Drum gets it right/prelude to Brooks: Well guess that Kevin Drums (educated) guess is right about Obamas education address. In this post, Kevin takes an (educated) guess at what Obama meant by this part of last weeks speech:
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.
As we noted, the highlighted statement is basically incoherent (as is the statement which follows it). Mississippi fourth-graders are scoring nearly 70 points lower on what? What same grade are these two groups getting? In his post, Kevin takes a (very good) guess. Well guess that he gets it right.
For the record, if Kevins assessment is correct, the meaning of Obamas statement is quite convoluted. Simplifying, Obamas complaint would come to this: As compared with his peers in Wyoming, a Mississippi fourth-grader gets rated proficient in reading for achieving what amounts to a much lower test score. In Mississippi, a child who is reading less well gets rated proficient. In Wyoming, a child who is reading (substantially) better gets ranked as not proficient.
In our view, it would be hard to overstate how trivial this matter is. It doesnt much matter what children get called; what matters is how much they learn. Would Mississippis fourth-graders learn more if they were officially scolded, not praised? In all candor, its hard to believe that this makes any real difference. Heaven forbid that some kid in Mississippi gets to hear something positive! (If they even hear about how they got rated.) In our view, its not a good sign that Obamas education aides thought this was a key point.
Tomorrow, we start a four-part report about this recent column, in which David Brooks offered his views about Obamas education agenda. Before we start, lets quickly review a few things we said last week:
A brief shining moment: Some of the speech was A-OK. It was good that Obama called for more early childhood educationand it was very good when he insisted that these programs must be effective. In all candor, liberals often praise such programs because they reflect so well on the good intentions of liberals. Obama created a different measure: Are these programs really helping real kids?
A flat misstatement: It wasnt good when Obama, our president, seemed to misstate certain facts and certain broad situations. In particular, this gloom-and-doom presentation about relative decline seemed to trade day for night:
OBAMA: Let there be no doubt: the future belongs to the nation that best educates its citizens...
And yet, despite resources that are unmatched anywhere in the world, we have let our grades slip, our schools crumble, our teacher quality fall short, and other nations outpace us. In eighth grade math, weve fallen to ninth place. Singapores middle-schoolers outperform ours three to one. Just a third of our thirteen- and fourteen-year-olds can read as well as they should. And year after year, a stubborn gap persists between how well white students are doing compared to their African American and Latino classmates. The relative decline of American education is untenable for our economy, unsustainable for our democracy, and unacceptable for our childrenand we cannot afford to let it continue.
Thats a deeply gloomy portraitone thats hard to square with the facts. In fact, those US eighth-graders have risen to ninth in the world, in a long, steady improvement. (In 1995, US eighth-graders finished 23rd on that same international assessment.) On the home front, do those stubborn achievement gaps persist? Evidence across several decades shows that those gaps have been shrinking. In short, evidence from national and international measures (including the measures Obama was citing) seems to show US performance improving. We may not be satisfied with the degree of improvement, but that gloom-and-doom about crumbling schools and sliding grades seems hard to square with the facts. We hate to be the kill-joys here. But at this point, that relative decline of American education doesnt seem to exist.
Wed have to say we found this troubling. Its rare to see an American president misstate a basic situation so grandly in such a major speech.
That magical thinking: And then, we had the familiar, magical thinking about higher state educational standards. Lets be clear: Every child should be pushed to achieve as much as possible, whether that child is working at, above or below traditional grade level. But kids who are years below traditional norms arent likely to be helped (or even affected) if their states decide to adopt tougher educational standards. For decades, journalists and educational experts have treated higher standards like some sort of self-realizing magic elixir. (If we adopt them, theyll be attained!) This is profoundly silly thinking. We were sad to see it stressed in Obamas speech.
We were intrigued by Brooks columnin part because Brooks is smart, in part because we believe hes sincere in his positive reactions to Obamas educational program. For our money, the scribe seems drawn to magic himself. But magical thinking doesnt workat least, not for kids who need the most help, those good, deserving, decent kids who may be near the bottom. We think those kids got ignored a bitby Brooks, and in that speech.
Three cheers for Valerie Strauss: In this mornings Post, Valerie Strauss does a darn good job fact-checking Obamas speech. (Headline: Putting Some Straight Talk Into Obamas Education Speech. Oof.) She notes that eighth-grader have risen, not fallenthough she does understate the size of the rise. She cites aspects of Gerald Braceys work. She even raises this question:
STRAUSS (3/16/09): In his book "Reading Educational Research: How to Avoid Getting Statistically Snookered," Bracey raises a number of questions about the reliability of international comparisons. One issue is whether students tested represent a country's population.
On international measures, are the national samples representative? We cant help you with that question. Big major journalists should.
One small point: Obamas statements about the relative decline of American education got trumpeted on the Posts front page. Strauss fact-check appears at the bottom on page B2. And quite literally, its in smaller print.
