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MISSISSIPPI YEARNING! Obama embraced a ridiculous claim. The New York Times rushed to endorse it: // link // print // previous // next //
THURSDAY, MARCH 12, 2009

In defense of Marcus and even Fineman: And yes, you read that correctly—even about Howard Fineman, who is smart but amoral. Beyond that, the apparent errors of which we will speak involve work by three of the very best minds on the web.

Many web liberals have pounded away at Fineman and Marcus this week. Might we note what these pundits seem to be saying in the relevant columns?

Fineman does play the fool at the end of this on-line column; he describes himself as one of “us,” rather than as part of “the establishment.” But Fineman wasn’t criticizing Obama for the list of particulars found in the piece; he specifically calls those complaints “contradictory.” He attributes these “contradictory” complaints to “what’s left of the American establishment.” In that claim, of course, he is right.

People! Fineman is hacking on our side now! The tribe to which he belongs has flipped. He’s reciting twice weekly on Countdown!

In the case of Ruth Marcus, we’ll even name force-of-nature Glenn Greenwald, who scalded the lady’s recent column. But Marcus wasn’t criticizing Obama in her column; she was contradicting those who claim he has swung to the left. More to the point of Greenwald’s complaint, was Marcus “cheering for” the decisions described in the second graf below? That’s what Glenn thought as he read her piece. We can’t really say we agree:

MARCUS (3/11/09): On the legal issues entwined in the war on terrorism, Obama is, again wisely, proceeding more slowly than many civil libertarians demand. Guantanamo will be closed—eventually. Military commissions have been halted, torture policies renounced and secret memorandums released.

Yet the Obama Justice Department backstopped the Bush Justice Department's assertion of the state secrets privilege to block lawsuits challenging wiretapping and extraordinary rendition. The administration argued that prisoners in Afghanistan cannot challenge their detention in court. It leaned on the British government to keep evidence of alleged torture secret.

“Hope is flickering,” lamented Anthony Romero, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union.

Clearly, Marcus endorses Obama’s decision to “proceed more slowly” at Guantanamo. But is she “cheering for” the decisions described in that second graf? We can’t say that she states a view one way or the other. The overall point of the column is clear: Obama is governing as a centrist, as promised; claims that he’s a lefty are bogus. He’s disappointing civil libertarians like Romero, and other folk on “the left.” In most of the column, Marcus lists Obama’s centrist stances without expressing her view of the matters in question. (See her education summary, for example.) Plainly, the column is written as a defense of Obama against unfair claims by critics.

Each column was a defense of Obama. (That wasn’t Glenn’s focus, of course—quite properly.) But many pundits hammered poor Fineman—and people! Let’s smell the roses! Fineman is hacking for our side now. He’s reciting for Olbermann now.

MISSISSIPPI YEARNING: It’s odd when someone who’s basically smart starts saying things which basically aren’t. We got that odd feeling when we read certain parts of Obama’s speech on education, the one he delivered on Tuesday. For example, what does the highlighted statement mean? This passage comes from an important part of Obama’s speech. But we had just the vaguest idea:

OBAMA (3/10/09): Let’s challenge our states to adopt world-class standards that will bring our curriculums into the 21st century. Today’s system of fifty different sets of benchmarks for academic success means fourth-grade readers in Mississippi are scoring nearly 70 points lower than students in Wyoming—and getting the same grade. Eight of our states are setting their standards so low that their students may end up on par with roughly the bottom 40 percent of the world.

That whole paragraph is impressively murky. But let’s look at the highlighted statement.

According to Obama, fourth-grade readers in Mississippi “are scoring nearly 70 points lower than students in Wyoming—and getting the same grade.” Does anyone know what that actually means? Mississippi kids are scoring “seventy points lower” on what? (Seventy points can represent a very large or very small difference in achievement, depending on the measure in question.) And what “same grade” are both groups of kids getting? This was a very important speech—and this was a central contention within it. And yet, this statement makes no sense at all. (The spectacularly unhelpful White House “fact sheet” makes no attempt to explain it.)

There’s a word for that highlighted statement—incoherent. But then, incoherence has long been the norm when Big Major Pols discuss low-income schools. Smart people start saying shapeless things when public schools are involved—and sadly, that’s been true of Big Dem Pols more than of Big Republicans. Have eighth-graders risen to be the ninth-best? We Dems will weirdly say that they’ve fallen. And this has gone on for a very long time, enabled by the whole liberal world.

