Daily Howler logo
ONLY THE BEST NEED APPLY! The instinctive refusal to tell you the truth lies at the heart of their culture: // link // print // previous // next //
MONDAY, JUNE 16, 2008

ONLY THE BEST NEED APPLY: We look forward to reading Relentless Pursuit, Donna Foote’s new book about four “Teach for America” recruits who taught at Locke High School (Los Angeles) during the 2005-06 school year. In Sunday’s Washington Post, Jay Mathews reviewed Foote’s book, offering this profile of Locke:

MATHEWS (6/15/08): Locke...was a mostly Hispanic campus with street-gang influences. It had the second-lowest test scores in the city. Only 24 percent of incoming freshmen graduated four years later, and only 3 percent completed requirements for state university admission. It had seen the usual succession of principals and teachers charge into the school eager to make a difference but then limp away in defeat.

We look forward to reading Foote’s book. But we thought the tone of Mathews’ review captured the framework of much mainstream reporting about low-income schools.

For starters, we were struck by a truly remarkable passage. In it, Mathews applauds Teach for America’s approach to recruitment. As you can see, at Teach for America, “just anybody” need not apply. Mathews refers to TFA founder Wendy Kopp:

MATHEWS: Foote follows four TFA corps members through the 2005-06 school year at Locke High School in Los Angeles as they fight to get their students' attention and meet what they sometimes consider their program's overbearing expectations. Their stories confirm the cleverness of Kopp's decision not to let just anybody sign up for the two-year stints teaching low-income children. From its beginning in 1990, Teach For America recruited at the most selective colleges and rejected most students who applied. Foote's four heroes graduated from the University of Pennsylvania, Connecticut College, Boston College and the University of Southern California. The fact that they were among just 2,100 selected from 17,300 applicants made the opportunity irresistible to them, at least until they realized how much pain and frustration they were going to encounter at the South Central school.

Mainstream praise for TFA often notes that its recruits come from Ivy League schools. In fact, Foote’s subjects flew in from slightly less lofty perches than those which are frequently cited. Is it a good idea to recruit teachers from these backgrounds? Is it possible that idealistic young graduates of Morgan State or Coppin might have adjusted to Locke more easily? We don’t know, but in the remarkable statement we have highlighted, Mathews rushes to affirm TFA’s approach. He never explains how these four teachers’ stories “confirm the cleverness of Kopp's decision not to let just anybody sign up.” But the attitude conveyed by that remarkable statement is striking—and we think that attitude drives the rest of this piece.

It’s the law! Mainstream reporters must praise Kopp for her high-minded, upper-class goodness—and for her transcendent wisdom. That attitude shows up again as Mathews finds nuggets of hope in the stories Foote explores:

MATHEWS: Critics of the program, cited often in the book, note that many corps members leave teaching after their two years are up, and 13 percent quit before that. Like most inner-city teachers, they have no solution for the many students who don't listen, don't try and in many cases don't come to class. Foote portrays the teachers here vividly, showing how their frustrations sometimes boil over, such as when a student urinates in the classroom or when TFA monitors drop by for visits that seem more annoying than instructive.

But by the end of book, the four teachers at Locke have begun to validate Kopp's vision. They are better teachers and are thinking of staying in education or at least finding ways to help schools like Locke. Foote argues that even the first-year corps members, clumsy and frightened as they are, devote more energy and enthusiasm to their students than the weary, long-term substitutes that principals would have had to hire if TFA did not exist.

For forty years, it’s been Hard Pundit Law—such narratives must have a happy ending! In this case, the four subjects “are better teachers” by the end of the book—better than they were at the start, that is, when they were presumably horrible. And omigod! They’ve decided to stay at Locke! Well actually, no—they’ve decided to stay in education. Well actually, no—they are thinking of staying in education. Or, if not that, they are “thinking of at least finding ways to help schools like Locke.” In our view, that’s a pretty slender pay-off—if you read the passage carefully, which you’re not supposed to do. But in Mathews’ hands, it makes us think, for a brief shining moment, that Wendy Kopp’s “vision” has been validated. Well—that it has “begun” to be validated. After eighteen years.

By the end of the book, were these four young teachers better “than the weary, long-term substitutes that principals would have had to hire if TFA did not exist?” We’ll guess they most likely were. But that too is very thin gruel, if we actually care about the disaster conveyed in those statistics from Locke. And then, by law, we’re handed this slightly confusing but familiar passage—a disheartening passage in which upper-class sanctities are affirmed again:

MATHEWS (continuing directly): The fact remains that these young teachers are considered temporary and their ideas rarely gain traction. In a disheartening scene, some activist teachers, with support from the four TFA newcomers, propose a longer school day, one of the few inner-city school reforms that has worked in recent years. What they get in response is an outburst of resentment. "I don't think you need to bring up how hard you work and how much you care," says one school veteran just before the plan is rejected by a 72-36 faculty vote. "Most of you aren't gonna be here.”

