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BEEN THERE! Because we’ve Been There, we can offer a few real-world suggestions: // link // print // previous // next //

Perchance to joke: John McCain’s recent demurral got so much play that even a high lady heard about it! This morning, Lady Collins muses about a great saint’s recent flip:

COLLINS (4/8/10): This week, John McCain rewrote his own political biography, telling Newsweek: “I never considered myself a maverick.”...

[I]f McCain wants to re-imagine the 2008 presidential campaign, he is free to give it a try. Although if you are planning to deny that you ever thought of yourself as a maverick, it would be better not to have subtitled one of your memoirs “The Education of an American Maverick.”

Collins can recall the 2008 campaign, and a book which appeared in 2002. In fact, McCain was first fluffed as a “maverick” in the New York Times as early as 1996. And this designation lay at the heart of his 2000 White House campaign, as the New York Times’ Alison Mitchell noted in December 1999:

MITCHELL (12/12/99): [The McCain] campaign telegraphs that the man is the message when it calls his campaign bus the “straight-talk express” and the plane for his announcement tour “Maverick One.”

That “straight talk” blarney was foolish, even then. (The press corps swallowed it whole, then begged for more.) But in those days, McCain really was a political maverick, and the press corps relentlessly pimped his vast greatness. That said, a tiny question entered our heads, when we saw that his recent demurral has grown so big that even Collins is writing about it. To wit:

Is it possible that McCain was joking, speaking tongue-in-cheek, when he made that statement to Newsweek? In fairness, we’d have to say yes.

McCain has been anything but a straight-talker in recent years. But then too, he has always spoken in tongue-in-cheek, wink-wink fashion to legions of fawning reporters. And we think you know how that sorry breed works: When they love you, as they loved Saint McCain, they dote on every whimsical nuance, using your wit to help the public understand your eternal greatness. But when they abandon you—and they’ve largely dumped McCain—they will often play their small tricks. And one of their tricks is famous: If they no longer like you, they love to report your joking remarks as if they were offered straight.

Was McCain joking? We have no idea. You’d really have to look at the tape—and no tape has been supplied.

That said, we were struck by Digby’s recent post about the pimping of Saint Petraeus as a possible White House contender. In this case, Petraeus is being pimped Over There, in the pages of the Telegraph. But in that UK paper, Toby Hamden was praying that Saint Petraeus might run against Fallen Obama. (“Speculation about ‘Petraeus in 2012' persists.”) We were struck by the way Hamden’s piece faithfully recycled the standard dime novel which drove Campaign 2000:

HAMDEN (4/3/10): Americans have never been so disgusted with their politicians. More than three-quarters of Americans disapprove of Congress. President Barack Obama's favourability ratings have slumped to below 50 per cent and he is no longer trusted or believed by many who voted for him.

Republicans are faring little better and the growth of the Tea Party movement reflects the widespread disgust with Washington and the political class. Incumbents across the board are vulnerable in November's mid-term elections.

Many voters yearn for an outsider, someone with authenticity, integrity and proven accomplishment. Someone who has not spent their life plotting how to ascend the greasy pole, adjusting every utterance for maximum political advantage.

In this toxic climate, perhaps the only public institution that has increased in prestige in recent years is the American military. Its officers are looked upon, as General George Patton once noted, as "the modern representatives of the demi-gods and heroes of antiquity".

Where better to look for Obama's successor, therefore, than in the uniformed ranks? Not since 1952, when a certain Dwight Eisenhower, Supreme Commander of Allied Forces in Europe during the Second World War, was elected President, have the chances of a military man winning the White House been more propitious.

Within those ranks, no one stands out like General David Petraeus...

Hamden begs Saint Petraeus to challenge the fallen Obama. (Presumably, this isn’t Petraeus’ doing.) But Hamden’s novel is drawn, almost word-for-word, from the novel the press corps endlessly churned in 1998 and 1999, cheering Saints Bradley/McCain against Fallen Clinton and Gore.

According to Hamden, Americans are disgusted with their politicians, including Obama. They long for someone with “authenticity,” “integrity”—someone who hasn’t spent his whole life chasing political success. This is precisely the silly dime novel which began to appear in 1998, as the press corps scrounged for ways to get rid of Clinton and Gore. Below, check the late Jack Newfield, a certified Bradley hack, in the New York Post, urging Bradley to run against Gore. Every key part of Hamden’s piece exists in this earlier novel:

NEWFIELD (10/26/98): He holds no public office, having quit the Senate. He makes fun of himself as a boring public speaker. And he lacks the ruthless ambition of Clinton and Gore, who knew they wanted to be president at 16.

But Bill Bradley's particular virtues do seem to match this moment of disgust with sleaze, slickness, lying and excess.

He does have integrity, intellect, empathy, self-knowledge, authenticity, discipline, curiosity, respect for opponents. And a life before politics that makes him a whole human being.

The 24-second clock is winding down, Bill. Don't pass. Take the shot.

Then as now: In a moment of disgust with sleaze, Bradley was full of “integrity,” “authenticity.” He hadn’t spent his whole life chasing the golden ring, as Clinton and Gore had done.

