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2.5 CHEERS FOR BOB HERBERT! Herbert shows how city kids can prosper—if they’re bright enough: // link // print // previous // next //
FRIDAY, MAY 28, 2010

The culture of pseudo-scandal/Joe Sestakgate edition: The American discourse has been driven by pseudo-scandal for the past several decades. We tend to agree with Steve Benen (and others)—the recent flap about Joe Sestak’s alleged job offer is a flap of the pseudo kind.

We agree with the basic thrust of Steve’s comments about Sestakgate. But in our view, the following remarks capture the failure of the new liberal world to present a full, convincing critique of the American discourse:

BENEN (5/27/10): Maybe it's me, but I get the impression that our political discourse is growing more farcical by the day.

[...]

This may be the shallowest, most vapid political controversy in years.

Are you kidding? The Sestak flap strikes us as pretty silly too. But who could think there’s something new here—more absurdly, that this is worse than what has gone before? The Sestak flap is a gnat-in-the-eye compared to the cosmic nonsense which drove our political discourse in the Clinton-Gore years (and beyond). Alas! In refusing to discuss that era, the new liberal world has stripped itself of the ability to present a full-blooded critique of American political culture.

Earth to liberals: We remain in a bit of a golden age when it comes to fairness to liberals and Dems. Because Obama is so unique, he has received types of deference from the mainstream press which no other Democrat ever will get. Power being what it is, things will likely be worse in the future, not better, for those espousing progressive policies—unless the liberal world creates narratives and critiques which make it harder for Power to function.

Pretending that this is the worst nonsense yet just isn’t the way to achieve this.

A new liberal world began to emerge in the aftermath of Iraq. Unfortunately, this new liberal world has largely agreed to pretend that history began in the year 2003, when its own eyes opened. Conservatives love to recall past slights from the media—including “slights” which are non-existent. On our side, we prefer to pretend that the deeply consequential press corps misconduct of the Clinton-Gore era simply never occurred.

Truly, we’ve never seen anything like it. We’ve never seen a group of people go to such lengths to bury history which would serve their own side’s interests. Is Sestakgate “the shallowest, most vapid political controversy in years?” Only if you start counting your years around 2003. (And in truth, not even then.)

Increasingly, American Power churns a culture of pseudo-scandal—a culture which, on balance, will be used to undermine progressive interests. It’s absurd to discuss this noxious culture without going back at least to 1992, when the New York Times, a well-known mainstream newspaper, invented the Whitewater pseudo-scandal. (This pseudo-scandal gave its name to a gong-show political era.) But the new liberal world is largely a children’s crusade. The children’s eyes opened in 2003—and that’s when history started. (Last week, Kos was shocked, shocked when the New York Times got something wrong. Jesus!)

Our narratives are stunningly weak. Things will likely be worse in the future—and we won’t be prepared.

How weak is the performance of the emerging liberal world? Let’s take some instruction from Digby. In this post, she notes that Ed Schultz is buying the flap about Sestakgate, instead of saying how foolish it is. But then, our hero Schultz just spent a week buying the flap about Richard Blumenthal, a flap which was also quite marginal.

Schultz is one of our leaders? (In many other ways, yes.)

At the bottom of her post, Digby links to a “must read post” by Jamison Foser of Media Matters. In his rather lengthy post, Foser describes the broad sweep of the past twenty years. New liberals should go study up.

Pseudo-scandal has defined our discourse for the past twenty years. This culture has savaged the public interest. Liberals should be explaining this fact to the public. Sestakgate is pretty silly—but nothing about this is new.

2.5 CHEERS FOR BOB HERBERT (permalink): Last Tuesday’s New York Times was driven by an underwhelming, highly inept front-page attack on Richard Blumenthal.

But on that same day’s op-ed page, Bob Herbert wrote a column about urban schooling—a piece to which attention should be paid. We’re a bit unclear about a few things Herbert said. But Herbert’s column deserved the review it of course didn’t receive.

Herbert wrote about a New York City high school designed for “highly motivated” students—students who are “bright and talented.” (Good for them!) In this early passage, Herbert gave some basic background on the school—though he also made a familiar semi-suggestion which we think should be flagged:

HERBERT (5/18/10): I had breakfast a few weeks ago with Leon Botstein, the president of Bard College, to talk about Bard High School Early College, a school on the Lower East Side of Manhattan that gives highly motivated students the opportunity to earn both a high school diploma and a two-year associate of arts degree in the four years that are usually devoted to just high school.

