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Print view: Obama praises our lowest-performing schools. Sirota flies to Finland
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WE’LL ALWAYS HAVE FINLAND! Obama praises our lowest-performing schools. Sirota flies to Finland: // link // print // previous // next //

The occasional fact/And the Dowd that won’t stop barking: Once in a while, despite the press corps’ best efforts, a few small facts do swim into view. If you read all the way to the end of David Leonhardt’s new column, you get rewarded with this:

LEONHARDT (7/13/11): In the end, the most likely tax increase may be the one that’s already on the books. On Jan. 1, 2013, all the Bush tax cuts—on the affluent and nonaffluent alike—are set to expire, which would solve roughly one-quarter of our long-term deficit problem. If Republicans have their way, all the tax cuts will be extended. If the Democrats have their way, most of them will be.

But if the two parties each control a branch of government after the 2012 elections, neither may be able to get their way. Instead, they would have to compromise—or a stalemate would cause the Bush tax cuts to disappear. After the last few days, a stalemate doesn’t seem like such a bad bet.

Returning to the Clinton tax rates would solve “roughly one-quarter of our long-term deficit problem?” From our past reading, we would have thought it was more. But then, do you have any idea where you can go to look this up? (We would have to start hunting around.) Whatever your general views on the budget might be, this is one of the basic facts which permit a general understanding of the overall budget and deficit situation. In the Times, a fleeting treatment of this fact briefly appears today on page B5, in the next-to-last paragraph of an analysis column. (This is not a criticism of Leonhardt.)

Would you have any idea where to go for a fuller treatment? Don’t try the Times’ news pages!

Elsewhere, the Times biggest stars have different things on their minds.

On Sunday, Maureen Dowd mused about Liz and Dick. Today, she discusses Hitler’s thoughts about dogs. If we might borrow a term from her column, here’s the way the “barking mad” New York Times columnist starts:

DOWD (7/13/11): Hitler’s Talking Dogs

At this late date, when we believe we know absolutely everything about Adolf Hitler, could it be that he was even crazier than we thought?

First of all, look who’s talking! But as she continues, Dowd rather daringly shares her thoughts about the world’s biggest nut-cakes. “From Caligula to Nero to Qaddafi, dictators are often not just cruel and evil, but lunatics,” she informs. “So we shouldn’t be surprised by news reports suggesting the Führer was batty beyond even Mel Brooks’s satire.”

Have we mentioned the insouciance of the New York Times’ biggest stars? You’d never know a disaster was on from reading Dowd’s loopy columns. This morning, she isn’t intrigued by Hitler himself—it’s more about Hitler’s view of dogs. As we read the following passage, we thought of a modern parallel:

DOWD: The Nazis took their dogs seriously. As The Guardian reported in January, the Nazi government was so furious about a dog in Finland that had been trained to imitate Hitler with a Nazi salute that the foreign office in Berlin started “an obsessive campaign” to destroy its owner.

Bondeson writes that in Germany in the early 20th century, some people had a strong belief in the potential of super-intelligent animals. He said that along with Thomas Mann and Hermann Hesse, an Airedale terrier named Rolf was considered one of the leading German intellectuals of the time. Rolf’s owner said she taught him his own alphabet with a system of taps of his paw on a board and, Bondeson notes drolly, “he successfully dabbled in mathematics, ethics, religion and philosophy.”

An Airedale was considered a leading intellectual? In this country, a columnist who’s a visible crackpot was once given a Pulitzer prize!

Such columns never end well. As usual, Dowd ends her piece with some sexy-time sex talk. Oh what the heck! Here it is:

DOWD: The latest wacky Hitler story comes from the British author Graeme Donald. He says that, while researching a military book, he stumbled across a story that Hitler and Heinrich Himmler were so worried about German soldiers’ getting sexual diseases from French hookers that they cooked up a plan for soldiers to carry small blow-up blond, blue-eyed dolls called “gynoids” in their backpacks to use as sex “comforters.”

Donald said Himmler ordered 50 dolls but the soldiers were too embarrassed to carry them. “In the end the idea fizzled out,” Donald told The Sun, “and the place where they were made and all the dolls were destroyed in the bombing of Dresden.”

French hookers! And blow-up dolls! Who gives a fig about tax rates?

Like Dowd, those comical dolls were an imitation of life.

German soldiers were embarrassed by their imitations of life—but the New York Times just keeps publishing Dowd. She has been a highly visible fool for a very, very long time. This dates at least to the night, in 1984, when she saw that Walter Mondale wasn’t sure if he should hug Geraldine Ferraro (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 6/30/10).

Mondale made a famous statement that night about taxes, about telling the truth about taxes. Twenty-seven years later, taxes—and telling the truth about taxes—remain at the heart of our political debate. The high elites at the New York Times still seem to find the subject too boring to report.

