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Print view: When no one cares about black kids, omissions like Chait's will occur
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WHEN NOBODY CARES! When no one cares about black kids, omissions like Chait’s will occur: // link // print // previous // next //

The wow factor/Collins and Digby: Wow! It’s pretty much all a person can say about Gail Collins’ new column. After Collins poked fun at (who else?) Bristol Palin, her column was all about Social Security.

Question: Can you believe that Collins made the highlighted statement which follows?

COLLINS (8/28/10): So far, Obama is sticking with his deficit-reduction co-chairman. He picked Simpson for the job because he is a Republican willing to talk about Social Security tax increases, a breed rarer than the ivory-billed woodpecker. The administration was obviously hoping that the commission would come up with a bipartisan plan that would combine a rise in payroll taxes with a modest reduction in benefits. The system is supposed to run out of money in 2037, and if we could fix it now, the pain would be much more modest than if Congress waited until, say, January of 2038.

Wow. What more can you say?

In fact, Social Security is not “supposed to run out of money in 2037.” (By “supposed,” Collins meant “projected.”) Powerful demagogues have spent thirty years advancing that powerful, ludicrous notion; thanks to the presence of fools like Collins atop the press corps, they have succeeded in getting that notion into most people’s heads. (On Saturday morning, we discussed this point with a very bright bagel buddy. He was surprised by what we said, though he grasped our point immediately.)

Once again: Social Security is not “supposed to run out of money in 2037.” In reality, the program is projected to run short of money in 2037, by a factor of 25 percent. If nothing is done, and projections hold, promised benefits will have to be cut by 25 percent at that time. In fact, Social Security will never “run out of money,” as any journalist with two brain cells to rub together would know.

Duh. In the year 2037, payroll taxes will still be rolling in, just as they roll in today. Those payroll taxes will allow the government to send out benefit checks. According to current projections, those payroll taxes will fall a bit short, starting in 2037. But what could make any student of policy believe the dumb thing Collins wrote, which her editor waved into print?

What could possibly make two journalists believe such a patently foolish idea? Simple. Demagogues have pimped that notion for the past thirty years, cramming it into everyone’s heads. Fools like Collins repeat the claim (though not before mentioning Bristol again); their editors don’t even notice. And remember: Collins was the head of the New York Times editorial page from 2001 through 2007! She is one of the biggest fools of our time—and for six years, she held that powerful post at our most famous newspaper.

What can you say about this except “Wow?” But then, we had a somewhat similar reaction to Digby’s real-time post about the Glenn Beck event. Digby’s post was less astounding than Collins’ blunder—but we were struck by her approach nonetheless. The post, which we present in full, appeared midway through the event:

DIGBY (8/28/10): The Triumph of the Wingnut rally appears to be a big success. It's a beautiful day, the all white audience is in lawn chairs clapping politely as they give out medals to people of color on the stage. The faithful seem a little bit bored, but you can't blame them. They're looking for inspiration and this isn't the kind of thing that inspired these folks. I assume the red meat is yet to come.

There is a mesmerizing quality to this program. It's more religious than political at this point. In fact, I just realized that Beck doesn't talk nonsense and gibberish after all. He speaks in tongues.

I just keep thinking that I sure hope all these very pink skinned, middle aged folks are wearing sun screen.

Obviously, it wasn’t an all-white audience, but it felt good to say so (or something). Most people weren’t in lawn chairs, but that conveys an image. Beyond that, we were amazed by the cluelessness of Digby’s “red meat” remark—by her apparent failure to understand Beck’s obsessive focus on religion. Does she ever watch Beck’s program? Apparently not. This subsequent post strikes us as even more openly clueless, on the same topic. Before that, Digby had started a post with this observation: “It has often been rumored that Dick Armey is a falling down drunk.”

That said, we were most struck by Digby’s focus on skin color, a mocking focus which then extended into her readers’ comments. (Along with mocking comments about the age and clothing of the people who attended Beck’s event, including some first-hand observations.) Digby is pink-skinned herself, of course, so this is a curious form of racial derision. But it’s a form of racial derision nonetheless, and it forms a growing basis for Digby’s increasingly peculiar work.

