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THE LOGIC OF FAILURE (PART 3)! We tag low-scoring schools as “failures.” But which schools can help struggling kids? // link // print // previous // next //
TUESDAY, APRIL 18, 2006

GOOD LORD: A Pulitzer even for Robin Givhan! And Richard Cohen on the exploits of “boring Al Gore!” We’ll ponder these matters tomorrow, along with Ezra Klein’s C-SPAN outing (which we place in a separate category, although “The Answer” disappointed us some). But tell us the thought hasn’t entered your head—that this really may be a separate life-form, not the species you thought you grew up with.

CHEERS FOR GELLMAN’S MESSAGE: Three cheers for Kevin Drum’s construction! Speaking of suddenly outspoken generals, he says this: “I do think there are some genuine issues here that we shouldn't sweep under the carpet just because we like the message we're hearing.” Indeed, we humans tend to “sweep issues under the rug” when “we like the message we’re hearing” (just click here for a recent discussion). So it has been in the past two weeks as the liberal web cheers bogus journalism because it’s been slamming George Bush.

Example? Yesterday, Eric Alterman linked to a much-discussed Washington Post report, then said, “Congrats to Gellman/Linzer for their great reporting.” But that Post report was far from great journalism; in fact, it featured large chunks of Reporting From Hell. Since many other liberal bloggers have praised it—after all, we liked the message we heard—let’s take a look at this deeply flawed piece, which framed a guilty party.

Gellman’s much-discussed front-page report appeared on Sunday, April 9. Its topic? Scooter Libby’s conversations with reporters about Joe Wilson in June and July 2003. Why did we like the message we heard? Mainly, because Gellman offered the following nugget. He’s discussing Cheney and Libby’s decision to hold these discussions with scribes:

GELLMAN (4/9/06): One striking feature of that decision—unremarked until now, in part because Fitzgerald did not mention it—is that the evidence Cheney and Libby selected to share with reporters had been disproved months before.
Wow! Libby gave reporters evidence which had already been disproved? We liked that message when we heard it. In fact, we liked it so much that we’ve agreed to ignore the bungling in Gellman’s report.

The bungling is everywhere, but Gellman’s most absurd misstatement comes as he continues directly. How can anyone familiar with this case applaud this perfect bullroar?

GELLMAN (continuing directly): United Nations inspectors had exposed the main evidence for the uranium charge as crude forgeries in March 2003, but the Bush administration and British Prime Minister Tony Blair maintained they had additional, secret evidence they could not disclose. In June, a British parliamentary inquiry concluded otherwise, delivering a scathing critique of Blair's role in promoting the story. With no ally left, the White House debated whether to abandon the uranium claim and became embroiled in bitter finger-pointing about whom to fault for the error.
Good lord! “With no ally left?” It’s true—Parliament issued a report in June 2003 challenging Blair’s uranium claims. But did the Bush Admin have “no ally left” at that point? In fact, the Admin still had a well-known ally; it had the Blair Administration, which defended the claim that Iraq sought uranium. One year later, a formal report by the Butler Commission said that the claim was well-founded. That judgment may or may not be accurate, but it’s absurd to say that the Bush Admin “had no ally left” concerning this matter—and in the course of Gellman’s lengthy piece, he never mentions Blair’s stand or Butler’s report; the information is simply disappeared. Is this a case of “great reporting?” Sorry—it’s a case of gross misstatement. And Gellman quickly makes his next misstatement—although this time, it ain’t all his fault:
GELLMAN (continuing directly): It was at that moment that Libby, allegedly at Cheney's direction, sought out at least three reporters to bolster the discredited uranium allegation. Libby made careful selections of language from the 2002 estimate, quoting a passage that said Iraq was "vigorously trying to procure uranium" in Africa...

At Cheney's instruction, Libby testified, he told Miller that the uranium story was a "key judgment" of the intelligence estimate, a term of art indicating there was consensus on a question of central importance.

In fact, the alleged effort to buy uranium was not among the estimate's key judgments, which were identified by a headline and bold type and set out in bullet form in the first five pages of the 96-page document.

