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THE POST SEES NO EVIL! The “Houston Miracle” was a big fraud. But how about Prince George’s County? // link // print // previous // next //
FRIDAY, JUNE 10, 2005

KRUGMAN SLUGS BACK: Paul Krugman’s column today is priceless for its puckish humor, and deeply important as a piece of analysis. For that reason, we’ll hold our discussion until the morrow. But what a shame! What a shame that so many “career liberals” took a dive when this warrior was so slimily attacked by the foppish interests he won’t stop discussing. We can only hope that they’re richly rewarded for their undisguised public cowardice. Go ahead—scroll back through their fiery web sites. We think you’ll see who we mean.

ROBINSON WRONG: In this morning’s Post op-ed column, Eugene Robinson is wrong from the start. Why does he think this is accurate?

ROBINSON (6/10/05): Every few weeks, this stressed-out nation with more problems to worry about than hours in the day finds time to become obsessed with the saga...of a damsel in distress. Natalee Holloway, the student who disappeared while on a class trip to the Caribbean island of Aruba, is the latest in what seems an endless series.
But why does Robinson think that “this nation” is obsessed with the Holloway matter? In fact, Robinson’s reference to this story is the only such reference in today’s Post. Indeed, the story has barely been mentioned in Robby’s own paper; according to a Nexis search, the saga has been mentioned only three times in the paper this week—each time, in the “WORLD IN BRIEF” section. In fact, “this nation” isn’t obsessed with Holloway; this nation’s cable “news” channels are. But very few people watch those channels—channels which became openly tabloid long ago (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 7/20/01). We’d love to see Robinson name some names of the actual miscreants involved in this fall; for example, we’d love to see him scold MSNBC’s Rick Kaplan for pimping this crap on a cable “news” channel. But you know how those career pundits are! Most would rather blame “this nation” than name such a big, famous name—the name of a big, famous man whio can help mainstream pundits’ careers.

Yes, mainstream journos tend to be like that! We had a similar reaction when we read the following highlighted statement in E. J. Dionne’s fiery column this morning. Dionne was saying that Dems should stop thinking that they lost last time due to John Kerry’s limitations:

DIONNE (6/10/05): [S]aying that Kerry was the Democrats' one and only problem is both an evasion and unfair. The three debates were the only moments in the campaign in which Kerry's fate was entirely in his own hands, and he used them well. Kerry trounced Bush the first time and, I'd argue, beat him in the other two encounters.

His one false move was mentioning Mary Cheney in connection with the gay rights issue. He shouldn't have done that. But the Cheney slip became a big deal because the Bush machine is so skillful at turning little things into big things—always with help from Rush and Fox and the rest of the party-line conservative media eager to read scripts generated by the White House. This is not just a Kerry problem but a long-term challenge for his party.

Really? Is it just “Rush and Fox and the rest of the conservative media” who read those scripts from the White House? In Campaign 2000, for example, it was clearly “Ceci and Kit and the mainstream media” who were reading those scripts from the RNC; there is no doubt about how that worked, and we’re quite sure that Dionne understands this. (It was also Howard and Brian and Chris and Tim who read those RNC scripts so faithfully.) But the Dionnes of the world just won’t cop to that. No, the Bush-Kerry race really wasn’t covered in the ludicrous manner of Campaign 2000. But is that really Dionne’s best attempt at explaining the way the Bush White House line works? For example, was it “Rush and Fox and the rest of the conservative media” who performed a swan-dive on the Downing Street Memo? Is that really Dionne’s best attempt at describing our current media?

ROBINSON RIGHT—THEN WRONG AGAIN: Although he mind-reads widely than we’d like, we’ll tend to agree with Robinson’s later thesis—that these damsels in distress must always be white because these cable sagas represent “the meta-narrative of something seen as precious and delicate being snatched away, defiled...It's whiteness under siege.” In our view, much of our politics since 1965 has involved the theme of “whiteness under siege.” (No, that doesn’t mean that Republicans are racists.) But Robinson extends his diagnosis to “this nation” as a whole—and as a whole, this nation doesn’t give a flying fig about the damsel stories. The Rick Kaplans have decided that these damsel sagas appeal to the audience that watches cable “news.” That group may be seeing “whiteness under siege” in these stories. But most people don’t see anything at all. Most people don’t follow these tales.

For the record, Robinson is quick to diagnosis the nation—but he’s also quick to make snide, racial/gender judgments of his own. We’d love to know why he made this odd statement:

ROBINSON: [O]f course the damsels have much in common besides being female. You probably have some idea of where I'm headed here.

