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BEING HERE! Our analysts thought of Chance the Gardner as Ravitch changed course on the schools: // link // print // previous // next //
TUESDAY, APRIL 6, 2010

The politics of cable: In theory, news programs exist to deliver the news, not to play party/ideological politics. That said, we thought of the politics of cable early this morning, as we flipped between a rerun of Countdown and a live presentation on Fox.

But first: Does anybody doctor quotes as persistently as Rachel Maddow?

On Sunday, Senator Jon Kyl (R-Arizona) appeared on Fox News Sunday, in tandem with Arlen Specter. Late in the segment, Kyl was asked if he would pledge that the GOP won’t filibuster Obama’s next Supreme Court appointment. What follows is the full Q-and-A. We highlight the part of Kyl’s answer that will turn out to be relevant:

WALLACE (4/4/10): Senator Kyl, your thoughts about a nominee for the Court. And are you willing— Because Senator Specter brought it up, are you willing to pledge right now that the GOP will not filibuster whoever the president nominates?

KYL: It'll all depend on what kind of a person it is.

I am a little troubled by what Arlen said. He wants somebody who—and then he named two or three positions that he wants that person to take—to be tough on executive powers, for example.

I want a judge who will read the law and declare it in each case that comes before him or her, as it should be. In other words, don't have somebody coming in with preconceived attitudes; I'm going to be tough on the executive, or I'm going to be for the little guy, or whatever their preconceived attitudes are. We've had too much of that.

What we want is a judge who will read the law in any particular case. And as Justice Roberts said during his confirmation, if the law is on the side of the little guy, the little guy wins. If it's on the side of the big guy, the big guy should win. And that's what we want in our judges.

I think the president will nominate a qualified person. I hope, however, he does not nominate an overly ideological person. That will be the test. And if he doesn't nominate someone who is overly ideological, I don't think—you may see Republicans voting against the nominee, but I don't think you'll see them engage in a filibuster.

You can paraphrase that last paragraph as you like. But last night, Maddow played videotape of that passage, “editing” it in a way that let her play you for fools. You’ll have to read the full transcript of last night’s show to see how absurd (and dishonest) her full presentation on this topic was. (Not yet available publicly as we post.) But in the following passage, you gaze on the work of a consummate hack:

MADDOW (4/5/10): Actually, there’s not even a vacancy yet. Oh. Never mind, though. Republicans are letting it be known that they may filibuster this nominee who doesn’t exist. Republicans are prepared to go to unprecedented lengths to stop this nominee who doesn’t exist for filling a vacancy that doesn’t exist.

(videotape)

WALLACE: Are you willing to pledge right now that the GOP will not filibuster whoever the president nominates?

KYL: It will all depend on what kind of a person it is. I think the president will nominate a qualified person. I hope, however, he does not nominate an overly ideological person. That will be the test.

(end videotape)

MADDOW: Here’s the thing: the justice who might retire is John Paul Stevens. He’s a liberal. Barack Obama is, therefore, very likely to replace him with a liberal so that the balance of the court won’t change. And frankly, it may be a little unreasonable to expect a Democratic president to replace a liberal Supreme Court justice, with, say, a conservative who would move the court dramatically to the right. But who here is willing to bet that being a liberal is going to be enough to meet Jon Kyl’s definition of someone who is so overly ideological that they must be filibustered?

That’s a very dumb piece of commentary; Maddow’s full, quite-lengthy segment is even dumber still. But note the way Kyl’s answer was “edited.” Maddow was careful to “edit” the part where Kyl seemed to say that he doesn’t expect a filibuster. Soon, Maddow was thundering thusly to Senator Amy Klobuchar, her thoroughly pandered-to guest::

MADDOW: Senator, I think it’s not an accident that it was Senator Jon Kyl this weekend who floated the idea of again, filibustering a nonexistent nominee for a vacancy that doesn’t exist, because he’s already outraged by the prospect of this nonexistent person.

Had Kyl “floated the idea” of a filibuster “because he’s already outraged by the prospect of this nonexistent person?” Sorry—that’s perfect crap, of the type Maddow has patented. In the most obvious sense, Kyl “floated the idea” because he was asked a question by Wallace. And Maddow had disappeared the part of Kyl’s answer which would have undercut her thoroughly childish “analysis.” But this is Maddow—one of the worst ever dragged onto cable. We’ll guess it’s inexperience and tribal temperament more than simple dishonesty. But Maddow is truly one of the worst. She rarely permits you the truth.

