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SKIPPING THE MERITS OF MERIT PAY! Know-nothing pundits know one thing. They know how to look down on teachers: // link // print // previous // next //
THURSDAY, JULY 12, 2007

IN WHICH WE PAY FULL PRICE: In Tuesday’s report, we discussed a New York Times profile of Drew Westen’s new book, The Political Brain. (We suggested that Gore almost surely should not have called Bush a “drunk” at their first debate.) Just like that, an e-mailer offered some good sound advice; wouldn’t it be better to read Westen’s book, he asked, rather than go by the work of a Times reporter? Yes it would, we deftly replied—and we paid full price when we saw The Political Brain in a book store yesterday.

Having looked (with great interest) at various passages, we expect to spend substantial time reviewing this book next week. Westen wants Dems to understand the role of emotion in political speech. (His subtitle: “The role of emotion in deciding the fate of the nation.”) We’re eager to learn from his work on this topic (he discusses a whole raft of research). But based on our initial survey, we’ve been struck by how poorly he seems to understand another major, ongoing problem that confronts modern Dem pols.

That problem is the role of the press in shaping how Dem speech is perceived.

Westen presents specific examples, drawn from recent high-profile events. For example, he explains what he thinks Gore should have said at several points in the Bush-Gore debates. We’ve spent a lot of time on the incidents he discusses; we think his examples are highly salient. But we’re surprised by the way he skips past the role the press corps played in shaping these crucial events.

Drew Westen knows brains; we look forward to learning from what he has offered. But Democratic strategists have simply refused to come to terms with the role of the press corps in modern Dem politics; this has been an ongoing problem for Major Dem pols (and for liberal interests). Almost surely, Gore shouldn’t have called Bush a “drunk” that night—although, of course, we can always imagine what would have happened if he’d only said this. But then, there are other things Gore (likely) shouldn’t have said which Westen recommends in this book. And we think he displays a limited grasp of the role the mainstream press has played in recent Dem—and American—disasters.

What keeps us Dems from confronting this problem? We’ve given up trying to puzzle it out, but the insouciance can seem endless. You’d barely know it from reading this book, but people who watched Bush and Gore’s first debate thought Gore had won, by a pretty good margin. (Yes, of course, he could have done better.) The larger problem began the next day, when the press corps began “interpreting” Bush and Gore’s statements. We assume that Westen has a lot to say about the role of the brain in political speech. But the role of the press has been powerful too, and Dems have failed, for the past fifteen years, to come to terms with this ongoing problem.

No, Gore probably shouldn’t have called Bush a drunk. But then, we’ll also guess that he shouldn’t have made the statement suggested on page 15. “[I]f Gore wanted to see the interchange replayed a hundred time on cable,” Westen writes, “he might have added...”—well, go buy the book and see what he suggests. But readers! In our view, if Gore had made the suggested remark, we’d still be seeing it replayed on cable! And what would our big cable pundits be saying? What kooks these Big Democrats be!

Those who watched said Gore had won. Then, the mainstream press got active. (See THE DAILY HOWLER, 4/27/07, for a taste of how fake this all was.) But Big Dems keep taking a pass on this problem. Next week, we’ll examine Westen’s intriguing book—a book which knows a lot about brains but strikes us as weak on the press corps.

SKIPPING THE MERITS OF MERIT PAY: We’ll be waiting to see if the Washington Post will do normal reporting about Michelle Rhee (see THE DAILY HOWLER. 7/11/07). Let’s face it—this story is fascinating. There are many angles to explore about the claims of DC’s new school boss. And yes, if the Post wants to learn what’s true, hard data are surely available.

But while we wait for Godot to arrive, Ruth Marcus has presented a Standard Press Column about the nation’s schools. In her first six grafs, she makes a Standard Complaint: Barack Obama (and other Dem hopefuls) won’t talk back to the teachers! Poor Marcus! She watches Obama addressing the NEA, and she’s disappointed to see him “telling the crowd everything it wants to hear.” Meanwhile, she rolls her eyes at a string of experienced teachers when Obama tells them—not strongly enough!—that he might support some merit pay:
MARCUS (7/11/07): Obama tiptoes into the minefield of merit pay for teachers, so delicately that he does not actually utter the words "merit pay" until the question and answer session...

This is whispering truth to power. But for the teachers, Obama's words are fingernails on a chalkboard. They fall silent, except for scattered boos, as he mentions a modest new program in Minnesota.

"If you look between the lines on the answer, it wouldn't be the answer we were looking for," says Rhonda Wesolowski, president of New Hampshire's NEA affiliate. "He's going to have to come a long way off of that position with us," says California Teachers Association Vice President Dean Vogel.

And those were the polite ones, who were otherwise impressed with Obama. "I can't imagine if he were informed he would come before 10,000 people and say what he said," says New Jersey Education Association President Joyce Powell.
Poor Marcus! So many officials—and so many wrong views! These three teacher reps all oppose merit pay. And Obama—just like the other Dem hopefuls—wasn’t fighting hard enough to show them how wrong they all were!

