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SCHOOL FOR SCANDAL! Welsh describes a failing faculty in his most important work yet: // link // print // previous // next //
FRIDAY, MARCH 26, 2010

We think it’s worth saying again: We think one point from yesterday’s post is worth saying again. Again, this is what Sam Dillon reported in yesterday’s New York Times:

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.

If true, that highlighted claim is truly remarkable. It would deserve to be a front-page story; it should be at the top of the page. It flies in the face of things the public is constantly told about the progress of our public schools. And as we told you: In present demographic circumstances, gains like that will only get larger when the data are “disaggregated”—when we look at the score gains achieved by white kids, by black kids, by Hispanic kids.

Our analysts cheered when Dillon applied that rough rule of thumb to those data. But: Have American kids really improved that much in math? This should be a front-page report—unless our kids don’t matter.

Only because we said we would: Before we start, let’s say it again: We think Rachel Maddow did a good job this week reporting the violent backlash to health reform. In our view, she did a much more grown-up, serious job than Schultz or O’Donnell did. (We think Ed has jumped several sharks.)

Unfortunately, we said we’d address something else—and so we will, grumbling about our dumb promises. We refer to Maddow’s report last Friday about the John Ensign non-sex scandal.

Needless to say, the sycophants rushed to praise her brilliance. (Don’t ask.) Here at THE HOWLER, we had a different reaction to her long report. First, it was odd to see Maddow devote the first two segments of her program to such a tedious matter, especially on a night when health reform hung on the edge of the cliff. But we were amazed again by Maddow’s focus on the teen-aged son of Ensign’s chief of staff. The teen-aged son has played a key role in her coverage of this tedious matter right from the beginning. We find the whole matter instructive.

That very day, we had mentioned the absurdity of Maddow’s treatment of the teen-aged son (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 3/19/10). That night, she doubled down on this apparently silly matter. Is it even imaginable that this work is being done in good faith?

You can review Maddow’s lengthy report for yourselves. (For last Friday’s transcript, just click here.) But what follows is a bit of background—the type of background you never hear when Maddow flogs the troubling story of the chief of staff’s teen-aged son.

Background: John Ensign had an affair with Cindy Hampton, the wife of his chief of staff, Doug Hampton. The Ensigns and the Hamptons were contemporaries and long-time social friends. (Let’s give Ensign credit for this—his girl friend was roughly his age!)

Alas! The Hamptons had a teen-aged son, about whom Maddow has semi-obsessed. Even if you think the Ensign scandal is an important story, Maddow’s treatment of the teen-aged son is a long-standing, puzzling affair.

What are the facts about the teen-aged son? In June 2009, Paul Kane reported the background to the spreading scandal in the Washington Post. Note the tangential way the teen-aged son entered the picture, right at the end:

KANE (6/18/09): The Hamptons and the Ensigns, who live in the same neighborhood, were close friends, according to statements issued by the Ensigns.

The senator hired Doug Hampton as his administrative assistant, one of the two most senior positions in the office, beginning Nov. 8, 2006, according to congressional records. From April 2007 through March 2008, Hampton was paid $162,000, almost the maximum allowed for aides, according to LegiStorm, the congressional watchdog that monitors staff salaries.

Before her husband started working for Ensign, Cynthia Hampton was already a consultant for the senator's reelection committee, Ensign for Senate, but in 2007 she also became a consultant for his leadership political action committee, Battle Born PAC. She earned less than $2,000 a month for her work throughout 2007, but her pay doubled in early 2008 when the chief treasurer was dismissed in an unrelated legal investigation. Cynthia Hampton took on the work of the fired employee and officially became committee treasurer.

The Hamptons' work for Ensign ended abruptly in April 2008. Cynthia Hampton's last payments came April 29 and 30, totaling almost $2,400, which was her usual compensation.

Douglas Hampton's last day on the Senate payroll was May 1, 2008. He was paid almost $20,000 for one month's work in April 2008, an amount representing an additional two weeks of pay, according to LegiStorm's records.

Last year, Ensign chaired the National Republican Senatorial Committee, the campaign operation that spent $94 million in the 2008 election cycle. The Hamptons' son worked during the spring and summer in the research department for $1,000 a month, his last payment coming Aug. 15, around the time the affair ended.

That was the end of Kane’s report.

There seems to be no dispute about the swag young Hampton was hauling. In June 2009, the Las Vegas Tribune-Journal also reported, two separate times, that he had been paid $1000 per month ($5400 in all), citing FEC records. The only dispute seems to concern whether Hampton the younger had a “job” or an “intern” post. On June 30, 2009, the Washington Post’s Karl Vick went with the latter term. Last Friday, the Tribune-Journal did so too. (“During the spring and summer of 2008, the Hamptons' son Brandon was hired as an intern at the committee, earning $1,000 per month.”)

