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Print view: When ''liberals'' refused to discuss public schools, the New York Post stepped in
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WHY DID IT FALL TO THE POST! When “liberals” refused to discuss public schools, the New York Post stepped in: // link // print // previous // next //

Fools for Bachmann/Fools for O’Donnell: We’d love to stop discussing MSNBC. But the channel’s so awful, it squeaks.

Is MSNBC “the Fox of the left?” We didn’t say it—Kevin Drum did! But The One True Channel is gaining ground fast on its foxy rival. The latest example was Lawrence O’Donnell’s cynical segment on Tuesday night.

It’s hard to believe the segment wasn’t a con, with O’Donnell playing his viewers for fools—essentially telling his viewers how dumb he thinks they actually are.

Was Tuesday evening’s segment a scam? If so, the scam worked nicely! In this post at Salon, commenters stood in line to announce how brilliant O’Donnell had been—to agree with his presentation. Good God, we liberals are easy! Can progressive interests possibly survive our mega-gullible ways?

(To watch O’Donnell’s full segment, you can just click here.)

O’Donnell’s “analysis” concerned the stupidity of people who voted for Michele Bachmann. Recently, Bachmann made a fairly dumb comment about the battles of Lexington and Concord. She thought these battles occurred in New Hampshire, rather than in Massachusetts, just one and two towns away from our own childhood hometown.

Presumably, most members of Congress would have known where these battles occurred. But “most members of Congress” doesn’t mean all. We have no idea what a full survey of Congress would have shown.

That said, it was only a few months ago that O’Donnell made the following remarks about the Social Security system. He spoke with Ashley Carson, a bright young woman who is executive director of the Older Woman’s League:

O’DONNELL (8/30/10): Ashley—Ashley, there are problems in Social Security for you. It is solvent until 2037. But workers your age who are contributing to Social Security every day, we can currently tell you that when your time comes to collect, the money will not be there, according to all the projections that we have today. That’s one of the reason the commission is looking at it.

You’re right. It’s hard to be much dumber than that, and O’Donnell has dealt with these issues for a very long time. Condescending to Carson throughout, he spoke in defense of Alan Simpson’s role on Obama’s commission. (Simpson had just made his statement about the cow with all those “t*ts.”)

In short, O’Donnell can be pretty dumb too, if “dumb” is the trait we don’t like. But then, you probably know that if you saw him undermine Candidate Gore all through Campaign 2000, thus joining the Jack Welch crowd. (Happy St. Patrick’s Day, everybody!) But on Tuesday evening, Mr. O knew how to toy with his gullible viewers. After reviewing Bachmann’s gaffe, he daringly posed these questions:

O’DONNELL (3/15/11): Now what fascinates me more than the question of how ignorant is Michele Bachmann are two other questions. One, how ignorant is Michele Bachmann’s staff? And two, how ignorant are her voters?

It’s hard to know what role those voters played in Bachmann’s gaffe, or in the other clumsy and/or inaccurate remarks she has recently made. No matter! After noting how ignorant Bachmann’s staffers must be, O’Donnell set his sights on her voters:

O’DONNELL: There are many, many ignorant members of Congress, and many ignorant senators. But they are protected all day long from revealing most of their ignorance by staffs who are hundreds of times smarter than they are. Perhaps all of Michele Bachmann’s staff come from her district, which may be the most ignorant congressional district in America. In 2010, 52 percent of that district voted for Michele Bachmann to represent them in Congress.

Now, she had already proven time and time again to her district, and to America, that she is unworthy of representing any congressional district in America. But 52 percent, the same percentage in that district that voted for John McCain for president, voted for Michele Bachmann in 2010.

Let’s see: Fifty-two percent voted for McCain—and the same number voted for Bachmann! Almost anyone could explain why that is: The voters in question are Republican voters; they support Republican candidates! Presumably, some of those voters like Bachmann a lot, some perhaps a bit less. But O’Donnell was on a cynical roll, encouraging viewers to lock themselves into a pleasing, but very stupid, belief—the belief that no one gets to be right but them; the belief that voters who hold different values and views must thereby be deemed unintelligent.

This belief is suicidal for progressive interests. It ratchets the ongoing culture war—a tribal war which divides the people who are currently being looted by the nation’s oligarchs. It teaches young liberals to think they are smart—and to think that everyone else is stupid. It teaches liberals to make such statements out loud, where they help poison our politics. It teaches liberals to build high the walls which help the oligarchs win.

