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KRUGMAN EATS OKRENT FOR LUNCH! Krugman toyed with his foppish tormenter—and told an important tale: // link // print // previous // next //
SATURDAY, JUNE 11, 2005

LET’S PLAY KISS-BALL: Luckily, there are no serious problems in the world to discuss. If you didn’t understand the dynamics involved, you’d think this was a joke. Rom today’s Post, here’s the synopsis of tomorrow’s Chris Matthews Show:
The Chris Matthews Show. Topics are Howard Dean and presidential college grades; with NBC's Andrea Mitchell, Vogue's Julia Reed and Time's Joe Klein and Andrew Sullivan (Channel 4 at 10 a.m.). Presidential college grades! This refers, of course, to the past week’s “revelation”—John Kerry’s grades at Yale were about the same as Bush’s.
Luckily, there are no serious problems in the world to discuss, so Matthews can afford to clown with this topic. By the way, can’t you hear the talker’s secret message to Bush? We think we can hear what the talker is saying: Kiss kiss kiss kiss kiss kiss kiss.

KRUGMAN EATS OKRENT FOR LUNCH: In yesterday’s seminal column, Paul Krugman had some innocent fun with Manhattan high foppist Daniel Okrent:

KRUGMAN (6/10/05): Since 1980 in particular, U.S. government policies have consistently favored the wealthy at the expense of working families—and under the current administration, that favoritism has become extreme and relentless...

It's not a pretty picture—which is why right-wing partisans try so hard to discredit anyone who tries to explain to the public what's going on.

These partisans rely in part on obfuscation: shaping, slicing and selectively presenting data in an attempt to mislead.

In the highlighted passage, Krugman mocks Okrent, who wrote the following in his final column as New York Times public editor: “Op-Ed columnist Paul Krugman has the disturbing habit of shaping, slicing and selectively citing numbers in a fashion that pleases his acolytes but leaves him open to substantive assaults.” Yep—Daniel Okrent was talkin’ real tough. But uh-oh! When Okrent was challenged about this by Krugman, the hapless fellow collapsed in a pile. Yesterday, Krugman had some fun with his accuser, poking at him as a six-year-old boy might probe a jelly fish on a beach.

But Krugman’s column contained more than fun. In it, he discusses an eternal story—the endless efforts of powerful interests to gain more power over the weak. In the present context, Krugman explains that wealthy interests have spent the past several decades obliterating an earlier, middle-class America. Here is the start of his column:

KRUGMAN (6/10/05): Baby boomers like me grew up in a relatively equal society. In the 1960's America was a place in which very few people were extremely wealthy, many blue-collar workers earned wages that placed them comfortably in the middle class, and working families could expect steadily rising living standards and a reasonable degree of economic security.

But as The Times's series on class in America reminds us, that was another country. The middle-class society I grew up in no longer exists.

This is a very important story—the most significant story Krugman has told. His fuller version of this story appeared in the Times magazine in October 2002. To read its full text, just click here.

Powerful interests have always tried to extend their wealth and power. This is a statement about human nature, which—surprise!— hasn’t been repealed since the time of the Gilded Age. And yes—as Krugman notes in the first passaged quoted above, tribunes of the wealthy classes will always come after those who oppose them. In Krugman’s formulation, “right-wing partisans try hard to discredit anyone who tries to explain to the public what's going on.” But sometimes the tribunes aren’t “right-wing partisans”—sometimes they’re simply angry high foppists, people whose peculiar anger has been stoked inside mahogany-paneled clubs. Daniel Okrent has wasted his life inventing utterly pointless games; eating the freshest of octopus hearts; writing reports about Walt Dropo’s drop-off; and becoming angry at productive people like Krugman. Men like this are a dime a dozen, but they often emerge from the “innard circles” of the powerful classes that breed them. Daniel Okrent—peerless inventor of rotisserie baseball—revealed himself as such a wasted man in the bizarre column Paul Krugman now mocks.

There’s nothing wrong with having a couple of bucks. But there is something wrong with having a press corps whose opinion leaders are all millionaires. You end up with fops like Okrent in power—and with tools like Chris Matthews staging discussions about “presidential college grades.” Can’t you hear their sloppy wet kisses to power? Thank God there are no serious problems for such tribunes and tools to discuss.