He was working as an intern, for $1000 per month? Last Friday, this was Maddow’s account of this matter: “Money from Republican donors, money donated by people to elect more Republicans to the Senate, was used to pay the son of John Ensign’s mistress. He was a teenager at the time. He was on the NRSC payroll as a policy analyst.”

Maddow sounded very concerned. Thrills ran up viewers’ legs.

Last Friday, Maddow focused on the Ensign matter because KLAS-TV, a Las Vegas station, had reported that an FBI probe was on the ground in Nevada. According to Maddow, KLAS was “reporting on a slew of grand jury subpoenas that have been served in Nevada this month by federal investigators looking into the [sexy-time] affair and other things about Senator Ensign.”

That is, of course, a real news story. For ourselves, we don’t care about it much; we can’t imagine why you’d devote half your program to this story on such a momentous evening. But that, of course, is a matter of judgment—and Maddow has spent a lot of time, in the past year, chasing sex scandals around. (Though it isn’t about the sex!) That said:

It’s hard to believe that the teen-aged son’s $1000-per-month internship haul was part of some big corrupt pay-off. Question: Is there a chief of staff anywhere in DC whose 19-year-old son or daughter hasn’t landed some similar (low-paying) post? (If the Hamptons’ kid hadn’t gotten such a post, we’d say that would be the real story.) But Maddow has endlessly pushed this aspect of this story—and she repeatedly pimped it again last Friday. As she did, she kept forgetting to mention how low the kid’s salary was. As always, she kept referring to him as the son of Ensign’s “mistress.” She never mentioned that he was also the son of Ensign’s chief of staff.

Does this matter? No, not really, unless you care about whether the news is delivered by grown-ups. We strongly recommend reading that transcript to see how much lurid love Maddow gave this apparently pointless matter. And here’s the key: Note the things you’re never told as she circles back, again and again, to the fact that “money donated by people to elect more Republicans to the Senate was used to pay the son of John Ensign’s mistress.” To wit:

You’re never told that “John Ensign’s mistress” was married to “John Ensign’s chief of staff.” You’re never told that the Ensigns and Hamptons were close personal friends. And of course, you’re never told that the Hamptons’ son was paid the grand sum of $1000 per month. Maddow circles back, again and again, to the question of “the mistress’ son”—but you’re never told these basic facts. Could it be that these facts keep getting withheld because most people would laugh out loud if they knew them? (We don’t know the answer to that.)

Do you want to be served by serious people? Go ahead—read that transcript. Maddow’s obsession with “the son of the mistress” has been a weird part of this tale all along. But the way she keeps withholding those basic facts helps show you the plight we’re all in. We’ve seen this kind of crap for decades. To us, it doesn’t look any better when it’s produced “on our side.”

Final note: Our analysts chuckled when Maddow asked poor Jonathan Humbert, the KLAS reporter, about the son of the mistress. This was her question:

MADDOW: One last question for you, Jonathan. We keep contacting the National Republican Senatorial Committee about this, we have—ever since we first learned that one of the things that Senator Ensign did in conjunction with this affair, from all appearances, is to have put the teenage son of the woman he was sleeping with on the Republican Party’s payroll at the NRSC.

The NRSC consistently tells us, we’re a whole different animal now, we’re a whole different community now. John Ensign isn’t in charge anymore. We really don’t feel like we have to answer any questions about. Have you been able to sense whether or not the NRSC, the Republican Party as a whole, feels at all vulnerable because of the way they have been roped into this, with receiving this federal subpoena now?

We’ve never felt sorry for a Republican committee before. But if Maddow’s staff keeps contacting the NSRC to ask about the Hamptons’ son, we now feel a bit sorry for them.

In his answer, Humbert didn’t mention the teen-aged son. Nor had he mentioned the teen-aged son in his reports last week. The reason for that would seem fairly obvious—unless you enjoy receiving lurid, silly sexy-time tales from our second-dumbest “news” channel.

Who knows? Maybe that thousand-buck-a-month job will end up at the heart of this tale. Anything is possible! But will Maddow ever report what that kid’s salary was? Will the lady ever deign to hand you the basic facts?

SCHOOL FOR SCANDAL (permalink): Patrick Welsh is a veteran teacher at T. C. Williams High, a large, and highly diverse, public high school in Alexandria, Virginia. (Just south of Washington.) At least since 1983, Welsh has written occasional essays for the Washington Post’s Sunday “Outlook” section. His essays have described life at a large public high school, as seen from the inside.

(According to the Nexis archives, Welsh’s first two pieces appeared in the fall of 1983. Headlines: “Lady, If You Only Knew the Joys and Pains of Teaching,” 10/16/83. “Baloney, Teach, I Read Shakespeare in the Original Greek,” 11/13/83.)

