Daily Howler logo
BRODER LECTURES THE PROLES! The Dean knows nothing about urban schools—but soundly scolds teachers, who do: // link // print // previous // next //
TUESDAY, AUGUST 16, 2005

BRODER LECTURES THE PROLES: Like so many big major pundits, David Broder lacks the first clue about public schools. Or so it seemed when he typed this claptrap in his June 23 column:
BRODER (6/23/05): The good news is that the American public values education so highly that it is prepared to support almost any sensible reform that promises to improve the quality of grade schools and high schools.

The bad news is that the people teaching in those schools are deeply opposed to current reform efforts and skeptical of the basic premise that all students should be measured by the same high standards.

Those are the paradoxical lessons I draw from a briefing this week on a comprehensive survey of parents, educators and the general public sponsored by the Educational Testing Service and conducted jointly by the polling firms of Peter D. Hart, a Democrat, and David Winston, a Republican.

Yep! The Dean, David Broder, was deeply troubled. In the survey, teachers were down on No Child Left Behind—and something was even more troubling:
BRODER (6/23/05): More troubling, from the viewpoint of reformers, is the gap between teachers and the public on the question of performance standards for students. Those polled were asked to choose between the view that all students, teachers and schools should be held to the same standard of performance because it is wrong to have lower expectations for students from disadvantaged backgrounds, and the contrary view that they should not be held to the same standard because we should not expect teachers working with disadvantaged students to have them reach the same level of performance on standardized tests as teachers in more affluent schools.

More than half of the parents favored the single standard, but only one-quarter of the high school teachers agreed.

Tsk-tsk! Almost surely, Broder hasn’t spent ten minutes inside urban classrooms—but he has been able to memorize the cant of his high pundit class. He knows what he is supposed to say—that all students should be “measured by the same high standards.” The Dean wrote on this inspiring theme once again in this Sunday’s column (link below).

But how about it? Should all students be “measured by the same high standards?” In fact, the question is so vague that it’s hard to know how to answer. But we spent the first twelve years of our adult lives teaching in Baltimore’s elementary schools (no, we don’t recall seeing Broder). And if we had to give a yes-or-no answer, we would quickly answer no, just as those teachers did.

Why would we say “no” to the uplifting plea for one set of high standards? Because we can recall the superlative kids we taught in those Baltimore schools. Most of our kids came from working- and welfare-class families, families with low literacy backgrounds—and most were far below traditional “grade level” in basic academic achievement. In a typical fifth-grade class, many kids would be sixth- or seventh-grade by age (that is, they had already repeated a grade). But most of the kids in the class would be reading on traditional second- or third-grade level. A fair chunk wouldn’t be doing that well. What does it mean to say that these kids should be “measured by the same high standards” as other kids from different backgrounds—kids who may be reading at seventh- or eighth-grade level (or higher) by the time they’re in fifth grade? What does it mean when someone says that? Most often, it means that the person (in this case, Broder) doesn’t know what he’s talking about. In the real world, there are vast differences in academic performance among America’s kids by the time they reach the fifth grade (indeed, earlier). It feels real good when fops like Broder proclaim that they all should be held “to one standard.” But why did those teachers disagree in that survey? Perhaps because they inhabit real schools, in the real world, unlike the Crown Fops like Broder.

Since the early 1970s, we’ve been amazed by the way mainstream scribes pontificate about urban schools—urban schools they’ve never visited and know absolutely nothing about. (For a memorable example from our third year of teaching, see THE DAILY HOWLER, 7/8/05.) But people like Broder never tire of passing down pap from their ivory towers. It feels good when they toss down inspiring edicts, showing us how fine they are—so much finer than those prole teachers. But the Broders don’t know their keisters from their key-holes when it comes to urban schooling—although they’re always ready to lecture the vast horde of riff-raff who do.

THE DEAN’S EDUCATION: Omigod! By the time he wrote his column this Sunday, teachers had talked back to Broder. To his credit, he recorded some reactions:

BRODER (8/14/05): I suggested [in the June column] that the teachers' attitude spelled trouble for the effort to improve the schools—and the teachers let me know they thought I was dead wrong.

