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Print view: Atlanta has suffered a two-year cheating mess. Why did the Times take a pass?
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ALSO IN ATLANTA! Atlanta has suffered a two-year cheating mess. Why did the Times take a pass? // link // print // previous // next //

Mark Twain and the TV profs/The truth about us the people: Are we the people driven by nothing but slobbering racial concern?

We almost wish it were so! Consider a gruesome part of Hacker and Pierson’s book, “Winner-Take-All Politics.”

It starts on page 108. It concerns the things we the people just plain flat-out don’t know:

HACKER AND PIERSON (page 108): Optimists about American democracy too often presume that all this is relatively straightforward. The truth is much more unsettling—so unsettling that even in serious political discourse it is usually considered bad manners to point it out. The truth is that most citizens pay very little attention to politics, and it shows. To call their knowledge of even the most elementary facts about the political shaky would be generous. To take just a few examples, less than a third of Americans know that a member of the House serves for two years or that a senator serves for six. In 2000, six years after Newt Gingrich became House speaker, only 55 percent knew the Republicans were the majority party in the House—a success rate only a little superior to a random guess. Just two years after he presided over Bill Clinton’s impeachment trial in the Senate, only 11 percent of those surveyed could identify William Rehnquist as chief justice of the United States.

We’ve highlighted the most significant point. We the people are hopelessly uninformed; this makes us vulnerable to various claims from every crank, kook, crackpot and TV billionaire. But in our so-called “serious political discourse,” it’s considered bad manners to say so! No one ever tells the people that they don’t know squat from squadoosh. Pols don’t do so for obvious reasons. “Journalists” are also concerned with maintaining their popularity; for this reason, they are constantly spotted on the TV machine, telling us how sharp we all are. This permits the cluelessness to grow. Hacker and Pierson continue:

HACKER AND PIERSON (continuing directly): Crucial and basic matters of political process are equally opaque to most voters. In early 2011, as Republicans brought Washington to a halt as effectively as the unexpected winter snowstorms, most Americans had no idea that not a single Republican senator had voted for health-care reform (two-thirds either put the number at between five and twenty or said they didn’t know), and less than a third could correctly identify the number of votes needed to overcome a filibuster (sixty). Well over half of Americans said fifty-one votes were sufficient, or confessed they had no idea.

We the people know virtually nothing. This helps explain why people like Donald Trump can put dumb ideas in peoples’ heads, especially when they’re being enabled by their overpaid, unprepared society friends. (Examples: Walters, Behar and Goldberg. It’s a form of “professional courtesy.”)

That said, many folk who follow politics can’t conceive of how dumb the rest of us are. You can’t blame that on Hacker and Pierson! The gentlemen pour it on:

HACKER AND PIERSON (continuing directly): About policy, most voters know even less. Roughly half of Americans think that foreign aid is one of the two top expenditures in the federal budget (it reality, it consumes about 1 percent of the budget). In 1980, in the midst of the Cold War, 38 percent of Americans surveyed believed that the Soviet Union was a member of NATO—the anti-Soviet defense alliance. Two years after the huge 2001 tax cuts, half of Americans were unable to recall that there had been tax cuts at all. Most of the famous “swing voters,” whom journalists tend to idealize as standing above the fray, carefully sorting among the strengths and weaknesses of each party’s offerings, are actually the least engaged, less well-informed citizens, reaching a final decision (if at all) on the flimsiest grounds.

If we might be permitted a major buzz kill, you’ll note that these numbers make it hard to blame this whole thing on the “tea-baggers.” On balance, we Democrats, liberals and progressives are dumb as a box of rocks too.

We offer this as a continuation of yesterday’s discussion. We the people are amazingly dumb. In truth, we don’t know squat from squadoosh; squadoodle is light-years beyond us. For that reason, we’re prone to believing every damn-fool claim that comes down the pike; in fact, we always have been. We’ll recommend Twain’s portrait of the cowardly lynch mob, followed instantly by his fond portrait of the credulous circus crowd (just click here). But we the people are dumb as rocks, and we always have been.

For these reasons, we’re often amazed when the professors descend from the skies to tell us what everyone has to be thinking when they believe the latest fool thing. For our money, some TV professors are dumb as rocks too, a trait they display on demand.

Special report: Your current society’s actual values!

PART 3—ALSO IN ATLANTA (permalink): Michelle Rhee tends to walk her ridiculous statements back.

This pattern has obtained again in the wake of USA Today’s report—its detailed report on possible cheating in DC’s public schools.