SPEAKING OF SERIOUS PROBLEMS: A few weeks ago, the New York Times’ Sam Dillon reported on alleged affects of No Child Left Behind. We thought Dillon’s piece was weak—typical of the way big papers gloss the real issues of urban education. For that reason, we were struck when Matt Yglesias praised Dillon’s “excellent report” at Tapped:

YGLESIAS (5/27/05):
THE SUNNY SIDE OF NCLB. You hear a lot of bad things about No Child Left Behind from groups on the left and on the right. And it's a big, complicated law with a lot of provisions, many of which are unsatisfactory in various ways. At the same time, as Sam Dillon's excellent report in today's New York Times reminds us, the law has at its core a very laudable liberal goal: Forcing school administrators to get serious about educating black kids, Hispanic kids, poor kids, and generally speaking, those groups of students who tend not to do so well under the status quo. As the article shows, that wasn't just one of the main intentions of the law—it's actually working. Schools across the country are scrambling to try and find ways to cope with a difficult problem that nobody really knows for sure how to solve, and that most folks charged with running schools would, if left to their own devices, just as soon ignore.
From reading that, you might think that Dillon’s piece shows that No Child Left Behind “is actually working”—that it’s actually producing educational gains on the part of minority kids. In fact, that may not be what Ygelsias meant—it isn’t what he literally said—although we had to read his piece several times to puzzle that out. But what did Dillon say in the Times? As a sequel to this week’s reports on public school test scores, let’s see what Dillon actually showed—and let’s examine a couple of things Yglesias said in his brief comment.

Quick overview: Dillon reported on one part of NCLB—the part of the law which requires school systems to report test scores of various minority groups. According to Dillon, this provision has lit a fire under the nation’s school systems. Here’s how he began:

DILLON (5/27/05): Spurred by President Bush's No Child Left Behind law, educators across the nation are putting extraordinary effort into improving the achievement of minority students, who lag so sharply that by 12th grade, the average black or Hispanic student can read and do arithmetic only as well as the average eighth-grade white student.

Here in Boston, low-achieving students, most of them blacks and Hispanics, are seeing tutors during lunch hours for help with math. In a Sacramento junior high, low-achieving students are barred from orchestra and chorus to free up time for remedial English and math. And in Minnesota, where American Indian students, on average, score lower than whites on standardized tests, educators rearranged schedules so that Chippewa teenagers who once sewed beads onto native costumes during school now work on grammar and algebra.

''People all over the country are suddenly scrambling around trying to find ways to close this gap,'' said Ronald Ferguson, a Harvard professor who for more than a decade has been researching school practices that could help improve minority achievement. He said he recently has received many requests for advice. ''Superintendents are calling and saying, 'Can you help us?'''

But is it true? Are educators making new, “extraordinary efforts” to help minority kids succeed? It may be true, but Dillon’s piece doesn’t prove it; you can always find experts who are making such statements, and you can always find chest-thumping principals who are willing to brag about their own brilliance. But are such efforts being made as a general matter? We don’t know—and it’s a hard thing to measure. Dillon offers a cursory survey; his report hardly settles the case.

But let’s turn to the more significant point—are such efforts actually working? Are minority kids really reading better because of these “extraordinary efforts?” Is that nagging “achievement gap” being closed between whites and minorities? At first, we thought Yglesias was making that claim—and Dillon’s piece doesn’t show it. Here’s the one place where Dillon attempts to present some serious evidence:

DILLON: In a National Public Radio interview last month, Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings was asked whether the [achievement] gap was closing.

''Absolutely,'' Secretary Spellings said, ''every state in the country is showing progress.''

As a success story she cited Maryland, where the percentages of Hispanic and black fifth graders demonstrating math proficiency, for example, have risen somewhat faster than those of white students,
whose scores have also risen.

''We've done it by training our teachers and by identifying and helping those students who need special support,'' said Nancy S. Grasmick, Maryland's state superintendent.

Of course, the Margaret Spellings of the world have been making since statements for decades—since the days when every state was supposedly scoring above the national norm, when even New York City’s kids were supposedly beating the nation. Here at THE HOWLER, we happen to know Dr. Grasmick (who can forget our hilarious performances at those Maryland Teacher of the Year banquets?), and we definitely wouldn’t question her dedication or sincerity. (We’ll save that for the supes we don’t know.) But the “success story” Spellings cited in Maryland is a fairly minor story. On June 8, the Washington Post reported the latest state-wide testing. “[S]cores showed that some historic achievement gaps are narrowing,” the paper reported. “In 2003, 79 percent of non-Hispanic white third-graders scored at proficient or better in math; this year, 87 percent did. Black students are now 23 percentage points behind non-Hispanic white students, after being 32 points behind two years ago.” Are such score gains real or illusory? We don’t know, but if this is the strongest evidence Spellings can offer, the jury is out on the claim that NCLB is closing that historic “gap.” NCLB may lead to real gains. We’re persistent skeptics about such claims, but we won’t say yes or no.

