Daily Howler logo
ALL GOOD TEST SCORES LEFT BEHIND! American children are back in school. Our experts have returned to their lying: // link // print // previous // next //
MONDAY, AUGUST 31, 2009

Krugman kicks down/fouls up: Is there any story so dumb that we liberals won’t buy it? We often wondered that over the weekend, watching the coverage of Ted Kennedy’s life and career.

The coverage described Ted Kennedy, the person, in ways we’ve never seen before. We were surprised to think how rarely we’d heard about his vast decency as a father and friend. But good lord! One rule of modern politics kept coming clear:

In modern politics, the other side gets the big wins. Our side gets all the dumb stories.

Consider two statements every good pundit has made at some point in the past week. Last Thursday, the first day of the Kennedy coverage, each of these statements was displayed above the fold on the New York Times’ front page.

First statement: Ted Kennedy “will be remembered as one of the most effective legislators in the history of the Senate.” That statement appeared in the opening paragraph of John Broder’s top-of-page story.

Second statement: Ted Kennedy had long defined health reform as “the cause of my life.” This statement appeared above the fold in this profile by Mark Leibovich.

Only we liberals could fail to see the oddness in the conjunction of those two statements. Only we liberals could fail to see the way we get talked down to when we get handed such stories.

Our guy was the most effective ever! And health care reform was his lifetime passion! Only we liberals would fail to see the oddness of these conjoined statements, in a month when we’re getting our clocks cleaned again in the matter of health care reform! This isn’t a criticism of Senator Kennedy, of course, This is a criticism of us.

But then, that’s the shape of modern politics. The other side gets the big wins. Our side gets the pleasing stories, in which we’re allowed to define ourselves as being both moral and smart. That’s one of the ways the world’s ruling classes buy off numb-nuts like us.

We also get columns like Paul Krugman’s, in this morning’s Times. In his piece, Krugman asks a very important question about a very strange state of affairs:

How is it that President Nixon proposed health care reform which was “stronger” in major ways than current Democratic proposals? In general, we’d guess that Krugman ends up giving the right answer: Powerful interests now own both political parties—the GOP a bit more. Corporate spending “fuels debates that otherwise seem incomprehensible,” he correctly says.

(By the way: Those corporate forces also seem to “fuel [press coverage in papers like the New York Times] that otherwise seems incomprehensible.” For ourselves, we don’t understand how that works. And Krugman, our smartest upper-end player, never discusses it.)

Why has our politics gone so far to the right? Krugman ends up with the right answer. But before he asks people to consider that answer, he starts out as liberals constantly do—with a rather silly story. His explanation starts with what follows. Our question: Does the presentation you see here really make good sense?

KRUGMAN (8/31/09): So what happened to the days when a Republican president could sound so nonideological, and offer such a reasonable proposal?

Part of the answer is that the right-wing fringe, which has always been around—as an article by the historian Rick Perlstein puts it, “crazy is a pre-existing condition”—has now, in effect, taken over one of our two major parties. Moderate Republicans, the sort of people with whom one might have been able to negotiate a health care deal, have either been driven out of the party or intimidated into silence. Whom are Democrats supposed to reach out to, when Senator Chuck Grassley of Iowa, who was supposed to be the linchpin of any deal, helped feed the “death panel” lies?

According to Krugman, the right-wing fringe—Rick Perlstein’s “crazy” people, he is careful to say—have taken over the GOP. But does that story, told that way, really make much sense? Does it really make sense on the merits? Does it make any sense as a matter of politics?

Just think about what Krugman says there:

In Perlstein’s piece (click here), he explained who his “crazy” people were—the people around whom he chose to build his name-calling piece. One of the three was a (highly inarticulate) former employee of Murray’s Steaks who is now living on disability because of heart problems and fibromyalgia. (From watching this person on Hannity, we’d have though he was much older.) Another of Perlstein’s three featured crazies was a “father who wheeled his handicapped adult son up to Rep. John Dingell and bellowed” something extremely unlikely about Obama’s health plan.

Does it make sense to be told that people like these have somehow “taken over one of our two major parties?” Actually, no, it pretty much doesn’t—but that’s where Krugman starts! Later in that paragraph, Krugman fires a glancing blow at one of the very powerful people who have worked very hard to mislead these people. Chuck Grassley “helped feed the ‘death panel’ lies?” Our question: Who then invented the death panel lie? That involves other names of very powerful people. Krugman doesn’t bother.

Grassley and all those other players are vastly more culpable than the “crazies.” But in the past forty years, liberals have always loved to kick down at little people—at the people who simply aren’t smart enough to win the Bates Medal, the Nobel Prize. In our view, Krugman’s story—as told there—is quite weak-minded. But ever since the days of Nixon, “liberals” have loved to tell that story, thus harming progressive interests.

Did you ever see Ted Kennedy talk about voters that way?