This was the part of Obama’s speech where he declared a need for higher statewide educational standards. (He didn’t call for national standards, as you can see from the passage we’ve quoted.) In this section, Obama said a couple of thing which were actually new and different; we’ll look at those statements tomorrow. But for the most part, he spooned the same tired tapioca that has endlessly driven these scripted discussions ever since the “standards revolution” got its ballyhooed start. Are fourth-grade children in Mississippi scoring lower in reading than their counterparts in Wyoming? Yes, they are—by seventeen points on the NAEP, for example. (Details below. That number intrigues us.) But does anyone think this has occurred because the state maintains lower “standards?” Washed away in such pure nonsense are centuries of racial oppression—and a mountain of ongoing poverty.

Why are Mississippi’s deserving kids scoring lower than Wyoming’s? Because we aren’t the world’s dumbest people, we’ll refer you to a measure on which these two groups of kids don’t “get the same grade.” Duh. In the educational world, what follows is the standard measure for poverty:

Percentage of public school students eligible for free/reduced lunch:
Wyoming: 29.7 percent
Mississippi: 67.5 percent

Gee. Could the human stories behind those data help explain that the gap in reading achievement—the “seventy-point” gap Obama’s staff didn’t even bother to source? Beyond that, let’s look at some other data about these two groups of kids. Because of the weight of American history, these data are relevant too:

Racial composition of public school populations:
Wyoming: 84.5 percent white/1.5 percent black
Mississippi: 46.5 percent white/50.8 percent black

Given what we know of American history—the history which extends right up to this day—could those data help explain the gap between those states’ reading scores? Or must the gap be “explained” by the measure your bloodless elites have picked out?

Might we spend a few brief moments lingering here, out in the real world? In one of these states, forced illiteracy was official state policy, for several centuries, for what is now its largest student racial group. In states like Mississippi—in states like Maryland, the state where we type—it was against the law, for several centuries, to teach black children how to read. After that, Jim Crow came to visit—and he spread his blight all around, perhaps for another century. (No, the effects don’t go away just because we’ve decided we hate them.) And yet we are told, by our first black president, that it must be the difference between these states’ current “standards” that explains the gap in their reading scores! Good God! It’s hard to find words for the sheer stupidity—for the cosmic heartlessness—contained in such pure, scripted nonsense.

(By the way: There’s also a substantial difference in per pupil spending. In the 2005-2006 school year, Wyoming spent $11,392 per pupil—almost sixty percent more than Mississippi’s $7166. No, that really isn’t the difference. Then too, it doesn’t help.)

Does anyone think that this reading-score gap would flip if these two states swapped “standards?” Does anyone think the difference in these states’ reading scores is really determined by those “standards?” And by the way, might we make a thoroughly predictable observation?

As noted, Wyoming’s fourth-graders scored 17 points higher on the NAEP reading test in 2007. (Speaking very roughly, people sometimes say that ten points on this scale corresponds to one academic year. That’s a very rough rule of thumb. For all NAEP reading data, start here.) But guess what? Quite predictably, that seventeen points starts melting away if you control for income and race. Among non-poverty students, Wyoming’s fourth-graders led Mississippi’s by only six points; ditto if we compare white students only. (Wyoming has so few black kids that the NAEP can’t provide meaningful data.) And the gaps are even smaller in eighth-grade reading, where Wyoming’s non-poverty kids outscored Mississippi’s by four points.

We can’t recall if NAEP’s published data let us compare non-poverty white kids (middle-class whites) in the two states. (Again, Wyoming has too few blacks.) We’ll keep hunting on NAEP’s site. But we’ll take a wild guess here, based on what we’ve already seen: If we compare middle-class white kids in these states, that reading gap will be quite small—or it won’t exist. In other words, when we start comparing apples to apples, the troubling effects of those divergent “state standards” start to wither away. And duh. That’s because Mississippi’s problems aren’t caused by its current state educational standards. Her problems are caused by American history—and by the heartless, know-nothing conduct of our bloodless elites.

Does anyone think that this reading-score gap would flip if these two states swapped their “state standards?” Sadly, yes! Obama’s “educational experts” seem to think this—and so do your nation’s elites, locked away in mahoganied board rooms. Good God! The analysts nearly fell on the floor when they read the lead editorial in this morning’s New York Times.

