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Print view: The editors seem to do their worst work when talking about DC's schools
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THE WASHINGTON POST FLUNKS AGAIN! The editors seem to do their worst work when talking about DC’s schools: // link // print // previous // next //
MONDAY, JULY 11, 2011

The social concerns of the Hamptons: Paul Krugman starts his new column which some unkind words. His words suggest that American pundits may be too well-off to give a flying fig about the U.S. economy:

KRUGMAN (7/11/11): If you were shocked by Friday's job report, if you thought we were doing well and were taken aback by the bad news, you haven't been paying attention. The fact is, the United States economy has been stuck in a rut for a year and a half.

Yet a destructive passivity has overtaken our discourse. Turn on your TV and you'll see some self-satisfied pundit declaring that nothing much can be done about the economy's short-run problems (reminder: this ''short run'' is now in its fourth year), that we should focus on the long run instead.

In the rest of his column, Krugman explains that a great deal can be done about the economy's “short-run problems.” As he closes, he again suggests that the “supposedly serious people” you see on TV are too well-off, too self-satisfied, to give a fig—to care.

Could it be true that our High Pundit Class is simply above such concerns? Could it be that those Millionaire Pundit Values have wiped away such concerns? Could it be that they’re too well-off—too isolated, too uncaring—to worry about our ongoing economic disaster? Our possible debt ceiling debacle?

Could any of that be true? Consider what Krugman’s colleague, Roger Cohen, wrote at the start of his own op-ed piece in Saturday’s New York Times.

It sounds like Cohen has been to the Hamptons. He knows what they’re saying out there:

COHEN (7/9/11): For almost two months now, the chattering classes in London, Paris, New York and the Hamptons have struggled to talk about anything but D.S.K. The old animalistic elements have exerted their magnetism: power, sex, violence and race.

The 20 minutes from 12:06 to 12:26 in suite 2806 of the Sofitel New York have become the object of a thousand theories and a French-American bust-up. Yes, there’s talk of a U.S. default and Greece is a bottomless pit, but those 1,200 seconds spent together on May 14 by Dominique Strauss-Kahn and a Guinean housekeeper trump every geostrategic lurch.

According to Cohen, the chattering class in our finer locales want to talk about DSK, nothing else. Darlings! The case is loaded with violence and race! And it’s spilling with sex!

As a naive reader, you might have thought Cohen was offering this thought as a criticism of this chattering class. Sorry! In his column, he too discussed the DSK case in exclusion to everything else! He devoted his column to DSK too! Rome, Georgia—or Dubuque—can pretty much burn.

Cohen’s column was all about that sexy-time race talk too! But this is in keeping with the dominant culture of the New York Times op-ed page. Yesterday, in the Sunday Times, three regular columnists published columns. None of the three showed any sign of knowing that their nation’s in trouble, especially so as the deadline for possible default looms.

Straight from the fancy restaurant beat, Frank Bruni is the Times’ latest star columnist. On what did he opine in yesterday’s column? Of course! On Casey Anthony! Darlings! She “partied while her daughter was missing!” And not only that: “For a court appearance after the verdict, her long hair was once again undone, and she petted it.” And not only that: Her lawyer “start[ed] two businesses, Bon Bon Bikinis and Brazilian Bikinis!”

Bruni’s brain was all wrapped up in murder and sexy-time sex. Then we turned to the clown, Maureen Dowd. Here’s the way her column started, sexy-time headline included:

DOWD (7/10/11): Erotic Vagrancy, Anyone?

Whether to wuther?

I’m never in doubt.

I’m obsessed with obsessions.

Give me a book or a movie about lovers in the depths of a “Wuthering Heights” passion or a Proustian fixation, and I’m off to the moors with a box of madeleines.

So my interest was aroused when I read that one of our most celebrated obsessive filmmakers was going to make a movie about one of our most celebrated obsessive couples. Martin, Liz and Dick—what a threesome.

News reports say that Martin Scorsese plans to make a film of Sam Kashner and Nancy Schoenberger’s 2010 book “Furious Love: Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, and the Marriage of the Century.”

Dowd, who is obsessed with obsessions, was aroused by Liz and by Dick. Does a bigger fool exist on the planet? As usual, she tossed in a few allusions to high literature, making her garbage seem smart. (If we were Dowd, we’d be wracking our brains for a play on words involving “lit” and “clit.”)

One more regular columnist published—Nicholas Kristof, who offered his summer reading list. There was nothing “wrong” with this column, which followed a weak attempt last week to analyze the debt ceiling talks. But the column was headlined like this:

“Action! Romance! Social Justice!”

Social justice? Darlings, please! Who let that one in?