That said, we thought of the politics of cable this morning:

At 1 AM, we saw Fox run a live, 11-minute update about those coal miners in West Virginia. At the same time, MSNBC was re-airing Countdown, as it always does at this time. This included a childish tease, right at the start of the program, in which Olbermann slipped in a few of his standard double entendre dick jokes—this time about a few non-sexual things Tiger Woods said at yesterday’s press conference.

There was nothing “wrong” with re-airing Countdown, as MSNBC always does at this time. But we couldn’t help thinking what viewers saw if they flipped between these two channels. They saw that Fox had thrown away its scheduled programming to attend to the life and death of coal miners. At the same time, they saw our own side’s biggest buffoon telling his endless dick jokes.

Why do working-class white voters tilt toward Fox? Really? Do we have to explain?

Special report: Ravished by Ravitch!

PART 2—BEING HERE (permalink): It’s natural to turn to “experts” for sources of illumination. This is especially natural in areas which matter deeply, like the operation of our schools. Indisputably, Diane Ravitch is an educational expert—a person who has played a leading role in the educational debates of the past several decades. Rather plainly, she’s a decent, caring person—a person who would like to find ways to serve the children well.

For these reasons, it’s understandable when people like Mary Elizabeth Williams give their attention to Ravitch and her new book (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 4/5/10). But uh-oh! Ravitch now says that her judgments were largely wrong in the past several decades. “I used to be a strong supporter of school accountability and choice,” she writes at the start of Friday’s op-ed column in the Washington Post. “But in recent years, it became clear to me that these strategies were not working.”

By her own account, Ravitch’s judgments have turned out to be (largely) wrong. Should we assume that her expert judgment has suddenly gotten better? Given this recent history, we’d be inclined to trust but verify—to rein in any high expectations. And nothing we saw in Ravitch’s op-ed column would make us rethink that stance.

Tomorrow, we’ll look at a statistical claim which anchored Ravitch’s column. Today, let’s look at the list of basic proposals which anchors her new approach. “It is time to change course,” Ravitch says in her column. She then offers a list of approaches. Below, we list the first five:

RAVITCH (4/2/10): To begin with, let's agree that a good education encompasses far more than just basic skills. A good education involves learning history, geography, civics, the arts, science, literature and foreign language. Schools should be expected to teach these subjects even if students are not tested on them.

Everyone agrees that good education requires good teachers. To get good teachers, states should insist—and the federal government should demand—that all new teachers have a major in the subject they expect to teach or preferably a strong educational background in two subjects, such as mathematics and music or history and literature. Every state should expect teachers to pass a rigorous examination in the subjects they will teach, as well as a general examination to demonstrate their literacy and numeracy.

We need principals who are master teachers, not inexperienced teachers who took a course called "How to Be a Leader." The principal is expected to evaluate teachers, to decide who deserves tenure and to help those who are struggling and trying to improve. If the principal is not a master teacher, he or she will not be able to perform the most crucial functions of the job.

We need superintendents who are experienced educators because their decisions about personnel, curriculum and instruction affect the entire school system. If they lack experience, they will not be qualified to select the best principals or the best curricula for their districts.

We need assessments that gauge students' understanding and require them to demonstrate what they know, not tests that allow students to rely solely on guessing and picking one among four canned answers.

By simple word-count, this represents about one-third of Ravitch’s column. In this chunk of her column, we are told that we need good teachers; we need experienced principals; and we need experienced superintendents. And not only that! Those good teachers should teach such subjects as history and science. We should avoid using assessments (tests) which allow students to rely solely on guessing.

Did Chance the Gardner write this column? (Chance was the Peter Sellers character in the film, Being There.) If one chose to be argumentative, he might even say something like this: Only in a fallen press corps would a major newspaper put such piffle in print.

(By the way: When did anyone ever use a test which “allowed students to rely solely on guessing?” Presumably, the answer is obvious—never. What does it mean when such a proffer escapes the editing process?)

We need to hire good teachers! They should teach history and science! For our money, Ravitch’s proposals only get a bit less underwhelming as she proceeds, although we tend to agree with the thrust of the things she says here:

RAVITCH (continuing directly): We should stop using the term "failing schools" to describe schools where test scores are low. Usually, a school has low test scores because it enrolls a disproportionately large number of low-performing students. Among its students may be many who do not speak or read English, who live in poverty, who miss school frequently because they must baby-sit while their parents look for work, or who have disabilities that interfere with their learning. These are not excuses for their low scores but facts about their lives.