The people at the event were pink skinned; they are also “dumb as dirt,” we were told in an earlier post. Sorry, but this is the type of language adopted by haters worldwide, language which will be aimed at hundreds of thousands or millions of folk at a time. Tomorrow, we’ll start a series in which we review some of the more ridiculous reactions to the Beck event, comparing these reactions to Dr. King’s reaction in January 1955 when his Montgomery home was bombed with his wife and his two-month-old daughter inside. Dr. King had just turned 26. The Montgomery bus boycott was already under way, though his ministry had barely begun.

It’s quite a thing to observe these people, the ones who rise to speak for King. (Digby hasn’t made that claim; others have.) It’s stunning to see how they speak and behave, even as they savage others for failing to honor King’s legacy. As we ingested the weekend’s most foolish remarks, we shook our head, chuckled—said wow.

Fifth time in the past year: Collins adores Bristol Palin. Today’s column marks the fourth time she has mentioned her in the past two months—the fifth time in the past year. Here are the previous headlines by Collins, starting with a ghost of Labor Day Past:

The Revenge of Levi, 9/3/09
My Boyfriend’s Back, 7/8/10
The Bad News Bears, 7/15/10
The Kids Are All Right, 7/29/10

Collins is one of the era’s biggest fools. She thinks Social Security is going to “run out of money”—and she headed the Times editorial page for six of the Bush years, after trashing Candidate Gore in Campaign 2000, of course.

When it comes to mainstream press inanity, Collins is as low as it goes. You can’t understand your nation’s plight if your brain won’t process that fact.

For the record, Collins appeared on the August 11 Maddow Show. Rachel kissed her keister each step of the way. This is how status and power work. In the process, you get the shaft.

Special report: Who cares about black kids?

PART 5—WHEN NOBODY CARES (permalink): The New York Times tends to be at its worst when writing about education. Consider Sunday’s editorial concerning President Obama’s program, “Race to the Top.”

The editors urged the administration to continue the “Race to the Top” competition beyond the current year. At one point, we marveled at something the editors said. They spoke mere weeks after a major scandal in which New York State disavowed its statewide test scores for the bulk of the past decade:

NEW YORK TIMES EDITORIAL (8/29/10): Education Secretary Arne Duncan made clear that the process would favor bold reform plans from states with proven records of improving student performance. The states were required to create data-driven systems for training and evaluating principals and teachers; encourage the establishment of high-quality charter schools; develop plans for turning around failing schools; and demonstrate a strong political consensus for reform.

Critics predicted that the Education Department would cave, and end up financing mediocre programs, once members of Congress turned up the heat. Mr. Duncan held firm. In last spring’s first round, grants were awarded to only two of 41 applicants—Delaware and Tennessee. The second round ended last week, with 10 states sharing the remaining $3.4 billion in the fund. (The grants were prorated based on population.)

New York, which got nearly $700 million, improved its chances by adopting a new teacher evaluation system that takes student test performance into account and an expedited system for firing ineffective teachers.

From that passage, an unwitting person might even think that New York State has a “proven record of improving student performance”—a proven record which somehow sets it apart from other states. This has long been the claim of Empire State education boosters—but in all candor, the claim should have died with the recent underplayed scandal. As noted, there is no way of making any assessment from the state’s own testing data; those data have been thrown down the drain, with the state seeming to admit that its tests got easier over the decade, rendering year-to-year comparisons impossible. Meanwhile, on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (the NAEP), the state’s score gains pretty much track those recorded on a nationwide basis during the past decade. There is nothing about the state of New York’s score gains that distinguishes the state from the nation as a whole; decent score gains have been recorded, but they tend to track national gains. Judging from the NAEP, which is all we have left, New York State is not especially distinguished when it comes to test score gains. But the Times seems to keep implying different, even as it has massively downplayed the major scandal involving its home state’s own tests.