What has happened in the past forty or fifty years? Krugman tells part of a very important story. (Elsewhere, he has given much more detail.) Starting in the 1960s, corporate and “conservative” power began to organize—began to push back—against what looked like a growing “liberal” consensus. In that decades since that effort began, corporate and conservative power have pushed back quite effectively.

They formed well-funded think tanks, in which messaging was carefully crafted. In those think tanks, talking-points were poll-tested and focus-grouped to determine how well they play with the relatively unsophisticated voters at whom Nixon’s appeals were often aimed. As these interests have worked to mislead voters, they have also worked to buy politicians, in both major parties. In the 1980s, major Democratic leaders began announcing plans to take the corporate-money route the GOP had long pioneered.

This is a very important story. In large part, it has had the result Krugman describes. At the end of his column, Krugman correctly explains where this misery leaves us:

KRUGMAN: I’m not saying that reformers should give up. They do, however, have to realize what they’re up against. There was a lot of talk last year about how Barack Obama would be a “transformational” president—but true transformation, it turns out, requires a lot more than electing one telegenic leader. Actually turning this country around is going to take years of siege warfare against deeply entrenched interests, defending a deeply dysfunctional political system.

Krugman is right. But there’s no dumber way to start that siege than by name-calling a wide swath of voters. But that has always been the thing a certain type of “liberal” loves best.

What began to happen under Nixon? How did our politics start to change? In part, those think tanks were starting to craft those deceptions. (If we lower the tax rates, we get higher revenues!) But in a profile recommended by Perlstein himself, Perlstein explains another part of the era’s transformational politics:

COOLICAN (5/15/08): Though it had been tried before, Perlstein writes, Nixon was the first to successfully exploit a devastating new narrative: the Democratic Party as enemy of the working man.

Perlstein says Nixon understood the anger and frustration of working-class people, the humiliation of being looked down upon by elitist, liberal betters. Why did Nixon understand this “deeply sedimented cultural narrative,” as Perlstein calls it? Because he’d faced it all his life.

In California, Ronald Reagan was also “successfully exploiting” that “devastating new narrative.” (For examples, read Perlstein’s Nixonland.) Endlessly, we thought of that devastating narrative in the past five days as we watched a string of spectacularly un-savvy liberals describe certain aspects of the past forty-seven years. (More on that next week.)

We “liberals!”We love to call the other side dumb! But has anyone ever been dumber than we are? Tomorrow, we’ll start a series about the crucial questions Perlstein was asked in the wake of his piece in the Post. Why are Democrats so bad at “messaging?” So bad at “pushing back?” Why is that Democrats and liberals keep getting defeated by “blatant and ridiculous falsehoods?”

Put it a slightly different way: If we had the most effective legislator, why can’t we get the cause of his lifetime passed? Part of the answer: We’re too busy assuring ourselves that those who defeat us are dumb.

One part of the answer to those questions is simple. Why are we so bad at messaging and pushing back? In part, it’s because we liberals see politics as a chance to name-call “working class people”—the people whose “anger and frustration” Nixon “successfully exploited.” Forty years later, we still love to do it! Indeed, it’s the shape of our modern politics. We love to call them dumb—and they love to see us lose.

Trivia question: Why doesn’t the RNC pay big liberals to call voters crazy? To frame the story as Krugman does today?

The answer to that question is easy. Why doesn’t the RNC pay for these services? Simple! It doesn’t have to!

Have you ever heard anyone tell you the truth: Powerful interests now own both parties—the GOP a bit more. In 1999 and 2000, Candidate McCain made the first part of that statement routinely, routinely citing his own party by name. (He would name the interest which owned each party.) Question: While we’re praising our wonderful leaders, have you ever heard any Democratic senator say that about his own party? Before we get too carried away about the goodness of our leaders, have you ever heard any such leader stand up and tell you the truth?

Has any Democrat ever explained why health care reform doesn’t pass?

ALL GOOD TEST SCORES LEFT BEHIND: First point: The New York Times should not have published this op-ed column about No Child Left Behind.

Second point: It’s amazing to see the way our “educational experts” misstate our national test scores.

In this case, the experts hail from good conservative homes. Tom Loveless hails from the Hoover Institution. Michael Petrilli is vice president for national programs and policy at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.

That much said, the writers may have some valid points. They claim that academically gifted kids are getting short-changed by No Child Left Behind. Since NCLB puts pressure on schools to get lower-achieving kids up to (alleged) “grade level,” it’s entirely possible that some schools may pay less attention to higher-achieving kids—kids who could pass those “grade-level” tests on the first day of the school year.