Given the new lay-out of the Sunday Review, quite a few other columns and analysis pieces appeared in yesterday’s section. But no one seemed to have any idea that our nation is in bad trouble. Erica Jong wrote about the future of sex (or something); Diane McWhorter wrote about the legal problems of a relatively minor figure from the Birmingham civil rights era. Dudley Clendenin, a very fine person, discussed how to face the end of life. Peter Kramer discussed antidepressants; Ta-Nehisi Coates discussed a Gil Heron song he heard in 1994.

There was nothing “wrong” with any of these columns; you may feel that some of them were quite good. But something was grossly wrong with the editor who picked these columns while picking no others. Reading yesterday’s Sunday Review, you would have no idea that anything is wrong with our economy—that millions of people are out of work, that we are facing a possible debt ceiling disaster.

Who chose that array of columns? (There were others.) We’re not sure. But in recent months, we’ve often been struck by this paper’s “What, us worry” approach to its guest op-ed selections. On its op-ed page, the New York Times rarely seems to know—or to care—that this nation is in major trouble.

Who is making those selections? We aren’t sure, but here’s our question: Has he or she been out at the Hamptons, “struggling to talk about anything but DSK?” Cohen says that’s all they discuss; Krugman suggests they don’t care.

Final point: This has been going on roughly forever. Columnist Krugman to the side, why haven’t career liberal leaders ever complained about this upper-class culture? Why haven’t “liberal journals” ever profiled Dowd as one of the world’s leading fools?

Are they out at the Hamptons too? Perhaps on their latest job hunt?

Special report: Who’s flunking now!

PART 1—THE WASHINGTON POST FLUNKS AGAIN (permalink): Our major press organs may be corrupt—or they may just be incompetent. But of all the press corps’ Potemkin discussions, none are quite so IQ-challenged as the hapless debates they churn about our public schools.

Many of our biggest news orgs pretend to care deeply about this topic—but routinely, the work they produce merits a failing grade. Consider what happened when the Washington Post editorial board discussed—or tried to discuss; or pretended to discuss—the latest test scores from DC’s public schools.

The new test scores, from the spring of 2011, were released last Friday. In Saturday’s Post, education reporter Bill Turque discussed the scores in this news report; the editors offered their deathless views concerning the scores in this editorial.

Turque did a decent job, although the task of discussing the DC schools is a bit complex. Why is it hard to discuss DC schools? In part, the task is complicated by the large number of charter schools in the District. Roughly forty percent of DC students now attend these charter schools, which are technically “public” schools because they are publicly funded. Almost inevitably, reporting about DC test scores must distinguish between two groups of schools—between “traditional public schools” on the one hand and “public school charters” on the other. Discussions can get very confused if we don’t keep these groups of schools straight.

Adding to the confusion, the District’s traditional public schools carry this name: The District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS). They bear that name even though the charter schools are also public schools, under control of the mayor. And not only that! For reasons which are rarely explained, DC even has a “State Superintendent of Education” (Hosanna Mahaley), even though the District famously isn’t an actual state.

For these reasons, it’s fairly easy to get confused when talking about DC schools. Turque did a decent job in his news report—but as usual, the editors didn’t. By their third paragraph, the editors were citing gains in certain passing rates which didn’t match the gains recorded in the large graphic which accompanied their text. Repeat: The text of their editorial said one thing; their graphic said another.

This is the kind of sloppy work the editors have lustily criticized within the DC schools. (For a fuzzy look at the editors’ graphic, which was quite large in the hard-copy Post, go ahead—just click here. The Post is quite lazy about reproducing its graphics on-line.)

Needless to say, there were other problems with the editors’ work. Just for starters, what did the editors’ graphic actually represent? In four graphs which accompanied his news report, Turque carefully distinguished between the scores of traditional public schools and the scores of public school charters. (For a fuzzy look, click here.) The editors’ graphic may have represented the scores of all DC public schools, including the charters. But their graphic didn’t specifically say. Just from looking at their piece, there’s really no way to be sure.

The editors should be more precise—especially when the data in their graphic don’t match those in their text.

One other note: The editors’ graphic included grade 6 with grades 3-5 in showing the score gains in DC elementary grades. In the same day’s paper, Turque’s graphs included grade 6 with grades 7, 8 and 10, thus treating grade 6 as part of DC’s secondary schools. Neither approach is necessarily “right.” But it’s typical of the editors’ work that their basic configuration didn’t agree with that of their education reporter. This may also explain why the data in their editorial don’t match the data in their graphic, but we don’t plan to waste our time trying to puzzle that out.

The editors were careless this day, as is their wont when they preach and cajole about this particular topic. Then too, they seemed to be rather dishonest. In the highlighted part of the following passage, they gave a remarkably cheerful account of an obvious possibility—the possibility that substantial cheating may have occurred in recent years in many DC schools.