So it goes when the New York Times attempts to discuss public schools. On August 16, the Times published a massive, front-page report about New York City’s new test scores, those produced by the new-and-improved New York state tests. As we noted all last week, the lengthy piece was a masterwork of technical incomprehension. We haven’t gotten around to all the newspaper’s blunders, such as its attempted use of SAT scores to measure academic progress during the Bloomberg years. As everyone and his crazy aunt surely knows, SAT scores really can’t be used for this purpose. But so what? The Times attempted to do so anyway—in a massive, sprawling, bungled graphic which it didn’t even bother to reproduce on-line.

Simple story: The New York Times is a rolling joke when it reports on the nation’s schools. Consider another recent example: In a lengthy, August 8 profile, the Times continued to walk back its original, front-page reporting on the cheating scandal currently afflicting Atlanta’s public schools. “Educational expert” Michael Casserly was quoted making a remarkable statement—we pray his words were taken out of context. But Times reporter Shaila Dewan wrote one of the most foolish statements we have ever read in this field:

DEWAN (8/8/10): The investigation centered on suspicions that answer forms on the state achievement test used to measure progress under the federal No Child Left Behind law had been tampered with by educators. The investigation found statistical indications of widespread cheating at 12 schools, isolated cheating at 13 schools and little to no evidence at the remaining 33 schools, but no smoking gun. It referred 109 educators for further investigation.


After the report came out, the 2010 achievement tests were given under intense scrutiny, and the results were not good. Scores dropped district-wide, particularly at the flagged schools.

Meanwhile, a blue-ribbon commission appointed by a nonprofit education group was investigating the 58 schools. The commission, using Caveon Test Security, a firm that specializes in forensic data analysis, conducted a more nuanced erasure analysis than the state's, taking into account factors like whether the erasures actually made a difference in whether the student passed.

Please understand—this is one of the most unvarnished forms of cheating possible when it comes to standardized tests. When we reach the point where teachers (or principals) are literally erasing wrong answers and replacing them with answers which are correct, we have abandoned all pretense of normal procedure. (Such conduct has transpired for decades, with little attention from the press.) But good God! According to Dewan’s construction, an analysis of such conduct is more “nuanced” if it’s built around the absurd idea that tampering with answer sheets only constitutes “cheating” when it affects a school’s passing rate! (Translation: It isn’t listed as “cheating” if the child in question didn’t pass the test even after her answer sheet was changed. It isn’t listed as “cheating” if the child in question would have passed the test anyway!) The foolishness of that idea should be clear to all. Also clear, to experienced hands, is the politics which seems to suffuse this profile, a type of politics which tends to affect reporting when big urban systems are involved.

By the way: Dewan reports that this “nuanced” analysis found “statistical indications of widespread cheating at 12 schools, isolated cheating at 13 schools and little to no evidence at the remaining 33 schools” (see above). Just so you’ll know: In her original report of this analysis (on August 3), Dewan was a bit less euphemistic; she said this analysis had found evidence of “a schoolwide problem” at twelve schools,” while “thirteen schools showed irregularities in specific classrooms or grades.” In short, the “isolated cheating” in those thirteen schools may have occurred on a grade-wide basis in some of these schools, even after those “nuanced” procedures had helped define cheating down. So it goes as the New York Times plays politics with the basic facts of black children’s lives, in service to the reputations of black superintendents. (Please note: No one has ever said that Atlanta’s superintendent, Beverly Hall, played any role in these events. As far as we know, her work is superb. But it’s potentially harmful to Hall’s reputation that this cheating occurred on her watch, and she is now being pimped for, quite hard, in the most ludicrous ways.)

Simple story: The New York Times is a rolling joke when it reports on public schools—on the lives and interests of black kids. But then, the Washington Post is no better; tomorrow, we’ll recall the Post’s conduct in 2006, when the paper refused to report a statewide testing scandal in Virginia, one of its home states. (The Times has at least reported the fact that New York State has renounced its past tests and test scores.) Meanwhile, the liberal world has steadfastly refused to dirty its hands with topics like these over the past three decades. Liberal journals don’t waste their time with such plebeian concerns; on TV, you have never seen Maddow or Olbermann lower themselves to the point of discussing such topics, which of course affect the life prospects of tens of millions of minority kids. Indeed, even the brightest liberal analysts are prone to mistakes or omissions when they opine about these areas, as Jonathan Chait did in this recent blog post about slumping test scores in the DC schools.