A DIFFERENT ODONNELL: Wed give Jamison Foser the Howlitzer Prize for this superlative piece from Fridays Media Matters (although wed make him share it with Boehlert). Yes, hes covering a topic weve been pushingthe hapless way the press corps has treated the earmarks in the recent spending bill. But Foser presents the matter quite clearly. And he goes one step beyond, offering this gruesome video of MSNBCs Norah ODonnell as she interviews Wisconsin Gov. Jim Doyle. We strongly advise you to watch.
Foser accuses ODonnell of deliberate stupidity, referring to the way she clowns about termite and pig-odor research. We found it sad to watch the tape, because we remember the time when a younger, better ODonnell played a very different role on this gruesome network.
According to Nexis, ODonnell became an NBC political analyst in 1998, at age 24. Unless were mistaken, wed briefly met her the year before, before hed done any TV. We recall telling some at the Hotline during that period that she would obviously become a big star. She was always extremely telegenicand she was obviously plenty bright by the standards of TV news talkers.
ODonnell began playing Hardball in 1999, when that programs gruesome host began his disgraceful War Against Gore. And in those days, a younger, much better ODonnell pushed back against the type of nonsense she dispenses on Fosers tape. Doing what is never done, she routinely challenged Chris Matthews foolishness. She was often ridiculed by this hosta man who doesnt plainly like being contradicted by women.
In 1999, this happened quite a bitbut that was a different ODonnell. One example:
Our favorite push-back by ODonnell occurred in the wake of Gore and Bradleys first Democratic debate. The press was inventing a string of complaints about Gores laughable, dishonest, Clintonian performance. By way of background, this had been a town hall debate, with New Hampshire citizens posing questions directly to Gore and Bradley. On several occasions, citizens asked Gore questions involving their children. In one or two instances, Gore had dared to ask these citizens how old their children were.
In what follows, you see two nasty men raining down the hail of insults the liberal world sat still for:
MATTHEWS (10/28/99): What did you make of them, side by side? How did they strike you, watching them both perform last night?
TONY BLANKLEY: Well, I mean, I thought Bradley seemed on the edge of being disengaged. Itit's a close call.
MATTHEWS: Did he look at his watch?
BLANKLEY: Butno, he didn't quite do that, but that could easily shift in sort of, into an arrogant disengagement. It didn't quiteit wasn't quite to that level, but close. Gore looked like he wasyou know, like the kind of person who was doing sex after having read a book about how to do it. I mean, it was justI mean, this business where he was personally asking questions of theHow old is your son? He would ask that question and then he'd go back to his policy drone. Iso II mean, it looked like he was sort of cribbing from the Clinton style, but Clinton would follow up and make it all personal. So I thought he was pretty clumsy in his style.
MATTHEWS: Well, you rememberyou're not asTony, you are, might be as old as me.
BLANKLEY: I might be older.
MATTHEWS: Do you remember that Mr.well, remember "Mr. Wizard" that was on television in the '50s?
BLANKLEY: I do.
MATTHEWS: It was Don Herbert and he said, Today, boys and girlsit was almost likeall like Sherman in a wayback machine, too. It was so avuncular. And, and the questionsyou're right! What does it matter whether the kid's in the sixth or the eighth grade? The point was pretty general.
Gore looked like the kind of person who was doing sex after having read a book about how to do it. He reminded Matthews of Mr. Wizard speaking to childrenof Sherman in the Wayback Machine. (These were all Standard Themes.) And what did it matter whether the kid was in the sixth or the eighth grade? This nasty, stupid man threw to ODonnell, and omigod! Its never done! ODonnell answered his stupid question in a short, direct manner:
MATTHEWS: And, and the questionsyou're right! What does it matter whether the kid's in the sixth or the eighth grade? The point was pretty general.
O'DONNELL: I think it mattersI think, Chris, it matters to the parent that was asking the question.
Ow! Anyone with an ounce of sense would have cheered the bright young person who responded to that stupid question in that slightly insolent way. Matthews was less pleased, of course; indeed, hed had this sort of problem with ODonnell several times during the year. He was soon mocking her good grades in schooland explaining that Gore had behaved that way because some consultant told him to do so. Just like Blankley, Matthews knew that the whole thing was bogus, phony and fake:
MATTHEWS: What does it matter whether the kid's in the sixth or the eighth grade? The point was pretty general.
O'DONNELL: I think it mattersI think, Chris, it matters to the parent that was asking the question.
MATTHEWS: You do?
MATTHEWS: Yeah. So you likeso you like that interrogative, Norah?
O'DONNELL: Well, I think anyI think criticizing presidential candidates for trying to connect with voters perhaps
MATTHEWS: But was it an authentic connection or was it something that his consultant told him to try?
O'DONNELL: I think that'swell, whether or notI mean, whether or not it's authentic enough, he was, he was doing it, and appeared genuinely interested and he got a couple of interesting responses, in particular from the man who happened to be the president of the local union there at Dartmouth College.
