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DO URBAN KIDS MATTER (PART 1)? When city test scores “suggested” progress, the Times rushed to praise a great mayor: // link // print // previous // next //
TUESDAY, JULY 5, 2005

WAR OF THE WORLDS: Culture shock, modern America-style: You spend a leisurely three-day weekend immersed in normal human interactions. And then, big shock! Tuesday morning, you return to the odd ruminations of the New York Times op-ed page.

For example, consider John Tierney’s column this morning. Tierney starts by listing two questions he would pose to a Court nominee:
TIERNEY (7/5/05): Two questions I'd like to ask candidates for Sandra Day O'Connor's job:

1. Does the Constitution forbid the government from seizing your home and giving it to someone else?

2.If you're not sure, would you be willing to tour Pittsburgh before taking this job?

But how would a tour of Pittsburgh help someone know what the Constitution forbids? Answer: It wouldn’t–of course. But so what? After a silly jibe at current Justices who are “not inclined to be too literal about the Bill of Rights,” Tierney goes off on his latest tear. Urban renewal in his native Pittsburgh has been a disaster, he says–a decades-long string of bad decisions. And somehow, this is supposed to help O’Connor’s replacement know how to make a judicial ruling about eminent domain. Tierney wants this new Justice to read the Constitution literally–and to base her rulings on the way planners screwed up the Lower Hill District. Does any of this make a lick of sense? No–except at the Times.

And then, as always, there’s Kristof. Believe it or not, this is paragraph 10 of today’s 14-paragraph column:
KRISTOF (7/5/05): The divide I portray between the left and right is, of course, a caricature. Some of the very best work to help the poor is done by liberal-leaning groups, like the Carter Center, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and Doctors Without Borders. They all use their resources to make real changes on the ground.
Only Kristof thinks this way. Only Kristof tells us, in paragraph 10, that paragraphs 1-9 were “of course, a caricature”–a wild misstatement of reality. And as always, Kristof’s “caricature” tilts in favor of magnificent Bush at the expense of those vile, worthless Dems. Only if you read all the way to the end do you escape his sprawling burlesque, finally getting a chance to learn what Bush has really done in Africa.

What has Bush actually done? Here at THE HOWLER, we don’t know, but here’s what Kristof finally says: In paragraph 11, we learn that “because anything with a whiff of sex in it makes some conservatives go nuts, Mr. Bush's decision to cut off funds for the U.N. Population Fund means that more African girls will die in childbirth.” And: “Even more tragic is the administration's blind hostility to condoms to fight AIDS–resulting in more dead Africans.”

So Bush, the hero of the earlier caricature, is consigning many young Africans to death, for reasons that are utterly kooky. But there’s more: In paragraph 12, we learn that Bush “has another blind spot” concerning Africa; “sometimes he seems to use legitimate concerns about aid as an excuse for stinginess.” And in paragraph 13–at the end of the piece–we learn why Bush is so stingy:
KRISTOF: Mr. Bush is resisting the G-8's calls for further help for Africa; he thinks the sums are better spent on cutting the taxes of the richest people on earth than on saving the lives of the poorest. Come on, Republicans! You need to persuade Mr. Bush to be more generous this week, because his present refusal to help isn't conservative, but just plain selfish.
So let’s review: Bush is consigning young Africans to death because a whiff of sex makes his crowd go nuts. And he’s stingy when it comes to legitimate aid so he can cut taxes for the world’s richest people. This is what we learn from Kristof–after the lengthy caricature stops. By the way–the headline atop this puzzling column is “Bush, a Friend of Africa.” But remember the rules of a Kristof column: When the preening scribe isn’t touring the world showing off his deeply superior values, he will always be found back at home, penning weird, illogical columns about how Dems cause all the world’s problems. And, of course, he is constantly listed as one of the Times’ “liberal” columnists.

