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MONDAY, MARCH 28, 2011

The soul of a disengaged class: Lady Collins was drinking life in on her over-stuffed chaise as pool boys rushed up with her fruit-festooned drinks. The sun felt warm as she murmured the mots comprising her latest new column.

“What’s in a nickname?” she thoughtfully mused, thus creating her column’s headline. Withholding the obvious answer—“Nothing”—she regally dictated this:

COLLINS (3/26/11): Our question for today is: How do the potential Republican presidential nominees stack up on Libya?

Also, who has the best name? It has come to our attention that the most likely candidates at this point are Newt, Mitt and T-Paw. A country with a president named Barack is obviously willing to go with the flow on these matters. Still, the lineup for the Republican debates is going to sound like a wrestling tag-team match.

I love this subject! Perhaps if we talk about it long enough I will get a chance to point out once again that Representative Connie Mack of Florida, who surprised everyone by announcing Friday that he would not run for Senator Bill Nelson’s seat in 2012, is actually named Cornelius Harvey McGillicuddy IV.

O.K. About Libya.

Bravo! Mack had announced that he wouldn’t be running! Collins used this as the latest excuse to tell us his funny full name.

Bravo! Already, Collins had burned 131 words off her latest column! Before she was done, she would kill at least 200 words with vapid observations about various peoples’ weird names. And speaking of “pointing [things] out once again,” Collins didn’t miss the chance to kill time in the time-honored manner:

COLLINS: Also, perhaps I should point out that Romney was named after J. Willard Marriott, the hotel guy. And that he once drove to Canada with the family dog strapped to the roof of the car.

Bravo! Seamus the Irish setter made Collins’ column again! According to a Nexis search, this represents at least the seventeenth column in which this high lady has burned time away by citing Mitt Willard’s roof-abused dog.

In such ways, an inane upper class toys with American lives.

(For one early effort, “The Revenge of Seamus,” go ahead—just click here. Collins, in 2008: “I’m going to have to get through the rest of the year without ever again referring to the fact that Romney once drove to Canada with the family dog, Seamus, strapped to the roof of the car.” People, please! Fat farking chance!)

A column by Collins spreads pain through the land in various ways, of course. Adding to the human stain, readers rush to append their remarks, thanking this high-ranking lady for sharing her deathless insights. In the case of this most recent column, Commenter 3 complained that, although “the world is filled with serious real problems,” our politics is “little better than a very poorly mounted circus.” He failed to note the way this high lady sidesteps those “real problems” too. Commenter 4 complained that Republican voters “won't see through the usual claptrap.” He failed to note that a similar problem seems to afflict Collins fans.

That said, it was Commenter 2 who made the analysts wander the moors, cursing the heavens and their own fates. That comment: “I had forgotten all about Mitt Romney's National Lampoon of a vacation with the dog strapped to the car roof. Thanks for reminding us, Gail!”

Thanks for reminding us! As they say around the Times pool, seventeenth time is the charm!

Question: Did Collins get around to making real points in this latest new column? Actually, no—she did not. In one paragraph, she claimed that T-Paw contradicted himself about Libya. But if you google Pawlenty’s full statements, you will perhaps be able to see that this just isn’t the case. (If you simply review what Collins wrote, you’ll see that her claim doesn’t make much sense even on its own terms.) But then, look what happened when she tried to challenge a recent bad statement by Willard:

COLLINS: But back to Libya. Willard ''Mitt'' Romney supports the current mission, except for the part where it's run by Barack Obama. Mitt told a conservative radio host this week that the president is weak because of “his fundamental disbelief in American exceptionalism.” This is part of a widespread Republican theory that simply believing that our country is a great and unique nation is not enough unless you also run around the world publicly pointing out to our allies that we are way, way better than they are.

Huh? Rather plainly, Romney said that Obama doesn’t “believe that our country is a great and unique nation.” As usual, Lady Collins missed the thrust of Willard’s remark. But then, who has time for that?

Bottom line: By the time Collins got to Newt, she had left herself so few words that she had to offer a capsule account of his recent apparent flip about Libya. Unfortunately, conservative readers will quickly dismiss what Collins wrote. They have heard Gingrich explain that he truly committed no flip—but after wasting much time on the candidates’ names, Collins simply didn’t have time to debunk Gingrich in full. Nor did she have time to place this apparent foolishness in a larger context—in a context which might help readers understand the disastrous way our discourse now works.

