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Daily Howler: Russert misstated elementary facts. It's high time the public was told
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IT’S TIME FOR TIM TO GO! Russert misstated elementary facts. It’s high time the public was told: // link // print // previous // next //
MONDAY, JULY 2, 2007

READING RHEE’S RESUME: Wow! This is one of the most intriguing news reports we’ve ever read in the Washington Post. It ran on Saturday, under this headline: “Council to Challenge Rhee’s Résumé .”

“Rhee” is 37-year-old Michelle Rhee, former head of The New Teacher Project. In June, she became Mayor Adrian Fenty’s (surprising) choice to run DC’s public schools.

Why the challenge to Rhee’s résumé? According to Nikita Stewart’s report in the Post, the DC council will question Rhee “about claims in her résumé that she improved students' test scores when she taught in Baltimore a decade ago.”

In truth, those claims should be analyzed. In this passage, Stewart describes the remarkable claim which has raised local eyebrows:
STEWART (6/30/07): Rhee's résumé asserts that the students made a dramatic gain: "Over a two-year period, moved students scoring on average at the 13th percentile on national standardized tests to 90 percent of students scoring at the 90th percentile or higher."
In truth, score gains like that would be more than “dramatic;” such score gains would be historic, a blessed educational revolution. Based on reports in the Post and the Washington Times, it seems that two questions are being asked about Rhee’s remarkable claim:

First question: Did Rhee’s students really record such score gains?

Second question: If they did, were the score gains legitimate? Or was there possibly something wrong with the way these kids were tested?

The DC council should kick, scream and yell until both questions have been answered. In the meantime, this story raises a string of questions about the ways we monitor claims about our low-income schools.

The DC council should tackle both questions. In the meantime, we offer these musings:

Is Rhee’s claim accurate? Did Rhee’s students really record those (remarkable) score gains? In theory, it should be easy to find out. But uh-oh! Rhee’s short teaching career took place in Baltimore—and Ben Feldman, that city’s testing director, said there may be a problem. He spoke with the Washington Times’ Gary Emerling, who filed an instructive report:

EMERLING (6/28/07): [E]stablishing a precise link between student achievement and Mrs. Rhee's performance in the Baltimore school system is difficult in part because of dated information systems and antiquated storage.

Mr. Feldman said retrieving data from a decade ago is hard because his office changed its information storage systems for the year 2000.
But surely, “hard” is not impossible. The council should insist that it get complete data for Rhee’s former students, whose brilliant success Rhee has used to land her important new job.

Has Rhee been misstating the facts in a significant way? We have no idea what the record will show. But the council should insist on finding out.

Second question: Could such score gains be legitimate? This second question is a bit tangier. Assuming that Rhee’s students did record such score gains, could the score gains be legitimate? Everything is possible in this life, of course. But we’d have to guess that the answer may be: No.

A bit more background is called for. In the following passage, Stewart summarizes Rhee’s three-year teaching career at Baltimore’s Harlem Park Elementary (roughly a mile from our own sprawling campus). Rhee arrived in the fall of 1992, straight out of college:
STEWART: From 1992 to 1995, Rhee taught at Baltimore's Harlem Park Elementary, one of the worst-performing schools in the city and among nine schools run by a private company, Education Alternatives. During her first year there, she taught second grade. In her final two years there, she received approval to teach the same group of students in second and third grades.

In an interview, Rhee said the improved scores were seen in a comparison of results on the California Comprehensive Test of Basic Skills, which students took at the end of first grade before she had them and at the end of third grade.
In short, Rhee taught at Harlem Park for three years, starting at age 22 or 23. (This represents her entire teaching experience.) In her first year, she taught second grade. She then taught a group of kids for two consecutive years, covering second and third grades. These are the kids who recorded the test scores which are now being questioned. And yes, the alleged score gains are so phenomenal that obvious questions should be asked.

Let’s make this simple: According to that claim on Rhee’s resume, a group of kids at one of Baltimore’s lowest-performing schools recorded phenomenal levels of achievement at the end of third grade. Ninety percent of these students scored at the 90th percentile or higher (presumably, that’s in reading and/or math). In a wealthy suburban school district, that would be a remarkable record—one a principal ought to verify. In a school like Harlem Park, it would be an educational miracle—a revolution. About those test scores, we’ll only ask this:

Did anyone at Harlem Park really believe that those test scores were real? If so, Michelle Rhee should have been arrested and held for further study. If those deserving Harlem Park kids really did achieve at those levels, a young teacher had authored an educational miracle; she had somehow managed to solve a heart-breaking, decades-long educational puzzle. The school should have been crawling with researchers, trying to figure out what she’d done.