MATTHEWS: Well, you know in school when you get
O'DONNELL: So it, it worked for him and it
MATTHEWS: Hey, Norah, you know when you get a C in a classyou may not have ever gotten one, but sometimes when you get a C or worse, you go to the teacher and you ask if you can do something extra credit. It was likeat the end of that debate, when it was clearly over for both of them and theand the cameras were being struck, for Al Gore, the vice president of the United States, to publicly say, I'll be glad to take any other questions after the cameras are gone, hint, hint. I'm really hedo you think that was a serious grown-up, mature offer or was that just a cheap little deal for him to make himself look more concerned?
ODONNELL: I, I mean, I'll take it that it was sincere. I mean, I remember when all of us were sitting here a couple of weeks ago, and the secretary [Robert Reich] was talking about the word passion, and that Al Gore did not have enough passion. Now it looks and appeared last night that he was certainly more passionate than he's been in several weeks and perhaps more passionate than Mr. Bradley.
O'DONNELL: He was engaged with the voters...
On this program, they were slamming Gore for engaging with citizens. And omigod! Unacceptable! ODonnell noted that, just weeks before, these same old crones had been slamming Gore for not engaging enough!
We cant post the tape of that segment today, so you cant hear the derisive tone of a certain famous host. But hed had this problem with ODonnell all year. ODonnell was punished on the air, several times, because she failed to play dumb for her host. So was Elizabeth Holtzman, who dared to talk back (accurately). So was Ohio pol Mary Boyle. By 1999, it was pretty clear that a certain famous nut had a small gender problem.
Unfortunately, that ODonnell no longer exists. Just check Fosers tape.
Over the weekend, we happened to watch the end of the Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978) again. First Brooke Adams succumbs, then Donald Sutherland. And then, theres Fosers tape of ODonnell. In this case, pods havent floated from outer spaceat least, not as far as we know. Different process! In this case, big wads of money are handed to scribesbut only if they will succumb.
I think it matters to the parent. That person no longer exists.
By the way: How disgraceful was the derision being aimed at Gore that night? As weve explained in the past, here is one of the two exchanges to which Matthews and Blankley seemed to refer. You really have to be sick in the soul to ridicule someone for this:
BERNARD SHAW (10/27/99): Please, your name and question for the vice president.
QUESTIONER: Hi. My name is Corey Martin and I live in Hanover. There's been talk tonight about health care reform. And I am the parent of a child who has diabetes and I spend a lot of time dealing with the insurance companies and what's covered and what's not covered, and it eats up a lot of time and effort. So I'm wondering, if you were to implement health care reforms, who would be the decision-makers? Who chooses what's covered?
GORE: How old is your child, Corey?
MARTIN: She's five.
GORE: And do you have an insurance policy?
MARTIN: Yeah. I work at Dartmouth and we have a very good policy.
GORE: Oh, so you'reyou have a good policy here? Okay, very good.
MARTIN: Yeah. Yeah. We're very lucky.
GORE: You know, we've just had a big increase in our research for juvenile diabetes, and I'm hopeful we can find a cure for that and cancer and other diseases...
Gore had inquired about a sick child! (As it turned out, the child was five.) For that offense, store-bought ex-humans like Matthews and Blankley battered him all about the square. And these complaints were quite widespread. Here was the gruesome Lady Collins, in Gothams great New York Times:
COLLINS (10/29/99): Al Gore has a personality without a thermostat, and when he tries to look animated he practically crashes into the wallboard. On Wednesday he hijacked the auditorium early on, begging for a chance to do a pre-debate Q.-and-A. ("This person has a question! Do we have time for his question?") He tossed in a little Spanish and a long joke, and made endless attempts to create Clintonesque mind-melds with the audience. ("How old is your child, Corey? Are you unionized, Earl?") At the end, he refused to be dragged offstage. ("Can I say one more word? I would like to stay!") He bore an uncomfortable resemblance to the kid who asks the teacher for more homework. Mr. Bradley, lounging on his stool, arms folded across his chest, looked like the high school athlete watching the class nerd volunteer to stay and clap erasers.
You see? It was just as Matthews said! When Gore asked Martin about her sick child, it was one of his endless attempts to create Clintonesque mind-melds with the audience.
By the way: If you ever watch the tape of that debate, you will have a very hard time understanding what debate Collins was watching. And yes: This was the famous debate where the press corps, locked in its own press room, spent the entire hour jeering, hissing and laughing at Gore. (Tapper, Pooley and Mortman described it.) They emerged from the room to offer their thoughts about what a big phony fake Gore had been. Collins forgot to let you know what they had done in that room.
Collins body had already been snatched. But a different ODonnell roamed the earth at that time. She responded to Matthews that night in the manner long observed among humans.
By the way: Your liberal heroes sat around for two years and let this sick process roll on.