So it goes as a high-ranking royal helps shape the “liberal” outlook.

But people! Collins is a ranking player! Fawning respect must be paid! Adding insult to injury, liberals are forced to watch the lady’s monthly guest spots on the Maddow show, where her keister routinely gets kissed within an inch of its life.

Maddow never fails to kiss the asp of this fatuous lightweight. Here’s the way the fawning went down after November’s chat:

MADDOW (11/4/10): New York Times columnist Gail Collins. It is a pleasure to read your column and it’s even more of a pleasure to have you here.

COLLINS: It’s great to be here.

MADDOW: Thank you.

Here’s what happened after last month’s session:

MADDOW (2/16/11): New York Times columnist Gail Collins, with whom I very much enjoy discussing these matters. Thank you for being here.

COLLINS: Thanks.

That appearance represented an anniversary of sorts. Collins had done her first Maddow spot exactly one year before:

MADDOW (2/16/10): New York Times columnist Gail Collins. Again, I am a great fan of your work and it’s really nice to have you on the show. Thank you for coming in.

COLLINS: Thanks.

Warning! Collins hasn’t appeared on the program this month. And only four programs are left!

Why would a progressive former Rhodes Scholar kiss such flyweight keister this way? Why would she be a great fan of such work? Tomorrow, we’ll look in on Charlie Rose, another High Gotham multimillionaire—one with substantial conflicts.

Rose tends to kiss correct keisters too. Does anyone know why that is?

Respect must be paid: On one occasion, Gwen Ifill appeared on the program. Here’s how that went down:

MADDOW (1/28/09): Joining me now for a much more balanced take on the politics of the new president is Gwen Ifill, who is host and managing editor of PBS’ Washington Week and a senior correspondent with the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer. Her book, The Breakthrough: Politics and Race in the Age of Obama, is available now.

Gwen Ifill, thank you so much for coming on the show tonight. It’s a real honor to have you.

Gag us! In fairness, this wasn’t as bad as the many times Maddow bowed and scraped before Colonel Wilkerson, the man who assembled Colin Powell’s speech to the United Nations. Maddow never quite remembered to ask him how he had managed to bungle so badly. For reasons we haven’t fathomed yet, big respect had to be paid!

Good lord! The indignities we the people must bear to keep important careers on track! Tomorrow, we’ll look at Broadcaster Rose and his ties to a high billionaire.

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

EPILOGUE—WHAT DOES IT MEAN (permalink): In the past two weeks, we examined some facts about the nation’s public schools, fighting off streams of disinformation from the likes of Ravitch and Gates. In retrospect, we thought a brief Q-and-A might answer some lingering questions:

Why have Texas students performed so well on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (the NAEP)?

We have no idea. But within all demographic groups, Texas students outperform the national average on these “gold standard” tests. (Often, Texas kids outperform their national peers by substantial margins.) Of course, you’d never imagine such a thing if you read Diane Ravitch’s recent report in the Daily Beast, in which she attacked the Texas schools in baldly disingenuous ways.

Why have Texas students scored so well? You’d think we might actually want to find out! Instead, Ravitch tried to make readers think that Texas students have performed poorly—and she tied this alleged poor performance to the idea that annual testing has been a terrible scourge. If we really want to figure out what kinds of teaching may actually work, we can’t go about the task this way—by baldly misinforming the public about the most basic facts.

By the way, teachers in Texas are working hard too. Why should we trash them this way?

If Texas kids have scored so well, does that mean testing actually works?

Ravitch claimed that Texas’ dismal performance shows that testing doesn’t work. What do the state’s good test scores mean? You’d almost think we’d want to find out! Instead, the public gets fed a constant pile of partisan disinformation.

Nationwide, test scores have risen rather substantially during the period Ravitch cited—the period from 1998 through 2009. For the record, the testing / accountability / standards movement has been in force for roughly two decades; No Child Left Behind merely systematized a pre-existing movement. Does the nationwide rise in NAEP scores suggest that this approach has borne fruit? You’d almost think we’d want to ask! Instead, Ravitch persistently joins the anti-union forces in pretending that the national rise in test scores doesn’t exist.

Why do so few people ever mention the national rise in test scores?