Did anyone think this had really occurred? In Stewart’s report, Harlem Park’s principal vouches for Rhee’s claim—and offers a blasé recollection:
STEWART: Three people who worked closely with [Rhee] at the school and a student say the scores rose in the range Rhee suggested.

Linda Carter, who served as principal of Harlem Park when Rhee was there, said the jump in the achievement level was "dramatic" and the scores were "pretty high."

"We were proud of the third-graders then," said Carter, who couldn't recall the exact figures.

Michele Jacobs, 38, who taught in a combined third-grade class with Rhee in 1994-95, said: "I honestly would go with what [Rhee] says...She probably is correct. I know it was high gains. It definitely was high gains."
“We were proud of the third-graders then?” If those test scores were legit, those third-graders had authored a miracle! The wider world should have been asking: How did this young teacher do it? Meanwhile, for reasons we’ll discuss tomorrow, you’d think that Harlem Park Elementary—and its directors from Education Alternatives (EAI)—would have been bruiting this news to the skies. A great deal was riding on Harlem Park’s scores at the time that this would have occurred.

Harlem Park was proud of those kids? Yes, we know—it’s an offhand remark. But it’s puzzling to think that these scores were recorded—and no one bothered to say boo about it. But the archives of the Baltimore Sun suggest that this is what occurred. In 1995, the Sun was covering those EAI schools very closely (to its vast credit)—and no one seems to have said a word about the miracle at Harlem Park.

There are many fascinating angles to this remarkable mystery story. Tomorrow, we’ll explore a few of these angles. But this story raises an obvious question: To what extent do American elites actually care about low-income kids? Let’s ask that question another way: To what extent do elites merely posture about such concerns, broadcasting their own high-minded intentions to an admiring world?

TOMORROW: Millions of dollars were riding on the scores in those EAI schools.

IT’S TIME FOR TIM TO GO: Tim Russert’s contempt for Major Dems tends to surface when control of the White House is at stake (links below). But his journalistic misconduct reached a new low on yesterday’s Meet the Press. As usual, he was banging away on Hillary Clinton—and baldly deceiving his viewers.

The disinformation and spinning began with the following remark. In it, Russert cited two polls. Each was conducted in June:
RUSSERT (7/1/07): David [Brody], let me pick up on the point that Judy [Woodruff] raised. And here’s the latest poll with the two front-runners, Clinton vs. Giuliani. The Cook Report has it 42-42. Our—Newsweek has it 51-44.
On the screen, a graphic showed that dead-even poll from the Cook Report—and it showed the Newsweek poll, in which Clinton led Giuliani by seven. The graphic showed the dates when the two polls were taken. We’ll return to those dates down below.

That graphic flashed on the screen fairly quickly. Let’s return to what Russert said.

Listening to Russert, a viewer might think that “the latest poll” has Clinton and Giuliani tied. He might think that because, quite clearly, that’s what the Russert said. But in fact, Clinton leads Giuliani in a string of recent polls—polls which have been taken in the weeks since that Cook Report poll. Indeed, that dead-even poll isn’t even the most recent Cook poll; in the Cook Report’s most recent poll, Clinton is leading Giuliani! In short, Russert had to cherry-pick hard to find a poll in which Giuliani was tied. He had to pick his way through a long string of polls to find one in which Clinton isn’t leading.

Before we see how thoroughly Russert cherry-picked to pretend that Clinton and Giuliani are tied, let’s look at the startling way his colloquy on this subject ended. CBN’s David Brody had complimented the Clinton campaign on the way they’ve been presenting their candidate. (“They are really putting her in a different light...trying to go outside of what her normal stereotype is”). After listening to Brody’s comments, Russert made a remarkable statement:
BRODY: I mean, if you actually go in and look into the deep files of the Web site of where, where, where she’s at, I mean, they’re putting these major commercials on where she’s just laughing, rolling her eyes, being goofy. Hillary Clinton goofy?

