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DIFFERENT CITY, SAME PROBLEM! The DC schools have a new master plan—one which avoids the whole problem: // link // print // previous // next //
THURSDAY, MARCH 2, 2006

LIBERALS REBUT: Some liberals were puzzled by yesterday’s post. Others, of course, were predictably outraged, and treated themselves to a good, solid cry. A mostly sensible rebuttal was lodged by a sharp, long-time reader in Los Angeles:
E-MAIL: Bob, today you're wrong. Some liberals do still care about low-income kids. An example is Rob Reiner, whose prescription, quite correctly in my opinion, is universal preschool, which he's trying to get passed as a referendum in California.
Reiner is an excellent (if lonely) counter-example, one whom we’ve long admired for his efforts. By the way, what do you think of Reiner’s program? It’s hard to say—and he was easy for us to forget—because his work is almost never discussed. When’s the last time you saw a discussion of Reiner’s proposal? When’s the last time you saw a discussion of whether preschool really works?

We didn’t and don’t mean our remarks as an insult. But please! We said that liberal journals and liberal bloggers almost never discuss low-income education, although the topic used to be high on our play-lists. The accuracy of those statements strikes us as obvious. This doesn’t mean that people who run liberal journals are terrible people. It simply means what it simply says: Liberal journals spend almost no time on this subject. As a result, the discussion is left to second-tier minds—and it’s endlessly driven by fatuous scripts. Last Sunday, for example, David Broder wrote one of the silliest columns we’ve ever seen about the problems of high school drop-outs (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 2/27/06). Result? No one said a word about it! Simply put, liberal writers don’t seem to care a whole lot about these topics. That’s why the discussion is left to fantasists like the great Pundit Dean.

This doesn’t make anyone a bad person. It doesn’t mean that some reader’s wife has been insulted, although it feels good to boo-hoo about it. But no—liberal journals almost never discuss low-income education. And when a major report in the Los Angeles Times described a remarkable situation—with thousands of kids forced to drop out of school—no one said a word about that. Whatever one thinks of the school board’s policy, such topics simply don’t get discussed. If it troubles you to hear obvious statements of fact, we suggest that you restrict yourself to more reliable outposts on the liberal web.

For the record, Kevin Drum did recommend yesterday’s column—first indulging in a bit of semi-puzzling snark about “Bush-bashing and Gore-mongering.” Bush-bashing? Gore-mongering? Have we ever expressed a view about Gore’s merits? About the merits of Gore’s policies? We have few views about any of that; we voted for Gore, as we voted for Kerry, because we always vote for the Democrat. We did, of course, produce endless information—in real time, then in the years which followed—about the remarkable coverage of Campaign 2000, a topic which career liberal writers have simply, absolutely refused to discuss, in real time or later. But we don’t regard that as a case of “Gore-mongering;” we regard that as a case of “recent history-mongering.” It has been astounding to see the way lib/Dem elites have refused to discuss this remarkable episode and the coverage of Clinton which led into it. (Bye-bye, Fools for Scandal.) As we’ve said, it leaves us in a remarkable situation. The other side won’t stop repeating things which are false. Meanwhile, our leaders refuse to say what is true. And Kevin can’t get this bug out of his ear. We’ve endlessly praised Kevin as a general analyst, and we’re happy to do so again. On this, he refuses to make sense.

Finally, we’re pleased to respond to one outraged Drum commenter, who lowered the boom in several posts. Here was one objection:

COMMENTER: I'd be happier if [Somerby] wrote a coherent, well-supported argument as to (1) what the problem was in the outcomes, (2) what the status quo policy was that created the problem in the outcomes, and (3) what recommendation he had to correct the failed policy, along with reasons why we should expect the policy to succeed.
Finally, a question so coherent we think we can answer! What recommendation do we have to correct the failed policy? Simple: We’ll recommend not requiring algebra for graduation! We’re fairly sure this policy will succeed. In our view, students will not drop out of school because of a class they don’t take.

Special Report: Farewell, Gabriela!

VISIT OUR INCOMPARABLE ARCHIVES: Be sure to read each part of our current series, “Farewell, Gabriela:”

Part 1: A brilliant report in the L. A. Times begins with a child left behind. (See THE DAILY HOWLER, 2/22/06.)

Part 2: Thousands of kids are now quitting school—because of their school board’s “high standards.” (See THE DAILY HOWLER, 2/23/06.)

Part 3: A ninth-grade class needs fourth-grade work. How did they get left behind? (See THE DAILY HOWLER, 2/24/06.)

Part 4: “Faddish” theories help produce an Era of Magical Thinking. (See THE DAILY HOWLER, 2/28/06.)

Part 5: Modern liberals don’t care about low-income kids, We dropped out long ago. (See THE DAILY HOWLER, 3/1/06.)

Today, we offer the first of two epilogs—a critique of the DC school system’s latest “master plan.”