A damsel must be white. This requirement is nonnegotiable. It helps if her frame is of dimensions that breathless cable television reporters can credibly describe as "petite," and it also helps if she's the kind of woman who wouldn't really mind being called "petite," a woman with a good deal of princess in her personality. She must be attractive—also nonnegotiable. Her economic status should be middle class or higher, but an exception can be made in the case of wartime (see: Lynch).

Amazing. Which were the famous “damsels” (Robinson names just six in all) who had “a good deal of princess in their personality?” After all, Jessica Lynch became a damsel while she was fighting the war in Iraq. Chandra Levy was trying to become an FBI agent. Elizabeth Smart—in point of fact, an inspiring survivor—was fourteen years old when she was snatched from her bed. Jon Benet Ramsey? She was six. So which of Robinson’s six famous “damsels” had “a good deal of princess” inside them? As we wait for Robby’s reply, we’ll remind that you that, for many people, maleness has also been under siege in recent years. Sometimes these people reveal their sense of siege by making snide comments like this.

By the way, Bill O’Reilly addressed this matter last night. The incomparable blowhard read a letter on the topic, then gave a self-pimping reply:

O’REILLY (6/9/05): Michael Marone, Boca Raton, Florida: "Natalee's case shows the media's hypocrisy. If this was black girl, would she be getting this kind of coverage?"

Well, there is something to what you ask, Mr. Marone. Natalee's all- American girl status does drive the story, but not here. Remember, The Factor championed the cases of Rilya Wilson and Destiny Ashe, both black babies who were murdered. You'll always get fairness on this program.

We’ll cringe as Mr. O plainly suggest that black kids can’t have “all-American status”—the status they’re given all over the place as Americans watch sports TV programs. But then again, Mr. O was right about his own work. In the last three years, he has done dozens of reports about Rilya Wilson, the four-year old girl who disappeared from the Florida foster care system. And last night was his ninth reference this year to “the murder case of 5-week-old Destiny Ashe, a baby few seem to care about” (O’Reilly, 3/2/05). Mr. O does lots of horrible work (last night, his report on Angelina Jolie was clownish). But is “whiteness under siege” on cable TV? O’Reilly’s endless advocacy on behalf of these children suggests that the story may not be so simple. But then, most stories aren’t.

Special report—Fools for non-scandal!

PART 4—THE POST SEES NO EVIL: You just can’t make them discuss it! For decades now, it has been clear that teachers, principals, and entire school systems manipulate their testing programs to produce pleasing test scores—the kind of hugely improbable test scores that had New York City’s kids ahead of the nation twenty-four years ago. But you just can’t make major “journalists” discuss it; as they have shown all through this period, they’d rather eat live worms in hell than discuss this disgraceful situation. Even when the cheating involves a major presidential contender; even when a sitting Secretary of Education turns out to be a blatant fraud; even then, the nation’s “journalists” avoid the discussion. They understand their role in this game—their role is to publish pleasing, inane, absurd tales about those rising test scores. The press corps loves stories about “schools that work.” They refuse to say what lies behind them.

Consider a story which appeared yesterday in a well-known paper, the Washington Post—a paper which has recently been reminding the world of its days as a journalistic crusader. The semi-pleasing report bore the following headline: “Pr. George's Applauds Gains in Test Scores” (Prince George’s is a major, black-majority county in Maryland, right across the D.C. line). Yes, the secondary headline was less pleasing: “Schools Still Rank Near Bottom in Md.” But reporter Nick Anderson worked from a time-honored format. He opened with a pleasing tale of success—and with local officials praising themselves for their own brilliant performance:

ANDERSON (6/9/05): A year ago, Dodge Park Elementary in Landover was nobody's poster school. Three quarters of its third- and fifth-graders failed to show proficiency on state reading and mathematics tests. Stagnant scores landed the school on a state watch list.

Yesterday, Prince George's County school and elected officials converged on the modest hilltop campus to give its rookie principal, Judith White, a standing ovation for a breakthrough. More than half of Dodge Park's students reached proficiency in reading and math, according to Maryland School Assessment test data made public this week...

"Reform doesn't happen unless it happens at the schoolhouse level," said Leroy Tompkins, the school system's chief accountability officer, as he highlighted Dodge Park and other testing bright spots in a news conference that had the air of a pep rally.

