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DAVID BROOKS BELIEVES! David Brooks believes in Obama’s agenda. And he believes in the experts: // link // print // previous // next //
TUESDAY, MARCH 17, 2009

Narratives around health care: In today’s column, Gene Robinson recommends universal health coverage. As far as we know, he says nothing that’s wrong or inaccurate. But we are always struck by this odd, if accurate, construction:

ROBINSON (3/17/09): What is relevant is that I have good insurance, which I obtain through my employer, and haven't paid a dime out of pocket for my treatment. If I were among the 46 million Americans who are uninsured, I'd be looking at a huge hospital bill. No one should face financial ruin because of a mishap with a fork and an avocado. The way we ration health care now—according to the individual's ability to pay—is immoral, and if higher taxes are needed to ensure that no one has to choose between health and bankruptcy, I'll pay. That was my position all along, but now it's personal.

Whenever we see that “higher taxes” construction, we wonder this: How many people understand that Euro nations which already have universal coverage pay much less for health care than we do?

It’s not that Robinson said something inaccurate. We’re just always struck by the oddness of that need for “higher taxes.” Here are some data from an old Krugman column. It’s amazing how rarely data like these intrude on American discourse (these are old data, of course):

KRUGMAN (11/6/05): Let's start with the fact that America's health care system spends more, for worse results, than that of any other advanced country.

In 2002 the United States spent $5,267 per person on health care. Canada spent $2,931; Germany spent $2,817; Britain spent only $2,160. Yet the United States has lower life expectancy and higher infant mortality than any of these countries.

That’s “per person,” not “per health care recipient.” We spend way more than these countries do. And yet, we’ll need to pay “higher taxes” to achieve universal coverage—which they already have.

The paradox of that always grabs us. But our health care discussion is narrowly circumscribed. Data like those almost never appear in the press. This saves others from being struck by the oddness of this construction.

Squealing up to the fire: Meanwhile, Philip Rucker arrives, tires squealing, at the scene of a recent fire. Weeks after it would have been relevant, the Post reveals—right there on page one!—that those earmarks can be quite worthwhile.

Special report: David Brooks believes!

PART 1—IN THE EXPERTS: David Brooks is betting the house on Obama’s education agenda. We mention this because Brooks is smarter than many big scribes—and because we assume he’s sincere in his views about education. But in last Friday’s column, Brooks sounded like many other big pundits:

Simply put, Brooks believes in the experts. At THE HOWLER, we pretty much don’t.

What does David Brooks believe? As you scan last Friday’s column, you hit a string of beliefs—beliefs which derive from standard cant long peddled by standard experts. These beliefs aren’t necessarily “wrong.” But does Brooks really know what he’s talking about? We’ll offer a quick guess: He doesn’t.

What does David Brooks believe? Let’s tick off some basic beliefs:

Brooks believes in “merit pay for good teachers.” (“The ones who develop emotional bonds with students).” He wants to “dismiss bad teachers (the ones who treat students like cattle to be processed).”

Those beliefs aren’t necessarily “wrong.”

Brooks believes in the power of testing.Today, tests can tell you which students are on track and which aren’t,” he writes. “They can tell you which teachers are bringing their students’ achievement up by two grades in a single year and which are bringing their students’ levels up by only half a grade.We believe in testing too; we can’t imagine running an urban system without an annual testing program. But large problems currently lurk in this area. The experts rarely mention this fact, and there’s no sign that Brooks has heard.

Brooks believes in the power of “higher (state) standards.” He wants to replace a “race to the bottom” with a “race to the top,” with states “compelled to raise their standards if they hope to get federal money.” (He seems to think Mississippi will be more like Massachusetts if it would only adopt the Bay State’s “standards.”) We believe in demanding the best from kids too. But magical thinking about “higher standards” has been Prime Expert Cant for decades. In many ways, it’s remarkably silly—though Brooks doesn’t seem to have heard.

