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Print view: Michelle Rhee has always been all about standards. Except when it came to that probe
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WHATEVER HAPPENED TO STANDARDS! Michelle Rhee has always been all about standards. Except when it came to that probe: // link // print // previous // next //

Professors, Klansmen and how to treat friends: Has Donald Trump’s clowning begun to subside? Pray to God for small favors!

Over the past week, Trump—a very well-known figure—has peddled all sorts of brain-dead crap about Obama’s troubling birth. He has spread all sorts of disinformation around, extending one of the dumbest episodes in our very dumb modern history.

At this point, we are a very, very dumb people. Are we’re dumb now on various sides.

Trump has behaved in inexcusable ways. But he’s been enabled, every step of the way, by major “journalists” and “liberals.”

In the process, we’ve had a chance to see the way citizens get disinformed, especially in a tribal culture. And we’ve seen the ways mainstream journalists and career liberals will protect their own—by kicking down, not up.

Trump has been most at fault in the past week’s destructive clowning. But he has had a lot of help—from Greta van Susteren; from Barbara Walters; from Whoopi Goldberg and Joy Behar. And as he has spread his disinformation around, no major figure in the high mainstream press has managed to say boo about it.

The New York Times has let it go. So has the Washington Post. By now, it is the accepted norm when big players act this way.

How do somewhat gullible people end up believing things which are false? As part of the answer, consider the way Lawrence O’Donnell and Professor Melissa Harris-Perry treated this unfolding matter on Monday evening’s Last Word.

Who’s at fault when gullible people get conned by big public figures? As O’Donnell started, he played an overt tribal card. He played tape of our old pal, Bill Maher, blaming the other tribe’s evil rubes—and saying it’s all about race.

Maher referred to a poll of likely Republican primary voters—a poll with a rather small sample (click here). Why do so many people say they don’t think Obama “was born in the United States?” In standard tribal fashion, Bill could think of only one answer:

MAHER (on tape, 3/28/11): If 51 percent think he was not born in America, I don’t know where that else is coming from except race. What more could this man do to be the perfect family man? I mean, there’s nothing about this man that is un-American, except to them his color. I’ve got to think it is coming from that place.

For the record, being born in another country doesn’t make someone “un-American.” (It does mean you’re not a “natural-born citizen.”) If Bill’s mother had given birth to him in Norway, Moldova, North Korea or France, he would of course still be an American citizen.

That noted:

Fish gotta swim and birds gotta fly—and Bill “[had] to think” this was race! Deep inside the tribal mind, there could be no other answer! Indeed, tribal players always think in this manner. Everyone in The Other Tribe is presumed to be just like everyone else. These beings will then be described in the least flattering way our limbic brains can construct.

Question: Could it be that someone believes this crap because they saw Donald Trump say it—and because they saw three major liberals flounder, thrash around and flail, failing to challenge his factual statements? Because they saw the liberal Professor Heldman fail in the exact same way on Hannity, a few nights later? Because they see Trump saying all these things, and they see no big players correcting his statements? In a tribal world, no—that can’t be it! That might place some of our members at fault! Continuing, O’Donnell brought on the professor to offer her own deathless thoughts on this topic. And soon, the analysts were clutching their ears, complaining of her racial cant and her “professoriatese.”

Harris-Perry started in English. Her statements made perfect sense:

HARRIS-PERRY (3/28/11): Listen, I don’t think Donald Trump is really running for president. People, you know, run for president for lots of reasons. Mostly what he’s doing here is just putting out and increasing his brand. But he is—because of these poll numbers, he’s following a tack that many of the Republicans are following, which is, rather than attack President Obama on his ideas, rather than challenge his ideas, his strategies, his policies, they challenge instead his identity.

And they’re doing that precisely because of these polls that you’ve seen. They have managed to bring into being this anxiety, this fear, based solely on repetition of a lie.

Rather than tackle Obama’s ideas, Trump was challenging his identity. Rather plainly, this statement was accurate. In similar ways, public clowns like Jerry Falwell paraded around in the 1990s, challenging President Clinton’s identity. Clinton was a serial killer, they said (so was his wife)—and they would sell you a tape which proved it! And Clinton was a drug-runner too! And of course, he had gone to Moscow as a graduate student—perhaps as a Soviet spy!

