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THE THINGS WE HADN’T HEARD! We were stunned when we read the reports about the mess in Atlanta: // link // print // previous // next //
FRIDAY, APRIL 1, 2011

Kicking down, very-special edition/The Parson defers to The Donald: We’ll turn to Haley Barbour next week, as we’ve promised for some time now.

As a primer, we recommend this text by Jamelle Bouie at Tapped. (She discusses Barbour’s recent statement about the cause of the Civil War, which occurred in the 1860s.) On balance, we agree with Bouie’s reaction, although we’d drop the Boss Hogg reference, which seems to be a tribal requirement. That said, a few commenters quickly rose in high-minded opposition.

We note the third commenter (the fourth comment) got a fact semi-wrong. We’ll guess he or she was misled by the misleading coverage we’ll discuss next week—the misleading coverage which occurred at a wide range of liberal sites.

For today, let’s close out the week of The Donald with a note on Jon Meacham, The Parson.

Donald Trump played the fool all week, in escalating fashion. He did a multi-night interview on The Factor, even discussing a range of top issues. His thundering dumbness was on full display. But we might pick this comic exchange as the dumbest of his presentations:

O'REILLY (3/30/11): All right, illegal immigration. How are we going to stop that?

TRUMP: Well, you either have a country or you don't. You either have a line and a boundary or you don't. Something has to be done.

O'REILLY: What?

TRUMP: Well, you put soldiers on that line.

O'REILLY: You militarize it.

TRUMP: Do you have a choice?

[…]

O'REILLY: OK. Now the 15 million illegal aliens already in the United States. What do you do with them?

TRUMP: I think right now you're going to have to do something and, you know, it's hard to generalize. But you're going to have to look at the individual people. See how they've done. See how productive they have been. See what their references are and then make a decision.

O'REILLY: And then make a decision. All right, on a case by case(Snidely) It’s going to take a long time and a lot of people.

TRUMP: A long time but— But you know, you have some great productive people that came in.

O'REILLY: No doubt.

TRUMP: And then you have some total disasters that probably should be in prison.

You’ll have to see what their references are! Apparently, Donald will interview each of the fifteen million, perhaps on a TV program. But then, every discussion he attempted was basically just that dumb:

O'REILLY (continuing directly): OK. Real quick, social issues. Abortion.

TRUMP: Right.

O'REILLY: You favor it?

TRUMP: No, I'm—as you know, I'm pro-life.

O'REILLY: Ok, so you're pro-life on abortion. But would you outlaw abortion?

TRUMP: Well, I'd, I'd go a step. I'd go a pretty strong step. Something I don't like, I used to not be pro-life. I have become pro-life. I have seen friends that had children that they didn't want. And now they have children and they are the apple of the eye.

So I really have changed in my views over the years but I am pro-life. I would—I would really– I'm forming an opinion, I'm forming a very strong opinion, but I'll let you know in about three or four weeks, if I decided it.

The man’s a relentless public fool. But The Donald is also a billionaire, so all good upper-end pseudo-journalists must defer in one way or another. These are the basic reigning values of your upper-end “press.”

This week, Mister O came the closest to telling Trump that he’s lying about Obama’s birth. As Donald rattled on about the troubling subject, O’Reilly finally told him, though a bit meekly: “I don't think you believe that…I think it's provocative, you get a lot of attention raising the question. But I don't think you believe it.”

Others found a range of ways to be polite about Trump’s conduct, in which millions of gullible people get conned and our discourse becomes a tribal mess. (In such ways, the plutocrats win.) This morning, The Parson thoughtfully joined the crowd, blaming it all on the voters.

You see, the Parson is a high-ranking man. Such men don’t criticize men like Trump. Men like the Parson don’t stand up and say: “Trump is deceiving millions of gullible voters—and Barbara Walters let him do it. Along with the numb-nuts Joy and Whoopi, who were dumb and unprepared, as they always are.”

People, it just isn’t done! So what did The Parson say instead on Morning Joe? Simple:

The birthers are “nativists,” nothing else, he declared, thus running to get in line with the herd. He said that is the only explanation for their dumb belief. He kicked down hard, and kissed ass looking up—looking up right at The Donald.

(And at the still-silent Barbara, who has never corrected the factual garbage Trump spewed out on her air. People! It just isn’t done!)

This is how men like the Parson proceed. Invitations hang in the balance! The Parson cleared his throat and declaimed.

The Parson seems to enjoy kicking down, not unlike the professor.

Special report: Your current society’s actual values!

PART 4—THE THINGS WE HADN’T HEARD (permalink): Who would have guessed it? Americans still know how to do investigative journalism!