Are higher-achieving kids getting short-changed? We have no idea. But this is one of the places where the authors argue this claim:

LOVELESS/PETRILLI (8/28/09): Thankfully, there is a more suitable tool to help answer such questions: the National Assessment of Educational Progress, which tracks achievement changes in 4th, 8th and 12th graders across the country. It found relatively little progress among our highest-achieving students (those in the top 10 percent) from 2000 to 2007, while the bottom 10 percent made phenomenal gains. For example, in eighth-grade math, the lowest-achieving students made 13 points of progress on the national-assessment scale from 2000 to 2007—roughly the equivalent of a whole grade. Top students, however, gained just five points.

We also learned something from the data from the 1990s. For the most part, both high- and low-achievers made tepid annual gains. But there was one exception: In the states that already had accountability systems similar to those that would eventually be required by No Child Left Behind, there were much larger gains at the bottom than at the top.

The first of those highlighted claims is just odd. The second claim is just wrong.

What’s odd about the first claim? As Loveless/Petrilli correctly note, lower-achieving (tenth-percentile) kids recorded phenomenal score gains in eighth-grade math from 2000 to 2007. As a rough rule of thumb, ten points on the NAEP scale is considered to be the equivalent of one school year. That 13-point gain, if it’s real, would indeed be phenomenal.

But then, a five-point gain by the higher-achieving (90th-percentile) kids would be remarkable too. Americans will have little cause for complaint if our highest-achieving kids improve by roughly half a grade level every seven years. On the NAEP eighth-grade math test, the lower-scoring kids did improve more in that seven-year span. But both groups recorded very strong score gains.

But that second claim, in that second paragraph, isn’t just odd—it’s flat wrong. “For the most part, both high- and low-achievers made tepid annual gains” in the 1990s? Let’s stick with eighth-grade math, the authors’ chosen field.

To see the relevant NAEP math scores, click here, then click to page 25. In this case, we can compare 1990 scores with those from the year 2000.

One note: Because of a one-time change in testing procedures in 1996 (see note on the NAEP graph), direct comparisons are a bit difficult during this period. (Starting in 1996, a larger number of “English language learners” and students with disabilities were included in the testing. See the note on page 7.) That said, it’s obvious from looking at this graph that scores gains in eighth-grade math were also quite large in the 1990s. The tenth-percentile kids went up by at least eight points (theoretically, close to a full grade level). Allowing for the three-point drop when testing was widened in 1996 (see graph), the actual gain may have been closer to eleven points.

If accurate, that is a very large gain. But the 90th-percentile kids gained even more during the 1990s! Their score rose by 13 or 14 points during this same decade. For that reason, the authors’ second highlighted claim is simply false—unless we allow for the slippery language the two experts have used.

That is, we might be able to call these gains “tepid” if we regard them on an annual basis (see authors’ text above). Could that be what the experts meant? If so, it constitutes an absurd deception. If not, their claim is simply wrong about eighth-grade math scores in the 1990s.

(For the record: Their claim would be wrong about fourth-grade math too. In fourth-grade math, the tenth-percentile kids gained 13 points in the 1990s; the 90th-percentile kids gained 12. Once again, just click here, then click ahead to page 9. In each case, these would be very strong gains.)

In eighth-grade math, score gains in the 1990s were quite substantial in both groups. The score gains of the higher-achieving kids did outstrip those of the lower-achieving kids; this pattern reversed itself from 2000 to 2007. But it’s stunning to see how often our “educational experts” simply misstate the simplest facts about the NAEP test scores. It’s the way our “educational experts” tends to work. First, they praise the utility of the NAEP data. Then, they start lying about them.

Does the New York Times ever fact-check anything? This column should not have appeared. This week, our children are back at school. Our experts have returned to their bullroar.

Reading is different: In reading, the score gain patterns are quite different. At the fourth-grade level, the data even look a bit odd, as if there may imaginably have been some statistical glitches. But the authors chose to talk about math—and they grossly misstated the data. This frequently seems to be the thing our “educational experts” do best.

Do educational experts ever get anything right: Honestly, sometimes we wonder. Unless the NAEP has misdescribed its data, its charts do not record the progress “among students in the top 10 percent” and “among students in the bottom 10 percent.” Instead, the charts seem to record progress among students who scored at the 90th percentile and at the tenth percentiles. It doesn’t make any real difference in this column. But no: Those aren’t the same things.

Before No Child Left Behind: In math, NAEP testing occurred in 2000, 2003, 2005 and 2007. Presumably, gains achieved from 2000 to 2003 have little to do with No Child Left Behind. The act was signed into law in January 2002. Implementation followed, slowly in some states, over the next several years.

But if you look at the NAEP math data, score gains at the 10th percentile did not improve at a faster rate in the latter period (from 2003 to 2007). At the fourth-grade level, in fact, the gains are much stronger from 2000 to 2003—before No Child Left Behind. Using these data, score gains were stronger among the lower-achieving kids before No Child Left Behind.

The experts said the act has produced too much focus on lower-achievers. To the (limited) extent that we can judge from these data, the lower-achievers were gaining at a faster pace before No Child Left Behind.

American children are back in school. Our experts are back to their mischief.