When these kids sail into college, they are fully prepared to handle the course loads of sophomores or juniors. Essentially, the students complete their high school education by the end of the 10th grade and spend the 11th and 12th grades mastering a rigorous two-year college curriculum.

The school, a fascinating collaboration between Bard College and the city’s Department of Education, was founded in 2001 as a way of dealing, at least in part, with the systemic failures of the education system. American kids drop out of high school at a rate of one every 26 seconds. And, as Dr. Botstein noted, completion rates at community colleges have been extremely disappointing.

Many bright and talented youngsters are lost along the way.

In this passage, Herbert almost semi-suggests that America’s crushing drop-out problem is a function of the failure to challenge our “bright and talented” students. Dating back to the 1960s, liberals and mainstream journalists have advanced variants of this pleasing suggestion, in which failing students are full of marvelous ability which is going untapped. This is a crushingly inaccurate, feel-good portrait of our actual situation.

At any rate, Herbert goes on to describe what he saw when he visited Bard’s college-level high school. The kids had come from just about every background, mostly by subway, Herbert somewhat comically said. Minor amusements to the side, Herbert observed the kind of school we should dream about—an “almost ideal academic environment:”

HERBERT: A visit to the school is a glimpse into the realm of the possible. I stopped by on a gloomy, rainy morning, and the building’s exterior seemed fully in synch with the weather. But inside you’re quickly caught up in what seems almost the ideal academic atmosphere. In class after class, I was struck by how engaged the students were, and how much they reflected the face of the city.

These were kids who had come to the school (mostly by subway) from every borough and from just about every background imaginable.

The first class I visited was a college-level biology course. The students were deep into the process of dissecting fetal pigs. One of the students, who hopes someday to be a doctor, explained to me how essential it was for the students “to understand the organ systems in mammals.”

In another class, a fiendishly difficult math problem was being worked out. When the class ended without the problem being brought to a satisfactory conclusion, the students groaned as if a movie had been interrupted at the climactic moment. The instructor assured them that “we’ll pick it up right here” the next time the class met.

Heaven! “Botstein would like to see 150 such schools created across the country, which would reach roughly 100,000 students,” Herbert writes. On balance, we’d be inclined to call that a good idea.

That said, here’s a few observations:

Tracking on steroids: Presumably, most people will be impressed by Herbert’s description of this school. (We are too.) But even as you admire Herbert’s description, please remember the shrieks of dismay we liberals often emit about anything that can be described as “tracking.” We liberals often gnash our teeth about programs within large high schools in which “highly motivated,” “bright and talented” students are grouped together and taught a tougher curriculum. Remember this high school, which is basically tracking on steroids, the next time you meet such dismay.

The logic of statewide standards: Toward the end of his column, Herbert offers an intriguing, though rather imprecise, thought about “standardization.” We tend to agree with what Herbert says, although he’s imprecise:

HERBERT: When you look at the variety of public schools that have worked well in the U.S.—in cities big and small, and in suburban and rural areas—you wonder why anyone thought it was a good idea to throw a stultifying blanket of standardization over the education of millions of kids of different aptitudes, interests and levels of maturity.

The idea should always have been to develop a flexible system of public education that would allow all—or nearly all—children to thrive. One of the things Bard has shown is that kids from wildly different backgrounds—including large numbers of immigrant children—can thrive in an educational environment that is much more intellectually demanding than your typical high school.

We tend to agree with those highlighted passages, although they’re maddeningly imprecise—and although Herbert undercuts his general point with his instant, feel-good remark about “kids from wildly different backgrounds.” (All kids from those different backgrounds wouldn’t succeed at Bard.)

In that passage, Herbert has the germ of a crucial point. Within any age or grade group, there are vastly different levels of motivation, achievement and ability. It makes no sense to teach the same curriculum to all kids who are 15 years old—or to all kids who are high school sophomores. Some 15-year-old kids in New York can knock Bard’s curriculum out of the park. Some 15-year-old kids in New York can barely read or do math.

It’s absurd to think that all these kids should be taught the same curriculum. And yet, we constantly hear about the way the states are adjusting their grade-by-grade, statewide standards. We have never had the slightest idea how those “standards” are actually supposed to function inside actual classrooms—and we’ve never seen a journalist ask the obvious questions. But let’s understand: There is no set of curricular standards which is relevant to all tenth-graders. In New York, or in Los Angeles, some tenth-graders are ready to groan over fiendishly difficult math problems. And some such kids can’t pass Algebra 1, no matter how many times they’re forced to take it. (See THE DAILY HOWLER, 3/2/06.)