EPILOG—DIFFERENT CITY, SAME PROBLEM: As far as we know, kids don’t have to pass Algebra 1 to graduate from D.C. high schools. But the District’s largely low-income system has the same achievement problems found in the schools of L.A. In Tuesday’s Post, Dion Hayes described the District’s latest new plan—the new “master education plan” of superintendent Clifford Janey. In the process, Hayes gave the skinny on the District’s schools:

HAYES (2/28/06): The 120-page document, which Janey has been working on for a year, is aimed at introducing more rigor, organization and accountability to the beleaguered 58,394-student system, in which 80 of 147 schools are on a federal watch list because of weak test scores.
Over half the District’s schools are on the “bad list” because of low test scores. The academic failures which Kozol describes in L.A. also obtain in D.C. “According to teachers at the school, the average ninth grade student reads at fourth or fifth grade level,” Kozol wrote of Fremont High in Los Angeles (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 3/1/06). “Nearly a third read at third grade level or below.” We can presume that similar problems are also found in D.C.

And uh-oh! To judge from Hayes’ report, the District system—like that in Los Angeles—lacks a real plan to address such problems. No, the District’s students won’t be forced to take Algebra 1 six times in four years; even in this Era of Magical Thinking, the District’s plan doesn’t simply command its struggling students to pass. But, to judge from Hayes’ report, the District’s new plan simply doesn’t address the grinding problem Kozol described. After Janey’s plan takes hold, will ninth-graders still read on third grade level? Alas! Nothing in this new master plan seems to address that basic question. As in L.A., so too in D.C.—a basic omission obtains.

As always, of course, officials are thrilled by the brilliance of Janey’s submission. This doesn’t mean they’re bad people—just that they’re playing a familiar role in a familiar old drama:

HAYES: School Board President Peggy Cooper Cafritz last night gave the proposals a strong endorsement. "The board is anxious to pass all the policies necessary to support the plan," she said. "We are so ready to put these changes into the school system. It's very exciting.”
So what makes up this new master plan—the new master plan which is so exciting? Let’s run through what the plan includes—and then note what it doesn’t.

First, the plan “would replace the school system's current hodgepodge of grade configurations,” Hayes reports. Later, he details these changes:

HAYES: Under the proposed grade configuration, most children would attend elementary school from pre-kindergarten through grade 5 and middle school for grades 6 through 8. All students would go to high school for grades 9 through 12. A few schools that cover pre-kindergarten through grade 8 would be allowed to retain that structure.

The plan would change the makeup of most schools in the system. For example, the city's nine public junior high schools, which cover grades 7 through 9, would be converted to middle schools.

The current assortment of grade patterns is "a setup for failure," Janey said. Although senior high schools are designed to enroll grades 9 through 12, students graduating from junior highs lose a valuable year of experience by entering those schools in the 10th grade, he said.

No doubt about it—all that is a change. But could anyone really get “excited” about it? In Los Angeles, ninth-graders already attend senior high schools, gaining that “valuable year of experience.” Janey claims that the current regime is, somehow, “a setup for failure.” But all across the United States, struggling students have conclusively shown that they can fail under this proposed grade set-up too. This part of the plan may make perfect sense. But it surely won’t make any difference.

But then, nothing else that Janey proposed is likely to matter much, either. For “under-performing” (low-scoring) high schools, he makes this semi-puzzling proposal:

HAYES: Janey said he targeted under-performing high schools for his plan to offer more specialized courses of study. Under his proposal, Eastern Senior High School in Northeast would become the District of Columbia Latin School, focusing on studies in the humanities and foreign languages and modeled on the elite Boston Latin School, which Janey attended.
That proposal does suggest the Era of Magical Thinking. Is Eastern High a low-scoring school? Simple! We’ll simply declare it “elite!” Just like the high school we once attended! Eventually, of course, D.C. Latin may be a great school—for kids who aren’t on third grade level. In fairness, Janey has also proposed some changes which could speak to those students’ needs too:
HAYES (continuing directly): Spingarn, in Northeast, would become a boarding school for students interested in construction trades; Cardozo, in Northwest, a "trans-tech" school for the study of transportation and aeronautics; Ballou, in Southeast, a media and communications school; and Anacostia, in Southeast, a health and medical sciences school.

All five schools also would continue to offer classes in the core academic subjects.

This suggests that Janey is considering the needs of kids who aren’t doing well academically. But uh-oh! Back in those new middle schools, Janey is again Thinking Magically:
HAYES: To reduce the number of students who leave the public school system after elementary school, Janey is proposing to beef up offerings in the middle grades. His plan calls for more technology, counseling and after-school enrichment activities—including chess, drama and sports—in middle schools...

He also would establish language immersion programs at Kelly Miller Middle School in Northeast, Hardy Middle School in Northwest and Alice Deal Junior High in Northwest to prepare students for an expansion of the International Baccalaureate program in high schools.

Sports is good. Chess is good. So is drama—and so is counseling. But those “beefed-up offerings”—that “full immersion”—again seem aimed at successful students. They’ll take the IB program in high school! And then they’ll all move on to Yale!

Janey proposes a minor increase in the system’s preschool program. But this minor increase leads on to the groaning omission in this new master plan. In Hayes’ report, there isn’t a word—not a single word—about what will occur in elementary schools. Sixth grade will be removed from these schools—and that’s the last thing Janey says.