Rising scores at Dodge Park, a high-poverty school with predominantly black students, fit a larger pattern
in which the county's test results rose overall at a faster clip than the state average, helping to narrow a stubborn black-white achievement gap statewide and buff, a bit, the image of a suburban Washington school system that has long had a lackluster reputation.

With the exception of Baltimore City, Prince George’s test scores were still the lowest of Maryland’s 24 subdivisions, Anderson eventually noted. But Anderson accentuated the positve, as did the County Exec:
ANDERSON (continuing directly): The developments were a welcome change of topic for officials who have had to respond to the May 27 resignation of schools chief Andre J. Hornsby amid an FBI investigation and ethics controversy.

"This news today will elevate us, perception-wise and in reality," said County Executive Jack B. Johnson (D). "We're on the right track."

“We’re on the right track,” Jack Johnson (D) said. Indeed, urban mayors (and county executives) have been saying that for the past thirty years—often at pep-rally events in which they have glory-dayed over pleasing test scores which were blatantly, patently fraudulent.

But was Johnson pimping phony scores? We don’t have the slightest idea, and we’ll assume that he doesn’t know either. (Most likely, the thought didn’t enter his mind.) But Marylanders should be careful about Prince George’s rising scores because of something that didn’t make Anderson’s report—something involving Andre Hornsby, the recently deposed county school chief.

Who exactly is Andre Hornsby? He’s a guy who has made his reputation in two ways—by getting bounced from jobs amid charges of financial misconduct, and by raising minority test scores. In the late 1990s, he headed the Yonkers public schools for two years. After he resigned in Prince George’s last month, a Washington Post editorial reviewed that prior record:

WASHINGTON POST EDITORIAL (5/29/05): It is a scandal that under the terms of his contract, Andre J. Hornsby, who resigned late Friday as superintendent of schools in Prince George's County, is apparently to receive $125,000 in severance pay, the equivalent of a half-year's salary. A more just, if unlikely, outcome would be for him somehow to compensate the school system, the second biggest in Maryland and one of the 20 largest in the nation. For Mr. Hornsby—highhanded, confrontational, ethically insensitive—has plunged the struggling schools into another period of tumult they can ill afford...

Of course, part of the blame must be shared by the county school board, which hired Mr. Hornsby despite ample signs of potential trouble. He had been fired as schools superintendent in Yonkers, N.Y., where he clashed with the school board, the mayor and the unions and was condemned by the city's inspector general for ethical improprieties related to contracts. But county school board members hired him and then stuck with him despite his missteps, largely because Mr. Hornsby seemed to be having some success raising Prince George's schools' abysmal performance on standardized tests...

Ah yes! Amid the “condemnations for ethical improprieties related to contracts,” Hornsby had raised Yonkers test scores! For that reason, Prince George’s went ahead and hired him anyway, then sat back to watch the scores rise. As in Yonkers, Hornsby only lasted two years in Prince George’s. But each year, he did get those test scores to rise! The test scores Anderson hailed this week were Prince George’s second up-year in a row. Cue the “pep rally” from county officials—and cue the Post’s credulous coverage.

And yes, the paper’s coverage was credulous—remarkably so, in fact. What was striking about the Post’s coverage of Hornsby—about the Post’s coverage of those pleasing test scores? Here it is: Even as the Post savaged the now-deposed chief for those repeated “ethical improprieties related to contracts,” it never seemed to occur to the Post that a man who cuts corners in his financial dealings might cut corners with his test programs too! Most remarkably, the Post never raised this question about Hornsby in spite of a striking bit of history. Hornsby began his career in the Houston system, serving under former Secretary of Education Rod Paige—and the Houston system became famous in the past few years for its endless “ethical improprieties” with respect to its fake testing programs! Meanwhile, after Hornsby left the Yonkers system, the local school union head told the local paper that Hornbsy had been gaming the test program there too (details below). But remember: It seems that nothing will ever make journalists discuss this long, familiar story. Hornsby’s record of test-score gains simply cries out for skeptical treatment. But the Washington Post wasn’t willing to go there. Your big foppist rags rarely are.

What was the record in Houston while Hornsby and Paige were on the scene? The record was a national disgrace—it should have driven Paige out of office—but your national press let it slip-slide away, like a dream dimly recalled. The reporting began in 2003, first from local Houston news orgs, then in the national papers. The reporting about Paige revealed him as a disgrace, but it led to almost no public discussion. As an overview, let’s just recall the articles in the New York Times:

July 11, 2003: Diane Schemo reports that the Houston schools, under Paige, were vastly faking their drop-out figures. And the schools were encouraging weak students to drop out of school to push up average high school test scores (details below). “It was Enron accounting,” said Joseph Rodriguez, a former employee of the system. According to Schemo, Paige “declined to directly address questions about the undercounting of dropouts.”