For our money, Welsh has ranked among the nation’s most interesting journalists over that period. Within American journalism, it’s rare to read so much work by such an insightful person from inside some major system.

Because Welsh’s work has been so outstanding ,we were very much struck by the piece he wrote in the Washington Post last Sunday. “Low achieving? The label stings,” said the headline on the 1500-word essay. “Things around T. C. Williams High School in Alexandria, where I teach English, have gotten pretty gloomy,” Welsh wrote at the start of the piece.

What’s the reason for the gloom? T. C. Williams has officially been designed as “a low persistently low achieving” school, a new label created by state officials and Ed Sec Arne Duncan “for high schools ranked in the lowest 5 percent of schools statewide with demographics similar to ours,” Welsh reports. Welsh said he was “stunned” by the designation, but he didn’t dispute the facts or attempt to challenge the designation. Despite the high achievement of some of his seniors, Welsh said he “couldn’t hide from the facts”—and some of these facts are gruesome:

WELSH (3/21/10): Yet I couldn't hide from the facts: Based on students' scores over the past two years on the Virginia Standards of Learning tests, T.C. was ranked 122 of the 128 high schools in the state that serve a number of at-risk students but do not accept federal Title 1 resources. "Persistently low achieving" wasn't just another education cliche. Our scores didn't lie.

“Our scores didn’t lie,” Welsh said. According to Welsh, Alexandria’s Superintendent, Morton Sherman (click here), had called an emergency meeting, at which he told teachers that the school “had four options for corrective action, three of which would probably involve firing at least half of us.”

Does Williams really rank that low among high schools which are truly similar? The category Welsh describes is a bit hard to parse. (Schools which “serve a number of at-risk students but do not accept federal Title 1 resources.”) But as he continued, Welsh made no attempt to dispute the ranking—and he described a process by which his well-known school had failed large chunks of its student body. In the following passage, he describes his school’s decline. This is a truly remarkable account of a big urban high school’s operation:

WELSH: How did our school—which in 1984 received one of the country's first Department of Education excellence awards and in 1988 had the highest number of National Merit semifinalists in the state—get to this point?

T.C. Williams has always been proud of its student achievement and its diverse community. But as the demographics of the school shifted over the past 25 years and low-income students—many of them minorities and immigrants—began to outnumber middle-class kids, one thing that didn't change was the way the school thought about its students. Even though we knew better, many of us—both teachers and administrators—acted as if all our students came to school with basic reading and math skills and had a parent at home actively supervising their education. The stragglers could do the work, we insisted, if they were in a room full of other kids who could do the work, too. The school definitely did not want to create tracking classes, in which kids are separated according to ability, or anything that could resemble ethnic or class-based segregation.

Instead of zeroing in on the relatively small number of students who came to us unprepared and needed a great deal of help to catch up, we opted for appearances. The school mixed kids of different academic levels into the same classes in hopes that the best students would pull up those on the bottom. We also continued passing kids through the system, whether they had learned the skills they needed or not. Gary Thomas says many students enter T.C. Williams not knowing how to add or subtract without a calculator, and even the better students do not understand fractions.

This is a sadly familiar story, in which school systems fail to come to terms with the actual academic needs of actual low-income/minority/immigrant kids. Williams describes the Williams faculty persisting in inappropriate practices, “even though we knew better.” (“The school definitely did not want to create tracking classes,” Welsh writes, in the most puzzling part of this passage. Surely, some kids at Williams were taking advanced math classes, and other kids were not. Why didn’t that count as “tracking?”)

At any rate, the school kept treating its struggling low-income kids as if they were high-achieving kids from high-literacy backgrounds. The faculty kept doing this even though they knew better. Nor does Welsh spare himself in this forensic history:

WELSH: For 39 years, I've been teaching grammar, writing and literature. Yet if a student comes into my classroom reading well below grade level, I don't know how to teach him to read. I should have taken courses years ago; I just never thought that I would need to teach reading in the 12th grade. And teachers throughout the school system have passed kids on to the next grade, even though they have not mastered the skills they need to succeed at the next level.

We’ve long admired Welsh’s work; this current piece may be his most important. But that is a brutal self-indictment. In any other walk of life, that would be a description of gross malfeasance. The lawyers would be starting to circle.

What makes that self-indictment so brutal? When we ourselves started teaching in the Baltimore City Schools in the fall of 1969, it was quite apparent, early on, that many of our fifth-grade students were working well below traditional grade level. It was very hard to serve to needs of these delightful, deserving kids. It was hard to find appropriate textbooks, or appropriate library books. (In the latter case, we went out and bought some.) Instructional programs were all designed for higher-achieving, more “traditional” kids. But we were told, from Day One forward, that it was our professional duty to find ways to teach our actual kids the actual skills they actually needed, based on where they actually were in their actual academic development. It’s hard to believe that, forty miles to the south, a giant faculty could have been so clueless and so dissolute for so many years—could have continued to “opt for appearances,” without knowing that their continuing conduct made no earthly sense.