For the record, that last claim was just absolute nonsense. Few politicians have ever sought office more aggressively, from an earlier age, than Bill Bradley did. (There was nothing wrong with that.) But Newfield composed a pleasing novel—and one year later, in Newsweek, Howard Fineman, a virtual Bradley employee, basically rewrote Newfield’s work, tossing McCain in as well:

FINEMAN (11/15/99):This is shaping up as the year of the straight shooter—slickly packaged to sell. Character is always important in presidential politics, but in the 2000 campaign the personalities of the candidates may count more than ever before as other familiar issues fade...

Skillfully, sometimes too eagerly, Bradley and McCain are hawking this year's hottest commodity: the aura of authenticity—and plain-spoken candor—that comes from a life that starts outside politics. Bill Clinton was the ultimate other directed political figure, a changeling searching for identity and affirmation in shaking hands and winning votes. He's left voters exhausted and jaded by the mechanics of politics—the polling, the fund-raising, the negative ads. But if every presidential election is a course correction, there may now be a growing demand for someone who learned to steer by his own compass. Voters will respond to someone who seems comfortable with himself, says Douglas Bailey, founder of The Hotline, a political newsletter. Bradley and McCain convey that sense. They've confronted very big things, and don't seem to need to win to be complete.

By contrast, Al Gore and George Bush do.

Synopsis: “Bradley and McCain are selling this year's hottest commodity: the aura of authenticity that comes from a life that starts outside politics.”

Again, a great deal of that is utter bunk, but the novel remained the same. The public was sick of Bill Clinton’s sleaze. Luckily, Bradley and McCain were full of “authenticity,” “candor.” They hadn’t lived their whole lives to win this race. They didn’t need to win to be complete, the way Vile Gore/Bush did.

(Once Bush beat McCain, this novel was updated. Now, it was Bush who didn’t need to win to be complete, although Vile Gore still did. By the way: Pundits often compared Bush to Eisenhower, in favorable ways. This comparison resurfaces in Hamden’s retyped novel.)

At any rate, that’s the way the press corps’ dime novels sold Saint Bradley/McCain as opposed to Vile Clinton/Gore. Today, Hamden types the same novel about Petraeus/Obama. Once again, a basic proposition: A great deal of our political “journalism” is a set of silly, inane romance novels.

Back to McCain’s ballyhooed demurral: They loved McCain in those days. They loved his playful, tongue-in-cheek, winking comments. Did a former saint wink at Newsweek last week?

Knowing these scribes as we do, we make the odds 30 percent.

Special report: Ravished by Ravitch!

PART 4—HAVING BEEN THERE (permalink): At the end of last Friday’s op-ed column, Diane Ravitch sketched her vision of where we should take things from here. As a full-fledged educational expert, she continued to write in the style perfected by Chance the Gardner (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 4/6/10):

RAVITCH (4/2/10): 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.

If we are serious about school reform, we will look for long-term solutions, not quick fixes.

We wasted eight years with the "measure and punish" strategy of NCLB. Let's not waste the next eight years.

Let’s see if we have this straight. According to Ravitch, “we must improve the schools where performance is poor.” We should “look for long-term solutions.”

If we’re reading her correctly, we shouldn’t waste the next several years.

In fairness, we tend to agree with one suggestion, though it’s hopelessly vague—we shouldn’t build accountability efforts around punishment. On the other hand, if someone could propose a “quick fix” for our schools, we would be inclined to take it. If not, we’d be wasting years.

Does Ravitch know what she’s talking about? We’ve wasted the last eight years, she says—but the NAEP data to which she provided a link suggests that American kids have made great strides in math over that period. (See THE DAILY HOWLER, 4/7/10. Fourth-graders also seem to have advanced in reading.) At the fourth-grade level, black kids gained nineteen points in math on the NAEP from 2000 to 2009; in eighth grade, black kids gained seventeen points. Given the rough rule of thumb which is often applied to scores on this test, those seem to be significant gains. Someday, some major newspaper will get off its *ss and ask real experts to comment.

When it comes to those frequently-cited NAEP data, we will keep begging for actual journalism. But given those apparent gains, does it really seem that recent years have been wasted? What would make an “educational expert” make such a claim? We’re not sure, but as we’ve long noted, our “educational experts” rarely seem to know their keisters from the key-holes at their foundations, universities, think-tanks. As a final illustration of this problem, let’s review something Ravitch said right in her opening paragraph.

In this passage, Ravitch describes the days when she herself was a leading player in the accountability movement:

RAVITCH (4/2/10): I used to be a strong supporter of school accountability and choice. But in recent years, it became clear to me that these strategies were not working. The federal No Child Left Behind (NCLB) program enacted in 2002 did not produce large gains in reading and math. The gains in math were larger before the law was implemented, and the most recent national tests showed that eighth-grade students have made no improvement in reading since 1998. By mandating a utopian goal of 100 percent proficiency, the law encouraged states to lower their standards and make false claims of progress. Worse, the law stigmatized schools that could not meet its unrealistic expectation.