Most importantly, Brooks seems to believe that he understands public schools. Pundits all seem to think they know schools—perhaps because they all attended fifth grade once themselves. But do pundits really understand schools? When such putative experts start to expound, you may hit minor conflicts. Like this:

BROOKS (3/13/09): Thanks in part to No Child Left Behind, we’re a lot better at measuring each student’s progress.

BROOKS (3/13/09): The problem is that as our ability to get data has improved, the education establishment’s ability to evade the consequences of data has improved, too.

No, there’s no “contradiction” there, if you read Brooks’ full column with care. (We’ll give more detail as the week proceeds.) But if Brooks is so skillful at measuring progress, you’d think he would know that achievement rates have been rising in American schools, for some time now. (This has been happening even as the percentage of lower-scoring minority and second-language students has increased.) If those data are right, that’s actually sort of impressive. But Obama’s address traded day for night, gloomily churning old pseudo-con dogma about the decline of American schools. And uh-oh! Brooks seems drawn to this doom and gloom too—to a vision in which “the education establishment” deliberately impedes the progress his high-minded colleagues desire.

We’ll bite! If we’ve learned to measure progress so well, why isn’t Brooks praising that education establishment? Hasn’t it helped produce the gains our best data keep suggesting? The gains about which Obama misstated? The gains Brooks doesn’t cite?

In fairness, Brooks never says whether things are betting better or worse in American schools. But he does quote gloomy Arne Duncan, as the Ed Sec morosely describes that undefined “race to the bottom.” And before long, he’s praising Obama’s attempt to stop the madness that term might imply. Again, the casual reader might get the sense that our schools are in head-long decline:

BROOKS: The administration also will give money to states like Massachusetts that have rigorous proficiency standards. The goal is to replace the race to the bottom with a race to the top, as states are compelled to raise their standards if they hope to get federal money.

Somehow, that “race to the bottom” will come to an end—if Obama can make other states behave like Massachusetts. Again, nothing is actually wrong in this passage, if you read Brooks’ total column. But does Brooks really know whereof he speaks? Our guess would be no: He does not.

We don’t mean this as an insult to Brooks; we think he’s smarter than most major scribes, and we’re sure he’s sincere in these statements. But most pundits seem to think they understand public schools, and we’ll guess that very few really do. They’ve heard the same cant, for year after year, from “educational experts” of the left and the right. This expert cant is often lacking, but it drives much Big Pundit Thought.

Big pundits believe that they understand schools! This can lead to confident claims—to simplified statements which read like novels. Consider the slightly loopy claim Brooks is making by paragraph 4:

BROOKS: We’ve spent years working on ways to restructure schools, but what matters most is the relationship between one student and one teacher. You ask a kid who has graduated from high school to list the teachers who mattered in his life, and he will reel off names. You ask a kid who dropped out, and he will not even understand the question. Relationships like that are beyond his experience.

The story can get extremely simple when pundits expound on the schools. In this case, Brooks is telling this heart-warming tale by the time he hits paragraph 4. A high school grad can “reel off the names of teachers” who mattered in his life, Brooks believes; high-school drop-outs won’t even know what you’re talking about! This is a simplified, novelized tale. But we have no idea why Brooks believes it, or why he would make this related claim: “What matters most is the relationship between one student and one teacher.”

These claims are heartwarming—but are they true? We’d guess that they aren’t (more below). And uh-oh! This reads like a novel.

Who knows? Like many experts, Brooks seems to believe there’s a villain to this piece. He doesn’t say words likes “teachers” or “unions”—but “education establishment” might come close, at least for those who lack a trained ear. Meanwhile, as he closes his column, another villain swims into view: “Liberal orthodoxy on school reform” (which he says Obama has wisely rejected). That’s a standard villain in Big Pundit Lore. We think it dumbs Brooks’ piece down.

Let’s return to first things: We regard Brooks as smart and sincere. That’s why we were struck by much of his column. To us, it often seemed he was often channeling cant, cant heard from a thousand “experts.” In recent decades, the experts have tended to say the same things, over and over and over again. Based on our own time in Baltimore classrooms, the magical things we hear them say often seem just flat wrong.