That said, this approach does serve O’Donnell’s interests. It convinces gullible pseudo-liberals than Lawrence O’Donnell is on their side! That can be good for cable ratings. It’s good for a cable host’s wallet.

How cynical was O’Donnell’s presentation? We’d rate it high on the cynical meter. But as he continued, things got worse; now, O’Donnell wanted to figure out why those voters are so damned stupid. What follows represents his first attempt to solve this vexing problem.

How cynical, how fake is Lawrence O’Donnell? Try to believe that he said this—and by all means, do watch that tape:

O’DONNELL (continuing directly): What makes those voters so ignorant? Well, for starters, they are whiter than the average district, 92 percent white in fact. But that explains nothing. Missouri’s 8th Congressional District is 91 percent white and has been represented by Jo Ann Emerson since 1997.

We do not have a litany of imbecilic comments by Congresswoman Jo Ann Emerson. In fact, we have none. If we missed any, please submit them to our website, and we’ll see if they compare to Michele Bachmann’s.

Stunning, isn’t it? It’s really something to see the way these cynical hambones toy with race. We’ve seen a lot of race cards played by this gang of frauds. This one took a cake, though.

Question: How dumb do we liberals have to be, not to see through such crap?

O’Donnell continued his nonsense from there, examining other possible reasons why those voters are so dumb. We’ll only suggest that you watch the tape, just to see the way he talks down to his liberal viewers. The chances are very, very slight that O’Donnell composed his “analysis” in good faith. But please understand how this works:

You live inside a plutocrat war—a war being waged by the top one percent. (Well—by the top one-tenth of the top one percent.) This war has been underway for thirty-five years; the plutocrats clearly are winning. In the process, all average people are getting looted—those who voted for Bachmann, those who voted for her opponent. But guess what? The plutocrats will continue to win as long as we slow-witted liberals keep taking the bait from cynics like O’Donnell—as long as we keep getting conned into heightening our tribal wars.

Duh. When the 99 percent get split into two warring tribes, the one percent will roll to big wins. You’ve probably heard the phrase: Divide and conquer!

Last night, the nonsense continued on MSNBC, with Chris Matthews devoting yet another pointless segment to Bachmann’s meta-disturbing mistake. Plainly, these silly segments are big confections, gooey cream puffs, served to us gullible liberals. As usual, Matthews has begun to embellish various facts, making Bachmann’s past absurdities seem like even more than they were. (Matthews has an instinctive aversion to accurate statement. It won’t let his soul rest.) But truly, liberals are played for world-class fools when men like O’Donnell pander in the way he did Tuesday night. It’s hard to be a bigger fraud—and it’s hard to be much dumber than we liberals are when we fall for this crap.

At O’Donnell’s web site, 935 souls have e-mailed, trying to answer his fawning question about why those voters are so damn dumb. But truly, is anyone dumber than us? Happy St. Patrick’s Day, you all! Are you a “Fool for O’Donnell?”

How much do office-holders know: Bachmann didn’t know where Lexington is, although she was only off by one state! In 1986, Rep. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) didn’t know a lot more.

Mikulski was running for the Senate—for the seat she won, and still holds. On the Democratic side, she was opposed by Rep. Michael Barnes, a subcommittee chairman on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and by Harry Hughes, Maryland’s sitting governor. The Republican nominee would be Linda Chavez, a former White House aide.

In July 1986, a TV station hit these hopefuls with a fiendish, five-part pop quiz. According to the Washington Post, these were two of the questions, with answers:

Who is the Israeli prime minister now, and who will be the prime minister in November? (Answer: Shimon Peres now and Yitzhak Shamir in November.)

Who is the head of the African National Congress? (Answer: Nelson Mandela or Oliver Tambo acceptable.)

Mikulski scored 1.5 out of 5; she tied Barnes for the lowest score of all the major candidates. Linda Chavez scored a 4. Debra Freeman, a LaRouche candidate, scored a good solid 3.

Mikulski got elected to the Senate, where she still serves. Did that make her voters dumb?

(For the New York Times report by Steve Roberts, just click here.)