Routinely, “educational experts” and “professional journalists” don’t seem to understand such matters. It’s hard to believe that teachers like Welsh could have drifted through the decades without understanding the lay of this land.

For our money, Welsh describes severe malfeasance. But people! Look who the teachers are angry at, now that T. C. Williams High has been dubbed a persistent failure:

WELSH: Over the past two weeks, teachers at T.C. have been angrier than I have ever seen them. We are angry at federal officials who label those of us who work in the most challenging schools as failures. We are angry at administrators who constantly send us mixed messages (be rigorous, but don't give out many Ds and Fs, and make sure everyone graduates!). We are angry that our leadership has been so unstable (the new principal to be named soon will be our third in five years).

And we are outraged that the school system enrolls newly arrived 18- to 20-year-old immigrants in the general student population, where they aren't in programs tailored to their particular needs. Had we done as Arlington and Fairfax counties do and offered them enrollment in an adult education program, their Standards of Learning scores would not have counted, and it's very unlikely that T.C. would have gotten the "persistently low achieving" label. We would also be serving those students better.

But the teachers also realize that we earned this label. For 39 years, I've been teaching grammar, writing and literature. Yet if a student comes into my classroom reading well below grade level, I don't know how to teach him to read. I should have taken courses years ago; I just never thought that I would need to teach reading in the 12th grade. And teachers throughout the school system have passed kids on to the next grade, even though they have not mastered the skills they need to succeed at the next level.

In Welsh’s account, the teachers are “angry” and “outraged” at everyone else, not so much at themselves. This leads directly into the passage where Welsh describes himself failing to take the courses which might have helped him meet the actual needs of his actual students. (With the emphasis on “might have.”) And note what happened when Superintendent Sherman treated these losers to dinner:

WELSH: I'm confident we can shed our unwanted label. We took a great first step Tuesday night at a dinner that Superintendent Sherman hosted for all the T.C. staff members. Some, fearful that he would announce numerous firings, were calling it "the last supper." I thought it turned out to be Sherman's finest hour. He defended us and our work and told us he would probably exercise the least punitive option available to him: the "transformation model," which requires that we submit a detailed plan for improvement. He then opened the floor for the most honest discussion I have heard in all my years at the school.

One by one, teachers walked up to two microphones and addressed the problems—and solutions—they saw at T.C.: the lack of clear, consistent discipline; kids roaming the halls freely during class; the failure to curb cellphone and iPod use; the need to identify and focus on those students who are woefully behind in reading and math.

I couldn't help but chuckle when Steve Geter, a 27-year-old history teacher who didn't exactly kill himself studying when he was in my English class 10 years ago, suggested, to thunderous applause, that we could help change the atmosphere by making students wear uniforms. It seemed to be the first time that everyone was pulling in the same direction to confront the problems that helped give us the label we all hate.

Truly, that’s an astonishing passage. According to Welsh, the dinner turned out to be “Sherman’s finest hour” because he defended this faculty’s sloth. Soon, the teachers were “addressing” such complex, hitherto undiscussed problems as “the lack of clear, consistent discipline” at the school and “kids roaming the halls freely during class.” Had something kept these teachers from “addressing” such obvious problems before?

Like so much of Welsh’s work, this is a very valuable profile. But let’s say it again: This profile describes an inexcusable history of gross professional misconduct. If the superintendent “defended” such work, the malfeasance only continued at that hearty banquet.

Welsh describes a major public failure. It was hard not to think of Michelle Rhee when we read this profile. Rhee has sometimes put her foot in her mouth in her tenure as head of the D.C. schools. Beyond that, we see no evidence that Rhee has any real ideas about how to improve instruction inside a large urban system. But give Rhee credit: Her outrage is always properly placed, even when she may blunder politically. Her outrage is always directed at the raw deal low-income kids get in our schools.

When we began teaching in 1969, we saw a lot of delightful children who were getting a very raw deal. The textbooks were wrong; the instructional programs were often a joke; there was little attempt to provide supervision. It was hard to address these problems, but the problems were hard to miss. Forty years later, Welsh describes a gang of teachers who couldn’t see what was right before them—or who didn’t care enough to try to do something about it.

What’s the solution at T. C. Williams? Which of those “four options for corrective action” should Superintendent Sherman take? If there were quality teachers to replace this gang, we’d recommend the most draconian measure. Fire only half the teachers? If Welsh’s narrative is accurate, this whole damn crew should be gone.

Sherman “defended us and our work.” The question leaps out at us: Why?