Where on earth–except in the Times–do people reason in this manner? In paragraphs 1-9, Kristof heaps praise on Magnificent Bush. Then, we’re told it was just a caricature–that Bush is killing kids for kooky reasons and withholding aid to pay off the rich. Do dying children deserve better than this? Not from this prig of a pundit–and surely not from the hapless Times, which today presents two more case studies in the way normal humans don’t reason.

ANALYST STANLEY, WE PRESUME: And then, there’s Alessandra Stanley, the deathless Times culture analyst. After reading today’s op-eds, we scanned these letters about Tom Cruise, found on the facing editorial page. As we did, we were reminded of Stanley’s odd critique of the actor’s dust-up with Matt Lauer. You know the Times! When Cruise ranted about Brooke Shields, Stanley was the only creature on the face of earth who saw him taking Matt’s measure:
STANLEY (6/25/05): ''Matt, Matt, you don't even–you're glib,'' Mr. Cruise said. ''You don't even know what Ritalin is. If you start talking about chemical imbalance, you have to evaluate and read the research papers on how they came up with these theories, Matt, O.K.? That's what I've done.''

And, actually, he had a point. Morning talk show hosts are facile and heavily scripted, and too often they recite streams of perceived wisdom as if they were undeniable facts. Mr. Lauer showed grace but not much intellectual skill as he was out-debated by a Hollywood actor who described psychiatry as a pseudoscience and said vitamins and exercise could cure postpartum depression.

In fact, Lauer showed tremendous skill in this session with Cruise. Repeatedly, he returned to a simple question–Isn’t it possible that drugs help some people?– and let Cruise showcase his heavily scripted (and weirdly angry) non-answer answers. As the letters in today’s Times show, everyone else on the face of the earth saw that Cruise functioned poorly that day. But Cruise outpointed hapless Lauer in the cave where Times analysts gather! War of the worlds? When you spend a long weekend among normal creatures, it can really be a shock to return to the talk of the Times.

READING LITERALLY: By the way, what were Clinton’s Court appointments really like? When Ruth Bader Ginsburg was nominated in 1993, Joan Biskupic discussed her judicial career in the Post:
BISKUPIC (6/15/93): On the D.C. Court of Appeals, to which she was appointed by President Jimmy Carter in 1980, she has become a swing vote. A 1988 computer study by Legal Times newspaper found that she had sided more with Republican-appointed colleagues than [with her] Democratic counterparts. In cases that were not unanimous, she voted most often with then-Judge Kenneth W. Starr, who became George Bush's solicitor general, and Laurence H. Silberman, a Reagan appointee still on the court.

While Ginsburg supports abortion rights, she has criticized the legal analysis of Roe v. Wade. Her point, which was first made public in a 1984 speech at the University of North Carolina and generated new controversy after a recent talk at New York University law school, is that the broad framework for a right to privacy to end a pregnancy is not constitutionally sound.

She criticized the ruling for preempting state legislatures, which in the early 1970s were moving more toward the legalization of abortion. She credits Roe's overreach with spawning the vocal "right-to-life movement" and bitter legislative attempts to counteract a liberal abortion policy...

Such criticism of Roe's daring framework is not uncommon among legal scholars, although most liberal-leaning professors have avoided any public criticism of the controversial opinion, fearing an undermining of abortion rights.

Today, Tierney amazes with his silly jibes about Justices who are “not inclined to be too literal.” (Earth to Tierney and all ninth-graders: The Constitution doesn’t “literally” say what a “public use” is.) But then, Tierney’s silly comments appear in the Times–where Tom Cruise recently showed the world how poorly Matt Lauer really functions.

Special report–Do urban kids matter?