Gullible people believed that crap too. They didn’t need race to help them do it, just partisan gullibility. They believed those attacks on identity too—and the mainstream press corps looked away, trembling, worthless and silent.

The professor was off to a pretty good start. Her opening statements made perfect sense. But just like that, she adopted Maher’s tack! Pleasing us rubes all over the land, she announced that this was all about race! It couldn’t be anything else!

HARRIS-PERRY (continuing directly): But there is no way that this can be about anything but race. And let me explain.

We were all ears! But when the professor began to explain, she slipped into her second language. What follows is almost pure bafflegab, though it’s largely delivered in the tongue known as professoriatese:

HARRIS-PERRY (continuing directly): I think when we say that, it sounds like we’re saying anybody who’s a birther is a racist, and you know probably a card-carrying member of the Klan or something. That’s not what I mean.

What I mean is that, in America historically, birthright citizenship is always about race. In 1857, in the Dred Scott case, when the U.S. Supreme Court decided that Dred Scott had no rights that a white man was bound to respect, it was a decision that, though Scott had been born here in the United States, he was not a citizen under the Constitution.

In 1866, after the end of the Civil War, and just before passage of the 14th Amendment, birth-right citizenship in the Civil Rights Act of 1866 establishes American citizenship based on birth-right as a response to the end of slavery. And it is ratified in the 14th amendment. It is turned into our current modern understanding of citizenship.

Citizenship in this country is about race. It is about the challenge of slavery. There is no way to be having this conversation except for the fact that in his very body as a black man of descent from both Africa and midwest America, Barack Obama challenges Americans’ deeply held conception that whiteness and American-ness go hand in hand.

And so walking through this is good for us, because we will get on the other side of it with a better and clearer understanding of citizenship. [editor’s note: Fat chance!]

The birthers aren’t all racists—although it’s certainly all about race! And she didn’t mean that they were all Klansmen.

After that, the bafflegab started.

Her statements said this was all about race—and this was pleasing to us rubes. But her key statements make little real sense; very little of what she said could really be paraphrased. “Birthright citizenship is always about race?” The statement is vague and therefore useful—but it isn’t clear what it has to do with the current ridiculous matter, which turns on the requirement that an American president be a “natural-born citizen.”

Question: If there had been some stupid way to pretend that Clinton had been born in France, do you think Falwell wouldn’t have trumpeted that? Because it wouldn’t have been “about race?” Because “citizenship in this country is [always] about race?”

Related question: Remember that brief window in time when we liberals would happily note that Arnold Schwarzenegger, briefly ascendant, could never run for president? (He’s a citizen, but he isn’t “natural-born.”) How did that fit into the professor’s sweeping picture?

Have you ever heard it said that ex-governor Granholm, who’s very bright, could never be picked for vice president? She was born in Canada! This too is all about race!

Harris-Perry is often quite fluent in professorial bafflegab. (In their book Higher Education?, Hacker and Dreifus mock the ways the professoriate now tends to speak in private languages. We’d say this resembles what they mean.) But in this latest offering, she quickly joined Maher in saying that this could only be about race (whatever that meant). Everyone who believes this crap believes it because of race—because “Barack Obama challenges Americans’ deeply held conception that whiteness and American-ness go hand in hand.” By some miracle, this is true for all the gullible people—the racists and non-racists alike!

This was perfect tribal politics. Everybody blamed regular people—and no one blamed the stars! More specifically: No one blamed Barbara or Whoopi or Joy! You see, Whoopi and Joy are part of our tribe. When “journalism” is really just tribal self-pleasure, no one in our own perfect tribe can ever be said to be wrong.

No one pushed up at our biggest newspapers, saying they should get off their tuffets for once and bring folk like Trump crashing down. When “journalism” is really self-pleasure, the kicking is always aimed down.

In fairness, the professor did offer an accurate lecture about the 14th amendment. But we have no real idea what it has to do with the current case. In no apparent way does the current nonsense have anything to do with “birthright citizenship.” Do you know why she started there? We have no idea! But lord, how good it felt!