In fact, Libby didn’t tell Miller that “the alleged effort to buy uranium” was a key judgment; this too is a flat misstatement. But this time, Gellman had some help in high places; his reporting was based on Patrick Fitzgerald’s bungled court filing—an inaccurate filing which Fitzgerald corrected three days after Gellman’s report. This misstatement by Gellman is mainly Fitzgerald’s fault (though not totally), but it’s odd to think that we continue to call this “great reporting” even after we know that its claims were just wrong. And just like that, Gellman puts his thumb on the scale once again. This time, he employs the sort of “balanced” construction we liberals love to deride—but only when the practice is used to drive a message we don’t enjoy hearing:
GELLMAN (continuing directly): Unknown to the reporters, the uranium claim lay deeper inside the estimate, where it said a fresh supply of uranium ore would "shorten the time Baghdad needs to produce nuclear weapons." But it also said U.S. intelligence did not know the status of Iraq's procurement efforts, "cannot confirm" any success and had "inconclusive" evidence about Iraq's domestic uranium operations.
For the record, that’s correct—the specific phrase about “vigorously trying to procure uranium ore” lay in the body of the NIE, where it was part of the document’s consensus. To blunt this inconvenient fact, Gellman tosses in a string of irrelevant points, such as the fact that U.S. intelligence “couldn’t confirm” any actual purchase. (Bush hadn’t claimed any actual purchase.) And note how Gellman’s thumb finds the scale as he continues to obscure an important fact—the fact that the claim about “vigorously trying to pursue uranium ore” was part of the document’s consensus:
GELLMAN (continuing directly): Iraq's alleged uranium shopping had been strongly disputed in the intelligence community from the start. In a closed Senate hearing in late September 2002, shortly before the October NIE was completed, then-director of central intelligence George J. Tenet and his top weapons analyst, Robert Walpole, expressed strong doubts about the uranium story, which had recently been unveiled publicly by the British government. The State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research, likewise, called the claim "highly dubious." For those reasons, the uranium story was relegated to a brief inside passage in the October estimate.
Would you ever dream, from reading this passage, that the “uranium story” was part of the body—the consensus—of the NIE, and that the State Department’s judgment was a dissent from that consensus—was one of the NIE’s minority views? Of course you wouldn’t, but we cheer to this day. We like the message we’re hearing.

As Gellman continues, he stumbles along, conflating claims about “alleged procurement” with claims that “Iraq and Niger discuss[ed] a uranium sale” (our emphasis). Soon, he presents his blockbuster claim, a claim “which has not been reported before”—his claim that the National Intelligence Council filed a report in January 2003 which said that “the Niger story was baseless and should be laid to rest.” (We discussed this matter in yesterday’s HOWLER.) But which “Niger story” did the council address? Gellman doesn’t quote a single word from this report, or even name its author; to all appearances, he simply doesn’t know what this report said—which “Niger story” it addressed. Did this report somehow manage to show that Niger had never sought uranium from Africa? Proving such a negative would be hard, a point that seems to be lost on Gellman, who never seems to realize—even three long years later—that there’s a difference between seeking and buying uranium, or that many “Niger stories” have been part of this tale, some of which have no real relevance to the thing that Bush really said.

Gellman’s report is awful journalism, starting what that inexcusable claim about the Admin having “no ally left.” But many liked the message they heard, and they’ve rushed to praise this piece as the most brilliant reporting on earth.

WHY WE FIGHT: We gather that some are deeply disturbed by our inexcusable ways. Sorry. Going all the way back to two separate junctures during Campaign 2000, we have always criticized the mainstream press on those occasions when it has tilted against Bush. Example: In September 2000, with the election on the line, we spent a week criticizing the press corps’ sudden, obvious tilt against Bush—a brief period which ended with the invention of the crackpot doggy pill/union lullaby stories. (These posts were on the site of SpeakOut.com, which is no longer active.) Yes, as Gore began pulling away in the polls, the press corps began to tilt against Bush—as they’ve bravely done in the past few weeks, now that his numbers have fallen so low. Many of us whistle and cheer as they spin their facts in a way we like hearing. Go ahead—cheer all you please! But don’t expect us to cheer for your conduct. What else is new, after all? Starting with Plato’s version of Socrates, western lit has always discussed this thing you do—and in response, you have always gotten mad.

Guess what? During Campaign 2000, we endlessly criticized the sliming of Gore because that’s what the press corps was actually doing. Some of you can only imagine inventing preferred tales—and you assume that’s what others are doing.

WHO WE’VE BECOME: Who have we become on the web? Yesterday, Alterman started by saying this of Joe Klein: “Time’s most liberal columnist thinks it might be a good idea to nuke Iran.” But here’s what The Demon actually said in the discussion in question:

KLEIN (4/16/06): By all means we should talk to [Iran] but on the other hand, we should not take any option, including the use of tactical nuclear weapons, off the table.

STEPHANOPOULOS: Keep that on the table?

KLEIN: That's just—it's absolutely stupid not to.

STEPHANOPOULOS: That would seem insane.

KLEIN: I mean, I don't think we should ever use ta—I think that—

STEPHANOPOULOS: Well then, why should they be on the table?

So actually, no—Klein didn’t say it was a good idea. But Klein has become Our Latest Fine Demon, and some of you will rush to the transcript, determined to find some way to pretend that Eric’s statement is actually right. And then, you’ll get busy inventing motives—to explain why we’d say something accurate.

Special report—The logic of failure!

PART 3—THE LOGIC OF THE “FAILING” SCHOOL: Ouch! In a news report in yesterday’s Times, Damien Cave even called them “dysfunctional.” Vouchers are sometimes seen as a way to escape “dysfunctional schools,” the scribe said:

CAVE (4/17/06): The education dispute in Newark underscores the continuing debate among poor, mostly minority residents in troubled urban school districts over the role of vouchers. Some parents and educators see them as a backhanded attempt to divert resources to private institutions. Others, especially the poor, seem more willing to accept them as an opportunity to escape dysfunctional schools.
Ouch! (Cave’s report was well done, by the way.) Vouchers are seen as a way to escape Newark’s “dysfunctional schools,” Cave wrote—but more often, low-scoring urban schools are simply referred to as “failing.” Indeed, that was the term in the New York Times headline which topped Susan Saulny’s recent report (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 4/11/06). “Few Students Seek Free Tutoring or Transfers From Failing Schools,” it said.

