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Daily Howler: Ruben is taking three classes a day. But is he actually learning?
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WHY RUBEN CAN’T READ! Ruben is taking three classes a day. But is he actually learning? // link // print // previous // next //

A BIZARRE TIME: Peter Daou is always worth reading. Yesterday, at The Huffington Post, he wrote about the remarkable report which appeared in Monday’s New York Times. In January 2003, President Bush was so determined to go to war with Iraq that he suggested ginning up a fake event to justify such a war. In the Times, Don Van Natta describes a meeting between Bush and Tony Blair on January 31 of that year. In this passage, Van Natta is working from “a confidential memo about the meeting written by Mr. Blair's top foreign policy adviser:”
VAN NATTA (3/27/06): The memo also shows that the president and the prime minister acknowledged that no unconventional weapons had been found inside Iraq. Faced with the possibility of not finding any before the planned invasion, Mr. Bush talked about several ways to provoke a confrontation, including a proposal to paint a United States surveillance plane in the colors of the United Nations in hopes of drawing fire, or assassinating Mr. Hussein.

Those proposals were first reported last month in the British press, but the memo does not make clear whether they reflected Mr. Bush's extemporaneous suggestions, or were elements of the government's plan.

Say what? Bush was seeking a stage a phony event as a way “to provoke a confrontation?” As Daou writes, “The implications are staggering, but the nation's collective response” has been “[a] big yawn.”

We strongly recommend Daou’s report. But we’ll add two more observations.

First: That “big yawn” has also been the general reaction of the activist liberal web. The authenticity of this memo hasn’t been challenged, and the conduct it describes is truly remarkable. Bush was willing to stage a fake event to get the nation into a war? If true, this report is astounding (and it provides a nice echo of the Tonkin Gulf incident). In our view, liberals should be talking about nothing else—if this report is true. But our activist web is currently busy cherry-picking silly quotes and engaging in standard Free-Floating Hysteria. Over the past year, the activist liberal web has sometimes gone to great lengths to showcase its bad political judgment. Its low-grade reaction to this report strikes us as an example.

Second: Does anyone actually understand the logic of this report? According to Van Natta, Bush wanted “to paint a United States surveillance plane in the colors of the United Nations in hopes of drawing fire.” But why would painting the plane have drawn fire? And how would that fire have led us to war? We’ve seen this incident reported in many places—but we’ve seen no one explain its logic. In this morning’s Times, for example, a letter describes the scheme thusly:

LETTER TO THE NEW YORK TIMES (3/29/06): The memo from the Bush-Blair meeting in January 2003 attributes an idea to President Bush:

A United States surveillance plane painted in United Nations colors would fly over Iraq; the Iraqis would shoot at the decoy, and voilà, the pretext for starting the war.

Laugh or cry, but admit that this scheme would have eliminated all those alternatives: the weapons of mass destruction, the ties to terrorists and the spreading of democracy.

But in what way would this scheme have provided “the pretext for starting the war?” Obviously, the UN would have known that this wasn’t its plane; and, if we’re not mistaken, Iraq had fired on US planes fairly often. (The no-fly zones were not UN-sponsored.) How would these events have led on to war? Indeed, wouldn’t any such event have painted Bush as a faker and schemer?

Daou says we live in a “bizarre time.” With that view, we surely agree. But here’s part of what makes this time so bizarre: Newspapers publish startling reports—and make no attempt to lay out their logic. No one has challenged this five-page memo. But how was this scheme supposed to work?

Special report—Why Ruben can’t read!

PART 3—IS RUBEN ACTUALLY LEARNING: Is Ruben Jimenez learning to read in his three daily reading classes? As Sam Dillon explained in Sunday’s New York Times—he wrote the paper’s front-page lead story—Ruben is a seventh-grader at Sacramento’s King Junior High, a school which has eliminated science and history for kids who are struggling with reading and math. “Rubén studies English for the first three periods, and pre-algebra and math during the fourth and fifth,” Dillon wrote (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 3/27/06). We’ll be honest; we find it hard to imagine what Ruben’s teachers are doing during those three daily reading classes—unless they’re offering the tedious, drill-based instruction described in the letter to the New York Times which we quoted yesterday (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 3/28/06). Ruben’s school has dropped history and science so it can teach more reading? To us, that sounds like a category mistake; it’s a bit like hearing that King dropped basketball so it could teach more gym. Another letter in yesterday’s Times lays out the puzzle:

LETTER TO THE NEW YORK TIMES (3/28/06): As a longtime reading educator, I share the concern expressed in your article that reading and math are shortchanging other subjects. This development is as bad for reading as it is for science and social studies....

Reading and writing must always be about something, and the something comes from subject-matter pedagogy—not from more practicing of reading "skills.”

