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WHERE DOES POLITICS COME FROM! Bob Herbert is disappointed too. But is his complaint realistic? // link // print // previous // next //
TUESDAY, JUNE 22, 2010

What’s goin’ on (in Baltimore): Are things getting better in Baltimore’s schools? It isn’t real easy to say. Last Friday, the New York Times offered this account of the progress observed in one Baltimore school, George Washington Elementary. The school’s current passing rate in math is “impressive,” the editors said. They said the school has “clearly benefited” from unnamed “school reforms:”

NEW YORK TIMES EDITORIAL (6/18/10): George Washington Elementary, which serves mainly poor and minority children, has clearly benefited from school reforms. In 2003, about 35 percent of the children passed the state math test. In 2009—when the state monitored testing to prevent tampering—the pass rate reached an impressive 78 percent. One of the tragedies of the fraud is that it casts doubt on the honest achievements of hard-working children.

Alas! The editors continue to discuss urban schools in an incompetent manner. Let’s run through a few quick facts about this school’s passing rates in math.

First, that passing rate in math is slightly lower than the passing rate for Baltimore’s elementary schools as a whole. And not only that: The growth in this school’s passing rate closely tracks that of the city as a whole. In some cases, this school has shown less progress in its passing rate than the city has as a whole.

Example: In 2003, 41.9 percent of Baltimore’s third graders passed the state math test. By 2009, the city-wide passing rate had jumped to 88.1 percent. (For all such data, start here.) George Washington Elementary slightly outperformed the city in 2003, before all the progress the editors praised. (Passing rate in 2003: 44.9 percent.) After the school benefited from those school reforms, its third graders slightly under-performed the city. (Passing rate in 2009: 83.3 percent.)

In short, if George Washington has an impressive passing rate in math, so does the whole city of Baltimore. If George Washington has clearly benefited from school reforms, the whole city has done so too. This would be an important news event, a news event the Times should be covering, out on page one. Instead, the editors presented George Washington as a stand-alone success story. We’ll take a wild guess—it never occurred to these Gotham slow-learners to compare this school’s passing rates with those of the entire city. (George Washington’s student demographics come close to matching those of the city as a whole.)

Has the city of Baltimore made remarkable progress over the past six years? It’s possible, but it’s hard to know. You see, passing rates all over Maryland have soared in the period being discussed. This may reflect widespread academic advance. But it’s also possible that the state’s math tests have perhaps gotten somewhat easier over this time period.

How much math does a third-grader have to know to pass Maryland’s third-grade math test? Trust us—the editors don’t know. (And haven’t inquired.) Was the state test as demanding in 2009 as it was in 2003? The editors don’t know that either. At George Washington, the passing rates are substantially higher than they used to be. To what extent does that reflect real academic gain? The editors don’t know. Beyond that, they show no sign of knowing that questions like these have been widely discussed in the past several years, as the pressures of high-stakes testing seem to have led some states to make their state tests somewhat easier.

The editors railed against one type of “fraud,” then failed to inquire about this second, widely-discussed variant.

Are low-income kids around the nation doing better in school? Results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (the NAEP) suggest that they actually are. But alas! Big newspapers like the Times do a woeful job reporting the NAEP—and they do a woeful job reporting the testing programs of the various states. Meanwhile, everyone continues to love the story of the miracle school with the super-high scores. George Washington was hailed as a miracle school when its passing rates soared in 2006. It was even named a National Blue Ribbon School of Excellence, with no questions asked about its sudden, improbably high passing rates. By 2008, whistle-blowing complaints by a parent had led to an investigation. It turned out that GW’s passing rates had actually been impossibly high. Someone at the school had been cheating in a systematic manner (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 6/21/10).

George Washington’s current passing rates are real—but they closely match the passing rates of Baltimore as a whole. How well are Baltimore’s deserving children currently doing in reading and math? That’s a deeply important question, except in the national press.

WHERE DOES POLITICS COME FROM (permalink): Bob Herbert is upset by the state of American politics, as is completely appropriate. His new column in the New York Times is headlined thusly: “When Greatness Slips Away.”

The greatness Herbert sees slipping away is that of America itself. Like others on the left, Herbert seems to be dissatisfied with Obama’s Oval Office address. “President Obama could have laid out a dramatic new energy policy for the U.S., calling on every American to do his or her part to help us escape the insidious, nonstop destruction that is the result of our obsessive reliance on fossil fuels,” Herbert writes. “He chose not to.”

