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THE TIMES IT IS A-CHANGIN’! As Dillon recorded the latest NAEP scores, your HOWLER kept getting results: // link // print // previous // next //

No half loaf of history today: With annoyance, we’ve changed our mind. Over at our companion site, we now plan to post the full Chapter 4 next Tuesday.

We’re sorry for this annoying delay. So much historical garbage—so little present time.

A look at The Dumb and The Hate: We were happy to see Brendan Nyhan this morning, on the New York Times op-ed page! Brendan got famous in the old, on-line days at Spinsanity. Now, he’s one of them perfesser fellers. And he offered this excellent piece in this morning’s Times.

Will people start thinking better of the health reform plan, now that it has passed into law? Not so fast, the professor advises. We the people are deeply skilled in our resistance to knowledge, especially when such knowledge conflicts with our partisan preferences. After chiding Fox and MSNBC viewers alike, Brendan gave a good example of our potent devotion to Dumb. For good or ill, his example involves conservatives only:

NYHAN (3/25/10): Studies have shown that people tend to seek out information that is consistent with their views; think of liberal fans of MSNBC and conservative devotees of Fox News. Liberals and conservatives also tend to process the information that they receive with a bias toward their pre-existing opinions...

Unfortunately, these tendencies frequently undermine well-intentioned efforts to counter myths and misperceptions. Jason Reifler, a political scientist at Georgia State, and I conducted a series of experiments in which participants read mock news articles with misleading statements by a politician. Some were randomly assigned a version of the article that also contained information correcting the misleading statement.

Our results indicate that this sort of journalistic fact-checking often fails to reduce misperceptions among ideological or partisan voters. In some cases, we found that corrections can even make misperceptions worse. For example, in one experiment we found that the proportion of conservatives who believed that President George W. Bush's tax cuts actually increased federal revenue grew from 36 percent to 67 percent when they were provided with evidence against this claim. People seem to argue so vehemently against the corrective information that they end up strengthening the misperception in their own minds.

For ourselves, we were struck by the starting-point in Nyhan’s experiment. Imagine! Coming in, 36 percent of conservatives had been conned into believing the biggest load of bull of the past thirty years: Tax cuts actually increase federal revenue! It’s the dumbest claim in American politics—and it is widely believed.

Nyhan was working with The Big Dumb. At this point, we asked ourselves a question: Can we think of any common belief among liberals that is as dumb as that one? Off-hand, we couldn’t do it. But we did think of something we saw on The Ed Show last night. We thought of the (rapidly growing) way we liberals seem to love The Big Hate.

Say what, many readers will say. We liberals love The Big Hate? Well actually, yes—we pretty much do. In our view, Brother Schultz went around the bend and over the falls in last night’s exchange with Ernest Istook, a former Republican congressman—an exchange which began with the following question:

SCHULTZ (3/24/10): I want to get some rapid-fire response from our panel tonight on these stories:

Some Democrats who voted for health care reform are now getting death threats and having their property vandalized. That`s not protesting. It’s political terrorism.

A new poll shows the Tea Partiers will help the Republicans in tight races this fall, unless they run a candidate of their own.

With us tonight, Laura Flanders, who is the author of Blue Grit and host of "Grit TV," and Ernest Istook, former Republican congressman and now a distinguished fellow at the Heritage Foundation.

Ernie, what’s happening with the right-wing in this country, the conservatives in this country? The over-the-top rhetoric, the acts of vandalism—how do you address that?

Was something wrong with that question? Not exactly, though we ourselves wouldn’t have framed it that way. Have all conservatives been involved in “over-the-top rhetoric” and/or “acts of vandalism?” Most conservatives? Some? Just a few? Modern conservatives are very dumb when they believe that tax cuts increase federal revenue! But increasingly, modern liberals seem eager to make the dumbest, most destructive move in world history—the move which takes us from “some” to “all,” stated or implied. (To watch last night’s segment, click here.)

For our money, Rachel Maddow has largely done a good job the past two nights focusing on the actual people who have engaged in actual misconduct in reaction to the health reform vote. (Your HOWLER keeps getting results!) But all across the dial, pseudo-liberals have been very happy to make the move from “some” or “a few” to “all”—and to burn with fury at the conduct they thereby impute to the masses. If some behave badly, must all be condemned?. Maddow herself made this move last night, bringing the eternal note of tribal dumbness in:

MADDOW (3/24/10): The number two House Republican, Eric Cantor, also commented today saying, quote, "No one condones that kind of behavior where you threaten people, where you hurl racial epithets or spit on someone. That’s reprehensible behavior."

"No one condone that kind of behavior.” Well, what was actually going on while members of Congress were having racial epithets hurled at them, while they were being spat on? Because those aren’t theoretical—those things actually happened. That happened at the Capitol building this weekend, and how did Republican members of Congress treat that crowd on the lawn of the Capitol that was doing these things that Eric Cantor says no one was condoning?