August 28, 2003: Schemo reports that the Houston schools, under Paige, were vastly faking their college prep and college attendance figures.

November 7, 2003: Sam Dillon reports that the Houston schools, under Paige, were under-reporting their school violence figures.

December 3, 2003: Schemo reports that Houston’s ballyhooed test-score gains on a local test—the TAAS—had not been matched on the Stanford Achievement Tests, a well-known national test. Had Paige presided over an educational miracle, the claim which sent him up to DC? “Compared with the rest of the country, Houston's gains on the national exam, the Stanford Achievement Test, were modest. The improvements in middle and elementary school were a fraction of those depicted by the [TAAS] and were similar to those posted on the Stanford test by students in Los Angeles,” Schemo wrote.

In short, Paige’s “miracle” was a multi-faceted fraud—and Hornsby sat at the right hand of Paige while all the faking and manipulation went on. For the record, how disgraceful was the Houston fakery while Paige and Hornsby were there? On November 11, 2003, Michael Dobbs of the Washington Post reviewed the matter of test scores and drop-outs, the topic Schemo had reported in July. “Opponents of the Houston system of business-style accountability have seized on the dropout scandal as evidence that some of Paige's most cherished accomplishments...rest on false or manipulated data,” Dobbs wrote. “They have raised questions about the validity of test results that purport to show spectacular progress by Houston students in reading, writing and arithmetic.” But how did Houston’s finagling of drop-outs produce those fancy-but-fake test scores? Simple. Under the Texas system, tenth-grade test scores were prominently used to measure a school system’s success. Therefore, Houston made sure that low-achieving students never set foot in tenth grade! It’s hard to believe that a public official could be such a consummate phony. But Dobbs explained how the sainted Paige worked. Here’s part of the grisly tale, from one major high school in Houston:
DOBBS (11/11/03): Austin High, one of Houston's oldest public schools, offers a window into Paige's tenure as school superintendent, and the achievements and failings of the accountability movement. It serves a poor, predominantly Hispanic neighborhood within sight of glistening downtown skyscrapers. Nine of 10 students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches....

In 1995, at the end of the first year of Paige's tenure as superintendent, only 26 percent of Austin's 10th-grade students passed the Texas math test. By 2000-2001, the year Paige retired, 99 percent of 10th-graders were passing.

In the wake of the dropout scandal, some local residents are questioning whether those results are as unreliable as the dropout statistics.

They note that the Texas test is administered in the sophomore year. Austin High, like many other Houston schools, routinely holds students back in the ninth grade under a policy that effectively allows school administrators to exclude weaker students from the 10th-grade test results. In 2001, for example, there were 1,160 students in the ninth grade and 281 in the 10th grade.

Incredible, isn’t it? How did Paige become the “Texas Miracle” worker? How did that 26 percent passing rate in Year One move all the way up to 99 percent? Simple! At Austin High, someone made sure that the slower kids never set foot inside the tenth grade—that while there were 1200 kids in ninth grade, only 280 were on-roll to tenth! As Dobbs continues, try to believe that a man of Paige’s moral caliber ever set foot inside Washington:
DOBBS (continuing directly): Perla Arredondo, the daughter of Mexican immigrants, took ninth grade three times before being moved up to 11th grade. By then, she was so discouraged she dropped out of Austin High, along with many of her friends. She regrets her decision, after discovering she needs a high school diploma even for jobs such as secretary or cashier.

"I felt school was a waste of time because I had to go over the same thing over and over again and wasn't moving up," she said.

Because Arredondo skipped 10th grade, she was never included in Austin High's accountability statistics. According to Robert Kimball, a former Sharpstown High assistant principal who provided KHOU with much of its information, that is common practice in Houston. "The secret of doing well in the 10th-grade tests is not to let the problem kids get to the 10th grade," he said.