Instead of closing such schools and firing their staffs, every state should have inspection teams that spend time in every low-performing school and diagnose its problems. Some may be mitigated with extra teachers, extra bilingual staff, an after-school program or other resources. The inspection team may find that the school was turned into a dumping ground by district officials to make other schools look better. It may find a heroic staff that is doing well under adverse circumstances and needs help. Whatever the cause of low performance, the inspection team should create a plan to improve the school.

Only in rare circumstances should a school be closed. In many poor communities, schools are the most stable institution. Closing them destroys the fabric of the community.

We must break free of the NCLB mind-set that makes accountability synonymous with punishment. As we seek to rebuild our education system, we must improve the schools where performance is poor, not punish them.

We agree with the general thrust of this passage, and yet the scent of Chance lingers. After explaining the blindingly obvious—many low-scoring schools serve populations of low-income kids—Ravitch offers more Gardnerisms. “We must improve the schools where performance is poor,” she advises. But not before offering this prime nonsense: “Usually, a school has low test scores because it enrolls a disproportionately large number of low-performing students.”

Is this the face of educational expertise? Let’s consider what Ravitch says in this passage in a bit more detail.

First, we agree with one basic point from this passage: “Only in rare circumstances should a [low-scoring] school be closed.” That said, how often have any public schools been closed due to low test scores? This is a type of threat which has sometimes been offered by “strong supporters of school accountability.” But how often has this threat been executed? As far as we know, quite rarely.

More significantly, consider what Ravitch says about the way we should help “schools where test scores are low.” Once again, this is what she says we should do with such schools:

RAVITCH: Instead of closing such schools and firing their staffs, every state should have inspection teams that spend time in every low-performing school and diagnose its problems. Some may be mitigated with extra teachers, extra bilingual staff, an after-school program or other resources. The inspection team may find that the school was turned into a dumping ground by district officials to make other schools look better. It may find a heroic staff that is doing well under adverse circumstances and needs help. Whatever the cause of low performance, the inspection team should create a plan to improve the school.

According to Ravitch, “every state should have inspection teams [which] diagnose what is wrong in these schools.” (As she ends, another Gardnerism: “Whatever the cause of low performance, the inspection team should create a plan to improve the school.”) But please note: As Ravitch has explained in her previous paragraph, the thing that is “wrong” with these schools will routinely involve matters of demographics: Often, the children in these schools will come from low-income, low-literacy, non-English speaking backgrounds. Question: When those “inspection teams” survey these types of schools, what type of “plan” should they create? In more than 800 words, Ravitch makes only the most Gardeneristic attempts to answer this question. (Extra bilingual staff! An after-school program! And even this: “Other resources!”)

Surely, no one but an expert would think of solutions like those. What should teachers of delightful, deserving low-income kids do to address their academic problems? In a familiar bit of evasion, Ravitch doesn’t say.

With apologies to Williams, who has given Ravitch her full attention: After all these years—after all these decades—we find this type of column repellent. We’ve been reading columns like this for forty years—columns in which “educational experts” play the Gardner role, pretending that they have ideas for ways to help low-income kids. How should we help low-income kids? Under the previous Ravitch regime—the regime built around accountability and standards—the answer to this was fairly simple: We should threaten teachers with getting fired, and they will somehow magically figure how to get test scores up. In this new regime by Ravitch, the solution is no less magical. We’re now supposed to send “inspections teams” into these schools, and they will come up with a plan! But what sorts of proposals will be in their plans? Like “educational experts” of time immemorial, Ravitch doesn’t much say. And by the way: The various states simply don’t have such “inspections teams”—teams can somehow magically say how a low-income school can get right. These teams of savants simply don’t exist—except as a novelistic devise to let Ravitch continue to pose as an expert.

We’re certain that Ravitch is well-intentioned. But at some point in time, work like this becomes repellent. Unhelpful too are the liberal saps who line up to drink this Gardneresque stew. Also unhelpful: The familiar data-spinning found at the start of Ravitch’s piece. But when the lives of low-income kids are at stake, work like this—cheered on by liberals—has been the norm for years.

TOMORROW—PART 3: About that statistic