According to Saulny’s right-on report, the vast majority of students in low-scoring schools have been passing up a pair of remedies offered under No Child Left Behind. They haven’t been signing up for free tutoring, and they haven’t been transferring from their low-scoring schools—two options the federal program offers. But the question we ask today concerns the logic of that common-place term—“failing school.” Many urban schools record low test scores—but what do we mean when we call such schools “failing?” The familiar phrase does roll off the tongue, sometimes in haughty editorials which assert that various people are “complicit in” producing these schools’ poor scores, and giving their children an “awful education.” But that familiar term—“failing school”—can conspire to cloud our vision. It can lead us to draw conclusions about these schools which may not be true—and it may lead parents, and even school planners, to make unhelpful decisions.

Why do some schools have such low scores? Is it because the teachers in such schools are “complicit” in bad outcomes? Is it because the students in such schools are being given an “awful education?” In part, some schools have low test scores for a well-known reason—because such schools teach less able students, deserving kids from less privileged backgrounds. As everyone except fantasists knows, it’s a whole lot easier to achieve good scores if you’re teaching kids from high-literacy backgrounds—and it can be a whole lot harder if you’re teaching deserving low-income kids. Many times, such kids are “behind” on the day they first come to school. As always, let’s quote that 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.
The two parts of that profile are not unrelated. Many low-income kids are behind their peers on the day they enter kindergarten. Four years later, they may be recording low test scores—the kinds of scores that get a school tagged with the “failing” label. In our experience, such low-scoring schools will often have inadequate programs for their low-scoring, low-income, low-literacy kids. But here’s the key point—that doesn’t mean that other schools would be prepared to do any better. A struggling fourth-grader may leave her “failing” school and enter a school with better scores—but that doesn’t mean that she will get more help in that new locale. And that’s a point we ought to keep clear as we try to master an important subject—the logic of grade school failure.

If children leave a “failing” school, will they get a better deal in the higher-scoring school they enter? Not necessarily, no—they will not. Consider the information in Maria Glod’s report from last Friday’s Post, for example. “The Fairfax County schools are among the most respected in the country, and their quality has long been a draw for families,” Glod reported. “Nearly 90 percent of public school graduates go on to college or other schools.” But Glod also noted a troubling fact; Fairfax County’s younger black students don’t seem to be sharing in all the system’s success. Although Glod failed to provide some relevant data, it seems that black students in the Fairfax schools are doing no better, on average, than black peers throughout the state. Indeed, such students are scoring less well than black kids in some urban districts:

GLOD (4/14/06): Black students in Fairfax County are consistently scoring lower on state standardized tests than African American children in Richmond, Norfolk and other comparatively poor Virginia districts, surprising Fairfax educators and forcing one of the nation's wealthiest school systems to acknowledge shortcomings that have been masked by its overall success.
Again, Glod’s data are limited. But her data suggest an obvious possibility: If a struggling black student leaves his “failing” school and transfers to a “better” school in Fairfax, that school may be no better equipped to help him than the school he just left. Put another way: In large part, Fairfax schools record high scores because its kids come from more-advantaged, higher-literacy backgrounds. It’s relatively easy to attain high scores with kids who come from such backgrounds. That doesn’t necessarily mean that such a school is prepared to help a struggling child who may be years behind.

One school is “failing;” the other school isn’t. But neither school may be prepared to help that child who is three years behind.

Typically, it’s hard to teach the deserving kids described in that latest new study. By the fourth grade, low-income students are “about three grade levels behind” in reading? In that circumstance, it can be hard to find textbooks these children can read, and it can be hard to find appropriate materials for their independent reading. And if they’re also two or three years behind in their math, it can be hard to find instructional programs they can successfully work with. These tasks are no easier for a teacher because she’s in a high-scoring school. One school is “failing”—the other school isn’t. But that doesn’t mean that the high-scoring school is prepared to help these struggling children. Simply put: If these two schools switched student bodies, the “failing” school might now have high scores—and the high-scoring school might now “fail.” One school is “failing”—the other school isn’t. But that doesn’t mean that teachers in the high-scoring school are necessarily doing a “better” job.

For what it’s worth, some states are trying make school ranking systems more rational by finding new ways to rate their schools. Which of a state’s schools are really successful—and which of a state’s schools are really “failing?” We’re skeptics; we can’t quite believe that improved ranking new ranking systems will help us find ways to help low-scoring kids. But it’s important to grasp the logic of failure. Tomorrow, we’ll continue that quest.

TOMORROW—PART 4: Which schools are actually “failing?”