Cheerleaders are found in most American schools. In the highlighted passage, the cheerleading comes from the board room:

WASHINGTON POST EDITORIAL (7/9/11): The gains in test scores over five years—from an increase of 5.54 percentage points in elementary reading to a 19.35-point boost in secondary math—testify to the work begun by former schools chancellor Michelle A. Rhee in setting higher expectations and making the system accountable for results. But the leveling of scores in recent years—elementary scores in both reading and math even dipped slightly this year—suggests that even harder work lies ahead. It's clear that some of the early gains were attributed to what officials called picking the low-hanging fruit: ensuring instructional materials were in place or doing better at test preparation. Apparent anomalies on some test sheets in 2009 prompted some to question whether cheating occurred; outside consultants found possible testing improprieties in three of 14 classrooms flagged for investigation but found no conclusive evidence of cheating; further investigation is underway.

Question: Might “the leveling of scores in recent years” suggest that less cheating is now occurring? Not in this editorial! The highlighted passage about “apparent anomalies on some test sheets in 2009” is a stunningly selective account of an ongoing situation—a situation which is deeply unsettled. Indeed, the editors’ account of the ongoing cheating probe is just this side of flat-out deception.

Have score gains in DC’s public schools been affected by outright cheating in recent years? From this editorial, a reader might think that improprieties may have occurred in three classrooms. But consider what Turque, the Post’s education reporter, wrote about that same topic just one day before. This passage comes from a news report about the ongoing probe into possible cheating on DC’s tests:

TURQUE (7/8/ 11): The U.S. Department of Education has joined the District's investigation into allegations that some recent big gains in standardized test scores might have been the result of cheating by teachers or principals, a D.C. official said Thursday.

Roger Burke, a spokesman for D.C. Inspector General Charles J. Willoughby, said investigators from the Education Department's Office of Inspector General have been active in the probe, which was requested in March by Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson.


USA Today reported in March that from 2008 to 2010, classrooms in more than 100 D.C. schools registered unusually high rates of erasures on answer sheets; wrong answers were changed to correct ones. A test-security firm the District hired to investigate found evidence of "testing irregularities" at three schools during administration of the 2010 D.C. Comprehensive Assessment System exams.

As a result, D.C. officials invalidated test results in three classrooms at Noyes Education Campus and Leckie and C.W. Harris elementary schools and, according to multiple school system and union sources, dismissed at least two teachers.

Good grief! With regard to possible cheating, the editors mentioned “three classrooms.” Turque, the Post’s education reporter, mentioned “more than 100 schools!”

There is no way of knowing what the ongoing probe into cheating will conclude. But the editors massively underplayed the situation with their account of the matter. In Turque’s report, he noted that the Atlanta Public Schools conducted a bogus review of its own recent cheating before a fuller probe by the state of Georgia revealed a massive problem. (More on that topic later this week.) Is it possible that something like that has also occurred in DC? Yes, it’s obvious that this is possible. The editors plagiarized Pollyanna when they offered that absurd account of the ongoing DC probe.

Bill Turque did a decent though imperfect job reporting the District’s new test scores. As usual, the editors produced a lazy, inept piece of work and a big bag of agitprop. But then again, what else is new? Six days earlier, the editor produced an even worse editorial about test score gains in Prince George’s County, Maryland, a large, majority-black suburban county just outside DC. We’ll review that editorial tomorrow. But for now, understand this:

Even after all these years, the editors still produce D-minus work when they discuss DC’s public schools. They make good cheerleaders—but embarrassing students. If we assume they’re doing their work in good faith, they show few signs of understanding the basic ways standardized testing works; they show few signs of doing much more than cheerleading for their idea of “reform.” By reputation, this is the kind of lazy, who-gives-a-sh*t work which has infested the DC schools down through all the bad years.

Our news orgs produce many pseudo-discussions. None are quite so IQ-challenged as the debates our “press corps” churns concerning our public schools.

Tomorrow: Publishing Joel Klein

One more obvious point: In one passage we quoted above, the editors wrote the following about score gains under Rhee: “It's clear that some of the early gains were attributed to what officials called picking the low-hanging fruit: ensuring instructional materials were in place or doing better at test preparation” (our emphasis).

Has the District been “doing better at test preparation?” If anything, that should be a point of caution, a point of concern. If score gains have occurred in recent years because the DC schools are “doing better at test preparation,” then those score gains may represent increased test savvy on the part of DC’s students as opposed to real academic gains. In a fully competent testing program, test prep procedures will be the same from school to school and from year to year. To state the obvious: It’s hard to compare scores from one year to the next if you’ve changed your test prep procedures in ways which makes an actual difference in the scores students achieve. It should be a point of concern when we’re told that a change in test prep procedures may be driving test score gains, even if the new preparation procedures can be defended as honest and sensible.

If the editors care so much about this topic, they should have figured this out by now. But the editors rarely show any sign of understanding anything about testing procedures. We’ll return to this problem tomorrow, when we review their recent piece on the Prince George’s schools.