One Pennsylvania educator called the [No Child Left Behind] legislation "a wonderful concept, but woefully inadequate when dealing with the realities of public education. Yes, I believe in standards, high standards for my students. I am also realistic enough to know that not all students have the natural ability, the desire or the family structure to succeed at the highest level. While I believe my brightest or hardest-working students can compete with anyone, I also know that I have many students who struggle just to get through life daily. Yet 'educators' expect these students to still excel on a standardized test?"

The Pennsylvania teacher notes a fact of real life—there are gigantic differences in achievement among American children. No realistic person would think that all kids of some grade level can be sensibly “measured by the same standards.” (More to the point, no sensible person would think that all kids in a given grade should be taught from a uniform lesson plan.) This doesn’t mean that these teachers are evil racists who want black kids to fail. But don’t worry—the Broders will always be inclined to think that, or to impute other vile motives to the people who actually know what’s happening in actual schools.

How clueless does Broder remain? After recording two teacher objections, he quoted Margaret Spellings, Bush’s Secretary of Ed. Here at THE HOWLER, we emitted low chuckles when Broder puffed Spellings’ reply:

BRODER (8/14/05): I knew that Spellings's response would be a lot more significant to these teachers than my own, so I pursued her for an interview. Her first comment was that she was sure the excerpts I just quoted came from "good-hearted and well-intentioned teachers," but then—employing the president's favorite phrase—she said, "I hear a lot of 'the soft bigotry of low expectations' in there."
Good grief! Only a Martian would think that real teachers pay big attention to people like Spellings. And sure enough, there she went—condescendingly suggesting that teachers dissent because of their naughty “soft bigotry.”

Here at THE HOWLER, we’re sure that Spellings’ comment came from a good-hearted, well-intentioned person. But sorry—in the real world, it makes little sense to say that all kids should be “measured by one high standard” (or taught from one lesson plan). People who work in real schools tend to know that. Others like to primp, pose and preen, helping us see that they’re better than proles—better than teachers by far.

DISCOURSE ON METHOD: As an instructional matter, nothing—nothing!—is worse for kids than making them do things they simply can’t do. (Duh! Teachers are trained not to do that!) A kid who’s reading on second-grade level can’t be asked to read sixth-grade books—unless you want him to cry, tear his hair, and drop out of school at the first opportunity. (Yes, real children cry about this—then give up on school.) But people like Broder don’t have to know that. David Broder is the Dean—and he’s finer, much finer, finer by far. At any rate, Broder’s new column holds out some hope. Now that teachers have heard from Spellings, perhaps they’ll drop their troubling dissent and adopt views that make no earthly sense.

SPEAKING OF ARISTOCRATS: We’ve never understood why (male) comedians find it liberating to tell a good, dirty joke. Perhaps for that reason, we found it a bit hard to believe that The Aristocrats would be worth watching. But surprise! And serious props to Penn Gillette and Paul Provenza, who produced a varied, intriguing film about one dirty old joke. No, there’s nothing earth-shattering here, and our friend Wayne Cotter even plays tattle-tale, explaining why so many comedians are drawn to this allegedly famous old joke. (Want to know why? Then go see the movie!) Yep! There’s always one kill-joy in the crowd, but Penn and Paul let Wayne spill the beans—although they slickly conspired to give him what is clearly the film’s toughest spot.

So the film is well-done, if not earth-shattering—but we’ll have to say that we left the theater thrilled and inspired by one performance. This person was mentioned in many reviews—no, for God’s sake, it isn’t Bob Saget—but we were deeply impressed by his/her performance even though we’d been forewarned. As we told the analysts when we got them back in the van: When you see 100 practitioners of any art, if you’re lucky—if you’re really lucky—then one of them will have moved to the next page. (No, we’re not talking about Gilbert Gottfried.) But then, we’d guess that you already know that. It’s why you come back to THE HOWLER.

IT ISN’T HER EITHER: Actually, we treated the analysts twice—and we’d have to say that our friend Wendy Liebman got the biggest laugh each night. What skill does Wendy put on display? She understands how the audience sees her. Yep! She rocked the hall both nights. But no—it isn’t her either. Who sent us marveling into the night? We’ll suggest that you go and find out.

By the way: The audience liked the film a lot both nights. But then, to adapt an old Cotter punch-line: "What would they know? They're pedestrians!"

TOMORROW: The analysts snort at Broken Flowers—then marvel at all those reviews!