This is what those members of Congress were doing [showing videotape]. They were egging them on. They were taking the signs that the crowd was using, they were waving them on the balcony of the Capitol.

Do you see how easily the reptilian brain produces that tribal move? To wit:

On Saturday, some small number of people (presumably one) spat on a member of Congress. Meanwhile, some small number of fallen souls tossed epithets at Congressmen Lewis, Cleaver, Carson and Frank. But Maddow’s brain told her something different; it told her it was really “that crowd on the lawn of the Capitol” which had been “doing these things.” And not only that! Those members of Congress had been condoning “that crowd’s” actions!

Question: Had the actions in question even occurred when those members appeared on that balcony?

Maddow’s brain played a trick on her mind when it led her to indict “that crowd.” She instantly moved from “some” to “all,” obeying a prehistoric imperative.

Sadly, there has been a great deal of that among liberals in the past few weeks. And yes, it’s every bit as dumb as thinking that tax cuts increase federal revenue! By the way: What really happened around the Capitol building? How much name-calling did occur? What other sorts of conduct occurred? On Monday night, we were disappointed when Keith Olbermann failed to ask Rep. Clyburn. Note what Clyburn said:

OLBERMANN (3/22/10): To what happened over the weekend before the vote, the abuse and the venom that was behind it. John Lewis said he hadn’t heard some of this stuff since 1960. What— You were there, you saw it.


OLBERMANN: How do you—how do you explain this? Can you?

CLYBURN: Well, I don’t know that you can. Except that I joined with John Lewis in that assessment of what we saw on Saturday, especially. I experienced some of it. I didn’t hear the slurs, but the chants, the—some of the venomous comments from people, you wondered what that was all about. We’re trying to have a civil debate on how to proceed into the future with health care for our citizens. I don’t think there’s any place for some of the stuff that we heard and the stuff that I heard about. That is just, should not have a place in how we go about trying to fashion legislation. And I was so sorry to hear it.

I just celebrated, Keith, last Monday, the 50th anniversary of the march that I helped to organize down in Orangeburg, March 15, 1960. In talking with those students on those two campuses last Monday, they asked us a lot of questions about how we felt, what we experienced. And I said to them at one point, we did a lot of things back then so they as students would not ever have to go through that again. I’m not too sure now that I don’t need to modify some of that.

We saw two points of interest there. Clyburn himself didn’t hear the slurs. (Lewis, Cleaver, Carson, Frank did.) But he did hear “venomous comments,” which made him “wonder what that was all about.” We would have liked for KO to question him on each of those points. What sorts of “venomous comments” did he hear, since he himself didn’t hear any slurs? And what was Clyburn’s assessment of the crowd’s overall demeanor? On the whole, how “racial” did the crowd seem to be, if Clyburn didn’t hear any slurs?

What are the answers? We don’t know, because Olbermann didn’t ask. And by Wednesday night on the Maddow show, an age-old transformation had occurred. The undifferentiated “crowd on the lawn” was now responsible for those racial epithets—the epithets which were so widespread Clyburn himself didn’t hear any. Meanwhile, thanks to KO’s failure to ask basic questions, we didn’t get a chance to learn about the things Clyburn really did hear.

We’d like to know more about what went on. We would have liked to hear more of Clyburn’s assessment. But liberal hosts have been happily moving from some to all this week, and they’ve been pretty much leaving it there. It’s the most destructive move in all of human history.

We live in an increasingly dangerous time. We live in a vast continental nation which contains substantially different political traditions and instincts. (See Michael Lind’s Made in Texas.) Our nation contains very dumb people and fallen souls, who tribalists will always make evil. (Dr. King simply didn’t do that. It helps explain why he won.) For our money, Maddow has basically done a good job in the past two nights, naming the names of the actual people who have engaged in real misconduct. (We would include Sarah Palin in that group. Of course, people who have trashed Palin for every damn thing will not be listened to now—except within the tribe.) But all across the liberal dial, you can see ardent tribal believers making the age-old play.

They will move from some to all—and then, they’ll start to yell at Istook. After that, Laura Flanders will make a snide remark about the state he’s from. In an ancient tribal play, she sneered at “Ernie from Oklahoma.” (Go ahead—watch the tape. You decide.)

Within our history, these are dangerous plays. At present, we liberals seem to enjoy them. It’s always that way before war. Remember Gone with the Wind?

THE TIMES IT IS A-CHANGIN’ (permalink): This morning, the analysts stood and cheered Sam Dillon, the New York Times’ education reporter. And sure enough! Once again, your HOWLER was getting results!