Gee! No one could have foreseen the potential problems involved in the drive to mandate super-high-stakes testing! More specifically:

No one could have foreseen the possibility that teachers and principals might start to cheat as increasing pressure was placed on these tests. (Note: We’re speaking here about state-run “proficiency” tests, not about the NAEP, which has never been used for accountability purposes—at least, not until recently.) No one could have foreseen the sheer nonsense involved when fifty different sets of tests all claimed to measure “proficiency,” in the absence of any requirement that states define how “proficient” a child had to be to pass its math/reading tests. And no one could have imagined that states would start to “dumb down” their tests—would make their tests easier over time, thereby creating artificial gains in “proficiency” rates. No one could have foreseen such problems—at least, no educational expert, pronouncing loftily from some Washington (or Manhattan) aerie.

(Again: No one has ever suggested that the NAEP, a federal program, has ever been “dumbed down.”)

In fact, anyone with an ounce of sense could have seen the potential problems involved in the drive to put more pressure on testing—or perhaps we should say, anyone who had actually Been There, anyone who had spent real time inside the nation’s schools. For ourselves, we started teaching in Baltimore in the fall of 1969; by 1971, we were aware of the outright cheating going on in certain schools as part of Baltimore’s testing program. (Duh. We wrote columns in the Baltimore Sun about these problems before the decade was done.) But educational experts often drifted through life. In Ravitch’s case, she threw off one set of prescriptions, failing to foresee the “false claims of progress.” Now, she does a near-180, throwing off a new set of suggestions derived from the film, Being There.

She tells us the last eight years have been wasted. But has she looked at those NAEP test scores? What do those score gains mean?

Ravitch says the last decade was wasted—the decade her own advice helped create. We would suggest that the very NAEP scores to which she linked suggest a less gloomy picture. That said, we ourselves would be embarrassed to throw off the vague new prescriptions Ravitch advances. We need better teachers, she says. They should teach history! And science!

Inspection teams should go into low-scoring schools! They should come up with plans!

Until experts explain those rising NAEP scores, we would suggest that something seems to be working inside our schools. Beyond that, because we’ve actually Been There, we would offer two specific suggestions about where we should go from here:

With regard to testing: We will continue to test each year; we can’t imagine doing otherwise. But: If we’re going to build accountability pressures around these annual tests, we have to create security measures to make sure that teachers and principals don’t cheat. (For the record, we’re speaking here about flat-out “cheating.” We don’t mean “teaching to the test.”) We favor annual testing ourselves. But teachers, principals, and entire school systems began to cheat on their annual tests long ago. Only a full-fledged “educational expert” could start to notice this now.

With regard to instruction: On last night’s NewsHour, New Orleans superintendent Paul Vallas described the challenges his school system faces (click here). The segment was hosted by John Merrow, who has been doing excellent work about public schools on the NewsHour:

MERROW (4/7/10): When school superintendent Paul Vallas arrived in New Orleans three years ago, he faced a tough challenge: how to educate students who are way behind academically or who have gotten in trouble with the law.

This school, Booker T. Washington, was designed for teenagers who are performing at an elementary school level. Although three-fourths of students in Vallas' district are at least one grade level behind, here, the problem is extreme.

VALLAS: I have got 16-year-old seventh-graders and 17-year-old eighth-graders and 18-year-old ninth-graders who are reading at the third- or fourth-grade reading level. Those are—those are tremendous challenges.

Moments later, Merrow played tape of this school’s principal, who seemed to be in a bit of denial. She said the school is trying to help students develop “a mind-set of...wanting to learn, even though they may be three and four grades below or behind their age level.” Are these kids eight to ten years behind, or just three or four? In either case, kids like this need, and deserve, special attention from their very first years in school.

Based on what we saw when we Were There, this is what we’d like to see: We’d like to see grade school kids who are several years “behind” get the chance to be immersed in the world of reading. When they’re taught history, we’d like to see them handed readable text books—but we’d also like to see them get the chance to read tons of readable biographies, and lots of readable historical novels, and specialized books about specialized historical topics. We’d like to see them swimming in maps. Every time they take a book from a crowded shelf, we’d like to see ten more fall on their heads.

Trust us: Grade school kids who are years behind will immerse themselves in reading, if they’re given the chance. They will sit on little chairs and gravely, politely read to each other, as their middle-class peers did many years before. But the society has to develop reading materials which are appropriate for these delightful, deserving children. We’d like to see these children in classrooms which swim with reading materials like that.

If we could wave a magic wand and make that situation exist, how would that affect future reading scores? We have no idea. But: Having Been There, we can at least make this fairly specific suggestion. By way of contrast, Ravitch’s suggestions read like out-take from the film, Being There.

Inspection teams should come up with plans! How does this crap get in print?

We think that column was quite instructive. For our money, it typifies the groaning discussion of public schools in this country. And by the way, where are the liberals? Tomorrow, our musing ends.

Tomorrow: Our tribe quit long ago.