USA Today deserves highest praise for its series on test score scams—rather, on one particular type of scam. (Other types exist.) The colorful paper’s most recent report may even lead to further knowledge about what happened in DC’s public schools!

Who knew that this kind of journalism could still be performed in this country?

That said, no report is perfect. There is one question we wish USA Today had addressed: Why did the number of “flagged” schools drop during Michelle Rhee’s three years? In 2008, McGraw-Hill flagged 96 DC schools for excessive wrong-to-right erasures. In 2009 and 2010, only 46 and 41 schools were flagged.

Does that mean that some sort of positive change was occurring behind the scenes? Or might it reflect the change in methodology USA Today mentioned, but didn’t attempt to explain? We wish the report tried to say.

Perhaps this question will be answered in the probe Rhee now supports with all her heart. For today, we hail the work by USA Today—and we marvel at the silence surrounding similar work by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

In yesterday’s HOWLER, we mentioned the multi-year cheating scandal afflicting Atlanta’s schools. Yesterday afternoon, we spent several hours reviewing some of the voluminous work the AJC has done.

We were stunned by the sweep of this lengthy scandal—and by the silence which has obtained all through the national press.

Good God. This has been a gigantic story. But it has been completely ignored by the Washington Post, a newspaper which has plainly become an arm of the national testing industry. Meanwhile, the story has been lightly covered by the New York Times, in a set of strange dispatches which include two of the most absurd “news reports” we’ve ever seen in print.

On Monday, USA Today included this companion story about Atlanta when it published its lengthy report on DC. (“In Georgia, test-answer erasures triggered criminal probe.”) But we were stunned by the work in the AJC, especially when that work is compared with the rank propaganda we read last summer in the New York Times.

We thought you should see a small sample of what has appeared in the Journal-Constitution, just in the past six months.

Oof! Last August, the New York Times published two absurd reports about the events in Atlanta. The second report, published on August 8, was a fawning profile of Beverly Hall, the system’s embattled superintendent. Five days earlier, the Times had published a bizarre report which downplayed the scope of the scandal.

But oof! On that very same August 8, the Journal-Constitution published its latest sweeping account of events. This is the way Alan Judd’s front-page report got started:

JUDD (8/8/10): Drive for scores had little restraint;
Probe reveals how far some went to post illusory test numbers.
Results rigged by clues given, answers changed.

When a teacher at Venetian Hills Elementary School heard that two other educators had helped students cheat on a standardized test, she went straight to an administrator.

The administrator's one-syllable response: "Shhhh."

With that, the teacher said nothing more—until this spring, when she was interviewed as part of an investigation into possible cheating at Venetian Hills and 57 other Atlanta schools.

Her tale, like dozens of others sprinkled through an investigative report released last week, provides new insight into a culture of dishonesty that apparently existed at many of the schools, where student achievement was sometimes promoted by any means necessary.

Teachers at some Atlanta schools, according to the report, whispered into students' ears and pointed to correct answers on the Criterion-Referenced Competency Test. At some schools, administrators grabbed stacks of test papers and changed wrong answers to right. Two schools kept students' test papers in their possession for three extra days; both later posted statistically improbable increases in CRCT scores, as did many other schools under scrutiny.

"The odds of the outcomes that were produced on those tests are so long, and so hard to believe, something had to have happened," Gary Price, chairman of a commission chosen by the Atlanta school district to investigate cheating allegations against Atlanta schools, said at a news conference last week.

Judd noted that this commission, the school district’s own, had focused on only a dozen schools. Judd further reported that these investigators “conducted only cursory reviews of most of the other 46 Atlanta schools flagged by the state last February,” even though “state officials had ordered a full investigation in Atlanta and 34 other Georgia districts where an analysis of erasures on test papers showed an unusual number of wrong-to-right changes.” Before recounting additional horror stories, Judd noted the following: “State officials indicated last week the investigation may be unsatisfactory because it did not address irregularities in hundreds of classrooms.”

At the New York Times, Shaila Dewan was ignoring almost all such concerns, instead “reporting” this strange pseudo-fact: “The Atlanta public school system was substantially vindicated Monday when the results of an independent investigation into cheating on standardized tests were released.” (Yesterday, we discussed the strange logic behind this odd assertion.)

Dewan said the investigation was conducted by “an independent commission”—by “a blue-ribbon commission appointed by a nonprofit education group.” Technically accurate? Maybe. In fact, the independence of the panel had been at issue from the day it was selected. And its members were selected under the direction of the Atlanta school board.

Back to the Journal-Constitution: Judd’s report was filled with horror stories from this commission’s report. On the same day, the Times was filling readers’ heads with tales of Dr. Hall’s greatness—and with demonized accounts of her snarling, unscrupulous critics.

