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Daily Howler: The studies say TFA isn't all that--but Charlie Rose knew how to play it
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AVOIDING THE STUDIES! The studies say TFA isn’t all that—but Charlie Rose knew how to play it: // link // print // previous // next //
MONDAY, JULY 14, 2008

CLARK HOYT STOPS GETTING RESULTS: If they ever build a Sanitarium for the Comically Insane, Maureen Dowd may be the first customer. After her June 22 rebuke by New York Times public editor Clark Hoyt, the cuckoo columnist sought redemption through several weeks of self-reinvention. She stopped trashing Barack Obama over every inane, sub-minor quibble; hilariously, she even criticized other observers for treating the hopeful this way. Why, she even slimed a Republican spouse for once in her long, inane life. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 7/2/08, for links to our previous reports on this struggle.

But last week, Obama’s children appeared on TV—and a certain columnist’s slender hold on sanity seems to have snapped. Liberals sometimes see a “Damn kids! Get off my lawn!” tone to McCain (just click here). How then might we characterize Dowd’s cuckoo-clock opening paragraph?

DOWD (7/13/08): Barack Obama may make it to the Rose Garden, but he’ll still be an orchid. For all his attempts to act like a sturdy American perennial, he’s a genuine hothouse flower, and everything he is and does is cultivated.

The “diffident debutante”/“starlet” is back, cast now as a “hothouse flower”—all thanks to those two $#%^ing kids! Dowd’s headline was: “No Ice Cream, Senator?” And no, we’re not making that up.

At any rate, here’s the part of this latest crackpot column where Dowd’s “thinking” starts to emerge:

DOWD: [T]he Illinois senator was very upset the night the interview aired and told aides it would never happen again. He felt he had hawked his own kids. He claimed he got caught up in the moment of a Fourth of July picnic in Butte, Mont., and a birthday celebration for Malia.

He may not have realized it while they were miking Malia and lighting the kids, but it clearly hit him midway through the interview. He looked frustrated when Sasha revealed that “my dad doesn’t like sweets” and that he preferred “minty gum” to bubble gum. She then began singsonging “Everybody should like ice cream” before pointing a finger at the person who doesn’t: “Except Daddy!”

As Margaret Carlson told Mike Barnicle on “Hardball,” in a segment called “Is Obama Too Cool?,” about whether he relates to average Americans, sometimes you just want to tell the guy, “Eat the doughnut.”

Whether Obama was irritated that he had slipped up and exposed his daughters or was annoyed that his kids were exposing more delicious details about his finicky, abstemious tastes, we’ll never know.

“We’ll never know,” Dowd sing-songs here. Unfortunately, she fails to grasp the basic idea: A person who’s even slightly sane will also never care.

Dowd’s ludicrous column rambles on, teasing the secrets of Obama’s character from every peep- and cubby-hole. You have to feel sorry for the New York Times editor forced to type this on-line synopsis:

Was Barack Obama irritated that he had exposed his daughters to a television interview or that his kids exposed more delicious details about his finicky, abstemious tastes?

In a sane world, a nation’s biggest paper would hang its head at that synopsis of its star columnist’s work. But you don’t live in such a world. You live in a world which continues to melt away—just outside the ornate walls of a pseudo-journalistic palace.

Inside the walls of that press corps Versailles, powdered inmates bellow and wail. On Hardball, the thinkers used to worry about why Obama prefers orange juice (to coffee). Now, the inmates tear their hair about his rejection of doughnuts.

By the way, must we tell you? On today’s Morning Joe, Barnicle was one of the guests—and Mika Brzezinski seemed to say that Dowd’s column was “great.” And the gang seemed impressed with Barnicle’s insights. “”Eat the doughnut,” Jack Welch’s sage advised us all once again.

Carr gets it right: In today’s Times, David Carr writes another worthwhile media column, examining the press corps’ reaction to the Obamakids’ interview. We were struck by this passage:

CARR (7/14/08): Malia was more than ready for her moment, gushing about seeing her mother in People magazine along with “important people” like Angelina Jolie.“We’re always looking for younger readers, so it was a nice moment,” said Larry Hackett, managing editor of People. “And I have to say, I find the flap mystifying.”