Chait is quite smart about policy matters; beyond that, he isn’t a big silly clown. But Chait is part of a liberal world which has ignored such topics for many years—throughout his adult life, in fact. Result? He overlooked a bone-simple point in an otherwise spot-on analysis of a minor growth in achievement gaps within the D.C. schools.

In his post, Chait criticizes this basically worthless front-page report by our old pal, the Washington Post’s Bill Turque. Chait makes a series of accurate observations, from his headline down. (Headline: “The Education Gap Is Not A Race War.”) Good lord! Chait observes the crucial distinction between achievement itself and achievement gaps; he also says that minor statistical changes of the type observed in DC from 2009 to 2010 may not mean a whole lot. That said: On the elementary level, the passing rates of DC’s black kids dropped in both reading and math from 2009 to 2010; on its face, this wouldn’t seem to be a sign that a winning revolution is at hand. But uh-oh! Chait failed to ask a basic question: Since white kids’ passing rates ticked down too, is it possible that DC’s tests could have been a bit harder than those given in 2009? This question doesn’t come out of thin air. In his article, Turque quoted one of those “educational experts” offering this striking comment:

TURQUE (8/27/10): Michael Petrilli, a vice president at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, an education think tank, said some anomaly in the tests, possibly triggered by changes in the questions, could be a factor. But he agreed with Rhee that one flat year is not decisive.

Say what? Like most of these Potemkin experts, Petrilli can be counted on to shill for elite-approved reformers like Rhee. But then, this wasn’t the first time that someone said that DC’s tests may have been at fault. In his initial report on the new DC scores, Turque himself voiced this possible explanation, speaking in his own voice:

TURQUE (7/14/10): Rhee offered no immediate explanation for the drop in elementary scores, but she said school officials would "dig into the data" to determine the reasons. A preliminary analysis showed that the bulk of the decline was in the third and sixth grades. Some potential causes could be changes in personnel, shifts in student population or modifications to the test.

Even then, someone had apparently told Turque that “modifications to the test” might account for the drop-off in scores. Seven weeks later, Turque has still made no attempt to explain what that claim might mean—and Chait, for all his obvious smarts, passed right over this thoroughly fundamental point as he reviewed Turque’s latest.

“Modifications to the test” may account for the drop-off in scores? What makes that statement so eye-catching? Just this: As in New York, so in DC—year-to-year comparisons are utterly worthless unless we know that the tests are “equivalent” (equally difficult) from one year to the next. In professional testing programs, this equivalency is demonstrated in a technical manual. But as we have repeatedly noted: As the use of state-devised tests has swept the nation, all such normal technical practice has been swept down the drain. And sure enough! Even at our most famous newspapers, reporters have never made any attempt to verify the difficulty of statewide tests from one year to the next; they simply accept each state’s implied claim that the tests remain equally difficult. This has led to major scandals, like the massively under-played scandal which just occurred in New York. The mainstream press corps has slept at its post—and the liberal world hasn’t said shit, refusing to dirty its pink-skinned hands with such plebeian concerns. For that reason, it probably didn’t occur to Chait that the problem here begins with this bone-simple fact: We have no idea if the 2010 tests were equivalent to the tests in 2009. For that reason, we have no idea if comparisons between the two years are valid.

The clownishness of our situation starts here, with our biggest newspaper failing to ask the most obvious questions—and, of course, with the liberal world looking on with utter disdain at the lives of black and brown kids. Even Chait, a very smart player (and not a clown), looked right past the basic question: How do we know the tests are equally hard? But so it goes when the upper-class world makes one of its basic values clear: It doesn’t give the first flying fig about the lives of black kids.

Tomorrow—part 6: When “liberals” attack! (The Nation attempts to do schools.)

Wednesday: A list of concerns