Should Obama have proposed “a dramatic new policy?” Here at THE HOWLER, we can’t really say. Since Obama isn’t a college professor, this question inevitably turns on basic matters of politics. A president can propose dramatic new policies —but can he get those dramatic programs enacted? Near the end of his column, Herbert complains about the “sorry explanations” for our failures and our decline:

HERBERT (6/22/10): We are submitting to this debacle with the same pathetic lack of creativity and helpless mind-set that now seems to be the default position of Americans in the 21st century. We have become a nation that is good at destroying things—with wars overseas and mind-bogglingly self-destructive policies here at home—but that has lost sight of how to build and maintain a flourishing society. We’re dismantling our public school system and, incredibly, attacking our spectacularly successful system of higher education, which is the finest in the world.

How is it possible that we would let this happen?

We’ve got all kinds of sorry explanations for why we can’t do any of the things we need to do. The Democrats can’t get 60 votes in the Senate. Our budget deficits are too high. Rush Limbaugh or Glenn Beck might object.

Meanwhile, the greatness of the United States, which so many have taken for granted for so long, is steadily slipping away.

Herbert lists several “sorry explanations” for the current state of affairs. Among his explanations, this one comes first: “The Democrats can’t get 60 votes in the Senate.”

That really is one explanation for our current state of affairs. But why does Herbert call it a “sorry” explanation? We have no idea. Under our current degraded procedures, you really do need 60 votes to get most things passed in the senate. A president has to consider this problem, even if liberal scribes don’t.

Last week, Rachel Maddow brushed this problem aside, announcing that she would pass an energy bill by using reconciliation (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 6/21/10). The fact that you can’t use reconciliation for such a bill didn’t cool the ardor of her “fake presidential address.” We thought of Maddow’s fake address as we read Herbert’s column, since he too seemed to brush his way past the procedural facts which define our gruesome politics. It’s always easy to get to yes, if you simply ignore the roadblocks which lead us back to no.

Why is it hard to move an energy bill—to pass a “dramatic new policy?” Across the page from Herbert’s column, David Brooks presents a grimly realistic account of the political lay of the land—an account which liberals and progressives might well want to ponder.

Brooks makes at least one factual blunder in his recitation. “Americans now see debt as the primary threat to their well-being,” he says, a claim that is quite hard to square with the bulk of current polling. That said, Brooks defines another problem confronting Obama. However convincing Maddow’s address may have sounded to Maddow, the American people—the voters; the electorate; the people; your neighbors—simply may not tend to agree with a boatload of liberal perspectives:

BROOKS (6/22/10): Prospects for the 2010 election are grim. Election guru Charlie Cook suspects the G.O.P. will retake the House. N.P.R. polled the 60 most competitive House districts currently held by Democrats. Democrats trail Republicans in those districts, on average, by 5 percentage points. Independent voters in the districts favor Republicans by an average of 18 percentage points.

By 57 percent to 37 percent, voters in these districts embrace the proposition that “President Obama’s economic policies have run up a record federal deficit while failing to end the recession or slow the record pace of job losses.”

Instead of building faith in government, the events of 2009 and 2010 further undermined it. An absurdly low 6 percent of Americans acknowledge that the stimulus package created jobs, according to a New York Times/CBS survey.

That “absurdly low,” counterfactual belief is the just tip of the iceberg. In the wake of the oil disaster, what do actual voters think about our energy issues? In that New York Times/CBS poll, only 29 percent of respondents thought “protecting the environment” should be a higher priority than “developing new sources of energy.” (Forty-nine percent preferred the latter priority.) Among Gulf Coast respondents, 54 percent favored “increased drilling for oil and natural gas off the U.S. coast.” Only 36 percent thought “the costs and risks are too great.”

In fairness, many of those people could be influenced by passionate rhetoric, or even by serious argument. But inevitably, political possibilities are limited by the views of the electorate. In today’s column, Brooks makes the following statements. Are these statements true?

BROOKS: Moderate suburban voters do not see the world as liberals do, even in the most propitious circumstances, and never will.

BROOKS: [L]iberals can’t have their way and still win elections in places like North Carolina, Ohio and Missouri.

Are those statements actually true? A nation’s political possibilities are always limited by the outlooks, beliefs, perspectives and views of its electorate, however benighted such views may be from the liberal perspective. Is it true that suburban voters don’t see the world as liberals do? That liberal views simply can’t prevail in states like the three Brooks mentions?

Funny we should ask! Last week, Gene Lyons, writing from darkest Arkansas, offered some thoughts about that state’s electorate. What Lyons wrote is well worth considering—as is this Digby post, especially the “update.”

Tomorrow: Gene and Dig

Thursday: King and Blow