Tuesday night, Rhee appeared on the Tavis Smiley program, and she let USA Today have it between the eyes. Helped along by a helpful host, she seemed to say the newspaper’s work had been, in a word, dishonest:

SMILEY (3/29/11): Are you suggesting, then, that this story is much ado about nothing? That this is lacking in integrity, this story in USA Today?

RHEE: Oh, absolutely! If you look at the story overall, I think it absolutely lacks credibility.

Rhee also implied the report had been racial: “What I think is the really unfortunately piece is that oftentimes when the academic achievement rates of a district like D.C. go up, people assume that it can't be because the kids are actually attaining higher gains in student achievement.”

There was more. On Monday, Rhee had released an astounding statement, saying the USA Today report was “an insult to the dedicated teachers and schoolchildren who worked hard to improve their academic achievement levels.” Presumably, in a perfect world, there would be none of these “news reports!” Sensible people would simply let Rhee inform them as to the truth!

Rhee, of course, has had several wild statements blow up in her face. She came to DC in 2007, making a highly implausible claim about her own vast success as a teacher. Her claim never made any real sense—but a few months ago, an old piece of research came to light. The absurdity of her glorious claim became even more apparent.

In the wake of that old report’s reappearance, Rhee walked her previous bullroar back, having clawed her way to the top on the backs of low-income third-graders.

Well yesterday, it happened again! Rhee backtracked on her earlier claims about the very bad people at USA Today! On his blog at the Washington Post, Jay Mathews reported a phone call from Rhee:

MATHEWS (3/30/11): Wednesday morning, I got another surprise in the form of a phone call from Rhee. She told me that what she said Monday—her word, repeated often in our conversation—was “stupid.”

She said that she thinks cheating might have occurred in the District and that she is glad her successor, Acting Chancellor Kaya Henderson, ordered a new investigation. Rhee said she still believes that the vast majority of teachers and administrators would never falsify test results, but that there can be exceptions.


I sensed from my talk with Rhee that one reason she misspoke on Monday was that she had not had time to read either the USA Today story or the investigators’ reports, or to probe the weaknesses of test security protocols in Washington and other districts. She would not comment on whether that’s true, or what exactly led her to make the Monday statements, which I think were thoughtless, insulting and, as she said, stupid.

For the record, Mathews has tended to be a supporter of Rhee; at times, he has been a bit soft on the subject. (We think Rhee has some good points too, though they get the low end of the seesaw.) Jay’s wife, Linda Mathews, directed USA Today’s impressive reports on public school testing practices. More praise to her tomorrow.

Rhee walked back her earlier comments! Of course, even as she was calling her Monday comments “stupid,” her Tuesday comments were still being aired. We watched the Smiley program last night, on WHUT in Washington (Howard University’s PBS station). Sure enough! There was Rhee, on a very large stage, saying again that Monday’s report “absolutely lacks credibility.”

In such ways, a type of player rejects her own comments even as she continues to make them. Among the fast players who drive our debates, it’s how these things are done.

At any rate, Rhee acknowledged that “there can be exceptions”—that principals and teachers do sometimes “falsify test results.” (Everyone has always known that, of course, dating back at least thirty years.) And she’s thrilled to learn that Henderson, her former aide, will conduct a probe, just three short years after Deborah Gist first told these two numb-nuts to do so. In a general threat to the public order, DC’s City Council has also said that they might conduct a probe of their own. It’s even possible that we might learn more about what happened.

Or not! Our big news orgs tend to duck stories like this. Just consider our biggest news orgs and the recent events in Atlanta.

Last November, in a truly unfortunate matter, Dr. Beverly Hall announced that she was resigning as head of Atlanta’s public schools. Hall had served in the post for eleven years, an extremely long run for an urban school chief. During that period, Atlanta’s test scores had risen impressively on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (the NAEP), the so-called “gold standard” of educational testing.

The NAEP is a major federal program on which it has long been assumed that there is no particular incentive or opportunity to cheat.

Dr. Hall has been highly regarded; as far as we know, she still is. Last December, the New York Times reported her resignation—in the course of describing an ongoing, two-year-old mess:

SEVERSON (12/12/10): Did any school district in the country have a tougher week than the one in Atlanta?

First, criminal investigators began digging anew into accusations of widespread cheating on state standardized tests that had been plaguing the district for two years.

The allegations, which center on dozens of employees who are suspected of changing test answers to improve scores, have already been the focus of investigations by the state and the Atlanta school system that have cost more than $1 million.

The new investigation led an influential group of black pastors to call a news conference to denounce what they say is a ''witch hunt'' on educators who—however misguided—were just trying to help children.