Inevitably, we end up here: One Salon commenter seemed to know why Bachmann’s voters are so dumb. The commenter shared her knowledge about one part of Bachmann’s district:

COMMENT TO SALON (3/16/11): Stearns County, the heart of the district

About thirty-five years ago on a slow news day just after the New Year the Minneapolis paper went front page with an article suggesting the inbred German population of Stearns County was resulting in lots of regressive gene expression. Funny looking kids with low IQ numbers! It was amusing and caused a storm of indignation. I do not know if O'Donnell is familiar with Stearns County MN but I used to work there and electing Bachmann does accurately reflect the district.

We’ll guess their limbic brains don’t work, as we once learned on Countdown.

Special report: He was the son of a teacher, man!

PART 2—WHY DOES IT FALL TO THE POST (permalink): Unheard of! On March 3, Jon Stewart broadcast an intelligent discussion concerning our public schools.

Stewart interviewed Diane Ravitch, an education historian. He asked a series of intelligent questions. He ended up praising his mother, a long-term devoted teacher.

Jon Stewart’s the son of teacher, man! Plainly, this must explain the intelligent segment he presented that night. We liberals quit on such topics a long time ago; we don’t give a fig about public school issues, or about the black and Hispanic kids whose lives and fortunes hang in the balance. We don’t stoop to discussing such issues. The son of a teacher did.

Why did it fall to Stewart to stage this segment—the type of segment you’ll never see on The One True Liberal Channel? Simple answer: We liberals are too great for such petty concerns. And when we review the American discourse, our indolence really shows.

How bad is our discourse about public schools? About the deserving children who attend them? Consider the remarkable news report which appeared in the New York Post. The lengthy report appeared on February 20, penned by education reporter Susan Edelman.

Edelman wrote about the recent non-scandal scandal concerning New York State test scores. In the liberal and the mainstream press worlds, this scandal has been non-existent, of course. The liberal world has ignored it completely; last fall, the New York Times offered a vague and blowsy report which skirted most major issues.

But at the much-reviled New York Post, Edelman cut to the chase last month. Her headline spoke of New York’s “testing con.” This is how she started:

EDELMAN (2/20/11): In a stunningly short time, from 2006 to 2009, New York schools celebrated what was presented as a tremendous turnaround.

The number of city students passing statewide math tests in the third through eighth grades surged from 58 percent to 82 percent. At the same time, the Big Apple graduation rate rose from 49 percent to an all-time high of 63 percent last year.

The cures were miraculous. They were also, for the most part, a lie.


How did the state testing system, meant to closely gauge how well students and their schools were doing, create such a grand illusion?

Ouch! By now, of course, the state of New York has basically thrown all those test scores down the drain. Last summer, the state announced that it had been forced to revise its statewide tests, because they had somehow become too easy to pass. And sure enough! When the state’s new tests were used in the spring of 2010, passing rates dropped like a stone! As Edelman notes in that opening passage, all that grand and glorious progress suddenly faded away.

As she continued, Edelman started to give an explanation for those lower passing rates. She reported a set of gruesome facts the New York Times has basically chosen to skip, right to this very day:

EDELMAN (continuing directly): Insiders and critics interviewed by The Post largely blame Richard Mills, the state's education commissioner for 14 years until he resigned in 2009.

The standardized tests approved by Mills and his team measured a limited number of skills and repeated similar questions year after year. At the same time, Mills instructed the company hired to administer the tests, CTB/McGraw-Hill, to gradually lower "cut scores," the minimal points kids needed to pass or demonstrate proficiency.

In 2006, for example, sixth-graders taking the English language arts test had to answer 16 of 39 questions correctly, or 41 percent, to achieve Level 2, which is below proficient but enough to advance to the next grade. But by 2009, the sixth-graders needed just 7 of 39 points—a paltry 18 percent.

"We were clearly misrepresenting student achievement," said Betty Rosa, a former Bronx superintendent on the state Board of Regents, which oversees education statewide. "We were not giving the public the truth."

Say what? In 2006, the score required to achieve “Level 2” status was already just 41 percent. But over the course of the next three years, the required score dropped to just 18 percent! Let’s be clear: In theory, “Level 2” was the score a student needed to be promoted to the next grade; that student wasn’t rated “proficient” (Level 3) in official designations. But that “cut score” was downgraded too, according to Edelman’s report:

EDELMAN: While leading the public to believe students were making great strides, Mills' team was quietly reducing the number and percentage of points needed to pass or demonstrate proficiency each year.