In part, because liberals quit on low-income kids a good many years ago. The billionaire-financed anti-union crowd keeps pushing the idea that test scores are in the dumpster. This creates a good excuse to fire experienced teachers and replace them with non-union kids from the finer schools; such children are willing to work for low wages and for the chance to praise their own greatness. In a rational world, it would fall to liberals, progressives and pro-union people to spread the good news about national test scores. Rather plainly, this hasn’t occurred.

Liberals quit on low-income kids (and on their proletarian teachers) a very long time ago. In part for that reason, it’s almost impossible to hear accurate statements about American test scores. A few weeks ago, we were amazed when Richard Rothstein cited those score gains on the NAEP as a rebuttal to Bill Gates’ typically bogus claims (click here). It is very rare to see anyone offer this path to the “reality-based” world.

Just a guess: Very few teachers have ever heard about the gains which have occurred on their watch! Almost every “factual” claim you hear about test scores is false. The discussion is driven by the billionaire-funded anti-union crowd—and we “progressives” don’t bother responding. Instead, we honor Ravitch for pimping more of this bum information.

Apparently, we would rather criticize Bush than traffic in actual facts.

Could the rise in NAEP scores reflect some kind of cheating or teaching to the test?

Until recently, no one really had an incentive to cheat on the NAEP, which has been in operation for forty years. In the past decade, state superintendents have started to come under fire based upon statewide NAEP results; some politicians have started claiming credit based upon statewide score gains. Could a state superintendent put her thumb on the scale in the course of selecting the NAEP’s sample group for her state? We don’t know. But if it’s possible, you can bet that someone has done it!

Florida is another state which has shown strong gain in NAEP scores. Last fall, Columbia’s Madhabi Chatterji suggested these score gains may reflect the institution of stricter grade-retention policies; if more kids are forced to repeat third grade, this means they’re one year older, and one year smarter, when they take the fourth-grade NAEP. Could that be driving Florida’s gains? You will see such topics discussed when Mars begins to circle the earth. At present, NAEP scores are used in the mainstream press for exactly one reason—to drive highly partisan, fact-challenged claims, as Ravitch did last week.

To review Chatterji’s report, click here. For a criticism of his report, just click this.

If Wisconsin underperforms a bit on the NAEP, why does it seem to have good scores on the SAT and the ACT?

On the NAEP, Wisconsin’s white and Hispanic kids tend to score around the national average for their groups. Wisconsin’s black kids tend to score well below the nationwide average for black kids. (There may be reasons for that.)

Why then do Wisconsin students seem to score fairly high on the ACT, an SAT equivalent? We thought Politifact did a rather poor job with this topic (click here). But Politifact noted that Wisconsin students ranked 13th nationally on the ACT in 2009, even though a fairly high percentage of the state’s students took the fiendish test.

If Wisconsin is average at best on the NAEP, why does it seem to score well on the ACT? Presumably, that happens because Wisconsin is relatively middle-class and white, and those ACT average scores aren’t “disaggregated”—aren’t broken down by demographic groups.

Let’s compare Wisconsin’s demographics with those of Texas. In what follows, we’ll compare the two states’ eighth-grade student populations, as tested by the NAEP in math in 2009:

Wisconsin had many fewer low-income kids. In 2009, 31 percent were eligible for free or reduced-price lunch, as compared to 53 percent in Texas. (National figure: 43 percent. This is not a measure of “poverty.”)

Wisconsin also had many fewer minority kids. In 2009, only seven percent were Hispanic, compared to 46 percent in Texas. Ten percent were black, compared to 14 percent in Texas. Given the way our American history works, white kids still outscore minority kids on such tests, although the gaps have narrowed in the past forty years. In 2009, Wisconsin was 79 percent white, compared to just 32 percent in Texas.

Texas schools face larger demographic challenges; Wisconsin is relatively white and middle-class. Presumably, that helps explain Wisconsin’s relatively good average score on the ACT. But when we break NAEP scores into demographic groups, Texas outscores Wisconsin across the board, often by large margins.

Isn’t it time we tried to learn why such patterns exist? Isn’t it time we stopped the disinformation campaigns, and instead told people the truth about our (improving) NAEP scores?

On a national basis, NAEP score are substantially up in the past twenty years. Why is that—or doesn’t anyone care? Why isn’t the public being told about those gains on the NAEP? Do we simply prefer to bash Bush?

Final question: Are we willing to let Bill Gates keep spreading bullroar about our children? Frankly, the answer seems to be yes. After all, he’s a billionaire!