It shocks the conscience to think that students like Arredondo were being treated this way—and to think that the public was being played for such fools as Paige pimped his fake “Texas Miracle.” And yes—it shocks the conscience to think that Paige was ever allowed inside Washington. But while this disgrace was being conducted in Houston, Hornsby was right there, serving the master. You’d think that a paper like the Washington Post would wonder a bit when Hornsby, who sat through all this faking, drove up those test score in Prince George’s County. But not a chance—they simply won’t go there! Indeed, Hornsby came to Prince George’s in mid-2003, right when these stories were being written about the corruption of his tenure in Houston. But we can’t find a single sign that the Post ever raised a flag of caution about his Houston testing background. Four times in 2003, Post reporters mentioned Hornsby’s tie to Paige—but they never mentioned the unfolding stories about that system’s astounding corruption. Incredibly, one Post writer, Karen Chenoweth, wrote a detailed report in September 2003, right in the middle of all the reporting about the fakery in Houston. Two weeks earlier, Richard Cohen had already trashed Paige for his phony “miracle” on the Post’s op-ed page. But so what? This was the way Chenoweth wrote about the prowess of Paige’s former deputy:
CHENOWETH (9/18/03): Hornsby's record before coming to Prince George's indicates that he has been able to boost reading skills among younger students. He was hired partly on the strength of his experience as a deputy superintendent in Houston, where students' reading scores improved substantially, and his experience as superintendent in Yonkers, N.Y., which also saw improvements in reading scores. He is also reflecting renewed national emphasis on reading, which is being spearheaded by his old boss, Education Secretary Roderick R. Paige. (Hornsby worked as one of Paige's deputies when Paige was superintendent in Houston.)
Even as Chenoweth wrote, Paige was being revealed to the world as the ultimate faker and fraud. And Cohen had already cited this matter in the Post. But so what! When Paige’s former deputy came to town, it didn’t seem to occur to Chenoweth that those test-score jumps in Yonkers might have resulted from fakery too. Did those test score gains come from fraud? We don’t have the slightest idea. But in late 2002, Steve Frey, president of the Yonkers Federation of Teachers, had written an angry letter to the Westchester County Daily Journal about Hornsby’s testing procedures. Hornsby had penned a column filled with self-praise. Here was one part of Frey’s reaction:
FREY (11/29/02): One would think from reading his column that Hornsby single-handedly improved the schools, that he was an education Superman. While it is true that test scores improved on the new Terra Nova tests that he introduced, there is more to it than meets the eye. In the first year of these brand new tests, teachers and students were forbidden to see samples of the test or to review for them. Not surprisingly, the test scores were abysmal in that first year. However, in the second year, students and teachers did nothing but review and prepare for the tests, and, of course, scores skyrocketed. Was this really done to improve education or to improve Hornsby's resume for his next job?
By the way—what went on inside those classrooms where “teachers did nothing but review and prepare for the tests” during Hornsby’s second year? Did teachers teach children the actual test items? We don’t have the slightest idea—and if teachers did so, their union head wouldn’t tell you. But even in Frey’s limited description, you see the manipulation of testing procedures that has become the norm in the past forty years—almost always with a wink from the press, as we saw in Chenoweth’s work, and in Anderson’s report this week.

What did Anderson leave out of his piece? He failed to mention the obvious fact that the guy who got canned because of “ethical improprieties related to contracts” also sat at the right hand of a man with major “ethical improprieties related to testing.” As he praised the rise in local test scores, he forgot to mention that Hornsby had recently sat at the hand of the biggest test-faker in modern history! That the union head at Hornsby’s last post had complained about his test methods there. In a rational world, this history would have raised a red flag when Hornsby came to Prince George’s County, just as his “ethical improprieties related to contracts” had done. But this is not a rational world—this is the world of a foppist press, a press corps which is eager to type stories about schools that work—about score gains by minority children, whether they’ve really occurred or not. Urban systems just luvvv those score gains—and big urban papers luvvv to write the gains up. Result? The Washington Post was willing to scream about Hornsby’s bad history “related to contracts.” But even then, it didn’t cross the mind of the Post that he also had a bad history “related to score gains.” Big papers refuse to examine this issue. They’ve been refusing for thirty-five years.

And what has transpired through these decades of snoozing? The public has been treated like perfect fools—and the Perla Arredondos have been treated like cattle. Twenty-four years ago, we were even being told that New York’s city kids were beating the nation! But that’s always the way with minority kids; minority kids are there to be used, for the greater glory of mayors and schools chiefs. Do you see why our analysts fell from their chairs when David Herszenhorn got it so right just last week? Do you see why we wanted to sing his praise? To urge him on with his skeptical work about the nation’s constantly rising test scores—the test scores that just keep on giving?

COMING: Incomparable sequel! Dillon does No Child Left behind!