Why were the analysts cheering? In today’s Times, Dillon reports the 2009 reading scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (the NAEP), the federal testing program known as “the nation’s report card.” (These scores were just released.) The analysts cheered when they read the following passage. In it, Dillon tells us how many points such scores have gone up over the past twenty years. But Dillon tells us something else in the following passage. He also gives us a rough idea what those score gains mean:

DILLON (3/25/10): The national math and reading tests have been administered every few years since the early 1990s, with average scores in reading rising only four points for fourth and eighth graders over that period. Federal officials say the four points represent slightly less than half a school year’s worth of learning.

Math scores, in contrast, rose 20 points for eighth graders and 27 points for fourth graders from 1990 to 2009; the increase means that 2009 fourth graders knew about two and a half years’ more math than 1990 fourth graders. But in the most recent period, from 2007 to 2009, math scores also failed to rise much.

Hurrah! Dillon tells us that fourth grade math scores have gone up 27 points since 1990. And then, he gives us a rough idea what that score gain means! That score gain means that fourth graders know “about two and a half years’ more math” than fourth graders knew in 1990. And by the way: If true, that is an astounding gain. It’s important that people be told about it.

Two caveats:

Dillon is applying a rough rule of thumb, one he attributes to “federal officials.” Under that rough rule of thumb, ten points on the NAEP scale is equivalent to roughly one year of learning. For ourselves, we’d be inclined to doubt the claim that today’s fourth graders really know that much more; we would be curious to know if federal officials would apply their rule of thumb that extensively. But in that passage, Dillon at least gives readers a rough idea what those score gains mean.

A bit of background: As you may recall, we had to rough Dillon up a bit on this very point when he reported the NAEP’s 2009 math scores. (The math scores were released last fall. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 10/15/09). He applied his rule of thumb a bit selectively, and a bit murkily, that day. Today, he does massively better.

That said, let’s say it again: If today’s fourth graders are two and a half years ahead of fourth graders from 1990, that would represent massive improvement. If Dillon (and those “federal officials”) believe that is the case, that should create a front-page headline in some future report.

Gains in reading have been slower. Let’s note a couple of points:

Unfortunately, demography still makes a big difference in our public schooling. For better and worse, white kids still score substantially better than black kids and Hispanic kids on tests of basic skills like the NAEP. As a result: When the Times reports these scores, it should break them down by those three groups. Often, score gains look a lot better when they’re reviewed this way. Reason? As the years go by, white kids constitute a smaller percentage of the overall student population. Trust us: In this circumstance, scores of all three groups may be going up, even as the overall average stays the same.

We know—that’s counterintuitive. But as everyone knows, it’s also true. (We haven’t looked at these new reading scores by group. Dillon should have done that. This “disaggregation” is the one part of No Child Left Behind which most people still praise.)

Second point: Overall reading scores are largely unchanged in the past decade. But significant progress was observed in one group, as Dillon reports:

DILLON: One group of students, though, has made significant gains in reading over the last decade: the nation’s worst readers. The average scores of fourth graders in the bottom 10 percent for reading increased by 16 points from 2000 to 2009. In contrast, the average scores of the nation’s best fourth-grade readers, those in the top 10 percent, rose by only 2 points during the same period.

Applying Dillon’s rule of thumb, that passage would mean that the nation’s lowest-scoring ten percent is now scoring a year and a half ahead of their peers from the year 2000! That too would represent remarkable progress, if true. Dillon semi-explains this apparent progress in this semi-illogical passage:

DILLON (continuing directly): “All the progress in reading is being made at the bottom,” said Tom Loveless, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. ''Our worst readers are getting better, but our best readers are staying about the same.''

Sheila W. Valencia, an education professor at the University of Washington, said the Bush administration's $1-billion-a-year reading initiative, Reading First, focused instruction in thousands of public schools on building lower-level reading skills.

''We have evidence that Reading First helped young students increase their ability to read words, but not their capacity for comprehension, and the national assessment especially measures reading comprehension,'' Professor Valencia said. ''So that's one hypothesis for why scores have stayed pretty constant.”

Huh? First, Valencia explains why the progress is all being made at the bottom—it’s because the “Reading First” program focused on lower-level skills, the kinds of skills which would advance poor readers. She then says that such lower-level skills don’t really help you on the national assessment. Of course, Dillon has just finished telling us that the scores of lower-level student have risen impressively on the NAEP! Go ahead—reread that passage. It gives you a look at the level of logic that rules most education debates.

That said: The new Obama plan focuses its attention at the nation’s lowest-achieving schools. To judge from this passage, “Reading First” helped our lower-achieving kids, but didn’t do much for kids who are nearer the top. But kids at the top are important too. In fact, they’re very important for the future life of the nation.

Should we focus on lower-achieving schools? Why can’t Arne Duncan come up with a plan which would help all kids, in all schools?

Tomorrow: Another report from the public schools! (We found this one a bit shocking.)