As the TFA 4 prepare to flee Locke (But don’t worry! They’re “thinking of at least finding ways to help such schools!”), injury is added to insult. “In a disheartening scene,” Locke’s veteran teachers fail to accept the “ideas” of the bright young people who were airlifted in from the very best schools to share their two years’ worth of wisdom. Doggone it! “What they get in response” to their ideas “is an outburst of resentment,” as one veteran teacher—the villain, as always—makes a perfectly obvious statement. The bright young imports will be fleeing Locke. Most of them “aren’t gonna be there” to work the extra hours they’re recommending—recommending as they head for the door.

By the way: Is it true? Is it true that a longer school day is “one of the few inner-city school reforms that has worked in recent years?” Has this reform “worked” at schools like Locke? If so, how well has it “worked?” Such details rarely muddy these narratives—narratives which mainly exist to shower praise on graduates of “the most selective colleges” who were willing to slum for two years, while aiming scorn at the regular people who spend their whole lives at Locke.

For ourselves, we’re not inclined to be real high on Teach for America; we’d guess that Kopp could spend her admirable energy in more productive ways. And none of this is meant as a criticism of the four young people who went to Locke. But whatever the merits of TFA, the mainstream press has written variants of this piece for at least the past forty years. Upper-class heroes are not always present. But the villain is always those lazy-bum teachers, dragging their feet in the face of high-minded reforms—reforms which are often suggested by journalists or educational experts who, like TFA recruits, will spend a few moments at schools like Locke before stampeding out the door. Mathews’ review reads to us like a novel—a novel we’ve read for forty years.

Only the very best need apply! That includes young graduates of the most selective schools. But it also includes mainstream journalists and “educational experts,” who are always willing to cast themselves in the hero role of this piece. From roughly a million miles away, they’re willing to hand worthless ideas to the rubes. By law, the rubes are resentful.

More of their cluelessness bites the dust: Educational experts and mainstream journalists were high on another know-nothing idea. In Friday’s Post, Maria Glod did a good job reporting its (predictable) failure.

NICEST GUYS IN THE WORLD MAY SPEAK LAST: Here at THE HOWLER, we didn’t know Tim Russert, although we have no trouble believing that he really was, on a personal basis, the nicest guy in the world, as so many have said this past weekend. He was nice enough to take part in the 1997 “Funniest Celebrity in Washington Contest,” a charity event in which we’re semi-vaguely involved. (Chris Matthews won that year, though we’d have voted differently. Lieberman took the prize the next year, in an obvious win.) The last time we interacted with Tim was at another comedy event, up in Manchester, the weekend before the 2000 New Hampshire primary. (Given the location, impressionist Jim Morris got to do his superlative bit in which Tom Brokaw tries to interview Paul Tsongas—and can’t quite make out what he’s saying.) Shortly before the hilarity started, Tim sidled up to us and said, “So what’s going on, Somerby? Heh heh heh heh.” We were a bit surprised when he did that; given his massive influence, we could also see why people inside the Washington sphere would want to be friends with this very cheerful, very powerful person. In his insinuative “heh heh heh heh,” we recall the spirit of fun we’ve heard described all weekend.

Based on what we saw first-hand, we would guess that Brother Russert really was the nicest guy in the world.

Sometimes, though, “nicest guys in the world” are the last to challenge conventional wisdom—even when it desperately needs to be challenged, examined, hollered about. In Tim’s case, we think he showed poor judgment in various instances over the years, as we’re all inclined to do. Chris Matthews touched on one possible error in judgment in his comments from Paris on Friday’s Countdown (text below). For once, we think Chris’ lack of impulse control served the public understanding—although he’s getting beaten up for his comment at various spots on the web.

Over the weekend, other members of the mainstream press corps did the thing that comes natural inside their group; they went on the air and told Group Tales, tales which reflected quite wondrously on Tim’s journalistic work—and, of course, by extension, most importantly, on them. Telling the truth is pretty much the last thing that enters these people’s heads. And so, they handed out novelized tales about Tim’s always brilliant work—failing to make the slightest attempt to be balanced, objective or truthful.

For the record, we’re talking about the way they described Tim’s work—not the way they described his decency as a person, a person they loved.

This isn’t really the week for such topics, though Tim’s death—more precisely, the torrent of industry propaganda it unleashed—demands that such topics be discussed. We’ll plan to look at some of those issues next week. In the meantime, we’ll suggest that you ponder a real possibility: The possibility that a guy who showed a fair amount of bad judgment—as we all do—may also have been the nicest guy in the world, just as you’ve seen him described.

We know—being “nicest guy” wasn’t Tim’s job. But then again, it’s also not nothing: “But what has gone is also not nothing/by the rule of the game something has gone.”

The guy who wrote those books about dads is the same guy who gave those embarrassing answers in that interview with Bill Moyers. (In fairness, we’re inclined to think that Moyers overstated one alleged problem.) Predictably enough, Tim’s colleagues told you about the books; that interview got disappeared—along with the (inevitable) human shortcomings behind it. And no, they didn’t necessarily do that out of respect; it’s what they do in every circumstance. The instinctive refusal to tell you the truth lies at the heart of their culture.

WHAT MATTHEWS SAID: The transcript hasn’t been posted. To watch the tape, just click here. Most likely, Matthews should have waited for another day. Then too, how dare a major journalist say something that’s truthful and accurate? Inside this cohort’s novelized culture, how dare a journalist suggest that a powerful colleague may even have made a mistake?