What makes this a Standard Press Column? Just this: It’s clear who’s supposed to be wrong on this issue—but Marcus doesn’t bother explaining why! To Marcus, the teachers are pushing Obama around—and he’s buckling under. But what are the merits on merit pay? Marcus makes no attempt to explain. Nor does a basic thought enter her head: Is it possible that these experienced teachers know more about this topic than she does? Marcus feels no need to ask. Dems are supposed to “stand up” to teachers. In Punditville, that’s just how it works.

What are the merits of merit pay? As someone who has actually taught in real schools, we’re not real high on the concept ourselves. It seems to us there would be lots of problems in figuring out who should get merit pay. (If you can’t figure out what those problems might be, maybe you don’t know a lot about schools.) Beyond that, it seems unlikely that merit pay would make a big positive difference. (We’re willing to be shown otherwise.) But Marcus doesn’t argue her claim; she simply asserts it, by Hard Pundit Fiat. In the process, she authors a Standard Public School Piece—something you might call a “Know-Nothing Know-It-All” column. Marcus just knows her positions are right. Why waste time explaining the merits?

Must everything always be about Sister Souljah? In her column, Marcus complains that Toady Obama (and the other Dem milquetoasts) won’t fight the NEA hard enough. And soon thereafter, she’s serving her readers the mother of all steaming buckets of pabulum. Fight to keep your eyelids open as she lists the “good ideas” Big Dems would support if they weren’t so afraid of “the NEA’s wrath:”
MARCUS: There are plenty of good ideas for a Democratic candidate who doesn't mind incurring the NEA's wrath.

The Democratic-oriented Hamilton Project has proposed assessing teachers after their first two years in the classroom and weeding out those at the bottom.

Strong American Schools, a nonpartisan group that has launched a $60 million effort to bring education issues to the forefront in the 2008 campaign, is pushing more rigorous education standards, more time in school for students and higher pay for better-performing teachers.

The Education Trust and the Aspen Institute have thoughtful proposals to improve No Child Left Behind, not gut it.
See there? Why, the Education Trust has some “thoughtful proposals!” By now, Marcus isn’t just skipping the merits of her proposals. By now, she’s even failing to tell us what these proposals are!

For the record, some of these groups may have decent ideas. (There are possible problems with everything listed.) On the other hand, the Education Trust just got through endorsing its darling, Michelle Rhee, to head the DC schools. (No one loves the Narrative of the Miracle Cure more than this upbeat group.) But for the mother of all undercooked porridge, let’s consider Marcus’s number-one nostrum—the crying need for “more rigorous standards.” She touts this in the first half of her column, then returns to it here.

Every Know-Nothing Know-It-All knows it! To sound high-minded about public schools, you issue a call for higher standards! (After that, you complain that all these timorous Dems won’t yell at the teachers enough.) But do you mind if we offer an obvious point? In low-income schools, we meet lots of deserving kids who are years behind existing standards by the time they reach fourth or fifth grade. (As we all know, many of these deserving kids are “behind” on the day they start kindergarten.) Question: Tell us how “more rigorous standards” will help the deserving kids who find themselves years behind the standards we’ve already set? Pundits like Marcus recite these nostrums, not knowing how empty her tenets might sound to people like Wesolowski, Vogel and Powell—to people who have actually been in real schools. Then, they drag out dream-weavers like Rhee, who proceed to tell the inspiring tales it makes us feel pretty to hear.

Marcus has always struck us as a bright, decent, sensible person. And of course, our teacher groups aren’t always right; like all other groups, they will sometimes be wrong. But Earth to Marcus: The teacher reps you dismiss by name know a hundred times more than you know about the issues you’re discussing. For that reason, they might not be as eager as you to raise the cry for “more rigorous standards.” (Unless the idea is more carefully explained.) They’ve seen those decent kids struggle and fail; they’ve seen them cry, in fifth-grade classes, because they’re bollixed by third-grade work. They may not need all-knowing scribes to tell them about higher standards.

Again, Marcus is a bright, decent person. But that’s precisely the problem—when it comes to our public schools, even she writes in the know-nothing manner. Her cohort loves the Know-It-All role when they expound about public schools—and they seem to love expressing condescension toward those know-nothing teachers.

Why does Wesolowski dismiss merit pay? We don’t know. Marcus should ask.

THE FIFTEEN-SECOND TEST: “More rigorous standards” can mean many things. The phrase can even have applications to the plight of struggling kids—kids who are years below grade level. But what does the hoary phrase mean in that context? Does anyone think that all-knowing pundits have spent fifteen seconds asking that question? It’s a high-minded phrase—and it makes us feel good. For most scribes, that’s where this thing ends.