Dowd has been barking loudly for a very long time. An era of journalism is captured in the following fact: The high elites at the New York Times have never been able to see this.

Special report: Who’s flunking now!

PART 3—WE’LL ALWAYS HAVE FINLAND (permalink): Alas, the suffering public schools! Is there any major topic about which we speak more nonsense?

Almost all our public discussions are highly Potemkin; that is to say, almost all our public discussions are counterfeit, staged, mainly phony. But when we talk about public schools, we really take the cake.

Sometimes, the nonsense about public comes to us straight from the top.

How silly can the narratives get? Here was President Obama, praising a Denver school in this year’s State of the Union address:

OBAMA (1/25/11): Maintaining our leadership in research and technology is crucial to America's success. But if we want to win the future, if we want innovation to produce jobs in America and not overseas, then we also have to win the race to educate our kids.


Our schools share this responsibility. When a child walks into a classroom, it should be a place of high expectations and high performance. But too many schools don't meet this test.

That's why instead of just pouring money into a system that's not working, we launched a competition called “Race to the Top.” To all 50 states, we said, if you show us the most innovative plans to improve teacher quality and student achievement, we'll show you the money.

Race to the Top is the most meaningful reform of our public schools in a generation. For less than 1 percent of what we spend on education each year, it has led over 40 states to raise their standards for teaching and learning. And these standards were developed, by the way, not by Washington, but by Republican and Democratic governors throughout the country. And Race to the Top should be the approach we follow this year as we replace No Child Left Behind with a law that's more flexible and focused on what's best for our kids.


You see, we know what's possible for our children when reform isn't just a top-down mandate but the work of local teachers and principals, school boards and communities.

Take a school like Bruce Randolph in Denver. Three years ago, it was rated one of the worst schools in Colorado, located on turf between two rival gangs.

But last May, 97 percent of the seniors received their diploma. Most will be the first in their families to go to college.

And after the first year of the school's transformation, the principal who made it possible wiped away tears when a student said "Thank you, Ms. Waters, for showing that we are smart and we can make it."


That's what good schools can do, and we want good schools all across the country.

We’re not big fans of Diane Ravitch, the reinvented liberal education guru. But this time, regarding this speech by Obama, Ravitch was basically right.

A bit of background: Obama praised the Bruce Randolph School on January 25, calling it an example of “what good schools can do”—praising it as a school which shows “what's possible for our children when reform isn't just a top-down mandate.” As is the norm in these puzzling moments, everyone was moved.

Ten days later, Vincent Carroll told the rest of the story in the home-town Denver Post. Carroll applauded the progress which has occurred at Bruce Randolph. But then, he cited some data:

CARROLL (2/6/11): Now here's what the president didn't tell you. Most of Bruce Randolph's test scores remain deplorable. In math, the percentage of proficient or advanced high schoolers is only 12.7 percent; in writing, 15.2 percent; in science, 14 percent.

Only in reading is the news less bleak, with 44 percent proficient or better.

The district itself, in its "Stoplight Summary Scorecard," describes the school as “on watch,” a status it codes cautionary yellow. And in terms of "postsecondary readiness," the district bluntly concludes Bruce Randolph "does not meet standard.”

It seems this school was completely out of control at one time; now, a much stronger sense of purpose prevails. (Needless to say, the school got a special dispensation from various union rules as it reorganized itself.) But the school is still “one of the worst schools in Colorado,” to judge from measured academic results. We’re sure that many people have worked very hard to bring this school back from a state of chaos. But whatever progress may have occurred, this school still records very low achievement rates.

Within our highly Potemkin culture, such facts can’t defeat preferred narratives. Even after Carroll’s piece appeared, Obama made similar remarks about Bruce Randolph in a pair of speeches in March. On June 1, Ravitch provided a bit more detail in a New York Times op-ed column:

RAVITCH (6/1/11): Mr. Obama's praise for Randolph, which he said had been ''one of the worst schools in Colorado,'' seems misplaced. Noel Hammatt, a former teacher and instructor at Louisiana State University, looked at data from the Web site of the Colorado Department of Education.

True, Randolph (originally a middle school, to which a high school was added) had a high graduation rate, but its ACT scores were far below the state average, indicating that students are not well prepared for college. In its middle school, only 21 percent were proficient or advanced in math, placing Randolph in the fifth percentile in the state (meaning that 95 percent of schools performed better). Only 10 percent met the state science standards. In writing and reading, the school was in the first percentile.

“In reading, the school was in the first percentile!” (On the middle school level.) You might say this isn’t Bruce Randolph’s fault; presumably, many of its deserving kids were far behind when they entered the school. But truly, your nation has virtually lost its mind when a school which scores in the first percentile on reading is held up, in a State of the Union address, as an example of what we can achieve when we institute thoughtful “reform.”