RUSSERT: All right. But it is—and we did show, in one poll, her actually beating Rudy Giuliani—

BRODY: Right.

RUSSERT: So people may hold their nose, so to speak, at this stage. Or she may be successful at transforming her image.
Good God, what an astonishing statement! “We did show, in one poll, her actually beating Giuliani,” Russert magnanimously said. Then, he gave his explanation of this “one poll.” People may be holding their nose to vote for Hillary Clinton!

That would be a striking—and ill-advised—statement under almost any circumstance. But in fact, Russert had discarded a string of recent polls so that he could offer even one poll in which Giuliani and Clinton were tied. In real professions, people get fired for this sort of deception. Russert had baldly deceived his viewers. Then, he blatantly insulted Clinton as he “explained” his misleading data.

What was wrong with Russert’s presentation? In fact, Giuliani seems to be tied with Clinton in no recent major poll. Yes, the two were tied in that Cook Report poll—but that poll was taken on June 15-17. In a more recent Cook Report poll (June 21-23), Clinton is leading Giuliani. Incredibly, Russert skipped the most recent Cook poll, then said the two hopefuls were tied. (For all polling data, click here.)

Indeed, you’d never know it from Russert’s remarks, but Clinton is leading Giuliani in a substantial string of recent polls. “We did show, in one poll, her actually beating Rudy Giuliani,” Russert condescendingly said. But Clinton is beating Giuliani in many recent polls. She leads Giuliani in the most recent Fox poll, taken on June 26-27. She leads him in the most recent CNN poll, taken on June 22-24. She leads him in the most recent Cook Report poll—the one Russert chose to ignore. She leads him in the most recent Newsweek poll—the one Russert managed to cite. She leads him in the mos recent Gallup poll—and in the most recent poll from Russert’s NBC! And she leads him in the most recent Quinnipiac poll, taken on June 5-11. Many of these polls involve close margins. But over the course of the pats three weeks, Clinton has beaten Giuliani in one poll after another. Russert had to cherry-pick hard to present one poll in which they were tied.

But so what? Russert skipped all these recent polls—including NBC’s own survey! He said that Clinton leads in “one poll;” he then skipped the Cook Report’s latest poll to pretend that Clinton and Giuliani are tied in the nation’s “most recent” poll. The misstatement here is simply remarkable. We’re not sure we’ve ever seen a TV host misstate simple data so baldly.

Will Democrats ever reach the point where we stop accepting this sort of misconduct? In the next few weeks, we’ll tell you about a new org we’ll be starting—an org which will go out in public to challenge this type of mainstream press conduct. In the meantime, Russert’s conduct on yesterday’s show is the type that gets real professionals fired. He baldly misled his Meet the Press viewers. He deceived viewers about Clinton—again.

It doesn’t mean a great deal at this point. But Clinton is beating Giuliani in a long string of major polls. Russert pretended there was only one such poll—then said the voters must be holding their nose! Here’s our question to Jack Welch’s best boy: Is there anything you won’t do and say to promote your Nantucket agenda?

VISIT OUR INCOMPARABLE ARCHIVES: We know one thing—this couldn’t have been a mistake! In his self-glorying book, Big Russ & Me, Russert went to great lengths to assure the world that he prepares himself brilliantly for Meet the Press every week. (Needless to say, his father taught him these habits. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 6/30/04.) In fact, if Russert did any preparation for yesterday’s program, he would have known how bogus his presentation about those polling was. Especially given his words of self-praise, it’s hard to see how this deception could have been an actual error. And of course, Meet the Press only airs once a week. Given the topics Russert planned to discuss, what are the odds that he didn’t examine the recent polling on Clinton/Giuliani?

But then, Russert tends to do this. In July 2000, he staged the worst hour we’ve ever seen on TV when he interviewed Candidate Gore; his performance included the most inexcusable misstatement we’ve seen in nine years at this post (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 7/2/03 and 6/30/04, with links to previous work). Three years later, he lit into Candidate Dean with a rude and officious—and selective—display (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 6/30/03). Yesterday, he wrote a new chapter in this sad story, grossly misstating elementary facts about Candidate Clinton. Last week, of course, he did something similar, with Clinton the target once again (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 6/29/07).

In the next few weeks, we’ll start telling you about the incomparable new org we’re building to challenge such conduct. This has gone on for a very long time. It’s high time the public was told.