Let’s be cruel. Things have deteriorated to the point where staffers at People are mystified by the inanity of the political press corps.

Remember the basic analytical category: Your political press spends vast chunks of time on things that aren’t worth discussing. If citizens want to improve the dialogue, we must avoid being drawn into these disputes. We must remind the public of the basic problem: Most of what gets discussed is sheer trivia. Topics that appeal to Dowd/Barnicle/Carlson are, at heart, not worth discussing.

They gave us Bush by discussing these topics. (Naomi Wolf told Al Gore to wear earth tones!) Happy with how that turned out?

Special report: Worst interview ever?

ENJOY EACH THRILLING INSTALLMENT: Charlie Rose had Wendy Kopp at his table—and the pair may have staged the worst interview ever. Why not read each thrilling installment:

PART 1: Charlie Rose rolled over and died. Kopp seemed like a music man. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 7/10/08.

PART 2: Kopp told Rose some pleasing tales. But were the pleasing tales accurate? See THE DAILY HOWLER, 7/11/08.

Today, in part 3, Rose avoids the studies:

PART 3—AVOIDING THE STUDIES: Teach for America isn’t GM—but it’s no minor enterprise either. A lot of money is involved in the enterprise—and a lot of unfortunate “influence.” Just last month, Sam Dillon profiled TFA founder Wendy Kopp in the New York Times. He offered this overview of the program:

DILLON (6/19/08): Ms. Kopp has built her group into a powerhouse, with an annual budget of $120 million, a national staff of 835, and partnerships with Goldman Sachs, Google and other blue-chip names. This spring, she presided over its most successful campus recruiting campaign, and made Time magazine's list of the world's 100 most influential people.

Kopp herself received a salary of $250,736 in 2005, the last year for which such data are available—though this fact is almost never mentioned in profiles or interviews (including Dillon’s.) Six other TFA executives received salaries ranging from $125,000 to $202,000 in 2006.

Whatever! For that $120 million annual outlay, Kopp and her staff of more than 800 recruited roughly 3700 teachers this past year—teachers whose salaries are paid by the school systems which employ them. In short, Teach for America spends roughly $32,000 per teacher just to send its young hires to their schools. That strikes us as an astounding amount, though we’re willing to see our reaction challenged. And of course, you might not mind burning through that kind of money—if the program in question really worked.

[For the record: TFA recently flunked an exam from federal auditors. “What they found was shocking,” CBS News reported. Details below.]

So TFA is no minor enterprise when it comes to money. More important is Dillon’s note concerning the program’s “influence”—its glowing reputation among corporate and journalistic elites. As Dillon noted, Time magazine recently listed Kopp as one of the world’s most influential people. The ranking is utterly silly, of course, but TFA is relentlessly pimped by major media players—for example, by Charlie Rose on his July 1 program. Time, the New York Times, Charlie Rose: One after the other, big media players praise TFA to the skies, suggesting that Kopp’s 19-year-old program provides a solution to the problem of low-income educational failure.

You might not mind seeing TFA treated that way—if the program actually worked.

But does this program actually work? Therein lies the rub. Media outlets tend to avoid this question, along with rude talk about Kopp’s pleasing salary. Most specifically, they tend to avoid discussing the academic studies of TFA—studies which show that the program is something less than the miracle cure Kopp so plainly suggests. In last Friday’s post, we saw Kopp recite two pleasing stories for Rose—stories suggesting that TFA teachers frequently produce miracle cures. Kopp is always happy to recite these tales, and upper-end journalists—like Rose; like Time—seem to know that the stories mustn’t be challenged. Indeed, when Rose posed the world’s most obvious question, Kopp suggested that miracle cures occur in TFA quite routinely. In this exchange, we meet the kind of pleasing deception Kopp seems to enjoy tossing off:

ROSE (7/1/08): OK. You’ve given a lot of thought to this. We talk about it a lot, this program and other programs. Here’s what I want to know: What do we need to do to make better schools?

KOPP: Yes. You know, let me come at that by sharing the two things that I— You know, when I talk to the dozens and dozens, the hundreds of Teach for America alumni who have worked for two years or more themselves in this context, and many of whom who have obtained incredible success with kids, and you say, “What have you learned? What is the essence of what they learned?” And I think I would say two things. First of all, they come out of this equally believing that we can solve the problem, that it is absolutely possible for kids who face all of the extra challenges that they face in low-income communities to excel on an absolute scale.