Eleven days later, more news broke in the Journal-Constitution:

TORRES 8/19/10: Gov. Sonny Perdue took the extraordinary step Wednesday of announcing that a special investigator will look into the cheating scandal at Atlanta Public Schools, calling a local review "woefully inadequate both in scope and depth."

"This is about individual students being robbed and cheated of their one fair shot at a good education," said Perdue, who made the announcement Wednesday during a rare appearance before the state Board of Education.

[…]

Perdue's special investigator will have subpoena power, meaning he or she will be able to compel witnesses to testify. Under state law, an investigator can refer cases to local district attorneys or to the state Attorney General's Office for prosecution. State law prohibits falsifying state documents but there is no law specifically against cheating on tests.

One day before, the Journal-Constitution had reported a problem with Atlanta’s reported graduation rate, which had soared in recent years, producing talk of a “miracle.” It seemed that many dropouts had been incorrectly coded as transfers to other school districts, thus driving the apparent rate of graduation way up. (Between 2003 and 2005, “the district removed from its rosters roughly 16,000 high school students, state data shows, or 30 percent of all who were enrolled at some point during the school year. The graduation rate rose from 43 percent to 72 percent.”)

At the Times, the Atlanta story stopped dead at this point; the national newspaper rested its case with Dewan’s absurd reports in August. (The Times filed a 107-word brief about Perdue’s probe.) But in Atlanta, the gruesome reporting continued apace at the Journal-Constitution. In September, a federal probe was reported; federal authorities were “investigating whether Atlanta Public Schools committed fraud by illicitly boosting scores on standardized tests,” the paper wrote. (“If the schools are found to have earned [federal] extra grants through inflated scores, officials could face criminal charges.”) And the painful reporting has continued right up to the present. In December, a giant report alleged that Hall had been involved in wide-ranging attempts to suppress allegations of cheating (click here).

In January, a lengthy report described the way whistle-blowing teachers had been punished in some Atlanta schools (click this). In fact, the massive reporting has continued right through last weekend. This has been a massive, wide-ranging story about a matter of major national focus—unless you read the national press, where the story has barely appeared.

Should our major national papers have given this story more coverage? We’d say the answer is yes. High-stakes testing has become the focal point of America’s pitiful education discussion—and this remarkable, multi-year story helps display the problems involved in the way the use of this tool has evolved in recent years. We support annual testing ourselves; we can’t imagine running an urban school system without a (well-supervised) annual test. But at a time when every Tom, Dick, Harry, Bill and Michael parades about the land speaking of test scores, Atlanta’s miseries should have become a part of the nation’s debate.

What explains our hapless national education coverage? Next week, we’ll offer a few final thoughts; we’ll even consider that ludicrous interview staged by Charlie Rose. For today, let’s make a few final points about USA Today’s investigative reporting:

No reporting is perfect. Presumably, the Journal-Constitution hasn’t gotten everything right—and that story is still unfolding. The same thing is true in DC.

That said, who knew such detailed reporting was still allowed? And why not do this report next:

Isn’t it time the American people were allowed to hear the truth about those NAEP scores? On Monday night’s Tavis Smiley program, Rhee rattled on, saying this:

“If you look at the data over the last three decades, we've more than doubled the amount of money that we're spending in public education on schooling for our kids per pupil, and the results have at best stayed the same and in some cases have gotten worse.”

In fact, results have not “at best stayed the same” over the last three decades. For black kids and Hispanic kids, results are way, way up. But the public is aggressively kept from knowing.

Isn’t it time that changed?

Isn’t it time the American people were allowed to hear the truth about these matters? The Rhees and the Gateses (and the Ravitches) pretty much never stop their “no-score-gain” crap. Why can’t a big American paper do a set of real reports about what the NAEP scores really show?

As far as we have ever heard, cheating hasn’t occurred on the NAEP. (Until now, there has never been an incentive.) But that should be part of this big report too. Is this federal program intact?

Are people allowed to hear the truth? The Washington Post won’t tackle this task. Let’s hope USA Today will!

It had to happen: Inevitably, this had to happen. Back in September, Cynthia Tucker knew where Atlanta should turn:

TUCKER (9/8/10): WASHINGTON—Here in the nation's capital city, schoolchildren have improved their performance on standardized tests dramatically—without any hint of cheating or scandal. Over the past two years, for example, fourth-graders posted the fastest increase in reading scores of any big-city school system.

Officials in the District of Columbia have been working for several years to improve a public school system regarded as one of the worst in the nation. But the dramatic gains of the past two years are largely the work of one woman: schools chancellor Michelle Rhee.

Atlanta should of course hire Rhee. To Tucker, this made perfect sense!