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Print view: All good journalists knew the script about our villainous teachers
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NO MORE TEACHERS’ DIRTY LOOKS! All good journalists knew the script about our villainous teachers: // link // print // previous // next //
TUESDAY, SEPTEMBER 28, 2010

Pot meets kettle: It isn’t like Maddow is all by herself. Yesterday, we marveled at the way she railed against the decision to postpone that vote on the Bush tax rates (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 9/27/10).

Why would Democrats make such a decision? “Nobody has any clue what Harry Reid is thinking,” Maddow dumbly complained. This was one hour after several people provided such clues on Countdown. It was one full day after Ryan Grim semi-explained Reid’s decision at the Huffington Post.

Why did Reid make that decision? We can’t say with certainty, of course—but the “clues” have been all around! Grim suggested that a vote for a higher tax rate on the top two percent might hurt Reid’s re-election chances—or at least, that Reid may think so. But alas! Like many pseudo-liberals, Maddow often seems to take pride in failing to understand such matters—in failing to understand the way average voters may think. Maddow prefers telling dick jokes about such proles—about the people who didn’t get into Stanford. Last Friday, she kept insisting that Reid’s decision was the “stupidest” ever—that nobody has any clue why he did what he did.

Maddow stuck to this know-nothing stance even after a set of liberals offered an array of such clues. But then, pseudos like Maddow have long taken pride in not understanding the public.

For a second example of this impulse, check out a post by Steve Benen, who we hate to critique on this day. We thought Steve made a superlative point in this earlier Sunday post. But soon, Steve was critiquing Mitch McConnell’s appearance on This Week. In the process, we thought Steve showcased the peculiar trait which Maddow often displays.

In his problematic post, Steve critiques McConnell’s discussion of the federal deficit. “Let me tell you how I'd reduce the deficit,” McConnell told Christiane Amanpour; he then proceeded to count the ways. Despite some cherry-picking of McConnell’s remarks, despite a heavily tilted paraphrase, Steve then offered a semi-sensible critique of what McConnell had said.

But alas! Steve closed his post like this. We’re always amazed when political journalists make such odd admissions:

BENEN (9/26/10): I realize McConnell's understanding of this is limited, but it's really not that complicated. We used public resources to create millions of jobs, and save many more workers who would have been laid off. They, in turn, had money to spend and invest, which then contributed to broader growth. It's why the economy started growing last year, and why the economy has added 763,000 private-sector jobs just this year.

As McConnell sees it, the U.S. economy would be better off if those millions of Americans had lost their jobs, and not had income to spend. That's how we "get the economy going."

I realize there are Americans who find this persuasive. I have no idea why.

Benen is a political journalist. But so what? He has “no idea why” tens of millions of American voters may find McConnell’s remarks persuasive. (We refer to McConnell’s real remarks, not to that tilted paraphrase.)

We’re not suggesting that McConnell’s remarks should be persuasive; his remarks weren’t persuasive to us. But after reading Benen’s post, we read back through McConnell’s full statement on This Week.

Sorry, but we can easily explain why voters may find his remarks persuasive. But then, we don’t take an overweening pride in our failure to understand what the unwashed think.

Apparently, Reid thinks voters may find McConnell’s position so persuasive that he decided to postpone that vote. But Maddow insisted that no one has any clue why Reid made this decision. And Benen boasted that he “has no idea” why voters might so react.

We’re not big fans of Benen’s work; we think he tilts toward hackish. That said, his fans will probably think he was just using a figure of speech when he said he has no idea about the way voters think. We’ll only say this:

It’s striking when pundits go out of their way to say that they “have no idea” about their own basic subject matter. When people like Maddow and Benen can’t explain the way voters think, we liberals are getting dumbed down.

This pattern has obtained for decades—with time out for the long, lazy periods when “liberals” have taken long naps.

Special report: Don’t know much trigonometry!

PART 1— NO MORE TEACHERS’ DIRTY LOOKS (permalink): Might we quote the late Sam Cooke? When it comes to the public schools, journalists tend to know very little—“don’t know much about the French they took” (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 9/27/10).