''Now we want to put teachers in jail, which is absurd,'' said the Rev. Timothy McDonald, a leader of the group, the Concerned Black Clergy of Metropolitan Atlanta.

At a meeting on Monday, the group vowed to monitor the criminal investigation, and it criticized The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, which first reported the cheating accusations and has thoroughly chronicled the district's troubles.

Eventually, Severson mentioned Hall. “At City Hall and in corporate offices around town, the talk is about how best to find a successor for the schools superintendent, Beverly L. Hall, who announced her resignation last month.”

Did someone tamper with answer sheets in DC? If so, they weren’t alone. The conduct was widespread in Atlanta (and elsewhere in Georgia). For the record, this cheating occurred on Georgia’s high-stakes statewide exams, not on the “gold standard” NAEP, which is used for research purposes.

Why haven’t you heard about this mess, which has brought so much misery to Atlanta? This brings us back to those ludicrous stories in the New York Times.

As readers may recall, the Times did a front-page report on this general topic last June (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 6/11/10). Trip Gabriel discussed the general problem of cheating on high-stakes tests; in the process, he noted that “the Georgia scandal is the most far-reaching in the country.” (He even quoted Hall. To read his report, just click here.) But good grief! In August, the Times ran two ridiculous news reports which seemed to suggest that Atlanta’s schools, and Hall herself, had emerged with a clean bill of health.

“Cheating Inquiry in Atlanta Largely Vindicates Schools,” read the ridiculous headline on Shaila Dewan’s August 3 news report. This is what the New York Times thought vindication looked like:

DEWAN (8/3/10): The Atlanta public school system was substantially vindicated Monday when the results of an independent investigation into cheating on standardized tests were released.

The inquiry was the result of a state report on irregularities on test answer forms that flagged 58 of Atlanta's 84 elementary and middle schools in February, causing much consternation among parents and teachers and raising concerns that cheating was condoned at the highest levels of the administration.

But the deeper investigation, by an independent commission using a national firm that specializes in rooting out cheating, found no evidence of ''any district-wide or centrally coordinated effort to manipulate'' test scores, and no direct evidence of cheating. Still, Beverly Hall, the superintendent, and LaChandra Butler Burks, the chairwoman of the school board, said no cheating would be tolerated in the system, and Ms. Burks apologized to students and parents.

The testing firm, Caveon, found that, based on analysis of answer forms that focused on how many times students erased wrong answers to make them right, more than half the 58 schools did not show significant anomalies. Twelve schools had statistical evidence of a schoolwide problem. Thirteen schools showed irregularities in specific classrooms or grades.

John Fremer, the president of Caveon, said the findings did not indicate an issue of unusual proportions. ''The educational problem, in terms of what we call testing irregularities, is between 1 and 2 percent of educators,'' he said. ''And our findings here reflect that.''

Amazing, isn’t it? Twelve schools (out of 84) displayed “a schoolwide problem.” That was fifteen percent of all Atlanta schools! And there was more—in thirteen more schools, the problem might involve whole grades! Somehow, though, Dewan believed this represented a “vindication” for Atlanta. Weirdly, she quoted Fremer saying that the problem in Atlanta seemed to involve “between 1 and 2 percent of educators.” Imaginably, this statement might even be technically accurate (or not). But it vastly downplayed the apparent sweep of the mess.

What did vindication look like? More than half of Atlanta’s schools did not show significant anomalies! So the New York Times said.

Five days later, Dewan wrote a fawning profile of Hall, inadvertently noting some of the ways Caveon dumbed its analysis down (click here). These were very foolish reports—and from there, the Times walked away from the story, until Dr. Hall was gone.

As far as we know, Dr. Hall never did anything wrong in any of these matters. As far as we know, the score gains Atlanta achieved on the NAEP remain real, and they remain real signs of progress. If we had to venture a guess, we’d guess that the Times decided to take Hall’s side in such ludicrous ways because the issue was becoming an unfortunate race-and-politics fight, with Georgia’s white Republican governor challenging a school system run by a well-regarded black superintendent.

It’s a shame Atlanta is stuck with this mess. But the Times’ reports were an absolute joke—and Gabriel’s ballyhooed “CHEAT SHEET” series has abandoned this type of topic, thus ceding the field to our most colorful newspaper.

What happened in DC is important. We hope the probes will produce real information. But why do so many big news orgs seem to play fast and loose with these topics?

Alas! Atlanta’s troubles to the side, those “reform billionaires” are still all around! Tomorrow, we’ll visit with Charlie Rose, pondering his ties to one (or two) of those big major players.

We’ll also praise USA Today, and plan its next sweeping probe. Investigative reporting is back! Who knew such things were still possible?