In defense of Marcus and even Fineman: And yes, you read that correctlyeven 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 wasnt criticizing Obama for the list of particulars found in the piece; he specifically calls those complaints contradictory. He attributes these contradictory complaints to whats 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. Hes reciting twice weekly on Countdown!
In the case of Ruth Marcus, well even name force-of-nature Glenn Greenwald, who scalded the ladys recent column. But Marcus wasnt criticizing Obama in her column; she was contradicting those who claim he has swung to the left. More to the point of Greenwalds complaint, was Marcus cheering for the decisions described in the second graf below? Thats what Glenn thought as he read her piece. We cant 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 closedeventually. 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 Obamas decision to proceed more slowly at Guantanamo. But is she cheering for the decisions described in that second graf? We cant 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 hes a lefty are bogus. Hes disappointing civil libertarians like Romero, and other folk on the left. In most of the column, Marcus lists Obamas 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 wasnt Glenns focus, of coursequite properly.) But many pundits hammered poor Finemanand people! Lets smell the roses! Fineman is hacking for our side now. Hes reciting for Olbermann now.
MISSISSIPPI YEARNING: Its odd when someone whos basically smart starts saying things which basically arent. We got that odd feeling when we read certain parts of Obamas 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 Obamas speech. But we had just the vaguest idea:
OBAMA (3/10/09): Lets challenge our states to adopt world-class standards that will bring our curriculums into the 21st century. Todays 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 Wyomingand 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 lets look at the highlighted statement.
According to Obama, fourth-grade readers in Mississippi are scoring nearly 70 points lower than students in Wyomingand 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 speechand 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.)
Theres a word for that highlighted statementincoherent. 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 involvedand sadly, thats 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 theyve fallen. And this has gone on for a very long time, enabled by the whole liberal world.
This was the part of Obamas speech where he declared a need for higher statewide educational standards. (He didnt call for national standards, as you can see from the passage weve quoted.) In this section, Obama said a couple of thing which were actually new and different; well 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 areby 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 oppressionand a mountain of ongoing poverty.
Why are Mississippis deserving kids scoring lower than Wyomings? Because we arent the worlds dumbest people, well refer you to a measure on which these two groups of kids dont 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 achievementthe seventy-point gap Obamas staff didnt even bother to source? Beyond that, lets 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 historythe history which extends right up to this daycould 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 Mississippiin states like Maryland, the state where we typeit was against the law, for several centuries, to teach black children how to read. After that, Jim Crow came to visitand he spread his blight all around, perhaps for another century. (No, the effects dont go away just because weve 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! Its hard to find words for the sheer stupidityfor the cosmic heartlessnesscontained in such pure, scripted nonsense.
(By the way: Theres also a substantial difference in per pupil spending. In the 2005-2006 school year, Wyoming spent $11,392 per pupilalmost sixty percent more than Mississippis $7166. No, that really isnt the difference. Then too, it doesnt 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, Wyomings 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. Thats 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, Wyomings fourth-graders led Mississippis by only six points; ditto if we compare white students only. (Wyoming has so few black kids that the NAEP cant provide meaningful data.) And the gaps are even smaller in eighth-grade reading, where Wyomings non-poverty kids outscored Mississippis by four points.
We cant recall if NAEPs published data let us compare non-poverty white kids (middle-class whites) in the two states. (Again, Wyoming has too few blacks.) Well keep hunting on NAEPs site. But well take a wild guess here, based on what weve already seen: If we compare middle-class white kids in these states, that reading gap will be quite smallor it wont 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. Thats because Mississippis problems arent caused by its current state educational standards. Her problems are caused by American historyand 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! Obamas educational experts seem to think thisand so do your nations elites, locked away in mahoganied board rooms. Good God! The analysts nearly fell on the floor when they read the lead editorial in this mornings New York Times.
Oh. Our. God.: Obama said some interesting things in his speechalthough the incompetence sometimes displayed raises familiar, serious questions about the way any new policy stances will be carried out. In particular, the passage weve quoted is quite unimpressive. How inept are Obamas education staffers? So inept that they didnt seem to know that the highlighted statement made no sense at all. So inept that they may even think that Mississippis and Wyomings standards explain those divergent reading scores.
Obama said some interesting thingsbut that highlighted paragraph is impossibly daft. For that reason, we should have known that the New York Tiems would single it outfor 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 countrys curriculum for eighth graders is two full years behind other top-performing nations. Part of the problem, he said, is that this nations 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 Wyomingand theyre 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 Obamas claim about Mississippi. (Theyre 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 arent 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 worlds fortieth percentile? This paraphrased statement is doubly incoherent. It figures that the Times would adore it.
Final point: Its 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 didnt 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 fathers place. (Click herea soulful book.) would rather black the boots of success than enquire? That was the future New York Times.
The times praised Bloombergand 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, Mississippis fourth-graders arent struggling because of the states educational standards. Thats an exceptionally foolish claim. You can tellour elites all embrace it!
Tomorrow: Obama, on the rationale for higher standards
Sadly, it can be imagined: Is there any chanceany chance at allthat Obamas unspecified seventy points is somehow a corruption of the NAEPs seventeen? The NAEP would be the normal battery used for such comparisons.
What Obamas 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 helpbut he didnt try to change those educational standards. He went where the rubber meets historys 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.