For the most part, they do know their cohort’s prevailing scripts. But that’s the extent of their knowledge.

This can be a serious problem. You see, famous educators tend to lie when they muse about public schools.

On Sunday’s Meet the Press, David Gregory swiveled his $5 million frame toward DC schools chancellor Michelle Rhee. Gregory lobbed a classic softball toward his guest. And in this, her very first statement, Chancellor Rhee pretty much lied, right in Gregory’s kisser:

GREGORY (9/26/10): Michelle Rhee, there's a political storm in Washington about education and about the mayor losing his primary, and I'll get to that in just a minute. But I want to start with you and ask you what's working since you've been chancellor? What's the good news?

RHEE: Well, the good news is what we've shown over the last three and a half years in Washington, D.C., is that if you prioritize education, if you make it the number one issue in the city, if you have the political leadership and the courage to make tough decisions, that you can see tremendous progress in a short period of time. Over the last three years we've gone from being, you know, worst, you know, amongst all urban jurisdictions in the country to actually leading the nation in gains in our progress of students on the NAEP examination in both reading and math. So, I think, it basically shows that if you have, if you have a singular focus and you really are prioritizing, making those tough decisions, that, that progress can, can result.

Chancellor Rhee has never been bashful when it comes to effusive self-praise. But all parts of that highlighted statement are false, or are extremely hard to defend.

First, it’s hard to believe that DC was ever “worst amongst all urban jurisdictions in the country” at any point in the past five years. NAEP data are limited when it comes to big urban systems, but Detroit’s reading and math scores remain lower today than the District’s scores were at any point in the last decade (even adjusting for income). Meanwhile, is the District “actually leading the nation in gains in our progress of students on the NAEP examination in both reading and math” over “the last three and a half years?” The closest one can come to that time frame involves comparing scores from 2005 and 2009. (Testing was done in 2005, 2007 and 2009.) Atlanta made larger gains than DC during that period—and the NAEP simply doesn’t have data for most urban districts.

(The NAEP is designed to sample the nation, and all fifty states. At present, it only provides a full sample for a limited number of city systems. This is not a defect; it just means that its data can’t tell us which urban district was lowest.)

Rhee’s self-praise didn’t seem to be accurate; this seems to be a bit of a habit. But Gregory, a babe in the woods when it comes to such topics, had no way of knowing. But so it goes when the movers and shakers con us rubes about public schools, with know-nothing “journalists” getting played by a gang of crude self-promoters.

Inevitably, such self-promoters then piously claim that their work is all about helping the kids. They then assure you that those who oppose them have much grimier motives.

People like Gregory sit and stare as this dissembling occurs. They tend to repeat a handful of scripts—scripts the lords of their upper-class world have carefully laid out for them. And so it went on Sunday. All through this day of special programming, one script prevailed among NBC’s family: The teachers unions are the problem! David, Brian, Mika and Joe all aggressively pimped this script, even as they pandered to Rhee. Example: On Meet the Press, Gregory was soon whistling this high, hard one past the head of Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers:

GREGORY: You talk about accountability, and yet the teachers unions, you say they don't—you shouldn't be demonized. But you just—you sue the district when, when there is accountability, when teachers get fired. Is that, is that the constructive response?

Trust us: Gregory doesn’t know shit from shinola when it comes to public schools. (More to come as our series unfolds.) But he did have his prepared scripts to read. Paid millions per annum, he read them.

Are teachers and teachers unions “the problem?” To anyone who grasps the sweep of the problem, this ugly notion is utterly stupid. And yet, it has ruled the airwaves in the past week as NBC and its sad cable arms have staged a cleansing witch hunt aimed at the deeply vile teachers who have ruined our children. (This started on Friday’s Morning Joe, with one of the dumbest pundit discussion we have ever observed.) Presumably, teachers and unions are part of the problem, to the extent that our schools are failing. But the notion that teachers and unions are the problem comes straight from the gang in Salem Village, by way of a broader anti-union jihad—messaging which has driven our politics over the past forty years.

(For one account of this anti-union war, see Paul Krugman’s The Conscience of a Liberal.)