O’Donnell finished in typical fashion. Instead of noting that the previous, Republican governor of Hawaii actually vouched for Obama’s birth, he cited the current Democratic governor—a friend of Obama’s parents. This feels good within the tribe. But it’s a dumb way to argue.

But then, this is really all about entertainment and tribal self-affirmation. Serious people combatting such nonsense will kick big keister within the tribe, insisting that members do better next time. They’ll tell Whoopi and Joy to get off their asses and do their goddamned homework for once. They’ll tell Barbara Walters to quit or perform. (Though this might cost them future guest appearances.) They might even scream and yell at the New York Times, telling them to show some guts for once and denounce their famous fellow New Yorker. They might even tell the Times to name van Susteren while they’re at it. Her conduct has been a disgrace, seen by millions of voters.

But darlings, this simply isn’t done! Tip-top careers can be ruined that way! O’Donnell was simply running us rubes. He fed us race and comfort food. And lord! How good it all felt!

Special report: Your current society’s actual values!

PART 2—WHATEVER HAPPENED TO STANDARDS (permalink): How much cheating-by-erasure may have occurred in DC’s public schools?

That question will be quite hard to answer, but the story to date has a comical aspect. But first, a basic distinction:

Although the District isn’t a state, it does have a “state education department”—the Office of the State Superintendent of Education (OSSE). That office supervises the DC public schools. In 2008, when this story began, Deborah Gist was DC’s “state superintendent of education.”

Let’s get on with our story:

In the spring of 2008, Michelle Rhee was finishing her first year as chancellor of the DC Public Schools But uh-oh! In Monday’s report in USA Today, Gillum and Bello say that Gist “recommended that the scores of many schools be investigated because of unusually high gains” (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 3/29/11).

When test scores jump in implausible ways, serious people will want to check twice. A bit later, the USA Today reporters describe Gist’s action in a bit more detail:

GILLUM AND BELLO (3/28/11): In 2008, the Office of the State Superintendent of Education (OSSE)…asked McGraw-Hill to do erasure analysis in part because some schools registered high percentage point gains in proficiency rates on the April 2008 tests.

If USA Today’s report is accurate, this would suggest that the OSSE was concerned by the size of some schools’ score gains. At any rate, 96 schools were flagged by McGraw-Hill for excessive wrong-to-right erasures. In at least three schools, 85 percent of the classrooms were flagged for excessive erasures.

But uh-oh: “Although all of the experts consulted by USA TODAY said such aberrations should trigger investigations at the school level, that did not happen in D.C. in 2008.” As they continue, Gillum and Bello report what happened in more detail:

GILLUM AND BELLO: In November 2008, Deborah Gist, then the state superintendent of education, recommended that D.C. public schools and several charter schools investigate why their erasure rates were so high. "It is important to note that these (data) analyses do not suggest reasons for the high erasure rates," Gist wrote to the schools. "However, it is important that all procedures available to us are employed to guarantee the validity of the state assessment system."

Seven charter schools responded to OSSE and carried out probes. Gist's proposal met resistance from Rhee's staff, documents obtained by USA TODAY show. Memoranda flew back and forth for five months as D.C. school officials questioned the methodology and the rationale for an investigation.


In April [2009], state superintendent Gist left Washington to take a job as head of Rhode Island's state school system. Her successor, Kerri Briggs, then dropped the request for D.C. public schools to investigate its schools. Both Gist and Briggs, now director for education reform at the George W. Bush Institute in Texas, declined to comment.

Seven charter schools did conduct probes. (USA Today doesn’t report the results.) But for better or worse, the DC Public Schools rejected Gist’s request.

The earth continued to turn; before long, it was time for testing again. But in the spring of 2009, the annual testing produced a new set of excessive erasures. This time, though, the DC Public Schools got off its duff and conducted a probe. Or at least, they gave the appearance.

“After the 2009 tests, the school district hired an outside investigator to look at eight D.C. public schools,” the reporters note. In the following passage, we get a bit more detail:

GILLUM AND BELLO: The tests administered in April 2009 produced another round of score improvements for D.C. schools. The proficiency rate districtwide in reading for elementary schools rose 3 percentage points over 2008; the math rate jumped 7 points.