As readers may recall, Obama isn’t alone in offering words of praise to schools which are doing quite poorly on basic academic measures. In February 2006, the Washington Post hailed a local elementary school right at the top of its front page, calling it “a study in pride [and] progress.” But how well was this school really performing? Only two grade levels, 3 and 5, had been tested the previous year. In one of those grades, the school turned out to have the second-lowest reading score in the whole state of Virginia! (See THE DAILY HOWLER, 3/20/06.)

There’s a word for discussions like these. That word would be “Potemkin.”

Ravitch was right to challenge Obama’s statement; in her op-ed piece, she noted other such statements by Obama and education head Arne Duncan concerning a few other schools. But when Ravitch spoke about these strange statements, the world of “education reform” came crashing down on her head.

At this point, does the power elite perhaps enter the picture? Jonathan Alter wrote this piece, battering Ravitch all around for her lack of faith in reform. (Ravitch is “the education world’s very own Whittaker Chambers,” he said.) For many years, Alter wrote for Newsweek. But today, he’s with Bloomberg News, a giant news org which takes its name from a certain billionaire mayor, an apostle of the religious school known as “education reform.”

We’ll assume that Alter believes what he wrote—judgments which follow the line of the man who pays the bills. But then, education reform is pushed by many people with ties to the billionaire mayor. For three years, we’ve wondered why Charlie Rose staged that truly awful interview with Teach for America’s Wendy Kopp, a session we described at the time as perhaps the “worst interview ever” (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 7/16/08). Early this year, we learned of Rose’s financial and personal ties to the billionaire mayor. According to this fascinating 2009 profile in Fortune, Michael Bloomberg “provided Rose with a free studio and office space” all the way back in 1991, an arrangement which had continued right through the time of the profile; Bloomberg’s largesse helped Rose “fund the [Charlie Rose] show himself and therefore own it.” Beyond that, Rose’s long-time social companion, Amanda Burden, is a department head in the Bloomberg government—and a member of the International Best Dressed List, we might as well add.

Obviously, there’s nothing wrong with being a Bloomberg department head. But something was grotesquely wrong with that interview with Kopp, a Gotham-based darling of Bloomberg-style “reform.” Do Rose’s ties to the billionaire mayor help explain the worst interview ever?

We have no idea. Moving along:

In the wake of the Alter piece, David Sirota staged a debate between Alter and Ravitch on his Denver-based radio show (click here to listen). Sirota did a nice job hosting the segment; Ravitch and Alter both made some fair points, though Alter added some Potemkin moments by praising Bruce Randolph’s “stunning improvements,” specifically noting that the school has gone from a five percent proficiency rate in math all the way to 14 percent. (Yes, he actually said it.)

Sirota did a nice job hosting the segment. But then, in Salon, he came up with this, the latest trip to the Finland Station. Why can’t we be more like Finland, Sirota asked, like so many others before him. He even offered this odd comparison:

SIROTA (7/8/11): Finland's story, recounted in the new documentary "The Finland Phenomenon," is particularly striking. According to Harvard's Tony Wagner, the country's modernization campaign in the 1970s included a "transforming of the preparation and selection of future teachers."

"What has happened since is that teaching has become the most highly esteemed profession [in Finland]," says Wagner, who narrates the film. "There is no domestic testing ... because they have created such a high level of professionalism, they can trust their teachers."

The inherent parallels between Finland and the United States make the former's lessons indisputably relevant to us. As Wagner says, Finland is a fellow industrialized country "rated among the highest in the world in innovation, entrepreneurship and creativity." And though Finland is more racially homogenous than America, Wagner points out that "15 percent of the population speaks a second language”—meaning the country's schools face some of the same cross-cultural challenges as our schools.

That said, for all the similarities, Finland finds its comparative success in how it chooses to differ from us.

Good lord! Will we never stop pretending that Finland has solved the public school riddle? Sirota’s citation of “the inherent parallels between Finland and the United States” was especially striking, since the two societies are so different. We don’t know where that “15 percent second-language” figure comes from; it substantially differs from the figures we’ve seen everywhere else. But if that statistic gave you the impression that Finland’s schools have lots of poverty-level, second-language immigrant kids, just the way our public schools do, you might want to think again. Based on our previous reading, most Finns who don’t speak Finnish are the so-called “Swedish-speaking Finns,” who predominate in two small sections of the country. Children who grow up in these homes are native, middle-class Finns. This group has been an integral part of Finland since about the twelfth century.

Sirota did a nice job hosting that segment. But Finland ain’t like the U.S.