Unfortunately, Davis Guggenheim seems to believe that he has a very good heart. As a result, he decided to make a film about public schools—a film which seems designed in part to showcase his own moral grandeur. The film is called Waiting for Superman; in the past few weeks, it has spawned some of the dumbest public discussions we’ve ever seen or heard. And by the way: If you think political journalists know nothing about public schools, you should see what film critics write! One such savant, Stephen Holden, launched his angry tirade as follows. These are paragraphs 3 and 4 of his clueless review, found in the great New York Times:

HOLDEN (9/24/10): Mr. Canada and Michelle A. Rhee, the chancellor of the Washington, D.C., public school system since 2007 (she is the seventh superintendent in 10 years), are the principal heroes of the film, directed and narrated by Davis Guggenheim (“An Inconvenient Truth”), who wrote it with Billy Kimball.

Ms. Rhee, who has stridently challenged Washington’s educational status quo, has closed ineffective schools and has stood up to the unions that have made it nearly impossible to fire a teacher, no matter how incompetent, once tenure has been granted. But the Washington Teachers’ Union refused to vote on a measure under which teachers would give up tenure in exchange for higher salaries based on merit.

Poor Holden! His devotion to script was so pure, so extreme! As a result, he forgot to mention an inconvenient truth—a fact reported in his own newspaper, just one week before. In this easy-to-read passage, education reporter Trip Gabriel helped us imagine a key point—like his pious heroine Rhee, Director Guggenheim may not always be compulsively honest:

GABRIEL (9/17/10): Mr. Guggenheim is clear about why so many urban schools have failed students: They harbor too many bad teachers, whose unions protect them. The film includes footage of idle educators with their heads on tables in one of New York City's notorious ''rubber rooms,'' where teachers who were suspended for incompetence or behavioral infractions spent months, or even years, awaiting hearings.

The Washington Teachers' Union is shown refusing even to vote on a proposal from the schools chancellor, Michelle A. Rhee, that would have sharply raised salaries if its members agreed to give up tenure. When Ms. Weingarten is shown delivering a stem-winding speech to her members, her voice is screechy, and the lighting and soundtrack turn Orwellian.

[…]

Many of his scenes are already out of date. New York's rubber rooms were closed in June [2010]. The same month Washington teachers accepted a breakthrough contract, which Ms. Weingarten helped negotiate, linking teachers' pay to their performance and making it easier to fire them for incompetence.

Pitiful, isn’t it? In fact, Washington’s teachers have accepted a new contract “under which teachers would give up tenure in exchange for higher salaries based on merit.” (We’re borrowing Holden’s language.) But so what? Three months later, pimping script, Holden gave the New York Times’ poorly-taught readers a thoroughly different idea.

Who knows? Maybe Holden didn’t know about that “breakthrough contract.” Perhaps he failed to do his homework; maybe he forgot to read Gabriel’s news report, which appeared in his own famous paper. In fairness, many critics are flubbing this point as they advance Guggenheim’s teacher-hating script, in which a weak, small-minded nitwit advances decades of right-wing messaging.

That said, we’re really at the barrel’s bottom when Holden bungles this point. Just a guess: Guggenheim failed to include this fact in his high-minded film (chyrons are easy to insert in post-production), even as he gave the impression that the DC union refused to relent. Just a guess: Guggenheim failed to include this fact in the guide he distributes to movie critics—the guide from which such uninformed dopes cut-and-paste their misleading reviews.

Groan! The DC union has agreed to “a measure under which teachers would give up tenure in exchange for higher salaries based on merit.” But New York Times readers were told something different as Holden typed his heartfelt review! He was pimping a heartless, dumb script: No more teachers’ dirty looks! And even more disinformation would flow as his clueless review continued.

Rhee and Guggenheim are morally pure; indeed, they even admit to this trait in their public statements! But Holden’s review became more problematic as its assault on teachers (and sanity) proceeded. Alas! People like Holden and David Gregory don’t know squat about public schools. You’d think, if they value the children so much, they might be a little more careful.

TOMORROW—PART 2: Stephen continues to fail

THURSDAY—PART 3: Ugly data, broken down

FRIDAY—PART 4: What Finland lacks