“Many” of TFA’s alumni “have obtained incredible success with kids,” Kopp said—perhaps knowing how imprecise the word “many” is, and how useful it can therefore be to a propagandist. “Many” such teachers have helped low-incomes kids “excel on an absolute scale,” she seemed to suggest. And seconds later, she began to tell a pleasing tale. A young teacher in the Bronx brought fourth-graders reading on first-grade level up to grade level just in just two years time! Why do TFA teachers believe so strongly in the program? “It`s seeing evidence that this is possible, like real hard-core evidence from working with kids,” Kopp said as she finished her tale.

These are the stories Kopp enjoys telling. Unfortunately, the studies, such as they are, suggest that these stories are hokum.

Is it true? Are Kopp’s familiar miracle tales just a big pile of bunk? Do the studies suggest that such miracle cures are few and far between—if they occur at all? You’d never think so from reading Time—or from reading Dillon’s recent profile. To his credit, Dillon did note that some “prominent academics” are less than thrilled with Teach for America. Since the mid-1990s, such academics “have argued that Teach for America's two-year assignment ensures that recruits leave just as they are learning to teach,” Dillon wrote—and he quoted two academics expressing this skeptical outlook. “Such critiques once damaged fund-raising,” he oddly said. But he never mentioned the academic studies, such as they are, which have tended to support the skepticism voiced in such complaints. Meanwhile, Time simply treated its readers like fools. Unveiling Kopp as a major world leader, Time slickly cherry-picked this:

TIME (5/12/08): In 1990, Kopp, then 23, raised $2.5 million to get her teaching corps started. From that beginning came Teach for America, a nationwide organization that today boasts more than 5,000 member teachers, who work in communities all over the country and reach 440,000 kids. Some 12,000 veterans of Teach for America have continued their teaching careers, often providing leadership for troubled schools in their own communities. A 2005 study showed that 75 percent of school principals consider Teach for America teachers more effective than other teachers, and a 2004 study showed Teach for America students do better than other kids in math. Deranged or not, Kopp’s idea is working—and as a result, more kids are learning.

According to Time, two studies show “Kopp’s idea is working.” It made for a pleasing tale. But sadly, the claim is a hoax.

What is true about those studies? About the studies Time chose to avoid?

First, Time seems to have misstated the finding of that 2005 survey of principals. According to a 2005 press release by Teach for America, the survey—which was paid for by Teach for America— found “that 75 percent of principals questioned rated Teach For America corps members’ training as better than that of other beginning teachers with whom they have worked” (our emphasis). Such opinions, voiced as part of a TFA-funded survey, say nothing about how much gets learned in TFA-taught classrooms. But if Time overstated that 2005 survey, its presentation of that second study—the “2004 study”—was an act of bald deception. This was an actual academic study of actual student achievement, not a survey of principals’ (stated) opinions. Time’s cherry-picked account of the study’s findings will be familiar to those who understand the way the modern press corps massages, invents and cherry-picks facts to pimp its favorite people and causes.

That 2004 study was conducted by Mathematica Policy Research (MPR); for the its full text, just click here. The findings: In reading, TFA teachers did no better than other teachers in the schools studied. Repeat: In reading instruction, no difference. In math, TFA teachers performed somewhat better than other teachers—but note how tiny the achievement gains were, as compared with the glorious claims Kopp imposed on Rose. What did that MPR study find? Again, in reading instruction, no difference. In math, students taught by TFA teachers progressed from the 14th percentile nationally to the 17th percentile in the school year studied; among other teachers, students began and ended at the 15th percentile. That gain is not nothing, but it’s dwarfed by the tales of “incredible success” Kopp kept throwing in Rose’s face on his unfortunate program. For example, Kopp told Rose that students taught by Michelle Rhee had progressed from the 13th percentile to the 90th percentile in two years of instruction. Did that really happen in Rhee’s classroom? We think it’s extremely unlikely, for reasons we’ve explained in the past. But the study to which Time refers shows nothing like that sort of achievement—and yet, this study was the evidence cited by Time to show “Kopp’s idea is working.”