Third-graders taking the math exam in 2006, for instance, had to score 17 out of 38 points, or 45 percent, to make a passing Level 2. In 2009, they needed just 11 points out of 39, or 28 percent. In 2006, they needed to correctly answer 64.4 percent of questions to score a proficient Level 3. By 2009, that had dropped to 53.8 percent.

Teachers found themselves "teaching to the test" by using old exams as practice, because many questions were strikingly similar to those asked the year before.

"The kids knew what to expect, and they naturally did better," a third-grade teacher from Brooklyn said of the 2009 tests. "I had kids that truly had no business passing, despite my best efforts. I was shocked when they passed. It was really a disservice."

According to Edelman’s reporting, it wasn’t just the lower “cut rates” which led to higher proficiency rates. She also cited the repetitive questions on the tests, which made specialized “teaching to the test” a great deal easier. In fairness, lower “cut rates” might be justified if a test’s questions had been made harder for some reason. But uh-oh! Edelman covered that topic too:

EDELMAN (continuing directly): Skepticism mounted. Fred Smith, a former testing analyst for city schools, independently studied the "p-value," or difficulty level of the test questions. Mills and other officials argued that the questions had become more difficult, thus justifying the lower cutoff scores. Smith found the items getting easier each year.

"It confirmed what principals and teachers believed—that the state had dumbed down the tests," he said.

Oof. According to Smith, the questions themselves were getting easier, even as the cut rates were being relaxed!

This is a detailed report on a gruesome subject. There is much more to Edelman’s report than the parts we have included; we’d suggest that you read the whole thing, which runs 2200 words. (Warning: Edelman reports on several state testing programs. Be careful to tease them apart.) That said, might we quickly note two other parts of this story?

First, note the political use to which this bungled testing was put. What follows is based in part on an anonymous source, though Mayor Bloomberg’s relentless self-praise is part of the public record.

EDELMAN: Another insider said Big Apple officials were urged not to "exaggerate" the results. But Mayor Bloomberg hailed the increase in 2009 as an "enormous victory." At the time, he had a lot riding on the scores—he was seeking a third term and pushing for legislation to extend mayoral control of the schools.

City officials "got very angry," the insider said, when Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch publicly downplayed the results, citing "troubling gaps" between the stellar state scores and lackluster outcomes on national exams.

For the record: In all the reporting we have seen, Tisch comes off as a hero in the pushback against his scam. Then too, you should note this remarkable passage about test preparation:

EDELMAN: The state has awarded $48.2 million in contracts to CTB/McGraw-Hill to devise the math and reading test. The city Department of Education gave the same California-based company an $80 million contract to develop practice tests.

The practice tests cost more than the tests themselves? Is there any way that could be accurate? For the record, CTB/McGraw-Hill is the big corporate player we mentioned in yesterday’s post. And by the way: If their actual tests are any good, you don’t need all that “practice testing!”

Though it does help you score lots of money.

We aren’t experts on the New York situation, but this isn’t the first time we’ve read about lowered “cut scores.” In last year’s book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System, Diane Ravitch briefly described the same problem, referring to “the state’s secret decision to lower the points needed to advance on the state tests.” (We think we’ve seen Ravitch discuss this elsewhere, although we aren’t sure.) But as far as we know, these embarrassing claims have never been reported, analyzed or debunked by the New York Times, our greatest mainstream player. Last October, the paper did a long, front-page report about the implosion of the state’s passing rates. But the report was very airy; it made little attempt to nail down the reasons behind the inflated rates.

Why did it fall to the New York Post to report this remarkable story? As with Stewart, so with the Post; it falls to comedians and tabloids to discuss public schools when high-minded liberals won’t. On MSNBC, the very high-minded millionaire hosts would jump off the Golden Gate Bridge before they’d stoop to discussing such topics; these topics concern public school teachers and low-income kids, the types of beings who seem beneath our lofty “liberal” airs. Meanwhile, the New York Times has frequently played the cheerleader role for the brilliant Mayor Bloomberg. He is a billionaire, after all, and we live in a land where the billionaires are rather plainly in charge.

Tomorrow, we’ll look at that very problem. When pseudo-liberals stare into space, wasting their time on vapid confections, billionaires fill the vacuum. That seems to be a substantial part of what has been happening when it comes to our public schools.

Tomorrow—part 3: Diane and the billionaires