Oh. Our. God.: Obama said some interesting things in his speech—although the incompetence sometimes displayed raises familiar, serious questions about the way any new policy stances will be carried out. In particular, the passage we’ve quoted is quite unimpressive. How inept are Obama’s education staffers? So inept that they didn’t seem to know that the highlighted statement made no sense at all. So inept that they may even think that Mississippi’s and Wyoming’s “standards” explain those divergent reading scores.

Obama said some interesting things—but that highlighted paragraph is impossibly daft. For that reason, we should have known that the New York Tiems would single it out—for praise! Good God. This is part of what the Time writes today, in its lead editorial:

NEW YORK TIMES EDITORIAL (3/12/09): Mr. Obama spoke in terms that everyone could understand when he noted that only a third of 13- and 14-year-olds read as well as they should and that this country’s curriculum for eighth graders is two full years behind other top-performing nations. Part of the problem, he said, is that this nation’s schools have recently been engaged in “a race to the bottom”— most states have adopted abysmally low standards and weak tests so that students who are performing poorly in objective terms can look like high achievers come test time.

The nation has a patchwork of standards that vary widely from state to state and a system under which he said “fourth-grade readers in Mississippi are scoring nearly 70 points lower than students in Wyoming—and they’re getting the same grade.” In addition, Mr. Obama said, several states have standards so low that students could end up on par with the bottom 40 percent of students around the globe.

Good God. The Times goes out of its way to quote Obama’s claim about Mississippi. (They’re scoring nearly seventy points lower!) But then, that last statement is incoherent too. In some states, “students could end up on par with the bottom 40 percent of students around the globe?” To state the obvious, some students will score quite low in every one of the fifty states; that is the nature of large populations. In this incoherent paraphrased statement, Obama says that “students” (we aren’t told how many) could end up “on par with the bottom 40 percent of students around the globe.” Does that mean that this unstated number of students will match the average score of that forty percent? Does it mean that they will score below the world’s fortieth percentile? This paraphrased statement is doubly incoherent. It figures that the Times would adore it.

Final point: It’s stunning to see the New York Times complain about that race to the bottom, in which states may have made their statewide tests easier to produce higher scores. (“Have adopted abysmally...weak tests so that students who are performing poorly in objective terms can look like high achievers.”) Why is it stunning to read this from the Times? Because a few years ago, it looked like the state of New York might have weakened its statewide tests, thus producing higher scores. What did the New York Times do then? Of course! They kissed the garments of Michael Bloomberg, who was claiming that the score rise observed all over the state had been caused, in New York City, by the genius of his own policies (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 7/5/05). No, this didn’t make any sense. But Bloomberg owns a billion dollars. And e.e. cummings understood the gaggle of swells who would lounge, one day, at the Times:

Humanity i love you
because you would rather black the boots of
success than enquire whose soul dangles from his
watch-chain
which would be embarrassing for both
parties and because you
unflinchingly applaud all
songs containing the words country home and
mother when sung at the old howard

“at the old howard?” Our father’s place. (Click here—a soulful book.) “would rather black the boots of success than enquire?” That was the future New York Times.

The times praised Bloomberg—and criticized those who said that the whole thing seemed phony. Today, the lovelies thunder and roar at the syndrome they loudly ignored.

No, Virginia (and all the ships at sea): In the main, Mississippi’s fourth-graders aren’t struggling because of the state’s “educational standards.” That’s an exceptionally foolish claim. You can tell—our elites all embrace it!

Tomorrow: Obama, on the rationale for higher standards

Sadly, it can be imagined: Is there any chance—any chance at all—that Obama’s unspecified “seventy points” is somehow a corruption of the NAEP’s seventeen? The NAEP would be the normal battery used for such comparisons.

What Obama’s speech probably meant: Just a guess. It meant that Mississippi is scoring way behind Wyoming on measures like the NAEP. But if you go by the two states’ official standards, a similar percentage of kids are being declared “proficient.”

Raspberry yearning: William Raspberry returned to Mississippi to help—but he didn’t try to change those educational standards. He went where the rubber meets history’s road. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 12/17/05.

sung at the howard: “I got my first laugh onstage at the Old Howard Theatre in Boston, the famous burlesque house.” Harpo Marx, Harpo Speaks. Our father (65 when we were born) started there in 1898.