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Daily Howler: When deserving kids are years behind, simple logic may stop making sense
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THE LOGIC OF FAILURE (PART 1)! When deserving kids are years behind, simple logic may stop making sense: // link // print // previous // next //

WHO’S EXAGGERATING NOW: Yesterday, we said the Washington Post was spinning the facts about that National Intelligence Estimate (NIE)—the one Bush declassified in July 2003, the one Scooter Libby discussed with Judith Miller ten days before that (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 4/10/06). But holy cow! Even we were unprepared for where the Big Clowning would take us. How bad would the factual bungling get? Our analysts nearly fell off their chairs when they heard David Shuster say the following on last evening’s Hardball:
SHUSTER (4/10/06): Based on Libby’s grand jury testimony, much of what Libby told New York Times reporter Judith Miller about the intelligence document was wrong.

In their crucial July 8, 2003 meeting, Libby told her, quote, “one key judgment of the NIE held that Iraq was vigorously trying to procure uranium.” But that was not a judgment at all, much less a key judgment, according to CIA officials who wrote the document. And they said the "vigorously trying to pursue" language was not in the document at all.

In other words, it may have been the same selective use of intelligence to justify the war that was used to sell the war. Ignoring the views of several government agencies, while accepting the views of one.

Say what? The claim that Iraq had been “vigorously trying to procure uranium” wasn’t in the NIE at all? Shuster’s statement was amazingly wrong; as we noted in yesterday’s HOWLER, the NIE stated (on page 24) that Iraq had been “vigorously trying to procure uranium ore and yellowcake; acquiring either would shorten the time Baghdad needs to produce nuclear weapons” (click here, then scroll down). Somehow, Shuster had managed to bungle this elementary fact. And omigod! An hour later, MSNBC sports expert Keith Olbermann bungled it too:
OLBERMANN (4/10/06): According to the testimony of the former New York Times reporter Judith Miller, Mr. Libby exaggerated—if not outright lied—about the importance of the Niger connection in the NIE, telling her it was a “key judgment” of the document and that Iraq was, quote, vigorously trying to obtain uranium. In fact, the claim was not a judgment at all, and the NIE contained nothing about Iraq vigorously pursuing uranium.
Good grief! But then, this is the process we warned you about when it began at the end of last week. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 4/8/06.

“The NIE contained nothing about Iraq vigorously pursuing uranium?” How did Shuster and Olbermann manage to get this simple fact so totally wrong? We don’t know, but as we noted yesterday, a reader could well have gotten this false impression from Walter Pincus’ misleading account in the Post. Here’s what Pincus wrote:

PINCUS (4/10/06): Some of Libby's comments about the NIE that he made to reporter Judith Miller, then of the New York Times, on July 8, 2003, were inaccurate. Libby said one "key judgment of the NIE held that Iraq was 'vigorously trying to procure' uranium." That was not an NIE key judgment, and the CIA officials who wrote the document disputed that statement. The “vigorously trying to procure” quote came from an unconfirmed Defense Intelligence Agency report from early 2002 that had caught Cheney’s eye.
Reading Pincus, one could easily get the impression that the “vigorously trying to procure” quote wasn’t in the NIE at all. Pincus’ presentation was grossly misleading—and it seems that it may have reeled in a pair of marks, Shuster and Olbermann.

For ourselves, we’re not hugely engaged by this current flap. We think it’s good that the Bush Admin declassified the NIE, and we don’t think it’s all that shocking that Libby discussed the material with Miller before the report became public. Beyond that, we don’t think that Libby’s alleged “selectivity” in what he told Miller is all that shocking either (reasons for that below). That in mind, note one more distortion in Shuster’s report. He gives the impression that he’s quoting what Libby said to Miller; in fact, he’s quoting Patrick Fitzgerald’s paraphrase of what Libby supposedly said. There’s no tape of transcript of what Libby told Miller; for that reason, we think it’s hard to say just how “wrong” his statements to Miller actually were. And no, we don’t think it’s all that clear that his characterizations of the NIE were wrong. Again, more on that below.

We’re not sure how to judge what Libby told Miller. But it’s easy to judge last night’s statements; Shuster and Olbermann were cosmically wrong in their televised comments. By the way, this highlights something we recently said about Olbermann (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 4/3/06). Maybe if he spent his afternoons prepping for his program instead of talking sports on the radio, Olbermann could step up to the plate each night and air a competent, thorough news program. Last night, he totally bungled this elementary fact, then presented a strikingly short and lazy segment on the immigration demonstrations. It was total fluff and filler after that (as it is every evening—unless, of course, you need to know where Angelina will have her baby). We think liberals deserve better fare when they watch this important news program. Olbermann is paid a very good penny for hosting this important show. We think he should get off his overpaid keister and prepare himself for his program.

NOTE ON PINCUS: This passage from Pincus appeared in the early editions of yesterday’s Post. (Our hard copy sits before us.) The final sentence of the paragraph was deleted in the paper’s later editions—presumably because it’s so misleading. Yesterday, we cut-and-pasted the shortened version (from Nexis) without realizing that it had been edited down. Today, we’ve changed yesterday’s post to reflect the original Pincus text—the report we were actually reading when we penned yesterday’s HOWLER.

HOW WRONG WAS SCOOTER: Was Iraq really pursuing uranium, in a vigorous or even a lazy manner? We don’t have the slightest idea; no strong evidence has ever been presented, but the Blair Admin stands by its claims. That said, what role did this shaky claim play in the actual NIE? It all depends on how you read it. As we noted yesterday, the following statement is in fact taken from one of the document’s “key judgments:”

NATIONAL INTELLIGENCE ESTIMATE: Although we assess that Saddam does not yet have nuclear weapons or sufficient material to make any, he remains intent on acquiring them.
Is “sufficient material” a reference to uranium? We don’t know, but that seems like a sensible reading. And yes, this is from the NIE’s “key judgments.” If that is a reference to uranium, then Libby’s alleged statement to Miller about the “key judgments” wouldn’t necessarily be wrong (depending on what “them” means). Remember: We have no tape of what Libby told Miller. We only have Fitzgerald’s imprecise paraphrase of what Libby later testified that he said.

