SCHOOL FOR SCANDAL! Welsh describes a failing faculty in his most important work yet: // link // print // previous // next //
FRIDAY, MARCH 26, 2010
We think its worth saying again: We think one point from yesterdays post is worth saying again. Again, this is what Sam Dillon reported in yesterdays New York Times:
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 disaggregatedwhen 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 reportunless our kids dont matter.
Only because we said we would: Before we start, lets 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 ODonnell did. (We think Ed has jumped several sharks.)
Unfortunately, we said wed address something elseand so we will, grumbling about our dumb promises. We refer to Maddows report last Friday about the John Ensign non-sex scandal.
Needless to say, the sycophants rushed to praise her brilliance. (Dont 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 Maddows focus on the teen-aged son of Ensigns 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 Maddows 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 Maddows lengthy report for yourselves. (For last Fridays transcript, just click here.) But what follows is a bit of backgroundthe type of background you never hear when Maddow flogs the troubling story of the chief of staffs 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. (Lets give Ensign credit for thishis 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, Maddows 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:
That was the end of Kanes 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 Posts 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 Maddows 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 Ensigns 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 dont care about it much; we cant imagine why youd devote half your program to this story on such a momentous evening. But that, of course, is a matter of judgmentand Maddow has spent a lot of time, in the past year, chasing sex scandals around. (Though it isnt about the sex!) That said:
Its hard to believe that the teen-aged sons $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 hasnt landed some similar (low-paying) post? (If the Hamptons kid hadnt gotten such a post, wed say that would be the real story.) But Maddow has endlessly pushed this aspect of this storyand she repeatedly pimped it again last Friday. As she did, she kept forgetting to mention how low the kids salary was. As always, she kept referring to him as the son of Ensigns mistress. She never mentioned that he was also the son of Ensigns 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 heres the key: Note the things youre 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 Ensigns mistress. To wit:
Youre never told that John Ensigns mistress was married to John Ensigns chief of staff. Youre never told that the Ensigns and Hamptons were close personal friends. And of course, youre 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 sonbut youre 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 dont know the answer to that.)
Do you want to be served by serious people? Go aheadread that transcript. Maddows 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 were all in. Weve seen this kind of crap for decades. To us, it doesnt look any better when its 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:
Weve never felt sorry for a Republican committee before. But if Maddows staff keeps contacting the NSRC to ask about the Hamptons son, we now feel a bit sorry for them.
In his answer, Humbert didnt 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 obviousunless 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 kids 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 Posts Sunday Outlook section. His essays have described life at a large public high school, as seen from the inside.
(According to the Nexis archives, Welshs 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 nations most interesting journalists over that period. Within American journalism, its rare to read so much work by such an insightful person from inside some major system.
Because Welshs 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.
Whats 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 didnt dispute the facts or attempt to challenge the designation. Despite the high achievement of some of his seniors, Welsh said he couldnt hide from the factsand some of these facts are gruesome:
Our scores didnt lie, Welsh said. According to Welsh, Alexandrias 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 rankingand 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 schools decline. This is a truly remarkable account of a big urban high schools operation:
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 didnt 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:
Weve long admired Welshs 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. Its hard to believe that, forty miles to the south, a giant faculty could have been so clueless and so dissolute for so many yearscould have continued to opt for appearances, without knowing that their continuing conduct made no earthly sense.
Routinely, educational experts and professional journalists dont seem to understand such matters. Its 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:
In Welshs 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:
Truly, thats an astonishing passage. According to Welsh, the dinner turned out to be Shermans finest hour because he defended this facultys 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 Welshs work, this is a very valuable profile. But lets 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 couldnt see what was right before themor who didnt care enough to try to do something about it.
Whats 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, wed recommend the most draconian measure. Fire only half the teachers? If Welshs narrative is accurate, this whole damn crew should be gone.
Sherman defended us and our work. The question leaps out at us: Why?