PART 1–BLOOMBERG ECSTATIC: On May 18, the New York City schools released the results of this year’s fourth-grade “English Language Arts” test. (The test is a mandatory, statewide exam; this was the seventh year it had been given.) And hay-yo! New York City’s fourth graders had done much better–better than they’d ever done in the past. Indeed, 59.5 percent of the fourth-graders showed proficiency–a jump of 9.9 points from the previous year. Last week, in the New York Times, Michael Winerip recalled the elation of that great day–and he listed a string of powerful players who gain when those test scores go up:
WINERIP (6/29/05): Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg was ecstatic–he'd promised to make the schools better and now he had Exhibit A. High test scores are good for the union, too. Within days, New York City teachers were rallying, citing the test scores as evidence that they deserved a hefty raise after two years without a contract. High test scores delight parents and children. High test scores are good for the testing companies that do the state and city tests; people don't complain about flawed tests when scores go up.
What happens when urban test scores go up? Teachers gain. Test companies gain. And yes, ecstatic mayors gain–especially if they seek re-election. In real time, David Herszsenhorn described the way the mayor rushed to give himself credit:
HERSZENHORN (5/19/05): Mr. Bloomberg, who has repeatedly urged voters to judge him on his ambitious effort to reinvent the nation's largest school system, made a triumphant visit to Public School 33 in the Bronx, where the number of fourth graders meeting state literacy standards more than doubled....

''Tonight, everybody in the city has a reason to have a smile on their face,'' Mr. Bloomberg said.

Everyone had a reason to smile–but nobody more than the mayor himself! According to Herszenhorn, Bloomberg–now up for re-election–spent the bulk of his time at P.S. 33 “boasting of the largest one-year increase in fourth-grade scores since the current state testing regimen began in 1999.” In a separate article that day, Patrick Healy shared the mayor’s wisdom. “You know, maybe it's just time that people stopped and said when we really have some good news, we should enjoy it,” the ecstatic chief executive said.

But did the rise in fourth-grade scores reflect an actual gain in learning? And did the test scores validate Bloomberg’s “ambitious effort to reinvent the nation's largest school system?” Uh-oh! Both these claims were thrown into doubt by results from other urban districts. New York City’s passing rate had gone up, but in three of the state’s other large cities, passing rates had risen even faster. Herszenhorn: “[T]he fourth-grade gains in Rochester, Yonkers and Syracuse–all of the state's large districts except Buffalo–outpaced the 9.9 percentage point improvements in New York City, making it more difficult for Mr. Bloomberg and his schools chancellor, Joel I. Klein, to attribute the better results to their particular initiatives.” For the record, the passing rate jumped 8.2 points across New York State as a whole.

So how about it? Did the rise in city test scores reflect an actual gain in learning? And did it validate Bloomberg’s ballyhooed policies? Even on May 18, political rivals of the mayor were casting doubt on these claims, and if the lives of urban children matter, these questions are very important. But when the mayor boasted about his success, writers at the mighty Times showed few signs of knowing how to examine such serious questions. Indeed, after thirty-plus years of testing hoaxes, the Times still resembles a fourth-grade school paper when confronted with matters like these. Soon, the paper’s editorial board was chastising those who dared to question the pleasing new scores. “Kudos for the Education Mayor,” read the editorial’s headline:
NEW YORK TIMES EDITORIAL (6/6/05): Skeptics, including Mr. Bloomberg's political opponents, of course rushed to challenge the results, suggesting that the test was too easy or that teachers spent too much time on test preparation. And it is indeed the case that city test scores rise and fall and rise again over time. But the latest results suggest that the schools are making progress–and that Mr. Bloomberg has every right to take a bow.
Those skeptics! Because the test scores “suggest” that the schools are making progress, the editors give Bloomberg a bow.

But so it goes when preening elites consider the lives of urban children. See no evil! Hear no evil! And most important, show no technical competence! Suggestions of progress are good enough! For thirty years, big urban papers have followed these rules when confronted with pleasing jumps in test scores. As usual, the mighty Times rushed to play the fool concerning the good mayor’s ecstacy.

What happens when fourth-grade test scores rise? Mayors get themselves re-elected. Teachers get to ask for more money. Testing companies get re-hired. And big city newspapers play the fool, instructing critics to see no evil. But then, the interests of urban kids always come last, as the Times showed again in this matter.

TOMORROW–PART 2: Skeptics’ questions