Data obtained by USA TODAY show that, after those tests, 46 D.C. public schools were flagged by McGraw-Hill for having classrooms with high rates of wrong answers changed to right ones.


OSSE chose eight D.C. public schools plus four charter schools for investigation. District officials would not identify the eight D.C. public schools, but USA TODAY was told by a former official that Noyes was one of them.

[John] Fremer, president of Caveon Consulting Services, the Utah company hired by D.C., acknowledges the investigations were limited and focused mainly on process.

In this, the second year of Rhee’s reign, the District schools did respond to the OSSE’s request. But that is where the mordant humor starts to enter the story.

Please note: The number of schools flagged for excessive erasures dropped in this second year of Rhee’s tenure, from 109 in 2008 to 46 in 2009. That said, it’s hard to tell what this drop might have meant. In this chart, USA Today notes that a new methodology was used in 2009 (see note at bottom); the newspaper makes no attempt to say if this methodological change might account for the lower number of schools getting flagged. At any rate, the mordant humor enters our tale when we read USA Today’s account of what these District-funded probes turned up.

In this passage, Gillum and Bello describe the limitations placed on the probes. After that, they describe what the probes turned up:

GILLUM AND BELLO: Fremer, president of Caveon Consulting Services, the Utah company hired by D.C., acknowledges the investigations were limited and focused mainly on process. "Did everyone who should have received training (on how to give tests) receive training? Was there a mechanism in place for checking out the test booklets? How were they stored?" he says in describing the questions.

When Caveon interviewed individual teachers, Fremer says, an official from the school district was always present and occasionally a principal sat in. Teachers were asked about why erasure rates were so high, Fremer says, but he adds: "We didn't ask if teachers cheated."

D.C. school officials did not ask Caveon to do its own analysis of the test data, Fremer says. For other investigations, he says, Caveon has gone to the testing company to examine the tapes of the scanning machines that detected which wrong answers were erased and changed to right. It is helpful, he says, to examine each student's answers to determine, for example, whether students got hard questions right but missed easy ones. That unlikely outcome can indicate tampering.

After Caveon's investigation, D.C. school district officials cleared all but one of the eight public schools originally on the list. OSSE approved those findings, according to documents USA TODAY obtained.

At Burrville Elementary, where half of the school's classrooms had been flagged for high wrong-to-right erasure rates by McGraw-Hill, the conclusion was that one teacher had wrongly cleaned up stray pencil marks on student answer sheets. That was not allowed, OSSE said in a letter to Rhee. In that classroom, students' math and reading scores were invalidated.

At another school, Stanton Elementary, where wrong-to-right erasures in one fourth-grade class were about 10 times the district average, no violation was found. But an unidentified teacher was banned from administering future tests. The letter sent to Rhee by OSSE did not explain why.

Ted Trabue, president of the State Board of Education, agrees the 2009 investigation was limited. But he credits OSSE, which sets test security policy, for tightening the rules since 2009.

From the outside, there is no way to know what may have occurred in these various schools. But on the basis of this rather circumscribed probe, the DC Public Schools determined the following:

They found that one (1) well-intentioned teacher had cleaned up stray pencil marks on some answer sheets. And not only that! At a second elementary school, one (1) teacher was barred from administering future tests, though “no violation was found.”

And sure enough, that was it!

It’s hard to miss the mordant comedy found in this second-year probe. Meanwhile, excessive erasures were still running wild at various schools, including at the Noyes Education Center, the suddenly top-notch school on which Gillum and Bello have focused. In 2008, passing rates had soared at Noyes—and McGraw-Hill flagged 75 percent of its classrooms for excessive erasures. But that pattern never changed at Noyes, despite the probe Rhee finally launched. In 2009 and 2010, at least 75 percent of the school’s classrooms were still getting flagged for excessive erasures, including some classrooms whose erasure rates truly went through the roof.

Michelle Rhee has always been all about high standards. That said, the standards for her erasure probe seem to have been a bit lax. Tomorrow, we’ll look at some of the ways this story has progressed this week—and we’ll journey to Atlanta. But plenty of humor can be found in this tale.

This kind of thing is decades old. Sometimes, you just have to laugh