Meanwhile, a reader notes that “fissile material” is different from “uranium ore.” That said, here’s another of the NIE’s “key judgments,” as we noted yesterday:

NATIONAL INTELLIGENCE ESTIMATE: If Baghdad acquires sufficient fissile material from abroad it could make a nuclear weapon within several months to a year.
Big difference! According to this key judgment, Iraq wasn’t seeking uranium from abroad. It was just seeking fissile material!

Short story: The NIE did state, as a key judgment, that Iraq was “reconstituting its nuclear weapons program.” To the extent that the Bush Admin believed that, it was a serious concern (though not worth going to war about, in our view). That said, we’d have to say that the current excitement recapitulates a long, tiring story, in which we liberals focus on Wilson-related stories to the exclusion of other, more straightforward matters. (Example: Murray Waas’ recent report on aluminum tubes has been wiped off the map by the new Wilson craze.) In fact, there was material in the NIE which, taken on its face, would have justified concern about Iraq—and Libby’s alleged exaggerations to Miller don’t strike us as especially grave. But around the liberal web—and now, in the mainstream press—misstatements and spinning are all the rage. Yesterday, Pincus started the process. Shuster and Olbermann finished it.

Last night, Olbermann—calling Libby a liar—completely bungled this story’s elementary facts. As we’ve said: We think liberals deserve a more serious effort when they watch this important news program. Of course, Keith is prepared about Barry Bonds. You do get the full story there.

Special report—The logic of failure!

PART 1—WHEN REMEDIES (SEEM TO) MAKE SENSE: How can American public schools help struggling, low-income kids learn to read? Our own experience in low-income classrooms convinces us of one basic notion—surface logic will often be stood on its head when observers try to answer such questions. The problem? It can be very hard for observers to grasp an elementary fact—many deserving, low-income students are years below traditional grade level. That’s why we constantly post that passage from that latest new study:

CENTER FOR AMERICAN PROGRESS: Young low-income and minority children are more likely to start school without having gained important school readiness skills, such as recognizing letters and counting...By the fourth grade, low-income students read about three grade levels behind non-poor students.
No, it isn’t true that all low-income kids are “three grades behind” by the time of fourth grade. But many such kids are far behind—and the surface logic of conventional remedies is often undone by this fact.

Consider the remedies offered by No Child Left Behind to kids who attend low-scoring schools. These remedies seem to make perfect sense. But it isn’t clear that they actually do. A brief report in last Thursday’s Times helps us grasp this intriguing fact.

In her report, Susan Saulny reported on a speech by Education Secretary Margaret Spellings. “Few Students Seek Free Tutoring or Transfers From Failing Schools,” the headline read. According to Spellings, children are failing to take advantage of the remedies they have been offered:

SAULNY (4/6/06): Only a small fraction of public school students who were eligible last year for free tutoring or for transfers out of failing schools under federal law received those options, the Department of Education reported yesterday. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings threatened to withhold federal money from states that did not make students aware of their choices.
Under terms of No Child Left Behind, students who go to low-scoring schools (called “failing” schools in this report) are offered two logical remedies. First, they’re eligible for free tutoring. (For the record, this tutoring is only “free” to the student. The tutoring, provided by outside contractors, can cost the federal government as much as $1800 per child, Saulny said.) And if free tutoring isn’t enough, students are given a second option; they can transfer out of their low-scoring school altogether. But uh-oh! According to Spellings, small percentages of eligible students are making use of these programs:
SAULNY (continuing directly): The department, in a wide-ranging assessment of student achievement under President Bush's signature education law, No Child Left Behind, found that only 17 percent of eligible students signed up for free tutoring in the last school year. And of the four million students who could have transferred out of struggling schools, only 38,000—fewer than 1 percent—did. That was a step up from the year before but far from what was envisioned under the law.
Fewer than one percent of the eligible students chose to transfer to other schools. And only 17 percent of such students had signed up for the free tutors.

If you’re a “logical” person, this sounds like a lousy outcome. Thanks to the terms of No Child Left Behind, students in low-scoring schools are offered two perfectly logical remedies—and the vast majority of students aren’t buying, even though the offers are free. Indeed, Saulny said that Spellings regards these as “disappointing results.” And the Ed Sec criticized low-scoring schools for failing to encourage participation, at least in the school transfer option:

SAULNY: ''More than half of school districts didn't even tell parents that their children were eligible for these options until after the school year had already started,'' she said, referring to transfers. ''That delay makes it virtually impossible for students to transfer schools without disrupting their education. And that's unacceptable.''

She continued: ''We want to ensure that districts are living up to their responsibilities to notify parents about their options in a timely and easy to understand way. And there are a number of steps we can take to enforce these provisions, including withholding federal funds.'' She did not elaborate beyond saying she had instructed a high-level education official to monitor the states.

Vee have vays to enforce these provisions, Spellings said. Spellings seemed ready to bring out brass knuckles if the nation’s low-scoring schools don’t tell students their options.

To this point, Saulny had done a workmanlike job of reporting the Spellings speech. But then, she took it to the next level, citing problems with these two remedies. Omigod! Free lessons from tutors? The right to transfer? On the surface, it seems to make sense—but as Saulny noted, some experts think different. We thought her report was right on-target—and was worthy of major review.

TOMORROW—PART 2: What could go wrong with these remedies?