Is there any subject about which more abject nonsense is spoken? Is there any other subject where our intellectual standards are quite so Potemkin? Our discourse about public schools is conducted inside a maze—and it’s found at the end of a long hall of mirrors. Next:

Our newspapers fiddled as Atlanta burned. To this day, no one has asked the most obvious question.

Coming—part 4: Atlanta cheated its keister off. But only on its own statewide tests.

What makes Charlie Rose run: We think that Fortune profile of Rose is well worth reading (click here). We were most struck by David Kaplan’s portrait of Rose’s income and social class—though Jim Lehrer is richer than Rose, as Charlie keeps protesting.

Here are a few of those excerpts. Inside the piece, you’ll find more:

KAPLAN (9/28/09): With a roster of well-heeled underwriters that include News Corp. (NWSA) and investment banker Herbert Allen's firm, you would think Charlie Rose would get most of its donations effortlessly. But it doesn't work that way. "People assume we're on automatic pilot. We're not," Rose says. "I've raised all the money myself." Listen in on this revealing, sometimes giggling exchange between Rose and Lehrer on the show in April, on the challenge of raising money:

"I mean," Rose begins, "if I call one more foundation that tells me we're not giving you any more money! The standard response to me is, 'I love your show ... Thank you very much.'"

"Bottom line," says Lehrer, "we've had our problems just like everybody else."

"You know, in the world we live in today, millions and trillions ..." Rose muses.

"It's hard to keep it straight. We're not part of TARP!"

"You're not getting any TARP money?" Rose asks facetiously.

And on goes the colloquy that ostensibly was supposed to be about Lehrer's new novel. Rose gets Lehrer to acknowledge that the NewsHour budget is about $30 million, then teases that "half of that" must be Lehrer's salary, and they conclude that analytical, explanatory shows like theirs are needed in a democracy now more than ever because of the decline of print journalism.


Rose also appears at other elite business conferences—Herbert Allen's Sun Valley, Idaho, shindig, the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, the J.P. Morgan Chase Leadership Conference in Deer Valley, Utah, and the Microsoft CEO Summit. And he's moderated onetime events, like the MSG Entertainment-sponsored "Live & Uncensored" sparring match a few months ago between James Carville and Karl Rove that played to a huge audience at Radio City Music Hall in New York (tickets went for $49.50 to $179.50, the latter for "VIP seats").

Rose gets paid for enough events that they nicely supplement whatever he pays himself for Charlie Rose. What does he take home? He declines to say. Sources in the broadcasting industry guess he's paid between $1 million and $2 million, which would make rough sense given the books of Charlie Rose. He has a staff of about a dozen, along with production and travel expenses—and that's about it.

With his $3.5 million budget, that presumably leaves a nice chunk for him. "In my dreams!" Rose says, smiling at the idea of $1 million to $2 million. But he concedes that his gigs away from Charlie Rose are rewarding. "I make more from speaking than I make at PBS," he says. His one-off speaking or moderating fee is $50,000 and up (he does conferences like Allen's Sun Valley and the Microsoft Summit for nothing).

If you want to confirm that Rose isn't on a PBS starvation diet, you need only visit his apartment overlooking Central Park in Manhattan and his splendid six-bedroom, 5,500-square-foot beach house on Long Island; each property is worth a few million dollars. Rose has other goodies: a membership at Long Island's Deepdale Country Club (with other golfers like Bloomberg and Tom Brokaw), a small place in Washington, and a big old house in North Carolina.

Most of the Charlie Rose underwriters make the relationship that much more mysterious by declining to offer any details of their donations. Fortune contacted all of them.


In any case, he obviously isn't in it for the money. Rose has owned all the broadcasts of Charlie Rose since leaving WNET in 1994 yet hasn't figured out how to make a penny from them. Late last year he had to lay off a third of his staff because of fundraising woes. When he went to China for a series of interviews, he had to hire a crew there and hold the mike for the guests himself.

"I work harder than anyone, and I don't get fabulously rich doing it," Rose says, adding that Jim Lehrer at the NewsHour "makes a lot more money than I do." Tavis Smiley has not only a PBS talk show but also a multimedia group that includes radio, books, "consumer expos," and a speakers bureau; the business brings in $25 million or more annually.

Smiley, 45, says Rose once told him, "If I had done at 30 what you've done, I'd be a lot more comfortable." It seems to be a recurring element in Rose's ruminations, which may be natural: When he's with the likes of Buffett or Gates or Diller, he's always the poorest guy in the room.

Not that there’s anything wrong with it! Until you watch that disgraceful session with Kopp, at which point you may start to wonder.

By the way, Smiley fawns to the Bloomberg crowd too, as we noted a few months ago. For the record, Fortune’s title was this: “Why business loves Charlie Rose.”