“Reading must be about something,” the writer notes, before lapsing into a bit of jargon. Let’s be clearer: Traditionally, students have read about Frederick Douglass and Cesar Chavez—and yes, they’ve read about tadpoles and frogs. To us, it seems like an odd idea—dropping science so you can teach more reading. But that said, we should ask the basic question—does this strategy seem to be working? Is Ruben Jimenez learning to read in the course of his three daily classes?

About Ruben, of course, there’s no way to know. But Dillon did review test scores from King Junior High in the course of his front-page report. And alas! Here, as in other aspects of his report, his work is barely competent.

What has happened at King Junior High since history and science classes were dropped? Dillon starts with this assessment:

DILLON (3/27/06): At King Junior High, in a poor neighborhood in Sacramento a few miles from a decommissioned Air Force base, the intensive reading and math classes have raised test scores for several years running. That has helped Larry Buchanan, the superintendent of the Grant Joint Union High School District, which oversees the school, to be selected by an administrators' group as California's 2005 superintendent of the year.
King’s intensive reading/math classes “have raised test scores for several years running,” Dillon writes. But how on earth does Dillon know that? As we’ve often noted, there are various ways in which test scores can rise; even in cases where scores do improve, it will rarely be clear why that happened. And as Dillon himself notes, King’s “intensive math and reading classes” don’t affect the school as a whole; this new approach only affects the school’s lower-achieving kids—“about 150 of the school's 885 students.” That said, how can Dillon possibly say that this approach has produced higher test scores? Almost surely, he can’t justify such a judgment. But so what? It’s repeated in one of the Times photo captions: “Devars Dean, left, and Inerik Salas, seventh graders at King Junior High, where intensive reading and math classes have raised test scores” (our emphasis).

Have Ruben’s intensive classes produced score gains? It’s hard to say, and as Dillon continues, he seems to say that King’s score gains have been slight. Are the new instructional strategies working? Get a load of the school’s passing rates:

DILLON (continuing directly): But in spite of the progress, the school's scores on California state exams, used for compliance with the federal law, are increasing not nearly fast enough to allow the school to keep up with the rising test benchmarks. On the math exams administered last spring, for instance, 17.4 percent of students scored at the proficient level or above, and on the reading exams, only 14.9 percent.

With scores still so low, Mr. Harris, the school's principal, and Mr. Buchanan said they had little alternative but to continue remedial instruction for the lower-achieving among the school's nearly 900 students.

Of course, if this “remedial instruction” were raising test scores, why wouldn’t King want to continue the program? Meanwhile, let’s note a basic point. The intensive classes to which Dillon refers affect (roughly) the bottom sixth of the school’s students. But the passing rates which he cites are being achieved by (roughly) the top sixth of King’s students. Is there any sign that the kids who receive the extra math/reading classes are among the kids who are scoring “proficient?” Dillon makes no such claim—but in typical “who-gives-a-crap-about-this-subject-anyway” fashion, the Times goes ahead and declares, on page one, that the extra math/reading classes have been “raising test scores.”

Have the extra classes helped kids like Ruben? Dillon presents no relevant evidence. That said, it might be worth looking at King’s passing rates on recent state math/reading tests.

Let’s start by asking a basic question—is it true that King’s passing rates are “still so low?” So it would seem, when only 15 percent of the school’s students are “proficient or better” on the state’s reading tests. Indeed, it might seem hard to imagine how much “progress” King could be making, just to reach this low point. But remember—school passing rates can’t be assessed in isolation. And Dillon makes no effort to tell us what King’s passing rates were like in the past—or to tell us what passing rates are currently like in California schools as a whole.

Has King made progress in the past several years? In fact, King’s passing rates have improved—but only from a very low starting point. And its passing rates still lag far behind the rates of the state as a whole. Indeed, since passing rates have improved a fair amount for the state as a whole, it’s possible that King’s improved passing rates simply reflect an easier set of tests.

Example: In 2001, only 8 percent of King seventh-graders scored “proficient” or “advanced” in reading. By 2005, the figure had risen to 13 percent. But statewide, the “proficiency or better” rate was going up too—from 32 percent in 2001 to 43 percent in 2005. Are California’s seventh-grade rs reading better these days? Or has the state test become a bit easier? There’s no way to tell from these data—and there’s no way to know what may have produced King’s jump from 8 percent to 13. But again, since these are King’s highest-achieving students—and the since the program in question affects the school’s lowest-achieving students—these proficiency rates almost surely don’t tell us about the program’s success.

Are kids like Ruben learning to read as they take their three daily classes? Twice, the Times says this new program is helping—but nothing in Dillon’s report supports this claim. Readers of the New York Times continue to read in the dark.

TOMORROW—PART 4: Again: Why it can be very hard to give Ruben books about frogs.