black.)

Alas! This was a very hopeful time for elite folk who cared about black kids! The liberal and mainstream worlds still knew little about the actual challenges faced by “inner-city” schools. But all of a sudden, the brutal history of American racism had come front and center in American life; given that ugly history, it was easy to believe (with apologies for the language) that the “dullest” children could quickly be transformed into the keenest and brightest. White liberals insisted on that belief; often, they clung to this belief in the face of emerging knowledge. We first encountered this as a journalistic problem in (we think) 1972. This episode involved a well-intentioned but defiantly wrong-headed columnist at the Baltimore Sun. (For a quick review of these instructive events, see THE DAILY HOWLER, 7/8/05).

That was the early 1970s. But for whatever reasons, mainstream “journalists” have never stopped loving those miracle tales about low-income schools. They simply love to tell pleasing stories in which “dull” children are magically transformed into the keenest and brightest! By now, of course, we know much more about low-income children than we knew in the days of Kohl’s book; most simply put, we know that low-income kids and their middle-class peers really aren’t “just alike.” Presumably, they’re just alike on the day they’re born—but they aren’t just alike by the time they hit school, or by the time they reach fourth grade. We’ve often quoted this statement by a famed “liberal” think tank:

CENTER FOR AMERICAN PROGRESS: Young low-income and minority children are more likely to start school without having gained important school readiness skills, such as recognizing letters and counting...By the fourth grade, low-income students read about three grade levels behind non-poor students.

That last claim is a gross overstatement, of course; many low-income students are reading just fine in the fourth grade. But many low-income kids really are way behind when they hit the fourth grade; they really did “start school without having gained important school readiness skills.” Indeed, many low-income kids are way behind their middle-class peers by the time they’re three years old! In November 2006, Paul Tough offered an important report on this topic in the New York Times magazine. To read our three-part report on his piece, see THE DAILY HOWLER, 12/1/06.

Many deserving low-income kids are way behind their peers when they’re just three years old! This isn’t the judgment of bourgeois teachers; this is the judgment of trained researchers who observe these beautiful kids in their homes, in the early years of their lives. In the heady days of the 1960s, liberals and mainstream journalists had no way to know such things. Those miracle tales of vast transformation may have seemed to make perfect sense.

Today, though, we know the world isn’t that simple. Except when music-man hustlers like Rhee show up in the Washington schools.

Seven months after Tough’s report, “Chancellor” Rhee arrived in DC, trailing her miracle claims behind her—self-glorying claims which pimped her own greatness, disparaging everyone else. To anyone with an ounce of sense, her miracle claims were highly suspect—and within weeks, the Washington Times reported the data from that 1995 study! On the basis of those same data, Mathews and the sycophant Whitmire have now thrown Rhee’s claims under the bus. But in real time, the “press corps” simply chose to ignore what the Times had reported.

For the next several years, mainstream journalists kept repeating Rhee’s claims as if they really made sense. Another music man, Wendy Kopp, paraded around the country side, adding an ugly class element to this ridiculous story. Kopp’s tale concerned the finer young people—the children from Princeton, or even Cornell. If only this finer class of young person could be sent into low-income schools, astonishing miracles could occur. Or so this music man claimed.

To see a shameless man fawn at Kopp’s upper-class feet, read our five-part review of that Charlie Rose interview. (See THE DAILY HOWLER, 7/16/08. In a rational world, PBS would have fired Rose the day after he conducted that session.)

The music men have always been with us; Rhee and Kopp are a pair of real beauts. Today, they have the power of a billionaire class behind them; they’re backed by the billionaires Bloomberg/Gates/Broad, while career climbers kiss this trio’s feet and recite their preferred talking-points These billionaires may be well-intentioned (or not), but they rarely show the slightest sign of knowing what they’re talking about. (In part, Whitmore’s sycophantic new book is funded by the Broad Foundation.)

Four years ago, Michelle Rhee paraded out onto the national stage, trailing a decades-old tale behind her. Today, her self-glorying tale has at last been renounced, by Mathews and Whitmire both. But a great deal of disinformation has been spread all around; ugly attitudes have been advanced. A great deal of damage had been done as the rubes and hacks of the mainstream world insist on believing a simple-minded, decades-old miracle tale.

This miracle tale does harm to children and to other good things. But it’s very good for the adults. It helped make Rhee a world-famous hack—the world-famous hack she now is.

Enjoy an eye-rolling embarrassment: As noted, the high-profile study which did Rhee in has always been available. The relevant findings concerning Rhee’s claims were reported in the Washington Times in June 2007; any journalist who wanted to review the full study could of course have done so. But no one at the Washington Post ever did until the study emerged on Guy Brandenburg’s blog, earlier this month. To his credit, Mathews reviewed Brandenburg’s work and voiced his own judgment about Rhee’s claims—but not before asking Brandenburg to explain how he “found the missing test score data from former D.C. schools chancellor's early years as a classroom teacher, something I did not think was possible.”

It quickly emerged that Brandenburg had received the study from Ed Harris, a concerned DC education-watcher. And uh-oh! Another education-watcher, Jay Steele, had accessed the report in 2007! To Jay’s credit, he published each man’s explanation of how he got the report.

Gaze on this post, and understand the ways of the modern “press corps:”

MATHEWS (2/15/11): I promised to report back when Ed Harris, a frequent and thoughtful commenter to this blog…told me how he managed to unearth the University of Maryland-Baltimore County report that revealed the test score results at the Baltimore elementary school where former D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee taught in the early and mid-1990s.

Ed passed the information on to blogger Guy Brandenburg, who analyzed the report and proved, at least to my satisfaction, that Rhee's students could not have gotten to the 90th percentile, as she said on her résumé. Click on Brandenburg's blog to see new support for his analysis from one of the report's authors. Harris, Brandenburg and I have all congratulated another amateur researcher, Jeff Steele, who revealed to us that he tracked down the report in 2007, and wrote about it then. We all missed it.

Here is what Harris and Steele told me about how they found the report. I think it is a good lesson for all journalists, paid or otherwise:

From Ed:

Jay, I found the report by googling these words: tesseract UMBC Baltimore 1995

Try it and you will see the report is the first entry.

I read the commentary/reporting in the dailyhowler on Miss Rhee's hearing before the DC Council in July 2007. From that, I got UMBC Baltimore and 1995…

How did Harris unearth that report? He googled four relevant terms!

(For Steele’s explanation, read the rest of Mathews’ post.)

In short, the report had always been sitting on-line, available to all who sought it. Even if it weren’t on-line, it would of course have been available to any journalist who tried to obtain it by more traditional means.

Four years later, Jay wanted to know how Harris and Steele could have unearthed such a document. To Jay’s credit, he reported what they told him, giving us our latest lesson in the way the “press corps” works.

Simple story! When Rhee arrived in DC, she was a “made man” among the nation’s billionaire elites. So was her long-term colleague, the nonsense-spouting Kopp. The rules of the game were thus quite clear, given the way the “press corps” works:

No one was going to challenge Rhee’s claims. No one would fact-check her nonsense.