And sometimes, it’s clear that the experts are clueless. We’ll save that for Part 4.

At any rate, David Brooks seems to believe in those experts. And he believes in Obama’s agenda. For ourselves, we’re hopeful about that agenda—although some things in Obama’s address were just wrong. But David Brooks? He plainly believes. Given the cant of the past twenty years, we’re not real surprised that he does.

Brooks believes in the power of tests, and in the power of “higher (state) standards.” And he seems to believes that some villains are lurking. Mostly, he seems to believe in the experts. Over the course of the next several days, we’ll review a few of the ways our Stale Expert Cant can be lacking—or just flat-out wrong.

TOMORROW—PART 2: In the power of testing

Brooks gets it right: We do think Brooks (largely) got it right as he closed his column:

BROOKS: In short, Obama hopes to change incentives so districts do the effective and hard things instead of the easy and mediocre things. The question is whether he has the courage to follow through. Many doubt he does. They point to the way the president has already caved in on the D.C. vouchers case.

Democrats in Congress just killed an experiment that gives 1,700 poor Washington kids school vouchers. They even refused to grandfather in the kids already in the program, so those children will be ripped away from their mentors and friends. The idea was to cause maximum suffering, and 58 Senators voted for it.

Obama has, in fact, been shamefully quiet about this. But in the next weeks he’ll at least try to protect the kids now in the program. And more broadly, there’s reason for hope. Education is close to his heart...

We’ll skip the parts about “shamefully quiet.” Beyond that, we have no particular view about the continuation of DC’s voucher program. But we too were amazed at the idea that kids already in the program might be cut off, returned to their previous schools. It seems to us there’s a word for that: cold. We think Brooks got this (largely) right.

About that novelized story: Really? A high school grad can “reel off the names” of “the teachers who mattered in his life?” On what planet?

For ourselves, we can name at least several teachers to whom we really are grateful. We attended this California high school from 1961 through 1965, when the Golden State was still young. (Today, it’s the nation’s 341st best high school, according to the obsessives at Newsweek.) New high schools were opening every ten minutes; our brand-new school was full of young teachers, many of whom went extra miles. One in particular did a truly fine thing, one day in our freshman year. We’ve always been grateful we were there when he did.

(And look at Daskarolis—a good, cheerful man! Bill Daskarolis still calls himself “crazy,” even after all these (44) years!)

But we recently visited with old friends who graduated from the same school. Who was Ronnie talking about? The basketball coach at our rival high school, who always thought better of his game than our own coach did. But then, Ronnie wasn’t on a college track, except perhaps as a basketball player. We’d guess he got a lot less attention from teachers than some other kids did.

Quick guess: The country is teeming with high school grads who can’t “reel off the names” of teachers who mattered in their lives. To our ear, Brooks believes in a simplified, upper-end tale. Analyses often end up badly when they start off with novels like that.

We don’t know if this is true: The community around our old high school became very high-end as the Silicon Valley spread north. Is this comment accurate? No idea. But you see a few points it suggests:

COMMENT (10/6/07): In the entire San Mateo high school district Aragon is the place I would send my child. I went to Aragon, both my parents went to Aragon and I know a LOT of people who graduated and went on to college and other successful things. My problem with Aragon is the staff, is they openly favor wealthy children and show them more extra attention because they know the poor students can't afford a college education. Aragon prides itself on the high number of students who go onto a 4-year college after graduating. The teachers expect all students to come from a home with unlimited resources and perfect parents. I’m sure most people can agree a perfect home life is a rare thing. I have often seen low-income students struggle just to keep up with the expectations of the teachers. Everyone I know who was low-income that attended Aragon fell through the cracks, and the wealthy students didn't.

Sometimes, when we “raise expectations,” we may leave some behind. Even if they graduate, what stories will they later tell?