At Fremont High, “the average ninth grade student reads at fourth or fifth grade level,” Kozol wrote. “Nearly a third read at third grade level or below.” We can assume the same of D.C. schools—that huge numbers of kids, like Gabriela, emerge from the system’s elementary schools with extremely weak academic skills. Under Janey’s plan, they will then pass on to middle schools which have exciting, beefed-up offerings. But kids with extremely weak academic skills can’t really gain from exciting classes like that—just as Gabriela, and thousands of others, couldn’t really cut it in algebra class. The obvious question is grindingly obvious: What will happen in D.C.’s elementary schools so that children will come to middle and high school with decent academic skills? What will happen on the first day of kindergarten? What will change in the District’s first grades? In short, what does the District plan to do so that this no longer obtains?

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.
What does the District plan to do in its elementary schools—so that kids aren’t “three levels behind” by the time they reach the fourth grade? Uh-oh! There isn’t a word in Hayes’ report about any plan to address this problem. This is the central problem of our low-income schools. And, to judge from this report, Janey’s program completely ignores it.

And make no mistake—this omission is completely typical of the world in which we live. We live in a world in which school boards routinely express excitement about plans which avoid the basic problem—plans which simply command kids to pass, or completely ignore the first grade. And we live in a world in which major writers have little or nothing to say about this—about this completely familiar absurdity. Hayes’ report appeared two days ago; today, local columnist Marc Fisher tackles the new master plan in the Post. But have you seen your favorite liberal blogger address it? We don’t mean it as an attack when we say this: Of course you haven’t seen such a thing—and, almost surely, you never will. Low-income schools have been off the liberal agenda for decades. In part for that reason, we live in an Era of Magical Thinking, in which one city simply commands kids to pass, while another city plans elite schools—without plans to produce elite students.

Different city—pretty much the same magic. Janey would change the DC system—without saying a word about first and second grades. In Janey’s defense, it’s hard to know what should be done in kindergarten, in grades 1 and 2. Few politicians have any idea—and neither do superintendents. Meanwhile, back to those failing algebra students—just what should those students be studying? Tomorrow, we’ll move ahead to that question—although answers will take a long time.

AN EXCITING SCHOOL IN LOW-INCOME NEW YORK: For ourselves, we have no doubt about Janey’s sincerity. But “specialized high schools” can sound exciting—yet be quite dreary in the real world. What happens to “specialty schools” in major cities which fail to solve that lower-grade problem? In The Shame of the Nation, Jonathan Kozol describes the plight of some low-income kids in New York—hopeful kids who signed up to attend a specialized middle school:

KOZOL (page 100-101): Earlier in this writing, for example, I have spoken of Pineapple’s older sister and her cousin, both of whom were students at a South Bronx middle school that bore Paul Robeson’s name. “Robeson,” however, as I subsequently learned, wasn’t the complete name of this school. “The Paul Robeson School for Medical Careers and Health Professions” was the full and seemingly enticing designation that it bore; and, sadly enough, this designation and the way the school described itself in a brochure that had been given to the fifth grade students in the local elementary schools had led these girls into believing that enrolling there would lead to the fulfilment of a dream they shared: They wanted to be doctors.

“An understanding and embracement of medical science and health,” said the brochure in a description of the school’s curriculum, “is developed through powerful learning opportunities...To be successful at the Paul Robeson School..., a student is expected to be highly motivated to broaden their horizons.” Not many ten-year-olds in the South Bronx would likely know that this description represented an outrageous overstatement of the academic offerings this middle school provided. Unless they had an older sibling who had been a student there, most would have no way of knowing that the Robeson School, perennially ranking at the lowest level of the city’s middle schools, sent very few students into high schools that successfully prepared a child for college and that any likelihood of moving from this school into a medical career, as these girls understood the term, was almost nonexistent.

“It’s a medical school,” another child, named Timeka, told me when I asked her why had applied there. “I want to be a baby doctor,” she explained, a goal that a number of the girls had settled on together, as children often do in elementary school. But the program at the Robeson School did not provide the kind of education that could lead her to that goal. A cynic, indeed, might easily suspect it was designed instead to turn out nursing aides and health assistants and the other relatively low-paid personnel within a hospital or nursing home, for instance, all of which might be regarded as good jobs for children with no other options, if they continued with their education long enough to graduate; but even this was not the usual pattern for a child who spent three years at Robeson.

For ourselves, we’re not cynics about Janey’s sincerity (or about that of Cafritz). But in our view, Janey’s plan does not sound exciting. “Specialized high schools” aren’t all that exciting if they’re full of kids on third-grade level. The rubber meets the road in the earliest grades, and Janey’s plan doesn’t say a word about what is going to change there. Meanwhile, in recent decades, liberal and mainstream writers have tended to avoid these topics—in droves. New plans are presented; almost no one says boo; and ten years later, a new generation shows up in high school reading on the third-grade level. In some school systems, they’re flunking algebra—six separate times in four years.

By the way, did you se anyone comment on this part of Kozol’s book when it appeared last year? We did not. But we don’t say that to goad the easily offended; we offer it instead as a challenge.