“Allowing all children to thrive:” In the passage we’ve presented above, Herbert dreams of “a flexible system of public education that would allow all—or nearly all—children to thrive.” Lustily, our analysts roared: 2.5 cheers for Bob Herbert! But please understand: Not all kids are going to thrive in the way Herbert describes in this column. Not all kids are going to flourish at Bard, groaning about math problems.

Here’s the weakness in Herbert’s column:

Herbert describes an academic arrangement which is ideally suited to “highly motivated,” “bright and talented” kids. He dreams of good outcomes for all New York kids—but he doesn’t tell us how less talented kids can be allowed to thrive. It’s fairly easy to describe the ways a talented, motivated kid can be served. It’s much harder to explain the ways we can help New York’s struggling kids.

Less talented kids can thrive in school too. They too can be thrilled by what occurs in their classrooms—by the things they find themselves doing. But what sorts of arrangements produce those outcomes? What would an “ideal academic environment” look like for struggling kids? We rarely see liberals ask questions like that—and when they do, they tend to offer us pabulum. (Struggling kids need teachers who went to Princeton!)

Herbert describes a great deal for high-achievers. What would a good deal look like for kids who are way behind? Does Dr. Botstein know?

Three cheers for Media Matters: A solid 3.0 cheers for Media Matters for this piece by Eric Schroeck. Schroeck presents a critique of Stephen Brill’s recent New York Times magazine piece concerning a New York charter school. (Without going into detail, we had the same basic reaction to Brill’s piece.) As we’ve long said: Liberal journals almost never dirty their hands discussing the problems of low-income schools. Three cheers for Media Matters, for breaking out of this rut!

Fewer cheers for Kahlenberg: Ugh. What tends to happen in the rare instances where liberals do discuss such matters? We tend to offer groaning sophistries, of the type you can review in this piece from last Sunday’s Washington Post “Outlook” section. In particular, we suggest that you review the first “myth” Richard Kahlenberg pretends to debunk—the “myth” about college admission officers’ use of SAT scores. What follows is classic pseudo-liberalism, a classic attempt to deny a basic fact: Many kids from low-income backgrounds are way “behind” their middle-class peers by the time they finish high school:

KAHLENBERG (5/23/10): Less obvious is the role of the SAT, which was, when it was introduced in 1926, supposed to help identify talented students from across all schools and backgrounds. Instead, it seems to amplify the advantages enjoyed by the most privileged students. New research by Georgetown University's Anthony Carnevale and Jeff Strohl finds that the most disadvantaged applicants (those who, among other characteristics, are black, attend public schools with high poverty rates, come from low-income families and have parents who are high school dropouts) score, on average, 784 points lower on the SAT than the most advantaged students (those who, among other things, are white, attend private schools and have wealthy, highly educated parents). This gap is equivalent to about two-thirds of the test's total score range. If the SAT were a 100-yard dash, advantaged kids would start off 65 yards ahead before the race even began.

What a shock! On average, kids who attend public schools with high poverty rates, come from low-income families and have parents who are high school dropouts score much worse on the SAT than kids who attend private schools and have wealthy, highly educated parents!

Really! Who could have guessed?

Kahlenberg’s presentation is crap. Why do kids from the most privileged backgrounds score much better on the SAT, on average, than kids from the least privileged backgrounds? Duh. In large part, it’s because they’re vastly better students by the time they reach twelfth grade. In large part, the gap in those SAT scores simply reflects the society’s failure to help our lowest-income kids overcome their massive disadvantages. But Kahlenberg churns the familiar old pap—pap which makes us liberals feel good, while doing nothing to explain how the society can defeat this unfortunate situation.

Truth: Disadvantaged kids do “start off 65 yards behind.” But that’s how things stand when they enter first grade—or kindergarten, or preschool. They take the SAT many years later—and their lower scores reflect the society’s failure to help them catch up in the intervening years.

Guess what, people? Colleges don’t want to admit kids who are reading on third-grade level! Colleges prefer to admit kids who groan over fiendish math problems! A gigantic societal problem is reflected in those dueling SAT scores. But people like Kahlenberg have spent the past fifty years helping liberals avoid understanding what it is.

(In the sixties, we were told the problem was racist teachers. Now, we’re told it’s the SATs. Same difference.)

Question for Kahlenberg: Go ahead, tell us! How should kids who attend public schools with high poverty rates, come from low-income families and have parents who are high school dropouts be taught in the first grade? In pre-school? What exactly is the solution to the problem the SAT tracks?