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 Tuesdays report, we discussed a New York Times profile of Drew Westens 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; wouldnt it be better to read Westens 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.) Were eager to learn from his work on this topic (he discusses a whole raft of research). But based on our initial survey, weve 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. Weve spent a lot of time on the incidents he discusses; we think his examples are highly salient. But were 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 shouldnt have called Bush a drunk that night—although, of course, we can always imagine what would have happened if hed only said this. But then, there are other things Gore (likely) shouldnt 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? Weve given up trying to puzzle it out, but the insouciance can seem endless. Youd barely know it from reading this book, but people who watched Bush and Gores 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 Gores 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 shouldnt have called Bush a drunk. But then, well also guess that he shouldnt 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, wed 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, well examine Westens 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: Well be waiting to see if the Washington Post will do normal reporting about Michelle Rhee (see THE DAILY HOWLER. 7/11/07). Lets face it—this story is fascinating. There are many angles to explore about the claims of DCs new school boss. And yes, if the Post wants to learn whats true, hard data are surely available.
But while we wait for Godot to arrive, Ruth Marcus has presented a Standard Press Column about the nations schools. In her first six grafs, she makes a Standard Complaint: Barack Obama (and other Dem hopefuls) wont talk back to the teachers! Poor Marcus! She watches Obama addressing the NEA, and shes 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...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—wasnt fighting hard enough to show them how wrong they all were!
What makes this a Standard Press Column? Just this: Its clear whos supposed to be wrong on this issue—but Marcus doesnt bother explaining why! To Marcus, the teachers are pushing Obama around—and hes 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, thats just how it works.
What are the merits of merit pay? As someone who has actually taught in real schools, were 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 cant figure out what those problems might be, maybe you dont know a lot about schools.) Beyond that, it seems unlikely that merit pay would make a big positive difference. (Were willing to be shown otherwise.) But Marcus doesnt 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) wont fight the NEA hard enough. And soon thereafter, shes 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 werent so afraid of the NEAs wrath:
MARCUS: There are plenty of good ideas for a Democratic candidate who doesn't mind incurring the NEA's wrath.See there? Why, the Education Trust has some thoughtful proposals! By now, Marcus isnt just skipping the merits of her proposals. By now, shes 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, lets consider Marcuss 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 wont 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 weve 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 arent 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 youre 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.) Theyve seen those decent kids struggle and fail; theyve seen them cry, in fifth-grade classes, because theyre 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 thats 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 dont 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? Its a high-minded phrase—and it makes us feel good. For most scribes, thats where this thing ends.