In other industries, people get sued—can end up in jail—for this type of blatant dissembling. In modern American pseudo-journalism, that’s the way our corporate elites pimp their darlings forward.

Yes, Time massaged the results of that MPR study. But please note: Others studies had shown results that were even less favorable to Teach for America—so Time skipped them altogether! The Teach for America entry at Wikipedia does a decent job reviewing two such studies (along with the 2004 MPR study). But just to give you a quick review, Stanford researchers found this, in 2005: “Controlling for teacher experience, degrees, and student characteristics, uncertified TFA recruits are less effective than certified teachers, and perform about as well as other uncertified teachers.” A 2002 study by Arizona State researchers was even less flattering. Its title:

The Effectiveness of “Teach for America” and Other Under-certified Teachers on Student Academic Achievement:
A Case of Harmful Public Policy

But so what? In best pseudo-journalistic style, Time simply ignored these studies, just as it ignored the part of the MPR study which showed no advantage in reading.

This brings us back to Charlie Rose, one of the nation’s best-known broadcast journalists. Rose’s program appears on PBS, the gold standard in American broadcast journalism.

Tomorrow, in part 4 of this series, we’ll give Rose his (very limited) due. To his credit, Rose asked Kopp a very good question at the start of his unfortunate program. And when Kopp gave him a series of the world’s worst answers, he asked his question again and again—until he finally gave up. But what did Rose refuse to do, through forty minutes of propaganda and blatant dissembling? As Kopp told tales of her teachers’ “incredible success,” Charlie Rose never said the following words: But what do the studies show us? As with so many other upper-end journalists, Rose avoided the studies completely. He let Kopp rattle her fanciful tales—and avoided the actual evidence.

Surely, Rose understands a basic fact: We don’t learn the truth about a program like this by letting its founder—its chief benefactor—recite pleasing stories about it. And surely, Rose knows that real studies exist—studies which basically give the lie to Kopp’s self-serving bull-roar. Speaking frankly, Kopp’s presentation on Charlie Rose can’t be squared with the current studies. But for the past forty years, people like Kopp have routinely lied about the lives of low-income kids—and people like Rose have politely sat by as music men tell them their tales.

TOMORROW—PART 4: Worst answers ever!

ABOUT THAT FEDERAL AUDIT: As noted, TFA’s current annual budget is $120 million (its operating budget is $75 million); ten percent comes from the federal government. On Friday, the CBS Evening News reported a recent federal audit. Here’s part of what Sharyl Attkisson said:

ATTKISSON (7/11/08): The Department of Education Inspector General examined a small slice of the group's federal funding. What they found was shocking.

In all, Teach for America failed to account for half the money audited. Time and time again, the audit said there were no basic records or receipts: None for a $123,878 training expense; none for a $342,428 bill.

Teach for America vice president Kevin Huffman chalks it up to poor record keeping.

"We're confident, we're confident that we spent the money on the training of new teachers," Huffman said. [...]

They should have kept records on a tab for more than a quarter million dollars for food and lodging ($277,262) and $26,812 for teacher certification—but didn't. Auditors say there was no documentation that any teachers actually attended and completed the class, or that there even was a class.

For ourselves, we’re prepared to assume that there actually was such a class. Though we wouldn’t bet 12 million on it.

For the fuller report, just click here. (Attkisson’s broadcast can be seen at that link.) For ourselves, we don’t know enough about accounting to judge this matter. It may be that this sort of thing is fairly routine. At any rate, the federales want their money back.

ABOUT THAT URBAN INSTITUTE STUDY: In March, the Urban Institute published a study which found that TFA teachers out-performed other teachers in North Carolina high schools (just click here). We don’t know why Time didn’t cite this study; they wouldn’t have had to massage the data as much as they did with the MPR study. On the other hand, this study deals with high school instruction only; young teachers from high academic backgrounds may do better at that level, while being less effective in grade school instruction. (Trust us: High school physics and grade school reading are very different critters.) Most importantly, we’re still dealing with relatively small instructional advantages—gains that bear little relationship to Kopp’s glorious claims.

On balance, this study is favorable; others are not. But none of these studies reflect Kopp’s endless music man act. Do we care about what’s really true? Again and again, when it come to low-income kids, it seems fairly clear: We do not.