For ourselves, we were struck by something Dillon reported from a Sacramento junior high—the junior high where “low-achieving students are barred from orchestra and chorus to free up time for remedial English” (see above). Dillon spokes with the school’s principal, Samuel Harris. We were struck by what Harris said:

DILLON: Not all educators have found it easy to use the law to help low-performing students. At Martin Luther King Jr. Junior High in Sacramento, a high-poverty school labeled by the federal government as ''in need of improvement'' for several years, the principal, Samuel Harris, said he has found charting new strategies difficult.

''Basically, everything they suggest that you do to turn things around, we've already done,'' said Mr. Harris, a retired Army lieutenant colonel.

This year, Mr. Harris hired a math consultant to improve teachers' skills. He barred 350 low-achieving students—9 out of 10 of them black, Hispanic or Laotian immigrants—from participating in band, chorus or other elective activities to make time for five hours of unbroken remedial reading and math study each day. He convened hundreds of students to the auditorium for a pretesting pep rally, and before they sat down for the statewide exams this month, his aides distributed free snacks.

''We called it brain food,'' Mr. Harris said.

On last spring's tests, fewer than one in five of King Junior High's minority students demonstrated proficiency in reading or math. Yet under the terms of the federal law, Mr. Harris could lose his job unless an additional 24 percent of students demonstrate proficiency this year, a large one-year leap.

Dillon didn’t say, but we checked it out—Harris has been at MLK for five years. He says that he’s tried all the recommended approaches, but his kids are still doing so poorly that he may get bounced from his job. We’ll say one thing for Principal Harris; he hasn’t tried one standard approach—he hasn’t tried to gimmick his test scores. Around the U.S., many others have. And trust us—they’ve done so for the past many years.

Harris’ statements reminded us of our experience in Baltimore’s city schools. It isn’t easy to get those test scores up—and yes, many people end up cheating to produce those pleasing press conferences. They’ve been cheating their keisters off for years, and the press corps refuses to notice. (More below.)

Are teachers now making “extraordinary efforts?” In our experience, teachers have been trying hard for a long time to improve literacy in our urban schools. Will No Child Behind help out? We don’t have any idea. But we’re puzzled by something Ygelsiasa said; we’re puzzled when he says that “forcing school administrators to get serious about educating black kids, Hispanic kids, poor kids” is “a very laudable liberal goal.” Sounds good, but trust us—liberals walked away from urban schools decades ago, and they show little plan to return. In fact, it’s conservatives—people like Bush—who have talked about the achievement gap in recent decades, and have said we have to address it. We’ve never seen any real sign that conservatives have any real answers here. But why call this a “liberal” goal? In our experience, liberals quit on this is the early 70s—and mainstream press corps walked out the door with them. Today, the press corps accepts any claim about urban schools—as long as the claims are quite pleasing.

FINAL NOTE ON SEEING NO EVIL: Yes, your big urban papers will see no evil when it comes to those pleasing test scores. Yesterday, the Washington Post wrote its latest editorial trashing Andre Hornsby, the recently resigned Prince George’s supe. Here’s part of what the outraged eds said:

WASHINGTON POST EDITORIAL (6/10/05): With each new squalid revelation, it becomes clearer why Andre J. Hornsby slipped out while he could. Mr. Hornsby, the former Prince George's County schools chief, resigned two weeks ago as an independent consultant hired by the schools to examine his shenanigans in office prepared to release its report. The report, by Huron Consulting Group Inc., makes clear that Mr. Hornsby, as chief executive of one of the nation's 20 biggest school systems, thought nothing of mingling money, contracts, friends and even his own on-the-side consulting business.
You can read the whole editorial; basically, the Post called Hornsby a crook. (For ourselves, we have no views on these financial matters.) But nowhere did the editors say a word about Hornsby’s history with Houston’s phony testing—the history he shared with the sainted Rod Paige. Nowhere did they wonder if Hornsby “played fast and loose with the truth” when it came to testing, the way they say he did in these financial matters. In fact, the Post has never breathed a word about the Houston fakery when they have reporting Hornsby’s pleasing test scores in Maryland. Yep! Liberals and the mainstream press walked away from minority kids long ago. They specialize in pleasing tales—in sweeping minority kids under the rug. It makes their various readers feel good. Pleasing tales are good for their business.